With a little Practice
by Maggie B

"Every once in a while," Will Riker contended as he strode into the captain's ready room for the morning briefing, "it would be nice to get an interesting communique from Fleet control."
Looking up from his console Jean-Luc Picard briefly surveyed his tall first officer. The commander had stopped to lean against the door frame, the message padd dangling casually from his hand while he waited for a response. The captain barely allowed his amusement at the remark to touch his eyes, but barely was enough. A hint of a grin showed itself beneath the first officer's dark beard.
"Perhaps we can arrange for the Borg to come back and personally entertain you," deadpanned the captain, allowing himself the luxury.
Will let the self-mocking grin grow, then straightened and approached his captain to give the morning briefing properly as befitted the first officer of the fleet's flagship. His posture managing to hold to proper protocol, even if his briefing didn't.
"Fleet is tight-lipped as usual and is withholding current duty orders until maintenance can determine the fitness of the Aximander," he said without even glancing at the padd. "If she is determined unfit we will be instructed to replace her on the diplomatic run to Retas III. In the meantime the duty lieutenant seems to suggest that if we had minor repairs we were putting off until a convenient time this is the convenient time we were looking for."
His first recounted the message seemingly by rote and the captain nodded his agreement, failing to notice after this long that the briefing had quickly degenerated from standard - and therefore, proper - Fleet terminology. If you could say it had ever gotten there in the first place. It had disturbed him a little in the beginning - this particular commander's nonchalant attitude toward certain of the rules, most of them small and unwritten but still generally considered to be important signs of proper discipline. He'd considered it quite fortunate for both of them that this did not mean ignorance on his first officer's part. And, after awhile, he'd come to accept it as a command style that could - if properly controlled - complement his own. He'd always made sure it was properly controlled.
"Take care of it Number One."
"Yes Sir," replied Will, but he lingered uncharacteristically after the dismissal.
The captain looked back up curiously.
"Is that the extent of the communications?"
"There was a small matter about a misplaced shipment of magnetized couplings but I didn't think it merited the captain's concern."
Jean-Luc drew back in his chair, resting his hands beneath his head. "Not quite what you went to the Academy for is it?"
Will's face revealed the sudden discomfort associated with finding yourself a little too well known and his immaculate posture managed somehow to tighten even further.
"It has become apparent of late that a certain amount of boredom has set in," continued the captain.
"Sir . . . I . . ."
The captain's look silently dared him to deny it and Will's voice trailed off.
"Unlike Fleet Comm, I have some news that might interest you." Jean-Luc rose unhurriedly and crossed to the food vendor well realizing the effect it would have on the commander. "Would you like some tea?"
"Will I need some?" replied Will in the same tone.
"Possibly. Two teas," he instructed the vendor. "Earl Grey. Hot."
He passed one of the resulting steaming cups to his first officer, motioned him to sit.
"Scuttlebutt has it that when the Reliant comes out of dry dock, her first captain will be named Riker . . . if that particular commander will finally accept promotion."
The first officer's blue eyes grew grave from either the thought of the offer or the implied warning in the captain's last words. His untouched cup clattered on its saucer.
"I've seen the specs. The Reliant is no small ship."
"You wouldn't be bored," pointed out the captain.
"I haven't actually been asked yet," reminded Will, a little embarrassed at the unexpected desire that must be showing in his eyes.
"You will be."
The commander smiled.
"And I'll be sorry to see you go," continued the captain, who knew what the smile meant.
Will looked up sharply, startled that his captain could know before he did that he'd already made up his mind, then grateful to find the ringing of the door chime cut off the need for an immediate reply.
"Come," ordered Jean-Luc, straightening in his chair.
Worf stepped forcefully into the room at the bidding. Had that weighty step belonged to any other officer, such an entrance would have brought both the captain and the commander to their feet in alarm, but Jean-Luc merely nodded in the direction of his head of security.
"Sirs," he began formally. "Duty orders are incoming."
"Priority?" asked the captain, snapping back into the formal tone of command appropriate to the Klingon lieutenant.
"Rescue," returned the security officer, crisply.
"Not the Aximander," said Jean-Luc in mock dismay, rising from his desk. He tugged at his tunic and pointedly did not look at his soon-to-be-ex first officer. He did look at the Klingon, whose normal frown had deepened. "Very well," he continued, gesturing them both out the door.
"Perhaps a rescue mission will assuage the crew's boredom."
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his first struggling to hold back a smile. A task he succeeded in - at least until the Klingon whispered none too quietly, "Who is bored?
Whether she actually was or not, the ensign serving as the moment's "Official Voice of Starfleet Control" sounded bored. Not that anyone expected anything else. Legions of Academy students had spent years debating what exact torture they used on those communication officers to get them to sound so much like the computers Fleet flatly refused to use to send messages. The more charitable concluded it was simply a hazard of the job. It was true that comm officers spent most of their time relaying information that would fail to excite even the most agitatible of beings, but even intergalactic war would have been broadcast in that same precise timbre. For the more cynical, academy legend held that comm personnel were specifically trained to promote just the certain amount of contentment needed for it to be a jarring experience when the receivers discovered exactly how much trouble they were getting into.
"You are to divert to the Xemore System. A Federation transport has gone down on the third planet. You will send a shuttlecraft to retrieve the pilot, then conduct him to Starbase Seven. Starfleet out."
The orders were short, but out of habit Will listened again, unaware he was being carefully observed. If it had been anyone else he would have felt it. He was, for a human, quite aware of such things. A fact he had known even before a certain Betazoid counselor committed on it. But Data was incapable of any emanations and he continued to observe the human unmolested.
The android tilted his head, studying the commander's face from another angle. If Data read the human's facial expressions correctly - and he believed he had - the commander was less than enthusiastic about the instructions. He suspected the assignment was what Geordi would call "run of the mill." Having researched the history of the phrase he decided it was, in this case, an apt expression. The Enterprise was certainly called on to do its share of rescue operations.
When he tried to retrieve the planet's listing from the ship's database and failed, Data wondered briefly if this would please the commander. He stored the knowledge that he was correct when he saw the first officer's eyes light at the news that the planet had no name, only a catalogue number - M491X. The numerical listing alone meant there had been no Federation contact and the X that followed it warned that there should be none. It was clearly marked as a hands-off planet. One not considered advanced enough for Federation contact.
As Commander Riker had put it - very humanly, Data thought, adding the phrase to his collection - "We don't call them, they call us."
But they hadn't called, noted the captain just as quickly, at a loss to explain to anyone why Command would order them to send a shuttlecraft to a hands-off planet as if it were a routine occurrence. Or why there had been a Federation ship orbiting there in the first place.
It wasn't, he considered, so much that he minded a temporary lack of reasonable answers; what he minded was that the situation was unlikely to improve. He knew better than to think his superiors would be congenial enough to supply him with any more information than they'd thought he needed in the first place. Still, he retired to his ready room to place a call of inquiry. He shortly wondered why he'd bothered. He received precisely the answer he had anticipated, quickly and from high authority.
"Jean-Luc," Admiral Sexton said, his wide girth filling the viewscreen and his tone taking on a patronizing edge. "We have complete faith in your crew's ability to fulfill this mission without being detected. We have been in constant contact with the pilot of the transport - he has not been discovered. You will not be discovered. As such we see no conflict with the Prime Directive." The admiral leaned back in his chair, the gold braid on his collar glistening meaningfully.
"If you have been in contact with him, then he must have a transmitter. Our transporter can lock on and beam him up."
"I'm afraid that is not possible, Captain," replied the admiral.
"May I ask why?" prodded Jean-Luc, not bothering to take the hint. After years of dealing with the admiralty he was not one to be easily deterred. A fact that he suspected was much lamented in certain Fleet quarters.
"The pilot is a Federation security agent. As you should be aware, security agents can only use the transporters in the direst of emergencies. They have certain . . . devices implanted in their bodies with which the transporters play havoc." The admiral took a slight pause to add emphasis to his next words. "I should not have to explain this to you Jean-Luc. This agent is carrying vital information. The mission should be considered red priority - retrieve at all costs."
"Including the Prime Directive?"
The admiral steepled his fingers. "As I stated before, we see no conflict. You have your orders Enterprise. Sexton out."
Light years away, the link shut with a decisive snap.
"Command seriously expects us to send a shuttlecraft down to a hands-off planet?"

The captain noted with a bit of irony that despite Will Riker's earlier desire for some excitement, his second-in-command sounded as annoyed with him as he had with Thomas Sexton.
Unlike the admiral, Jean-Luc merely raised his hands in the air and looked rather defeatedly around the briefing room table. "I contacted the admiralty. They say the pilot must be retrieved - red priority - and they will not allow the pilot to beam up."
Data tilted his head briefly, "Is this individual a security agent?"
"A security agent?" echoed Geordi from across the table.
"Yes. Federation security agents generally do not travel via molecular transportation devices. They are often implanted with sensitive transmitters and receivers that can be damaged by the transport process. Section 17B, Subsection 14107, Paragraph A4 of the Starfleet Code specifically forbids . . . "
The captain cut him off before he could completely quote the offending regulation. "The pilot is a security agent," confirmed Jean-Luc, "and it seems we have no choice in the matter." His officers' debate - such as it was - was over. "In view of the possibility of contaminating contact, Number One, keep the away team as small as possible."
Will nodded thoughtfully. "Is there a chance the pilot was injured?"
"The admiral did not say. It would be prudent, however, to take a medical team member with you." The captain looked once more around the table. "Are there any other questions?"
When there were none, he rose to leave. The others showed no signs of moving.
"A Federation security agent," repeated Geordi almost to himself.
Deanna smiled, "Male agents are reported to be very highly skilled."
She did not mean at espionage and Will shot her a glance. "He better be good at something, after we've gone to this much trouble for him."
Had she been watching, Beverly Crusher would have stopped to observe Will Riker as he walked slowly around the body of the waiting shuttle, running a hand along the midline and stopping every few steps to give a hard look at the seals and auxiliary units. He knew perfectly well that the bay's diagnostic sensors had done an even more detailed exam only minutes before, but he had run a manual check on every shuttle he'd ever flown and he'd always gotten back in one piece until now. Not that he would have admitted to being primitively superstitious. He knew that it was leaky power coils and perfectly detectable metal fatigue that caused shuttle mishaps, but not in any great number. Most, as any good Academy instructor would tell you, were due to pilot error and it was that one statistic that got him down on his knees staring at shield couplings and it always would. A good pilot starts by knowing his ship.
Beverly Crusher, however, was too busy doing the same thing to her medical kit to pay any attention. She would have been happy to admit a touch of superstition. Checking her kit once was a precaution. Checking it twice was an old medical school superstition plain and simple. Checking it three times, as she did now, was quite possibly an obsession, but it was a practical obsession and, as far as she knew, her only one. Out of the corner of her eye, she did see the captain prowling the shuttle bay and she knew Jean-Luc Picard well enough to recognize indulgence in some superstitions of his own.
All he'd done so far, lamented the captain as he danced out of the path of an anti-grav lifter, was get in the way. As he didn't seem able to do anything useful, he decided to satisfy his curiosity about the behavior of a certain medical officer. He peered inquisitively over the doctor's shoulder, watching her check the settings on her hypo.
"Doctor," he admonished, "as I understand it, Commander Riker only asked for your opinion. He did not expect you to volunteer."
Beverly snapped her medical case shut, her bright blue eyes meeting his under a fringe of copper bangs. "He seems worried there might be trouble and he asked for my calmest doctor."
"And you knew that was you."
"Yes, and I knew I'd never met a Federation security agent before."
Jean-Luc inwardly groaned, Beverly Crusher was the last one he had expected to be a romantic. "Don't tell me you've fallen for that collection of tall tales, too."
"We're all ready, Sir."
The commander's report prevented any further retort and the doctor took the opportunity to enter the shuttle without answering her captain's question. Jean-Luc turned his attention to his first officer, noticing his usual careless stance was gone. Over the years he'd learned the commander's formality was a kind of odd barometer of the seriousness of the situation and its accuracy was usually precise.
The captain shook his head, feeling the same uneasiness himself. "I don't like this either Number One, but we have little choice."
He moved aside to let the rest of the away team enter the Kepler, then stood somewhat awkwardly in the open shuttle door, not knowing what else to say and wondering again what he was doing down here in the first place. Will looked at him from the pilot's seat, a small frown of worry creasing his forehead. Probably caused more by his captain's lingering than anything else.
It was time to go.
"Be careful," he said, stepping down from the doorway.
As he turned to leave, he heard the commander's reply. A touch of black humor, more to himself than to his captain. Or perhaps not. "And if you can't be careful, be good."
One day he was going to have to discipline that man. It was not expected that first officers make their ship's captain smile.
Will guided the ship as discretely as possible toward the coordinates of the crash site, the pale grey clouds that shrouded the third planet thickly brushing the shuttle's port. There was no way of knowing if they had been detected despite the precautions. The academic ratings catalogued the civilizations of the planet as Stage III - Technological, but they were far from the center of the Federation, out near the neutral zone where missions were infrequent. Who knows when the last survey had been made. Some of the listings were decades old, but even a Stage IV technology should not have the tracking capability to find the shuttle - or so Will hoped - and the security agent appeared to have gone unnoticed.

Without their own sensors they wouldn't have found the transport wreckage, well hidden under a cloak of the native greenery, its owner nowhere in sight. Pushing back the lush vines, Will motioned Data into the derelict ship, thinking the agent might have taken it as his hiding place, but there was no one to find. In fact there wasn't much of anything inside.
"The ship," noted Data, viewing the damage caused by far more than the crash, "has - as you would say - been stripped."
Normally, Will would have wondered where Data learned about stripping ships, but he was far too preoccupied. He fingered the neatly severed computer tie-ins. "By a professional," he murmured.
The commander dropped the cable and gestured toward the door, stepping through it without waiting for the android. He had a sudden need to get out of the shuttle. For some inexplicable reason the very emptiness of the ship made him feel claustrophobic - too much like the time when he was young. The summer day he found an empty and decaying vessel washed up on the shore of Valdez. A bad omen, they said, for those who don't know better than to be taken in by old superstition. A bad omen. It haunted his dreams for weeks. If he was willing to admit it - for years.
"Doctor," he began as he stepped eagerly out into the hazy morning and away from the empty hulk. He stopped in mid-sentence, finding that the doctor was obviously troubled neither by the ghosts of wrecked spaceships nor the threat of possible detection for she stood in the open amiably chatting with a tall humanoid male.
"Gentlemen," acknowledged her companion, not bothering to turn around.
"I assume you are the security agent."
Will sized up the man as he spoke. They looked much alike. About the same age and height. The agent was slighter and when he did turn he moved with the grace of one well trained in ballet or in Vherne - the Romulan martial art.
A calculating gaze took them both in. His tall form bowed slightly. "The rescue is most gratefully appreciate. I realize you had no choice. My apologies."
The commander also inclined his head, copying the agent's motions. "We were, as they say, only doing our job." He pointed toward the shuttlecraft. "Shall we?"
By then it was already too late. At that moment Data's head snapped up.
"Commander," he warned.
"What is it Data?"
"I hear someone."
This time Will did too. He mentally calculated the distance to the Kepler. "We won't make the shuttle."
With growing alarm he noticed the security agent had drawn a weapon. Will grabbed the man's arm instinctively, preventing him from aiming in the soft footfall's direction. If he could hold his grip the transporter would take them both. The shuttle's autopilot would be enough to lift it into orbit and all that would be left, the scavenged remains of the agent's craft, would be an inexplicable, and unsolvable, mystery. A breach of the hands-off directive, but one not as great as firing the phaser . . . if he could signal the ship.
"Enterprise . . ." That was all he managed to get out before the planet's inhabitants were on them. The phaser went flying from the agent's restrained hand. Letting go, Will set his back against the leap of one of the pale humanoids and was still staggered by the force of the smaller figure. He slammed his hands into a double chop on the pasty neck, stunning the alien, winning a moment's reprieve but no more as a second humanoid weighed in. At the edge of his vision he saw the blur of the doctor's red hair as she swung to plant a bootheel in another's neck. No small effort, but the figure took only a single backward step and came at the doctor again. Somewhere beneath the commotion he could hear the captain's reply crackling but there was no time to answer.
Miles above them, the owner of the worried voice paced between the command center and the viewscreen, silently berating Fleet and their insistence they retrieve the pilot personally. The sounds of the scuffle going on far beneath them echoed across the bridge, unnervingly punctuated by cries both human and alien. Jean-Luc turned to Worf with sudden determination. He was not going to lose three good officers to obey a regulation which had already been broken.
"Damn the regulations. Beam them up."
Worf shook his head, his eyes locking intensely with the captain's. "The sensors can't get a clear lock and even if we could lock onto the away team, I cannot determine which of the others might be the security agent."
The grimness of the lieutenant's report made it all too clear there would be nothing to do but wait for an outcome on the planet's surface. With a nod to his security officer, Jean-Luc forced himself to sit.
On the surface they seemed to be gaining some small ground. Data and the security agent had dispatched several of the inhabitants with a measured precision and Will managed to shake himself free long enough to grab the agent and pull him out of the crowd. Tearing the insignia from his own chest, he pinned it to the agent's tunic.
"Enterprise," he said breathlessly, "lock onto my signal. One to beam up."
This time Will got the instructions out - barely- before being snatched back into the fray as the agent was taken, sparkling into nothingness. His unexpected disappearance caused a lull in the fighting, but not enough of one. The doctor was already held fast and Will soon followed. Data remained relatively free until he saw the dangerously pointed weapons waving in the others' direction. From the first he had automatically rendered the humanoids' language, but even without the translation he would have known precisely what the gestures meant and he surrendered himself.
Chief O'Brien had expected Commander Riker. He had not expected to be held at phaserpoint. At the slightest of movements, the weapon twitched.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you." The man holding the weapon surveyed the transporter room warily before committing to stepping off the platform.
"Chief O'Brien report. Is Commander Riker aboard? Report!"
The captain's question went unanswered as the two men continued their standoff. Then, finally, the rapidly rising voice commanded the man's attention.
"Tell whoever that is I will speak only to your captain."
O'Brien fingered his communicator in cautious obedience."The gentleman who beamed aboard says he will speak only to the captain."
There was a pause. Engineered, no doubt, to allow the bridge to determine who exactly the gentleman was.
"Very well, have him brought to the briefing room."
The agent shook his head, leveling his phaser menacingly just in case it wasn't already perfectly clear that he had it. O'Brien swallowed hard, his Irish brogue growing thicker under the stress.
"I think perhaps, Sir, you should come down here."
Stripped of their equipment and tossed rather roughly into an empty grey cell, the away team was in no position to demand anything. Will looked around the room without much hope. One door, no windows and, apparently, no way out and no time to formulate any sort of plan before the humanoids were back.
In short order they had prodded their charges into a row before which one robed figure now paced, the agent's phaser and two half-dismantled comm badges held loosely in his thin fingers.
"You think your tricks can fool us? What are you? Benstaji? Gebblen?" He waited only a second before continuing, apparently not expecting an answer. "Either way you are too easy to catch. You always underestimate us. If we can catch your leader's spies imagine how quickly we learn of your treaty violations." The humanoid came closer and looked them over one by one, red-irised eyes showing clear distaste. "You look strange, but it is no matter. We have heard rumors of your breeding experiments. We, also, know you are spies and we know what to do with spies, no matter what their appearance."
He stopped before the commander, pondering briefly. "The other one that was with you. What did you do to him? Did you kill him? What did he know that you would kill him?"
Without the translator, the humanoid's language seemed a continuous barrage of clicks and consonants. Will looked questioningly at Data.
"They appear to believe we are an enemy of their state," supplied the android, his calm Standard cutting through the room.
Their captor turned from Will to stare clinically at the android whose speech the abused comm badges no longer translated.
"And what is this? Some new type of code, no doubt. A new puzzle we will conquer." He turned back to the commander with new vigor. "You seem to be in charge, so you will be first. As your people know well, our techniques cause no permanent damage, but they say the pain is quite excruciating." His voice, pitched higher than a human male's, turned to a hiss. "You'll shortly be speaking more understandably."
He took the first officer by the arm, the grip biting into the human's flesh. Will tried to resist, but the humanoid was much stronger than he looked. All he could do was twist back enough to look toward the doctor and Data.
"You two get out of here if you can - no arguments. Don't wait for me." Then the captor jerked him roughly out the door and slammed it shut, denying him any further instructions.
In the cold of the cell, the two officers began to look for a way to obey.
For the captain of a starship there was no place to truly retreat and when the ready room door chimed he had no choice but to answer. The agent's eyes made what Jean-Luc had already learned was their usual sweep of a room. He wondered what he saw - Doors? Ways of escape? Weapons? Then the steel gray eyes fixed on his. A smile formed on the thin lips but refused to go any farther.
"Captain." The man's smile and cordial tone were in complete opposition to Jean-Luc's gut feeling. "I need a secure channel to Starfleet."
The captain tried to keep his surprise at the request from reaching his face."There was a comm link provided for you in your quarters."
"You must forgive me," said the agent, finally letting the door slide behind him, "it is an old habit, but I never use that which is provided to me. I would prefer to use yours if I may."
Jean-Luc rose. It made little difference where he sat and worried. He could do that just as well on the bridge.
"Certainly, if you'd prefer Mr. . . . " he stammered, realizing then that the agent had never given him a name.
The wan smile returned. "I can give you a name as a point of reference or you can call me what you please. Either will suffice and yours might come closer to actually being the truth."
A sense of humor? Certainly the man did not seem to possess one.
"However you wish." Jean-Luc kept his own tone professionally neutral. "You may use the room for as long as you like. I will be on the bridge."
When he had entered the bridge a minute before, Jean-Luc had seen in her eyes a reflection of his own worries and frustration. Now he watched as the counselor's voice trailed off, her attention drawn to something other than the surrounding bridge. Deanna drew her arms up tightly, shivering from some inner chill, unaware of her captain's concern. For a moment even sight was obliterated as the pain that was not her own raced through her. She was barely aware of the captain's hands on her arms, gripping them so tightly that it would have hurt, had pain not filled her already. The captain's voice was sharp, demanding an answer, but beneath his steely grip the counselor only trembled.
"Get Dr. Selar," he ordered in the same strong tone, then his voice softened. "Deanna, can you tell me what it is?"
"Will," she moaned softly. Her pupiless eyes stared blindly through him and no amount of coaxing could get her to look at him, answer him further.
"Counselor," he urged, but it brought no response. In one brief moment, the color fled from her face and she dropped heavily into her captain's arms.
Will had not meant to reach for her, but he had no control now. No way to stop the white light and noise. No way to stop the pain. "Imzadi!"
He might have screamed it aloud; he didn't know. The pain exploded in his head, threatening to take even the memory of her from him. To take all memories. He struggled against it with renewed energy, knowing thankfully that he would fight alone. She would not be able to reach him through the agony. He knew that somehow, a small certainty in the cacophony of sensations that assaulted him. And he wanted to spare her the pain. It was only in a moment of weakness that he had cried out. Better now that the darkness was reaching for him. Better now that he was alone.
The grey stone walls so completely soundproofed the cell that Beverly could hear the hiss of her own blood in her ears and the sigh of her breathing. Data appeared to breathe, but it was a silent mechanism and he made no other noise as he stepped across the hard rock floor. The doctor wondered briefly where Will was, but the question was unanswerable, too flimsy to distract her from the android's exacting search of their quarters. At first she, too, had scoured the cell for any possible exit but even if they would have left without the first officer, their first impression had been right, there was no way out.
Not that this dissuaded Data from making a second systematic search. His tirelessness in the matter was beginning to annoy Beverly as she sat on the floor watching him retrace his steps.
"Data," she said wearily.
"Yes doctor," he replied without looking up from his examination of the door locking mechanism.
"Will you please come and sit down?"
She was hungry and cold and tired of watching what was decidedly a useless exercise.
"If it would please you," responded the android. "There does seem to be no exit."
"I would have thought you would have deduced that hours ago," she observed as he obliged her and sank to the floor.
"I did. However, there is a small probability that I overlooked some piece of evidence in my previous assessment. I therefore . . ."
Data's head cocked microscopically. His eyes moved from her to fix on the thick cell door. A second later he was on his feet as the heavy slab of metal swung open. One of the robed figures stepped through it, followed by two others who were carrying, too easily, the commander's limp body.
"My regards to your leaders," said the first humanoid with what seemed genuine amazement. "You seem to have devised some new resistance to our technology. We got nothing from him. We shall wait awhile before continuing the interrogation. It appears we need to rethink. I take some consolation in the fact you also seem to have miscalculated. He appears to have sustained damage." His thin hands made an abrupt gesture and the others laid the still form on the stone floor.
Data eyed the door and the aliens as if he thought this might be their only opportunity to take their captors by surprise. The doctor, however, gave no thought to anything but Will. She dropped beside him instantly. There were no outward signs of trauma. His pulse was rapid but strong enough. She pulled back his eyelids then and cursed. The pupils remained fixed.
"Doctor?" queried Data as he, too, finally knelt beside Will. The crack of the door lock echoed behind him.
"We've got to get him out of here. He needs medical attention. I don't even have a blanket to keep him warm, never mind a mediscanner."
Data nodded soberly. "I will check again for a way of escape."
Beverly started to stop him. She knew there was no exit from the cell except the way Will had gone out, but she held her tongue, deciding to continue focusing on her annoyance at android precision. She reached down to feel the reassurance of Will's heartbeat. It was better, she concluded, than thinking about the alternatives.
Deanna sat up shakily, ignoring Selar's instructions, her face pale under the sickbay lights. Dimly she realized the captain was standing by the bed's side. He put a hand on her arm, stopping her from swaying.
"Lie back down," he instructed, but the counselor shook her head, obeying him no more than she had the Vulcan doctor. The pain was gone now - she felt numbed beyond it. Beyond feeling anything, even the emotion of her captain whose worry was so clearly etched on his face.
"No," Deanna whispered. She seemed incapable of stronger speech, unable to fill her lungs fully.
Selar viewed her impassively and she fixed on the emotionless Vulcan, steadying herself with the doctor's solidity.
"What happened?" asked Jean-Luc as she straightened beneath his hand.
"Will," she said and her eyes lost their focus for a moment, the name pulling her back into the dark haze that had engulfed her on the bridge. She felt hands on her shoulders, guiding her down to the bed.
"No," she protested, forcing her way up to sit on its side. "I just need a minute . . . Will was in a great deal of pain."
It still seemed a struggle for her to speak and she reached out as if searching for an answering hand to clasp her own.
"It's all right," Jean-Luc soothed, taking her hand. "You don't have to explain now."
"He cried out for me," Deanna said tonelessly. "He couldn't help . . ."
She seemed to fade again, the strength draining from her until she held herself up by the force of her will and the grasp of her captain's hand. Selar reached for the trembling shoulders but Deanna shook her off, finding some way to separate herself from the memory.
"Is he alive?" asked the captain quietly.
"I don't know."
The painful honesty etched deeper lines into the captain's face but his voice was gentle. "Lie down now. We'll find them."
Deanna nodded and finally she sank back on the bed, trusting more in her captain, it seemed to Jean-Luc, than he did in himself.
After a few hours, one of the humanoids returned to the cell with something their captors, at least, considered food. He shot a red-eyed glare at the trio then set the tray down heavily. Beverly could have sworn she heard him grumble to himself as he left.
She looked up wearily from where she sat beside Will. "What did he say?"
"I believe he referred to us as 'filthy Gebblen pigs'," replied the android. "They do not seem to have a high regard for the opposing planetary governments and they seem extremely upset that their equipment was ineffectual on Commander Riker."
"Ineffectual," echoed Beverly. The alien torture had been far from ineffectual. Still, she understood that in the literal meaning of the word Data was correct. She just hoped he wouldn't remind her of it.
Instead Data looked down at the unconscious human and then crossed to pick up the food tray. "Perhaps, Doctor, you should try to eat."
Beverly nodded. She had been holding Will's hand and reluctantly she released his limp fingers, letting them slide from hers as she accepted the tray. The brightly colored squares looked appealing, but she wished briefly again for a tricorder. She couldn't avoid eating forever though and, reluctantly, she took an experimental bite. The squares' bright colors belied their bland taste, but there seemed to be no aftereffect. She waited a few minutes, then realizing how hungry she actually was, it didn't take long to polish off the rest of the small plate.
Afterward Beverly leaned against the smooth, cold wall of the cell and gave into her desire to drift off. She slept lightly, aware of Will's hand again clasped in hers, but too tired to resist entirely.
Data sat and watched both of them for awhile. Then satisfied of their safety, at least for the present, he returned to seeking a means of escape.
Above them on the Enterprise there had been a full day of searching and it continued yet. But finding two humans and an android in a city with a million humanoids and millions more machines was an almost impossible task. The ship's sensors were not to be entirely trusted when it came to distinguishing between humanoids and the attempt was extremely time consuming. A fact the agent reminded Jean-Luc of at the top of every hour.
Data's gentle shaking woke Beverly.
"What," she murmured before she was entirely awake, "Will?"
"I believe Commander Riker is regaining consciousness."
Data was right. She reached for the neck pulse and Will's head moved slightly in response.
"Will," she urged. "Will, can you hear me?"
She tried again, patting his cheeks, trying to coax him back to consciousness.
Finally his eyes fluttered open, but they didn't focus. She turned his face toward her, waving her hand past the fixed pupils.
"Will? Do you understand me?"
Beneath his dark hair, his forehead knitted in confusion. One hand reached up blindly and brushed against her arm.
"Will," she said more distinctly. Gently she examined his eyes. "He can't see."
She called his name again, louder this time, but he didn't turn toward her. In a last effort she clapped her hands sharply beside his ears. The noise did not result in the slightest movement.
"He does not hear it," concluded Data.
Beverly reached to brush back the fringe of hair falling over Will's forehead. His mouth twisted soundlessly. There was obviously neurological damage. She was not sure she wanted to know how severe.
"I don't think so," she concurred. "Whatever they did may have caused some sort of sensory damage. He doesn't seem to be able to speak either."

The doctor again took Will's hand in hers and used her fingers to trace letters in his palm, not knowing if she hoped he understood or not. Perhaps it would be better if he didn't.
She tried again. This time he seemed to know what she'd said. Slowly his eyes closed then opened. She clasped his hand tightly then spelled "R..E..S..T." Will returned the grasp and closed his eyes, though not in response to her command. Whatever was happening seemed remote from him, like part of a dream. In some part of his mind he sensed dimly that the doctor was trying to tell him something but only the warm grasp seemed real. He sank back into sleep, not truly aware of anything but his own exhaustion.
He continued to sleep fitfully through the long hours that followed. The seeming eternity broken only by the arrival of another food tray. This captor - a younger one if Beverly were any judge - did not lower himself to speak, not even to insult them. He merely looked disdainfully at them and left.
"Perhaps we should try to speak to them," sighed Beverly, looking after the retreating figure. "They might help Will."
"The Prime Directive . . ."
Data did not have to remind her of that.
"Forbids most everything we've already done," finished the doctor.
She expected a logical argument as to why they should not break it further by making the translation two way, but the android merely nodded his agreement.
"I've got to get Will to the Enterprise," she said as if she still had to justify her comment further.
"They will be looking for us," Data replied.
It did not give her much hope. If the sensors had been able, they would all be safely aboard the ship by now.
The doctor traced the lines of the translator implant under the skin of her wrist. A wise precaution insisted upon by the captain in case the away team's comm badges were lost. Changing the setting manually was always a tricky business and the mechanisms were fragile - the reason most officers shied away from them. She prodded the skin, making the minuscule movement necessary to trip the switch. Luckily the tiny adaptor didn't break. That done, she sat back to wait.
Without Data she would have lost all track of time in the silent room. Though he assured her their captors appeared at regular intervals it seemed days before the door opened again. This time two of the humanoids descended the stairs. They tried to examine Will, who stirred restlessly at their touch.
"No," said Beverly, pushing them away. The aliens exchanged glances, their faces showing what must be a look of surprise for them - or a look of anger.
"So you can speak in a civilized tongue," observed one.
The other merely pushed at Will with his foot.
"He is still damaged?"
The first - Beverly recognized him as their original interrogator - tried again for a closer look, but Beverly placed herself between his reaching hand and Will.
"Unfortunately he shall have to remain here." He eyed the doctor, letting her know how easy it would be to go through her, but he stepped back. "You, however, are to be freed. We know who you are. Benstaji do not have the intelligence. We shall take you to your border and you shall report to your leader of this failure." He followed her glance to the still form on the cell floor. "The others I have future plans for - I may use them in hostage trade or perhaps I shall dissect them to find what you have done to outwit our machines."

Beverly did not get up. "I will not leave without them."
For the first time she saw the humanoid smile. It was a thin-lipped smile, more like a baring of his teeth. "I am afraid you will."
He motioned to the guards.
"Doctor," the unexpected sharpness of Data's voice startled her. "Do not forget the communication device. Without it our Leader will not recognize you. You could be killed before delivering the message."
For a long moment, Beverly, her mind only on Will, did not understand what Data was talking about. She turned confused eyes to the android. Communication device?
"Is this true?" demanded the captor.
Beverly hesitated. "Yes," she finally answered.
It was less of an answer than he desired.
"His guards will shoot if you do not have this device," he prompted.
The captor took her continued confusion for reluctance.
"It is a good thing you told me of this," he said to Data. "We would not want you to die before we spread the news of Gebblen failure to your countrymen. We will give you the device."
He turned and the guards followed, pulling the doctor after them, roughly.
Beverly tried to look back one last time at Will and Data but the guards held her fast.
"Take care of Will." She couldn't hear Data's reply over the slam of the door, but she didn't need to. The android wouldn't leave the commander's side.
The corridors were the same matted grey as the cell had been and just as bare. Long, sparsely illuminated hallways of unnumbered doors. If it was their purpose to confuse her, it was working. She lost count of the turns as they practically carried her through an endless number of halls. When they finally ushered her into a lift that looked no different from the many cell doors surrounding it, she had no idea if she was miles from the cell still holding Will and Data, or just next door.
The tight box moved up several floors before depositing them with a jolt, opening to a dock level where a primitive-looking winged transport sat. Her future transportation looked none too stable but the guards' tight grip around her arms reminded her that she was in no position to complain. Considering the state of their technology the ship's blackened windows would probably force the pilot to fly by instrumentation alone. Not a reassuring thought even for a simple continental hop. She considered grimly that at least if the decrepit ship started to crash she wouldn't know it. Apparently her disdain went unnoticed. They were taking no chances. As she boarded near the cockpit, the pilot stood in the doorway, blocking her view of the instruments - as if she cared about their antique servo dials.
The elderly ship groaned and shook as the pilot coaxed it into the air and Beverly found herself gripping the arms of the seat she'd been pushed into. A bit of the armrest crumbled off in her hand. It was a relief to find the ride was short. The craft shuttered to a brief stop and the guards unceremoniously dumped her to the ground. Moments later she silently thanked Data as the battered communicator accepted the familiar touch and made contact with the Enterprise long before the alien ship limped from sight.
Back on board, Beverly sipped gratefully at a cup of hot coffee and watched as Worf pointed to a building complex on the briefing room viewscreen. The low-slung white masses appeared to crouch among the planet's dense vegetation and she tried - unsuccessfully - to connect the picture with what little she'd seen from the ground.

"We believe Commander Riker and Data are being held somewhere in these buildings," said Worf.
"Does it look at all familiar to you, Doctor?"
The captain leaned forward attentively as he said it and Beverly knew all too well that small movement belied a much deeper concern than he'd like to admit.
She could only shake her head in response. "I am afraid not. The holding cells must be underground though. The lift I was in went up to ground level."
Worf continued, pointing at the largest of the building complexes. "We can direct a more intense sensor beam in this area. Perhaps we can determine some variation in the readings."
The captain nodded his approval, trading a serious look with the doctor. "Let us hope so. If not, we may have to go back down there."
He did not relish the possibility.
"Whatever it is," Beverly added grimly, "it needs to be soon."
Not that she was telling them anything they didn't already know.
In the length of his colleagues' briefing, Data had turned over thousands of possible escape measures. None of which, according to his calculations, had even a moderate chance of success. If the commander had not been injured, they perhaps could have made their way out hours ago, but there was no way for him to move quickly with the burden of the limp body. Yet there was no doubt escape was needed urgently.
The sound of footfalls reverberated at the door again and Data moved closer to the human, placing his arm so he leaned protectively over the prostrate form. The humanoids seemed to show a rising interest in the commander's condition - that had little to do with whether he lived or died. From their conversation it was clear the only concerns they had were how and why their machine had malfunctioned. Their desire to satisfy their curiosity regarding this seemed to be growing in intensity and Data worried that in the rush to satisfy it they might make good their threat of dissection.
He was also concerned the commander might help make the decision for them. In the hours since the aliens had removed the doctor, the commander's condition appeared to deteriorate. He was awake for briefer periods and he no longer seemed as alert when he was conscious, though Data had to admit this was probably just as well. The last captor to come in had gone over the human with a thorough and rather rough examination despite Data's attempts to stop him. After he left, Data had taken Will's hand in his own but received no response and the commander lay pale now, his breathing slow and shallow. Data had no trouble recognizing the signs of deep shock in humans.
Whatever help there was to be must come shortly or it would be too late.
Klingons were not usually still, but Worf had barely moved since he began the intensive sensor scan hours before. Even the agent's impatient glances, so irritating to his captain failed to disturb him. His interminable energy was tuned to only one thing - the search for the minute differences in sensor readings that would cause a human form to stand out from all the other humanoids.
With nothing to do but wait, the captain retreated again to his ready room, partly to avoid the agent who took every opportunity to demand the Enterprise take him to Starbase Seven immediately, and partly to hide his own nervousness. He could not deny the agent's wishes for much longer, but neither could he leave Will and Data on the planet.

It was no longer simply a matter of the Prime Directive. That damage was already done. And he would willingly face the consequences for that damage if it was decided he was the one to face them. What he could not face was himself if he left behind two of the few officers he could also call friends.
The captors' return alarmed Data further than he had anticipated. This time there were more of them. They came and stood over the unconscious human and two of them began to lift the unresisting body. When Data tried to intervene, one of the captors held a knife to the commander's throat, its blade bringing up a small welling of blood. In mere milliseconds Data calculated the odds then relented and dropped back, following them out the door.
Worf double-checked his findings before hitting the intercom switch. "Captain, I have Commander Riker."
Jean-Luc was back on the bridge in an instant. "Is he alone?"
"No, and they seem to be moving." He pointed to the screen, tracing one of the sensor tracks. "Those readings are definitely Commander Riker's. I assume that trace I get following behind the rest of the group is Commander Data. I could be wrong. There's something in the area garbling the readouts. Commander Riker's were clear for a moment though. It is him."
There was no hesitancy as Jean-Luc tapped his communicator. "Transporter room. Get a lock on Commander Riker and Data. Beam them aboard."
"I'm sorry Sir." The transporter chief's voice was tight with frustration. "It's just like before. I can't get a clear lock unless I bring up the entire party."
"Then get our people up here any way you can," instructed the captain, already halfway to the turbolift. "We've broken enough regulations today. A few more won't hurt."
"Captain." The agent stepped before the lift doors. "Your primary duty . . ."
"Lieutenant Worf can set course to Starbase Seven," replied Jean-Luc brushing the tall man and his objections aside. "You don't need me for that."
"The ship's captain . . ."
"The ship's captain has a gravely injured first officer and will be in sickbay."
The humanoids were so surprised to find themselves suddenly surrounded by the walls of the transporter room that they let the commander's limp form slip from their hands. Data was there in an instant to catch him, cradling Will in his arms as he stepped off the platform.
"Energize," he said and O'Brien happily returned the startled aliens from where they'd come.
Data moved to the door to take the commander to sickbay, but it and Captain Picard came to him. Beverly ran a scanner over the first officer and grimaced at the readings.
"Can you take him on to sickbay?"
"Certainly doctor."
He carried Will easily, out the door and past the waiting medtechs, the doctor and his worried captain in tow. When the sickbay doors snapped open even more medical personnel scrambled out of their way. With extra care Data laid the still form down on the waiting diagnostic table. Deanna had come from somewhere. She stood now stroking Will's hair and looking worriedly at the readings that flashed on the diagnostic screen.
"Two cc's isomep," Beverly ordered, "and I want an IVC scan."

Technicians scurried around her.
"Get Dr. Selar and prepare an operating room just in case."
She began setting up for the scan, gently moving Deanna back.
"Beverly?" Deanna's voice was hesitant. She could feel the doctor's concentration and concern, though it was faint next to her own pain.
Abruptly, Beverly stopped. There was not much use in trying to hide anything from the counselor. She swallowed hard. "There appears to be a significant amount of brain damage."
Deanna nodded, she knew the meaning of the readings, too. That wasn't what she had wanted to say. She began again. "He . . . he always said he didn't want life support if . . . " Then she had to stop.
Beverly came and put her arm around Deanna's shoulders, guiding her toward the captain. "Don't worry," she said reassuringly, "it's not going to come to that."
Beverly Crusher had been right. Will Riker was in no danger of dying, but there was little chance of a full recovery either. The alien machine - whatever its original intentions - had damaged the neural connections in certain brain areas. Corticular erasure one of her medical texts called it. There was long, technical nomenclature to describe the damage that made it sound somehow less terrible than the simpler words - that Will was left without the capacity for sight or hearing or speech. Most of the texts barely mentioned it, displaying only the same, seemingly standard entry on certain unfortunate individuals tortured by the Evnica Regime on Rigel III. They offered little advice on treatment and none on how to explain to Will Riker that his life had changed irreparably. Beverly had been dreading that moment for quite some time now.
"There is little to be gained Captain by pressing the point further."
Admiral Sincom looked much the same as she had when the conversation began - immovable. The fact that Jean-Luc was having to conduct their exchange over his ready room viewscreen rather than face-to-face on the station he was orbiting did nothing to harm the admiral's position.
"Are you relieving me of my command?"
"No, Captain," replied the admiral evenly. "I am not. However, I am sure you are aware that under Section 2154, you are bound to follow Mr. Raylanten's orders as you would mine. I assume that is clear enough for you."
"It is," admitted the captain, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers, "quite clear."
"Good, then there will be no further need for any more of these unnecessary inquiries."
"There are no loopholes?"
"None worth pursuing," said the captain, passing a steaming cup of tea to the doctor as she sat on his cabin's sofa. "There's still an old Emergency Act on the books that gives security agents control on demand in emergency situations."
"This," protested the doctor, "is no emergency. Getting Will to Alpha Four is."
"I'm sure it would become one."
Beverly's crystal blue eyes blazed fire. "Then are you going to explain to me what is more important than Will Riker's life?"
The captain set his own cup down."I do not know."
"You don't know."
"I know the same things you do. There is a man occupying my ready room whose real name I have not been told. The ship is headed toward one of the dustier corners of the galaxy and I have been banished from any deeper discussion."
The doctor looked despairingly over her cup of tea."You're saying that there are over a thousand people on board this ship all at the mercy of one deranged security operative."
"I'm not sure I would have put it quite that way, but, yes, we are subject to his orders and his whims."
"And Will?" asked the doctor.
A ghost of a look she'd never wanted to see again came into the captain's eyes. A faint remnant of the gaze he had worn when he came to say what she refused to hear, covering her ears like a child, even though she'd known before he spoke that Jack was dead.
"I'm sure you'll manage."
The reassurance was no more settling than it had been fifteen years earlier.
Will curled into a ball, stirring restlessly as the waning drugs lost their power to restrain him. His mind stirred too, loosened from the sedatives and brushed by Deanna's thoughts.
For a brief second there was a fragment of memory in response. A fleeting glimpse of pain so great it was beyond grasping. Then mercifully, the memory faded, retreating forever.
Will drew close to Deanna's thoughts, using their order to anchor his own, accepting the contact without question.
"Where are we?" He was unable to shake the feeling of floating, of disconnection from his body.
"Sickbay." She felt the searching quality of his mind and strove to ease it. "You've been heavily sedated."
Her cool hand pressed against his forehead. Beneath it his eyes fluttered, opening. With a dimly returning awareness he sensed another pair of hands fixed tensely on his arm.
"Dark," he murmured, wanting nothing more than to slip back into the haze that clouded his mind.
Deanna's thoughts were stern this time, ordering him back to consciousness. "You've been badly injured Will. You've got to try to stay conscious."
"Injured?" He searched the recesses of his mind, found no memory of an injury. "We were at a meeting . . ."
"That was seven days ago."
"Seven?" He started up, struggling against the restraining hands.
Deanna's attention swung sharply in another direction, in answer to some question he hadn't heard. He sensed a striking sadness in her reply, but there were no words he could fix on - only the feeling of regret.
"What's wrong with me?" he asked suspiciously.
"Easy," she soothed, but his free hand lurched out, striking her.
"Why can't I see?"
His mind was alert now, reaching as far into hers as his skills would allow. Long, complicated words ran just beneath the level of the tentative link, coming more easily to her than the simple ones she could not bring herself to say. She drew back from the probing, almost severing the cord that conveyed it. She was beginning to tremble with the strain of maintaining the connection, but he would not let it go. Any more than he would let it go that first shocking time he'd found he could do what no human should - he could reach back across that fragile bridge.
Will could feel her steadying herself with that knowledge.
"You've suffered brain damage."

"I'm blind," he said with the same dead-ahead honesty that announced itself uninvited in her mind that day on Betazed.
"And deaf," she finished in that same honest tone.
"No . . ." He began, rising once more. "I hear you."
"You sense me, Will. You know what I say in your mind."
The warm hands holding his caught his attention. Not Deanna this time. She was on the other side, her own touch cold with worry.
"Beverly," he divined. He tried to form her name, but his throat didn't seem to want to cooperate. In the silence he was unsure whether he'd spoken at all.
"Will don't try to talk. There's been damage." The cool touch moved to his throat. ". . . you aren't able . . ." He reached out into the blackness, terrified as the fading words were replaced only by silence. Deanna gripped his hand, but that was as much comfort as she could offer as she lost the struggle against the tide of her emotion and the link broke down.
When she'd first read the entries, the doctor had noted with a certain irony that compared with the Evnica's victims Will would be considered only marginally impaired since his level of intelligence and his psychological profile remained almost identical to his original norms. It didn't seem a great consolation to Beverly, the fact you were not robbed of your mind when you must face the remainder of your life robbed of so much else.
"Y-O-U N-E-E-D T-O E-A-T," insisted the doctor, but Will turned his back toward her, removing his hands from her reach.
"Damn it."
Beverly put a hand to her temple and pressed futilely at the pain that had been growing there in the days since she'd allowed him to awaken. Except for the stress and the sensory damage Will was perfectly healthy, but she had yet to get him out of the diagnostic bed. She practically had to force him to eat.
Data's calm voice filtered through the ache.
She managed a small smile, but the android still looked at her with a quite-human frown of concern.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," admitted the doctor. "It's Will I'm worried about."
The frown on the normally passive face deepened just a fraction.
"I was coming to see him, but I can return at a more appropriate time."
"No Data, it's fine, but I doubt he'll see you. He doesn't want to see anyone, not even Deanna."
"I believe he will see me," stated the android plainly.
Beverly looked doubtful, but she rose from the chair beside the bed and turned over her charge.
"Be my guest - and see if you can convince him to get up."
For several minutes, however, Data did nothing but stand motionless, his rapidly moving pupils the only hint of the vast amount of information surging through his neural net. Finally having exhausted his search, he reached down and scooped the surprised commander into his arms.
For a human, Will Riker was powerfully built, but encased in the android's steely grasp he could do nothing more than struggle feebly. When he was finally let down, he was too angered to do anything but keep his feet.
"Damn it," supplied Data, first in sign then in spelling across the commander's palm. "T-R- Y I-T," he urged.
The look of disbelief took its time in crossing Will's face.
"Damn it," repeated Data. He placed the human's hand on his shoulder. "Data."
Beverly ran a hand through her hair and let it cascade down the back of her lab coat.
"I don't know what Data did to get him to cooperate, but you can definitely say Will is a quick learner."
They were standing behind the transparent portal to Will's room, watching what appeared to be a heated argument between Data and Beverly's now quite communicative patient.
"Have you got any idea what they're saying?" asked the captain.
Jean-Luc had prowled sickbay for days while his first officer lay unconscious, but he'd been surprisingly busy elsewhere since Will awakened. He might not even have been here now if it hadn't been for Deanna pointing out, however hesitantly, any further waiting would only make the first encounter that much worse.
Beverly would have been amused at her stalwart captain's sudden awkwardness, except that Will's fragile acceptance of the injuries could stand little testing. She put a reassuring hand on the captain's shoulder and pushed him toward the door.
"Go on," she instructed, "while Data's here to translate."
"Captain," greeted the android, stopping in mid-sentence, his hands still poised in Will's. "Shall I go, Sir?"
Will had turned, too, at his entrance and Jean-Luc couldn't help thinking his first officer looked unaccustomably disheveled. His usually well-tamed hair fell unruly over his forehead and beneath the loose-fitting pants his feet were bare.
Data's hands resumed their dance in the commander's and Jean-Luc could guess the content of their message as Will tensed.
Jean-Luc looked toward the portal, but it had been locked to provide vision one-way and only his reflection gazed back at him. He imagined that behind the mirror, Deanna and Beverly were whispering softly.
"Number One," he said carefully.
Data rendered the letters at near-warp speed.
"How do you understand that?" he muttered curiously, not really expecting it to be translated, too, but it was.
This time Will relaxed, almost hearing that familiar tone the captain's voice took on when curiosity overtook him. It would be accompanied by a look of such intensity that everyone around the captain would know all else had been forgotten.

"It is fairly simple," explained Data, signing as he went. "The standard alphabet is a logical repetition of finger positions. Standard sign is much more complex and includes . . ."
Will retrieved his hand from the android's and made a quick pointing gesture.
"That is my name," continued Data, dropping the explanation. "Your rank would be . . ." he pointed to his collar as he said it, placing four fingers along the pips running up the strip of black fabric ". . . Captain."
"C-A-P-T-A-I-N," he spelled to Will, repeating the motion with Will's hand.
"I feel like I'm in preschool," grumbled the first officer. Data cocked his head during the translation. "Why . . ." he began when he was finished, but Jean-Luc cut him off with a bemused shake of his head.
"And Data will probably feel much like a preschool teacher by the time we all get finished with him."
"We?" questioned Will, managing a surprised look despite the stillness of his eyes.
"Sign has become quite the rage lately." Jean-Luc glanced back at the portal, wondering how much Beverly had told her patient. "It may be quite awhile before we reach a starbase and we want you to have as much . . ." he stumbled self-consciously over the word, "rehabilitation as possible."
But Will was not paying attention to his captain's awkward admission.
"Why aren't we docking?"
"We've had some engine trouble," lied the captain, catching a surprised look from Data. He was glad he didn't have to look Will in the eye and say it. "We're on impulse only."
Will stiffened again, his shoulders squaring.
"No, we're moving at warp."
"How would you know that?" responded the captain, curious to know if Will Riker's famous ability to bluff had come through the ordeal unscathed.
"You want a first officer who didn't know that?"
"You have been relieved of duty, Commander," reminded the captain, gently.
Will nodded, sobering with a first officer's realization of what his captain wasn't saying.
"So I should worry if we slow down."
Jean-Luc felt himself caught in the commander's fixed gaze.
"We may ALL worry if we slow down."
Beverly glanced through the portal as she crossed the main bay and looked toward the bed that continued to draw the eyes of everyone who came through the sickbay doors. She was a little surprised to find Deanna was not by Will's side. The counselor had been there almost constantly, leaving only to attend to her most pressing duties and to answer Beverly's daily concerns that she was wearing herself out. Despite the complaints they both knew the doctor would continue to allow it, for the calming effect it had on Will, if nothing else.
Deanna was not a telepath, so their minds did not touch in the deepest way, but she'd told the doctor long ago that she could sense Will's emotions clearer than anyone else's. For a long time, before they all struggled through basic sign, it was the only way to communicate, and it still had distinct advantages over their makeshift gestures.
Often in the past days Beverly had watched them. She had to admit to a certain amount of curiosity about what went on between them. A certain amount of envy. Their communication - however limited - seemed easier than her daily struggle to decipher Will's makeshift gestures and translate her own words into spelling. It was easier now that everyone knew some small bit of sign, but she could certainly do with a sense, however distant, of what Will Riker was feeling.
"You're spending too much time in that bed, mister."
It was a credible impression of Beverly Crusher and the quick turn of his head told Deanna she'd managed - just this once - to sneak up on him.
"You want to come join me?" he joked, but the lightness seemed forced and she sensed the extent of the injuries was becoming all too clear as the days passed.
She settled lightly on the side of the bed, taking his hand this time.
"Personally, I could use with a walk through a forest and I've already reserved the holodeck." When she touched him he could feel the faintest tingle like an electric current had crossed his palm.
"No," he said flatly, his mind reaching for a reason for the refusal that had a chance of being accepted. "I'm not dressed."
"That's why they invented something other than pajamas." She tugged at his hand. "Get up."
"Deanna," he pleaded, the force of his thoughts breaking the stillness in her mind.
She reached to take advantage of the openness."Will, if we bonded."
As quickly as the path they shared had materialized, he shut it.
Deanna sighed. For a long moment she encircled the pain he had transmitted, embracing and accepting it. Then she let it dissolve. "Then I should at least get my walk."
"He went with you?"
Beverly crossed her arms skeptically, surveying her patient. Deanna continued to stroke Will's arm, gazing at him with that haunted look of concern which had not left her eyes in all these days. He smiled at her in reply, but the smile did nothing to allay her worry.
"I don't know if it did any good."
The counselor's dark eyes had seemed to deepen.
Beneath her touch she could feel Will tense in response to the doctor's sudden pacing. The medical staff had noticed early that Will was extremely sensitive to vibrations - footsteps, the opening and closing of doors. Perhaps he always had been or perhaps it was some by-product of the alien machine. No one was sure. He could feel Beverly's footsteps on the floor now, though, and he turned his head away from Deanna in the direction of the vibrations. It was still a natural maneuver and it hadn't yet ceased to surprise him that it did no good. Locked in this dark, silent prison he still searched for a glimmer of light or the faintest sound.
"At least you got him out of solitary confinement. I can't even get him up off the bed unless I bribe him with Data or Geordi."
"I don't want to force him to do anything," sighed the counselor, knowing quite well how much she was tempted to force the link. Damn human pride.
"In my opinion he could do with a bit more forcing," countered the doctor. "I've been considering throwing him out of here. Medically there's nothing more I can do for him."
Deanna looked more surprised than Beverly had expected. She turned her attention to Will, the electricity of her touch caressing his palm. "I'm going to talk to Bev. Rest."

Rest. Those were the first four letters he had learned and they still seemed an integral part of all Deanna's and the doctor's sentences. Will lay back against the pillows with a sigh as Beverly motioned the counselor into her office.
"You don't think that's a good idea."
"No," said Deanna, running a hand through her glossy curls, "it's not that. It's just that a starship is an extremely large and confusing place."
"I agree," said the doctor. "That's why I was going to discharge him to his quarters. I was also going to ask the captain to reassign Data to keep an eye on him."
The doubtful look on the counselor's face remained, but she nodded her agreement. It wasn't doing any good to keep him in here.
When Beverly called the captain and asked to see him in sickbay when he had free time, she had not expected him to come immediately, but it was not long before he was down there. Free time was something he had in surprising abundance. A ship did not need two captains and both the security agent and Starfleet Command had made it perfectly clear who they believed was in control. It was not him.
As he entered sickbay the captain looked over to where Will lay propped up in bed. The sight of his first officer so obediently still was troubling. Beverly was setting some kind of record, managing to keep him in here for this long. Usually Will's stays in sickbay were numbered in hours - not days. Certainly not weeks.
The first time he'd seen the commander's ground-covering strides he knew he would not want to be between Will Riker and something he needed to do. He somehow managed to have that same look even now.
Geordi must have rigged the computer to teach Will a kind of Braille. A mechanical hand spelled what an electronic padd produced in raised dots. The captain watched awhile, the fingertips of Will's right hand grazing the padd as he let the mechanical fingers spell into his left. Jean-Luc's impatience at the security agent lessened. He would have his ship back soon enough, but Will . . .
At the captain's approach Will turned his head. It never failed to bring up Jean-Luc's hope, but the blue eyes stared sightlessly past him. Will held up his hand in a gesture for him to stop and the captain complied. The vibrations ceased, causing a slight smile to grace Will's impassive face. It was not control over much, but it was control over something. He felt for the computer panel. The mechanical hand snapped to attention, allowing him to spell into it.
"Captain," said the computer-generated voice.
The vibrations started again as Jean-Luc moved to take Will's hand into his own."How did you know me?"
Will felt for the computerized hand again and spelled into it. "Your walk vibrates commandingly."
"You have not seen anything yet." Geordi had left him with enough computer equipment to do almost anything - as long as that didn't include seeing or hearing. Speaking, however, was entirely within his grasp, if he didn't mind sounding like an Ellotic 230P or God knows what else.
Jean-Luc looked down at Will and wondered at his first officer's amazing ability to adjust. He could not imagine himself reacting so calmly. Then he remembered why he had come. "I must go see Bev. I will be back."
Inside the doctor's office the counselor paced restlessly across the small patch of carpet before the desk.
"I'm still concerned about what will happen when reality sets in."

"You think it hasn't already?" asked Beverly, a little more sharply than she'd intended.
"To some extent," conceded Deanna. "He has recognized the need to communicate - at least in the present - by sign and Braille. But has he come to terms with the permanence of the limitations? I don't think so." She leaned her head against the office window. "Look at him. He's mastering Braille with all the intensity he used to master Academy battle strategies, but it isn't clear to him yet that all that prior learning, all the time spent and all the other opportunities missed were a waste of years of his life."
Deanna shook her head, not wanting sympathy. She closed her eyes trying to grasp Will's thoughts, but the moment she touched them, they shied from her, retreating beyond her reach.
The doctor's exasperation Deanna could sense easily enough. She had wanted to get Will to a specialist as soon as possible, but Starfleet had placed the Enterprise at the disposal of the security agent. They had now spent a solar month zooming around the backwater sections of the quadrant, near the Neutral Zone. Light years away from any starbase and with no changes of orders in sight.
"What Will and I share is more than simple empathy but less than true bonding," she said finally, abandoning the futile attempt. "I can tell you he is attempting to cover his depression, but just how deep that depression goes I cannot say. I do know that the realization of his limitations is going to affect him profoundly. Beverly, it sounds cruel, but it's true. Will Riker wanted to be a starship captain and he pursued that goal at the expense of all else. I should know. And when he realizes those years were wasted . . ."
"There is no other way to make captain." Jean-Luc's entrance took them both by surprise. "But to say that he has wasted four years of academy training and twelve years of Star Fleet service . . . "
"That is the way he will see it at first."
"Luckily he was not my finest first officer."
The two officers spun on him together. "Captain!"
The merest hint of a smile touched the normally serious mouth and Jean-Luc settled himself on the side of Beverly's desk.
"The best first I ever had was a Commander Adin. Twice my age when I received my first command. He was reserved, respectful, completely calm under pressure. A master diplomat. If there were any crew-related incidents while he was there, I was never aware of them. He molded his style to fit whomever he served under and his jacket was full of statements from all his previous commanding officers saying he was the finest first officer they'd ever had. I have never again met an officer with his qualities. Commander Riker, in fact, is almost Adin's complete opposite. Will is quick to lose his temper, he bristles at reprimands, ignores convention at the most inopportune times, thinks he can single-handedly fix things that a dozen people couldn't repair and he is impatient with those who can't do things as quickly or as well as he can."
Jean-Luc paused a moment and saw anger - real anger - in Beverly's eyes. Deanna had a more controlled look due only to her ability to sense the captain's faith in the man whose shortcomings he was so willing pointing out.
"Despite those facts, Will has managed to be, at least in the majority of instances, reserved, respectful and completely calm under pressure. That is the strength he has and Adin lacked. The making of a good officer comes not from the luck of some perfect personality mix, it comes from the overcoming of obstacles. Particularly those you make yourself. Adin retired a first officer. William Riker would have had the Enterprise one day - if that was what he wanted. It is that drive which will get him through most anything. I suspect it will even get him through this."
He pushed himself up off the desk.
"You wanted to see me doctor?"
Beverly pulled herself to attention, knowing, despite Deanna's doubts, she'd already made up her mind. They'd all gotten too used to being dragged across the galaxy by the damned security agent and his top secret orders, too used to not taking chances. Somebody was going to have to take them.
"I wanted to talk to you about Will. I'm thinking of letting him return to his quarters."
A look of confusion crossed the captain's face.
"If that is your decision I wholeheartedly concur Doctor, but you don't need my recommendation to do that."
"No, but I need your approval to reassign Data to watch him. Will shouldn't be left alone. The ship, even his cabin, is now possibly dangerous for him." She hesitated, "And Deanna and I are not entirely sure he is not a danger to himself."
The captain understood. He nodded gravely, "Data is at your disposal."
Will would not allow Deanna's thoughts to touch his mind, but he had little choice but to accept her guiding hand as they moved down the now unfamiliar halls. She stopped for a moment, pressing Will's palm to the panel that ran along the wall.
"Feel the vibration?"
He ran his hand along the panel and felt, underneath it, a rhythmic pulse.
"Now wait."
She turned and spoke aloud, "Computer, what is Commander Riker's present position?"
The lights and the pulse in the panel coalesced in fast vibration under the waiting hand. Deanna continued, "Computer, show Commander Riker the way to his quarters." The vibration moved forward. Her warm fingers spelled into Will's outstretched palm.
"Follow it."
She hung back as Will slid his hand against the panel and began to walk forward, following the pulse. After a while he slowed. He felt so damn vulnerable. He should know precisely where he was. A first officer was supposed to know his ship backwards and forwards - and in the dark - but he had no idea where he stood now. What if Deanna wasn't near, what if she'd left him? The thought came in a sudden rush of fear. He tried to call her, to reach out through that ethereal bond that seemed to come so naturally to them, but his mind was too unfocused, too filled with anger and fear. His fingers flew, spelling her name, and in reply the deck reverberated with her steps as she rushed to him, calming him with the electricity of her touch.
"I'm here. Go on."
Reassured by the hand clasping his own, Will followed the vibration until it stopped. "Good. Your cabin is across the hall, three steps."
Will walked the three steps trustingly and then stopped. His hands, outstretched, reached for the door mechanism. Long fingers pushed the key button and the slight rush of air that escaped as the door popped open brushed against his face. With his hands still out in front of him, he stepped inside. This was one part of the ship he did know frontward and back and it seemed familiar even now. With a new surety he lightly touched the furniture as he moved around the room. He let Deanna's hands take and guide him to the computer terminal. His newly sensitive fingers played over the components.
"Geordi was here."
"He'll be here in awhile to show you how to use it."

Then there was nothing more to say. They stood awkwardly, their hands clasped together, the first time they'd been truly alone. Deanna hesitated for only a moment and then her mind reached for his. His hands found her face and swept back her hair. He reached down, kissing her, and Deanna felt her thoughts dissolve willingly into the untutored mind touch of old. Just as suddenly Will pulled back, both out of the link and physically away from her.
The word echoed in her mind as she reached for the comfort of the link, but he would not respond.
"Why not?" She drew back, using her hands to demand the answer her thoughts could not provoke.
"I have to know it's not pity." She wanted to protest but he refused her hands. "Do you realize what a burden I would be to you?"
She clasped his hands then, silencing them, and she forced the link open a crack, her thoughts reverberating, unwanted, in his mind. "I lost you once, now almost twice. I do not intend to lose you again."
Will bowed his head in a kind of defeat and Deanna regretted immediately what she had done. There was no time for apologies, though, with the door chime sending its vibrations through the room.
"The door," she signed. "Geordi."
Aloud she said, "Come."
Geordi knew instantly he had interrupted something more than a simple conversation. More often it was a curse rather than a blessing the way the VISOR showed him physiological changes impossible to detect with the human eye. There was no way to retreat gracefully. Instead it was Deanna who backed away, sending a silent apology to Will.
"I have work to do," she said to Geordi, knowing he would recognize the half-lie and not caring, for in a moment she would be gone. The door closed behind her, shutting her off from Geordi's knowing gaze, but not from the echo of Will's pain. There was not a door on the ship behind which she could hide from that.
At the moment, Geordi wouldn't have minded being on the other side of that door himself. He'd had no desire to intrude on their personal conversation. Neither did he wish to intrude in Will Riker's life. An awkward position to be in. He probably, more than the others, was best qualified to offer aid and assistance, but it was aid that might be unwanted and, in any instance, would put him and his senior officer in an uncomfortable position of role-reversal.
Not that he hadn't been willing enough to spend his off-duty hours with Data, modifying equipment. It was not his specialty, but there seemed little chance they'd see a starbase anytime soon. Definitely not Four, which housed the nearest Rehab Colony and which lay light-years in the opposite direction from where the agent steered them.
There wasn't much to guide them. Very few people were permanently handicapped anymore, even fewer multiply-handicapped. Most, like Geordi, managed to find help in some form of external sensors. He knew the doctor had attempted to use some of these devices with the commander, but the damage was far too extensive. Blindness, for Geordi, had always been an inconvenience but he'd never considered himself handicapped. Will Riker, he'd come to realize however reluctantly, would always need help.
Unsure of what he had interrupted and whether he was welcome in the first place, Geordi still stood back where he had first come in. Will waited for a moment then, confused, signed for him. The engineer was at his side in an instant.
"Sorry. Did not mean to interrupt."
Will ignored the apology, running his hands over the computer equipment."You and Data have been busy."
Geordi led him to the desk chair.
"Let me show you how it works."
Much to both everyone else's amazement and his own, the commander was an unusually quick student. He'd picked up sign with a rapidity borne more of need than of talent, but he seemed able to memorize where things were placed on the shortest of notice. Braille, however, was giving him a problem and Braille was precisely how the computer responded, raising small dots on the shimmering padd.
He ran his fingers over the display again, trying to think of the positioning of the tiny bumps as individual letters. Not as the unfamiliar surface he still perceived the padd to be. The third time he returned to the start of the computer's reply, Geordi's fingers closed around his, lifting them off the padd's surface.
"Think of them the same way you think about the signs. Just another way of representing words."
Geordi concentrated the VISOR's scanners on the glittering starlight filtering through the cabin's viewing portal and let his own fingers glide over the raised dots. The message was perfectly apparent to him, but he'd learned Braille as a small child, long before the VISOR had been perfected. They'd always said it was much more difficult to master as an adult.
"You'll get it," he signed encouragingly. "Why don't we take a break?"
Will spun the chair around and stood, declining Geordi's offer of help as he walked around the room. The engineer stayed close by, a hand half-raised to catch him if he tripped, but Will made it to where the hull strut protruded inward and leaned against its bulk.
"Something to drink?"
Will shook his head.
"Geordi?" he signed a few seconds later.
"I'm still here," assured the engineer.
"How do you stand this?"
Coming from Will Riker at another time, the question would have caused the engineer a considerable amount of consternation. The commander had always been a strong leader, the first to step forward into danger and the last to leave it in a retreat, and more often than not - sometimes with unfortunate consequences - honest to a fault. He was not one to spare the feelings of a subordinate, or a captain, and Geordi would have detected in that question a hint of superiority. He knew the commander would be just as willing in other circumstances to point out that the sight given by Geordi's VISOR or his skills at engineering or a dozen other things Geordi could do were superior to his own efforts. What Will Riker felt, he expressed. That Geordi was just now becoming used to this . . . well, he'd be willing to admit that might have to do more with his own unspoken insecurities than any further fault on Will Riker's part. And certainly at this moment the commander would deny feeling superior to anyone.
He took Will by the arm, leading him toward the sofa, settling him there.
"You have to remember I was born blind. I never had normal vision."
Will did not even attempt to keep up the pretense of looking at him. His head drooped toward his shoulder as if he looked off in the opposite direction from where his hands now moved.
"I feel disoriented. Lost. I expect to open my eyes and see. Instead I'm trapped in this body. Totally alone unless someone touches me and then at their mercy. Led where they want to go. Told what is happening the way they perceive it. Not a person, but an object to be looked after and being looked after is not one of my strong points."
They had always had a good working relationship, but that was all it had been. There had always been the distance of rank between them, with nothing to distract them from that being the defining difference. Geordi was not a Klingon or an android. He was simply the chief engineer and Will Riker was the second in command.
Geordi did not know why the commander had chosen to tell this to him. Perhaps it was because he was blind. Not so much that it would make the engineer more likely to understand, but just that he was not as shaken by the idea that their relationship was somehow changed by what had happened. Whatever he'd walked in on between Deanna and the commander, it had not been a counseling session and he'd noticed the captain was taking any available excuse to keep from being alone with his first officer. And Worf . . . if the captain was uncomfortable, there was little hope Will's friendship with the Klingon would survive.
"They will let up - after a while," Geordi reassured him. "But you'll always be 'looked after.' You've even been known to do it to me yourself. Particularly at first."
"Oh yeah."
There was a rustling at the door and it opened to reveal Data and Deanna, their hands full of boxes and dangling equipment.
"Looks like you came prepared," said Geordi, his hand continuing to tap against Will's. "I'm just not sure prepared for what."
Whatever else was happening, there was some form of communication still existing between Will and the counselor. Whether it was apparent to anyone without a VISOR was something Geordi wasn't sure of. He remembered Tasha Yar saying once that she knew Will and Deanna were old lovers - their body language gave it away, but he didn't know what the others saw now. What he saw was an increase in heart rate and other signs of tension - in both of them. Will clearly knew Deanna was there even though he shouldn't, he couldn't.
Data put down the boxes he was carrying and sat on the free end of the sofa, commandeering Will's other hand and beginning a furiously fast conversation. Geordi took the opportunity to throw a questioning look at the counselor.
"Is everything all right?"
Deanna frowned a bit at the question as if she had to think to answer it. She looked indecisively in Will's direction. "I think so," she finally said. The unsure eyes moved to study Geordi's face.
"Did everything go all right here?"
"Fine," hastened the engineer. "We were just talking."
Deanna nodded her approval, her gaze moving back to the commander. "Good. He needs to be able to talk to somebody."
The lesson apparently over, Geordi rose, extending a hand to make sure Will knew he was leaving. He passed Deanna on the way out but she seemed too preoccupied to notice him further, her attention caught by the flying interplay of Will's and Data's hands. She shook herself slightly and decided it was a good time for her own departure. Unlike Geordi, it wouldn't take a concerted effort for Will to know she was gone, and though she'd rather have just suspected it, she knew her leaving was cause for relief.
Data's hands engaged in a kind of continuous play in his, but Will's mind was far from the well-meaning tappings. Deanna Troi might appear to others to be totally unaffected by the onslaught of emotions she received daily from those around her, but Will knew they affected her more than she'd like anyone to know. Particularly him. Though there had been enough looks over briefing room tables, observation lounge floors and even across the bridge command center, for them to realize they were little short of naturally bonding. A problem so deep and intractable that they both consciously denied its existence from the start. After so long, they were aware of it only peripherally - a kind of safety valve. Another tool that might be useful one day in saving them or the ship.

The excuse lent itself easily to acceptance and somehow, without ever speaking of it, a mutual silence was agreed upon. Now that silence was silent no more. With no other sensations to distract him, the resonance Will could sense from Deanna was able to instantly command his attention - and he resented it, and fought it. Successfully, he believed. At least enough that he could limit her to receiving only the dull, nagging motivations she sensed from them all. She had no reason to curtail her projecting though, for thanks to his own she was not aware how clearly her unguarded thoughts were being received.
As Deanna would attest, however, there were no such emanations to be received from Data. His cool fingers flicked in constant rhythm against Will's palm and slowly Will pulled himself back toward the reality of that touch.
"Data," he interrupted, about to explain that he hadn't been "listening" or "feeling" or whatever the hell you called paying attention to messages slapped against your palm. The android must have taken it as some sort of protest.
"The readjustment of sensory-deprived individuals is said to be a long and arduous process," the cool hands continued.
"Data," he tried again.
"I felt it was best to research the rehabilitation databases," explained the android.
It was probably, mused Will, going to be a very long night.
The familiarity of the cabin, so comforting the day before, made it all the worse when he opened his eyes the next morning to the same darkness. Data was still there. When Will rolled up and rose, the android's quick footsteps reverberated across the floor.
"Would you like breakfast? To get dressed? A . . . "
"I think I can get my own breakfast," Will grumbled and he took a couple of steps toward the food vendor before remembering they were - as far as he knew - solely voice operated.
"I am afraid you do not yet know the code," reprimanded the android gently.
It was the first of many such reprimands concerning the cabin buzzer, the Fleet Comm Net, the ship's chronometer and a dozen other items Will had previously used daily. After a while, Data didn't seem as much a help as he did a catalogue of things Will could no longer do without assistance.
The morning he pushed the android out of the cabin and locked the door behind him because he had one too many sentences beginning "You can't" signed into his palm, he realized that was probably what they had been waiting for. The constant companionship he'd been forced to endure mysteriously reduced itself to occasional visits and the visitors started to include more than just Geordi, Deanna and Data. It was, he supposed, a measure of freedom, but it did not in any way make for the independence he would never have again.
Eventually even the captain showed up, bearing two glasses and a bottle of Venusian Rum. He began to wonder if the ever changing rotation of visitors were merely Deanna's temporary staff, transferred from their regular duties in the assumption that one of them eventually would be able to trigger the breakdown Deanna seemed sure was coming. They all did seem compelled to psychoanalyze the smallest of his actions.
William T. Riker, however, had no intention of having a breakdown - certainly not on Deanna's or the doctor's timetable. If he had other plans, well he was fairly sure his limited skills were enough to keep her from knowing for certain, and whatever he did, he wanted to cause her no more pain than he already had.
Deanna sensed the depression had not lifted, but it did not seem to be growing worse either, and that fact alone seemed cause for celebration. If she could have gotten him to talk about what had happened she would have felt even better, but so far he'd refused. Not that she pressed far. She did not want to be what pushed Will over the edge of the cliff she sensed was still all too near him.

Besides, Will seemed to be trying his own method to cure depression - an old human trick he'd called it - distraction and she was willing to give it time to work. It amazed even her how quickly he learned his way around the cabin and the task had indeed distracted him enough that some of the depression seemed forgotten. Any challenge to rise to - even the challenge of relearning what he already knew so well. He set himself to the task almost gratefully, learning again how to see and read and speak.
Learning how to not trip over the tri-D viewer that stood in the middle of the cabin floor. It would have been easier to yield to everyone's suggestion and get rid of it. A viewer was of little use to him now, but some days the tri-D crashing maddeningly against his shins was the only thing that seemed real to him. An ungraceful bump back into the others' world.
He never knew when it was that he first stepped unconsciously around it. Several days must have gone by before he realized he wasn't sporting a set of viewer-high bruises. Several more days passed before he realized he had given in. Not those first days in sickbay when Beverly demanded he communicate, taking his hands and forcing him to sign. Not when Data wore him down with his logician's explanations of why he should learn Braille in an ungodly short period of time. Not even when Deanna, in her desperation, wrested control of the mind link.
Those things he accepted stoically, like he accepted the dark, silent well into which he'd been dropped, separating himself from the pain of their meanings. Nothing had touched him, and even now it all seemed remote and unconnected to who he really was. His body might fail but that which he called his soul refused to accept it. And he failed properly and deliberately. He refused to count steps and ran into walls. Refused to memorize where he left things and forced other people to find them. Every way he could he fought against giving his soul over to his damaged body. Consciously he still fought the daily battle against being what fate now required, but at some deep level he knew the day he'd stepped around the viewer he yielded.
Deanna might have known then had there not been other distractions left. He would sit for hours, still except for his hands, running through the Enterprise databases. Anything to keep from thinking, from being alone in the darkness and silence he could not bring himself to admit were permanent.
She did at least suspect something. Perhaps, even before he knew the decision had been made. He lost count of how many days he'd groped his way back from the replicator and cringed at the swallow of cold coffee it had produced. Deanna was taking her precautions a bit too far, turning the water temperature down so low that the coffee from the food vendor was always lukewarm. Surely there were easier ways for him to harm himself than with the replicator.
Will wanted - more than anything - to reassure her that her fears were groundless, but he couldn't. He wasn't sure himself. Better not to think of that, he had told himself, concentrating instead on the computer, reading all those things he had always meant to before, but there had never been time. The other night Deanna commended him for his new interest in Klingon history. She thought it was a good sign. Now he'd taken to turning it off guiltily when she came in. There was even a bit of guilt now as he accessed the database and a bit of fear that she sensed the cause of his new-found interest.
There was no doubt Worf was avoiding him.
Not that he'd noticed to start with, it was only later, when he finally was able to recognize who was near, that he realized the Klingon was never among those well-meaning individuals who took his hands - often at the most inopportune times. He should have expected it, but somehow the idea managed to come as some sort of a shock. He knew precisely how the Klingon would see his predicament. And he saw his own way out.
Had he been Klingon instead of Human, one of his fellow officers would have released him from this disgrace by now, and he would have died with honor at the hands of a friend or a brother. Worf would know of his duty. That was why Worf could not stand to see him and why he now desperately needed to see Worf. How he was going to manage it, helpless outside the safety of his cabin, was a different matter.

The vibrations of the door chime roused Will from his thoughts and he shut off the terminal with a start, groping guiltily for the button that would bid the caller in. His body tensed, almost instinctively now, waiting to feel the vibrations. Usually he could tell who it was from the footsteps, but not this time. As soon as he reached out, though, he knew it was Wesley. The young ensign's signing was almost staccato, even faster than Data's, and at the best of times Will had trouble keeping up. This was not the best of times. He gestured for Wesley to stop, which took a minute.
"Slow. I am not Data."
Wesley began again, the pace slackening just a little. "Sorry. I have to talk to you."
Will nodded, apart from his fruitless search for Worf there was little else to distract him, and of late, Wesley was the only one having conversations with him that didn't include psychoanalysis.
"You want to go to Ten-forward?" Will shrugged at the question. "I need to go to Ten- forward." Even Wesley's signing seemed a little frantic. Will wondered what he must sound like.
"Why?" Will asked as he got up.
Wesley steered him to the door. "Gena Gray. You got me into this."
Will smiled, for a moment forgetting his blacker thoughts. This was the first "normal" conversation he'd had in weeks. He'd entirely forgotten about Wesley's latest ill-fated romance. The smile quickly vanished though with the thought of the crowded lounge, and had Wesley not been intent on his own problems he would have noticed the commander's expression was positively grim by the time they reached the doors of Ten-Forward.
Will had not been in the lounge since the mission. He had been avoiding it. The bridge too. Especially the bridge.
There was the familiar disturbance as the doors opened and Will swore he could feel all the conversation stop as they entered. He was more right than he would have liked. People still stared and still discussed what a pity it was. There was a low murmur to that effect right now. Over the bar, a lieutenant from engineering confided to Guinan that she thought it was a terrible waste - he had been so attractive. A few sharp looks from the hostess silenced them all and the conversations quickly began to take other turns, but the black thoughts had returned.
Wesley led him to a seat and had just begun again his tale of Gena Gray when someone interrupted, the deck rippling with the heavy unfamiliar vibrations of the steps as Worf came reluctantly to the table. He tried to avoid looking at Will, turning instead to face Wesley.
"The captain wishes to see you."
The ensign looked terribly disappointed, a response the Klingon had not expected.
"He was unable to reach you by comm link - your receiver must be malfunctioning."
Now Wesley looked sheepish, "Where does he want me to meet him?"
"The ready room."
Wesley nodded. "Will you take Commander Riker back to his quarters?"
The young ensign waited for an answer and Worf felt he had no choice but to reluctantly agree. Refusing would only cause a scene, bringing him greater disgrace than he already faced. More eyes than he felt comfortable with were already on the commander. He, too, looked uncomfortably to where Will still sat, his hand outstretched.
Wesley's quick signing returned, "Have to go. Worf will take you back."

Wesley was already on his feet but the question made him stop. If he had ever seen fear on Will Riker's face he didn't know it, but something had drained the color from beneath the commander's dark beard.
"Would you rather stay awhile?"
And be what, Will started to ask, an exhibit?
"No thanks."
Will managed a ghost of his usual smile and Wesley relaxed. He exchanged a look with Worf and the Klingon nodded. He wrapped a hand ever so gingerly around the commander's elbow.
To Will's surprise, the Klingon's free hand reached for his.
The commander followed silently, at first too shocked to respond. Once the shock had passed, the Klingon's slowly tightening grip on his arm effectively discouraged any other attempt at conversation.
"We are here," Worf finally spelled as he stopped at Will's cabin and guided him in. He would have left then, but a quick hand held him back.
Worf hesitated, the blood rushing to his face. He'd felt a certain amount of embarrassment that he had allowed Will to know he'd learned sign language and he still felt the embarrassment that had plagued him every time he came near the human. But, he assured himself, the commander could not know.
Will stood perfectly still as if he were trying to sense something.
"Are we alone?"
Worf looked around the empty cabin, puzzled. "Yes."
"I need help."
Worf shifted uncomfortably, wishing fervently he'd been wrong about the room being empty.
"I will get Deanna."
Will grabbed at him, his face going white, frantic hands commanding the Klingon's attention.
"No! I want you to free me."
Worf's breath released explosively.
"You are my friend. It is your duty."
Worf clenched his hand into a fist, sending his nails into the softer skin of his palm, working to hold down the hot press of his anger. No one had to remind him of his duty.
"You are not Klingon."
"You would release a Klingon?"
"Then release me."
"No. You can fight, overcome. A Klingon could not." He looked into the vacant eyes, wondering if the human understood what he was saying. "For you this is not a disgrace."
He was glad the human couldn't see his face which showed it was a disgrace.
"It is not a life." Will's reply was anguished. "Help me. You must help me."
Overcome, Worf turned his back so the human who could not see would not witness his struggle for control. So often among humans he felt at a loss. There were times when he knew no words that were appropriate, no actions that would be correct. They could not understand, for they were not Klingon and he could not understand for he was not human. He felt great shame for himself and for Will. Klingons suffered from a peculiar empathy for that one emotion. Hot shame for Will's inabilities, his dependency, that he had to ask for help. And there was his own shame at his embarrassment, his inability to do what might well be considered his "duty" - what would be his duty to a Klingon brother.
Will stood pale and trembling behind him. In his anger and confusion Worf turned and grabbed the human by the shoulders, shaking him.
"NO!" he said aloud, "I will not." Will stood unresisting to the buffeting. "I will not!"
Loosening his grip on the fabric of the human's tunic, he clenched his hand around Will's.
"Never mention this again."
Will bowed his head and Worf fled out the door. The Klingon knocked down two crewmen on his way through the hall, not ever seeing them or even noticing he had hit them. He found his quarters through pure instinct, picked up the nearest object he saw upon entering and smashed it against the far wall. Then he leaned against the door, trying to slow his ragged breathing and rapid pulse.
Will felt faint as if the whole ship was falling beneath him and him after it. He swayed, his hands swinging in a frantic search to grasp something, anything solid. A disorienting numbness reached for him and took his body and his mind. Breathing hard he crashed to his knees, vaguely aware that the vibration from the door chime filled the room but he had no strength or desire to answer it.
Standing in the corridor, Jean-Luc pressed the chime again and then the intercom button, calling out before he remembered it was no use. Will was probably somewhere else anyway, with Deanna or Data. Just to be sure he engaged the lock from the outside watching as the door snapped back obediently at his touch. An instant later he fell to his knees beside the pale form he'd found crumpled on the deck, his fingers reaching automatically for his communicator.
"Dr. Crusher to Commander Riker's quarters. Immediately!"
He tried to turn Will over, find some clue as to what was wrong, but Will was curled face down, near-fetal, his body rigid on the cabin floor. Not knowing what else to do, he pried open one of Will's clenched fists.
"Jean-Luc. I am here."
Somehow the letters found shape in Will's mind, pushing back some of the paralysis. Will tried to take a deep breath and he uncurled a little. He allowed his captain to lift him, support him. It was some measure of relief, but Will lay motionless against him and Jean-Luc silently cursed the doctor's slowness and his own uselessness.
As if from far away, Will could feel himself cradled in his captain's arms. This final loss of control completed his humiliation. Fitfully he choked back sobs and Jean-Luc, remembering one of the last times he'd ever cried, did what his father had done long ago. He pulled Will closer to him and began slowly to rock.
Deanna and Beverly had rushed out of sickbay without a word passing between them and now, by some unspoken consent, they ran at top speed down the corridor. Though Jean-Luc expected it, they showed no sign of shock when the cabin door opened to reveal their captain kneeling on the floor, his first officer in his arms.
"What happened?" Beverly had the mediscanner out immediately.
Jean-Luc wished he had an answer for her. "I don't know. I came in and he was on the floor."
She took out a hypo. "He's extremely agitated." It was not a question, but she looked at Deanna for confirmation.

The counselor nodded, her face drawn by Will's anguish. "His despair is almost overwhelming."
Beverly emptied the sedative into his arm. After a moment Will's eyes closed and his breathing quieted.
"Let's get him to sickbay." She summoned two orderlies to relieve the captain of his burden, then she turned solemn eyes on her commanding officer.
"We have to get him to a starbase. I don't have the facilities to help him with what he's been through either physically or emotionally." The captain could see the strain in her eyes. A look he was beginning to see more and more. A danger signal of a crew being pushed too far. "We need to get Will to someone who can help him."
Her captain, too, looked grim, "That will not be an easy task, Doctor. Our friend the security agent will not want his schedule interrupted, and Fleet's not particularly concerned with our 'little' problems."
"Remind them that one of their officers was willing to give his life." Beverly knew it was not something she had to remind him of, but it was something she needed to say. "They owe him that much."
The doctor thought having Will in sickbay would at least make her feel better, but instead of lessening, Beverly's concern grew as the hours passed. Will might be safely in her custody, but even after the tranquilizer wore off, he continued to lie unresponsive on the diagnostic bed, seemingly oblivious to everything, including Deanna's frustrated pacing.
From the looks of it, the counselor had been pushed past some limit of her own. She stopped by the bed, taking Will's unresisting hand. Her face contorted in frustration.
"It's like he's walled me off. He won't let me in." Beverly put her hand on Deanna's shoulder, wishing she could do more to soothe her.
"I have to run some more tests. Why don't you go get something to drink? Take a break."
"I shouldn't . . ."
The counselor understood. Beverly didn't need her there. She could feel the doctor's nervousness being intensified by her own. Reluctantly she released Will's hand.
She had barely disappeared through the door when Wesley leaned in. He, too, looked worriedly at the commander lying motionless on the bed and frowned at the neural scanner his mother was placing against Will's forehead.
"Is he going to be all right?"
"I don't know." Beverly readily admitted to her son the uncertainty she couldn't bear to admit to Deanna. He frowned deeper at the reply and at the sigh she let out when the scan series finished, still showing nothing. At this point she'd begun to think she'd rather see a problem - even a serious one - that she could deal with. Anything to stop her pervading feeling of uselessness. As she reached to recalibrate the scanner once again, a thought hit her.
"You were with Will earlier weren't you?"
Her son's brown head bobbed up and down.
"Until the captain called for me. Well, he tried to call for me. I was off-duty and wanted to talk to Commander Riker. Everyone kept calling me about these really small problems, so I turned the communicator off." Wesley now grimaced at the thought. "He had to send Worf to get me."
"And you took Will back to his quarters?"
"No, Worf did."
"Worf?" A warning bell sounded in the back of her mind.
"I think so. At least I asked him to."
Beverly laid the scanner down. "Do you mind staying with him for a few minutes?"
"Where are you going?"
"I thought I'd talk to Worf."
First, however, she stopped by Deanna's office. The counselor sat forlornly at the desk, sipping her coffee, her eyes still troubled.
"How is he?"
"There's no change." Beverly paused, considering, "Deanna, you know the whole time Will was in sickbay, Worf never came to visit him."
"Beverly, if you're attempting to take my mind off . . ." Deanna began tiredly.
"No, I have a reason for asking. Why did Worf never come down here?"
Deanna recounted the Klingon social patterns by rote.
"You know how he feels about sickbays. The Klingons are a warrior race. There is no room for sickness. A Klingon injured in battle, who can no longer fight is ritually killed by his fellow soldiers, thereby assuring his honor remains intact. To live when you cannot fight is to be dishonored. When Worf so much as hears Will's name, I can feel his shame. He feels Will has been disgraced." She looked up. "Why are you asking me this?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Beverly admitted. "Would Worf have . . . done something to Will? Something which would have caused this?"
Deanna shook her head. "I cannot believe Worf would harm Will."
"I agree he wouldn't hurt Will intentionally," concurred Beverly, her hand moving toward her communicator, "but something happened and I intend to find out what it was."
Worf entered a few minutes later, clearly displeased at being called away from his station. Or, thought Beverly, clearly displeased at being called to sickbay. He glanced over to where Wesley sat beside Will and the expression that crossed his face was one Beverly could not read. Seeing that she was watching, Worf pulled himself to attention.
"Doctor." He offered his usual harsh greeting, which at first she had taken to be unfriendly. Now she knew better. That harsh tone served to hide a lot of things. "Has the commander been injured?"
"We're not sure. That's what we wanted to talk to you about." The Klingon looked decidedly uncomfortable as he followed her into her office.
"I have done nothing," Worf repeated. Beverly sank down on the side of her desk, this was not going well at all.
"We know that you did nothing intentionally. But did anything happen when you took Will back to his quarters? Did he act unusual? Upset?" The Klingon's expression was carefully controlled but his mind was not so ruly.
Involuntarily Worf's thoughts flashed back to earlier in the day, to Will's cabin: "Release me. Release . . . "
"Oh my God." It was Deanna who spoke. As she read the emotions Worf had tried to keep hidden, she understood. "He asked you to commit cht'taik." Literally the word meant "the killing of one's brother" but it engendered much more than its counterpart in Standard. No one ever considered honor, friendship and death with dignity to be part of fratricide.
"You feel ashamed," Deanna continued.
Worf would not meet her eyes. "I have disgraced him further. I allowed him to beg."
"Will is human."
"He is my crewmate and my friend." Worf stood at attention once more. "I should have made a full report, but I did not wish to dishonor him. I did not consider that he would attempt to take his own life."
"We don't believe he did." Beverly could assure him of that much at least. "The captain found him shortly after you left. We think he just collapsed. It was not your fault. We have all underestimated the strain Will's under. I should have never released him from sickbay."
They'd underestimated the strain they all were under.
She looked at Deanna. "I see no reason any of this should have to leave this room."
"Neither do I."
Deanna could sense Worf's profound relief at the words. Neither Will nor he would be disgraced further. But the lieutenant said nothing, merely inclining his head and walking out the door. He did not even look toward the bed where Will lay.
"Captain, as I have said before, I sympathize with your predicament, but the Enterprise has a very tight schedule to keep."
Both statements the captain had difficulty believing, particularly given the tone in which the agent said them.
"Schedule?" questioned Jean-Luc. "We do not appear to have either a docking schedule or a rendezvous. The ship simply moves back and forth between 2495 by 3904 mark four and 4905 by 3902 mark six - at varying speeds of warp. I'm sure a short trip to Alpha Four could be made up by a few hours at warp seven."
The agent never moved his eyes from the terminal screen that until lately Jean-Luc would have considered his own.
"We are on border patrol, Captain."
"No, the Kertan and the Omphedra are on border patrol. We've been passed by them twenty-one times in the last solar month." Jean-Luc crossed his arms. "The Enterprise is not parading out here to ensure the safety of the border. I rather suspect we are the proverbial duck in the shooting gallery."
"That will be all Captain."
"No," declared Jean-Luc with an evenness he had not been able to master in days, "it will not. I have no doubt you have access to a great deal of information I do not and that to you or someone this maneuvering seems reasonable and proper. But there is one thing you will never know as well as I do - this ship."
"Are you attempting to bribe me Captain - or threatening me with sabotage?" The grey eyes moved to study him noncommittally. "Sabotage of your own vessel? Destruction of your career? All for the sake of your first officer's health?"
"Nothing was said about sabotage," said Jean-Luc silkily. "I merely pointed out that Alpha Four is only two days away at high warp."
"I'm afraid Captain," stated the agent in a tone totally bereft of emotion, "that I do not fear you in the least. However, your mosquito-like buzzing is becoming something of an annoyance. Because of that, I will make you this offer. I will take your beloved first officer to Alpha Four if for the remainder of this journey you will restrain from this manipulative behavior of yours. You'll have your pretty starship back soon enough Captain." He looked around the ready room with a sniff of distaste. "And your desk."

"Then I can set course for Alpha Four."
"With all haste," replied the agent. He looked wearily at Jean-Luc's retreating back. "And Captain, I don't want to see you in here again."
Beverly had not asked how Jean-Luc managed to get the ship on a heading to Starbase Four, it was enough that it was and she contented her curiosity with the consideration that they were lucky just to be headed away from the neutral zone toward civilization and help. Again in her care, Will had spent most of the past few days dozing under a heavy load of antidepressants. Fortunately the other side-effects were minimal, and the drugs seemed to be working. He slept a lot and even when he wasn't sleeping he was withdrawn, far from Will's normal outgoing personality. But Deanna said she could sense the weight of the depression lifting ever so slightly.
Especially at times such as now when Data was here. It was with Data that Will seemed most at ease. Data had no preconceived notions, no hesitancy, and - most importantly - no pity. The android still taught Will sign language and, in fact, he and Data conversed on an entirely different plane than the rest of the crew. But the rest of them were not blessed with a positronic brain. Deanna had stopped even attempting to catch up. Wesley and Geordi still tried, as if it was some sort of game, but no one could learn as quickly as Data - or Will.
The counselor looked at them now, Data's fingers flying against Will's palm. She longed to be able to talk to Will easily again. If he would allow her to bond with him then they could be of one mind. He would know her thoughts and she, his. But he would not allow it, and had she forced the link it would have been a kind of rape. He had enough scars already.
Deanna watched as Data took Will's hands, molding them into some new sign. She copied the motions then went to discover what she had just said.
Four was a small base - rarely seen with a galaxy class starship in attendance, but its medical facilities were renowned throughout the quadrant. Deanna knew she should be happy to reach them but she stood in the transporter room the thought of leaving Will in the hands of strangers tormenting her. She chided herself at the ridiculousness of the fear - the strangers were some of the finest doctors found anywhere - and kept it to herself, but she knew she was not alone in feeling it. Everyone on the ship seemed to move around Will carefully, as if he were made of exceptionally fine, fragile porcelain. Even now the captain seemed hesitant as he guided him into the transporter room where Deanna met them, taking Will up onto the pad. There was no need for words. Will sensed her fear automatically. He held her hands warmly in his and his thoughts brushed against hers for the first time since that day in his cabin.
"There is still time." Deanna opened her mind fully to him, showing him all that bonding would allow, then recoiled when the offer brought only sadness to him.
She sensed the emotion but could not fathom the reason for it.
His mind touched the fear and the hurt.
"I love you," he replied as if it was an answer. "I've always loved you."
Overwhelmed she began to back away, "I love you, too." She let go of his hands only reluctantly, blinking back tears as the beam took him.

Will felt as if he had disconnected a life support system when he let Deanna go. He knew the transporter had taken him somewhere else, but it was still the same dark, silent place - except now he was alone. He stood for a minute, uncertain in the darkness and then he reached out, tentatively searching, knowing that no electric touch would be waiting.
Instead a small hand caught his strongly. "Commander Riker I presume."
The shock of the strong grasp caught him off guard. Lately everyone was gentle with him. Too gentle.
"You must be Doctor Livingston."
"Doctor - yes. Livingston - no. I am Nyra Licen'b. Shall we go?"
It was not really a question. Nyra took him by the arm, her pull forceful despite the fact Will's height dwarfed her own. At a little over four and a half feet, Nyra was considered tall only by Mycelian standards. She tugged the reluctant commander after her, noting his movements critically.
"You drag your feet. Bet you did not do it before."
The good-natured smile her grasp had elicited vanished. She stopped to study the silent man she was leading.
A quite attractive man, she thought clinically. That would help. There were still prejudices, not admitted, but still there. At first glance you did not notice anything was out of the ordinary. At second glance his expression would strike you as a bit blank, his eyes a bit clouded. These she could do nothing about. The other manifestations - the way he let his head droop, the shuffling walk - those she would school out of him. He was lucky, with his looks undamaged and her proper instruction he would be able to pass for "normal" long enough to keep others from rejecting him before they got to know him. If they rejected him after that - well, she'd always said she didn't fix personalities.
First impressions clearly set in her mind, Nyra relaxed.
"You should not drag your feet," her hands repeated, "you look blind."
"Not that I know, but isn't that obvious?" His hands moved with technical correctness through the signs but without the modifiers and facial expressions that gave the signs their tone and volume. The monotone of those forced to learn the language without sight.
"Not at first glance. Not if you do not drag your feet. Just walk like you used to, like you do not expect to run into a wall."
Nyra opened the transporter room door.
"There is an open door in front of you. About six steps. Walk through it. Do not shuffle."
Will's hands went out in front of him, destroying whatever illusion Nyra hoped to create, but he strode the six steps without shuffling. It was a start.
"Good," said Nyra, one hand again on his arm and the other speeding through the signs. "Come on. You will like Dr. Varentsu. He acts like a doctor should. Does not nag. The others leave that to me."
"What do you think?" Nyra asked as Evan Varentsu delicately probed the back of Will's neck.
Just as he had to all her previous questions, Evan merely grunted in reply. Only when he was finished did he deign to say something intelligible.
"Should be fine. When do you want to schedule it?"
"This was scheduling it."
"Now?" spluttered the neurologist.

"Some reason we can't?" asked Nyra. "We've got all his medical records, all the information we need."
"You might try letting him get adapted first."
"I don't want him adapted first. He's level seven - complete loss of sight and hearing. If I let him get to know this place then give him the sensor net, he'll have to unlearn all the coping strategies he learned in the first place."
Evan Varentsu's lavender eyes lit with amusement. "Did you bother asking if it was all right with him?"
"It better be." Nyra knelt down beside the chair where Will sat.
"Do you know about sensor net?"
She took his continued silence to mean no. Reaching across the table, she picked up a discarded piece from Varentsu's experimental pile.
"Feel," she commanded.
The tiny barbules of the netting caught against his skin.
"You wear it. Allows you to sense objects around you. Sends signals to small implant at the base of your brain." She turned his palm up and placed the tiny receiver in it. Gingerly she guided his fingers over it. "Will not hurt much."
The smile returned briefly.
"So you say."
A very human trait, using humor to steady yourself. It was one human behavior of which she wholeheartedly approved.
"Just take it easy. Will not take long."
She stood back while Evan worked skillfully, lodging the receiver underneath the skin on the nape of Will's neck, letting it find its own way to send its microscopic filaments to connect with the visual cortex.
"It's in," reported Evan.
"Time to get you some new clothes," signed Nyra. "Talk to the synthesizer."
New clothes? Will felt the cuff of his uniform tunic, the fabric familiar between his fingers. He was not at all sure he wanted to remove that last link to who he had been.
"What . . ." he began, as Nyra's hands pulled him up.
"Questions later. We are late already."
Late? Late for what? This was a hospital. At least Will hoped it was a hospital. What could he possibly be late for except the doctor and she was with him. Will fervently wished for Deanna. He could use some insight into this person who had suddenly taken over his life.
"You should be meeting the chief administrator right now. Greets all the new patients." Nyra's hands returned to flying over the synthesizer controls. The pattern complete she added, "You are not missing much. I thought you would like this better."
"I might if I knew what we were doing."
The tone from the machine signaled the completion of the synthesis. She pulled open the covering door and retrieved the neatly folded tunic and pants. The fine black netting of sensors sparkled in the lab light.
"Getting you new clothes." She looked critically at the Starfleet uniform's utilitarian cut. "Probably a bit flashy for your taste. Sensor net sparkles. I made the underlying fabric blue - match your eyes. Red does not particularly become you."
She expected the look of surprise on his face. Inevitably most of them began to think she was intermixing with a little too much antimatter. The time it took them to get over it varied considerably - one or two of them never had.
"Cubicle to your left. About three steps. Go change."
Besides giving them a taste of her bedside manner, the exercise was a quick and easy way to find out if new patients could take care of themselves. Nyra found it much better than asking a potentially embarrassing direct question. She doubted, though, this particular new patient would have any trouble.
When he stepped out she knew she had been right, both about the color and his abilities. He had even managed to fasten the collar. She reached with a stretch to add the final touch. Her delicate fingers snapped the transmitter in place and turned it on.
Evan Varentsu leapt forward as Will sagged.
"Turn it off," he ordered, his legs braced to hold up the reeling man.
"No! Don't you dare," cried Nyra. "He's OK. You haven't seen many level sevens. This happens a lot. It's a kind of information overload. He'll just have to get used to it."
It seemed cruel, but he did as Nyra said, trusting his own work and her word. She was right. After a minute the human found his feet.
"Let him go," instructed Nyra.
Evan released his supporting hold, but stayed right by Will's side ready to catch him again.
"What do you think?"
Will caught her hand as a wave of dizziness swept through him.
"I think I liked it better before." The images - if that's what they were - only seemed to confuse him. They were like a readout he could never quite focus on.
"You will get used to it," the doctor's hands moved to assure him.
His head reeled from the continued sensory overload and from the thought that this could ever be something he wanted to get used to.
"Can you see me?" asked Nyra.
"See you?" Maybe they had beamed him down into the ward for the criminally insane.
"The net should produce some sort of picture. You should 'see' me."
"I do not 'see' anything." His brain tried some mental gymnastics in order to catch the information but it seemed to skid further out of his reach. "But I seem to know something."
His hand reached out to Nyra. There was a gentle touch on her shoulder. Then he reached back behind him where Evan stood.
"What's wrong?" asked Nyra.
Evan was already running the scanner. He snapped it off, viewing the readings with a frown.
"With the equipment - nothing."
Nyra considered a moment in silence. The sensor net always worked. At least it had until now.
"Well," she decided, "just because it doesn't work the way I expected doesn't mean it doesn't work at all. Open the door."
"What?" Evan was still waiting for the day when the jumps in the Mycelian train of thought didn't startle him.

"Open the door," repeated Nyra, pointing to the far wall.
Shaking his head, Evan obeyed. He hoped Nyra noticed his consternation, but she had turned back to her patient.
"Test time. In front of you are a wall, an open door and a lot of junk Evan leaves lying around. Find the door and we can leave. You cannot and we stay until the good doctor invents some equipment that at least halfway works. OK?"
Did he have any choice? Besides, he thought he might manage it. If he didn't think about it too hard. It seemed to be a lot like sleepwalking. He just had to trust his unconscious knew what it was doing.
Nyra bit her lip as he negotiated the computer console and found his way around the stack of replacement parts. He stumbled a bit but finally came to a stop about a foot from the wall. He faced it, forcing his hands down to his sides. Slowly he sidestepped.
"So far so good," she whispered to Evan.
"I'll still need to look at him again. He should be able to discern exactly what the net is picking up."
Nyra turned her gaze upon the neurologist.
"Tomorrow," she promised. "If he finds the door."
"I don't think you have to worry about that." Evan's long fingers pointed over her shoulder.
Will stood dead-center of the open doorway. He turned at the quick vibrations behind him.
"Damn right," replied Nyra. "Deal is a deal. Let's get out of here."
Will reached to take her arm and drew back in surprise at the slap on his wrist.
"No. I did not go to all this trouble to have to lead you. Hallway is straight until I tell you. Walk out the door. Turn right."
From the look on his face she had been upgraded from slightly off-balance to dangerously insane.
"One day you will grow to like me," she assured him. The smile again. Visible for only a split second.
"I know you are scared. I would be, too." Nyra gazed at him, shifting her weight from foot to foot, talking to herself. "But a lot of good it does confessing that to you. I might as well be talking to Evan - he doesn't listen to me either." Sighing she took his warm hand.
"Come on. I will be right behind you. You will be fine. Promise."
Promise, Will groused silently to himself. Easy for Dr. Whatever-her-name-was to say. Still, there didn't seem to be anything to do but go on. If he didn't there would soon be a lot of warm, friendly hands reaching for him, bearing hypos filled with whatever they gave recalcitrant patients. Better to run into walls. At least it was pain of your own making.
Nyra was pleased as he stepped through the door. Before he could go much farther, her hands caught and held him.
"I thought I was on my own."
"Do not give the doctor a hard time or you will be." She guided his right hand to the railing along the wall. "Always walk with your right hand on the railing. That way no one has head-on collisions. Stops when there is a door. Starts again on the other side. Now you are on your own."
She followed him, watching with a doctor's eye. There was a new hesitancy in his steps, not completely caused by the confusion of the sensor net. A hesitancy she recognized. She'd seen it in all her patients no matter how severe the damage. In its own way, it was a good sign, an indication they were becoming less disoriented. They were recognizing the rehab center as a particular place - a place different from the ones they knew before. For this patient it might be worse. As a first officer he would know his ship so well that even blind he knew how the decks were laid out, where the dangers were. Here, though, Nyra knew he must be at a total loss.
The metal railing felt cool in his hand. Will concentrated on the coolness and the slight bounce of the heavily padded floor. He was trying very hard not to think of the sensor netting and the sensations it produced, or that despite the doctor's assurances he was not completely convinced the sensors would keep him from running into the walls - or anything else.
Everything seemed so different, and it wasn't just the net. Without him even being aware of it, the rhythm of the Enterprise had become a part of him. An internal beat, relied on, but not consciously recognized. He'd never missed it before when he was off ship but there would have been other distractions - sights, sounds. Now there was nothing. His body seemed to strain for the familiar rhythm which would let him know everything was all right. He did not find it, but after a few moments, he did notice tiny vibrations. They came at regular intervals and he finally recognized them as the station's inertial stabilizers. In their own way the small jolts were very reassuring.
The hands reached from behind to stop him again.
"Excellent. Quarters are just across the hall. I want you to learn how many steps it is from the front door to the desk. From the desk to the lift . . ." Nyra noticed the look was back. The one that said she needed some time in a psychochamber. "No, not tonight. Tomorrow."
The stresses of the day had caught up with him. He felt his head drooping forward. Nyra saw it too and relented.
"I tormented you enough for one day. Take my arm. I will take you to your room."
Gratefully, he complied.
The room she led him to was small with little furniture - a bed and desk. The rest was cleverly recessed - less to run in to he realized with a sudden bitterness. Untrained, Will read the sensor flows as solid. Walls.
"Count the steps to the back wall."
So she wasn't finished with him yet. Her light steps followed his. Twelve to his ten.
"Bed is about two steps to left," Nyra approximated, "bath is two steps to right."
Two steps left. Will's leg hit the bed's soft side. The net registering it, low. Four steps right. This time he heeded the signals and stopped before he collided with the wall. His hand reached automatically for the keylock. Waist-high to the door's right, the standard position. It was there.
"Sonic shower," reported Nyra. "Controls in Braille. Can you manage?"
Braille controls?
"First-grade stuff."
"Then I'll leave you alone. Well, almost alone."
She slipped a thin plastic band around his wrist. "Comm bracelet. Open link. Need help press the button."
Will fingered the bracelet gingerly. At least it was better than being watched all the time, although for all he knew he could still be on permanent display.
"I'll have Foster bring you some dinner. Then get some sleep. We have a lot to do tomorrow. "
The footsteps receded. Clumsily, Will groped for the bed. Sinking down, his hand hit something hard. His case. He snapped the pressure locks and identified the silken folds of his short robe. With a certain amount of relief Will unsnapped the connections of the sensor net and slipped out of the unfamiliar tunic.
Deanna surveyed the captain's entrance into the turbolift with a worried gaze.
"Something wrong Counselor?" asked Jean-Luc, remembering how she'd looked in the transporter room after Will was gone.
"The crew is becoming restless." Deanna crossed her arms as she said it, pacing as best she could in the confines of the lift. At first she had thought the uneasiness was due to her concern about leaving Will, but the feelings were not hers alone. And the tensions had actually eased a bit with the docking at Alpha. They had returned in profusion, however, when the layover amounted solely to the length of time it took Will to beam down. "They want to know where we are going."
"So do I, Counselor. So do I."
The wide eyes fixed on his. She tried to sense if he was lying, obeying orders to cover up whatever was going on, but she received nothing from him but the concern and confusion present in them all.
"You don't know either."
"I'm afraid not."
She saw in his eyes then that it was true and said no more. When the lift stopped on the deck of officer's quarters, the captain ushered her out the door, laid a fatherly hand on her shoulder.
"Sleep well, Counselor."
"You too, Sir."
She doubted either of them would - for many reasons.
An hour later Deanna knew she had been right. She tossed restlessly, unable to shut out the disquiet of the crew. Even if she could have, there was still her own disquiet to deal with. Instinctively she reached for the one mind that would soothe hers but she couldn't sense him. She hadn't realized how much she'd come to rely on his presence - again. Her mind strained to feel the faintest tendril of thought - even the limited sense she'd been forced to adjust to of late - but it was no use. Each moment put more time and more space between them. A difficulty - but not an insurmountable one if she was relaxed. Now that seemed impossible. She tried to drift, let sleep take her. Sometimes if she allowed it, her subconscious could do what she couldn't will. Perhaps in dreams, their minds would meet.
For a long time Will, too, lay restless, jarred now - more than comforted - by the unfamiliarity of the station's stabilizers. When, finally, a fitful sleep took him, he tossed as he dreamed of the Enterprise.
The familiar grey corridor stretched interminably ahead of him. From the very start he had been running. Racing for the turbolift, his feet pounding on the deck floor, but the faster he ran the faster the lift sped away. Have to get to the bridge. They need me on the bridge. Red alert. They need me . . . He wheezed painfully, but the lift was very close now. His hand stretched toward the button and the doors slid open as if he were expected. A multitude of faces stared back at him from the lift's interior. Grim faces. Geordi, Worf, the Captain, Deanna. They all looked at him uncomprehendingly. He would have entered then, but someone blocked his path. A man whose grey eyes were the color of iced steel. They shown with an almost supernatural light.
"We won't need you this time Commander," said the man, speaking with a measured eloquence. "Why don't you take the next lift down? It goes to hell, too."
He lunged for the shutting doors, straining against their weight as Deanna cried his name. He struggled in vain.

Will shook off the sweat-covered sheets, wildly swinging hands groping for the wall. Where was he? Damn. Before he was even consciously aware of it, that learning which was deeper than thought took control. He breathed deeply, counting slowly, stopping his struggle. One . . . Two . . . Three. His heartbeat was still too rapid, but at least it was a manageable throbbing, not the runaway pounding of a few seconds before. Where was he? The question returned to conscious thought, and this time it was answerable.
It was not often the center's on-call physician was dredged bleary-eyed out of sleep.
"What is it?" Nyra scrubbed at her eyes, trying to sound at least vaguely alert.
"I'm not sure." The technician sounded almost apologetic as he fiddled with one of the twenty screens lit around him. "It was the new patient, Riker. I know the readings look fine now, but a minute ago they were all over the place."
Nyra peered at the glowing readouts. Not entirely fine. The pulse was still up a little.
"Let me see the record," yawned Nyra, leaning against the counter now that there didn't seem to be an emergency.
"How far back?"
"A couple minutes before you noted the changes."
Yet another of the myriad screens blinked to life. Nyra leaned over and ran her fingers over the glowing readouts. He was asleep. Pulse slow. Breathing deep. Certainly nothing abnormal about that. That he was sleeping at all was a good sign.
"Here," said the tech.
As if in response, the numbers jumped. Pulse up. Breathing shallow and quick. Then slowly the readings fell. Deep breaths this time. Very slow. The pulse was stubborn but eventually it too yielded.
"Nightmare," divined Nyra, relieved that it was nothing more serious.
"I thought so too, but those last readings were rather unusual."
"You not a practitioner of the meditative arts?" Nyra smiled. Good thing she was - she might still manage to get a full night's sleep.
Nightmare. Will divined that too. The work of a full moon, Alice Tolbert used to say. She blamed the moon for a multitude of ills and filled the Valdez children's heads full of strange lunar tales. His father said that centuries before they would have had the good sense to burn her as a witch. He would hear no talk of Will's excursions to her little, icy, metal shelter, but he never stopped them either. It came to him years later that his father held a somewhat grudging respect for Alice, and Will himself still half-believed some of her tales. Despite knowing better - or claiming too. She was the one who first warned him about the deserted wrecks of vessels. A superstition he should have heeded.
"A moon?"
Nyra wasn't sure she'd read the sign right. Some signs came up a lot in conversation at the center. Moon wasn't one of them.
"No moon."
She resisted as long as she could.

"Old wives' tale. On Earth, moons, full moons cause nightmares."
"Which you had last night."
"I almost hate to ask how you know."
"Your nightmare woke me up."
Deanna woke the next morning unsure of whether she'd managed to touch Will at all, and uncertain whether she should have tried. For all her effort she had nothing but a faint recollection of a nightmare, grey and terrifying. Not the dream she'd hoped to send - or receive. She rolled over on the bed, struggling to contain the wisps of memory before they disappeared altogether.
"Damn," she swore softly. Now she was going to worry. Good thing there were other more conventional means of contact. She could at least leave a message.
The computer, Nyra shortly learned, was the one thing her new charge needed no instruction on. He settled into the proscribed chair, resting his hands comfortably against the keyboard.
"It will take awhile to get used to it," conceded Nyra.
His large hands flew over the keys.
NO IT WON'T, read the screen.
"Are you not going to leave me anything to teach you?" chided the doctor, pleased. "Where did you learn to type?"
"Fine," she grumbled teasingly. "It's not like I had nothing else to do today. Any questions before I go?"
"Yes. Access to base library and all the other Center Terminals."
Nyra hesitated. Fleet net was supposedly off limits without supervision but she somehow knew that her denying that the terminal had access wouldn't keep a Starfleet trained officer from finding that it did.
She reached down and typed the instruction to list available options, then she lifted his hand to the nearby Braille pad.
"Be back after awhile. Have fun."
He ran his hands greedily over the list, happy to find something in this place he could relate to. The system was somewhat limited, but the basics were there.
FLEET NET, he instructed.
He wasn't sure what would happen next. The net had a voice-print log on.
RETINAL ACCESS, the computer replied in raised type.
Retinal access? Maybe he should have asked a few more questions. Damn it. He despised feeling helpless. His hand hovered over the call button on the bracelet but he couldn't bring himself to press it. There had to be a retinal viewer somewhere. Somewhere obvious. The terminal was specifically designed for people with just such difficulties as being unable to see where the retinal scanner was. Gingerly, he ran his fingers over the console.
Deanna's glance at the security agent caught his eye as she crossed the bridge. He'd taken over the command center and seemed quite pleased with his new toy. At least as far as she could tell from looking at him. What he truly felt was anybody's guess. "Including mine," she reminded herself angrily. She pointedly bypassed him and went straight to the ready room, quite aware of his eyes still studying the set of her back.
"Counselor," greeted the captain. "What can I do for you?"
For once, Deanna was in no mood for pleasantries.
"How long have communications been blocked?"
"What?" he asked, startled.
"I just tried to call Alpha Four."
The captain accessed the Fleet Net.
"Identify sender," intoned the familiar voice.
"Picard, Jean-Luc. U.S.S. Enterprise."
"Access denied," it returned politely.
The link shut down and the captain shot a look of barely restrained annoyance at the ready-room door as if he could see through the metal to the bridge and the figure occupying what should be his command chair.
"That's what it says to everyone," sighed Deanna.
"Computer," ordered the captain, sharply. "Scramble communications. Priority channel one zero alpha one."
"Priority channel unavailable."
"Override. Clearance Jean-Luc Picard, Captain. Access one zero zero zero alpha zero one."
"Override unavailable."
The captain rose angrily, brushed past her and headed for the bridge.
"What am I doing wrong?"
Will had finally pushed the call button. Someone would have come soon anyway, when the frustration pushed his blood pressure past the acceptable limits.
Nyra pressed at a few of the keys.
"I don't know, let me see if I can get a link."
She switched over to a voice-activated setting, so her hands would be free. They told Will nothing Fleet Comm hadn't told him already.
"I don't know," she finally conceded. "Maybe there is a problem with the net. We'll try again later. Evan wants to see you now.
The captain had made it no further than a few steps out of the ready room door before he stopped to stare at the viewscreen.
"What is that?"
Geordi tilted his head in response to his captain's question, scanning the forward screen from another angle. It didn't help. The two-dimensional viewscreen looked the same from every vantage point. He wondered if the madly brewing mass it revealed looked any more legible to the others.
"Shields up," snapped Jean-Luc. He moved past the agent and reclaimed his command chair.
No one noticed. All eyes were drawn to the viewscreen, to the striking tendrils of red and gold that seemed to reach deliberately for the ship. They brushed against the shields in a shower of sparks.
"Sensors are not responding," reported Worf.
"Navigation is down too, Sir."
The cacophony of dancing colors made Jean-Luc feel faintly ill. Deanna, too, looked paler than he'd ever seen her as she followed him out of the ready room. Even the icy security agent's eyes had widened.
"Mr. Data, any idea what that is?"
"It is an unknown electromagnetic disturbance of several magnitudes."
"Mr. LaForge?"
"I'm sorry Sir," replied the engineer. "It looks like a mess."
"A mess," repeated the captain, dishearteningly.
"Sorry," grimaced Geordi.
"He's moving better today," noted Evan, watching Will step into the room.
"Doesn't hurt that I'm leading him," countered Nyra. "I shouldn't have to do that." She placed Will's hand on the back of the chair next to the neurologist, unhappy that she should have to. "Style doesn't count if he runs into the walls."
Evan reached for the sensor transmitter, ignoring the reprimand. "Tell him I'm going to turn it off and replace it." The disconnection plunged Will into the old darkness and in response he reached out, suddenly missing even the small glimmers of insight the net provided.
"It must be telling him something," observed Nyra, taking the groping hand as Evan snapped another transmitter in place.
"Ask him if this is better."
Will reached out again, but this time his hand stopped barely short of her face. He traced her form, his hand hovering a few millimeters in front of her.
"I sense something. A presence."
She moved his hand over Evan's desk.
"Is there something here?"
Then she moved his palm to where it was inches from the nearest wall.
"Here?" she asked, facing him out into the center of the room.
"Well, it's better," she said to Evan.
An opinion the exacting neurologist took several hours to confirm.

"Better, but not nearly good enough," he conceded after performing a few dozen tests. The Alanten rendition of a frown creased his normally smooth forehead. "It doesn't work at distances greater than twelve meters and he's unable to distinguish at all between objects."
"We'll work on it again tomorrow," promised Nyra, seeing Will move restlessly against the seat. Humans did not have the patience of Evan's exacting species. "It's getting late."
Worf rolled ungracefully down the sloping incline to the bridge floor and came to rest heavily against the port side of the helm. He clamored to his feet with a growl and struggled back to his post. The others might have been amused, if they hadn't been trying to extricate themselves from various similar positions.
"It's bad enough," complained Geordi, grimacing at the viewscreen, "having to look at that all day without being thrown all over the bridge." His back ached with a thousand little bruises and the viewscreen's continued defiance of the VISOR irritated him.
The agent, however, had regained his calm, if not his command chair. Frustration welled in Deanna as she watched him. Whatever skills he possessed had left her as blind to his thoughts as Geordi was to the viewscreen. And yet there was something, somewhere. Tenuous and faint, it made the viewscreen and its barrage seem not entirely unknown.
The tall man moved slightly from his familiar near-frozen pose. He let out his breath softly.
"Something you'd care to contribute?" inquired Jean-Luc.
So far the agent had faced each day in their midst with a pointed resignation, but with the coming of the storm he could almost say the agent appeared expectant. Almost.
"Sir!" said Worf, in what for him could almost be taken as excitement. "The turbulence appears to be diminishing."
"Wonderful," said the captain. Perhaps now they would be able to gain control over their drifting ship which had been swept along like jetsam in the storm's path.
"Sensors are clearing."
Geordi brought even more good news. "Engines are back on line, Captain."
"Can you get a position reading?"
"Aye Sir," replied Data. "We are at 4837 by 3894 mark 4." The android's yellow eyes managed a competent look of surprise. "We are in the neutral zone."
"Reverse course," commanded the captain. After a second, he turned a curious glance at the agent.
"I thought you might countermand that order."
"Not at all. I have no desire for a Federation ship to be in the neutral zone."
Whether it was from his body language or his tone, Deanna didn't know, but she got the smallest of impressions he was lying.
For years Deanna had tried to convince Will that sleep was at his command if only he'd learn the secrets of biofeedback or at least use the stock of alpha hypno routines available from the library computer. None of them had ever worked. Not then, and certainly not here. Will rested a hand against the chronometer set in the bedside stand. 0033. He'd learned the station's time was set to that of Ceplar, the world which rotated below it - nine hours off ship standard. Maybe that was what was keeping him awake.

He laced his hands atop his chest and tried concentrating on the one thing that had even a chance of relaxing him enough to allow him to drift off. Ignoring the station's jolting, he thought of Shadow Lake and how it felt to lie on its bank, lulled by the song in the pines and the percussion of the water's ripples.
Somewhere during the melody, he fell asleep.
Alice Tolbert's warm shelter hut. There was always a fire, even when the Valdez days passed for summer. He watched it sleepily, feeling that particular childhood contentment with immobility.
"You listen to me William Riker."
He turned to look at her then. She looked as she always did. Fine, whalebone white hair grew long against her dark neck, and her skirt blazed, brightly loomed, just as her Aleut forebears wove their cloth.
"And listen well. There is more than is told in your father's books."
The wind blew then, hard and unexpected against the hut. Will sprang to his feet at its blustering, shaken by a sudden fear.
"There's a storm. You didn't tell me there would be a storm."
Alice looked at him. Calm in her ancient eyes. "I cannot tell you everything William. No one can tell you everything."
There was a blip from the nav panel and a worried report from the ensign watching it as the ship backed slowly away from the turbulence.
"Captain, sensors are now detecting a solid object at the center of the storm."
"What sort of object?"
"Unknown Sir. The readings are fluctuating."
Jean-Luc glanced toward the ready room where the agent was, undoubtedly, calling fleet headquarters.
"Get him back in here."
Worf complied and returned with the agent looking none too happy at the end of the Klingon's reach.
"Captain . . . I am sure this could have waited until I finished my conversation with Admiral Sexton."
"I believe we may have found what you were looking for."
Worf released his hold and the agent moved away from the Klingon, toward the viewscreen, as if moving closer would cause the image to clear further, apparently not caring that the simple movement did more to confirm their suspicions than anything he had done so far.
"Readings?" he asked.
"It is solid," reported the ensign, "but that's about all the sensors are telling us."
"Launch a probe."
"Aye Sir."
The launch left a darker wave of turbulence in the mass of flowing colors.
"Information coming in," reported Data. "It is a ship - Orion design."
The agent clapped his hands against the bridge railing.
"Lock phasers on its left nacelle strut. I want it disabled - not destroyed."

"Aye Sir," responded Worf. "Phasers locked on."
The brilliant beams cut through the storm unperturbed by the energy's swirling and left a line of jagged metal along the side of the Orion vessel. A second after they reached their target, a sensor indicator began a steady blinking.
"Sir!" reported the Klingon. "Sensors show an imminent overload in their engineering section. Antimatter containment is failing."
"Did we hit their engine core?" questioned the captain.
"Not unless they moved it," responded Geordi without a trace of humor.
"Our shields our still down," added Worf.
"Get us out of here ensign," instructed the captain. "Do it now."
This time the agent said nothing, watching as they all did the aft view of the dying storm as the Enterprise pulled away, and falling as they fell, when the first wave of the antimatter blast easily rocked four hundred tons of unshielded starship.
Deanna could see a hut on the side of the hill. A temporary metal structure that had overstayed its welcome, rusted and sagging under an overgrowth of summer vines. There was smoke from the chimney, an indication of habitation of some kind, and she was growing cold in the thin sunlight. She didn't remember walking the few remaining feet to the door, but now she was through it before she had a chance to knock. Inside there was a fire blazing warmly, and a woman and child. The woman was old, very old, her bright clothing oddly familiar. So was the child - a brown-haired boy asleep on a pile of Aleut blanks. Aleut? How had she known that? Will. The little boy woke at the name, stretching, but not seeming to notice her standing there. The woman saw her, though, her clear gaze penetrating the Starfleet uniform she wore. "I have told him what you know - that there is more than can be learned from his father's books. In time he will understand . . . in time." The fire that had burned so pleasingly was now blazing past the confines of the hearth. Acrid smoke filled her eyes and lungs . . .
The smoky haze almost obscured Jean-Luc as he bent over Deanna. If she didn't respond in another second he was going to carry her off the bridge himself.
"Captain," she managed through a fit of coughing.
"Can you walk?"
Deanna nodded and the captain pulled her to her feet, in a hurry to get both of them off the burning bridge. First, they had to fight the tide of emergency personnel that spilled from the lift. In a minute though they were deposited on a lower deck where they filled their lungs with deep swallows of filtered air and allowed Beverly Crusher to fuss over even the most minor of injuries.
The doctor frowned over the tricorder and made another pass with it over Deanna's seated form.
"Do you remember hitting your head?"
All the bridge crew were covered with minor bruises and Deanna had plenty on her arms and legs, but there was no sign of any injury that would cause the readings flashing on her tricorder screen.
"I don't think so."
"She was unconscious for a few seconds," volunteered the captain, casting a concerned look in the counselor's direction.

Beverly shook her head. "It's probably nothing. There's no sign of head trauma. You just seem to have an excess of delta waves."
"Delta waves?"
"Well, if you hadn't just been tossed around on the bridge I would swear you'd been asleep." She looked suspiciously at the readings. "Maybe it's that agent. Every time I run a tricorder anywhere near him it goes haywire."
The doctor put the instrument down.
"You two are OK. Just take it easy for a few hours until all that smoke gets out of your system." She fixed a cool eye on Jean-Luc. "That means you, too, Captain."
"Nightmares again?"
Will jerked to attention when he realized the person who took custody of his hand was Nyra. He did not want another lecture on the importance of looking alert. If raising his head would help. He wondered if he looked as tired as he felt, but then he must have.
"About the Enterprise?" the doctor's hand prodded.
"No. Not this time."
"Did you try the net again?"
"Several times - still down."
Nyra couldn't help but notice the set of his shoulders and the fresh lines around the unblinking eyes.
"I'll give you something tonight to help you sleep."
He rallied a little then, his hands taking on new animation.
"I don't know. Tonight I was planning to learn my way around the second floor."
"You didn't . . ." began Nyra, unsure whether to be pleased or upset with a patient who consistently refused to be taken care of.
"Amazing what you can do in six or seven hours."
"All right, would you like to give me the guided tour?"
"Evan . . ." Nyra leaned in the door of the neurologist's office, rousing him from one of his meditative poses. "You've got some friends with Fleet don't you?"
"A couple old classmates." He looked at her suspiciously. "Why?"
"Anyone who would know anything about the Enterprise?"
"Riker's ship?"
"Maybe, what do you need to know?"
"I'm rather curious about why no one can raise it."
Evan lifted his eyebrows.
"I'll see what I can do."
"Yes, Lieutenant, what can I do for you?" Despite the greeting, the captain continued to stare distractedly out the viewing port, watching Geordi's entrance in the port's reflection of the cabin.
"I thought we might take a walk, Sir."
The captain did turn at that.
"A walk?"
The offer seemed a bit out of character for his chief engineer who was more likely to simply walk up and express his opinion than cloak it with curious trappings.
"Yes Sir," Geordi swallowed nervously. "I know how fond you are of tea roses and I thought you would enjoy the competition at the arboretum."
"Ah . . . yes," agreed Jean-Luc wondering precisely what his chief engineer was up to. Whatever it was, the engineer needed a little practice at subterfuge. Or perhaps he needed a little practice at accepting other officers taking over what would have been Will Riker's job of keeping the captain informed. That commander's method of getting him alone and away from whomever was - apparently - listening would not have been so obvious. But, then, Will Riker was no engineer. "I'd very much enjoy seeing the tea roses."
"The arboretum," Geordi admitted a few minutes later over the bird songs filling the air, "is very difficult to eavesdrop on."
"Who did you think would hear us in my quarters?"
"Mr. KSP4197."
"The security agent. That's his code - KSP4197. It should be just what we need to access the fleet net."
"And say what?" questioned Jean-Luc, with an unusual bitterness. "I'm quite sure Starfleet already knows what he's doing."
"Not necessarily," said Geordi. His voice dropped as they passed a couple reclining on the grass.
His captain's took on a certain sharpness.
"Lieutenant, what do you know that you're not telling me?"
Surprisingly, the engineer's face revealed a somewhat embarrassed grin.
"I have a certain admiration for agents. If my sight had been normal . . . ," Geordi shook his head. "This one is probably on his own. Whatever he's doing, most of Fleet will think the less it knows the better."
The captain stopped beneath the fronds of a date palm.
"If you're talking about what I believe you're talking about, Epsilon Alpha was disbanded years ago."
"No not really," answered Geordi with a conviction that made Jean-Luc believe him.
"How do you know this?"
"I had some personal experience with the program," Geordi hesitated. "For a time my father was EpAl."
The colors revealed by Geordi's VISOR flowed and changed as the captain considered the information.
"How did you get his code?"
"All communications are prefixed by the agent's code. An agent will have his own transmitter, but he would use the ship's communication system if necessary. He won't have disabled it entirely; he will have left a way to access the net if he needs it."
"His code."
"Probably. Most agents like to keep things as simple as possible and that means one code."
"You still did not tell me how you know what that one code is."
Geordi's palm opened to reveal a tiny digital screen. "My father gave me a small souvenir when I shipped out. I never thought I'd have any use for it. It's a terrorist device, a kind of sensor, except the only thing it senses are agents' code communications. No one knew my father had it. He used it to look for other agents in the area. They were known for sending two out to do the same job and usually neither were informed. He said he gave it to me so I could check out my friends, but engineers don't have much to be paranoid about. I carried it around for years, never had any reason to use it before now.
Jean-Luc nodded, his voice lowering further. "I'm not so much interested in our contacting Fleet at the moment as I am in knowing what messages he is sending - and to whom."
Geordi nodded crisply. "It will tell us that, too."
"We have to find a way to contact Starfleet."
Beverly regarded the Klingon and his sudden determination with a touch of amusement. "How?"
The security officer did not move his eyes from the door of Ten-Forward, but his head swung from side to side in response to her question. The doctor turned to see what the counselor thought about the bridge officer's sudden interest in mutiny, but she, too, was staring off into the distance.
"Deanna," she said, but her name failed to rouse her. "Deanna," she repeated.
The deep brown eyes focused slowly.
"I have been trying to contact Will," she said in a low voice, sounding apologetic for not paying attention or for her attempt, or both.
"You can . . ." began Beverly.
"Read his mind," concluded Deanna. "When he's close . . . and he allows it."
"You mean all this time?" The doctor had always known the counselor and the commander had a certain bond, but she hadn't quite imagined this. No wonder Deanna had been so frustrated those days in sickbay.
"No," replied Deanna, the shade of regret in her voice confirming Beverly's thoughts. "Will is quite disciplined for a human, he learned very quickly how to limit access."
"Is it just Will?"
"You mean can I read you or Worf?"
The doctor hadn't ever considered that either.
"I was thinking more of the security agent."
Deanna twisted a lock of her ebony hair.
"It's just Will."
"Can you contact him?"
"I don't think so. Not directly anyway, not at this distance, but I sense his dreams and I believe he senses mine."
Worf had been following the conversation with interest, but he rolled his eyes at the counselor's last pronouncement and went back to guarding the lounge door with his gaze. The doctor looked somewhat surprised herself.
"Your dreams?"

"Are you listening?"
He had that faraway look again. Nyra reached without preamble and turned his face toward her.
"When did you sleep last?"
Will's cheek flushed beneath her hand. He'd been caught in the act.
"What's sleep?"
"Want to tell me about it?"
"About what?"
"The nightmares."
"How's this for you - Fleet never heard of it . . ."
"Heard of what?" asked Nyra warily.
"The Enterprise."
Nyra looking closely at Evan to see if he'd betray himself in some Alanten form of a joke.
"Well, not exactly," he continued, "they'll admit they've heard of it, but according to Comm it's docked for refit at Starbase Eleven."
"Maybe it is."
"Nyra, I've been to Starbase Eleven. They don't have dry-dock facilities."
The doctor raised an eyebrow.
"It's the truth. I swear it." Evan saluted her crisply and grinned, then he snapped to attention and marched to his own office. Nyra sank farther back in her chair and wondered what, if anything, she was going to tell Will Riker. She shouldn't have even allowed him to access the net in the first place.
"Will might know something about what's going on."
Evan was back. She should have known better than to ask him in the first place. The rehab was just a little too quiet for the neurologist's taste and this business of a missing starship seemed an attractive diversion.
"What Fleet wants to keep secret is their business."
"All right, but you wanted to know - and now you know." He still seemed unwilling to leave. "How's Will doing?"
Nyra shrugged.
"I gave him some Detanine and sent him off to bed."
"That's pretty strong stuff."
"I'm not even sure it will work. I've already tried every Somatic Inducer ever made. Nothing I've given him yet stops the nightmares."
"He has this recurring dream about his ship being taken over . . ."
"By whom?"
Nyra didn't notice that Evan didn't ask by what.

"By some human male with surreal grey eyes." Nyra shifted to study her colleague. "I suppose you're going to tell me what that means."
"Actually, I'd like to hear your interpretation."
"All right. I think the man with the grey eyes is a symbol for blindness and that Will feels he has endangered his ship by not being there to protect it."
"Better watch out doctor," chided the neurologist, "your background is showing."
"You've got a better interpretation?"
Evan pursed his lips as if coming to some decision, but Nyra suspected this was what he'd been wanting to tell her all along.
"Ever heard of Leathe Raylanten?"
"Should I have?"
"You? No."
"Ok, then who is he?"
"Make that 'what does he do' and I'll tell you the latest in Federation conspiracy theory and I'll throw in an explanation of why the Enterprise is undergoing refit at a nonexistent dry dock."
Despite Evan's animation, Nyra remained unimpressed.
"Your plot needs a bit of work."
The neurologist shrugged under her disbelief.
"Why don't you ask Riker, he's got to be up to his neck in Security Clearances."
"But I'm not - even if I believed all this, Riker wouldn't tell me anything."
"That's why you're a doctor and not a spy. It's not what he says, it will be what he doesn't say."
Nyra surveyed him with a mixture of annoyance and amusement.
"Which is precisely how all these stupid conspiracy theories begin. If silence speaks volumes then the universe is just teeming with secret information."
"Scoff if you will, but ask him what he knows - you'll see."
"Leathe Reylanten?"
Will crafted the letters carefully, but Nyra suspected it was more from exhaustion than caution. "What is it with you doctors? Do you all hold secret fantasies about Federation agents?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Beverly Crusher said the same thing. Right before she volunteered to almost get herself killed just to meet one."
"Then you know Leathe Reylanten."
Will shook his head. "There is no Leathe Reylanten."
"Then who did Beverly Crusher want to meet?"
That question seemed to surprise him.
"Do you know how I was injured?"
"You were exploring a possible Federation inductee when the natives turned hostile."
Will smiled unexpectedly.
"Your sec clear?"
"My what?"
"Security clearance level."
"What security clearance?"
Will tried to sort the confused sensor messages to determine if there was anyone else in the room. He thought there might be and there was no other way of knowing . . .
"Are we alone?"
Normally Nyra would have been worried that he couldn't tell something so simple but this conversation already seemed far from normal.
"No, but we can be in your quarters."
Will settled himself on the side of the bed, leaving the desk chair for Nyra. He fingered the bracelet thoughtfully.
"Bracelet hear?"
"Yes, but there's an auto setting used to test the readouts. On auto readings give perfectly normal life signs and no audio."
She pressed a series of buttons rendering the device mute, but Will remained silent for a long moment. She wondered if he thought he couldn't trust her. For all he knew she could still have half a dozen witnesses in the room or be broadcasting their conversation to the entire center. And no matter how silly she thought this was, Will seemed to take it seriously.
"Leathe Reylanten is supposedly the stock name agents give under questioning. Really it's a convenient figment of Fleet's imagination to give a name to those that turn up a little too publicly alive - or dead. We were sent on a Priority One rescue only to find we were retrieving an agent from a hands-off planet. The agent made it back to the Enterprise. Beverly, Data and I didn't - not immediately. I remember the mission briefing. After that . . . It's clear I was tortured, but I have no memory . They wouldn't tell me what was going on aboard the ship but I gathered the agent was still on board when they dropped me here. And now the Enterprise has gone missing."
"Fleet says it's dry docked."
"No dry dock at Eleven."
"So I hear."
After two days, Geordi LaForge knew he would never have made a good agent. His father's gift might have been designed to prevent paranoia, but at the moment it was having the opposite effect. Mostly Geordi wished the captain had taken it. Not that he doubted the captain's notion that the safest place it could be was the place it had always been, it was just that the thought of having it in his cabin made him jittery. And the little device's silence was only adding to it.

"Troubled much."
Nyra looked down at the small, blue creature, but that was all it said. It just stood there, grinning up at her, showing a mouthful of missing teeth. So much for the idea of getting Will out to a more normal setting. This looked to be going the way of all Evan's ideas. Your everyday, ordinary place he had said. She looked doubtfully about the bar and wondered exactly where the decor could be considered ordinary. He was right about it being friendly, though. Friendly indeed, as soon as they stepped through the door.
The small blue creature regarded her quizzically.
"Companion," he added as an explanation. "Troubled much."
"Rally," said a voice sharply.
The owner of the voice also owned a hand which yanked the little creature back. Nyra looked up in surprise from the bare spot that just a second ago had been filled with blue fur. She readjusted her gaze to take in the hand's human owner.
"Y'all will have to forgive him. I just taught him Standard." He kept a tight grip on the scuff of the creature's neck.
"What is he?" asked Nyra. The creature's deep eyes moved from Will and regarded the Mycelian doctor critically. Nyra's skin prickled.
The hand tightened on the blue fur. "Stop that!"
"What is he?" Nyra repeated, feeling the sensation diminish as the creature concentrated on bleating his complaints to the bar.
"A pet," said the human, a winning smile breaking out on his face. The smile widened as the creature bleated louder.
"A pet. A pet. A pet." Raucous laughter broke out behind Will, who stood oblivious to the joke. A jeweled Orion parrot launched itself from the wall and sailed over them, cackling crazily. Will's head jerked sharply at the motion and Nyra clasped his hand, surprised he didn't ask. "Bird."
"Pet not. Owner am I," retorted the stack of blue fur.
"Owner am I," corrected the human, releasing his grip. "Customer you are. Though not a paying one. Perhaps tab you are? Or, better, tab you pay?"
"Tab paid. Mind reader am I. Customers entertain."
"Customers enraged at mind reader you are. Customers attempt murder, break furniture."
From underneath the blue fur, a small hand stuck out, pointing at Nyra and Will.
"Customers are they. Reading perform I. Happiness to all."
"Great," said the human. He smiled proprietorially. "You two have a seat. I'll give you one on the house just for putting up with this."
"Table or bar?" asked Nyra.
"How about 'go'?" replied Will.
"Nope." She'd be damned if they were going to leave now. All this trouble surely had to be worth something. "Having trouble with the readings?"
"Is that what you call them now? Readings?"
"Can you sense anything?"
"Motion." Will pointed toward the bar's owner, following his movement with his hand.
"Now," said the man, leaning over the old-style wooden bar. "What can I get you, besides your mind read?"
Nyra was beginning to wonder exactly how much she trusted Evan. The human was smiling an all too familiar smile.
"What's the house specialty?"
"Kango's Tango."
"What's a Kango's Tango?"
"It's cool, sexy and sophisticated. Guaranteed to leave you dizzier than a rumba ever will."
The human looked disappointed.
"Not even a groan? We were awarded the worst-named drink in the quadrant trophy. Stripped 'Teleporter Fizz' of its title by our advertising slogan alone."
"Humor," said Nyra academically. The all-too-familiar smile faded.
"I at least thought your friend would get it. He's human isn't he?"
"He's also deaf."
"You're just trying to spare my feelings. Don't they read lips?"
"Usually, but he's also blind."
"Want the house specialty?"
"What is it?"
"Kango Tango. Guaranteed to leave you dizzier than a rumba ever will."
Will managed a somewhat weary hint of a smile.
"See," said Nyra. "He gets it. Whatever there is to get."
The human at the bar shook his head disparagingly.
"Two Tangos then, coming up."
"Evan has interesting taste in bars. You'd probably recognize the decor. Something old Earth and he's got all these parrots flying around."
"Yep. Big ones. All colors. And a lot of pictures of antique water vessels."
"Ships," corrected Will.
"If you say so," agreed Nyra. "But explain what this is . . . "
She pulled him along and snaked around the tables to the far wall.
"An obstacle course?"
Will was getting a little annoyed at the doctor's outing. So far he'd been dragged halfway across the space station and now he was being towed ungracefully through a maze of chairs. His expression changed, however, when she placed his hands on the old wooden ship's wheel. He caressed the wooden curve, spinning it lightly beneath his hands.
"The Mystic Farer."

The human had returned, blue drinks in hand.
"Out of Cape Fear," he continued, passing one of the cold glasses to Nyra. "Went down in a gale."
"A gale." Nyra firmly entrenched the shimmering glass in Will's hand.
"A storm."
"How long ago?" asked Nyra, suddenly chilled by the somber blue eyes that were focused somewhere else entirely.
The corner of the human's mouth quirked up. "Five hundred years. About as long as I've been in this place. Call me Ray - it's not my name, but this isn't my section of the galaxy either."
"That would make all three of us."
Nyra pulled Will toward the nearest booth and sank down across the table. She wasn't sure what surprised her more, the bar's owner pulling up a seat to join them, or the sudden reappearance of the blue mind-reader.
Damn. Will ran his hands across the tabletop until his searching fingers rediscovered where they'd left the drink. He felt hideously awkward, more so because Nyra's attention was clearly elsewhere. A taste of what was to come no doubt. There would not always be someone there to take his hand, no half-Betazoid counselor to sense his thoughts even vaguely. But then, Nyra's warm fingers closed on his, flying in translation, beginning - apparently - somewhere in the middle.
" . . . true, but legend has it that the ship was heading straight for the storm."
"Ah, that's why it's a legend." Ray's voice took on an eerie quality that Nyra could never hope to translate. "It is said that the captain ordered it turned into the gale. Preferring his ship go down than go to pirates."
"You believed that," wondered Nyra as they crossed the open court. It was beginning to crowd now with off-duty shoppers and shore-leavers out for an early dinner. "About the ship. You think that's its wheel?"
"If he says so."
"Here on Alpha Four." Nyra pressed her pass key against the reader, opening the back entrance to the rehab.
"That is all ships' wheels. Whether they've run aground or foundered at sea or imploded in cold space."
The doctor looked at him in surprise.
"I never took you for a romantic."
"I never took you sailing."
The captain's determined walk, as well as his greeting, was brought to an abrupt halt as he found himself striding into the middle of a life-size holo projection.
"Computer, stop program," commanded Deanna.
The two figures froze and Jean-Luc found himself staring into the wildly grinning face of Will Riker, his trombone slung casually in hand, and his grin directed at the hologram projection of Data, whose alto sax had been frozen in mid-note.
"He and Data were quite a pair that night," said Deanna.
"He and Data were always quite a pair."

Deanna switched off the holo projector.
"You came to tell me something."
"I thought you might like to go for a walk . . . in the arboretum."
Ray flashed a grin as she walked in and Nyra wondered what she dreaded more - the telepathic ball of blue fur or that grin. There was something so fragile about humans and that something made them all too compelling. Especially, she grimaced inwardly, since they all seem to know it.
She wasn't quite sure why she'd brought Will back either, except she sensed in some vague way he belonged here.
"Well hello," said Ray appreciatively, "you've come back for another of my specials. Or perhaps, there's something else I can do for you."
Nyra froze him with a look, then concentrated on directing Will to the bar. She noted with some satisfaction that the long fingers quested the brass railing and wooden bar top with interest.
"Well, in that case," said Ray, dryly, "what can I get you?"
"What do you want?" repeated Nyra.
"Can he make K'hecvt Punch?"
Ray leaned over interestedly. "What did he say?"
"He wants to know if you know how to make a K'hecvt Punch."
"Rum or V'erghzat?"
Nyra started to translate then stopped.
"Why don't you ask him yourself? That's why I've been trying to get him out, so I won't be the only one he talks to."
"I don't know . . ."
Nyra flipped a thin card at him.
"You do now." She straightened her tunic. "And I've got some shopping to do."
"I will be back."
"You're leaving me here?"
"I am sure anyone who knows to order Klingon punch can take care of himself for a little while. You've been in bars before."
"Not like this."
"Then this is a first. Tell the nice bartender if you want rum or V'erghzat."
"Nyra. Nyra."
"N-Y-R-A," said Ray aloud, his eyes darting between Will's irritably snapping fingers and the card Nyra had given him.
"Very good," said the doctor approvingly. "You two should get along nicely."
Her receding steps hammered their way up the barstool. Will closed his eyes in an attempt to quiet the wail of frustration that yearned to come out. He almost didn't respond to the tap on his wrist.

"Rum or V'erghzat?"
Will clasped the awkward fingers lightly, responding with his other hand.
"I appreciate the gesture," said Deanna, her hand resting against a nearby blossom, "but why did you think I needed a walk in the arboretum?"
Except that he had walked in to find her watching a holodisplay of Will Riker, her mind put in glumly. Not exactly the most stable behavior for a ship's counselor, to find her watching the holo of an old lover - who just happened to be the ship's first officer.
"According to Geordi, the arboretum is very difficult to eavesdrop on and I thought you needed to be caught up."
"Caught up."
"We have a device that is able to listen in on our friend's communications. Unfortunately, he has recently taken a turn toward the quiet."
"And I," regretted Deanna, "have been able to sense nothing from him."
"Then he is not human."
"We don't know that. I only know I receive no sense of him."
"And he plays havoc with Beverly's mediscanner."
The gravel path stopped a few feet ahead of them and they slowed, lingering under the last gazebo's arch.
"I am open to suggestions," offered the captain.
Deanna toyed with telling him of the dreams she'd shared with Will, then she remembered Worf's and the doctor's reactions and decided against it. Later, perhaps, when she had something more concrete to relay than a feeling of grey terror.
"I'm afraid I have none to give you."
"Then perhaps we should have another stroll in a day or so. I will let you know."
The captain nodded.
"Yes Sir."
"And Counselor," Jean-Luc said from the end of the gravel path. "Will is in the best of hands."
Don't worry, Deanna thought, translating her captain's unspoken command. Don't worry. Unfortunately, that was one order it would take more than her thinly stretched abilities to obey.
"Anything else?" The bartender's hands were calloused and short-fingered. There were awkward pauses between some of the letters as he searched the card for the proper sign and when the fingers did move they slipped too quickly, the letters bleeding into one another.
Will shook his head, no. Then reconsidered.
"Wait." He corrected himself. "W-A-I-T."
"What does she look like?"
"The doctor."
Ray regarded the fixed blue eyes.
"Quite attractive . . ." the hands hesitated, "For an ice queen."
That was not quite how Will had imagined her described.
"I am starting to realize just how much I miss."
"Too classy for me. All eyes. Huge moons of eyes."
There was a touch of a smile beneath the vacant gaze.
"You a poet?"
"Songwriter. Ignored by all the best musicians. How I became a bartender."
There were vibrations again on the floor. They sent chills up the legs of the barstool.
"You have customers," observed Will, letting the man off the hook of babysitting, but he seemed in no hurry.
"Not customers. Opposition of your ice queen."
Will would have known that a second later as their heady scent enveloped him.
"Ladies," bequeathed Ray as they settled provocatively on either side of Will, awaft in Trejunget musk.
"Ummmm," breathed one of the Orion girls as she ran her hand over the sensor net topping Will's tunic. "Charged."
Ray turned his attention to the other.
"How's trade?"
She shrugged noncommittally. "Xenopsych conference. Bit big-brained for me. If I wanted to discuss mating drives I would have stayed in school. Want to get me a bottle of Raclat V?
She stole a glance at Will and noted her colleague's generous embrace.
"Remember what I told you about free samples . . ."
"You never felt anything like this."
The Orion ran both her hands over Will's tunic, closing her eyes in ecstasy.
Her comrade's jade eyes flashed in disgust.
"Damned crystals. I told you to lay off that stuff." She turned to Ray. "You sell them to her?"
"This is a straight bar," said Ray as best he could through gritted teeth. He gnawed further on the top of the bottle of Raclat he was trying to open. "I'm not as young as I used to be and that's sensor net, probably gives off a little zap."
"Yeah, I know. That's how I know it's crystals. Look at her."
The girl's painted nails clawed at the shimmering threads and her skin chilled with small green bumps.
"Charged," she breathed again.
Ray put down the bottle and pulled the invasive hands away from the glittering net. The girl muttered something nasty and Orion, and staggered off the barstool.
"You want to do something about her?" Ray asked the other one.
"You want to get that bottle open," she shot back before grabbing her reeling partner by the arm. "Come on, meska, let's get you back to level flight."
Ray watched them stagger back to the decont booths. Gripped in his teeth again, the cap of the bottle loosened unexpectedly. Fizzing red droplets rained over the bar top.
He grabbed an absorbent sheet to wipe up the mess.
"Huh?" Leaning over the bar Ray could just see the top of a fuzzy blue head.
Ray stopped to listen. Music played constantly in the bar, either over the octo speakers or live off the stage. Usually he didn't notice that Sandar had turned off the speakers and gone live until several hours later. He told her once that if she'd bother coming in late a time or two, and let the canned system run out he might appreciate her more. The only thing it got him was the knowledge that puzzlement looked the same from three eyes as from two.
"When'd she come in?" asked Ray in an annoyed tone. It made the mind-reader blink.
"Music," repeated Rally.
"That's what I pay her for," concurred Ray. He looked back toward the decont unit, but the two Orions hadn't come out. Customers were starting to filter in now and the last thing he needed was a fight to break out - coming down from crystals was no picnic and the Orion might not be in the best of moods.
"Hears it," pressed Rally, rising on blue-nailed toes so the human could see his round eyes.
"I've got customers," said Ray, completely forgetting about anything else.
"Will," insisted the ball of blue fur.
Ray wiped up the remaining puddle of Orion beer and stacked glasses hurriedly. "Will what?"
"Will - Music hears."
Ray looked back toward the human.
"Music plays," clarified Rally.
Ray looked at him and blinked.
"He's a musician. Was a musician."
The blue head nodded. "Music hears."
"Now?" asked Ray.
"In mind knows," replied Rally cryptically.
The object of Rally's attentions was even more cryptic.
"You play."
"Play?" returned Will, straightening on the barstool.
"Music. You play?"
Will didn't even consider answering yes. "No. Why?"
"You're beating perfect time."
Will closed his fingers, stopping the rhythm.
"Come on." Footsteps vibrated away from him, then turned and came closer. A hand wrapped around Will's arm and suggested he get off the barstool. Several steps later it suggested he sit down again.
"Sit," ordered the bartender, parking Will's hands on the triple-stacked keyboard. Sandar looked on curiously. "Ostek keyboard. Played one?"
"Yes . . . No . . . Cannot." Will tried to get up but the firm hands held him down.
"Can." He pressed Will's thumb against one of the keys. "C."
C. Will pressed it again, feeling the slight shimmer under his hands. Too low. He reached an octave, pressing his fingers down in order, hearing the clear echo of the notes in his mind.
When he was young and there was only his father to talk with and those endless Valdez nights, he used to play almost constantly, closing his eyes so there was only the touch of the instrument and the sound of the notes. Piano, trombone, guitar - the instrument didn't matter. All that mattered was that they reverberated with a sense of order and completeness and - in an odd way - the excitement of rebellion.
Despite having allowed his wife to bestow on his only son what he considered a ridiculous middle name, his father was, at best, ambivalent to music. He preferred another order and rhythm - that of words. Logic. Debate. Kyle Riker had looked out to the stars and heard Payne and Surak and Ev'dion. Seen the future Bills of Rights and Treaties of Havenloss. It left little in common with a son who looked to the same stars and heard, no, felt astral symphonies. Even on the bridge of the Enterprise when there was a new world, new stars, a private harmony would begin, build, and he would stiffen, straining too hard against it. Now there was no need.
He was not sure when the other two hands joined him, but they were there now following his. Some counterpoint in perfect rhythm. The music that he alone heard crested and ebbed and his hands obeyed. The counterpoint died out, too, and an unfamiliar vibration filled the air.
"What was that?"
He had forgotten there was no one to read the whole signs. The gestures that were not quite a translation of strict Standard. In its own way it must have sufficed. Someone took his hands. Pressed them together - once, twice.
"Applause. You are quite good. Sandar wants to know where it is from."
Ray delivered his hand into a much smaller one that shook human-style, despite, he divined immediately, having a nonhuman number of fingers.
"Earth," spelled Will, "twentieth-century blues."
"She would like to learn more."
"I would like to hear more." The bass voice did not seem to belong to the bent form that sank down at the table in front of the stage. "Been a long time since I have been to St. Louis."
"Encore?" inquired Ray.
Will shook his head. The old man rose and took his hand. "If I knew you could play I'd bought you here myself. Better than wandering around the center all night."
The new hands seemed vaguely familiar and the spelling was quick, unlike the bartender's uneasy pace.
"You know him?" Ray's tone caused Rally's blue forehead to crease. The round eyes looked at him curiously.
"Work at the Rehab," replied the old man. He pushed Will over casually and sagged down on the keyboard's bench. "Worked there for years. Seen a lot of those doctors think they cured somebody, but I've never seen anyone cured by anything except themselves. Not that you can't help."
Withered fingers dug into his pocket and came up with three silvered disks. He closed Will's hand around them.
"Pass keys. I usually keep the night desk. Can't help you get out, but I will be happy to overlook any odd readings. Might even tune into a little music."

Will accepted the keys and was turning the warm pieces over in his fingers when a jolt knocked them from his hands. Had he been able, he would have muttered the same expletive as Ray.
Not that anyone would have heard it over the din of Orion curses.
"What happened?" Ray gritted his teeth and knotted his fist further into the fabric of the Orion's tunic. He considered himself lucky to have gotten that much of a hold on her.
"Guess the decont cycle hadn't finished," replied her co-worker, dragging herself off the floor.
"Did you strap her down?"
Long, painted nails were flicking a little closer to his face than he would have liked. In one quick move he let go of the tunic and made a grab at the flailing wrists.
He missed.
"Does it look like I strapped her down?"
Ray cursed and leapt after her as she made a rush for the door. One quick vault over the stage rail and he was in front her, blocking the exit. She hissed and jumped and landed nearly on top of Will.
"The gun!" Ray yelled above the general clamor that was threatening to evolve into more concrete arguments about how long it was going take to trash the place and just who should be involved in doing it. "Rally get the gun!"
No way was she going to be still for long.
Rally waddled unhurriedly behind the bar.
"I need it now Rally."
"Hurry not," murmured Rally, retrieving the tranquilizer short rifle Ray always kept under the lock box.
The bartender turned his attention back to the stage, expecting to see anything but the Orion in question standing calmly beside Will, her hands once more exploring the sensored tunic.
"Great," muttered Ray. He swiped the gun from the waddling alien. "He was my responsibility you know."
"Will fine," said Rally calmly. "Shoot now suggest. Net interested in . . . not forever."
Ray raised the gun, shaking his head. "I've got to get that decont unit checked."
"Shopping done?" inquired Ray skeptically, indicating Nyra's total lack of packages.
The bar had a few other patrons now, and the small blue creature leaned against one leg of Will's barstool.
"Shopping no," piped the pile of blue fur.
She ignored them both.
"You ready?"
Will slid his long legs to the ground. The blue creature wisely scurried away, but his large eyes fixed Will with a look of extreme interest.
"Wait," said Ray. He reached for Will's arm and, glancing at the card, signed something Nyra couldn't follow. Will could. He shook his head bemusedly, and at his feet, the blue creature's eyes widened pleasantly.
The Neutral Zone. The stars seemed thinner there. What was it Jeff Tarwater always called it? A kind of no-man's land in the biggest no-man's land of all.

Will shook off the thought and the trembling chill that accompanied it, taking comfort in the solidity of the desk beneath his hands. He felt a strange vulnerability suddenly, now that Nyra had left him in the small quarters he'd been given, as if he wasn't really alone. With an urge he did not consider irrational he wondered if the lights were on in the room. His mouth opened to tell the computer to turn them up, but he felt the familiar tightening of his throat muscles as they struggled to do the impossible.
That was when the vision came, strikingly clear in the darkness. . . if he was going to start having nightmares while he was awake . . . The bridge of the Hood came unbidden to his mind. Captain March looked at him expectantly. And Will could see himself staring at the screen like a green cadet, like he'd never seen this particular patch of stars before. He had though - somewhere. Something was missing. Part of his mind wondered grimly what it was he was looking for - this thing he couldn't put a name to, out in the middle of stars he barely recognized. Then he saw it, a small tremulous patch at the center of the screen.
"Romulan, uncloaking, Sir," he reported crisply, hearing himself only after he had said it.
The rest of the bridge crew turned to stare at him. Captain March's jaw slackened. From the odd angle he'd been provided Will could see the insignia on his own uniform. Two shiny gold dots. Surely he wasn't expected to give orders. The tremulous patch dissolved into a larger shaking of the viewscreen's stars.
"Shields up!" He snapped the order out as it became increasingly apparent that no one else was going to do anything. "Shields up!" He leaned over the ensign at Ops and raised the shields himself.
"What are we doing here?" asked the science officer weakly, as if she'd just woken to find herself on the bridge, staring down a Romulan warbird.
"We were ordered here," Will informed her through gritted teeth.
"Who . . . who ordered this?"
"Fleet," he snapped in irritation. Was he the only one who knew what was going on?
"Why," stammered the captain. "Why?"
Will blinked. Why indeed? He looked down at the Ops panel, at the shield indicator that should have been lit.
"I said shields up! They could fire any minute."
Still the ensign didn't move. Will lunged for the panel but it was too late. The ship rocked as the first blast hit it and the lights went out.
Will woke from the vision to find himself pounding on the manual light switch. With effort, he unclenched his fists and reached for the keyboard. His fingers slipped on the keys, leaving behind a film of sweat.
The lights, the computer responded patiently in raised type, are already on.
He was still there, slumped over the console, when Nyra found him. At first she thought she'd just let him sleep, even in this awkward position, but she didn't like the look on his face. Gently she reached to shake him.
"Someone is trying to contact you. Mentally.
Will nodded tiredly, yes.
"Your ship."
"The counselor is half Betazoid."
"Betazoids can't transmit across this distance. The only cases have been family members." A sudden thought dawned. "Lovers."
"We've come close to bonding."

Nyra nodded, unsure what else to do.
"Lie down," she instructed, going to the food vendor and overriding its protocols. With a few quick jabs it produced a hypo of nexadrol. She picked it up distastefully and checked the settings. It was a sedative she didn't approve of prescribing. Highly addictive but she'd never known it to fail and she couldn't allow the human to become further exhausted. Already he looked like a prime candidate for the rehab sickbay. She pressed the hypo against his neck, restraining the hands that tried to question.
"Close your eyes."
He resisted a while but the drug was too strong. His breathing steadied and slowed and Nyra released her hold, leaving him to dream.
Will wiped the blood out of his eyes and scrambled to his post almost before Josiah March could get a hand under his arm to help him.
"Easy Lieutenant," said the captain, a reassuring hand remaining on Will's shoulder. The captain's other hand found his comm badge. "Sickbay."
"Here Captain."
"We're taking a pretty bad beating up here. I think Mr. Riker needs medical attention."
"On our way."
"Really Sir," protested Will. "I'm fine."
"I don't need a second officer with a concussion, Mr. Riker."
"Yes Sir."
"The turbulence appears to be waning," reported the science officer.
"All the better," replied the captain, releasing his grip on Will's tunic. "Let's see if we can find out where we are."
Will squinted at the position indicator. For the past two days as the ship was swept along with the storm's tides, it had shown nothing but navigational impossibilities and now it steadfastly refused to come into focus. Maybe he did have a concussion after all.
Jeff Tarwater reached across the helm console.
"We're at 4582 by 3829 mark 6."
"That's the neutral zone," said Will, trying to force the numbers into focus.
"Verify that!" snapped the captain.
"Position verified," returned Commander Ataver.
The viewscreen snapped suddenly back on, the wild chromatic particles of the storm receding in the distance.
"Forward view," ordered March.
At his command, the angry swirls disappeared. Their aftereffects lingered though, throwing ghostly colors on the otherwise monochrome view.
Will thought that was what was causing the shimmering - or maybe it was a problem with his aching head. His ears were ringing faintly and shaking his head to clear them only made matters worse.
"What the hell is that?" Jeff Tarwater looked pointedly at the screen.

The shimmering grew.
"Sensors register it as an Orion freighter," reported Ataver in an uncertain voice.
The captain moved to stand between his two helm officers.
"Shields still up?" he asked with that deadly calm his bridge officers knew meant trouble.
If there was a reply Will never heard it. The shimmering coalesced into the unexpected shape of a Romulan cruiser and the shields crackled with the discharge from a full battery of disruptors. Then the bridge filled with an even more blinding light.
"Evasive!" shouted the captain as debris from the disintegrating Bird of Prey gouged at the shields. One smoldering piece battered its way to the hull, knocking out controls and reducing the helm station to a fiery burst.
From where he'd fallen, Jeff Tarwater managed to claw his way back to the console. His fingers blistered on the hot panel, but the ship sped obediently into warp.
March had knelt down long enough to check his unconscious second officer's pulse. He rose to survey his smoky bridge with a beleaguered smile. Beside him Commander Ataver frowned speculatively.
"Just my luck," said March, ignoring his always-too-serious first officer's expression. "I win my first encounter with Romulans without firing a shot and Mr. Riker decides to sleep through it."
Deanna woke with a start, barely able to restrain her desire to spring away from the bed, away from the swirling storm of the dream.
"Computer," she instructed hoarsely. "Access the logs of the Hood, beginning with the date of William Riker's posting. Search for any mention of a storm."
"There are twenty nine entries corresponding with your search parameter."
Deanna drew a deep breath, easing the steel bands that still seemed to be gripping her lungs. She wrapped the bed covers around her and tottered to the console.
"Start with the first."
The main lobby was large enough that the net's readings died to a mere trickle of information. Will stopped in its center, enjoying the relative quiet. Quiet enough for him to start as he became aware of a figure suddenly beside him.
"Easy son," said the night attendant, laying a hand against Will's arm. "I thought I gave you something better to do than haunt my lobby."
The attendant's extra pass keys were still in his tunic pocket and Will plucked them out, feeling them jingle in his palm. It wasn't that he hadn't considered it when he woke from the nightmare, shaking despite himself.
"Come on," instructed the attendant, pulling Will toward the rehab's back entrance. "What you need is time away from this place."
When he reached the door he pushed Will through it, turning him back to face the lock and pressing his hands against the cool metal. There was a round sensor and he forced Will's fingers to find it, then take a pass key and press against it. The door popped open with a decisive click and the old man let it wait, ignoring the wail of its small alarm.
"In about thirty steps there will be an intersection. Go to the right. Takes you to the main atrium. You'll know when you get there. Cross it. About twenty steps. Keep the sensor readings about equal on both sides and you should be fine. When you reach the wall, go right until you find a corner. Then turn. At the end of the corridor you'll find Kango Dogs."
"I don't think . . ." Will began, but the old man was quicker.
"Good," he signed before slipping back through the door, "it will be better that way."
The sensor net registered the changing position of the door as it slid shut and Will stood a long moment in front of it, thinking that anyone with any sense would not try to cross the Alpha Four space station blind, deaf, and with the flimsiest of directions.
He fingered the chronometer on the bracelet. 0100 - still a long way from what amounted to dawn even in the dark of space. He turned toward the empty corridor and allowed the sensor's readings to wash over him. At best the net allowed a few relatively safe steps, reading clearly only six or so feet around him. After that there was nothing but faint images, widely dispersed and highly unreliable in the blackness of a permanently moonless night.
A large portion of him wanted to do nothing more than return to the safety of his room, but there was something in him that had always chafed at retreat and it refused to be quieted even now. He reached for the right-hand wall, finding it closer than he would have thought. Its surface was patterned, not like the smoothness of the center's walls. He let the back of his hand ride along it and, feeling a bit like he did the first time he skipped class for a canoe ride across Shadow Lake, Will headed toward the station's center.
If he hadn't been to Four before, he might not have tried such a foolish stunt, but he remembered the center court was open, topped by one of the magnificent clear domes that dotted the station's surface. Easy enough to know he'd reached it when the sensations declined abruptly, almost ceasing in the uncluttered space. This was not the same as merely following the unbroken wall and the court wasn't completely empty. The blips of sensor images told him others were crossing it, too. Shore-leavers, probably, out for a night on the town.
The thought that perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all settled in his mind and refused to leave. The lack of sensor images made him all too aware of the pressing darkness and he might have turned back had another part of his mind not countered with the memory of the dark night he and Jeff Tarwater had spent on Tarses Four.
"Upperclassmen hate a coward, Will," Jeff had taunted and not without effect.
Will Riker's reputation for fearlessness was well earned even then and most of the time his careless disregard for his own safety was completely unconscious. It was no act he had to nurture - except on the rarest of occasions. That night on Tarses . . . and now.
"Upperclassmen hate a coward," he repeated to himself and he stepped, apparently with complete assurance, out into the blackness.
"Deanna, wait."
Beverly fell in step beside her, undeterred by the counselor's stride.
"Before you go to the captain . . ."
"I know you have doubts," retorted Deanna in a voice the doctor had seldom heard.
"And you have a great deal of frustration," countered the doctor. "Yours and ours."
The resolute stride never slowed.
"I am in contact with Will."
"All right. You're in contact with Will, but what you believe you are sensing are his dreams - tentatively informative at best. And you're relying on the dreams of a man who has been seriously injured only recently. I know you realize Will is in a very fragile mental state right now."
Deanna's dark eyes flashed with rare fire.
"You do not have to teach me about human psychology."
Beverly's tone softened further.
"Are you sure you can trust what he remembers?"
"The details - no. The overall emotions - yes. Will fears greatly for us. It's mixed up and highly symbolic and every bit as absurd as all human dreams - but underneath there is an unchanging fear." She looked into the worried blue eyes of the doctor who still considered Will to be her patient, despite the intervening light years. "It is true that at first I reached for him, but now he is the one who makes the contact. Should I ignore what he struggled to relay?"
"I didn't say that. I just wanted to remind you that Will is not from a naturally telepathic species. Any contact he is maintaining is costing him dearly."
"I know."
The doctor fell out of step, letting the counselor continue alone to the turbolift. She watched her friend's determined pace and decided against mentioning that she knew what it was costing her, too.
Ray looked with alarm toward the silent figure being jostled provocatively by a very drunk gunner from the docked Torlazian battle cruiser. The Torlazian ensign poked a long forefinger at Will's chest, telling him in no uncertain terms what he thought of anything that got in his way and well over seven feet of deeply furred mass took another menacing step toward the human.
It only took a second for Ray to slip from behind the bar and in front of the pointing finger. It seemed to take the Torlazian by surprise. He blinked blearily down at the bartender.
"I think you should know," said Ray, removing the claw from the front of his chest, "that I have called Station Security. If you don't want to be vid-calling your captain from the brig, I suggest you be moving on."
The ensign stared stupidly at him, rocking with a slight waver from side to side. He blew a lungful of hot, rummy breath on the bartender.
"Zdirelnf," he cursed, wavering toward the door.
Ray let out his own breath in a sigh of relief.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded when the front door closed off the last sight of the Torlazian and he could retrieve the doctor's card without having to keep an eye on the towering furball.
"Nice to see you, too," responded Will.
He was more shaken than he'd like to admit by the amount of concentration it had taken to get to the bar and he was still unsure exactly what he had run into at the door, except it had been large, hot, and undeniably menacing. If he hadn't been so disturbed by it all, he would have shaken off the two hands that attached themselves to his arm like he couldn't be trusted to make it the few remaining steps to the brass railing.
"Move over," Ray instructed the lone occupant of the bar's nearest side. From beneath a fringe of slender tentacles, one yellow eye surveyed the humans resentfully. Larger tentacles wove slowly across the floor, leaving a sticky mess behind them as the creature moved from the line of stools it had stretched across. Ray wiped off the nearest and offered it to Will.
"Glad you're here. I could do with a few more human faces. Those Torlazians are shedding all over the upholstery."

"Another drink," insisted the displaced octopus, a tentacle waving itself into Ray's view and tapping meaningfully on the empty glass.
"Coming up," replied the bartender. He poured the same for Will and placed the glass in his hand.
"What is it?" asked Will, gasping uncontrollably after the first sip of the spicy liquid.
"Azol Celebration Grog."
"What's in it?"
"Little this. Little that. Lot of Azol's answer to cayenne pepper."
"You have something cold?"
"Martian colony ale?"
Will nodded and to his relief was rewarded with a tall, cool glass of amber bubbles.
"So," asked the bartender, settling over the bar's top and signing in slow ponderous letters, "how did you end up here?"
"My bar. The station in general. Not born blind. My cousin was. She is far more graceful."
"Thanks," said Will.
"So what happened?"
"Specifically? I don't know. Generally? I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Ray nodded knowingly, but the effect went unnoticed.
"You see or hear at all?"
"Then you mean that Orion wench on stage has absolutely no effect on you?"
"What Orion?"
"Pity," said Ray. "You from Earth?"
"Florida," exchanged the bartender. "Hitched a ride on a Star Merchant ship when I was sixteen - never been back."
"Hitched. "
"OK. Stowed away."
"Starfleet Academy. Class of fifty-seven."
"Officer. Should have figured. No rebel you."
Will drank deeply from the glass of ale. "Maybe not," he admitted.
"What do you know about the Orion war?"
The captain looked a little surprised at the question, just as he had at her hurried entrance into his quarters.
"Catching up on your history Counselor?"
For her own part the counselor looked unusually harried as if she'd come straight out of one of Worf's d'ja sessions or a session of her own with Lieutenant Barkley.
"You could say that."
Jean-Luc rose and after a brief look out the viewing portal, shook his head.
"It wasn't so much a war with Orion as it was a fight with an Orion smuggling ring over travitium which was supposed, at the time, to be some kind of ultradilithium. The Federation only became involved because the Hood stumbled into it. Josiah March was commanding."
"And his second officer was one Lieutenant William Riker," said Deanna. "Right before the attack, the science department was going crazy trying to categorize a strange storm."
The captain began to grasp the reason for the counselor's question.
"Do we have access to the storm data?"
"Data's analyzing it now."
Jean-Luc studied Deanna's expression.
"Just out of curiosity, how did you think to look up old log records?"
"Will suggested it." Deanna clasped her hands behind her back, reporting as formally as she could. "Will and I - we can 'communicate'. I can sense what you call the 'irrational' side of humanity. In most humans I can recognize feelings and intent. With Will it has always gone further. Over short distances I can read some of his thoughts and even now I can sense his dreams."
Despite her precautions he still looked at her with raised eyebrows.
"Who's your ride back?"
The bar was all but deserted now. Even the octopus had dragged itself off the last stool and woven with decisive slowness toward the front door.
Will fingered his chronometer. Almost 0400.
"Last call," he presumed.
"Want another?" offered the bartender. "You're not flying."
Will toyed absently with his empty glass.
"No. I better go."
"That was my first question," muttered Ray. "Who's your ride?"
Will stepped off the barstool.
"I am. How much do I owe?"
"You are?"
"I walked. How much?"
"Walked from the rehab. . ."
Ray waved a hand in front of Will's face.
"You really blind?"
"But the net."
Will smiled.
"That's what the doctors keep saying."
The bartender frowned and looked around the bar.
The small alien emerged from one of the room's dustier corners where he'd gone to be out of the path of large and reckless Torlazian feet.
"Close it up," ordered Ray, throwing only a brief longing glance toward the Orion singer's dressing room. "I'm going to take Will here home."
"It's not necessary," protested his unwilling charge, when strong fingers clamped on Will's arm. "And," continued Will, struggling to free himself from the hold, "if I can't talk you out of it then I take your arm."
The captain had always accepted Deanna's abilities without question of whether they seemed reasonable to him or not. Now, though, as he watched the cabin door closing behind her, he felt a twinge of doubt.
Will Riker was light years away, in the antiseptic clutches of some rehabilitation specialist. Loyalty aside, he doubted the major concern on the commander's mind was the ship he could not know was in distress. Not when there was so much else for him to contend with.
Jean-Luc brought up the letter he'd been writing to Will's father for over a month. Not that he could send it even if he managed to get it finished, but it was the one thing that perplexed him as much as the agent. Almost easier to write following a death. Then there were patterns to follow. Comforting words to say. But Will, too, had "given his life in the performance of his duty," even if he still breathed. He had yet to find the words to acknowledge to Kyle Riker that his son would now never be what he'd desired. And it was no longer mere stubbornness on Will's part. It was impossible.
At the door's buzzing Jean-Luc switched off the screen, sending the letter back to the file it might never leave permanently. He straightened in his chair, in case it was the agent.
Instead it was Geordi who settled in the opposite seat.
"Yes Commander?"
Geordi glanced back at the door.
"I have that report you asked for."
Geordi opened his hand. In it, the little code-breaker flashed a rhythmic light.
"Ah yes," said the captain, taking the tiny mechanism.
A coded message scrolled across its screen. The engineer pressed a small button on its front and the message cleared.
Nyra looked up at the knock on her door, expecting it would be Evan. Instead it was Ray who flashed a smile at her. He looked curiously out of place, away from the bar.
"Can I help you?"
The human didn't answer, but he moved to one of the chairs set before the desk and sat, elbows resting uneasily on his knees. He leaned forward intently and the blue eyes took on that same somber look as they had when he spoke of the Mystic Farer.
"It's about Will."
"Yeah. You know that Altarian Corsekma . . . The little blue guy - the mind reader."
"Right." The blue eyes were arresting.
"Well, he really is a mind reader. That's why he causes so much trouble. He doesn't know how to lie. He reads your mind then just confronts you with it. Business has gone way down, but what am I supposed to do? He's an endangered species."
He looked at her expectantly, but if this was supposed to mean something to Nyra she didn't know what it was.
"What's this got to do with Will?"
"Rally. He can't stop talking about him. There's something about Will that Rally finds very disturbing."
She started to remark that Rally was not the only one, but thought better of it.
"Will was seriously injured." Nyra leaned back and steepled her fingers. "At this point in his recovery there are many unresolved feelings. He's struggling to accept a body that no longer functions like it should."
"There's something more," stated Ray flatly. "He says Will's thoughts are not his own."
Nyra shook her head.
"I don't understand."
"Neither do I, but Rally insists on seeing him again."
"I don't want to subject Will to too much, too fast. I only brought him to the bar to get him out to an environment that was a little less sheltered. I chose the bar precisely because it was only a little less sheltered. I don't want him stressed."
The gold curls bobbed. "Nobody ever called my bar sheltered."
"At three in the afternoon it is."
"Maybe," he conceded. "I do a lot of hiding there myself." The eyes darkened again. "Look, I jerk Rally around a lot, and the little guy is a pain in the ass, but he's never been wrong."
Nyra's gaze flicked away self-consciously.
"There is something isn't there?"
"There is something called doctor-patient confidentiality."
"I don't want to know his medical history," said Ray. He paused for a moment, regarding her intently. "Just tell me one thing and then I'll leave, do you know something about a man with grey eyes?"
At first she'd thought the drug-induced sleep had helped - he'd looked less drawn and tense, but this time he hadn't acknowledged her approach and he barely acknowledged her hand in his. The periods of withdrawal he experienced were becoming longer, deeper, and Nyra knew whatever was happening to him couldn't be fixed with the finest neurosedative.
From long experience she had known the world he sensed would shrink to those things he could touch and that could touch him, but she hadn't imagined that would include whatever link he had with the Betazoid on his ship. Nyra knew little about telepathic species except that neither he nor she was supposed to belong to one and she'd ignored the difference in this patient as long as she could. Longer than she possibly should have.

"Will," she tried again, holding his other hand tightly, willing to hurt him if that was what it took to bring him back from wherever he was. "Look at me."
The dull eyes turned toward her.
"Good. I want you to tell me about Deanna. Tell me what is happening."
"I know about the Hood."
The steel-set eyes didn't flinch, didn't show any sign the name meant anything to him.
"Interesting that you should be surprised I brought it up."
"It's another starship," the agent replied noncommittally, returning to the study of the data padd he was holding.
"You're quite good at this, aren't you?"
The man didn't bother looking up again.
"Captain, as usual, I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about."
"I'm talking about the message you sent to Sector 001. 'We have encountered a storm which in scope and manner closely resembles the phenomenon encountered by the Hood.' Shall I go on?"
His head still did not lift, but even at an angle Jean-Luc could see the agent's frown.
"It did not occur to me to sweep for rebel receivers. You wouldn't care to tell me which one of you has it . . . no I suppose not."
"The storm the Hood encountered was different."
The man swung to look this time, appraising the counselor.
"In what way?"
She stepped forward, meeting the challenge.
"It was shorter in length, more violent." She smiled a bit. "More purple."
"And where did you gather these tidbits?"
"You might say they came to me in a dream."
"A dream?" The skin around the cold eyes tightened. "I am afraid you will find I have little interest in the supernatural. However, as you were not on board the Hood, you had to have learned it somewhere."
"I learned it from someone who was there."
"And who might that be? There are no former Hood crew members serving on this vessel - with the exception of your injured first officer."
The captain looked up with a sudden realization.
"That is why you were in such a hurry to leave the planet. You wanted to leave Commander Riker behind."
The agent lowered the padd to the desk, fixing the officers with his metal-grey eyes.
"I wanted to leave for fear of missing this incredible light show. Ridding myself of a potentially troublesome bridge officer would have merely been a bonus."
Deanna stiffened noticeably.
"That troubles you, my dear? Then I fear you have just enough information to be bothersome, but not enough to comprehend the larger picture. I'm sure a decorated Starfleet officer such as the commander would have sacrificed himself unhesitatingly to save the lives of others - of many others."
Jean-Luc glanced sharply at the colors filtering again through the ready room portal. An entire line of storms, it seemed.
"In what way are the storms threatening? Whose lives are going to be lost?"
The agent was in no mood to answer any further questions.
"I have allowed you to drag me in here, Captain, and I have explained far more than I am required to - far more than I should have."
The officers, however, did not move.
"That is how you discovered the Romulan plot."
He lifted a single, elegant eyebrow.
"Romulans? But Counselor, even you should know your history. The Hood was attacked by Orions."
"No," said Deanna firmly, "not Orions."
There was a brief impression of surprise from the agent and the unguarded passing of a single word from his thoughts - Proteus. Deanna's lips mimed the name. In a second she might have said more aloud, but Geordi's warning disturbed the delicate balance that allowed the connection.
"Captain, we're getting awfully close to that storm."

"Proteus," murmured Deanna as she watched the storm gathering again through the portal.
"Proteus," signed Will.
Ray put down the bottle he was holding.
"Greek God of the sea," finished the bartender, drawn by the name. "Favorite of mine. First shape-shifter I ever met."
The look of dawning comprehension, so surprising on the normally blank face, turned to one of fear. Will sprang from his perch, toppling it in the process, moving too fast for the bartender's reaching hand. The stool hit the floor with a thud and that noise was followed by another - the slam of the door as Will fled into the station corridor.
Blind, Ray realized. Blind.
He took off after him in a run.
The commander wove an erratic path, spinning through collisions with afternoon strollers and potted palms. Ray pounded after him, throwing a hand out to catch him after he blundered his way into a cache of tables in a court cafe. Will was barreling through despite the protest of the headwaiter and the curses of the customers picking themselves up off the replicated brick floor, and it was here Ray managed to lock his grasp on Will's arm.
The reward for his concern was a fist in his face. A very lucky punch, he knew, but that didn't do anything to lessen the stream of blood flowing from his nose. He staggered up to lean against an overturned table and allowed himself a minute of gasping before trying again. From the sounds drifting from beyond the corridor's junction, he could tell Will had made it to the large domed area of the center court.
Brushing away the blood with the back of his hand, Ray set himself for another attempt at stopping the commander. Before, he mused with some irony and a delicate probing of his nose, Will got himself hurt.
As he rounded the corner, he realized he was too late.
"Don't!" he cried, struggling through the crowd that surrounded the commotion. Even the four security guards were not enough to hold the commander down and one of them had been in the process of leveling his phaser when Ray yelled.
"Cristoph, don't!"
The young guard hesitated and Ray thanked whatever Deity had chosen to look after him that it was one of his regulars. "Get Dr. Licen'b at the rehab. Get her now!"
Ray propelled himself into the fray. Trying to get Will's attention, get him still. He had no more effect than the three guards. They all hung on tenaciously, but Will moved with the force of frenzy, dragging them with him.
"What happened?"
A voice spoke out from the moving blur of the crowd and Ray fixed on it, not knowing, once he was able to focus, if he was happier to see the doctor or the hypo in her hand. At this moment he could care less if it was meant for him or Will as long as one of them would shortly be oblivious to the situation.
"You're going to have to sedate him," gasped the bartender, fighting to keep a grip on the sensored tunic as Will jabbed an elbow into his side. "He'll hurt himself."
If Nyra had any doubts that Will was not the one taking the worst of the beating, a brief look at the trail of wreckage caused her to slam the hypo home.
Ray caught the finally stilled form and eased it to the floor.
"What the hell happened?"
Despite her question, the doctor looked as if she knew quite clearly who was to blame and Ray flinched beneath her gaze.
"We were in the bar," he said as evenly as he could manage, "when suddenly he signs 'Proteus' and this other name. Then he ran - literally ran." Ray realized he was still panting and blood was dripping off his nose. He did his best to straighten, wincing in the process. "I was beginning to think I'd never catch him."
Nyra drew the restraints from the right side of the diagnostic couch and closed them around the human's wrist and ankle. From the other side of the sensored table Evan watched the proceedings with tightly drawn lips, but when she looked across at him he finished the job, strapping Will firmly to the padded surface.
Ray's eyes flashed at the sight. He would have risen except the feloid nurse tending his nose gripped five claws tightly on his shoulder, reducing his protest to a sharp-edged question.
"You're strapping him down?"
"You were right. He might injure himself," said Nyra, but her voice was tinged with regret and she brushed back the locks of hair falling across Will's forehead.
She regarded the bartender with a far less compassionate look.
"Tell me again what happened."
"He had a couple of drinks after you left. We talked but he didn't really seem in the mood for conversation. Then out of the blue he signed 'Proteus'."
"What is Proteus?"
"An old legend from Earth. Proteus was a sea god."
"You said he signed something else."
"A name, I think." Ray ran a hand through his golden hair. "Deanna?"
"The Betazoid," said Evan.
Nyra looked down at Will, quiet with her drug-induced peace.
"Wake him up."
The doctor took Will's hand, waiting as he stirred, his fingers convulsing around hers. He would have sat bolt upright had the cuffs on his wrists and legs not held him.
"Easy," she soothed. "What happened?"
Will struggled a moment against the restraints, damning his frail form, wishing he were Data. He would have settled for the android just being there. Data, at least, would understand what had happened. What needed to be done.
"Let me up," spelled Will, his hands straining against the cuffs.
"If you behave," bargained Nyra.
"I need your help."
It must have sufficed, the straps released and Will sat up, rubbing at the tender bands they had left on his wrists.
"Know anything about memory blocks?"
He seemed surprisingly calm now. Nyra looked toward Evan, but the neurologist merely shrugged.
"We'd need a telepath - a specialist before we could even know."
"You believe you were memory blocked?"
She looked for obvious signs of newly exposed neuro damage but his hands were steady, the signs precise.
"Deanna is in danger. The ship is in danger and I somehow sense I know why - if I could only remember."
Though, perhaps, there were other signs.
"You shouldn't be able to tell there is even a possibility of a memory block."
"Empathic contact with Deanna. I don't think they would have considered that."
Nyra frowned doubtfully. There was, however, no denying this was different from all the other experiences she'd had with humans.
Ray shrugged off the nurse irritably, his footsteps reverberating across the floor.
"Rally. He's tied into this somehow."
"Rally," repeated Nyra, frowning more.
"You want . . ." Ray suspected he looked as incredulous as Nyra had the previous day when Will asked about memory blocks.
"It was your idea," reminded the doctor.
He looked at Will again. There were dark circles under his eyes and he sat too quietly, his hands uncommonly still. In the past weeks, he had become used to the long fingers speeding, forcing him to recognize new words, new ways of speaking.
The bartender was not much of one to believe in the supernatural, but that blue ball of fur gave him the willies sometimes. Now a slight shiver grew and passed as he looked at Will, too. The long fingers clamped the bar rail tensely, turning white at the knuckles.
"He looks terrible."
Humans, thought Nyra, had a habit of making the most useless of comments. She looked deeply into the corners of the half-lit bar.
"Where's your mind reader?"
"He'll be back. Let me get you a drink."
"Then let me get Will a drink," Ray said, reaching for a handy bottle.
"No," said Nyra, sharply this time.
Will still clutched the brass rail, as if he needed its solidity to orient him in the darkness.
"Why not?"
From the looks of it, he could certainly use one.
"Alcohol diminishes telepathic capabilities."
Rally's native tongue was a guttural language, said in bleats and low moans. Even this utterance, which from the look on the blue face must be an exclamation of surprise, came out harshly.
"We need your help," said Nyra, turning on the barstool and bending down to face the wide eyes.
"Ectratk trosth." He turned his gaze to Ray. "Varc knact."
"I think," translated the bartender uncertainly, "he said 'turn the lights down.'"
The Corsekma had learned Standard much faster than he'd learned Corsekmian.
"Lights down," confirmed Rally. "Table sit."
He waddled to the nearest chair and laboriously climbed to the seat. Nyra followed, hand-in- hand with Will, who allowed himself to be steered to the next one.
"Lights down," repeated Rally.
"It'll be pitch," said Ray. He glided in between Will and the doctor, dropped three phospho balls on the table. "Satisfactory?"
"Satisfactory," returned the alien.
And he did look alien, after the bar lights went out and the only illumination was the phosphorous glow. It all looked distorted - the table, the walls, the rustling parrots that squawked their displeasure at the ill-timed darkness. Even the others' faces looked strange in the green-white light.
"What do we do?" asked Nyra, her mouth moving dark against her skin.
"Quiet!" ordered Rally. He continued without a pause. "There is a storm."
The light from the phosphorous dimmed and flickered.
Nyra had closed her eyes against the dim light's distortion, no longer able to abide the decidedly eerie glow. She opened them gradually, this time accepting the pale illumination. Across the table, the bartender's remained tightly pressed. His golden curls an aura around his head.
"The position reading . . ."
She turned sharply toward Will, as if he could be responsible for the unfinished statement, but it was Rally who spoke in deep, Earth-accented Standard.
"Listen to me . . . "
Will's voice? She couldn't take her eyes from his face, but he was motionless, lost to some other place.
"I don't care! The readings aren't right."
"Another one of your 'feelings'?" Jeff Tarwater grinned smugly. "I thought you'd have learned your lesson last night. Guess it takes more than a flying tricorder to put a dent in that thick skull of yours." There was a noticeable gleam in Jeff's eye. "Though she certainly tried."
Will shot him a glare and returned to contemplating the navigation panel. The remnants of the storm flickered like distant lightening on the forward screen. Will glared at it, too, but only for a second. He didn't want March catching him. The captain found his tendency to stare down the images on the viewscreen amusing and he had no qualms about sharing that amusement with the rest of the bridge crew.
Jeff noticed his expression.
"Why not run a diagnostic?"
"Not here," said Will tightly.
Jeff spread his hands toward the front screen. "It's just space."

Will mumbled a reply, his eyes never moving from the panel's readouts. Jeff Tarwater kept his own watch over them. He might kid Will Riker, but he was not one to deny that his friend had some kind of sixth sense about things.
Minutes later, Jeff was thankful they hadn't tried to run the diagnostic. If they had, they couldn't have moved the ship even at sublight to avoid the worst of the new wave of turbulence. With the warp drive still down from their last encounter, there was no chance to outrun it.
"Divert any extra power you can find to the shields," ordered March, gripping the bridge railing so he could remain standing. "And turn off all secondary systems." He took a look around his bucking bridge. "While you're at it," he muttered, "perhaps you should batten down the hatches."
Commander Ataver, whose world had never known a puddle - never mind a sea, scowled in confusion under high-arched brows. March grunted, always amused by his first officer's consternation at old Earth naval terms.
"Mr. Riker," the captain said gravely, "if we live through this we have got to take the commander sailing."
Will smiled briefly, but any reply he thought to make was cut off by the sensor indicator that blinked on Jeff's panel.
"Captain, there appears to be an object at the center of the storm."
"Unsure Sir," reported the science officer. "It seems to be partially cloaked."
"Evasive?" asked Will.
"Hold your position, Mr. Riker. See if you can get a lock on it."
The ship rocked from the barrage of energy waves accompanying the storm's return but Will clung to the console with fierce determination. Jeff Tarwater clung to his by a similar fingertip hold. Before them the stirring colors solidified into a shape familiar to any Academy student from a dozen battle simulations. None of them, however, had ever assumed they would find themselves nose-to- nose with an actual Romulan cruiser.
"Do we have shields?" asked March in that calm voice.
"Yes and no," replied Jeff, punching at his console. "They're cycling irregularly with the storm."
"Mr. Riker," instructed the captain, "we could use with some of your evasive maneuvers now."
"Yes Sir!"
The ship turned at sublight, but Will knew any maneuvers would be of little use - unless the Romulan ship was as affected by the storm as the Hood. Admittedly it had appeared to take no hostile action.
"Have we got a lock?"
"Still trying Sir. It's phasing in and out of the cloaking field. Wait, I've got it." Jeff looked with alarm at the blinking readouts. "We're being fired on!"
"Return fire!"
Jeff stabbed at the panel. "Firing full phasers."
It was the last thing he said. The front consoles burst into a shower of sparks and March watched his two lieutenants try to hang on through the damage.
Will fell away and lay unmoving on the deck floor. Jeff managed somehow to hold on, gripping the burning console, firing the phasers again. They hit the Romulan precisely as it phased into sight and the Bird of Prey disintegrated before his astonished eyes.
Will opened his own to the sight of the hundred shards that had previously been a Romulan warbird, the dying ship inadvertently turned into its own best weapon.
"Shields?" asked March in a low voice.
"They should cycle up with dispersal of this energy wave," reported Ataver. "One minute six seconds."
Will tried to rise, but the rocking bridge and the pain sent him back to the floor. Evasive maneuvers would do no good anyway. Lifting his head slightly he could see Jeff, his hands moving precisely across the console. On the screen, pinpoint phaser beams took out pieces of Romulan metal one by one. It was a losing battle and the first piece to slip by Jeff's aim hit the unprotected saucer section in a burst of flame. The whole of the bridge electrified, then was plunged into darkness. By that time, there was no one in any position to notice.
Slowly the bar came into focus and Nyra fixed her eyes on the dimming phosphorous glow that still lingered at the table's center. It took her a minute to be able to feel her own body, her hands still clasped with Will's and Ray's.
Rally's order went unheeded until the humans regained their senses. Ray was the first to stumble to his feet and he turned up the bar's imitation candles. They gave the place a primitive look - bathing it in their fiery flickering. Nyra moved stiffly in their light, before either her mind or body were really ready, in a hurry to make sure Will was unharmed. She tightened the grip on his hand, but he seemed not to notice.
His expression was slack and he did not respond to her touch. The red light flicked dully at his eyes. She wanted to shake him, do whatever was necessary to return him to this place, this time. Instead she tried a question.
"You fought the Romulans?"
Will's free hand pressed against the top of the table and Nyra released his other. She thought he was trying to stand, but the fingers curled against the synthesized wood, then relaxed.
"No. Orions. Camoza Six."
"Then why?"
"Another voice," said the small alien.
Nyra's lips pursed in concentration.
"The Betazoid?"
"Artificial," bleated Rally.
"Memory block," said Nyra, a bit stunned that it could be true. She looked toward the bartender. "How do we break it?"
"What is everling?"
Ray flashed her another of those smiles.
"I've been wondering that for years."
Will fingered the top of his glass of ale. He was sprawled in the corner booth, his legs spread across the bench more in an attempt to isolate himself than for the comfort it provided. He needed to be alone - to steady himself in the face of conflicting memories, to steady himself from the reliving of Jeff's death. The memory had reopened old wounds, reminded him of the thread of feeling stretched almost to the breaking point that still somehow bound him to Deanna.
There were footsteps on the floor, but Will didn't bother turning in their direction. Perhaps if he looked sufficiently unapproachable they would leave him in peace.
Ray and the doctor, however, had other ideas and no hesitancy about forcing him to follow them.
"I require privacy."
Everling, last name unknown to any but him and his true first name unpronounceable by human tongues, was more than half Vulcan. But however small the other blood that flowed through his veins was, it appeared to be more than responsible for his definitely non-Vulcan appearance for he hid the points of his ears under a scruffy mop of greying auburn hair, the slant of his eyebrows under a braided band.
For a certain sum and if the adventure were enticing enough, he would provide what generally could not be bought at any price - the mind skills of a Kohlinar adept whose vows remained untaken. In the end, he had told the bartender on a night when he had gotten the Vulcan equivalent of drunk, it wasn't that he lacked the technical know-how - it was that he lacked the desire. Or rather that he thought there should be desire to lack.
In non-chemically enhanced moments, he could be entirely dispassionate and he gazed on his potential client with the calm eye of a disconnected being.
"You can use the dressing room," offered Ray.
He tapped Will on the arm until he yielded an open palm.
"Meet Everling. He's here to read your mind."
It seemed to need no reply except a willingness to follow the hand tugging at his sleeve and Will allowed himself to be pulled to the dressing room.
"Alone," said Everling when the bartender seemed unwilling to leave.
"Will is blind and deaf," explained Ray.
Everling viewed him with stolid eyes.
"Yes," he said distantly. "I noted that."
"I should go," said the bartender, but he made no move.
Everling smiled at the wariness of the human. A benevolent, fatherly smile that seemed uncomfortable beneath the steady hazel eyes.
"No harm will come to him." He wrapped his own hand around the blind human's wrist. "Go."
Ray left.
Will found himself being led to a chair, seated there. Then fingers probed his cheeks and temples, settling at some point they found appropriate.
"Perhaps I should introduce myself. I am called Everling."
The human had allowed him to slip in easily, without the discomfort his entrance had caused other minds he had probed.
"Will," the human returned.
"Yes, I know."
Everling scanned the upper areas of his thoughts. The human's projected appearance. "First officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Son of Caroline and Kyle. A musician, a pilot and what humans call a gourmet cook."
He probed deeper, found the tiny thread and the emotions surrounding it hidden, in the human's symbolic imagery, behind a metal lattice gate. He slipped between the lattice strips into the area of the natural bond, observing it from a distance.
The link was strained, weakened by distance and years of conscious ignorance. It glowed only faintly as Everling approached it, stretching a hand to the pale light.
Beloved. Everling basked a moment in its warmth.
"It is good," he said to the human. "There should be desire."
He could stay here no longer, though, for this was not what he'd come to find. What he sought would lie deeper. In the realm of secrets, the realm of grief.
There was - first - pain. Such intense agony that the human had locked it away from himself, deep in this place. Even the Vulcan gasped at its touch and he felt a distant surprise that the human survived such torture with merely his fragile mental skills. But there was strength here, too. He had reached for the Betazoid - found her. Then realized too late what the connection would mean, that she would share in the pain. It had given him courage, doing what was necessary to break the link. Enabled him to face the torture and its aftermath.
This, also, was not why Everling was here.
Further down he passed other memories relegated to this pit. The human's not-self. Deepest there was another door, this one artificially forged with no mind key. Everling surveyed its heavy face, cracked by the empathic contact and the recent probing of the small mind-reader. Bits of remembrance flowed through the openings to fall distorted on the door's step. Everling touched the battered front and the metal disappeared with a brush of his hand. Grief met him. The death of one the human would have called a brother. Fear, too, as others pressed that memory behind the door. The grief that wanted to be mourned - not relieved. The self that would not be confined for the purpose of neatness - or self-protection.
The human was stronger than he looked. Everling released the memories with another touch of his hand, making a path through the pit. He walked toward the dim light of the human's self, checking that the path's boundaries were sturdy, leaving intact what the human had placed here. The black mass of pain crowded the entrance and Everling did push it aside, the thought of locking it away tempting him briefly. It would mean there would be no chance the human or the Betazed would accidentally release those memories. But Everling could not disturb that which had been put here naturally. Left unbarred, perhaps later to be found, to regain its place and the name of self. He would not attempt to judge what the human might one day find useful - even this.
The self named Will Riker came into shape before him, waiting at the edge of the place it did not go.
"Your path," said Everling.
The human appraised him for a moment.
"I do not know if Selar would approve."
The human's memories contained an image of the doctor. Beautiful, the human believed, in an unapproachable way. Calm and comforting in another. He paced around the mind image of the Vulcan that called himself Everling. Seeing for the first time in weeks and fascinated by the sight before him. He had never seen a Vulcan that could even be faintly described as "rumpled."
Everling permitted the examination, basking in the human's pleasure of the simple act which was now denied him.
"Do you see me, also?" asked Will.
"You wish to know what you look like." Everling sought and found the well of values and beliefs. "You are not a vain man."
"That bad?" grimaced the image in front of him.
"Was that humor?" asked Everling.

"To cover fear," revealed the human.
"Yes, I see you," said the Vulcan simply.
Another image sprang from the mind ether.
Will saw himself as Everling first saw him - slouched across the bar's bench. Given time he might have noticed the grain of the wood or the extreme shade of the drink he held in his hand. What he did notice in the time the image held was the clear blue of his tunic under the shimmering net. It matched the fixed irises that blanked expression from his face.
"You are not," reminded Everling, "a vain man." He gestured a hand. "Your path."
The image of the human raised its head in defiance of the picture it had just seen.
"Mine because it is owned or mine because it must be followed?"
"Both - though I meant neither. Go now. The block is removed."
"It is done."
The Vulcan's announcement caused the doctor to rise and head toward the dressing room. The grip of his hand stopped her progress.
"He should be given time alone."
Whatever words had been used to describe Mycelians - obedient was not among them. Nyra bristled at the soft order.
"I find humans a most remarkable species." Everling looked calmly down in the fiery eyes. "Capable of your species' passion and my species' restraint, and yet so often they choose the middle path. The 'safe' way they call it, though to you or I it would be the most dangerous. If you and I were to be fused do you think we then would have them? Or would passion or logic win out?"
"My mother told me never to engage a Vulcan in debate," replied the doctor with human humor.
"You have learned from them," noted the Vulcan. "I, as yet, have not been able to incorporate their teachings - or yours. Though on that point we would both have to admit a lacking. You have not learned from my species either."
He released her arm.
"Are you done?" asked Ray, unaware of the debate he was interrupting.
The Vulcan studied him with calm deliberation.
"I continue searching, but I am done here."
Nyra took the opportunity of his distraction to slip into the dressing room. Will sat in its center, a look of puzzlement not leaving his face even when he recognized her footsteps.
"You all right?"
"I was wondering how many captains I served under volunteered my memories for the good of the Federation."
"Do you know what happened?"
"We stumbled into the middle of a Romulan experiment in cloaking technology - something the Federation thought better left to their analysis than ours."

"And the Enterprise?"
Will paused, but the mind-touch had given him no better ability to reach Deanna's distant thoughts.
"They seem to be experiencing similar difficulties. I think we can assume that the agent we found on M491 was looking for Proteus."
"Second time I've heard that name."
"Project codename for the investigation into Romulan shape-shifting. Romulans disguised as Orion freighters."
"Or Federation starships," concluded Nyra. "Not the type of information they'd want getting out. I can see the need for a mind block."
Will seemed more uncertain.
"I didn't agree with that assessment then or now. What will the Enterprise see and to what lengths will they go to keep that a secret?" He set his face in the direction of the doctor. "And now it's not just the crew of a starship - it's you and me and Ray."
He looked exhausted - from the effort of remembering, from the steady diet of neuromodulators Nyra had been feeding him just to get him to this point.
"Come on," said the doctor. "Let's get out of here. You need some sleep."
Sleep. He had pushed it from his mind, refused any further medication in a battle he was now rapidly losing. Will paced the floor of his quarters in a last ditch attempt to keep the yearning at bay, for to sleep was to dream. And to dream was to restore the faint connection crossing light years to bind him to another not-so-solitary soul. If it hadn't been beyond his ability to control the messages that passed between them, he would have welcomed the link. Embraced it. But he feared what he knew would only increase her danger, the danger to the ship he still thought of as his.
When, finally, Will sank to the side of the small bed - thinking he would just rest a moment, close his eyes against the darkness - almost immediately he was asleep.
The Hood again - dark this time. Or was he merely doing as Nyra said he would - losing the ability even to dream visually? There was some light apparent to his lidded eyes. Dim and far away. He opened them further and realized he was in the ship's sickbay. Someone held his hand and Will returned the grasp, trying to focus. Deanna. She sat there impossibly, gripping his hand as if it alone held her in his dream.
"You must help me, Imzadi."
"Help?" whispered Will. He was too weak even to rise from the bed, but he drank in the sight of her. "How?"
"Proteus. You know what it is. What's happening to us."
Deanna's eyes locked intensely with his.
"Let it go Will," she implored. "Let it happen. We were wrong to deny it."
He was growing weaker still, as if Deanna had to draw on his strength to maintain her place, here where she never should have been.
"Ours is a natural bonding. In some way it will always be permanent and I cannot say that even across this distance this would not be a true joining. Perhaps it will only affect our dreams, but I cannot guarantee that will be all. But I must know what you saw, Will. I must know what you were not to reveal."
He was so tired now that he could barely stay with her. He did not entirely understand what Deanna was saying, except she said the words with such gravity that he would do anything to ease her burden.

Deanna placed a cool hand against his forehead.
"Close your eyes."
Deanna would not harm him and Will willingly surrendered himself. For hours afterward he lay in a deep, dreamless unconscious.
She was gone again - lost in that glassy stare. Jean-Luc felt his breath catch at the sight. For a moment he expected her to fall into his arms as she had before but she drew a shuddering breath, her eyes following action no one else could see. Except, he suspected, Will Riker.
The dark eyes settled unfocused on his.
"Take me somewhere," she whispered. "Please."
She stood at his urging but made no move to go forward until he gave her his arm.
Was she blind now? So much with Will Riker that she could not see either? Jean-Luc did not know, but he led her off the bridge, supported her as the turbolift sped downward.
Halfway through the hall to her quarters she clutched at him, sagging.
"He's dead."
The captain could feel the pounding of the blood in his temples.
"No . . . he had to watch him die again . . . couldn't help . . ."
What she said made no sense, but she seemed somehow calmer now. Her eyes found his. Before he could ask anything else, though, the man they called Reylanten found them both.
The agent released the firm grip he had clamped on the counselor's upper arm, when, despite the captain's protest, he had separated the two officers. He gestured toward the ready room couch but Deanna stayed where he'd released her. He left her there and took a moment to shuffle through the transparencies on the desk before beginning.
"Counselor, I have met many telepaths, many empaths in my time. To none of them has the merest word been accessible. It has been a point of pride to me - never to be read."
"Proteus," said Deanna.
He punched carelessly at the desk terminal.
"Proteus. Do you know what it means?"
"Its exact meaning, no. It is a code word. A key. The name of a project perhaps."
"It was once. Until three months ago it was a watchword."
"For what?"
"It reminded us of a dream of the Romulan technological elite - the ability for a whole ship to change shape, mimic say a Klingon vessel."
"Or an Orion freighter," deduced Deanna.
"Oh, the things Josiah March stumbled into."
"The Hood."
"But that you already know. My second point of curiosity - for you see Josiah March doesn't even know what he stumbled into."
"Will Riker does."
She knew he was merely allowing her to state the obvious.
"And he took a Betazoid as a lover - or had already. It should have shown up on our scans, you know, but Will Riker - and I remember him - did not much approve of his captain's acquiescence. He was rather distraught at the time over the death of the navigator and he seemed to find the whole thing rather threatening - I believe we had to sedate him. I suppose that he felt threatened enough to keep his empathic knowledge from us somehow. And we were in a bit of a hurry, no one probed very deeply."
"But the Romulan ship was destroyed. Proteus - or whatever the Romulans called it - was a failure."
"It did almost succeed in relieving us of one galaxy-class cruiser," he answered.
"And you think they're back."
"There was unusual activity near the neutral zone beginning in the fifth orbit of Remus, the time of the Romulan New Year when the stars are auspicious for new embarkings. Orion ships suddenly appearing far from their usual territory. We became suspicious - and then there was a report of a large storm and I knew it had begun again."
"On the basis of one storm and a few off-course Orion vessels."
"Enough proof that I was given this charming trinket to parade back and forth. An assignment I intend to finish. Please realize that I could take the code-breaker from you, and I mean 'you' in the plural sense because I know 'you' in particular are not the one who has it. If I were to look for it, it would be found. However, I have other ways to spend my time. I trust you've only set it to receive. Surely you realize if you call up Fleet headquarters and tell them Proteus is alive - or dead - you'll set into motion a rumor mill that will have federation starships firing at federation starships. The Romulans would have no need to cloak at all. They could just wander straight in and rent summer quarters on Earth's Pacific Rim. You understand, too, that we must capture one of those ships. Return with the solution if we're to acknowledge the problem past these walls."
There was something close to amazement in his eyes.
"And yet you don't believe me."
"I do not deny what we've experienced is close to what happened to the Hood, but there is some fundamental difference in Will Riker's dreams and what I saw on the bridge."
"William Riker is under the effect of the federation's finest mind block. I doubt at this point the commander's memories should be trusted, never mind his dreams."
"I agree that he cannot in all probability voice what took place on the Hood, but I trust what he 'feels' took place and I know that there is something wrong with what's happening now."
"And I cannot - short of sedating you - put a stop to this connection of yours. Do know, Counselor, that I will do even that if need be. For the moment, however, I want you to use it. I want you to tell your Commander Riker to keep this to himself. For your sake. Do you understand, Counselor?"
If the not-so-subtle threat had any impact, it was not revealed in the ebony eyes.
"It is not that simple. I cannot just 'relay' a message. The link between us is more blurred than that. Between us there are feelings, sensations, images - not words."
"I'm sure you'll do your best."
"I somehow thought I'd find you here."
Jean-Luc sank down on the bench beside the arboretum path and studied the counselor. She shook a little, from his concern.
"Mr. Reylanten wants me to 'send' a message to Will. He wants us to stop meddling in his affairs."
Deanna looked up at the arboretum's tranquil illusion of a late afternoon sky.
"In the hallway, you said someone was dead."
The captain's grey eyes were not as calming.
"Jeff Tarwater," she reported, trying to regain some feeling of formality. "He was the navigator on the Hood. I looked up his service record - he was killed in the battle at Camoza Six. Will never mentioned it."
"Should he?"
"It would be a little odd to forget the death of your best friend on the ship." She drew a hand to her temple, repeating the fragment of thought that had passed from Will's mind. "No one mourned him."
The captain's eyes grew puzzled.
"No one mourned him," she explained, "because no one remembered he died. No one on board remembered him being at Camoza Six at all."
"How do you forget the ship's navigator?"
"With quite a bit of help from the Federation Security Agency."
"A memory block? But why?"
"We were right, there was a Romulan cruiser - actually two - caught in the same storm as the Hood. The first disintegrated when it tried to fire, the second was hit by a battery of photon torpedoes, but the Hood's shields were down. One of the pieces of debris hit the bridge. Jeff Tarwater was killed. Will was still in sickbay when they came on board with their plan to make sure the Battle of Camoza Six went down as an Orion fight. Apparently he fought the memory block."
"Somewhat successfully," noted Jean-Luc.
"Telepathic or empathic contact with humans has a cumulative effect. The natural barriers lose their strength and Will always had a high psi rating. He was probably harder to control than most of the crew. I know they had to restrain him physically."
"Can you contact him again?"
The counselor shook her head. She had retreated to the quiet of the arboretum to try and reach him, but the link was already gone. Snapped under the strain. Each time she tried to touch his mind her thoughts bounced back at her.
"I can't sense him."
"I've been talking to my counselor."
One eyebrow raised itself in response.
"The session does not seem to have done much good," observed the agent, "for you are in my office once again when we agreed you would confine yourself to the running of this ship."

Jean-Luc's lips tightened momentarily.
"You believe there have been numerous instances where the Romulans tested their equipment."
The agent stiffened ever so slightly under the accusation.
"All right," he acquiesced. "Yes, we believe so."
"Because there were storms . . . storms like the one we're experiencing now."
"Yes," he said again.
"The storm was an illusion," ventured the captain.
"No. The storm was a by-product. The area of space surrounding the cloaking device was 'disturbed' somehow by the process. They were attempting to correct the difficulty and our intelligence leads us to believe they may have succeeded."
The captain gestured toward the viewing portal, the colors filtering through it.
"If so, then what is this?"
"That, Captain, is what we are attempting to find out. There is a small probability that the storm is naturally occurring - which might also be the point. If they can't rid themselves of the problem, then an alternative would be to make us unsure of which storm is related to an attack. If nothing else, it would waste valuable time and resources to speed to every turbulence on the neutral zone."
"If it is true that they have solved the problem then any ship would be suspect."
"Why, Captain, the light finally dawns." Jean-Luc shifted under the agent's amusement, but the grey eyes just as quickly turned cold. "That is why we must get one of those new devices. Dissect it. That is why we are here."
"Something about this doesn't make sense."
"I disagree," said Geordi, causing heads to turn in his direction, "nothing about this makes sense."
The senior officers sat glumly around the briefing room table, one chair left empty in what Deanna suspected was an unconscious homage to the one member missing from their decidedly informal gathering.
"Perhaps it would help if we'd start with what we know," said the captain. "Eight years ago Proteus was the codename for the Federation's investigation into a Romulan cloaking experiment. It involved at least two ships attempting to trick the crew of the Hood into believing they were Orion freighters. It failed, not because of the Hood's lack of credulity, but because the by-product of the cloak is a turbulent storm that disables all ships in its path - including the Romulans who inadvertently set it in motion."
"And now we are playing tag with a series of Orion freighters," added Geordi.
"We do not know that," put in Data. "What we are playing 'tag' with, if I understand the meaning correctly, is a series of storms. There has only been one sighting of an Orion ship."
"One Romulan ship," corrected Worf.
"We do not know that either," offered Data.
"But it is what the agent suspects," said the doctor.
"We do not really know that either," sighed Deanna, still distrusting anything the agent said. She wished Will were here. She could do with one of his tension-breaking remarks right now.
"Well we know there is a series of storms," concluded the captain. "If we start from there . . . Is there any chance they are naturally occurring?"
"I do not believe so," answered the android. He seemed the only one interested in the possibility. "Given that we know one of them was generated we can concluded all we have encountered were generated. Their energy outputs were virtually identical."
"Obviously headquarters agrees with you. They've sent fifteen extra ships to patrol the neutral zone - at least the portions of it not being judiciously guarded by ourselves."
The officers sank into a grim silence.
"What if it's not practice for an invasion fleet?" asked Beverly. "Sometimes, in medicine, you'll come across a patient that has classic symptoms all of which point to only one thing - say Olviren Syndrome, but when you run a blood work-up your patient has no signs of the disease. This has all been about illusions - why shouldn't we consider the biggest illusion of all - that those aren't Romulan ships."
"You mean if it reads like an Orion ship," offered Geordi, "maybe that's because it is an Orion ship."
"Why not?"
Will woke in the late afternoon and laid still atop the small bed, letting the station's peculiar vibrations lull him toward the hazy state where it seemed he could sense Deanna. How many times he'd done this was something he tried not to think about. He'd never mentioned to her that he had lain on the beds of five starships and closed his eyes in an attempt to grasp the tiniest thread of contact and he refrained from mentioning it to himself now.
Will opened his eyes and pressed his palms against the bed's cover. The vibrations seeped through him. His heart pounded a steady rhythm in his fingertips and he felt calmer than he had in ages, even with the darkness.
She had been in his dream, beside his bed, and he reached out now even though it was impossible for her to be there.
The hand that caught his was small and strong, but without the tingling of Deanna's touch.
Will swung his feet to the floor and rubbed a hand across his face before attempting to reply to the doctor's question.
"You tell me."
"You slept for nearly twenty hours."
Deanna had realized the link she'd unknowingly forged with Will was detrimental to her ability to read others from that day at Far Point Station when she'd called after him, begging him not to go into the old city. The embarrassment and anger she'd received silently in return had blotted out the feelings of all the others around her. An incident she should have reported to the captain, but she refused to admit that a man she hadn't seen in years could have such a profound effect on her. Until M491 she hadn't allowed herself to realize the depth of their natural linkage. Now, with that bond severed everything seemed more intense. With the exception of the agent and Data she could sense everyone on this vessel. And, she realized as she entered the bridge, everyone on the other . . .
Will surveyed what he knew was the base's center court, to the sensors it appeared little different from the hallway he had just stepped out of and he observed the consistency of the readings with equanimity. The silence, too, he had begun to accept and he missed only vaguely the splash of the water as he passed the open fountain. Its spraying ruffled the air and cool currents swept against his face and hands. Not that it could exactly be called "watching" the fountain, but Will stood a minute, letting the currents wash against him.
By now he suspected he was a familiar sight in the court. And this was another sleepless night - this one brought on by a too sleep-filled day. At least it put a little energy into his steps as he turned his back to the fountain's flow and headed for the short, dead-end corridor.
Deanna snapped her head toward the agent as she said it, then to the viewscreen.
"Beverly was right. There are no Romulans. There never were."
The captain turned to the agent, with his own burst of insight.
"The Orions are using the Proteus legend to keep the border patrols where they want them to be."
"No," denied the agent. "They are there."
"Ensign." The captain addressed the helmsman with the expectation of being obeyed. "Take us into the storm - slowly."
The agent clamped his mouth firmly shut, but he let the ship move forward until it rocked in the turbulent waves, the half-blind sensors registering ghosts. And meters ahead of them - an Orion cruiser. Worf slammed his hands at the weapons' console as if the pounding could make the sensor images steady.
The shields were already being drained again by the storm and the lieutenant read the falling strength with a grim flourish.
"I want that ship in one piece," said the captain.
Worf stared unblinking at the sensor images.
"I believe their shields are down. We should limit our firing accordingly."
The agent moved to the Klingon's console.
"If, as you say, it is Orion, there is an easier way."
He compiled a complex encryption, sent it echoing through the turbulence.
"Power and life support have been disrupted," reported Worf. "Secondary systems are off- line."
"See if they'll accept our hail."
There was no reply.
"Check for power readings," the agent instructed Worf. "If you find any, lock on and beam whatever is causing them out into space - as far as you can."
"Checking," replied the Klingon. "There is a reading of 200 megajoules. Near the engineering section."
"I will do it."
The slender hands danced across the controls, stopping only momentarily as the bright light of a malium explosion flashed across the bridge screen.
"Crude but effective," he murmured, a note of defeat apparent in his voice. "Not very ingenious for a race as clever as the Orions." There were no further energy readings. "Perhaps, Captain, they'll take your hail now. Even Orions don't care to suffocate in the cold of space."
Ray stretched himself over the bar and watched his patrons with a practiced eye. The night's crowd looked orderly enough but he'd learned the hard way that the most innocuous glance between a Maldobian and a Ferengi or an Orion and a Z'tken could lead to a week's take in shattered glass and splintered chairs. Amazing that both he and the bar were still viable after eight years of breaking up fights between creatures that overreached him in all but IQ.
The front door swung open on its antique hinges and Ray shifted to get a better view of whoever was about to join the crowd.
The path to the bar was clear and Ray let the commander find his own way to its side. He was there, though, as soon as the hands slid smoothly across its glossy top, pushing an unrequested drink toward them. Will examined the cool cup, his fingers recoiling at the large orchid perched on its side.
"What is that?"
Ray replanted the glass in the reluctant hand.
"Latest triumph."
"You said that last week."
"Triumph's early stage," clarified Ray. "Try it."
Will took a small sip, not grimacing at this version, but not smiling either.
"What color is it?"
"That makes a difference?"
"I have been drinking these things for weeks. I want to know what color it is."
"That surprises you?"
"It tastes pink. I never did like pink."
It was as animated as Ray had ever seen him, away from the keyboard.
"I take it Nyra's latest narcotic cocktail was more successful."
The bantering stopped abruptly.
"She said I slugged you."
"Lucky punch."
"I don't remember much of what happened that night. What happened for the past few days . . . Everling . . ."
"Unusual individual."
"Full Vulcan?"
"As far as I know. Met him a Npande's Moon."
"Npande's . . . what were you doing there?"
"Selling celestial harmony in a hypospray. Star crystals - which you probably never tried, Class of Fifty-seven."
"What was he doing there?"
"Looking for desire. You can't help but want to know a Vulcan who is looking for desire. Particularly if the crystals aren't doing what they used to. Traveled with him for a while. One day we docked here. I won this bankrupt pet store in a poker game and what was I going to do with a pet store? Everling spotted me a few pieces of latinum and I turned it into a bar. That was eight years ago. By the way, he said to tell you that you should not have let him in so easily. He said you would understand."
Will shifted on the barstool and offered Ray a bit of advice.
"Empathic contact - humans should avoid it."
"No one offered it to me."
"Gives you eyes in the back of your head. Gives you nightmares."
"Gives you insomnia," put in the bartender.
Will grimaced.
"Only thing that gives that to me," continued Ray, "is women."
"Love," surmised Will.
"No, not love. Women."
Will toyed with the waxy orchid.
"Blonde or brunette?"
"The one you're in love with - blonde or brunette?"
Imzadi. The link must have collapsed while he slept and no matter how hard he strained, not the faintest tendril of feeling was there for him to grab onto. Her calmness remained, though, bedrock in its belief that they would be together again. But then they'd made a habit of never saying goodbye.
"What makes you think I'm in love?"
"Blonde or brunette?"
"So what's she want with you?"
"She can read my mind."
"And she finds that appealing?"
Will took another sip of the drink, then pushed it away.
"You have a point."
"The other night," divined Ray, "it was her."
"I can read her mind too - sometimes."
Ray took the hardly touched cup, sipped it himself.
"A very frightening thought - to read a woman's mind."
The Orion captain eyed his saviors coldly.
"We can beam your personnel aboard our vessel," repeated Jean-Luc.
The massive green head nodded slowly.
"Those that desire to will congregate in our cargo bay."
"Fine, we can continue our conversation once you have beamed over."
"I do not plan to desert my ship Captain." He seemed to move in slow motion. "You may have my vessel, but you will not have me."
The Orion slumped forward. He was replaced on the viewscreen by another, perhaps the first officer. He laid a hand on his captain's shoulder.
"Federation ship. You may begin beaming."
Ray handed Rally the towel he normally kept slung over his left shoulder, a symbolic gesture in the rite of turning over the bar to his and Sandar's watch.
"Come on," he instructed Will, shedding his apron as well, "we're going to see the competition."
"You didn't think I ran the wildest place on the base did you?"
Up until then, Will hadn't considered what other places he might be walking past on his treks to the back-end corridor. It all seemed just a hallway, its air swept clean of any clues by the station ventilation system. The central corridor, however, was not where they were headed when Ray pressed his code into the environmental accessway panel. The smaller hall was damp and smelled of rusting metal.
"Handle a Jefferies tube?"
"Where are we going?" demanded Will, refusing to answer the question and looking to Ray very much like a perturbed Starfleet officer. Nyra's narcotics must have taken a Copernican shift. He placed one of Will's hands on the nearest tube rung.
"Down," he explained, swinging on one of the lower ones so he could guide Will's steps.
When they emerged thirty feet later, it was into the glow of phospho torches that did little to disperse the dampness.
"This way," said Ray, latching Will onto his arm. Ahead of them the corridor turned smoky. "How does rula affect you?"
Ray stopped short of the musky cloud.
"Class of fifty-seven. I forgot. Drunk some. Maybe a little Nuliaj nectar for the more romantic moments, but none of these mind bending substances from the outer zones."
He had accepted Will with surprising ease, treated him the same way he treated all the displaced and unusual that inevitably ended up in a station bar. Now, though, he had his doubts. Not only was Will ill-equipped to be dragged down station access tubes, he seemed somehow lost even at the end of Ray's grip.
"If you would rather go back . . ."
"What," returned Will, "and have you call me Class of Fifty-seven for the rest of my stay?"
In a couple of steps, they disappeared into the murky haze.
How they first started gathering in the substructure of the station was now lost in the obscurity of Alpha Four legend and Ray had never learned if the eclectic collection of chairs, tables and alien liquor ever had a name other than the one it went by now - "Down." Over the years it had gained a holosuite, courtesy of a rare unwary Ferengi merchant and a collection of holotapes from half the ships on registry. In it you could ride down the rapids of a hundred worlds, taste the more exotic thrills of the pleasure planets or contemplate under the shade of the rock where Surak constructed the plan to bring his world to logic. The last was a gift from Everling, who greeted the pair of humans straggling through the door with raised eyebrows.

"First time," explained Ray at the Vulcan's expression. The narcotic smoke had no effect on Vulcan physiology, but it had a relaxing power over humans - particularly on their first exposure. Will swayed under Ray's unsteady grip and the Vulcan eased him into a seat.
"Jhomet," he ordered, taking the capsule from the waitress and snapping it in two. The acrid scent jerked Will to awareness. Everling offered the remains to Ray, but the human waved him off.
"I'm no virgin."
The Vulcan shrugged, his attention returning to Will. Without asking, he reached a hand to Will's face, planting his fingers at the plexus sites.
"Yet again you let me in too easily. The empath has done much damage."
In more ways than he first realized. He found the broken thread, the accompanying pain, and he reached for the ragged ending, wrapping it in a link of his own.
"I sense she is safe."
It was not logical that he should sense anything at all, but the human seemed to need some reassurance and he seemed to know what that reassurance was. Through it all, the human had said nothing. Now he contributed not words, but a picture. A recreation of one of the most beautiful women Everling had ever seen. It was not her face or figure, but her gaze. Those dark, expressive eyes. It was partly the rula which had the effect of dampening all but the visual in humans, and partly the effect of the Vulcan's link that allowed him to access sight. At least the internal kind.
"I've always known one day I would leave once too often."
The Vulcan allowed the thought to swirl around him. Regret, he recognized. He pressed through to older memories. A park and a Betazed moon.
"She is in love with you."
"She was," admitted Will, "now it is more complicated. We change, grow apart. I leave."
"You allow the link," observed the Vulcan. "You feel pain now that it is gone."
There was a burst of emotion in the meld.
"I will not burden her."
"No. You will save her. And she, you. It is the way of you humans. In your myths, your tales."
The human, inexplicably, laughed.
"You are a romantic," he observed.
"No, an observer. Humans are the romantics. I will show you."
Will understood somehow that Everling meant him to rise and he swayed only the slightest amount in the haze. Ray cast a concerned look from across the bar, his hands frozen in the middle of some mariner's tale. The story resumed when he saw that the person in possession of Will's arm was the Vulcan.
Their short walk brought the opening of a door and a refreshing warmth. Will found his steps suddenly beginning to sink into the floor and he bent down, retrieving a handful of warm grains. Sand.
"Where are we?"
"Home," replied Everling. "Someone's home. This is only one of many. They are hot or wet or subarctic, but they have one thing in common. Ferengi's bring Orion dancing girls, Klingons bring battles, but the humans bring 'home.' The romantic species is yours." Everling punched up the tape listing from the door's arch. "There are Mediterranean beaches, Mars colony domes, Moon rover paths."

"Alaska?" asked Will.
"My home."
He searched the list.
"There is an Alaska."
The sand disappeared from beneath Will's feet, replaced by the hard pack of a tundra floor. Summer from the scent in the air. This time Will's searching hand brushed against soft petals. The illusory sun rained warmth on his face and Will closed his eyes as he would have years ago. It almost succeeded in making him forget that the darkness would remain when he opened them.
Will's reverie was shattered by the opening of the suite door. It sent an unexpected rattle through the Alaskan earth.
"There's a bit of a problem outside," reported Ray. "Down" was community property, but Everling was the closest thing it had to a manager.
"Problem," repeated the Vulcan.
"Security," said Ray with barely concealed disgust, "they're looking for some escaped prisoner and they don't like locked doors and illegal holosuites."
"Then show the officers in," concluded Everling.
The two security officers blinked from the transition to afternoon sunlight. One of them, a human, grinned at the familiar scene. More fodder for the Vulcan's ruminations. The other, a Louatkoid, fixed her multiple pupils on Everling.
"You will please disengage the program."
The illusory Earth disappeared and the two officers peered only a little less distrustfully at the grid.
"All right," the Louatkoid continued, "now the code to the pantry."
"Locked doors," repeated Ray, his voice slurring from more than just Rula now. "I told you they don't like 'em."
Everling retrieved the half capsule he still carried in his tunic pocket. Ray viewed the motion as is stung by some insult.
"I didn't come down here to get sober. I can be that upstairs."
"Will," reminded Everling calmly.
"Oh yeah," remembered Ray and took the capsule. Everling watched for a moment, then satisfied the bartender had regained his senses, he slipped from the meld and headed out to show the two security officers the liquid donations of federation ships and Cardassian freighters.
Deanna started at his entrance but she did not try to conceal the transcript copy in her hand. The communique that admitted finding only an Orion vessel yet hinted at a Romulan hand - a deceptively complex web of move and countermove that left the hypothesis intact even after the proof had failed. She now longer cared that he knew.
The icy eyes fixed on hers, defying any attempt to be read.
"You do not approve."
This time she'd been read. How? What was he? Human, he claimed, but she doubted that - doubted anything he said.
"You need my approval?"
"Let us say I desire it."
"Well, you seem to be able to get what you want."
"Not everything," he replied with an unexpected shade of remorse. "Your captain understands - he is happy simply to be getting his ship back. He does not come in here waving reports he should not have read."
"You knew we had the code-breaker. You expected us not to use it?"
He gazed deeply into her face, taking in its contours, the dark full mouth, the ebony eyes, felt her mind pressing his, twisting and turning, trying to penetrate his defenses.
"You don't really care about fleet politics. What you want is to judge me, for me to stand for my 'crimes'." He lowered himself against the captain's desk. "Be my guest, Counselor. I would be interested to see how my soul weighs on an unbiased balance."
"You'd be hardpressed to find one on this ship."
"Ah, to know others so well and not know yourself. I have already found it."
"Me," she discerned.
"Yes, Counselor, you."
"But I do blame you.
"For the first officer's injuries? Or that you think he was injured in vain?"
"You know better."
"Do I?"
"Destiny Counselor. I never wanted to believe in it either, but if you only knew, my life has been plagued with it. Nothing else could have caused this. How else would you explain my being picked up by the ship carrying the one man in the galaxy who could possibly understand what was happening. And even when I got rid of him, he didn't go away. I had his dreams told to me."
"You would have continued the chase - dragging us along with you."
He waved vaguely in the direction of the transcript.
"There was apparently little danger."
"Even knowing that was true - it was your quest and our lives."
"Your lives were not threatened at any time - at least since we left the planet."
"I'm talking about time. Wasted time. That, too, is a danger for mortal beings."
What might be annoyance touched the corners of his mouth.
"Come now Counselor. Don't be so melodramatic. It is over. Shortly you will drop me off and be done with me."
Deanna ran her fingers along the transparency's edge.
"We have Will. We will never be done with you."
"His injury was regrettable."
"Unnecessary," corrected Deanna, taking a tone the more knowing would have recognized as a certain commander's. "Dammed unnecessary. No one should have been orbiting M491."
"I orbited only once," observed the agent drily. "After that I crashed."
He took the transparency from her.
"What was it they told you, when they sent you to rescue me?"
Deanna sank to the couch from the weight of his gaze. He was the most draining man she'd ever met.
"That you were red priority. Retrieve at all costs."
"The nature of cost is that it cannot be retrieved," he replied cryptically. "Your commander knew that. He was a federation officer."
"And this is federation idiocy."
Deanna was surprised at her own vehemence.
"Which part - the original contact? The 'debriefing' of the Hood's crew? The Orion's aping of the plot? Even now there are rumors spreading through subspace. Rippling from comm station to comm station. What I was trying to prevent and you've made sure. That is the idiocy. And my original question remains unanswered. What was the Romulan part in all this? Do you think they aren't out there? Tapping the ripples? Do you think that they have stopped trying? Or do you think that because you feel safe on your proud starship that hate has died?"
"And what is it you think?"
"My actions have made that clear."
There was something almost Vulcan in the quiet of his response. It made Deanna beat even more maddeningly against the shields of his mind.
"No, what do you think?"
"You really want to know. It is important to you somehow."
Damn him, too, for reading her. He blinked at her infuriation.
"You are a most fascinating woman."
"And you would be a most frustrating human."
"Amazing what they can do these days, isn't it?"
Deanna clamped her mouth shut at the revelation. His eyes laughed at her.
"That was your next line."
"A telepath most assuredly, but no Vulcan," she observed. "Beverly said you had a peculiar effect on her medical tricorder."
"Berillium implants," replied the agent, offering up the lie without a smile.
Deanna leaned toward the desk.
"No, let's not go back, we were going forward. What does it take to mimic human readings?"
He leaned forward just as easily.
"Not much - the device is a little more than ten millimeters square and that makes it my turn at twenty questions. So, tell me Counselor, what you would have done, sitting in a Federation think tank, when you have all but forgotten Josiah March and the Romulan ship. When it had been years since the merest blip of a storm passed across the neutral zone and the Orions had contented themselves for half a decade with cleaning up from both sides of the Bajoran war - when one day you notice a light blinking on a panel. A panel that had sat dark for half again as long, lit by a signal that traveled light years merely to heat an indicator and relay two words. Proteus Awakes. What would you have done?"
"Found the sender," admitted Deanna.
"The message came from a system called Argorah, in the back acres of the Federation. Not too far from M491, at least in distance. Spiritually, they are gulfed by light years."
"And the sender?"
The agent drew up his arms, a professor lecturing his class.
"I never cared much for Ferengi agents. They seem somehow a contradiction in terms. This one was named Orad. He was quite dead by the time I arrived. An unfortunate victim of an outbreak of Evlosian fever."
"An explanation you didn't believe."
"There was an outbreak, but I doubt my ship's systems crashed because of the flu."
"So you learned nothing," deduced Deanna.
"I learned that if you know the right buttons to push even the fleet's flagship is available for rescue missions."
"And for border patrol."
"More like the old ranger's tower - provides a good view for watching for flames."
"A most impressive display of colloquialisms."
The agent shrugged.
"The first rule of agentry is to blend."
"Then the second rule is to deceive."
"Most astute my dear counselor. Next question - or do you know the secret substance?"
"As I said, a most impressive display. Next question. What is a Romulan doing with a Federation medical lab under his skin?"
A hint of what must have once been his smile moved across his lips. He knew she was guessing.
"Defection has its privileges," he returned, admitting it leisurely.
"I am not sure what to say."
"That is the human in you. They're always shocked to discover more than just what they see in front of them."
"Such as Romulan defectors dressed as human agents and storms hiding Orion ships."
"Someone has to watch out for the trusting souls."
"Who think Proteus is dead," finished Deanna.
"Who think it is alive," corrected the agent. "The Romulans will not make Proteus work."
"And you know this."
He paced a few graceful steps.
"Of course, I designed it with a fatal flaw."
"The second rule is to deceive," reminded Deanna.
"No, there are no rules here. You are my unbiased jury. Telepathy is sporadic in my people. I think if more of us were blessed with it, we might not be quite so aggressive. Or perhaps it would make little difference. You see we all have such spectacular built-in shielding."
He was naked in front of her and she could see through his thoughts to her own reflection, a single sentence he had borrowed from her mind reverberating.
"Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly."
The captain's call stopped her from entering the turbolift. She wasn't eager to face him, and the inevitable questions. She had been in the ready room far too long for him not to have noticed.
"Is everything all right?"
"I think so Sir."
The lift was waiting. He looked at her seriously, allowing her to read the unspoken command that it hadn't gone unnoticed and they would talk. Later. Deanna nodded gratefully. She felt too drained to explain now. The broken link taunted her and her head throbbed in its darkness. Afterimages of the agent's thoughts still tumbled in her mind and she was beginning to believe if she didn't reach her cabin soon, she would settle for sitting wherever she was. The captain looked past her to the ready room as if he blamed its occupant for wounding yet another of his officers and she tried to let him know that she wasn't hurt, merely tired.
"I'll be in my quarters."
The captain nodded his approval, letting her go and she allowed the doors to close. The sensations she felt diminished a little with the gathering distance and she leaned against the lift wall, the rhythm of the severed link still pounding dimly in her head.
The captain sat up sleepily, the book he had been reading falling across his chest. He had waited up to see if Deanna would take the opportunity to talk to him alone in his quarters. It was not the counselor, however, who graced his door.
"May I come in?"
As far as he remembered, this was the first time the agent had asked his permission to do anything.
"Yes," replied Jean-Luc, setting the book down.
At first he had thought the man to be in his mid-thirties, the same age as Will Riker, but there was a network of fine lines traced around his eyes that belied more years.
"You might actually be glad to see me, Captain. I've come to give your ship back."
He viewed the captain's lack of reaction passively.
"I've set course for Alpha Four," he continued, entering the room without his usual display of wariness. "A reunion of sorts for you and a convenient disembarking for me. I can catch a shuttle there."
The display of pottery on the low table caught his eye.
"May I?"
He picked up a vase expertly, turning it in his hand.
"Survian dynasty. Fourth century on the Ompu calendar. You have quite a reputation, you know, as an amateur archaeologist."
Jean-Luc still said nothing and the grey eyes lit with some amusement.
"We cannot be friends, Captain, but I'd like to think we could manage some sort of mutual respect. I, too, am a scientist. In your middle ages I suppose I would have been called an alchemist."
"And have you found the philosopher's stone?" inquired the captain, with a certain lack of curiosity.
"I have found we do not need one. Energy is matter. Matter, energy. Light is illusion and illusion, light. You do not need to find a catalyst to cause transformation - only to stop it. That is why I am here - to stop transformation from occurring."
"I am afraid I do not follow."
"Do you know how many levels of security surpass that of the captain of the fleet's flagship? Only two. That of the Admiralty and that of a senior agent. Soon none will." The flash of what Jean- Luc was still unwilling to call humor showed again in his eyes. "Captain, if I had a sword I would knight you, for you are about to join the round table. Your counselor is already there so this will relieve her of the burden of deciding what to report and how much."
"I see."
The agent settled into a chair, depositing the vase carefully.
"You seem to know your history, Captain. So I assume you know something about the old theory of nuclear deterrence. The balance of power."
"I know it was no deterrence - it was the cause of Earth's third world war."
"Wars on many worlds," agreed the agent. "That is why I find a balance of illusion so much more appealing. Proteus is an illusion."
"In form undeniably," concurred Jean-Luc.
"In substance, also."
"I'm still afraid I don't understand."
"Proteus will not work for I designed it not to work."
It was not a question.
"I am Romulan, Captain. A Romulan who once dared dreamed I was human. Now it is my punishment to be a human who dreamed I was once Romulan. In either form I am and was a scientist. The Romulan content in his lab until two representatives of the prelate came to call. They said they'd followed my research and believed my obscure little parlor tricks that were only meant to show the fallibility of vision could be used for so much more. On Romulus there are no individuals. You are one of a family; your family is one of a clan. Long ago, my family fell from favor - something about the daughter of my great-great-grandfather who refused the 'honor' of mating with a member of the senate. And here was my opportunity to retrieve its name from infamy. I would apply my research to more than just children's games. I had only to make a warbird disappear and a harmless freighter take its place."
"Which you did."
"There was only a slight problem."
"The storm."
"The cloak I finished in a number of months. The storm took longer."
"You're saying you created it?"
The agent gestured abruptly.
"You do not think I would unleash something like that on an unsuspecting population. Even a Federation population? My family had its name and I had a shuttle, and a few illusions, waiting. Now I am dead and the Federation has the services of the 'apprentice' to the Romulan who invented Proteus. Unfortunately he knows only how to spot the illusion, not how to replicate it."

"You have lied to all sides."
"Of course, it was the only way to keep them from killing each other. The Orions, though, I did not expect. No doubt your Federation will double its efforts - I may have to 'help' them, too."
"Why tell me this, now?"
"Your counselor is quite a talented woman. She began to 'sense' me and I decided, having watched your crew these past weeks, that I would be better off to leave you with truth than with suspicions. And I thought you might approve."
"I do not approve."
"Neither did your counselor. Perhaps I do not understand humans even after all these years. But you will be silent. To say what you know would only cause them to discover my damage. Then there would be Romulans on Raisa. I will return to headquarters and report the Orions solved the problem no more than the Romulans did. It should satisfy them for a while. Long enough for me to complete my research and produce a detector for this cloak."
"Which you'll then give to both sides."
"Of course." The odd light returned to his eyes. "It is possible, in the world of illusion, Captain, to be both a defector and a patriot. I am sorry about your first officer, though, we had not had many casualties."
The captain was silent and having said what he came to say, the agent rose. He bowed slightly before the captain in a sort of homage. Then he met his gaze, a smile playing tentatively around his eyes.
"The name of Vr'ltzeh is now widely known on Romulus."
"Mr. Reylanten," returned Jean-Luc.
A transparent aluminum dome capped the atrium that served as the rehab's lobby. Jean-Luc glanced up at the starscape that could be seen through it, feeling only a little more comfortable under the familiar light. Beside him, Deanna hugged her arms against her. Only Beverly seemed calm, her blue eyes critically surveying the corridors leading off the main entrance. A small figure emerged from the nearest and returned the doctor's gaze. Beneath the searching eyes a smile of recognition grew and Beverly shifted to see what was causing the smile - besides her own serious countenance. Then she smiled herself, at the sight of the captain of the Fleet's flagship - feet shuffling like they were attached to a cadet on Academy entrance day. Such a surprising sight that even Deanna's eyes lightened.
"Captain," called Nyra, approaching the trio. "I am Nyra Licen'b, Will's therapist." She inclined her head toward him after she spoke, in the manner of her people. Then she turned and did the same again. "Counselor. Doctor." A small hand gestured across the lobby. "Shall we go to my office?"
Nyra, as the saying went around the center, was not much for formality. The saying was a deliberate understatement considering the others', particularly the humans', shock at finding that she rarely sat at her desk. Not that she forsake it entirely, that might not have bothered the humans. It was just that more often than not she sat on it instead. When she did so now, the captain looked appealingly startled. A reaction she'd have to tell Will about - he'd like that.
He'd warned her to behave herself, but that was the least of her worries. She was no public relations specialist and she had little enough good news to relay. In preparation Nyra took a deep breath and pulled her legs up to cross them on the desktop. They'd want the good news first. Humans always did.
"Will has shown a great deal of improvement. I feel he is now prepared emotionally to deal with what has happened.
"And the physical improvement?" asked Beverly.
Nyra took another deep breath, almost relieved to get this over with - she had been rehearsing this speech silently all morning. "I'm afraid there's been very little of that. We have run every sorts of test we could think of and invented a few new ones. We've tried dozens of prosthetic devices, none of which functioned properly. None of us have ever seen damage like this. It is as if certain brain areas were wiped clean. Like the pathways for hearing and sight never existed. Will expresses himself easily enough in sign and Braille, but the part of the brain that controls the actual mechanics of speech was destroyed. None of the damage could be repaired." The doctor felt suddenly ashamed of the cockiness that had driven her to play petty games to startle the humans, even if she had done it mostly to report the consequences to another human. Just to see him smile. "I wish I could have done more, but the destruction of tissue was so great."
A silence fell over the room and Nyra did not move to break it. They needed time to digest what she had said. Finally Deanna spoke, "Can we see him?"
"Certainly. In fact I'm quite pleased you came. We've done about all we can for Will. He is, of course, welcome to stay. But I was hoping to find some other opportunities for him. He will always need a sheltered environment, but I don't think he's happy in one this sheltered." She smiled at some private joke. "Come on - we'll surprise him."
Deanna didn't see the multiple recreation areas or the testing equipment that Nyra so proudly pointed out. It was all she could do to follow Beverly's back as they moved down the corridor, buffeted as she was by their emotions and by the strain of her own attempts to keep her presence from Will. She needed to see him first - to know he was all right before she burdened him with the past weeks, with her own fears still not relieved.
She couldn't help but be aware that the others harbored their own doubts about the meeting. The Mycelian doctor's were particularly strong. The depths of her regret regarding Will chilled Deanna even though she knew the Mycelian's other emotions would be just as intense.
"He is probably in here," said Nyra, stopping by a set of double doors. No trace of the concern Deanna sensed in her mind showed in her voice or face. "Once we were able to relieve Will's depression, we found he rather naturally became what you might call a camp counselor. He's very good with people."
Jean-Luc smiled a little and offered the first comment he'd made since they'd arrived. "That was part of what made him such a fine first officer."
"Shall we?" Nyra stepped forward into the hall. It was rather crowded and even Nyra took a minute to locate Will. Then she saw him, his tall frame folded good-naturedly into a chair two sizes too small. He sat cramped across a table from a pair of small Andorian children who had coerced him into playing a game. The hologram of a red ball hung suspended over the board. Will turned to face the door and smiled, feeling Deanna's presence despite her attempts to keep it hidden. His greeting echoed gently in her mind.
The children gazed fearfully at the new entrants into their world but Nyra signed reassuringly to them. "These are Will's friends." The little girl took Will's hand and spelled into it.
"Your friends."
Her tiny fingers tugged at his and he stood. Deanna reached out for his other questing hand and pulled him toward her, hugging him in relief as Nyra gracefully gathered the children and slipped out, leaving the shipmates to complete their greetings.
"How long have you been back?" he asked, but Deanna decided to demure to the captain on the question of recent events. She stepped back, content to watch as Jean-Luc took Will aside and attempted a short version of the past months. Will looked so much better than the last time she'd seen him. He seemed finally to have found some peace - not satisfied, but more accepting.
The captain's straight stance relaxed too, as Will's hands actively questioned and parried.
Jean-Luc, however, only had time to tell the most pertinent details.
"I must go attend a comm link debriefing with Admiral Sexton." Jean-Luc's distaste for the man came through even in his cautious spelling of the name.
Will grimaced sympathetically, "That is one job I do not envy."
"We will talk more later." Jean-Luc squeezed Will's forearm, then walked him over to where Deanna and Beverly stood. The floor shook minisculely as the rec room door opened and closed and Will took the opportunity to display his most rakish grin. Having no doubt that all eyes were on him, he began without preamble.
"As long as you are here on shore leave, shall we have a night on the town?"
Beverly sought out Deanna with a puzzled glance then felt self-conscious about being surprised to find Will Riker acting . . . well, so much like Will Riker.
"Where are we going?" asked the doctor.
"Kango Dogs."
"Kango Dogs?" repeated Deanna, not sure she had read the letters right.
"Did he say Kango Dogs?" Beverly asked the same question of her.
He must have, for Deanna felt the rippling of his mental laughter. "Don't knock it until you've tried it."
"How do we get there?"
Will flashed the smile that hadn't changed even if so much else had.
"You follow me."
And they did, out the door and through a corridor, which if Nyra had been right about the failure of the net, Will obviously knew well.
Deanna had to resist the urge to take his arm as they emerged into the crowded public level of the Starbase. She failed completely to cover her amazement as Will precisely crossed the open court and stopped inches from the wall.
"You come down here by yourself?" She couldn't imagine Will all alone in this swarming, noisy place.
It wasn't a thought she had meant to broadcast, but Will accepted her fear without embarrassment and tried to soothe her worry.
"I am never alone." He pulled up his sleeve to reveal the thin bracelet. "Among other things it is an open comm link to the center." He did not add that he usually took it off before coming down here. "You two might want to keep that in mind. I can't hear you but they can."
At the thirty-ninth step he reached out for the wall and felt the familiar rounded corner. He took Deanna's hand and pulled her along the remaining paces to the door of Kango Dogs.
Beverly had looked in surprise at the end of the station corridor. Kango Dogs looked like any other rundown ocean-side beer joint. Only there wasn't an ocean where it would feel at home for at least a hundred light-years. Not the kind of establishment you'd find in the center court with its Vulcan-style cafes and Liticha Tea Rooms. She looked at the antique sign then and grinned, figuring its reputation would be entirely of its own making.
Just as they had almost reached the door, Deanna gave a quick sidestep and nimbly avoided the thin swinging block of glass and wood. The door slammed open, striking the front window and a Tellarite sailed from deep in the bar's interior to land in a lump near their feet. Following the Tellarite was a human male, his head full of blond curls and his blue eyes blazing.
"I've had it!" He yelled, oblivious to his audience. "I have had enough. We do not serve pigs in this bar."
The Tellarite picked himself up, dusted off his clothes and hurled a stream of Tellarite obscenities at the man before regaining his dignity and staggering off.
"The same to you!" The human screamed after him. Then he looked around and smiled mercurially. "Will!" He grinned wider as he took in Deanna and Beverly. "And look what you've brought tonight." He signed a quick "Hi" into Will's palm, before putting his hands to better use.
"Well don't just stand out here ladies, come in to my humble establishment."
Deanna tried to twist away from the arm which had locked firmly around her shoulders. "What about Will?"
Ray released his hold just a little at her protest and reached a hand back to pull Will along.
"Don't worry. He knows the way."
He did, too. It didn't take long for Deanna to understand what Will saw in the place. It had a warm, relaxed atmosphere. And despite Ray's casual demeanor Deanna could see he kept his eye on Will. They had sat at a corner table, talking and laughing for hours when Ray took Will's hand, signing with a smoothness that Deanna realized would only have come from long practice.
"Mind if I ask Deanna to dance?"
"What's playing?"
"Nosorian Moon."
"Just keep your hands where I can see them."
Ray giggled - the effects of too many of his house specials. They had all had too many of his specials. "Shall we?" He offered Deanna his hand and she accepted it in the same spirit. Beverly watched enviously as they moved off to the dance floor. It had been too many years since she let herself do anything like this. Unconsciously she tapped her fingers on the table, keeping time with the music. Will could feel the rhythms. He touched her hand.
"Would you like to dance?"
Beverly hesitated, but Will continued unaware, "I can feel the beat." A ruefully honest smile lit his face. "It will be fine as long as I don't have to lead."
Why the hell not? She hadn't always been a chief medical officer. Beverly accepted the hand up.
Ray noted their entrance on the dance floor and every now and then he looked to where Will and Beverly slowly swayed to the music.
"Are y'all here to take Will back?"
Beverly was too close not to overhear the question, and the question was a little too close to home not to be troubling. Back, yes. But back to where? There would be no reason for Will to remain on the Enterprise. No reason except they were his family. Not a definition Fleet would care to recognize. Husbands, wives, children - that was the kind of family the Admiralty understood. And they understood that only after years of protest gave them no choice but to understand.
Will would more than likely be given a medal, quickly removed from the active duty roster and pensioned off to Earth in neat, precise fashion. All very respectful and very quiet. Fleet took care of its own. In this case, possibly too well. For their credits they would expect nothing. And, she suspected, that would be the one thing to destroy Will, succeeding in the task where the alien machine had failed.
"Possibly," replied Deanna, thoughts very similar to Beverly's crossing her mind and leaving her uncomfortable.
"I think I'll miss him," admitted Ray. "Things weren't going real well when I first met Will. He came in with the doctor from the center. Took me awhile to figure out what was wrong with him. Then I thought that if it had been me, I wouldn't want to live, but Will, no, he just keeps going on. Somehow or another he was here so often that I ended up absorbing sign language. We started talking and it sort of changed my attitude. I don't have things so bad. I'm two thousand light years from home, haven't seen an ocean the right color in years, but I've got a nice place. I figure as long as he can keep going I can keep going."
His lead brought them closer to Will and Beverly. "He told me all about you." The bartender regarded Deanna critically for a moment and she could feel the strength of his desire to protect Will. "You love him, too?" It must have been the drinks or the music, or an inexplicable inability to read this particular human clearly - she hadn't expected the question. Whatever the reason, Deanna could feel herself blush ever so slightly. Enough of a blush for Ray to notice.
"That's what I thought," said Ray. He grabbed Beverly away from Will and swung Deanna to him. "Change partners."
Will was startled but then he held Deanna close, letting her perfume and the alcohol go to his head. The current from her touch made him tingle and their minds, as they did so often, drew naturally close.
"Imzadi." Deanna sought to make the mind touch deeper, but then drew back, settling for the upper levels, not wanting to force that which needed to be given. They swayed to the music, Will's body following hers in his silence. Suddenly it was his mind that reached deep.
"I do not wish to leave you again." She sent the silent message to him, opening her thoughts to let him in as far as he would go. He searched them and saw himself as Deanna saw him, as her strength, her anchor. They no longer moved to the music. Deanna was barely aware it was there as they reached without hesitancy ever deeper into each other's minds. They were almost past the point of separation when she found the strength to pull back.
Will understood.
"I know of places more appropriate."
Hand-in-hand they descended from the dance floor and made their way out, leaving Beverly and Ray to close up shop.
Nyra found herself wholly unequipped to ease the captain's worry when he appeared at her door the following morning searching for his officers. Foster was reticent, no one else had seen Deanna, Beverly or Will since the previous night and Will's open communication link gave no evidence of their whereabouts.
The reason why became apparent when they spotted the thin plastic strip outside the entrance of Kango Dogs, swept to one side of the public hallway. After they found it, Nyra had cursed human nature in general and one specific human's in particular all the while banging loudly on the barroom door. From the look he was giving her, she could tell this was not the captain's preferred style, but it managed to have the desired effect. Ray padded sleepily from the loft.
He opened the door and recognized the rehab physician through squinted eyes. "Hiya, Doc."
Nyra peered around him, inside. "Is Will here?"
She wasn't planning on pushing her way in, but having gone this far, the captain had other ideas. Ray merely yawned and stepped back to slouch against the bar.
"Nah, he and Deanna left . . . " Whatever time they departed was lost in the captain's exclamation as Beverly sauntered lazily out of the loft, stretching.
"Doctor!" The familiar voice startled her but only for a moment. Not being covered by much else, she pulled on her best Chief Medical Officer's manner.
"Captain." For a second her commanding officer seemed to be at a loss for words then he, too, put on his most professional face.
"Sorry to disturb you. Do you know the whereabouts of Counselor Troi and Commander Riker?"
Beverly looked provocatively amused and Jean-Luc felt the tips of his ears begin to grow warm.
"We're right here Captain," Deanna's voice floated over his shoulder giving him a welcome excuse to turn to where she and Will stood framed in the doorway.
"We were worried," scolded the captain, only half in annoyance with them. He looked them over carefully, sensing some difference in them, but one so subtle he couldn't put his finger on it.
Deanna continued, ignoring both the scolding and the concern in the serious eyes. "We're glad to run into you. We have a favor to ask. We have it from good sources that ships' captains are allowed to perform marriage ceremonies."
Jean-Luc could almost swear he saw the old look of mischief on Will's face. It was not quite the sort of request he had expected, but certainly one he would be happy to grant. "I would be honored."
Ray dragged them both through the door unceremoniously, a sloppy grin on his face.
"This calls for a celebration. I have some mighty fine Aldebaran wine I was saving for just such an occasion and since I'm unlikely to ever use it . . ."
Nyra should have expected that Will would give her a hard time the next day when she'd asked for something for the hangover.
"Afraid to admit it to the pharmacy, Doctor?" He'd teased, but he'd concocted something with the selector. Something green that looked like it would glow in the dark.
"Do you know what this looks like?"
"You're supposed to drink it, not admire it. Close your eyes."
She closed her eyes. It didn't help the taste any.
"Do you know what this tastes like?"
He nodded his head once in what had become his shorthand version of "yes."
"Did you have some?"
"You think I would drink anything that looks like that?"
Nyra leaned back in the chair and contemplated the unfairness of body weight. She squinted a little as she watched him pack, watched as his hands methodically searched the dresser top. In the end, she realized, she had only been able to help him in small ways. What she'd taught him were "tricks" - how to use the sensor net, how to memorize where you had put things or where the doors were. It was not much. Still she could take some comfort in the knowledge that he'd come a long way from the first time she'd seen him, but even that was more to his credit than hers.
"I said goodbye to everyone."
He stood beside her now, his hands at that half-ready position she'd finally given up trying to school out of him.
"Except me."
"I was hoping you would come to the wedding."
She took his hands and positioned them flat, fingers pointing down from the wrists in front. Then she swung them toward each other, forcing the left hand to grasp the right.
"Wedding," she repeated. "Don't spell it. Say it."
"I was hoping you would come to the wedding," he repeated, forming the sign self- consciously.
"No. Can't leave - too busy." Sometimes she was strangely thankful Will couldn't see her. He already seemed to know too much about her. Her hands were steady, but she hated to think of how the lie must show on her face. Not that Will needed that. She wondered if he knew she had trouble saying goodbye, just like he knew when she entered a room.
"I must be better if you are too busy for me."
Better. The word rang hollowly in her mind.
"I thought I could do more." Her signing trailed off, echoing in its own way the expression she was trying to hide. Will clasped her hand before replying.
"We all have to accept who we are or who we are not. You helped me do that." He paused, weighing how much to say. "I owe you my life. Before I came here I was thinking seriously of finding a way out." For the first time in weeks he seemed distant from her, drawing back at the admission.
"Don't ever tell Ray. He was having similar thoughts. He thinks you saved his life. To let you know how much he appreciated it he is going to leave Kango Dogs to you in his will. He thought it would be revenge enough." Will responded well to the humor as always. Even therapists had their tricks and Nyra had felt an irrepressible need to see that smile again. That damnable overcoming human smile.
"Just wait until I tell Deanna."
There wasn't much else to say. Nyra helped him pick up his things and they silently carried them to the transporter platform where Deanna waited.
"I expect to see you in nine solar months."
That was all Nyra planned to say. All she could say. She'd always had trouble with that particularly human word "goodbye." Her culture had no ritual for partings - except for that most permanent of separations. It always seemed masochistic of the humans to daily remind themselves of that one final leaving. Nyra started to go but she should have known Will would be no respecter of Mycelian custom. He reached after her, put something in her hand. She looked at the shiny disks dumbly, at first not realizing what they were.
"How did you get these?" she said to herself, turning the smooth shape of the pass keys over in her fingers.
"Did you use them?"
"How do you think I know Ray so well? I left the comm bracelet in my quarters. There are fifty-two steps to the back door, thirty-four to the entrance of the public level . . . "
Nyra stopped the litany. "I get the idea."
She grinned at Deanna, suddenly feeling much better about Will, about herself. They might just be tricks, but they were damn good ones.
"You better keep an eye on him."
Then she allowed herself the luxury and to Will she simply signed, "Goodbye."
Will returned the smile he knew was there. "Goodbye Dr. Livingston."
The engineering deck was kept a good ten degrees cooler than any other deck on the ship, a chill Will could feel as soon as the turbolift doors snapped open. He waited a second in the coolness, but the net showed no sign there was anything blocking his path. That of course, he'd learned early, merely meant he had to take his chances.
This was the last major deck he'd memorized, the only one where he still felt it necessary to keep one hand on the nearest wall. He didn't feel like missing count and finding he'd just made a sharp right hand turn into a bulkhead. He also didn't feel in the least like admitting with everyone still just a bit too eager to take care of him. Even Geordi had yet to be convinced. It had taken him quite awhile to persuade the chief engineer that meeting him down here instead of his and Deanna's quarters would be just as convenient to him as it was to Geordi.
His foot brushed aside some small object and Will hesitated, probing the deck with the toe of his boot. It seemed perfectly fine. He stepped forward confidently - and slid his hand into an open sensor panel.
"Doctor Crusher," Lt. Chandra popped her head in the office door. "Will you come out here a second?"
"What's he done now?" asked the doctor in exasperation, noting the cause of Chandra's concern and seeing all too clearly the way Will was holding his right hand. She allowed herself the luxury of taking that tone because Deanna was nowhere in sight. Had it been anything serious the counselor would have been at his side.
"He said he didn't want a lecture."
"He's going to get one anyway."
"He said that, too."
"Does it still hurt?" asked Beverly after she finished applying the spray dressing.
Automatically Will tried to sign, but with his hand immobile he had to resort to finger spelling. "Some."
She reached for a hypo of low-dosage painkiller as Geordi stormed through the door.
"Is he all right?"
He took Will's good hand and asked the same question.
Glumly Will nodded.
Beverly concurred. "He's got some second degree burns, but he'll be fine."
"I'll put Jenkins on report. No excuse for leaving that wall panel open."
Will freed his hand from Geordi's to point out the obvious. "Anyone else would have seen it."
"That one person can't is good enough reason to close it. It is supposed to be closed anyway." With a snap of his hand, the chief engineer ended the conversation and went off in search of his unfortunate ensign, disappearing into the sensorless dark, oblivious to the fact that Will's feelings of guilt were intensified with each receding step.
Further down the hall Deanna came out of her office and leaned momentarily against its door frame. For a moment she closed her eyes, allowing herself to shut out the day's events. She could feel the ache of the burns diminish with Beverly's shot, a reaction as immediate as his inadvertent telegraphing of the pain. She had felt the pain immediately, but she had felt the embarrassment, too, and hadn't gone to him. Now she allowed the path they shared to expand.
The opening of the link brought everyone around him into sharp focus. Into Deanna's world where depth was more than visual. Deanna's emotions alone he might have borne, but there were Beverly's as well and Chandra's. Geordi's, too, if he hadn't bolted out the door.
"Are you all right?" Deanna could feel his irritation rise at that question and himself. She came over and placed her hands on his shoulders massaging out some of the tension.
"It has not been the best of mornings. At the time I was on my way to meet Geordi. Guess I let the wonderful news I heard throw me."
"My father is coming. He sends his congratulations and hopes he will soon have a grandson. One to replace me no doubt."
"I don't understand . . . "
"Understand why he's coming? Neither do I."
"No, understand why he would want to replace you."
Will's thoughts held a bitterness she hadn't felt before, "I was never quite good enough for my father." She shared the pain's return as he tried to flex the burned hand. "And now I run into open sensor panels."
He thought about the link again and almost blanched at the thought of Kyle Riker's feelings exposed before him. The invisible path narrowed in response, under Deanna's command much more than his, but it was his discomfort she was trying to ease.
"Come," said Jean-Luc as Deanna requested entrance to the captain's ready room. He looked up from the computer screen.
"What can I do for you Counselor?"
She sat down across from him, her fine features unaccustomably strained. "It would seem the ship's counselor is in need of a little counseling herself."
"Concerning what?" asked the captain, unable to imagine Deanna having a problem he could solve.
"Human males."
"Any human males in particular?"
"Will and his father."
Deanna had known Will was in no mood for a discussion of a psychological nature and she'd watched him head, albeit a little more carefully than usual, to the gym.
Worf was waiting.
Finally it had been Will who approached the Klingon, trying to rebuild the old friendship. A slow process that was still not fully complete. There would come a time when they'd have to speak of the events that had occurred in Will's cabin so many months before, but it was not yet. There was still a certain wariness between them. Even Will could sense Worf's nervousness. He assumed it was Klingon embarrassment at his "useless" state, but he pressed on - determined to prove something to the Klingon. To himself.
In truth, Worf had conquered the feeling of shame. It was the feeling that Will was too fragile for his company that the Klingon now wrestled with. Still with time, even this concern had lessened and he decided even he could be gentle enough for the vulnerable human - if he was careful. Very careful. He had even begun to teach Will how to master K'hijei, the Klingon test of skill that was not unlike the humans' martial art of anbo-jytsy. Only here the participants were temporarily deprived of their hearing as well as their sight. K'hijei had originally served to train Klingon warriors and on the Klingon homeworld the sport was still practiced as an exercise in perception. A low-intensity force field enclosed two opponents armed with blunt-ended clubs. Unable to see or hear the other, each one was forced to rely on other senses.
Much to Worf's surprise, he'd found Will quite capable at the lower levels and he was working him slowly toward the skills of a first master.
Now as he ritually helped the human dress in the padded garments, he noticed the burned hand, stiff from Beverly's spray dressing.
Vulnerable indeed.
"Perhaps we should postpone."
Will flexed his hand then shook his head. He forced himself to sign awkwardly with the stiff fingers. "No. It will be fine."
The Klingon looked at him doubtfully and muttered something Klingonese under his breath about the personality traits of a particularly fragile species but he passed Will a helmet and led him - as gently as he could manage - to the ring.
The sturdy helmet's function was merely to block hearing and sight, but the human offered no resistance when Worf pressed it against his palm, apparently taking no offense at the protective gesture. Will slipped the helmet on his head, fastening the chin strap, the Klingon watching the unusually awkward fingers. He yanked at the strap, testing the human's work. Then Worf put on his own and gave the command to bring up the force field.
Still smarting from the Klingon's obvious doubts Will barely noticed the field encircling them. He paid more heed to the faint vibrations of Worf's footsteps on the padded floor. The Klingon was circling. Will stayed perfectly still until Worf came close enough. In three steps he was behind the Klingon. Then he swung.
"How?" wondered Jean-Luc as he strode through the gym's dressing room. "How does she talk me into these things?" He didn't even clearly remember agreeing to talk to Will. Not that he thought it would do much good anyway - he was a ship's captain, not a counselor, and he had never been one to see his officers as his children.
The hum of the forcefield reached his ears even before the corridor widened into the gym's main arena. He hadn't seen the playing area before and he stood transfixed, watching the two officers circle warily. It seemed, to his surprise, that Worf was getting the worst of it. Certainly he was allowing it, lowering his skill level to match Will's, but there was no denying Will showed some promise.
Will seemed to move almost by some sixth sense. He swung again and Worf was down, Will on top of him almost immediately, pinning him to the floor. In reality, his strength was no match for the Klingon's but K'hijei was the unusual in Klingon training - a game of finesse, not brute force. Worf yielded. At the sound of his voice, the encircling field came down. Sensing its removal, Will released the Klingon.
In correct form Worf yielded again, signing, "I am your prisoner."
Will declined, though not in proper fashion. "I would not want to press my luck."
He didn't turn at the vibrations, but by whatever strange mechanism he possessed he recognized Jean-Luc as he approached.
Jean-Luc gave him a hand up as Worf shrugged out of his helmet.
"Quite impressive."
Worf also rose easily, dusting himself off. "Tell him on the next session we move to the third level."
He sounded brusque, but there was a look of pride in the Klingon's eyes. Unwilling to witness his pupil's reaction to the compliment, he did not remain. He turned abruptly, leaving the captain alone with his former first officer.
"Deanna sent you down here," Will signed before removing his helmet. Totally sightless without the sensor net, he allowed Jean-Luc to guide him to the dressing area.
"You read minds now too?" questioned the captain.
"No. I just know Deanna."
And, he thought ruefully, she knew him far too well.
Indeed she did.
"You're upset."
"I'm not upset."
"You're pouting."
"Pouting? That sounds like something your mother would say."
"See you are upset. You would never bring up my mother otherwise."
Will let out an irritated sigh.
"I do not!" growled Deanna. She must have said it aloud without realizing. The crewman they were passing turned to look.
Will's half-formed thought was replaced by a more complete one.
"How can we have a fight when you know what I'm going to say before I do?"
"Sorry. I can't help it."
There were not many human males who would marry a Betazoid. To be known so completely by another was almost painful for humans who believed so much of their strength lay in not revealing who they were. And what had she expected Will to do? Admit he was overmatched?
"I am overmatched."
But not by that much. Deanna would have sworn she kept that thought hidden.
"But there are still a few things I can do."
He swung her up in his arms, taking her by surprise which was the biggest surprise of all. And he carried her, giggling, through the doors of Ten-Forward. The front deck was nearly empty. Fortunate, from Deanna's point of view, but odd. She looked curiously at Guinan.
"It doesn't matter what you want," Guinan began, apparently not surprised by their less-than- formal entrance, "we don't have it."
"You're kidding."
"I'm afraid not. The food vendors need the replicating components replaced every few months. Supply doesn't have any and I've quickly learned that for some inexplicable reason known only to engineers, replicating components are the one thing you can't replicate."
Will swung Deanna down. "We just resupplied at Starbase Six."
"They didn't have any components."
"Of course they had components."
"Not according to Commander Reynolds."
Lieutenant Commander Patrick J. Reynolds, until recently happily fulfilling his duties as exec of the U.S.S. Grant, cringed as the Enterprise's chief engineer stormed through his office door. The fact Geordi LaForge was closely followed by the ranking security officer, the first - and he hoped, last - Klingon he'd ever seen, did nothing to reduce his anxiety.
"Where is my shipment of polarized wrenches?" The engineer's normally friendly expression was clouded beneath his VISOR, though he was not anywhere near as frightening as the Klingon looming large over his desk.
"And where is the consignment of phaser packs I requested?"
Reynolds shrank back.
"I'm working on it!" he barked, hoping to convey at least a bit of the menace the security chief managed to broadcast just by standing there.
Good God, these people were impatient. Things were never like this on the Grant. Admittedly the Grant was a minor ship compared to the Enterprise, but proper procedures were proper procedures. Requests had to be authorized. Forms filled out. Not that these people seemed to realize this. They seemed to believe supplies got there by magic.
"And don't tell me this never happened when Commander Riker was your exec," he continued testily, shuffling data disks and pretending not to notice the Klingon's hot breath. "I've already heard that fairy tale from all the other department heads."
"I need those wrenches," Geordi repeated.
"And Lieutenant Worf needs phaser charge packs," added Data. "Dr. Crusher is currently out of Vulcan vitamin supplements. Life sciences has only enough plasma medium to last three days . . . "
"Why didn't you tell me about this sooner," demanded Jean-Luc.
Data stopped in mid-litany to regard his captain calmly.
"Commander Reynolds assured me everything possible was being done."
"Obviously everything possible was not being done."
"I am willing to take over the responsibilities," volunteered Data. "It is one of the first officer's duties to oversee the supplying of the vessel."
"No, Data," declined the captain, "I will not ask you to serve as executive officer also."
"Commander Riker did."
"He did not serve as science officer - which you do." Jean-Luc's voice softened. "Besides, supply sometimes takes a 'human' touch."
"A touch which Commander Reynolds does not seem to share," muttered Geordi.
"Perhaps he just needs a little training," offered Jean-Luc, but Geordi looked doubtful.
"I thought I heard he was exec on the Grant."
"He was - but as you, yourself, know Commander, adapting to a larger ship can be a difficult experience. Will had to have a few tricks up his sleeve. Perhaps Commander Reynolds could do with a mentor."
The captain found Will with the counselor, engaged in one of their soundless conversations. He had come to realize, by watching his former first officer, that Deanna could sense him coming before she could see him and, now, though the counselor showed no signs of recognizing her captain's approach, Will stiffened slightly.
It was a movement he immediately regretted, but the onslaught of the captain's emotions always took him by surprise. With everyone else on board Deanna's attention was selective, but it was her job to ensure the crew, particularly the captain, performed at peak efficiency and she took ample advantage of the best tool she had - instant access to the captain's emotional state.
Will couldn't help feeling that his knowing, though, was somehow an invasion of the captain's privacy. And Jean-Luc Picard had always been a private officer - not given to sharing his thoughts with his subordinates. Not even with his first officer.
"Captain," greeted Deanna.
Will continued to stand at attention as if it would lessen his embarrassment to pretend he could not feel the captain's tightening grip on his thoughts. He thought he could sense consternation from the captain at their mutual predicament - worse he thought he could sense some underlying pity. Will's jaw tightened minisculely but he threw an apparently careless smile in the direction of his captain.
"If you can spare Will for a minute, I need to see him."
"I was about to leave anyway," said Deanna.
Another of those silent messages passed between her and Will and she headed off down the corridor, taking the weight of the captain's emotions with her.
"I have something I want you to take a look at."
Will nodded and reached for the captain's elbow, a recognition of the net's failure he'd only recently admitted so openly. The link had narrowed to a fine thread and Will breathed a small sigh of relief that they could return to the distance of formality that had characterized their relationship since the first day he'd stepped on the bridge.
Jean-Luc had always considered Will Riker to be one of the most forthright officers he'd ever met and in exchange, he'd noticed, he was willing to accept the same forthrightness in others. Will even seemed able to accept the watchfulness he evoked from everyone - even Data. He was clearly uncomfortable, though, with Deanna's ability to read the rest of them - particularly his captain. Partially a fault of his own, Jean-Luc realized. He had rebuffed Will's early attempts at familiarity perhaps more brusquely than he should. Eventually Will had settled into an easy friendship with the other senior officers with their Tuesday night poker games and Parrises Square matches, accepting his captain's sharply drawn line.
Slowly now, his captain was learning to return the favor, accepting that the commander would know him well in the end, despite the precautions.
"And that's all you need," asked Will as he finally came to the end of the long list that scrolled across the pad.
"At the moment."
"Just how many contacts do you think I had?"
Jean-Luc allowed himself a small smile. First officers throughout the ages had believed their captains knew little and cared less about how they were running the more mundane matters of the ship.
"More than anyone else in the fleet. They used to talk about you at staff meetings. Seems the other firsts would find their orders surprisingly transported elsewhere. Captain Delmot's crew supposedly said anything that mysteriously vanished was 'Enterprised'."
"I never stole from other ships," protested Will.
"But you never asked where the necessary supplies came from - and your rate of exchange was said to be legendary."
"I just did a little trading."
"And that's all I want you to teach Reynolds - a little finesse. He keeps filling out E-Trans orders."
The exec's office looked exactly the same as the first time Jean-Luc had seen it - the day he took command and formally toured the ship. That was also the last time he'd seen it. If Will even bothered setting foot in the room anytime before today, he'd never known about it.
There was a time he would have forced the first officer to work here, and in the beginning the thought had crossed his mind. It had been quickly apparent however that Will Riker's style would never have included offices. It is enough that Will tolerated the paperwork, shouldering his captain's bureaucratic burden without complaint, and Jean-Luc had seen no reason to concern himself with where he got it done.
Curiosity eventually overtook him, though, and he did make some discreet inquiries into "how." Even Will Riker had to use a computer sometime. The answer had rather surprised him. There were work stations all over the ship and Will would simply walk through, stopping wherever he pleased to sit down and review reports, or write them. And the system did seem to have one advantage - most everyone in every department from the head to the newest trainee had been used to the first officer settling down next to them and working. It afforded Will an accessibility to the crew that he'd never seen anyone else obtain. He suspected he had some similar system among supply officers.
But then, he thought wearily as Reynolds rose to greet them, a system isn't enough, you have to have some charm.
"Captain. Commander."
It was clear from the plastered-on smile that the man was nervous, although Jean-Luc was not sure whether it was due to Will's presence or his own.
"Commander Riker - Will," he quickly corrected, "thought he might be able to help you get those items that were not in our last supply shipment."
"I do have those items on order, Captain," piped the commander.
"Yes, I'm sure you do Commander. You're doing quite a fine job but there are quicker ways to get them."
"Not through proper channels," protested Reynolds.
"Not all things come through proper channels," replied the captain calmly, determined to remain unperturbed.
Even Reynolds himself had not come through proper channels. Jean-Luc wondered what the by-the-book Lieutenant Commander would think if he learned he came to his post by way of a late night captain's exchange. One exec for an excess Klingon language expert and an ensign navigator. It had appeared to be a good deal at the time. He never imagined how much the bureaucratic entanglement had increased since he served as first officer. Never realized until circumstances forced him to do Will's job and his own.
A few days and anyone - even Patrick J. Reynolds - seemed appealing.
"I thought you could use some assistance."
It was more an order this time than an offer - and Reynolds knew it. The knowledge only added to his confusion. He had been puzzling over his new captain's reason for being here ever since he first walked in. Certainly there was no cause for complaint. He had performed precisely as the captain should expect. Nobody got their supplies on time. It couldn't be that. Perhaps the captain hadn't come about supplies at all. From appearances he had far greater problems than a few delayed replicator parts.
In fact, now that he looked at him, the captain wore a tired expression as he stood there, his hand gripped solidly on the arm of the tall man standing next to him. The legendary Commander Riker. A fine officer in his time, no doubt. Certainly the crew had a lot of respect for him.
Reynolds didn't begrudge him the crew's loyalty - particularly now - but, he could see the man had become a burden to his captain. A burden which he obviously hoped Reynolds could relieve.
He backed away as the captain released his restraining hold. Will approached the desk with an uncharacteristic hesitancy, then stopped, his long fingers lightly searching the well-organized desktop. Reynolds barely restrained his horror at the invasion, but there was nothing he could say. The captain certainly would not appreciate any sort of comment and there was really nothing to complain about - much to his amazement, the grazing touch disarrayed nothing.
"So this is what the exec's office looks like."
The captain smiled at the man's gestures, whatever they were. Poor Picard to be bound by honor to care for this man. A wearing experience no doubt. And what affected the captain would inevitably affect the ship. No wonder everyone on board seemed so short-tempered.
The careful hands resumed their glide over the computer console.
"Commander Riker never used this office."
Jean-Luc's attempt to begin a conversation was met by Reynold's blank stare. He'd had to say something. The supply officer was continually backing away from Will. He'd managed to wedge himself against the cabin wall where - unable to retreat any farther - he now stood, his expression a mixture of pity and disgust. Jean-Luc knew Will would sense the movement but, thankfully, the failings of the net would keep him from ever knowing what was written on Reynold's face.
He was trying to think of something else to say, something to take away that look, when Will reached out. Jean-Luc knew what he needed. He placed the Braille panel in the asking hand and watched as Will skillfully snapped it into place.
There was, he thought as he watched his former first officer work, no mistaking Will was blind - and deaf, though that was less immediately noticeable. Despite the training and the sensors. No mistaking Reynolds found it disturbing. It was the one thing he, himself, found disconcerting. It was as if Will strained to catch the smallest sound or dimmest light. Even now he would glance over and see Will, his hands busily engaged, but with a look of struggle on his face. A second later another look would reveal only vacant eyes and the mask into which Will's features slipped more and more these days.
The liquid panel shimmered, then partly solidified. Will's fingers settled at the left corner of the pad then quickly skimmed the screen's current information. E-Trans orders. Reynolds wouldn't get much that way even if he was the representative of the fleet's flagship.
Will wiped the screen, not bothering to save the half-completed form. Reynolds looked rather imploringly at the captain. It was to no avail. The captain was too engrossed in the commander's actions to notice anything else.
Jean-Luc watched as Will's hands moved unerringly over the keyboard, tapping out a string of numbers. A personal receiver code and some sort of privacy scramble. He paused for a moment, not checking the code, his hand hovering motionlessly over the send key. Then with a sudden decisiveness he punched down on it - hard.
The transmission went through. The blinking reception signal echoing wildly on the Braille pad until Will cleared it.
On screen it blinked patiently, waiting for the keyword.
It was the keyword that was the problem. Will knew it would be. Lieutenant Byron, official and unofficial clearing house for half of sector One's goods, had a bizarre sense of humor and an overdeveloped imagination that led him to believe the inspection office was only milliseconds away from closing down the admittedly grey market side of his operation. Add to that the fact that Will's last keyword was over six months old - ancient by Byron's standards.
"Any suggestions?"
"You don't know the code?" Jean-Luc spoke aloud for Reynold's benefit as he spelled.
"I know a code. It won't work."
"You're sure."
Figuring he had nothing to lose, he obligingly entered the keyword.
"Access denied," sighed the captain.
This was getting to be a little more than Reynolds could bear. New officer or not, he was not going to waste any more time playing this game.
"Sir, I do have those items on order."
"And I am afraid they'll be on order when they decommission the ship due to extreme old age."
The captain's reply was clipped, causing Reynolds to shrink against the wall. There was no point in arguing. Particularly when he was not even sure supplying the ship was part of the exercise. And even if it was, it would be best to let the captain see for himself that this black market back door would never work.
Will typed a dozen words and the system discarded every one of them. What he needed was some kind of clue as to how Byron's mind worked. The other keywords - at least the ones he remembered - had been dreadfully erratic. "Submeson" one week, "Kayaking" the next and some impossible Orion adverb the week after that. But there had to be a back door. He knew that much. As paranoid as Byron was, he'd have a way of getting in easily to rewrite the program and hide any illegalities. Byron would definitely have a back door. What it was, or how to get in it, he had no idea about.
HELP, he implored.
He was totally ignored.
BYRON, he begged.
That didn't work either.
He pounded on the send key, hoping Byron could feel the punch.
Jean-Luc took his hand.
"Need help?"
"You have an idea?"
"No. It says 'need help?'"
Will ran his fingers over the letters in disbelief. Reynolds felt much the same way. Only his disbelief revolved around the fact he couldn't accept what he was seeing - the captain of the fleet's finest ship attempting to code-break into the system of a supply pirate. He sat down rather heavily, but the captain failed to notice.
YES, typed Will in answer to the question.
Beneath his fingers the lines scrolled.
Byron was no poet, but from a late night of poker and Stardusters years ago, Will knew he had a strong belief in the philosophy of an obscure Venusian mystic named Oadet who said there were no answers to anything.
TOO EASY, Will taunted. He could imagine Byron's panic at finding someone suddenly ensconced in his system.
A single line rose beneath his fingers.

So the Lieutenant was there.
No one could forget the twenty crystal generators - or what he needed them for.
"Commander . . ."
Patrick J. Reynolds startled from his morose slump.
"Yes Sir?" He stumbled up, unable to maintain his act of defiance toward his senior officer as much as he wanted to.
"I believe you can get the items you need now."
"Sir . . ." Reynolds stammered a bit. "Sir, this is illegal. It is against Starfleet regulations."
"Commander," the captain's grey eyes fixed steadily, "Order the items."
"Reynolds will take some work."
Will felt the slight acceleration of the turbolift in response to what must have been the captain's command.
"He'll grow to like Byron."
"I sincerely doubt it," replied the captain, "but stay with it. I do not care if he likes Byron or not. We reach Starbase Jesson in three days. I want the ship properly supplied by the time we leave her."
Having completed his order, Jean-Luc stepped authoritatively through the now-open doors. Or would have, if Will had not wrapped a hand around his arm.
The captain groaned.
"Bridge," he replied somewhat sheepishly. He'd done it again.
Will just smiled, nodding. "Four."
"Deck Four," instructed the captain obligingly, exiting before he ended up four decks below where he wanted to be.
Kyle Riker, consultant, diplomat, troubleshooter in some of the Federation's most difficult situations, renowned for his ability to stay calm under pressure, stood in sight of the station's transporter and paced. Off to his left through the observation portal he could see the Enterprise, hanging off the Jesson station bow like a large ornament, its sleek contours silhouetted by the base lights. He stopped a minute to regard it. A beautiful ship. Their paths had crossed often enough. Without much of a thought from him other than that it was beautiful.
He was rather proud of that fact.
Proud that his son had done the same.
At least they shared that much. Avoidance was known to be something of a Riker family trait. Kyle and his own father had managed to avoid each other for years. He would have given most anything to feel the same freedom now, but as he looked at the ship he knew that was impossible.
This time, he admitted, a twinge of guilt passing over him, this time was different.
It hadn't helped that Kate Pulaski was so quick to remind him he'd only contacted Will once since the accident - a letter through the computer net. Not that he hadn't been kept updated on Will's recovery. Kate had made sure of that. She was the one who began to call it a recovery, got him to call it a recovery. Apart from his other concerns, he was beginning to wonder if she was having too big an impact on his life. Maybe he was getting old, but being at the same station with her and, finally, sharing quarters with her - he had started to let her influence him. Perhaps too much. He didn't even know if seeing Will was his idea or hers.
Not, as he frequently reminded her, that he had much reason to feel guilty. Will had not exactly been diligent about contacting him either. His only letter had gone unanswered and he had not been invited to the wedding. The only communication he'd received from his son had been a short formal note announcing the ceremony.
Perhaps he should have been forewarned by Will's refusal of the captaincy of the Aries, but if he had any remaining hope things had been solved on his previous visit, he knew now he had been wrong and he knew no one was looking forward to this first meeting.
Deanna and Will stood together in the transporter room, unable to not be aware O'Brien was watching them with more than a bit of sympathy. Apparently he remembered only too well what it was like to wait for your parents to beam on board. As soon as she'd walked in, Deanna had felt the waves of empathy radiating from the transporter chief and she'd made a mental note to have a talk with him sometime about his own family. At the moment though she merely accepted the sympathy the same way she accepted the complex mixture of emotions raging in the link. She moved no closer to Will physically, but she opened her mind fully to him. Though he shied away from the more emotive sensations, he accepted gratefully the sight the open path provided. Through her mind he could darkly see images. They moved like shadows. Faint outlines of gray against gray. It was by no means sight in the true sense but the contact plus the layer of sensor net let him know when the materialization was finished.
Kyle Riker stepped off the platform and smiled at them benevolently, invoking all the diplomatic charm he was capable of. "My children." He hugged Deanna first, then Will gingerly as if he was afraid of breaking him.
Deanna tried to send a reassuring thought.
"At least he's smiling."

She could feel Will gather himself up, deserting the small glimmer of sight the link provided so he could leave her alone to sense his father's emotions, forcing the same smile himself. "The smile of the wolf. I know it well."
It didn't take Deanna long to become aware of another Riker family trait. Will's father's chosen method of dealing with the obvious problems appeared to be to ignore there were problems at all and unfortunately she sensed a similar desire in Will.
Deanna also realized it was out of nervousness that Kyle kept up a continuous banter all the way to the guest quarters, apparently oblivious to the strain on her, or the more obvious fact that Will couldn't hear what he said. It was still annoying. She kept up somehow, keeping Will informed and answering his father's questions at the same time. Not an easy task. Will sensed her struggle and pulled back, deserting the commentary.
"Will?" she called silently as the mind link narrowed further.
He was attempting to hold his own irritation in check and just barely succeeding. The link broadened momentarily. "I'm fine. Don't worry about me. You just look after my father."
When they reached the guest chambers, she stopped Will at the door. The best thing they could do now was give themselves some time to adjust.
"We hope the quarters meet with your approval," she said smoothly, reestablishing the contact with Will now that Kyle was finally silent. "Ours are a little farther down the deck. The captain has invited us all to dinner this evening. If we can get you anything in the meantime please let us know."
Kyle looked startled at the impending departure. "You have to leave already? I just got here."
Deanna apologized, "I'm afraid I have duties to perform."
"Well then Will can stay."
Now Will looked startled. He signed precisely.
"You'll have to forgive us. We didn't know you knew sign language."
Kyle stared uncomprehendingly at him.
"You'll have to forgive us. We didn't know you knew sign language," Deanna repeated.
"I don't," said Kyle impatiently, realizing it was already obvious. He cast a glance in Will's direction and recognized the insolent posture he remembered only too well. His face set in a frown Will would have known. Caught in the middle, Deanna sighed. Neither man had any intention of making this easy.
"Why don't you come to our cabin after you unpack? We have some equipment which will make communicating easier," she managed concilatorally.
They were going to be together quite a while. They might as well start getting used to it.
If Kyle Riker felt uncomfortable at the station, it was nothing to the discomfort of standing before the door to Will and Deanna's quarters. He had to admit he'd delayed some time already, unpacking too slowly. Now when he reached for the door chime, he noticed with a certain amazement that his hand was shaking. Good thing the corridor was empty.
Behind the door, Will felt the chimes' vibrations and slammed his own hand down on the answering button. No matter how it appeared, he was not like his father in all respects. He'd wanted to get this over with some time ago. He could tell from the footsteps' vibrations that his father was hesitant. The wait had irritated him and this new-found hesitancy irritated him even more. Worse, he was not sure whether he was annoyed at his father or himself. He'd spent far too much time thinking how he must appear and he'd more than double checked Nyra's list of how not to look blind and deaf. Stand straight, point your nose in the direction of the vibrations and - for God's sake she'd always added - raise your head. It was sure sign he was either tired or deep in thought. She teased that she could never tell which. Whatever the cause, he forced himself to straighten before he turned to face his father.
On the walk from the transporter room Kyle had avoided looking at his son. Now in the small cabin he could avoid it no longer. If he didn't look too closely Will appeared the same. He was still tall and straight-backed, but when you got closer you couldn't avoid the eyes. It was somehow worse that they looked like they always had. They were like his mother's had been, a clear perfect blue. But they stared through him now, emotionless and unfocused.
Kyle fumbled for his son's hands, but Will pulled away at the touch, making the sign for "come," a gesture he thought even his father would understand. He walked to the computer terminal and motioned his father to sit. The desk was overburdened with equipment, but somehow Will's hands navigated the metal labyrinth and came to rest against their mechanical duplicate. As he spelled into the sensored palm, the computer spoke.
"If you speak the computer will translate into spelling."
There was a long pause before his father began, but then the computerized hand signed precisely, translating the spoken words: "I am sorry. I should have contacted you before."
Will shifted uneasily in his chair. "Before what? Before the wedding? Before last year? Before this?" The computer had no capacity for tonal speech and repeated the words without emotion, but his father would know the anger behind them.
Kyle did know, and might have replied in a more appropriate tone, but a strange sound cut off his retort. If that was what it was - he couldn't tell if he heard it or merely felt its force. He looked around in confusion, but Will remained calm. His free hand fell automatically to a button near the terminal, stopping the door chime's vibrations. The computer bade Worf in.
One look into the room and the Klingon knew immediately why Will had not shown up for their daily practice session. He regretted the intrusion but saw no choice but to enter - Will waited expectantly and Kyle Riker stared at him with a look of profound relief. It was not a reaction Worf's presence often commanded.
He came and took Will's hand, noting Kyle's surprise at the gesture and feeling the rush of embarrassment he thought long buried. "You did not show up for our practice session."
The sharp Klingon eyes followed Will's motion toward his father.
"I neglected to tell you my father was coming."
"You will excuse me Mr. Riker." Worf apologized formally. "Your son and I usually practice K'hijei at this time. I did not know you would be here."
"K'hijei?" Kyle wanted to prolong the interruption as long as possible and he had to admit to a certain curiosity.
"It is a combat training exercise. Your son is quite adept."
Will had placed his hand next to the mechanical one "listening" to the conversation. His father said nothing, merely looking at him for a long moment. He watched as Will's fingers moved deftly to break the silence. The computerized voice responded to the compliment.
"I am adept only next to a Klingon seven-year-old."
If even that much were true.
"Well," said Kyle, seeing a way out of the present uncomfortable situation and seizing it, "if you'd care to give a demonstration, I would love to watch a match."
Will rose.
"Why not."
Anything was better than this.
Kyle watched expectantly as the two men circled each other, their clubs raised. He straightened with a certain pride. Will seemed to be doing quite well - even if the Klingon was holding himself back. Suddenly, though, even Kyle's untrained eye could sense Will had made the wrong move. Worf's swing knocked him from his feet, but he rolled up quickly and padded within the shimmering confines of the force field.
"Quite an interesting form of training." Jean-Luc's voice drifted from over his shoulder and Kyle turned to greet the captain.
"The Klingon - Worf - says they do this every day."
"They do indeed. Will took a rather bad beating at first, but he seems to be holding his own now."
"Of course he is. It is quite similar to anbo-jytsy. I was the one who taught him the martial arts and I taught him how to win." For a moment Kyle forgot his discomfort. Forgot his son . . . "When Will was born I told his mother he had the makings of a President or," he glanced again at Jean-Luc, "an Admiral." The smile faded from his lips. All fathers thought that about their sons. "That was of course before . . . "
His voice trailed off and he turned back self-consciously to the match. In the ring Will swung hard - and missed. Worf seized the opportunity and drove a blow to his midsection. Will sank to his knees more surprised than hurt. Next to Jean-Luc, Kyle stiffened.
"K'varch!" said Worf, bringing down the force field. He pulled the helmet from his head and snarled at his pupil.
"You are not concentrating!"
He snatched Will's hand and repeated the message. The Klingon was one to take games seriously and Will appreciated the depth of feeling behind the reprimand.
"You are right. I was not concentrating."
Accepting the admission he would not have accepted from any other partner, Worf helped him up.
Will's father managed a weak smile. "I'm sure his performance is usually better. I probably distracted him."
It was coming home with numbing force, as he watched the Klingon guide his son out of the playing area, how much Will had to be helped. It was a responsibility he had never learned to enjoy. He had been so grateful when Will outgrew his need for attendance.
Kyle turned to his son's captain, a new look on his face.
"I owe you my thanks for . . . taking care of Will. I have to admit I could not. I hope it is not too much of a burden."
Only a momentary flash in his eyes betrayed the captain's anger.
"Mr. Riker, there is no need to apologize for your son. It may be a cliche, but Will is an inspiration to everyone on this ship. He handles his 'difficulties' with grace and good humor. There is much to admire and respect in your son. Much I admire and respect. The fact that he is not . . . " Jean-Luc caught sight of Will and did not finish. It would have been lost anyway, for all Kyle's attention was taken up by his son's approaching figure. The younger man drew what the captain knew was a self-conscious hand through his still-damp hair. It continued to wave unruly, but the hand forced itself closed. At least the sensor net appeared to be doing its duty.
Will came to stand directly in front of them.
Will's father looked confused. "How did he know we were here?"
Jean-Luc signed the question to Will as he repeated it aloud, still fighting to keep the anger from his voice.

"Sensor net." Will reached for his father's hand and then guided it over the fine netting on his sleeve. His hands continued a more detailed description, but the translation was lost as the captain's communicator chimed. An interruption that the captain didn't consider unwelcome.
"I must excuse myself," he apologized after taking Data's message.
"Captain," Kyle Riker called after him. "I'm afraid I don't know the way back to my quarters."
"It's all right," Jean-Luc stopped only a second, "Will can take you."
Kyle turned back to his son, who stood motionless, looking as tense as Kyle felt. He didn't know what to do. He knew no sign language.
But Will reached out to him, taking his hand. He turned it over and traced the letters in Kyle's palm. S..P..E..L..L. Then he offered his own hand upturned. His father took it clumsily.
Will understood. He gestured "come." Awkwardly, Kyle took his son's arm, trying to shake the feeling that he should be guiding Will, not the other way around. He needn't have worried about appearing foolish. In the hall the crew bustled around them, laughing and talking. None of them seemed to take the least notice of Will or he the slightest notice of them. He wondered what it was like to have nothing but darkness and silence in the midst of all this activity, but then one of the passersby stepped in their path. Geordi put his hand on Will's shoulder to stop him. As always Will reached out attentive hands.
"Deanna is in Ten-Forward."
Geordi was happy to relay the message, but he had been curious to find that Deanna would send a message by him. Didn't she and Will know where each other was at all times? He'd always assumed the link was continuous and he'd wondered if Will would have ever agreed to it if there was the slightest chance he could command. It would make command untenable - that much he was sure of. Command required a solitude Will would never again know. Unless in death.
Whatever barriers they could manage to erect against the natural flow of their thoughts washed away. Geordi's VISOR sensed the subtle changes precipitated by the link. Tension drained from Will's body, his heart contracted less strenuously, his neck muscles lost their extreme tautness. Somewhere in Ten-Forward, Deanna would be reacting the same way.
Will managed to extricate his arm from his father's grasp.
"You remember my father." The moving hands produced a swirl of colored images.
"Of course," said Geordi. "Nice to see you again Mr. Riker."
His offered hand was eagerly received by Kyle who had more than a simple greeting on his mind.
"Well, now that you are here perhaps you can show me to my quarters. I hate to put Will to the trouble."
"Actually I was on my way to meet someone and Will's perfectly capable of . . . "
"It would only take a minute." Kyle pressed.
Geordi saw no real choice. He couldn't very well refuse the request. Tamara would have to wait a few more minutes for him.
"Certainly. "
He turned back to Will. "Your father wants me to show him to his quarters."
Will's mouth set in an ironic smile. "Following me must be very embarrassing."
Geordi reached out, but Will refused his hand. His own snapped out a terse reply. "If anyone needs me, I will be in Ten-Forward."
Kyle watched the silent exchange and watched as Will turned and left. Damn, he could never seem to do the right thing. Geordi LaForge didn't look happy either. He gestured down the hall to the living quarters, his voice polite but cool.
"This way Mr. Riker."
"Relax," Deanna soothed. "Perhaps he did not mean anything by it."
"I know precisely what he meant by it."
Will set his empty glass heavily on the table.
"In a bad mood are we?" Guinan reprimanded as she replaced the empty, and fortunately, unbreakable glass with a full one.
The question elicited two smiles.
"That obvious?"
"Only when you break the glasses. Besides, you are distracting everyone from the real entertainment. Geordi and Tamara."
Two tables over, Geordi was sensing an all-too-quick end to the night's activities.
"Now?" he asked, disbelieving even he could have such bad luck. To finally convince Tamara Halley to join him for drinks and to be called away for this. "Can't Lieutenant Hanson do it?"
"The directive states the tests shall be performed under the supervision of the chief engineer."
"What's with this anyway? Does Fleet think we have nothing better to do than run surprise engine tests?"
"The other departments are receiving similar directives." The calm android voice irritated Geordi even more.
"Data," he asked exasperatedly, "don't you find all this even a little annoying?"
"It is designed to promote ship efficiency," the android replied helpfully.
"Great," said Geordi, sighing. "Tell Hanson I'll be down in a few minutes." Patricia Hanson was a good friend, a hell of an engineer, and not at all who he wanted to be spending the night with . . . perhaps an apology set off by a charming smile.
"It's all right."
"Maybe another time."
"Maybe," Tamara replied politely.
Yeah, right, thought Geordi glumly. They say you can see it in her eyes, but he could see it in her pulse. A nice slow beat. No sign of love. Hell, no sign of lust. Oh well, it wouldn't have been much of a night anyway.
He ran into Will's father at the turbo-lift.
Kyle smiled politically, trying to erase any earlier bad impressions.
"It always worries me when I see the chief of engineering in a dead-run."
"There's nothing to worry about. Headquarters has been sending down a lot of surprise testing directives. Noncompliance is not looked on favorably."
"That's your new Admiral's doing."
"We're hoping he'll grow out of it."

"I doubt it. I've known Admiral Sperke for years. A firm believer in readiness testing and he considers tests which mimic real-life conditions to be the most logical."
"I would suspect he is right."
"Really? I always thought Sperke failed to take into consideration what he would call the 'human' need for free time uninterrupted by his 'planned' emergencies. I bet no one on your ship - including your Captain - wholeheartedly approves of this. Not even the Vulcans."
"Well one of our crewmembers does, and that's how I know it's logical."
"Commander Data."
Kyle flashed a genuine grin. Will's grin. "The android? I'll have to tell Sperke that. He won't admit it, but he'll like it."
"Uh oh."
Guinan's eyes flicked from the paneled doors to the table where Deanna and Will sat in apparent silence.
"What?" asked the Dalent ensign who loomed over the bar at her. "Are those guys from life sciences back? I'll get rid of them."
"No. No." She said hastily. No need getting seven feet of rippling muscle upset. "It's nothing like that."
"Deanna," greeted Kyle, in the most cordial manner he could muster.
"Your father." The words were both a plea and a warning. Beneath the link Will muttered old curses, but his hands gestured smoothly.
"Won't you sit down?"
"Please join us," Deanna translated loosely, pointing toward the empty seats.
"Is that what he said?" Kyle asked skeptically, but he pulled out a chair.
"Not literally, but it was close."
"Tell him I came to apologize . . . for the incident in the hallway. I didn't mean to imply . . . "
"Imply what?"
"That you couldn't . . ."
Will's hands flew. Faster than even Deanna could read, but she didn't have to. Neither did his father.
"Don't bother," said Kyle, low-voiced. "I have a pretty good idea of what he said. He's said it before."
Kyle rose with a jolt, flush-faced.
"This was my mistake. If you will excuse me."
"You needed to see me?"
The captain rose from his desk, retrieving the commander from Worf's grasp. The Klingon disappeared into the bridge's haze and Will followed the captain's pull on his arm, trusting him more than the sensor readings which seemed to be telling him he was two steps from running into a wall.
"I'm afraid so. It's Reynolds. I didn't want to worry you with it while your father was here . . . "
Jean-Luc lowered Will's hand to the sofa's back.
"But . . ." signed Will, sinking down on the cushion.
"We're still carrying only half our supplies. Byron won't deal with him and Fleet says I should give him more time. Talk to him again. He needs to be more flexible."
"You talked to him?"
"In generalities, but you know how the system works. You have the contacts."
"I had the contacts," corrected Will.
"You are still the best supply officer in Fleet, of that I am sure. Talk to him. Please." Amusement touched around the pale eyes.
"You coming?"
Will would have been pleased with the responding smile. The one that took some of the tiredness from behind the captain's gaze.
"Take Data."
Will shook his head.
"No good. One machine talking to another. Never work."
"Take Worf."
"Might do some good," mused Will, thinking of how the lieutenant commander normally reacted to the security officer. He turned serious. "I need a human. I need to speak with a human voice."
The captain paused. That was something he never thought about, but there was some truth to it. It was Deanna, with her appreciation of human emotions, who spoke most clearly for Will. Often with the same inflection, the same rhythm he would have used. Data could repeat the words and recognize they had emotional content, but he could not convey the feelings. Worf, well he could convey some of the feelings a little too well.
"Deanna," suggested the captain.
He did not need yet another reason to rely on the one person he truly admitted he needed too much.
"Wesley," the hands decided firmly.
"Ensign," began the supply officer, irritably. His eyes rose slowly from the computer console, flicked a glance at Wesley, then returned to the screen. "Whoever sent you down here wasted their time. If they will notice in their morning data-mail is a memo detailing efforts being made to ensure proper timing of supply shipments."
"Yes Sir, that's why the captain wished Commander Riker to speak with you."
"Perhaps when I have the time."
"Now Commander."
Reynolds looked up sharply this time, expecting to take the insubordinate young ensign down with a glare.That, he realized a second later, was going to be impossible. The ensign looked far too smug to be easily disrupted and he would not be able to do anything with the reason behind the ensign's smugness. Will Riker was certainly not going to succumb to a cross look.
"All right," he sighed, demoralized. "What can I do for him this time?"
"You're on," signed Wesley. Will had to suppress a grin. Lately Wesley had been treating him more as an equal than a commanding officer. He would have put a stop to it except that he was not really equipped technically or otherwise to be giving orders and besides he was enjoying it just a little. He was not, however, predisposed to take it from Reynolds.
"The captain says we are still suffering from supply shortages. Let's see your logs."
Reynolds groaned, turning imploring eyes to Wesley.
"This is ridiculous."
He regretted immediately that he said it for however much the young ensign might have found it amusing before, he now turned and signed exactly to the commander.
The tall officer's mouth turned down in a frown.
"Commander, I will ignore that last remark. Call up your logs."
Reynold's chest heaved. It was as close to crying as he'd been in twenty years.
"Yes Sir," he hissed.
At least the young ensign wouldn't be able to translate tone.
Wesley veered from his path to the navigation console and came to a stop in front of the captain.
"Yes Sir?"
"I thought you went with Will to see Commander Reynolds."
"I did Sir. He dismissed me."
"You got through," surmised the captain, nodding his approval.
"Not exactly. They are still down there."
Alone? How was Will? Jean-Luc ran a finger over his lips.
"He said he could handle . . ." The ensign flushed with a grimace and Jean-Luc could easily imagine its cause. He was sure Will had sent him back to report anything but that he was having difficulty. "There's really no problem sir."
Jean-Luc thought about pressing for more information, then decided against it. If he was going to give Will responsibility, he was going to have to allow him to exercise it.
"Thank you Ensign."
That didn't mean he couldn't worry. He allowed a few minutes to pass. Sufficient time for the bridge crew not to connect his leaving with what Wesley Crusher said.
"Computer," he said when he was safely alone in the turbo-lift. "Location of Commander Reynolds and William Riker."
"Commander Reynolds and William Riker are in the executive's office, Deck nine."
"Deck nine," the captain instructed the lift.
He strode down the deck, not quite sure what excuse he was going to use. Then, stopping by the door, he reassured himself that he really didn't need one at all. He was the captain. It was his ship.
"Captain!" Reynolds jumped to his feet, for the first time looking relieved to see his commanding officer.
"How is the resupply going?" Jean-Luc tried to sound pleasant, like he'd merely wandered in to make a routine check.
"Quite . . . Quite well," the commander stammered.
Will's hand pressed against the mechanical one. He'd retrieved it from somewhere. A neat solution to the communication problem. He was trying hard to suppress the smile that was forming due to the captain's entrance.
"I am sure Wesley told you we managed to get a few things." The computer's voice was supposed to be incapable of any kind of humorous tone. So why did Jean-Luc expect it to laugh?
Why had he come down here anyway?
"Mr. Riker," he said, noting Will was still eavesdropping. He ignored Reynold's desperately pleading eyes. Will couldn't be that bad. The rest of the crew seemed to think very highly of him. "When you're through, please come to the bridge."
He backed his way out, smiling. "Good job, Commander."
No reason to worry. No reason to worry at all.
Deanna was smiling, too, as he stepped back onto the lift. In fact, she positively beamed at him.
She chose to ignore the question in his voice.
"Good morning Sir."
Her thoughts brushed against his. Amusement and, running deeper, pride. Was he thinking of Will? She received the vaguest notion that he was and knew better than to try and make it concrete. She reached instead for the thoughts she could know.
She received Will's thoughts all at once, a glorious rush of memories, and he took hers as his own in the same moment. For a few seconds they could do nothing but try to make some coherent picture from the blending of two very different views of the universe. A pleasing challenge.
"Will," she admonished, pressing her lips together to keep from breaking out in laughter at Will's latest description of their new executive officer. The captain must have noticed her odd expression. He said something she didn't quite hear. She brought herself back, nodding at the captain, hoping it would suffice as a reply. Will accepted the separation, distancing himself also.
"I'll see you on the bridge."
This time he didn't wait. He stepped out of the lift, sidestepped to avoid Worf and grinned as the Klingon halted his determined pace, considering him quizzically. Sometimes it was the little victories that were the most pleasant.
"How did you?"
Will had become an excellent K'hijei player, but how could he have known - on the bridge with its myriad distractions - that he was about to be hit by a Klingon moving at high speed? Certainly it wasn't the sensors, Worf had pulled him out of the path of too many oncoming pedestrians for him to have any faith in that particular technology.
Worf turned to find the counselor smiling at him. He returned the smile - barely. Practically a grin for him, though. His hands moved in Will's, causing Deanna's smile to widen.
"Do not bring her to the match."
"What are you doing here?" asked Deanna as the Klingon returned to his fast trek to the turbolift.
"Offering my report on the current state of ship supply functions," he replied with mock formality, but he could sense Deanna's mind wasn't on ship's business at all. There was a new vagueness to her thoughts. Not like anything he'd sensed before.
"Last night was wonderful. You were wonderful. In fact you were magnificent." She glanced up at him from the lower deck and noticed he was blushing.
"Are you all right?" Despite the embarrassment, his concern remained. Besides, he wasn't sure what he had to be embarrassed about. It wasn't as if Deanna had said anything aloud - or so he hoped.
"I'm fine," she reassured him, "you're blushing."
"Anyone but you notice?" The question was only half joking.
"No." Everyone was far too intent on their duty stations.
"Then I'll get out of here while I still have some dignity left."
"Mr. Riker," the captain's voice vied for her attention with Will's silent one. He'd just stepped out of the ready room and decided to take advantage of the link. "Please come in."
She felt Will withdraw, leaving the bridge with the captain. Leaving her to place her full attention on her duties. It was of little help. She was still overcome with a giddy feeling she couldn't quite place. The feeling of well-being every Betazoid woman feels from the moment of conception to the fourth day of pregnancy. The only sign that would come for at least a month. The feeling first-time mothers rarely recognized.
Kyle swore silently to himself as the Klingon security officer stepped on the turbolift. He'd spent all day avoiding practically any member of the crew he'd ever met before, and he'd done it quite successfully. Until now.
Kyle darted an alarmed sideways glance at Worf as the trio from engineering stepped off the lift, leaving it silent. He'd hoped to avoid the Klingon in the crowd. His feeling of alarm grew exponentially as the deep brown eyes fastened on him. He coughed uncomfortably, scrambling for something to say.
"A fine performance earlier. You are an excellent combatant."
The Klingon showed no signs of pleasure at the compliment.
"Your son, also, shows much promise," said Worf gruffly.
"He does not have your strength, speed or agility," noted Kyle matter-of-factly, forgetting his previous concerns. He studied the Klingon curiously. "The game must seem pointless to you. There is little honor is such an unequal fight."
It was an old adage that a Klingon could not be startled, and Kyle was not sure how to decipher the look that on a human's face he would have called surprise.
"Your son is a worthy adversary."
Kyle shook his head. A Klingon would never say anything out of mere politeness.
"How? Why? He . . ."
"The commander has strength I do not possess," continued Worf. "He lives with honor through that which would destroy one of my people."
"I do not understand."
"No you do not," observed Worf, the dark eyes searching the human's face. "I consider your son 'rhvat'chra.' It is, perhaps, not translatable into your language. It is regrettable you do not know this."
The Klingon fixed his eyes on the floor level readouts and said nothing more. When the doors to the lift opened, Kyle took the opportunity to escape. He'd worry about what floor he was on later.
"He said what?"
It was becoming painfully clear that avoiding his father for the last few days had been a mistake. And there was no mistaking the cool letters formed by Data's hands.
"He said a person in your condition required more than the resources of a starship."
"Do you have any idea why he said this to you?"
"No," the android admitted, "human behavior is often puzzling to me, that is why I have asked you."
"That is precisely why he told you."
"So you would ask me."
"I do not understand."
"No and you probably never will."
The golden eyes blinked.
"Why would I not be able to understand?"
"Because you don't have a father."
Will pushed past him. Though it was obvious the human was angered by the conversation, Data was still unsure as to why.
"Perhaps it is better I do not."
"Do not what?" asked O'Brien, overhearing as he passed by.
"Have a father."
"You're right there," the transporter chief agreed. "But if you are feeling deprived, you can have mine."
Kyle was not in his quarters so Will contented himself with leaving a very terse note on the terminal screen and with the thought of being very drunk by the time his father read it. Not that he would succeed. The synthehol served in Ten-Forward had a built-in safety mechanism and after a certain point your blood alcohol level would go down rather than up, but a man could try.
The doors to Ten-Forward snapped open and Will had to lean against the door frame fighting a barrage of dizziness. At this hour the lounge was packed. The overload of information from the sensor net jumbled in his head. His own fault. After this long he should have known better. Crowded rooms always took a minute to sort out and he had allowed himself to be lost in thought, angered at his father. Walking and thinking at the same time was no longer a luxury he could afford.
Out of the swirling images he could detect one figure moving closer but it still did not become clear, if clear was even a word that could be used to describe what the sensor net produced. As soon as she touched him though, he knew it was Guinan.

"You ok?" Concerned, she took him by the arm and guided him toward the bar. She grew more concerned that he allowed it. Will Riker generally did not appreciate being led.
He sank down on the offered seat. "Sometimes the sensor images scramble if I am not concentrating."
"Better now?" she asked as he shook his head, trying to clear it. He seemed to relax. "You want to drink or talk?"
"Both." He reached after her. "Not synthesized."
From the way he looked, he needed it. Kneeling down she released the lock on the captain's private stash. Jean-Luc did not keep a wide assortment, but what he acquired he acquired well. She didn't think twice as she poured a glass of brandy. As Kyle had remarked to her yesterday, somewhat testily, there was nothing the captain would deny Will. But, she'd returned, there is nothing Will would ask which the captain would need to deny.
"Your father," Guinan surmised, wrapping his hand around the glass.
He tried not to look surprised. Starships were worse than small towns. Life in a fishbowl, someone once said. "Word gets around."
"What do you think the problem is?"
Will took a sip of the brandy. "You're starting to sound like Deanna. You bucking for a new job?"
Guinan was unwilling to be pulled off track. "Just performing the bartender's age-old task. You did not answer my question."
Will retrieved his hand and threw back the rest of the drink.
"I know what the problem is."
"You do?"
"He always wanted the model son. Something I never was. But he hoped one day I would see my potential. No way can he deal with my . . . current inabilities."
"You are not helpless."
"No? If you weren't holding my hand I would not even know you were there."
He felt her gently stroke the sensor net.
"All right," he conceded, "I would know something was there, but you could just as well be a potted plant."
"You know a lot more than you admit. You know who walks in a room without looking and only Deanna and I are supposed to be able to do that."
She expected her admission of even this small bit of telepathy would peak his curiosity, draw him out of the dark mood, but this dark mood was not easily brushed away. Sometimes there was an awful fragileness about him. As if that strength which had somehow held him together the past year would fail. And if it failed no strength they had would be sufficient to replace it.
"It is little consolation. I don't know if anyone would believe me, but I think the worst of it is not being able to speak."
"You speak quite eloquently with your hands."
"Not with my father. He knows no sign language and I do not read minds."
"Who says you don't read minds?" Deanna's thoughts were amused as they melded with his own. But there was something more. Guinan watched as his hands fell silent and he turned his attention inward, answering Deanna's thoughts with his own.

"What's wrong?" He could feel Deanna's tension.
What had his father done now?
"See you do read minds. But it's not your father," sighed Deanna glumly. "It's my mother."
"She's coming on board. She's very upset I waited so long to tell her about us."
Will pushed the empty glass to Guinan.
"Make it a double."
Guinan looked toward the counselor whose expression was now a grim match of Will's and she pulled out another glass and made it two.
It did not escape Deanna's notice that this was a perfect repeat of the scene only a few days earlier except the transporter chief seemed to radiate even more sympathy than before. And perhaps Will seemed a little more withdrawn. She couldn't blame him. The link he'd so openly accepted left him vulnerable to the thoughts of all other telepaths, just as she was. He already shied from the waves of emotion he could feel from the others through her, and though Deanna was quite used to Lwaxana as both a physical and mental presence, she could see how it was an experience Will would not look forward to, or might easily even fear. He was, however, attempting to keep whatever feelings he had to himself. Deanna just hoped her mother would exercise the same restraint.
Restraint, unfortunately, was not a characteristic her mother had in abundance. Certainly not in her choice of clothing which, though Deanna would have thought it nearly impossible, appeared to have grown even more exotic.
"Little One! How good to see you!"
The crinoline-like fabric of her daydress engulfed Deanna in a hug, but the hand that took Will's was gentle, as was the first contact with his mind.
"William. It's good to see you also."
Even the look she gave in answer to Deanna's unworded thanks for that gentleness was muted and Deanna eased the tight hold she'd been keeping over her own emotions.
The hand that continued to grasp Will's never changed its force, but the voice echoing in Deanna's mind did.
"I'm extremely upset with you Little One. You know elopement is not considered proper on Betazed."
"Mother . . . "
But the attention that had suddenly been brought to bear on Deanna was just as quickly turned toward the unsuspecting transporter chief.
"Mr. Oberon!"
"O'Brien, ma'am. O'Brien."
Lwaxana flipped a hand toward him, "Whatever."
It seemed to the transporter chief that Deanna and Will sighed in perfect harmony.
"Mr. Hohm should be in position with my luggage. Please beam him up."
"Yes, ma'am," returned O'Brien and he dutifully stabbed at the controls, producing the tall alien and a cargo hold's worth of trunks.
"Mother," admonished Deanna "it is still the bride who is supposed to have the trousseau."
"Well, dear," replied Lwaxana, fixing her with a haughty look. "Since you hadn't informed me of which rituals you neglected to have performed I had to come prepared." She waved toward the transporter chief. "Mr. Oberon, please have my luggage brought to my quarters."
"O'Brien, Mother," hissed Deanna.
"O'Brien . . . " corrected Lwaxana. The correction, however, had the disadvantage of returning Lwaxana's attention to her daughter. "Come Little One. Come William. I want to hear all about the ceremony."
Will declined to follow, however, and in a moment Lwaxana released his hand, fixing him with a bemused look.
"Just like a man," she said aloud. "He'd rather stay here and discuss Deeson's circuits with Mr. Oberon."
Deeson's circuits? Will didn't know a thing about the new transporter upgrade, he'd said so himself only last week. Her mother, though, appeared to have bought it hook, line and sinker as Will would say and Deanna had to admit she was impressed. She never could get away with lying.
"He didn't get away with it Little One," clarified Lwaxana when they were in the hall. "I just have a soft spot for human males. They're so delightfully awkward with their emotions."
"Whatever the reason, I appreciate it."
"He'll get used to the link in time. Will Riker was always a good catch, dear. He still is. That doesn't mean that you're off the 'hook.' Not until I hear the details."
As Deanna suspected, however, the details failed to please her.
"You have not been properly wed!"
Lwaxana's mouth tightened into a thin grim line after she said it and Deanna sank heavily into the guest quarter's couch.
"Captain Picard performed a standard ceremony."
"Standard ceremony?"
It was just a mere question, but her mother's tone made it sound as if she'd chosen a Verlosian lip piercing rite to perform her vows.
"You probably had your clothes on."
"YOU were going to settle for it."
Lwaxana's black eyes set to stone.
"I thought you'd be happy to stop sending messages on your black-bordered mourning screen."
"Oh," the dark eyes softened and Lwaxana rustled to the couch, spreading a parsec of material as she sat, "of course I'm pleased Little One. It's just that ever since you were a little girl . . ."
"You've been planning my wedding," finished Deanna. "Yes, Mother, I know."
Lwaxana folded her arms against the crinkling mass.
"Then you did this simply to defy me."
"No Mother. I did this because Will and I had already bonded before the ceremony."
"You mean you had no joiner?" Lwaxana's skirt rustled frenetically. "It's worse than I thought."
Deanna wanted to explain.

"Mr. Hohm! Mr. Hohm!"
Lwaxana's entire attention, however, was focused on the stoic alien.
"Mr. Hohm, we must arrange a joining ceremony."
"It isn't necessary," protested Deanna.
"Of course it is. Will is human. Your father and I had sense enough to have a joiner and we still had to have the occasional tune-up to strengthen the link."
"Mother, listen to me. Will and I have always had a natural link and I used that to build the bond on."
The rustling stopped abruptly.
"You never told me that."
"Of course I didn't. You would have insisted I marry him."
"And I would have been right."
"Mind if I join you?"
Will gestured the captain toward the nearby chair.
"He's hiding from Lwaxana or Kyle - or both," remarked Guinan as she sauntered up beside the captain with a couple of unrequested drinks. "Quixt'zdanars," she explained as she set the smoking cups in front of them. "Complements of Mr. Hohm."
She tilted her head toward the bar and indeed there stood the tall alien, holding up his own steaming drink. Jean-Luc nodded briefly in thanks and Hohm turned the cup up, finishing it off in one gulp.
"What's in it?"
Will shook his head warily.
"I wouldn't drink that if I were you. He got me to try one last night. It's a Betazed party drink for when they want to get 'blind' drunk. Suppresses empathic and telepathic ability. Also packs quite a wallop. It's supposed to prepare me for the joining ceremony. "
"What ceremony?"
"Lwaxana has decided that Deanna and I could not possibly form a proper bond with out a proper joining ceremony and she's insisting we have one now. It was either this or have the wedding performed again in strict Betazed fashion."
"Where's Deanna?"
"We can't see each other unchaperoned until the ceremony. To make sure we don't, Lwaxana is keeping an eye on Deanna and Hohm is watching me."
The tall alien, however, looked like he'd had far too many of his own concoctions to make a good watchdog.
"Hohm is going to perform the ceremony?"
"No. He's going to officiate. Betazed is sending an official empathic adept to perform the service."
"What do you think?"

Lwaxana pursed her lips at the paused image on the cabin viewscreen - a page from a replication pattern catalogue. It showed a monstrously bejeweled gown with matching L'fetwix hair ornaments. Deanna didn't voice her opinion, though she might as well have.
"How could I have raised you to have no aesthetic sensibilities?"
"Look, Mother, I didn't come about dresses. Will's father is also on board. We thought . . ." Deanna summoned her best style. She couldn't avoid bringing this up any longer, the ship was not so large that their discovering each other wasn't inevitable. "We thought you might like to meet him."
"His father?" Lwaxana shrugged minisculely. "This will change the seating at the joining ceremony. He will have to be the one to escort me. I was going to have your dear captain do the honors, but if the father is actually here . . ." She took the opportunity to sag into a nearby chair. "Oh Deanna, why do you do these things to me?"
Deanna had too many things to do to take the bait.
"Ten Forward Mother, at eight. Don't be too late."
"Me late? Little One . . . whatever are you talking about. When have you ever known me to be late?"
Kyle glanced noticeably toward the display chronometer.
"You're sure she's coming?"
Deanna's only response was to press a hand to her temple as she saw Guinan approaching.
"Oh no, not again."
"Compliments of . . ."
"Mr. Hohm," finished Deanna and Kyle together as Guinan placed the steaming cups next to the others that still bubbled coolly on the table top.
"Ah, well, I'm glad to see Hohm is doing his duty."
"Mother you're late."
"Hush, Little One, is that any way to talk to your mother?" She elbowed her way between Deanna and Kyle. "You should be introducing me to this gorgeous man."
"Mother . . ."
"Deanna . . ."
"Oh, all right, Kyle Riker this is my mother Lwaxana Troi."
"Holder of the Scared Chalus. Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed."
Kyle bowed gallantly.
"The pleasure is all mine."
Beside her, Will silently groaned.
"It's not that bad," said Deanna, holding Will's hand as they strolled beneath a Bajoran rhymen tree. "At least she's forgotten we're supposed to be sleeping in separate quarters."
From above the trees the glow of a computer projected moon bathed them in a faint light.
"You don't know my father. He's extremely dense about these things. There's going to be trouble."
"Don't underestimate him. I heard he was quite a ladies' man in his day."

They passed another couple as she said it - Carlos Rivas from engineering and that very pretty new comm officer. Will nodded briefly in their direction, knowing someone had passed by. Deanna doubted the greeting would have been that brief had Will been able to see those wide hazel eyes and that mane of chestnut hair. Like father, like son.
"Deanna we're not talking about some Fleet officer or dilithium negotiator. We're talking about your mother."
"You say that like . . ." She was prepared to defend the family honor when a melodious giggling wafted provocatively around the corner.
"Hide!" she hissed, pulling him after her.
"What?" he repeated as he felt his back press heavily into a spiny-barked cerfa tree. "Ouch!"
"Sorry. Don't move."
"I've got a back full of cerfa spines and you don't want me to move?"
"It doesn't hurt that badly," retorted Deanna, knowing it was true.
"Just who are we hiding from?"
"Your father - or my mother. I haven't decided which."
"About ten feet to your left."
"What are they doing?"
"Well, Mother is giggling and your father is acting very gallant."
She pressed tighter against him.
"Don't move . . ."
"Deanna . . ."
"They're right next to us."
"Wait, they're leaving," she stretched to crane around the fronds. "It's OK, they're gone."
Will brushed his back off pointedly.
"We can handle it," continued Deanna. "There's nothing to worry about."
"Are you trying to convince me or yourself?"
"Come on," sighed Deanna.
She swung around and came face to face with Keiko O'Brien who was holding a broken laceflower stem as if it were a three-days dead snapper.
"Would you mind telling me," she asked with what she'd hoped was the greatest restraint, "why you are standing in a patch of endangered starflowers?"
Lwaxana looked no happier the next day as her fingers deftly separated a lock of Deanna's hair and began the tedious process of twining the curl with a strand of talet blossoms. "Stop whining dear, I've already loosened all the prohibitions I dare."
"Fine, but you tell Will you're going to put a crown of pink Iden Morns on his head."
"Flowers are symbolic representations of worldly love."
"Mother, you seem to forget Will and I have been married for months."
The fingers spun the bottom of the talet stem against the roots of her hair - tightly.
"Ouch! You did that on purpose."
"Don't be silly, dear."
Deanna closed her eyes, tried to clear her mind.
She opened them just as quickly.
"Mother what have you done?"
"To the link."
"I've done nothing. Mr. Hohm, however, has set up a harmonic reducer field which should block most of your emanations."
"To ensure a proper bonding."
"We are already properly bonded."
"Mother, it could be dangerous."
"You're being silly again."
"Will is partially dependent on me for orientation."
"That's no way to start a bonding."
"It's not the reason we bonded, it's just a by-product."
"Well then," said Lwaxana, studying the effect of the transparent petals on Deanna's glossy black hair, "you can do without it for a while."
"Whoa." Geordi hurried toward Will's crouched figure, hoping to get there before the unprotected hands moved any closer to the sharp-edged bits of shattered field coil.
"Careful," he admonished, pulling Will up and steering him through the labyrinth of people and tools lining their path.
The engineering deck seemed to be in cacophony - at least that was the way the net perceived the hurried rush of the crewmen around them.
"One of the field coils cracked. We're trying to juryrig another. We were hoping it would hold until the replacement parts got here."
"When is that?"
"Reynolds says nine days, maybe ten."
"Ten days?"
There was something in the question that peaked Geordi's interest.
"You couldn't lay your hands on one could you?"
Will looked doubtful.
"What's our position?"
"Merackis System, but we're still scheduled to dock at Four within forty-eight hours."
The doubtful look remained.
"Not enough time?"
"Not sure I have the authority."
Geordi stopped to view his wrecked engine room.
"You get the coil and I'll make sure you have the authority."
"Will?" Deanna called softly as she always did when she entered their cabin, but the silently spoken name bounced against Hohm's harmonic wall. "Damn it Mother."
This she whispered under her breath then she sent the curse outward, hoping against hope that Lwaxana would relent.
"Such a temper, Little One."
"Mother I've probably forgotten what little sign language I knew."
"Then you'll have to relearn it, won't you?"
Deanna closed her eyes. When she opened them again Will was standing before her, his hands fluidly expressive. She wasn't entirely sure what he was asking, but she was certain that, no matter what the question, she knew the answer.
"Mother," she spelled. "Disrupted link."
"To purify the bonding."
She was staring at him as she said it, seeing him for the first time in a long while. With the bond there was no need to spend time scanning a face as humans did to see the underlying emotion. The mark of a truly deep bond on Betazed was the inability to pick out your partner by sight alone. In a way, she mused, telepaths were all blind.
She studied him a moment with her newfound sight. His eyes seemed paler than she remembered and the small lines creasing their corners had deepened.
"I was worried."
"I don't remember much sign," she apologized.
Will shook his head, flashing that still-familiar grin.
"Good thing we're having dinner with the captain."
"So he can translate?"
"So I won't be tempted to do something nasty to your mother."
Deanna could feel a mixture of bemusement and annoyance as she entered the holodeck. It mixed oddly with the soft scent of Iden Morns hung in the air. Off in the distance she could hear muted voices and she approached the sound, her bare feet damp with the dew of a Betazed dawn.

"Klingons do not frolic!"
The bass hiss of the Lieutenant's voice carried easily across the glade. It was followed by one equally exasperated.
"We must express our joy for the bonding couples newfound oneness."
The bass hiss returned.
"I will not remove my shoes."
Lwaxana turned a baleful eye on Jean-Luc.
"You are not setting a good example Captain."
The exclamation did have the effect of drawing her mother's attention toward her and away from the Starfleet officers. Unfortunately, it drew everyone else's attention to her as well. Worf chose, as always, to express his displeasure quite plainly. She could hear the growl begin deep in his chest at the sight of what he clearly conceived to be her humiliation. The captain was more diplomatic, nodding a greeting in her direction, but even he found it hard not to react to - well - her attire.
Deanna edged toward the officers, sliding between the captain and the Klingon. "At least in this ceremony we get to wear something," she reminded them.
That the "something" appeared to be a clinging cloud and that it appeared a rainbow had woven itself into her glossy black hair they would just have to accept.
By their widened eyes, though, she could tell it was a concept they were not quite comfortable with.
"My garment symbolizes the sky."
The captain frowned slightly.
"And Will?"
"I just hope Data won't tell him what he looks like."
"What are you doing?"
"The ritual calls for you to wear a crown of Phildeitus Belitaxui."
"I believe you call them Iden Morns."
"They're pink and white and fluffy?"
He pushed the android's flower-bearing hands away.
"Oh no . . . I am not wearing flowers simply to make Lwaxana Troi happy."
"It is a required part of the ceremony."
"Deanna," he sighed, but there was no hope of an answer.
"What does the rest of the outfit look like?"
"The male in the bonding represents the 'world,' the world of Betazed. You wear a crown of Iden Morns and a cloak of Alanthec Leaves."
"Leaves? Do I wear anything else?"
"There is a short tunic."
The call button vibrated nervously and Will reached for his comm badge, momentarily stopping his protests regarding the arc of flowers Data was pressing on his head.
Under Will's hand the comm badge whistled and chirped in reply, instructing the incoming message be diverted to the nearby terminal. A trail of Iden flowers followed him as he crossed to it. So did Data, his hands brimming with more of the pink petals. Unperturbed, he waited until the human was seated then resumed wrapping the flower stems.
Will was too engrossed in retrieving the incoming message to protest further and Data sped the process up, believing it was inevitably more efficient to argue about it once the decoration was in place than it was to protest while cupping Iden flowers in both hands.
Cancel what order?
I haven't canceled an order.
Which order?
I didn't cancel that.
Have you canceled it yet?
Then don't.
He was out the door before Data had a chance to tell him that perhaps the crown of flowers would look better if he was wearing the rest of the costume.
J. Patrick Reynolds was becoming used to officers barging into his office. He didn't even turn at first but then the sharp rap on his desktop sent a shiver up his back. Not again. But even the thought of William Riker was not the shock it used to be. He supposed you could get used to practically anything.
"Yes, Mr. Riker," he began before he realized that there were perhaps things about this ship he would never be prepared for.
It wasn't that the ex-first officer was towering above his desk. He was prepared for that. It wasn't that the commander was tapping menacingly on the terminal. He was prepared for that, too. He suspected that he wasn't too surprised that the glowering figure was wreathed in a halo of pink flowers or that he was wearing golden sandals instead of the usual regulation-issued boots. What caused him to sink defeatedly into his office chair was the ship's current first, who followed William Riker with an armful of green leaves, insisting that he put on his cloak.
"Where is he?" Lwaxana demanded, her foot tapping fretfully on the grass-softened holodeck floor.
"Normally," pointed out Deanna, arms tightly crossed against the thin fabric of her gown, "I would be able to tell you."
Her mother ignored the comment and spun instead on the captain who had been taking the opportunity to ponder the nature of Lwaxana's attire. If Deanna was to represent the sky and Will the earth, what was the meaning of the legions of crystal fabric rustling around Lwaxana? Despite their abundance, the translucent folds hid almost nothing and, while not an easily embarrassed man, Jean- Luc could feel his cheeks redden just a touch as Lwaxana's turn caught him staring. For once, though, Lwaxana was too occupied to comment on his discomfort.
"You're his captain - you should know where he is."
"Computer," barked Worf before the captain had a chance to, "location of William Riker."
"William Riker is currently located in the Executive Officer's office."
"Well," said Lwaxana, placing her hands on her hips and directing the order at the most senior officer present, "go get him."
"I will go Sir," growled Worf with obvious annoyance. Lwaxana's flaming eyes met a pair equally as determined and she made the wise choice to accept the Klingon's offer.
"Perhaps you would like to accompany him, Sir," suggested Deanna. While she might not be able to sense Will's emotions at the moment, the discomfort of the Enterprise's other officers was quite clear to her. Of course, the state of her mother was clear to everybody.
The object of such concern in the holodeck had his own problems to deal with.
"Why did you cancel my order?" demanded Will, not withstanding the difficulties in Reynold's comprehending the question or his comprehending the reply.
The net detected a rustling behind him. Data, he realized. Carrying what must be his cloak. Then he remembered the flowers in his hair, something else to point out his lack of authority. He plodded forward anyway.
"Why did you cancel my order?" he repeated now that someone was here to lend a voice to his question.
"Which order?"
"You canceled more than one?"
It was not the first time Data had seen Will Riker lose his temper, but it was the first time Reynolds had. And it reminded him all too much of the Klingon. He had heard that of all the officers on the ship, Riker was the one the security officer considered a proper sparring partner. Almost an equal despite his condition. And the Klingon . . . the Klingon . . .
Reynolds shut his eyes. Surely it wasn't, he thought desperately, it couldn't be the security officer pounding through his office door. He opened them again and wished he hadn't for the Klingon had noted the commander's posture, his sharply slashing hands and had moved closer to see what had so upset the human. And, Reynolds knew with a tightening of his throat, what had so upset the commander was him. Thank God the captain appeared just as suddenly. He stepped between the two officers and laid a calming hand on Will's arm.
"Is there a problem?"
The commander grinned weakly at the thought of his attire.
"A small supply matter," he returned, trying to salvage some measure of formality.
"Then I'm sure it can wait." Jean-Luc steered Will toward the door as he said it, into the custody of Data and the security officer. "Make sure he gets to the ceremony."
Worf still looked distrustfully at the supply officer, but the captain had already realized the potential of the commander's argument. "I'll take care of this."
Normally he would not have welcomed an in-depth discussion of whatever supply problem had caused such consternation, but compared to Lwaxana Troi, talk of replicator parts or opti-cable, seemed unusually appealing. With any luck, he would be able to stretch the discussion through the start of the ceremony and, as a late entrance on Betazed was an insult when done by anyone but Lwaxana Troi . . . well, he hoped he wouldn't be sorely missed.
Humans, Worf knew, were able to stomach a variety of indignities that a Klingon would be hardpressed to consider, never mind carry out. And in the past he had seen Will Riker adapt to wearing feathers and flowing skirts and a multitude of other outfits never meant for a human male, on orders to complete some diplomatic mission. He had never, however, seen him so out of place as he looked now, dressed in a short tunic barely reaching his thighs and a thick leafy cloak that settled at the tops of the gold sandal's ties.
The human started across the room at the determined pace that meant he was attempting to ignore the fact that without the net he was relying on memory alone to get him to the door. His memory, however, did not include a Klingon planted dead center of his path.
A large hand reached out to stop him before he crashed headlong into the security officer. Although Worf saw the commander roaming the gym without the net often enough, he had never grown quite used to the idea of the human being totally without sight. As usual, Will gave him no time to ponder the point.
"So how do I look?"
There was a hint of a grin as he signed it and the Klingon let out a growl that would have sent Reynolds scampering under his desk. Here it had little effect. Will merely allowed the hands to push him toward a chair. A destination they failed to reach as the Klingon couldn't help stopping short when Data emerged from the back of the cabin.
Accepting Will Riker's often bizarre attire for diplomatic purposes was one thing, so was accepting the injured human's acquiescence now. If he could abide Will's dependency, he could abide his participation in this silly Betazed ritual, but Data was still a Starfleet officer. A type of warrior. And warriors would not, should not, ever be found wrapped in translucent sheeting, standing for all intents, naked and holding a bouquet of flowers.
The android raised a lone eyebrow at the Klingon's stare.
"Will's father refused to participate."
"A wise decision," agreed Worf.
"Someone must serve as the merater, the best man."
"Best man?"
Data searched for a similar position in Klingon ritual.
"A ch'tzahn," he clarified.
"A ch'tzahn would not be dressed in that fashion."
"Perhaps not," agreed the android, "but the functions are similar."
He gave Will his elbow. "We should go."
The Klingon showed no signs of being ready to go anywhere.
"Are you coming?" inquired Data.
"I will follow," answered Worf gravely, "at a discrete distance."
The arrival of the officers kept Lwaxana happy for a few minutes - until she noticed the captain was nowhere to be found.
"I must have an escort," she protested for a second time, her mound of dark curls shimmering in agitation.
Deanna's small hand bit down on Worf's arm.
"I'm sure the Lieutenant would be honored."
The smile returned to Lwaxana's face.
"Of course he would," she said, latching onto the thick muscles of his arm.
"Counselor . . ." warned Worf, but the huge dark eyes pleaded unmercifully.
"Please," she mouthed.
Worf swallowed hard. "I . . ." he cast another glance in Deanna's direction, but the pleading eyes continued to gaze up at him. "I would be honored."
Vanden Shon had traveled two days to get here and he hadn't planned on rising - after a late- night rush through Starbase Four customs - at the unlikely ship's hour that passed for Betazed's dawn. Lwaxana Troi, however, had other ideas. He tried not to yawn in the recreated morning mist as he waited before the dias, which he'd found stuck surprisingly in a bank of flowers.
He doubted seriously he was in his best voice. Lwaxana had dragged him in here without so much as a complementary cup of retetna. But then the bonding party looked little more comfortable. Certainly it was a mixed group. A cacophony of minds which caused him to summon shielding skills he hadn't used in years.
Things were not like this at the bondings of the other major Betazoid families, but then you could always count on the heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed to liven up even the deadest of proceedings.
With a nod from his hostess, Vanden Shon began.
"There exists no greater commitment than the one in which Deanna and William are about to partake. No stronger link can be forged between two individuals. No deeper secrets revealed. Since the first time two of our people gave their thoughts wholeheartedly and freely, this combining has been our most solemn ceremony. Our affirmation of life which begins as a personal journey and matures as an experience shared. Let they who would be together come forward that their joining may be witnessed and their life as one begin."
At that signal, the procession started forward. Lwaxana first, accompanied by Worf, then Will and Data, and Deanna last, the shimmering train rustling behind her.
Following the precise demands of the ritual, they stopped to form a half-circle, then all but Deanna and Will stepped back. Vanden moved forward. He laid a hand on their shoulders, instructing them to kneel.
By custom neither was to touch the other, but custom had not counted on reckoning with participants born of other worlds, or other extraneous problems. Will felt small hands reach for his and he reached back, eager to bridge that artificial gulf that divided them.

"A man," the mediator said, "cannot know true loneliness until he has been joined with another. Bonding can only be accomplished by consent of two minds and may only be broken by the same consent. Let they who desire this merger know that once bonded those who are so intertwined are of one mind, one body, one life. To separate from the other is to lose a part of oneself."
This was the equivalent for a last call for backing down. Satisfied at the silence, the mediator continued.
"Let no fear exist. No joy not be shared . . ."
"Let no pain be kept from me," echoed the soft words in Will's mind. They were embraced and returned. "Let no thought be mine alone."
Petals fell from the overhanging branches as the mediator solemnly intoned the vow Deanna and Will shared in silence.
Lwaxana seemed satisfied as she surveyed the crowd in Ten-Forward. She'd even let the captain's absence at the ceremony go with little more than a single verbal shot and she'd attached herself to Kyle Riker's arm as if it were payment enough for his own absence.
For their part, the honored couple had secreted themselves at the furthest table, content to serve as an excuse for a party that was rapidly becoming ship wide, yet somehow unwilling to join it. Not, Deanna realized, that they could avoid forever the traditional bonding ceremony dance, but she was attempting to put it off as long as possible.
At least they had managed to change it from its prehistoric Betazed form to a more controlled waltz and Lwaxana had even allowed them to change into outfits more appropriate to the human dance, albeit ones she had chosen. From the look on her face, she thought they looked resplendent. Deanna was not sure where her mother had gotten the idea for the frivolous concoction she was wearing, but Will would have fit in well as a Napoleonic Admiral, albeit a rather excessively dressed one, a fact that had not escaped the attention of their somewhat bemused captain.
Lwaxana's gaze was beginning to stray less and less from the back table and Deanna finally succumbed to the assault.
"We might as well get it over with," she sighed, still pleased to find the link unblocked by Hohm's harmonic wall.
"Then my lady, would you care to do me the honor of this dance?" Will rose and bowed before her, managing to look dignified even in the braided coat and ruffled shirt. She took the offered hand and using the other to lift the trailing yards of satin, led her partner to the dance floor.
"It's so romantic," cooed Lwaxana, the grip on Kyle's arm tightening. "And don't they make a beautiful couple?"
"Deanna is lovely," concurred Kyle, but the look he gave his son was not so congenial, "but whoever dressed Will should be shot out of a photon tube. He looks ridiculous."
"Ridiculous!" protested Lwaxana. "That is an original design by Tekra of Andoria."
"I don't care if it was originally worn by Alexander the Great," growled Kyle. "He looks like he fell out of a bad play. I realize he can't use a mirror, but surely Deanna would have told him . . ."
Will was concentrating so deeply on the repetitious steps of the waltz that he was oblivious to the commotion his outfit was causing. Deanna turned a concerned head in the direction of the argument when she wasn't being swung around by Will, but she felt no compulsion to intervene. It was too nice, spinning there on the dance floor to the song of Data's violin and she didn't want to stop.

The rest of the crowd appeared not to share her feelings. They found the growing argument much more interesting than a lone couple waltzing on the lounge floor. As the voices rose, even Data ceased playing and directed a curiosity-filled stare to the barfront. Deanna continued to hum the song to herself though and they continued to dance even when security came to restrain Lwaxana who had taken the customary Iden flower from the groom's father's lapel and was stomping it on the deck floor.
"I will never forgive that man Little One." The busily moving figure flung a couple of massive dresses at Hohm as she said it. One landed atop his head, covering him in a burgundy and fuschia veil. "He ruined the reception."
There was a silvery rippling in the link and Lwaxana spun, shaking a handful of orchard silk. "Don't you laugh William. It's all your fault."
"He's your father."
"Lwaxana, that is through no fault of my own."
"Other than that it was a beautiful ceremony," sighed Lwaxana, looking over the properly bonded couple with approval.
She tossed a final piece of clothing at the tall servant.
"Oh Little One. I don't get to see you enough." She drew an arm around Deanna and reached her other hand to Will. "You two must come visit me as soon as possible. You've made me very happy."
"Yes, Mother," said Deanna. She tried to keep any irony she felt out of the link. "I'm sure they're waiting for you to board the shuttle."
"Of course dear, but they can spare a few minutes while I say goodbye to my daughter." She waved in the tall attendant's direction. "Mr. Hohm can go ahead and tell them I'm coming. You, too, William. I want to speak to Deanna alone. Mother to daughter."
"Certainly," complied Will, following the train of baggage out the door.
Out of sight, however, did not mean out of mind.
"And William . . ."
"Yes Lwaxana?"
"Take good care of my little girl."
Lwaxana wrapped an arm around Deanna's waist, moving back to the dressing table that held the one case she would not allow Hohm to carry.
"I always knew you two belonged together."
"A point I'm sure you're going to bring to my attention quite a bit from now on," but Deanna smiled as she answered, softening the retort.
Her mother's eyes took on an unaccustomed seriousness.
"There is one thing you must never forget Deanna - that Will is human. It will make maintaining the non-joining you've chosen more difficult."
"You and Father maintained it."
Lwaxana fussed with the collar of her traveling dress, catching glimpses of Deanna in the table's mirror.
"With Will it is different. He could easily become dependent on you and you will always know that true joining would give him some abilities he will never have otherwise. Some hearing and sight."
It was an argument her daughter had with herself every morning. Her conclusion was always the same.
"We'll manage."
"Will Riker!"
The name echoed off the parti-domed ceiling and drew the annoyed stares of a party of Nendebians who had just sat down for a bit of afternoon red tea. It did not, however, have the slightest effect on the subject of the greeting.
When the dark-complected man next to him stopped, though, he pulled his long stride up short, nearly tripping.
"Tell him that one day he's going to have to pay attention to where he's putting his feet."
"Who," began Will in answer to the reprimand.
"Didn't you learn ANYTHING?"
He grinned as the other man translated it and answered with a flurry of sign.
"Go ahead," she said in mock skepticism. "Show off your voice. You still have a goofy walk."
"Nyra Licen'b," she announced to Geordi, extending her hand.
"I should have guessed."
"No, 'hello'?" grinned Will, who didn't miss a step as she towed him through the atrium.
"We've got work to do. Got this new technological gizmo. All I needed was a guinea pig and then I hear the Enterprise has just docked."
He didn't pull back from her grasp, but his hands took on a certain hurried quality.
"I'm not due for a checkup until next month . . . Geordi . . . Deanna . . . they are . . . really I should be . . ."
Nyra made a grab for one of his moving wrists and brought the excuses to a halt.
"Sorry Riker. I found you and you're stuck."
"Stuck" was the appropriate word for it, too.
"Hurts," complained Will.
Evan Varentsu tweaked the tiny control panel on the bracelet.
"Better?" asked Nyra.
"You really think this will work?"
"Glad you didn't try this on that Samkird warrior," cracked Evan.
Will twisted his wrist, annoyed at the sensations.
"What did you just say?"
"See it does work."
"It does prick me, yes."
"It doesn't just prick you. It pricks you in code. Now you know what you get to do the next month."
"A," repeated Nyra, "B . . . C . . . D . . ."
"Enough," pleaded Will.
"No," grumbled Nyra, "we need at least another hour."
"What do you mean 'no'?"
"Not bad," conceded the doctor. "But you missed the rest of the sentence."
"So let's quit."
It had not quite been a year he'd spent learning to distinguish letters by the touch of his hands. Too many times he was still not sure of what he'd been told or just read. This seemed a further indignity - speech as pain.
"It WILL work."
Nyra's hands he could almost always read, her signs sure against his palm as if it were second nature to her.
"How? What about crowds?"
"It will work basically like your ears. The loudest will get translated. Come on, I'll show you."
She pulled on his arm, but he was twice her size and at times her tugging did nothing but make him more stubborn.
"And I thought you'd enjoy a trip to Ray's."
The bracelet ignored the music, but Will could feel the beat from Sandar's drums droning through the floor the moment he stepped through the door. A familiar spicy, smoky odor filled his nostrils.
The bracelet sent a series of tiny jolts to the inside of his wrist and he turned in the direction of the closing vibrations.
"I am a bit rusty," apologized the bartender.
"Say it when you sign," instructed Nyra, looking over the bar's occupants and swaying a bit to the music.
"Nosy?" inquired Ray.
"Show Ray the latest."
"What does it do?"
"Translates spoken word into a miniature pulse he can feel."
"And I'm stuck with it," signed Will, grumblingly. "Literally."
Nyra stretched sleepily on the bench and scanned the relaxed crowd gathered beneath the stage.
"Have you seen Rally?"
Will smiled at the question. He'd missed the doctor's casualness. She treated him no differently than she would have if she'd met the first officer of the Enterprise before his last mission. And she expected an answer . . .
"Now that you mention it . . ."
"So," began Ray, sliding down next to Nyra. "What's new?"
Will cocked his head toward him, aware something was being said.
"Ray," reported Nyra, quickly. "Where's Rally?"
"No idea," the bartender replied, taking Will's other hand. "Woke up one morning and he was gone. You been practicing?"

"You. Trust me. Music is not the doctor's talent."
"A little," he admitted.
"Damn," sighed the bartender. "Look what just walked in."
His sudden departure surprised Will and he threw what managed to be a questioning look to Nyra.
"Don't ask me," signed the doctor. The translation caused him to scratch at his wrist. "It just looks like a bunch of Tellarites."
"There you are," observed Geordi, taking the seat opposite Will once he'd spied him through the crowd. "I made the receptionist at the center repeat the name twice. I thought she was kidding."
"Out loud," ordered Nyra, sauntering up with two blue drinks.
"I'm sorry?" Geordi tilted his head slightly, deciding that he must have missed something.
Nyra settled the drinks on the table and unceremoniously stole Will's hands away from Geordi's.
"Translator. So start talking as you sign. He'll catch on."
"Go on," urged the doctor. "Just ignore me."
The engineer shrugged amicably.
"About the field coil. Worked great. Right up to the point Reynolds comes down to give me a progress report about the official shipment. He took one look at the ops board and figured out what we'd done. Took off at warp speed. You can imagine where . . ."
"The captain."
"Unless I miss my guess."
"I'll take care of it . . . " Will began, but the translator began to tremble against his wrist again.
"You Star Fleet types are all alike. Business. Business. Business," chided Ray, pushing Will over unceremoniously. A large hand extended itself toward Geordi. "Call me Ray." The blond head nodded in Will's direction. "If you don't mind I need to borrow Will here."
"Come on."
"Come on where?" questioned Will pointedly. Nyra and Ray seemed to slip a little too easily back into the habit of ordering him around.
"Somebody wants to see you."
"Actually quite a few somebodies."
"For someone in my position, your and Nyra's being enigmatic is not amusing. It is infuriating."
"Stop complaining and come on."
Whatever it was, Ray was not going to take no for an answer.
"This way," pointed Deanna as the captain halted at the crossing of the corridors. Kyle's gaze followed the pointing finger and rested briefly on the neon sign at the end of the station arm.

"Looks like Will's kind of place."
"It does have a preponderance of atmosphere," noted Jean-Luc, but a hint of a smile crooked the corner of his mouth. "Shall we?"
Deanna started agreeably toward the heavy wooden doors and after a short pause Kyle did, too.
The atmosphere, Jean-Luc had to admit, must increase exponentially at night. The decorations, garish in the station's artificial daylight, were softened by the smoke of a dozen different cigarettes. Their intoxicating scent, sweet by turns, then bitter, wreathed the three as it hurried out the door to be lost in the ventilation system protecting the main court.
Inside someone played Earth jazz, its tones broken occasionally by some alien percussion or alien laughter.
The triple stack felt solid beneath Will's hands and he found the keys from long memory. He had wondered what the closeness of the instruments would do to Nyra's translator but the notes were not a language it recognized. The backbeat pounding through the stage floor kept him in rhythm. He could only hope something was keeping him on key.
Nyra surveyed the captain's choice of drink with a grimace.
"Don't tell me Ray talked you into that."
As Jean-Luc lifted the glass of blue liquid and took a tentative sip, the paper umbrella tumbled off its fruit perch and into his lap. He picked it up and regarded it reflectively.
"Very different," he admitted.
"Will should have warned you."
"Actually Will was the one who ordered it. It would be his idea of a joke." He studied the doctor closely for a brief span before continuing. "I once took shore leave on Risa. I had never been there before and Will asked that I get him something - a horgon."
"A horgon," repeated Nyra with an incredulous giggle.
"I carried it around with me all of one morning, completely befuddled by the number of women making advances at me."
"Will's idea of a joke," concluded the doctor.
The captain took another experimental sip of his drink and concurred.
"How's he doing?"
Jean-Luc noticed the gaze that moved to the stage and the stack of keyboards did more than just take in the scene. It appraised it with a not entirely approving look.
"Quite well," the captain informed her.
Nyra watched the pale fingers flying freely at the keys.
"He seems . . . I don't know, a bit unlike himself . . . not that I suppose I actually know who Commander William T. Riker is aboard a starship."
"It's not that," said the captain, understanding what the doctor was saying. "It's more to do with Kyle."
"Who is Kyle?" questioned Nyra.
"His father. He's been on board for the past three weeks." The captain glanced in the direction of the bar. "He's over there with Deanna."

Nyra had no trouble picking out the one man at the bar who was anywhere near Will's height.
"Who is having the problem - him or Will?"
"I believe that depends on which problem you are referring to."
"Ah," replied the doctor. She looked back at her former patient. "Either of them anything I can help with?"
"That's something you would be better off asking Will or Kyle."
There was a burst of applause as the on-stage duet ended and in a minute Nyra and the captain found themselves sharing the cramped benches. Ray squeezed next to the doctor with a friendly shove and Deanna followed, leaving Will and Kyle to file across from them.
"How's it doing?" asked Nyra, capturing Will's hand before the others got a chance.
"Annoying me."
"Good. Then it's working."
Across the way, Will's father looked toward the doctor with a wary curiosity.
"How's what doing?"
Will turned at the unsigned words, setting his blank eyes in Kyle's direction.
"He heard me?" he questioned sharply, almost as if the idea displeased him.
Nyra glanced toward the captain. Multiple problems obviously.
"It's a kind of translator," she volunteered. The conversation was having its desired effect on Will. He stiffened with the growing awareness and yanked his hand decisively from Nyra's when she appropriated it to show the device to Kyle.
"So get used to it," she offered.
"I think I'll be leaving now."
Deanna rose suddenly from the table. Nyra would have nodded her thanks, but Deanna's eyes were locked on Will's in the private battle that Nyra knew she had caused. She was not sure who had won, but Will was caught between the captain and his father while Deanna was free to escape whatever the private outcome. She took advantage of the opportunity, leaving Will to deal with the translator and fend for himself.
Ray was more sympathetic and a short time later he rescued Will from the Nyra's grip, figuring music was better than the doctor's communication experiment. And there was no doubt that Will was better than that arachnid Sandar had dragged in to replace the latest of her revolving keyboard horde.
The captain excused himself from the resulting silence and Nyra and Kyle passed the first few minutes in contemplation. On stage Will miskeyed a solo passage, laughing silently at the mistake, and having done what he'd so much feared, relaxed into a mixture of Andorian and Earth jazz that was much to Nyra's liking.
Kyle grimaced at the misstruck chord and looked apologetically at the doctor.
"I did get him music lessons."
"His playing is quite remarkable," said Nyra.
"I never thought his talent was prodigious," admitted Kyle. "He was always musically interested - but musically 'gifted?'"
"Mr. Riker," countered the doctor, "your son is most definitely gifted. Not that he's Vlentro . . .," The comment was already being met with a blank look. " Or Mozart," Nyra corrected. "But if you consider he can't hear the notes or see the keys. He relies entirely on memory and the key's vibrations. To do what he does, he has to have a prodigious memory and the abandon to run the risk of losing his place on the keyboard and producing a hideous cacophony instead of RetGenzky."
"Duke Ellington," corrected Kyle this time. "It was my wife who had the musical interest, but some of it managed to rub off."
"And I suppose the stubborn streak came from you."
The challenge was softened with a smile, but Kyle's face hardened anyway.
"Doubtless, that piece of information came from my son."
"No, actually, Will and I never talked about our families."
From the look on his face, Kyle did not quite believe her.
"On some worlds, injuries such as Will's would be cause for expulsion from a family," ventured Nyra, thinking the comment might open the way for a discussion of this particular family's behavior.
"Not on Earth."
"The injuries have caused problems, though."
"There were so many to start with, how would I know?"
Nyra smiled.
"Don't worry. I'm merely an occupational therapist. Not a psychologist."
"Lately," disagreed Kyle, "everyone is a psychologist."
He glanced noticeably around the room.
"Do you see anyone left from the ship?"
"It is getting late," yawned Nyra.
"I was just wondering how Will is going to get back to the Enterprise if I leave."
"I'm here - and Ray. And knowing Will, he'll get insulted that we think he doesn't know his way to the station pad."
Kyle grunted, looked at the stage again.
"That gizmo on his arm."
"The translator."
"Will it really work?"
"It's no substitute for ears," admitted Nyra.
There was a look on Kyle's face she couldn't quite fathom.
"Well, Will once told me there was nothing he couldn't find a way to do without." Kyle rose, extending his hand. "Goodnight, doctor."
"Goodnight," returned Nyra, a bit puzzled at his sudden departure. But, she reminded herself, she actually knew so little of human family interaction that perhaps it wasn't so strange after all.
On stage, Sandar took a final bow to the applause of the few diehards that remained and started to pack up the instruments. She pushed Will good-naturedly out of the way and he obligingly took a couple of steps backward. Clearly, noted Nyra, he was not about to risk crossing the stage himself and as he was generally foolhardy unless he absolutely, positively knew better, she could only conclude falling off the stage wasn't an event he desired to repeat.
"Come on," she said, climbing the stage's steplike front and taking his hand.
He found her elbow and rested his fingers lightly against it, following her down the steps.
"So," she asked the bartender, "how many times did he fall down them?"
Ray looked up and grinned.
"Just two or three times."
She looked again at Will.
"I bet I would have liked to know you before."
"Before what?" questioned Will innocently.
"Before you had to worry about falling off stages. You must have been one hell of a risk taker."
"Is that who you think I was?"
"I saw your service record."
"You didn't think turning down all those promotions showed a bit of conservatism on my part."
"Not in the least."
"That was not the general opinion."
"That was just another kind of risk taking."
"I don't know," admitted Will. "I've come to suspect it was a kind of cowardice. Fear of leaving my nice safe nest and instead, my nice safe nest left me."
"Guess we better get you back to that nest."
Nyra waved a hand at Ray then tried to let Will take the lead but he was unwilling to end the night as another of her sensory experiments. He took her arm instead, looking as immobile as the buttresses holding up the station's central dome.
"They've been pampering you," she grumbled. The translator droned its vibrations against his wrist, but he just smiled.
"So who's your new prize student?" he questioned once they'd passed into the station's center.
"After you I got another human. She just left two days ago. This time I've asked for something simple like an Aldebaran."
They were almost to the public transport platform, now. Time for goodbyes again.
"Glad I ran into you. You'll be hearing from me in a few days. I'll want a progress report."
She checked the translator settings once more, taking his arm like it was hers to do with as she pleased.
"Anytime I can be of help let me know - I'll run immediately in the opposite direction."
"You know what they say Riker, making your world better through technology."
He let her guide him to the pad.
"I will not say goodbye to you again. It would be the worst of luck of Mycelia."
"So what do you do on Mycelia, the people who can't say goodbye."
Nyra thought a moment, then reached her small hands to his shoulders, bowing him down until she could press her temple against his. Then she moved to the other side.
"May the one who made you, keep you safely on your path," she intoned.
Usually, the captain of the Enterprise could be assured a quiet breakfast. There were few officers aboard who were prepared to disturb him. Beverly, Data, Deanna, perhaps Geordi. And then there was a certain ex-first who crossed the busy floor with amazing dexterity - somehow able to sort him out from the multitude.
"May I sit, Sir?"
Jean-Luc took a sip of tea, studying Will. He knew his captain would not deny the request and he could have sat down uninvited, but he still held to that formality Jean-Luc always demanded.
"Certainly," he conceded.
"I heard Lieutenant Reynolds came to see you. His problem is with me. Not Geordi."
"That is what Reynolds said," commented the captain dryly.
"So what is the current punishment for non-authorized procurement of supplies?"
"That depends on where you got them from," returned the captain, "and whether they're likely to turn up on my viewscreen demanding explanations."
Will grinned.
"Byron was the intermediary. Where he got the coil is something only Byron knows. He probably stole it from whoever was shipping it to Reynolds."
"All right," signed the captain, "I'll calm down Commander Reynolds. He seems to want to have Byron courtmartialled and you arrested. He's not too sure about me either."
"The Grant must have been easier to supply."
"I don't know. Now that I think about it, Captain Nhalerdef took to that trade very easily."
"Never trade with a Alravi officer, Captain March used to say. They'll sweet-talk your last uniform off of you."
"He, also, if I remember, warned me never to play poker with an officer named Riker," added the captain.
"Idle gossip," returned Will as he got up, leaving his captain to finish breakfast in peace.
"It's been three days," remarked Geordi as they walked down the hall, his hands confirming the code of the translator, "since anyone has seen Reynolds."
The engineer watched the VISOR's image of Will's hands carefully. Early on they had all complained about the difficulties of reading sign, but the others seemed to have adjusted and he no longer had anyone to admit to that he still had trouble keeping up.
"Maybe we should check on him. I used to think one day I would get buried so deep in paperwork that none of you would ever find me. My nightmare may have become his reality."
Hard enough for him, he reminded himself, worse for Will who had to decipher the motions by touch. He tried to snap the letters crisply against the offered palm.
"Personally, I think he's just avoiding us. If he doesn't show up in a couple of shifts, then we might start looking for him. Or maybe not."
Geordi paused by the door of engineering.
"Got to get to work."
Will's face lit with a smile. Most of his friends had their covert methods of checking up on him. Geordi's "got to get to work" was one of them. It served several purposes. It told him that Geordi was leaving him to fend for himself and that he was standing next to engineering. Neither of which surprised him since it had been twenty-one steps and two turns since they got off the turbolift, and it was 0800 on first watch.
"Later," he signed simply in reply.
He had things to do too. Reynolds wasn't the only one who had spent the last three days avoiding someone.
"May I speak with you?"
Lieutenant Commander J. Patrick Reynolds looked even paler than usual and he glanced around Sickbay like he suspected one of the diagnostic beds was preparing to leap up and strap him down.
"Certainly Commander."
Beverly motioned him past the beds and into her office.
"Are you ill?" inquired the doctor.
He certainly looked it.
"No, it's not about me."
"Well, then, how can I help you?"
Reynold's white face drew a touch of red.
"You see," stammered the lieutenant commander. "I came to you because . . . well . . . everyone else . . . you've been so nice, never complained about shipments, never . . ."
"Perhaps you should talk to Counselor Troi," urged the doctor, feeling out of her depths already.
"Oh no, she's his wife, besides you'd know more how . . ." He gestured hopelessly.
Beverly tried to sort out the important parts from the muddle of the commander's speech.
"You're talking about Will Riker."
"I haven't got the time!"
For a moment she thought he was going to spring from the chair, but he remained, his puffy eyes watering.
"The time to?" she prodded.
"Babysit! Who does the captain think I am anyway?"
"And you came to ask me?" continued Beverly, a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"How to tell the captain I am not able to care for him. I will not be used in this way."
The sinking feeling grew.
Any pleasure Will felt at finding his father was not in his cabin and he could avoid another uncomfortable meal quickly disappeared with Beverly's request he drop by sickbay.
"You wanted to see me?" asked Will, leaning in after he knocked on her office door. For someone who had a right to, he showed no fear of sickbays.
"Exam time," she answered, finally having extracted herself from the legion of files on her desk. Now, she had to admit, her answer had brought a pained look to Will's face.
"Already? Why don't you just put me down as 'No improvement' and let me go?"
"I'm still waiting for that first performance jump Nyra promised," countered the doctor, "and we'll keep doing this until I see it."
Will shook his head at her persistence, but he allowed her to point him in the direction of the holodeck without any further complaining.
In a hurry to get this over with for different reasons, they turned the corner from the office too quickly and Will crashed headlong into Selar. The Vulcan doctor straightened from where she'd been pressed against the wall and Will quickly disentangled himself. He knew the Vulcan was willing to tolerate the intrusion of his touch, but he wished no such selfishness.
"Sorry Selar."
The Vulcan doctor's slender hand reached out, bypassing his offered palm to touch his temple and cheek. A single thought transmitted before the fingers pulled away. "No apologies necessary."
"See," said Beverly when they resumed their walk, a bit slower this time.
"See what? I just ran into somebody I should have known was there."
"You knew it was Selar."
"What?" Beverly steered him into the holodeck.
"Kasaba. Vulcan women sprinkle it in their baths. I could smell Kasaba." His signing was beginning to take on the sharpness associated with irritation and Beverly decided to change the subject before her patient remembered nothing required him to be here.
"Here's the real test." She looked over the various items the holodeck program had randomly scattered on the floor. "Same ones as before just different places."
"Let's get it over with," said Will, acquiescing.
Beverly activated the beacon hanging in midair over the littered floor and watched as Will began to follow it. He relied on the sensor net to tell him where to move and what stood in his way. She didn't expect him to catch the small objects and she showed only the slightest grimace as a facsimile medical tricorder crushed beneath his feet. He easily avoided the upright piling. She tensed though, as he neared the little automated security robot. The beacon hung so that it sat directly in his path. For its part, the little robot sensed Will approaching and crouched closer to the ground, ready to defend itself. That might have allowed him to miss it, but as it read Will's comm badge, it straightened to its full height, prepared to give its report.
The fall sent Will sprawling into a stack of cargo containers and the doctor leaping over the bewildered robot.
The object of her concern rolled over and massaged his temple gingerly.
"Lie still," she ordered.
He sat up anyway.
"At least hold still."
That order he did obey.
"No concussion," she reported.
"Worse than last time," groused Will, rising slowly to his feet. "You're not going to make me get back out of here."
She could tell the depths of his annoyance from the very fact he'd asked for her help. It was an ill-timed request.
She had no choice but to lead him to the door. Right past the sympathetic face of Commander Reynolds. He looked like he'd found a kindred soul. Not at all what she'd intended when she'd invited him to see just how self-sufficient Will Riker could be.
"It's not getting any better." It was more of a concession to herself and Beverly hadn't signed it - but Will was becoming far more used to the translator than even he realized.

He had regained his composure and sat impatiently just as he always had. No matter where he was, it seemed to the doctor, Will always seemed in a hurry to get somewhere else. Except, she remembered, for the bridge.
Will's eyes fixed vacantly above his smile.
"If I had known that would convince you, I would have tried that fall long ago."
"You're still virtually blind," retorted the doctor, easily accepting the translator's help.
The smile again, in marked contrast to Reynold's agitation. Reynolds whose career path lay ahead of him undisturbed, who would be able to see the hope die in her eyes.
"Virtually is a very large word," signed Will. "I cope - with help."
"And that's all right? That's enough?"
"Enough?" he questioned.
She took his hand again.
"You're satisfied with the functioning of the net."
"I run into walls, trip over robots and fall down stairs, but it's better than nothing."
"You're sure."
"Doctor . . ."
"When was the last time you went without it?"
"No more tests. The net is fine."
"I want to make sure we did everything we could."
"I've spent enough time already. I figured out that over the past months I've spent at least two hours a day down here."
He rose, his hand grazing the office wall.
He turned back at the sound's effect.
"I am all right. I have an extraordinary wife and good friends. If I lack in certain other areas then I'll just have to accept it."
"I'm just not sure I can," admitted the doctor. "I don't know if I could accept it myself."
"You'd be amazed what you can do when there is no other choice."
"That's what I'm trying to do - give you a choice."
He cocked his head, pondering the translation.
"A pity that doctors don't get to take the Kobashi Maru."
"The what?"
"Kobashi Maru. Academy training exercise. You are given command of a ship and begin a nice little exercise in planet hopping. Then there's a distress signal - from the neutral zone. The Kobashi Maru. Off-course with two hundred people aboard. The simulation is intractable. You are inevitably destroyed. There is no solution except to not answer the distress call. It is the first command you get and the first command you lose."
Beverly took his hand again.

"I've had my Kobashi Maru, too. His name was Nathaniel Pakard and he was thirty-four when he contracted Elysian Fever. The fever was always fatal but I was on my first rotation and I refused to give in. It works on the nervous system. Voluntary movement goes, then the sensory systems, then breathing must be mechanically supported, then heart rhythm. You can keep the sufferers alive, but what kind of life is it? Most of the time the victims are put on a respirator and kept sedated until the heartbeat stops, but when Nathaniel's heart stopped I restarted it. I remember standing there with the cardiac stimulator in my hand, looking down at him and thinking that I was either going to have to stand there permanently restarting his heart every time it failed or I was going to have to put him on life support."
"What did you do?"
"I put down the stimulator and went to the nearest bar where I ordered a double." She looked at the very healthy man lingering at her office door. "I will keep my ear to the ground and if I hear of anything I'll have Worf drag you in here if necessary. A year after Nathaniel died, they found a cure for Elysian Fever."
"May I join you?"
Kyle broke off the glare he had been shooting in Will's direction and set his mouth with its usual diplomatic smile, all in the space of a second. A marked contrast to the frown that remained locked on Will's face. Kyle's son was loathe to cover up his feelings, even in situations where traditional diplomacy called for emotional subterfuge. An unusual technique, but one that appeared to work, considering the numerous citations in Will's file.
"Certainly captain," replied Kyle, sweeping a hand toward the empty chairs.
"Actually I came to talk to Will," explained Jean-Luc, settling in the nearest seat.
"In that case," said Kyle magnanimously, "I'll leave you two alone."
"There's no need . . ." began the captain, but Kyle was quicker.
"I have other things to attend to."
The retreat was strategic and well timed. The mark of a seasoned diplomat. His son seemed less well trained.
"Lt. Reynolds is requesting transfer and I need you to do me a favor."
The look of anger had not left Will's face, though he tried to set into a more congenial smile for the benefit of the captain.
"You want me to talk him out of it?"
"No," answered the captain, not sure what Will's reaction would be, "I want to recommend you for the post."
"You were running the supply end any way."
Will ran a hand along his beard.
"Even if I agree, I doubt Fleet would."
Jean-Luc rose from the chair and gave a small tug to his tunic.
"I will worry about Fleet. You will worry about coming up with some legitimate excuses why you can't do the job. In the meantime you will get this ship properly supplied. Report tomorrow morning as temporary exec."
Will shrugged philosophically. It had been a long time since he'd been given an order and his first inclination should probably have been to refuse to follow it. After all he doubted the captain would actually sentence him to the brig for refusing, but he decided not to press his luck.

"This isn't starting out well," grumbled Will as he tried to coax his hair into a more professional style than the short, spiky waves he'd been letting it settle into of late. It was a losing battle and he finally conceded defeat, running a hand through the thick brown mass, and letting it fall where it would.
"You look fine," soothed Deanna as she brushed past him.
He would have felt better in uniform. The three gold dots on his collar supporting his right to give orders. Deanna avoided her own uniform to put others at ease, but he was wondering now if he might need his for precisely the same reason. He hadn't been looking forward to this morning anyway - breakfast with his father had not sounded like an appealing option.
"My father . . ." The annoyance filtered into the link. "I forgot about my father."
He skidded out the door, calculating there was just enough time for a quick stop before heading for his rendezvous with Reynolds.
"You're early," muttered Kyle, pulling his son into the cabin. "I thought we said 0900."
"I have to cancel." There was a slight pause in the signs. "I've been appointed temporary exec."
Kyle looked blearily at the moving hands, not fully comprehending either the signs or the message they conveyed.
"I thought Reynolds was exec."
"He's requested transfer."
"And you're his replacement?"
Will could imagine the incredulity that must be in his father's eyes.
"I'm afraid so."
"I see," said Kyle, "but this is just for the interim?"
"That's partly up to Fleet. The captain is willing," Will hesitated a minute. "We're still working on whether I am."
He sensed that Kyle Riker, family reputation on the line, however, was not. And he knew exactly where the discussion was headed. Right now he didn't have time for it.
"I have to go," he explained and his father let him.
At the moment he, too, had someone else to talk to.
The stop at his father's cabin cost him more than a few minutes and he arrived at Reynold's office later than he meant to. As he feared, the commander was already there, waiting with Wesley.
"You're late," pointed out the ensign and Will nodded distractedly, more concerned with how long it had been since he'd seen a readiness report or delegated duties among the Enterprise's revolving troop of ensigns. The last rotation would be gone now and he hadn't even really had a chance to learn their names. He would have to ask Wesley to catch him up and Deanna to warn him of potential trouble spots.
"Where do you want to begin?" Wesley translated aloud, causing the bracelet to send out its varying vibrations. Will was beginning to accept the signals despite himself. And this was one morning he could use with its help, with any help. He felt like a wet cadet on the first day's muster at the Academy. After twelve years in the fast track to Admiralty, he felt like he was starting over.
How he had found him, Jean-Luc didn't know, but Kyle's long strides took only a second to catch up with the captain's. "If you have a moment . . . "
If Kyle noted that his tone lacked enthusiasm, as a trained diplomat, he showed no sign of it.
"It's about Will. About this business of your wanting to make him exec."
The captain nodded. He had wondered who would be the first to voice doubts and he had steeled himself to defend his position to Fleet and his Chief Medical Officer. Even to Will himself. He hadn't considered being forced to defend it to Will's father.
"There is a briefing room on this deck, perhaps we can talk in there."
"Fine," replied Kyle, setting his long stride in the direction the captain was pointing.
Jean-Luc's appointment to hear Will's arguments on the same subject was in less than an hour and watching Kyle's retreating back, he somehow doubted now he would make it.
Sitting across the briefing room table from Kyle, Jean-Luc could not help thinking of his son. The physical resemblance was not that strong but Will's actions - the way he moved, the way he had clipped his words when he spoke - were mimics of his father's. It was something he doubted either man realized.
"Captain," Kyle looked at his own reflection in the briefing table's glossy black sheen, "about what I said to you that day in the gym, about Will being a burden to you."
"No one ever felt Will was a burden."
"I know, I know no one feels that way." He had only meant to give a simple apology, but the words spilled out of him now uncontrollably. "In fact, your crew has made it quite clear to me that no one feels that way. I seem to have rather quickly become public enemy number one. Now I have legitimate concerns about this idea of yours to make Will exec and I know I'm in no position to voice them with everyone assuming I'm acting out of concern for myself, not out of concern for Will." His eyes held a familiar rueful look. "I would appreciate being judged a little less harshly. I admit I was never much good at being a father. But then neither was Will any good at being a son. He was never easy to control. Always headstrong, dead-set on doing things his way."
"Like his father," Jean-Luc reminded him.
A smile played about Kyle's eyes.
"Like his father." He paused a moment. "I would be less than honest if I said we ever got along, even when he was small. I'd think something should be done one way and he'd think it should be done another. Time after time he would get in over his head and I could see he was going to get hurt or he was going to wreck something."
"And you'd stop him," concluded Jean-Luc.
"I didn't want him to get hurt."
"You didn't want him to fail," corrected the captain.
"No," Kyle admitted. "But that's not as unreasonable as it sounds. Will was bright and strong. He just tended to screw up more than he should. He wouldn't concentrate. One time I remember I left him studying mathematics. I came back five minutes later to find him climbing halfway up the sheer cliff face in front of our housing unit. When I asked him what he thought he was doing he said he just noticed there was an aerie up there and he wanted to see it."

Jean-Luc smiled. "How old was he?"
"And you never broke him of the habit."
Kyle did not realize it was not a question.
"I don't know. I left the next year. I was hoping he would outgrow it."
Amusement crept into Jean-Luc's voice
"He never did." .
"Then you see what I mean," said Kyle.
"I consider curiosity to be one of your son's greatest gifts. It is not a failing on his part."
Jean-Luc stood up and moved to gaze at the stars. A habit he'd picked up from Will, who had never seemed to pass a portal without glancing out. The bright points moved by slowly in sublight. He watched them float by, weighed how much to say. After all, this was not his fight, but Will's. And to take it over would only prove Kyle's point that Will wasn't capable of fending for himself. There were things, though, that Kyle Riker should know.
"Will knows you think he has failed you."
There was a long silence before Kyle spoke.
"I never thought he failed me. I just wanted him to have everything I knew he could obtain."
"You wanted him to take the captaincy of the Aries."
Kyle was not about to deny that. Will's refusal had clearly been a mistake. His mistake.
"Yes I did and I was right. If he had, he would not be - what do you people so euphemistically call it - so challenged." The bitterness he had hoped to hold at bay found its way into his voice.
"No," Jean-Luc responded, "he probably would be dead. The Aries was destroyed over a year ago."
"I've often wondered if even that would be better than what he has now." The murmured reply reached Jean-Luc's disbelieving ears.
"What he has is a good relationship with Deanna Troi, a ship full of people who care about him and the knowledge that he is contributing to what we do."
Kyle stared stonily at the floor.
"It seems to satisfy him. Must it satisfy you, too?" asked the captain quietly.
"It would not satisfy me knowing everyone on this ship was lying to me. And he is enough like me that it could not satisfy him either."
"Lying? How?"
"You people protect Will. You tell him there is nothing different about him. There's nothing he can't do. To put it simply, you tell him a lie. Without you and your machines, Will is helpless. My son is blind and deaf. He cannot utter a single word."
"You're right." The captain paced a little, thinking. "We are guilty of what you say. We protect Will, sometimes we overprotect him. But he would do and does the same for us. And, yes, you can make a case that without technology Will would be helpless. But none of us would survive very long if the main computer shut down."
Kyle nodded, but Jean-Luc did not know if anything had gotten through to him. Perhaps he merely thought agreeing was the quickest way to get out of the conversation.

"I am sorry, Captain. I did not mean to become so involved in this. I merely wanted to apologize for my remarks before and let you know that when I fight your recommendation it is for Will's sake, not my own." Kyle rose wearily from the chair. "I'll not take up any more of your time."
"Mr. Riker."
Kyle turned back to face the captain and the drifting stars.
"Will is the one you need to talk to about this. You needn't be afraid of what has happened. He is still your son."
"Talk to Will?"
His composure broke then. He sagged back into the briefing room chair. There were tears in Kyle's eyes as he admitted to the captain the one thing he had dared not admit to anyone, not even himself.
"How can I talk to him? I can't even bear to look at him."
The knowledge settled like a weight around Jean-Luc.
"Then it would be best if you left as quickly as you can. For his sake - and yours."
A few minutes later Kyle considered that perhaps the captain was right. The message Will had left on his comm screen could at best be described as indifferent. If you want me, it read, I'll be in Ten-Forward until 1300. It was 1235 now and Kyle thought about pretending he hadn't noticed the blinking panel, but he reconsidered, knowing the encounter would by necessity be brief and it would satisfy both their duties.
Will was perched at the bar when Kyle entered, just as he said he would be, his hands tracing some complex pattern for the benefit of the bartender. Kyle drew up beside them, noting that even after twenty years, he still had the same effect on Will's conversations. The moving hands dropped to the bar.
"Can I get you something?" inquired Guinan.
Kyle looked skeptically at the plate she had just placed in front of his son.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"Regulan blood pie," confirmed the hostess.
"I had a craving," explained Will.
Guinan looked bemused. "If you ask me it's sympathetic pregnancy, only he's a bit early. Deanna hasn't gotten to the craving stage yet. She's still euphoric."
"Deanna is pregnant?" He turned to his son. "Exactly when were you planning on telling me?"
"We found out only three days ago."
"And in three days you couldn't find time to let me know?" Kyle's voice was rising to an uncomfortable level. "What else were you planning on not telling me?"
"I don't know Dad, we were plotting to take over the ship next Tuesday."
"I do not find that amusing."
"That's not surprising, there is not much you find amusing."
"Gentlemen!" whispered Guinan.
"I think," said Kyle, lowering his voice in deference to the bartender, "we need to have a talk. Come on Will." He had enough composure to warn his son before he locked on his arm.
"I can see myself to the door."

"I am sure you can," replied Kyle. "But I want to talk."
"If there is one thing neither of us wants to do - it is talk and now is not the time. I have an appointment with the captain."
"No," disagreed Kyle. "If there is one thing we both want to do very badly it is talk and I don't think the captain would mind."
Not knowing what else to do - and not wanting a public conversation - Will took him to the small observation room on the sixth deck. It was the only portal no one used much. Everyone on the ship complained it had no right to be called an observation room - unless one desired to observe the port nacelle. But he'd always found it a comfortable place to think. He could count on it almost always being free and, despite the looming nacelle, he could see the stars.
Once there, Will navigated the floor with the ease of long familiarity, brushing lightly against the chairs surrounding the room's small table. He stopped before the observation window, his hands caressing the smooth coolness of its transparent surface.
"Beautiful isn't it?"
"What?" Kyle had been forced to follow him to continue their conversation, but he paid no attention to the slow movements of the lights against the blackness.
"The stars."
Just like Will, Kyle thought. We're here to solve a problem and my son is looking at the stars. But, he reminded himself, he couldn't be . . . It was some kind of joke. One of those things he did specifically to drive his father crazy.
"Will, you are blind."
"I am aware of that," Will retorted.
"Then you cannot see the stars."
"I never said I could see them. I asked if they were beautiful. They are still there aren't they?"
Kyle didn't bother looking since he had no intention of dignifying the question with an answer.
"I wanted to talk."
"So talk." Will reached behind him for a chair. Finding the back he swivelled it around, straddling the seat. Kyle pulled up another beside it.
"Your friends don't think much of me."
He thought Will might deny it. He didn't.
"I didn't think that was the sort of thing to worry you."
"It does," admitted Kyle.
"They think I am a bad father. So do you."
"Then we are even. You think I am a bad son, especially now."
"No." Kyle denied. "Do not ever say that."
Will's hand slammed against the nearby table. The unexpected sound startling to Kyle's ears.
"Do not lie. I know I embarrass you."

Will's hands shook with sudden anger. His attempts to hold them steady only partially succeeded.
"No, you don't embarrass me. I embarrass myself. I was always so scared I would do something wrong. Do some irreparable harm to you."
"Somebody beat you to it." The reply was rueful. The hands steady. There was no sign of anger now. Some control Will had always possessed and Kyle had never understood was again at work.
"How do you do that?" asked Kyle.
"Do what?"
"Not be furious."
"At you?"
"At me. At what happened. At it all."
"It does little good to get mad."
"You manage to stay at least somewhat angry at me."
"That is not anger. That is protection. You can learn to cope with blindness, deafness because it only happens once. No one restores your sight then robs you of it again. But you drift in and out. My life has been full of great reconciliations after which you would immediately leave."
Kyle knew better than to deny it.
"They scared me."
"What could possibly scare you?"
"Anyone who needs me. Anyone I might need. Especially you. From the moment I laid eyes on you. Scared the hell out of me."
"I must very be frightening now."
Sarcasm. He'd hoped that had been a stage too.
"Will, I am sorry. I truly am. I tried to change. I wanted it to be different this time. I failed."
"You overestimated what I wanted from you. You always overestimate what I want from you. I don't need someone to take care of me. I have a whole shipload of people who already take care of me too well. I only want you to accept me for who I am - not for how close I came to who you wanted me to be."
"I only wanted you to be happy."
"Then why did you make me so miserable?"
"How could I make you miserable? I sent you credits. I gave you an education. I stayed in Valdez thirteen years for you."
"And you resented every minute of it!" Will's hands slashed at the words. It was anger Kyle had courted. Anger he thought he wanted to see.
"Yes! Because you were never grateful."
"And I should have been."
"Considering the damage to my career - yes."
"What did I know about careers? I was a child."
"You still could have appreciated what I did."
"What you did? You did nothing but sit around and feel pity for yourself. I hated you."

Kyle's hand lashed out before he could think. He had never hit Will as a child and to strike him now when . . . Kyle could barely breathe.
"I am so sorry. I promised your mother I would never strike you."
"I probably deserved it."
"No," came the gentle reply. Anger rose again in Will.
"Because I am . . . I never know what to call it . . . damaged?"
Kyle's speech raced, almost too fast for the translator. Too erratic.
"No, because you are right. I moped around Valdez. Partly because I was stuck there. Partly because I missed your mother. I could have moved, taken you with me. But I could not bear to leave all the things that reminded me of her . . . I could not help her. I watched her fight the pain alone and I watched her lose. I saw it in her eyes - the moment she gave up. And I gave up, too. I decided I was never going to care that much about anyone again. I was never going to feel that much pain again. And I was not going to cause anyone else to feel that way. I was not going to allow you to go through what I went through. You hate me? I planned it. Not consciously, but it was my doing. I spared you. When I am gone you will be relieved, not saddened."
"Dad . . ."
Kyle reached to smooth away the red imprint left by his hand on Will's cheek.
"I always thought our daughter would look like Caroline and our son would look like me. I did not expect to see her in you, but I do. You have her eyes and her smile. She was always laughing."
"You must have loved her very much." He said it mechanically, to console, but perhaps it was true. He'd never considered the reason his father hadn't remarried.
"She would be so proud of you. And she would have loved Deanna. Caroline thought there was nothing more important than love. She would be furious with me if she saw us now."
"We have not done so badly," soothed Will.
"You have not done so badly. I alienated you. I hurt Kate."
"Kate? As in Doctor Pulaski?"
"Your mother's good looks and her unfortunate tendency to know what is going on. Kate and I have quarters at the starbase."
"Scares you?"
"Oh yes."
"I am glad. It's good to know I am not the only one."
"Now you were never scared. Certainly not about women and not about anything else either."
"Couldn't be. My father wouldn't allow it."
"Perhaps you shouldn't have listened to your father. He does not sound very bright."
Kyle saw now that Will's expression was far from blank. You just had to look a little more closely. A trace of a smile lingered for a second. Kyle gathered himself to ask the question he had always been afraid of receiving an answer to.
"Is there something frightening you now?"
For a long moment there was no answer. Then Will's head lifted, his unseeing gaze meeting Kyle's in a burst of honesty.
"I despise the idea of being a burden - especially to Deanna."
"Deanna loves you. So do your friends and no one sees you as a burden. In fact they are all very eager to defend you."
"Against what?"
"Against me."
"You will have to forgive them. They do not know you like I do."
"Good thing or they would be forming a posse."
Will laughed silently.
"Do not worry. I will protect you. Worf taught me some very nasty moves."
It was a neat change of topic, away from the painful openness of a few minutes before. The ability to transform the entire conversation was a skill of survival when he was twelve. That year before his father left. Discussion of why he glided through the door two hours late - once, two days late - invariably turned to debates over something else entirely.
"He is quite formidable," added Kyle, congenially agreeing to the change.
"Gentle as a kitten." As unbelievable as it sounded, Worf had never hurt him. Even that day in the cabin the Klingon had shaken him as if he were a child.
"With you maybe. I do not particularly care for the way he looks at me."
"I could get him to teach you K'hijei."
"Teach me what?"
"Sorry. There is no sign language for Klingonese. You have to improvise. It is the exercise you saw Worf and me perform."
"He does not seem a convivial instructor."
"You would enjoy it."
"No thanks. But I might let you teach me."
"Maybe the simplest moves, but beyond that . . ."
"How about if we start with you and see if I am anywhere near Worf's standards."
"We could do that," conceded Will.
"Good. I would like that."
So that was to be it again.
"Yet another reconciliation?"
"Temporary truce. You and I will never stop fighting. Riker blood. You should have seen your grandfather and me. You and I just go at it a little rougher than most. I'll admit we could do with a little less bloodshed."
"Agreed." A temporary truce. At least his father managed to admit they were temporary. Will rose from the chair. He did not even know how long they had been talking. He'd meant to talk to Nyra about that some time - how the darkness and silence played havoc with his time sense. "Do you want to get something to eat? We never did get lunch."
"No. Officer's mess. Something quick. The captain will still want to see me."
Kyle clapped a hand on Will's shoulder.
"Good. I'm not sure I could eat in the sight of Regulan Blood Pie."
They found the mess hall empty except for a lone occupant.
"How do you feel about being dressed down over lunch?"
"Captain?" ventured Will.
"Don't let it bother you. He would not 'discuss' a crewmember's behavior in public."
"Does he yell?" inquired Kyle, curiously.
"Never. That is what is so disturbing."
Jean-Luc glanced up from his book in time to see the father and son engaged in what appeared to be serious conversation. At least they were talking. He just hoped it wasn't another argument.
"Mr. Riker," he called out, gesturing to the table, "won't you both join me?"
"The captain wants us to join him," relayed Kyle, unsure the translator had caught the captain's offer.
Will smiled amiably. "He is probably curious to see if we have mortally wounded each other yet."
"The only wounds he would worry about are yours," replied Kyle. "He thinks very highly of you."
"The feeling is more than mutual."
Will started forward toward the only image of movement the sensors registered, unaware he had somehow evaded his father's reaching grasp. As his hands skimmed the empty tables that separated them, the captain couldn't help noticing the look of pain on Kyle Riker's face. He could sympathize. Sometimes Will's streak of independence seemed designed primarily to torture all those who could see whatever danger he had just barely avoided.
"Captain," greeted Will after he safely traversed the distance to the table.
Kyle was beside his son in an instant, successfully stopping him before he could attempt the veritable maze of objects between the table and the replicators.
"Sit down. I will get the food."
"I can . . ." protested Will.
"I know you can."
Kyle's hands locked firmly on Will's shoulders. He walked him to the vacant chair next to the captain. Jean-Luc watching with bemusement as Will slid obediently into the seat.
"You make him nervous," the captain observed, using the signed letters as he would a whisper.
It was not an assessment Will wanted to hear.
"I thought we just spent several hours working that out."
He slipped gratefully into standard sign, quickening the conversation.
"No, you make him nervous the same way you make me nervous."
"We have had this discussion before, the sensor net picks up most everything."
Reaching across the table, Jean-Luc grasped Will's arm. A quick pull on the tunic sleeve revealed a cluster of bruises fading to a pale mottled blue.
"Then explain these."
Will retrieved his arm and straightened his cuffs, trying to regain an air of dignity.
"They do not hurt much."
"They look terrible. Why didn't you let Beverly fix them?"
Because she'd do the same thing you're doing, thought Jean-Luc, dropping the interrogation. Besides Kyle was back, balancing two trays in the air. He slid one in front of Will. Automatically the captain reached out to take Will's hand, guiding it across the tray. Kyle tried to settle back to his own food, but he watched Will nervously. Jean-Luc also watched attentively, but his gaze was not fixed on Will, who managed the lunch tray in a perfectly casual manner. Laboring under it, Kyle thought he should say something.
"How long will it take to reach Earth at this speed?" he asked, forcing his gaze back to meet the captain's.
Jean-Luc sipped his tea. "A little more than two days. We should be there in plenty of time for you to make your conference. Deanna too."
Deanna. Will gently probed the link, but Deanna showed no signs of resistance. They worked to be careful. As a counselor, Deanna had to protect the privacy of anyone seeking counseling. Not that it was truly possible to keep anything from Will if he chose to ignore the flimsy barriers that separated them. But there had been few problems. Only in times of great stress did either of them "come in" without knocking. Now she embraced him fully, adding his offered memories of the morning to her own and returning in kind some of hers.
She brushed the remembrance of the conversation with his father gingerly, sharing the openness and the discomfort.
"There is nothing like the pain of complete honesty," Will groused in reply to her touch.
"Your father once told me it was a trait you admired."
Inwardly, Will groaned. Someone on the bridge distracted Deanna from the link and quietly Will slipped back into his own solitude. His sensitive fingers reached for the cup of coffee, but were captured by Jean-Luc's.
"Ready room when you get finished."
Will nodded and the captain got up, bidding farewell to Kyle.
"I invited him to dinner."
Will was puzzled, "Tonight?"
"No. Later at the apartment. You, Deanna, him - anyone else Kate wants."
Will rose. "She may tame you yet."
"You have to go?"
"I shouldn't keep the captain waiting."
"I will put up the tray,"
Will laughed his silent laugh.
"I will try not to run into the walls on the way out." The expression on his face softened. "I worry everyone else, too. It must look a lot harder than it is."
Kyle studied him a long moment, suddenly and surprisingly finding he could look at his son.
"If it's so easy why have you got all those bruises on your arm?"
Will sighed. After the captain's talk, he concluded, a visit to sickbay would definitely be in order.
Will stopped, turning back to his father reluctantly, not desiring what he expected would be another lecture on realizing his limitations.
"What is 'rhvat chra'?"
"What?" asked Will, surprised.
"Rhvat chra," Kyle repeated, moving closer to spell the Klingon word as best he could.
"It's Klingon."
"I know. What does it mean?"
Will shrugged, hoping his father wouldn't ask how he knew the answer to that and practically every other question about Klingons.
"There are tests of bravery and endurance all Klingon warriors must take. There is one - the Rhat'chrict - that requires a level of endurance even most Klingons do not possess. If you survive the test you are 'Rhvat'chra', a spirit warrior." Will looked puzzled. "Where did you hear it?"
After a few seconds Will raised his hands. It was obviously as much of an explanation as he was going to get.
"Captain's office," he signed, excusing himself.
Kyle watched him leave, noticing for the first time the effort Will put into appearing to walk casually, normally, and marveling at Klingon perception.
Jean-Luc bade his usual reply in answer to the door's chime, expecting it was Will. The commander hesitated at the door to give the sensor net time to gather its information. Ignoring the lazy fish, which the net did, there was only one body in motion. Seated at the desk. Will set his face in the proper direction moving before he had paused long enough to cause the captain to get up.
Four steps to the chair. He thought about everything that way now. He was beginning to have trouble remembering what the ready room looked like, what any room looked like. Trouble remembering any of the ship as anything but a series of steps and turns to be memorized.
Nyra warned him it would happen, that he would stop thinking visually. He hadn't believed her.
Now when he tried to pull up the memory of the captain's face, though, the best he could do was a half-focused featureless oval. And it was not just the captain he was having trouble seeing. He could no longer see even Deanna, even himself.
He sank down in the fitted curves of the chair, running his fingers along the edge of the desk, reassuring himself of where he was in relation to everything else.
"Captain," he said finally.
"I trust you have thought through your arguments."
Will could imagine the captain's pose verbally even if he couldn't picture it, back straight, hands calm on the desktop as he surveyed the seated figure opposite him.
"There's always the most obvious - I still run into walls on a fairly regular basis."
Jean-Luc leaned forward. "I thought I heard you said you no longer did that."
"No," replied Will with a perfectly straight face. "I said I no longer admitted doing that."
"We could get you a guide dog."
The captain's attempt at humor went oddly unnoticed.

"There is a simpler solution. The bond with Deanna can give me some sight."
"There are times you can see?" questioned the captain, caught off guard by the admission.
"No color. No detail. More like out of a dream, but it's a change from this . . ." his hand reached out, almost brushing the captain's face, "pitch."
"I did not realize the extent of Betazed bonding."
"Beverly says we practice an 'extreme' form of marriage. It is really an extreme form of bonding. Most couples yield to the inevitability of joining. We fight it. Not just because of the potential effect on Deanna. There is a desire for merging. For the two to become one. If we had, you wouldn't be asking 'me' this. Or you wouldn't bother asking at all."
Jean-Luc brushed a hand against his lips reflectively. From the first time he had seen Will and Deanna together, he had sensed the pull between them. More than old lovers - more like speakers of some shared secret language. Of course Deanna knew what he was feeling, as she knew the feelings of them all, but there had always been something else between them . . . something more. Still . . .
"You wouldn't have bonded without the accident, no matter what the desire," divined the captain.
"There are no Betazoids captaining starships."
"For many reasons."
"One of them is the distraction of a bond." Having revealed this much, Will continued. The captain had wanted excuses. "I think Q is actually the one I have to thank, for first introducing me to a less solitary way of life."
Q. The name brought back a slew of memories - none of them pleasant. And for the merest second, he felt the uneasiness that always accompanied the knowledge that his first officer, a man whom he believed he knew well, had been co-opted by something more powerful than duty or loyalty to his ship and his captain.
But that was years ago now and Will had shown no aftereffects that proved damaging to his ability to function as an officer. How it affected him otherwise was something the captain had not inquired about and Will had never brought it up - until today. He had, however, asked for honesty.
Perhaps not then. The requirements specified an obligatory debriefing and he had performed it in textbook fashion. But the debriefing also required a statement from the officer who experienced the contact and it was Will's statement and not his own carefully worded questions that he remembered.
"What do you want me to say, Sir? That I looked like a fool? Well I did . . . and you were quite unhesitant in pointing that out."
"Commander," he'd begun, but past that one word nothing more had come. He'd forced his lips into what he hoped was a passable smile. "Take a few days off Will."
That had been all. Will nodded brusquely, turned and marched out the ready room door and the episode was never mentioned again.
When he returned two days later to the bridge, Will was completely in control. Respectful, professional and sober. But the man whom Tasha Yar said "made her laugh" seemed in some way to be gone. Occasionally his eyes would light or his shoulders lose that straight set but all in all he seemed more solid. A better officer - at least in the opinion of his captain. Funny, he'd never asked Deanna if it was an opinion she shared.
In truth they had barely discussed at all and he had never decided if her silence was to protect Will or him. There was only that one night - the last rush of personnel evaluations.
"Riker, William T., Commander," Deanna intoned with that hint of a smile his name always carried when she said it.
She scrolled down the screen, turning her pupiless eyes on the captain.
"You've given him excellent marks."
It seemed to him that her eyes saw right through him, rendered him invisible.
"I felt his performance warranted them."
Guilt, he'd worried, did she think it was guilt?
"Do you wish to discuss them further?" he'd asked, sounding uncomfortably like the regulations manual.
"Not unless you do," replied the counselor. "You are the only officer aboard fit to judge the first officer's performance."
Was he? Like all the others, he had assumed Q's "gift" was merely some magic potion Will had drunk and that ignoring it could be some tonic cure-all.
"Who did that?" Jean-Luc had demanded.
Not believing at first that it was Will Riker who answered. Then not wanting to believe. Was it the thought that a human had gained Q's miraculous power or that the human was his first officer? The Q saw Will as flexible but that flexibility was known under another name in the logs of captains - undisciplined. There had been no consideration of Q's insight. And what of Will's own? Had he not answered every pleading look with the only answers those looks cried for? "No, I have not changed. I am not different. It can be ignored."
And who was there among them that could judge the price of that answer, or the price of their refusal for there to be any other. Was there any wonder he reached a point where he could have looked on them as less than equals.
There was a worried furrow on Will's brow.
"The Q . . ." began Jean-Luc, not quite sure how to put it. "Q is also not a single being."
"He - it - is a personality. A 'side' of the continuum."
"And you?"
"It took no effort on the continuum's part to absorb me. It took great effort on my part to comprehend even a glimmer of what the continuum is."
"The glimmer?"
"The Q is a consciousness. Single and not single. Knowing and not knowing. The Q can at one moment understand the flux and warp of the universe itself and completely fail to understand the action of one single being."
"Their interest in us though, it is unique."
"We are the new kids on the block. Possibly the contenders. Not in our lifetime, but certainly in Q's."
"Then they will no doubt be back again."
"They do not yet know that we may learn more from them than they do from us."
It was the second time in that short space that Jean-Luc had been surprised. Will remained implacable.
The captain rubbed his eyes tiredly, thinking of his natural ease in leadership and his discomfort in personal situations. This was a conversation that should have been held long ago. But Will had said nothing, returning to his duty, to referring to his captain as "Sir" and to keeping problems - personal and otherwise - from the door of the man who had openly denied the familiarity that had been earned many times over, with his body, and, the captain knew with a deep realization, quite possibly his soul. Even with that realization, he did not know what to say and again, it was the man both he and Q had dismissed who eased the situation.

"I learned a lot about how I appear to others. No one expected it to be me. Perhaps if you had been given such a gift then we might have expected you to integrate it, use it. All that was expected of me was that I ignore it. Not explore it. Not accept some parts and reject others. Just ignore it. But I could not, any more than you could. If I was to be an explorer then no exploration could be off limits. A good first officer adapts himself to his commander and introspection was already a quality you had in abundance . . ."
"I have frequently called on your insights."
"Tactically, perhaps, and when things get a tad too emotional. But insight into justice, morality, ethics - you did not see me as competent."
"You were young. Brash."
"No longer."
No longer . . . had he been even then? The straight-backed commander who first stepped on his bridge was years and light years away.
"Will . . ." Jean-Luc rose, tugging at his tunic both to straighten it and sort out what he wanted to say.
Will had followed his movement and the pale eyes stared disconcertingly just to the side of where the captain stood.
"I want you as exec, but it will not be an idea Fleet welcomes with open arms. There are going to be questions. A lot of questions no one wishes to answer because they are trivial, or personal, or simply irrelevant. All of which I am perfectly willing to put up with." He forced himself to look at Will's face. At the unseeing eyes. "I want you to know before it begins that sympathy plays no part in my action. If you are reinstated you will be a Starfleet officer, subject to the same rules and regulations as the rest of us, despite any extra difficulties you might have." His voice softened.
"What I said before is still true. I will not take excuses, but I will take a simple 'no.'"
"My 'no' would not be simple."
"Yes or no. Those are the only answers I can accept."
There was a long silence before Will rose, too.
"If Fleet will have me, then you have an executive officer."
His captain smiled from the safety of the darkness. "Very good Commander. Now all we have to do is wait while staff support crawls through every inch of your files."
Absently, Will's hand grazed the desk front as he nodded his goodbye. There was a look of deep concentration on his face which the captain attributed to their conversation. In truth Will had already pushed that to the back of his mind and he repeated instead the litany of his mental map of the ready room and the bridge. Four steps to the door. Left turn . . . It ran through his mind. A subcurrent of thought. Once in the crew quarters, though, he relaxed. He ceased counting steps and continued forward toward the gym, brushing his hand against the right wall and worrying about his captain's proposal.
Worf shut off the holographic playing field and regarded his human partner quizzically before offering his arm.
"You want me to teach your father?"
He guided Will around the corner to the dressing room as he said it, careful to pull him out of the way of Ensign Merakt, who - whether in uniform or out - always seemed to be in a dead run.
"Sorry sirs," she said as she sailed past to commandeer the holography controls.
Will noted the disturbance, turning his head in the direction of the rush of air.

"Ensign Merakt," signed Worf with an air of disapproval.
Will held his smile in check. It was not wise to add to a Klingon's annoyance - particularly when you were asking him a favor.
They came to a stop by the lockers. Will released his hold on the Klingon's arm, continuing, "Just the basic moves. He wants to learn and I can't . . ."
Worf sighed again. Teaching the human had been somewhat of a strain at first, but well worth the effort. Will had become an excellent partner - far more than he'd ever imagined. His sense of motion, rhythm was almost Klinzhanian. His father, however . . .
"If you'd like to think about it."
Will Riker, Guinan told him not too long ago, had - for a blind man - the most uncanny knack of looking at you. Worf had noticed that, too. Will's gaze was level with his own; his reflection mirrored in the flat blue pupils. Guinan had doubts Will was aware of it. Worf wasn't so sure.
"I will . . . consider it."
Worf opened his locker roughly, startling a lieutenant from bio who decided it would be wise to move a little farther down the row. Will felt the lockers move with the force. His own trembled in sympathy with its neighbor. Reaching into it he located the sensor net. He threw the clothing over his shoulder and made his way to the sonic shower by some old-fashioned groping.
It didn't seem the appropriate time to ask for another favor.
Worf watched the human's progress, found himself doing it, and made a low growl in his throat. He turned back to the locker, determined not to make sure the object of his concern made it safely across the floor.
Worf hadn't even heard Geordi come up.
"No," said the Klingon sharply.
The engineer did not entirely succeed in suppressing his smile.
"Why are you smiling?" growled Worf.
"You're lying," said Geordi. It was not the kind of statement most humans would consider saying to the Klingon lieutenant.
"How would you know?" asked Worf, impressed enough by the human's bravery to respond.
Geordi pressed a finger against his VISOR. "I was always good at humans, and Klingons aren't that different."
Worf made the low growl again. It did not deter the engineer.
"So what's the problem?"
There was a sudden crash and Worf turned instinctively in the direction he'd last seen Will. His eyes narrowed as Ensign Merakt picked up the weights she'd just managed to upset.
"Sorry sir," she grimaced.
Worf turned back to Geordi with the intent of making a hasty retreat from their conversation, but the damage was already done.
"It's Will."
Worf started to deny it, then glared at the VISOR covering Geordi's eyes. Will Riker did have some advantages - unless he, too, had some unknown way of detecting Klingon emotions. Emotions that should properly be buried.
"He wishes me to teach his father K'hijei."
"And you don't want to."
"Then just tell him," Geordi answered simply.
The Klingon didn't know what the human's enhanced sight was seeing now. He replied slowly.
"He asked a favor of me."
Underneath his VISOR, Geordi's brow furrowed.
"So?" asked Geordi, wondering if this was some Klingon-style pity. "He never asked you for one before?"
Worf studied the human's VISOR again, uncomfortably noting its array of sensors.
"Yes," the Klingon shifted warily. "He asked me for something once. I could not comply."
Curiosity welled in Geordi. It wasn't pity he sensed. There was something more - much more - but he had pressed the Klingon a little further than perhaps he should have already.
"And now you feel guilty," he concluded.
Worf's eyes darkened.
"Klingons do not feel guilty."
The reply was automatic.
Guilty? His mind repeated it as if it was not at all as sure as he had first sounded. No, that was not it. He did not feel the least self-conscious about his refusal of Will's request.
"I feel . . . protective of him," spat the Klingon in disgust, blushing for Geordi's eyes alone.
The engineer was not quite sure what to say to such an un-Klingonlike admission.
"Everyone does," he finally said lamely.
The comment did not appear to mollify the security officer.
"Will is blind," he continued.
"So are you," the Klingon pointed out.
"You know what I mean. Will is really blind."
Worf mumbled a reply. He did know what Geordi LaForge meant. He knew it only too well.
"Will needs extra assistance," clarified the engineer. He was beginning to doubt the wisdom of becoming involved in this conversation at all.
"Rha'nct mura kn'tch eangh."
"Right." Geordi's brow furrowed deeper.
"It means 'He who cannot walk with me will crawl.'"
"An old Klingon adage," said Geordi dubiously.
"Call it a Klingon viewpoint. Those that are not strong enough should not expect those that are will slow their pace."
"A pretty Draconian viewpoint."
"We are a warrior race."
"And Will Riker was not dreamt of in your philosophy."

"No," replied the Klingon in straightforward annoyance.
"Then he has much to teach you, too." The engineer gathered up his gear, heading for the relative safety of the lacrosse field that Ensign Merakt had formed. "Remember Worf, the slower you walk the better the view."
The Klingon stood silent for a long moment. Then he slammed the locker shut.
"Counselor," Jean-Luc began formally as a way to make it clear this was not a social call. "I want to request access to your logs.
"Concerning which crewman?" she returned just as the manual required, knowing the formality put the captain at ease, made it perfectly clear it was his right to review any personnel documents.
"Will," he said, his voice softening.
Deanna shook her head slightly.
"You'll have to ask Beverly for those. Regulations forbid me to . . ."
"Your old logs," clarified the captain, holding up a data disk. "I already have Beverly's."
"You're doing a readiness profile."
"Fleet will look at this particular candidate with a microscope. I thought I should refresh myself on what they'll find."
Deanna slid down by the console and loosed the files to allow him access.
"If you'd like to talk to me later I'll be here."
The captain nodded. "I thought perhaps we could meet with Dr. Crusher after I've had time to look over these reports."
As with all their files, Will's went back to his academy entrance exam, but Jean-Luc didn't bother searching that far. He set the parameters to cover Will's service dates for the Enterprise and the Hood and settled with a cup of tea to scan the entries.
A few entries from the Hood stood out, just as they had when he had been selecting candidates for the position of first officer. Will's diplomatic experience was what first drew his eye, but what was truly unique was that it was coupled with a Level IV pilot's rating and extremely high strategical scores. A rare combination that intrigued him.
He moved through the first Enterprise entries at a faster clip, looking for the ones he was really interested in. Rather than read them, he set the output on audio letting Deanna's exotic accent fill the ready room.
"Counselor's Log Stardate 41591.6 - I have become increasingly concerned about the commander's ability to cope with the powers that the Q-Continuum has bestowed. He will not discuss them, and answers all queries regarding his psychological health with assurances that he is perfectly fine. He is, however, as tense as I have ever seen him and though I can no longer sense what he is feeling, I would recommend he be watched closely as I do not believe he can function under the immensity of stress much longer"
"Counselor's Log Stardate 41592.8 - Will refuses to allow me to perform any psychological exams which might determine the extent of the Q's effect. He will say only that he has not changed and that as an empath I, in particular, should know that. As he is successfully blocking my empathic sense, however, he should be aware that I am forced like everyone else to judge him based solely on his outward behavior. As for that behavior, he has shown increasing arrogance and disrespect for what he now terms Starfleet's 'petty' rules and regulations and I fear that soon all of our endeavors will seem small and inconsequential in comparison with the accomplishments of the Q."
"Counselor's Log Stardate 41593.2 - The Q have left, taking their powers with them. As they fled from the bridge, my sense of Will Riker returned and I was almost overwhelmed by his feeling of shame. His detachment from the continuum left him with a sense of loneliness of which I have rarely sensed the like. Added to that was the captain's upbraiding, an unfortunately ill-timed act of discipline. It was necessary for the captain to restore order and control to his bridge, but it could not help but further remind Will and the crew of his own frailty, making his own control more difficult to restore. Will has informed me that he has been 'granted' two days off - I will attempt to use those days off-duty to . . ."
Jean-Luc surreptitiously cut off the recitation, feeling somehow uneasy even though he by right and by request had complete access to the counselor's log. He was, however, only required to go back one solar year to complete the required paperwork and Fleet would probably not go further than the obvious current reasons in declining the request. It was, he consoled himself, just that he didn't care much for unfinished business.
"Last entry," he instructed the computer.
"Annual performance evaluation. The captain has completed his evaluation and has again scored Commander Riker highly in all areas. Annual testing showed no major changes, although the commander does show slightly more than his usual level of restiveness. Will's scores continue to reflect his intense sense of duty and concern for this ship and the officers serving him. As this has been shown consistently to be the norm for the commander and the scores lie within the extreme of tested officer's responses, no further investigation was deemed warranted. Testing showed no signs of abnormal stress although, as always, a vacation at some point during the coming year is advised and if not accepted, will be mandated."
"And," the exotic voice continued, "yours says the same thing Captain."
Now properly upbraided himself, Jean-Luc brought up the last of Beverly's observations.
"Medical Officer's Log - Psychological Fitness. Riker, William T., Commander: Although as far as I can determine, no one has complained about the job Will is doing as temporary exec, the commander continues to express doubts, at least privately, about his ability to adequately perform his duties. As from personal experience, I can say that supply functions have definitely improved I feel these concerns are in all likelihood unfounded. They should not be dismissed lightly, however, and I will continue to monitor the situation.
"Medically, there has been no improvement in the commander's condition - as was expected. There has also been no improvement in skill level regarding the use of the net - an event which Will seems to be taking much better than the medical staff, including myself. The translator device of Dr. Licen'b's appears to be working well and has eliminated some, although not all, of the communications problems. Will's signing continues to improve and is past the skill level of most of the crew. This is causing frustration on his part when he attempts to communicate. It might be a cause for alarm if were not for the depths of sharing present in the bonding with Deanna. The only drawback seems to be that the freedom he experiences in tandem with the counselor leads him to overestimate his own abilities - particularly considering the fallibility of the net. I continue to see him with bumps and bruises for which he will not report to Sickbay for treatment.
"Despite this, I continue to consider the commander to be extremely well adjusted and foresee no immediate problems resulting from his injuries."
The captain clasped his hands together, surveying the two officers at the briefing room table.
"As you know, I have approached headquarters about Will's reinstatement and they have agreed to consider him as a candidate for the vacant executive position." He took his seat at the table's head. "That was undoubtedly the easy part. Now we have to convince them Will is capable of handling the duties of the position."

"My supply shipments were on time for the first time in two solar months," said the doctor, swivelling her chair to fully face her commanding officer. "I'll certainly declare him capable."
He looked at Deanna for a moment, realizing she really was in no position to voice opposition - even theoretical - without it being Will's and he'd already dismissed those arguments. He addressed her anyway.
"If either of you have any reservations please voice them now, if Fleet drags them out of us we can't correct the damage, but if we will admit to them beforehand, perhaps we can be prepared . . ."
Had the captain known, the bond between Will and Deanna was as narrow as it would ever be without some outside force interfering. Deanna was intent on the captain's question and Will was battling the technique of a Klingon master.
Will rolled, came up on one knee, his left hand planted palm down against the floor. He stopped suddenly, his body tense. Worf halted also, sensing the stillness.
Now it became a wait of impatience, and it was here alone that Will usually had the advantage - even if it was a small one. The seconds ticked by - a seeming eternity that never lasted more than a few minutes. His back was beginning to cramp. Damn. He knew better than to skip warming up properly. Will shifted as slightly as possible, hoping Worf would not notice. But the Klingon had spent half his life playing this particular game.
He sprang in the direction of the vibrations, a muscular arm enveloping Will, carrying him through the roll. A half-second later he had him pinned. The human struggled for a few seconds then yielded to the inevitable.
"Good match," signed the Klingon approvingly as he helped Will to his feet.
"It is quite simple," he said to Kyle, ushering him up with a sweep of his hand.
"And quite complex," concluded Kyle. He stepped up, surrendering himself to the Klingon's hands. Worf took the helmet from him, checked the receiver.
"This will block your sensory channels for sight and hearing. You will be quite blind and deaf except for my instructions."
Kyle nodded his consent. The large hands slipped the helmet on him, snapped some fastener, and everything went dark and silent. Kyle groped out in blind panic.
"Are you all right Mr. Riker?"
Hands steadied him and the familiar voice helped him regain his orientation. He nodded a hesitant yes.
"You will begin by detecting the location of your partner."
Worf jumped down from the platform. "K'vantchek!"
The hair on the back of Kyle's neck rose at the intrusion of the force field.
Directly across from him Will advanced slowly, knowing his father had yet to move. The floor vibrated with the movement.
"You will know where your opponent is by the location of his steps."
Kyle turned hesitantly toward Will's advancing form.
"Good," came the Klingon voice. "Now you must visualize him in your mind. His position. The speed of his movement. At first I will give you some assistance."



Earth Base One hung in slow dance over the blue-green planet the humans called home. For two hours now the Enterprise had lain coupled to it, a miniature partner in its graceful waltz. Jean- Luc walked his ship leisurely. One last look before turning her over to fleet maintenance. The empty hallways almost unfamiliar. Nearly everyone had gone now, even the most reluctant. Enforced shore leave - courtesy of the captain of maintenance. Not everyone was pleased. Kyle Riker seemed happy, though, to see the base again. Or perhaps to get away from the ship.
Jean-Luc stepped into the lift. Enough of this. Time to let go. It's only for a few days, he reminded himself. Not an eternity.
The lift dutifully deposited him on the deck of the officer's quarters. Just a few things to pick up then he would be off. Much to maintenance's relief he imagined. Across from his cabin, the door to Will and Deanna's quarters lay wide open. Perhaps they had forgotten to close it. No, Will was still there. He lifted his head in acknowledgment of the captain's entrance. Jean-Luc wanted to ask if everything was all right, but he was forced to wait. Will's hands were otherwise occupied, skimming the last raised lines on the Braille padd.
Without really meaning to, Jean-Luc glanced up at the viewscreen. One of the lines of Will's electronic conversation jumped out at him.
How's old flattop?
He hadn't been called that in years and then only by Carl Breeden. But, he noticed, glancing at the net ident, it wasn't the admiral asking the question.
Sea-worthy, shipshape and arrow-straight.
Good God. Where had Will learned that? And what else did his ex-first know? Surely the admiral hadn't told him everything. Just because he knew Carl's token description of him. And he hadn't even realized Will knew Carl Breeden. Furtively he took another glance at the viewscreen, but the conversation had become more personal.
And you?
Of what? My upcoming stellar posting to the outback?
Stellar is right. Isn't that second sun due to nova?
Go ahead - talk. You're probably sitting in some cushy ship's cabin.
Favor to ask from my cushy cabin.
You're invited to Admiral Breeden's poker game tonight, aren't you?
What poker game?
Does that mean I'm not invited?
Last time you did go a little overboard.
I promise to behave myself.
That's what you said last time. Besides - and don't get me wrong - but can you play poker?
You mean in my fragile condition.
So why the interest? It's surely not our company you're after.
No, but our Chief Transporter officer would love to spend an evening with you.
A commander?
Chief O'Brien.
Will, you're the only one under captain who ever got in. I can't bring a transporter chief into the game.
I was thinking I could. Old times sake and all that.
As what? Your guide dog?
Basically. And then I'd leave. He'd stay.
He's driving me crazy. Please John. Just to get him off my back.
Is he good?
Well . . .
Did he ever beat you?
Why am I asking? I never beat you either.
I'll see. You be at my place tonight. I'll get your Chief in if I can.
May you draw an inside straight.
Blessings on you, too, my son.
It was a good thing Jean-Luc looked up from the screen.
"I assumed you'd beamed down."
"Thought I would give my father and Kate some time alone." He moved expertly to switch the terminal off. "You going down now?"
"As soon as I get my things. If you want to wait."
Will shook his head. "I can call my father."
"No need. Just give me a minute."
They materialized on the station's large passenger transport platform.
"Captain." The ensign on duty at the desk, greeted them in crisp Fleet form. "You are the last from the Enterprise. I will notify maintenance."
"Thank you Ensign." He turned to Will unsure of exactly what to do next. It was not an easy question to ask. Not easy to admit after this long he didn't know if Will needed help. At Starbase Four and on the ship Will seemed so sure. He could never decide if the net was that effective or if Will simply had a tremendous memory.

Honesty, he decided, was the best policy - particularly with Will Riker.
"I do not know how much help you need."
"All you can give me." Will admitted, returning the honesty. "The sensor net is good if you already know basically what is going on but it's more like a parlor trick."
The ensign watched curiously as Jean-Luc guided Will's hand to rest against his elbow. He stopped by the platform edge.
"Two steps down."
Jean-Luc could feel the ensign's eyes on his back as the big door slid open. Without a doubt Will could too. He did not bother looking back.
"Ensign," he said in his best captain's voice, "it is not polite to stare."
They were dodging the fast-moving pedestrian traffic in the hall before the startled ensign could stammer a reply.
Kyle drummed his fingers on the doorframe, the glance he shot Will full of fatherly annoyance. The display made Jean-Luc wonder whether Kyle would ever get over thinking his son was twelve years old, especially now. Still, if Will and his father had come to an agreement, it was no business of his.
"You should have called me."
You know damn well why he didn't. Kyle could see the thought flare in the captain's eyes. But from somewhere Jean-Luc dredged up an accommodating smile and as much of an explanation as he could bear to give.
"We beamed down together. I thought I would come say hello to Kate."
Kyle reached to relieve Jean-Luc of the burden of his son. Obediently Will released his grasp on the captain's elbow.
"She's already at her office," explained Kyle. "She wants me to bring Will by."
Will trustingly followed the pull on his arm.
"Come in," Kyle invited.
"No," declined the captain, seeing no point in staying further. "I must be going. I have several things to do." For a second he thought of Will's confession about the sensor net and about confiding it to his father, but he hastily discarded the idea. "I will see you all tonight."
His departure left them standing awkwardly. It was a moment before his father said anything, his hand all the time gripped tightly on Will's arm as if his son would need some orientation just to stand there.
"Kate wants to see you."
"Now?" spelled Will.
"Something else you need to do?"
Will trusted that wasn't meant sarcastically. His father was not the first person to bring out a longing for a second way to communicate, but he was the one who made it seem like an urgent necessity. Body language, eye contact, tone of voice, anything to let him know . . .
"No, examinations get boring."
He knew all too well the reason behind Kate's sudden desire to see him - in her office.
"She will not rest until she does."
"That is what they all say."
Kyle stopped short of Kate's door, bringing Will to an abrupt halt. At least this was a quiet corridor. Not like the main atrium. It had set the sensor net screaming.
"Door is on the right. Can you make it without me?"
"Not exactly. She wants me to get a physical. This might be a trap."
Will smiled. "You and your phobia. It is a wonder you can be in the same quarters as a doctor."
"She is not a doctor in our quarters."
The young technician's voice sounded somewhat alarmed.
"What is it?" Kate Pulaski called back. She didn't bother getting up. Taletier could manage to sound alarmed over even the smallest matter.
"There's a human out here and I don't know what he wants."
That was a new one. Usually it was misplaced data files or balky food vendors. Puzzled, Kate put down the lab report she was reading. They'd warned her that having an Andorian as an assistant meant putting up with what humans would call "jumpy" behavior, but this time Taletier's voice was downright shaky.
"What man," demanded Kate as she marched into the front office determined to do battle with whomever was worrying her assistant.
She immediately knew what man.
"I can assure you he's harmless," she smiled broadly at the young Andorian female. Now that she thought about it, she realized Taletier was quite attractive, and Will's tastes had always included the exotic.
"At least more harmless than he used to be."
"He uses some sort of gestures. I . . . I didn't understand," Taletier stammered.
"It's all right," Kate reassured her. "He uses a form of sign language."
"I just hope it's the one I know," she added more to herself than to Taletier.
Damn Kyle. Why wouldn't he come in?
Taletier continued to hug her desk as if she appreciated having a large piece of furniture between her and where Will leaned casually against the wall, his arms crossed. Kate tapped one of his hands.
"I hope this works," she muttered to herself. "It's been awhile."
Kate bit her lip.
"You new in town, sailor?"
It didn't work. The grin which spread over Will's face was easy enough to read. It was the eloquent flurry of gestures which followed that proved to be a problem.
"Stop. Stop." She begged. "I only know how to spell."
"Amateurs." Will signed in mock disgust as his hands slowed to form the letters individually. "You only have to read. I can hear you."
"You can hear me?"

"Well, the bracelet can hear you."
"A translator," exclaimed Kate, taking his wrist. "Neural implantation?"
"Old fashioned shock."
The doctor grimaced. "As long as it works. Besides I didn't bring you here to talk to you. I want to examine you."
"You charmer. You and all the other doctors."
"You are an interesting case."
"My favorite line. Say it and I will follow you anywhere."
"Into my office?"
"Why not?" He might as well get it over with.
"How well does the net work?" inquired Kate. "Can you get there by yourself?"
"If you give me directions, all the doors are open and you do not expect gracefulness."
"Take my arm," instructed the doctor.
"I can do that too."
Will knew what to expect. As a physician, Kate Pulaski had few equals. A superb diagnostician, an excellent surgeon - but her bedside manner could leave something to be desired.
"Sit," she commanded.
She settled down next to him, her hands gentle but firm on his face. He did not expect more conversation. There would be none of Beverly's easy banter.
Kate's hands guided Will's face upward until the bright lights of the lab reflected in his pale eyes. There was no contraction. The pupils remained frozen, locked to match some other brightness far away. She moved on, her warm hands examining his ears, the small scar on the back of his neck left by the sensor receiver.
He submitted without protest. Long ago he'd discovered it was easier to satisfy their curiosity than it was to prevent to the examination. Finally, she cupped Will's bearded chin in her hand, forcing his gaze level with her own.
The blue eyes stared blankly back at her, fixing at some point just beyond her right shoulder where the pupils remained, providing the slightly discomforting impression that he saw something behind her. The off-center stare was a small problem, one that could be corrected easily by cosmetic surgery, and she wondered why Beverly Crusher had not suggested it. Then she thought again that she probably had and that she'd probably gotten just the kind of answer you'd expect from Will Riker.
"What's next," asked Will as she released him. "Brain scan? RDC Scan? Ionogram?"
"Would not want to bore you. Ever had a KT Plot?"
"Bolton Master Scan?"
"Quantiredux Scan?"
"Good. That is what I wanted to do anyway," declared Kate.
"What is it, so I can avoid it next time."
"Like an RDC, produces a holographic image, but much more detailed. You can even use it to make a solid representation." Kate retrieved a cast from a nearby shelf.
"The human brain. Mine."
She placed it in his hands and watched his fingers glide over it.
"Nice. A woman usually doesn't show me her brain on the first date."
"Come on." She shot back at him as she took the cast. "I showed you mine. You show me yours."
The redux lab sat across the hall from Kate's office. Its scanning equipment deserved bigger quarters but space at any station was at a premium. At least, she thought, Will was one patient who wouldn't need an apology about the cramped office.
"Crowded," he remarked as they entered.
Kate was just about to reel off her standard statement of Fleet office inadequacy when Taletier's movements caught Will's attention. His head turned in her direction, following the Andorian's motion. Obviously, he'd been well trained.
"All ready doctor."
Taletier's voice still sounded shaky.
Kate smiled. Taletier was fresh out of the academy - barely used to dealing with patients of any kind, and Will seemed to present more of a challenge than she was ready to face. But challenges were what you went to the Academy for.
"Ensign, I haven't properly introduced you yet. This is Commander Riker."
"Commander," said Taletier deferentially nodding.
Kate took his hand and ensconced it in the Andorian's. Then she tried out what little sign she knew in the other.
"Taletier is Andorian and she's considered jumpy even by other Andorians. Do not scare her," warned Kate.
Will was the picture of complete innocence. "Me?"
"Why don't you take Commander Riker to the chamber?"
Taletier's eyes widened at the suggestion, but she stepped forward. A good sign, thought Kate, she'll make a professional yet.
"When someone is blind," instructed the doctor, "you put their right hand on your left elbow."
"When you start, he'll follow," she continued to Taletier. "Get him hooked up. I'll be there in a minute."
The Andorian had done a good job, Kate noted a few minutes later. Will looked fairly comfortable - at least as comfortable as you could look hemmed in by all the scanning equipment - and all the imaging hookups showed ready.
"You OK?"
"Jumpy is an understatement."
"You?" asked Kate, disbelievingly.
"Your assistant."
"I told you not to scare her," admonished Kate before she shut the chamber door.
It opened again in a second.
"And stay still or we have to do it again."
"I know," Will replied longsufferingly.
Kate waited while the equipment transformed the holographic image into solidity. From the front the cast looked fairly normal, but the occipital and parietal lobes showed signs of massive damage. They were marred by deep fissures, hollows left by the death of brain tissue.
"Want to see?"
She guided Will's hand over the frontal lobes.
"The frontal lobes are normal, but the lobes at the back of the brain show significant damage."
She lead his fingers to the cavity in the occipital lobe. Gingerly they scanned the area then were drawn to the depression in the parietal.
"I liked the way yours looked better."
"Yes, but to a doctor yours is positively riveting," she countered.
Riveting. Wonderful, there was another adjective to add to his physician collection.
"That's apparently what I am here for."
"I appreciate it." Almost unconsciously, she reached down and stroked the side of his face. The unfocused eyes never blinked at the intrusion, though Kate drew back, surprised at herself. Will seemed used to it. Everyone touched him. Except for the link with Deanna it was the only natural form of communication left open to him. "Maybe it will help someday."
That was something he was probably also used to, thought Kate, doctor's vague promises.
"If there is anyone I have faith in - it is you."
"You should tell that to Kyle. He will not even let me give him a physical."
"He thought it might be a trap today."
"I have tried, but not today. All I wanted to see today was you."
"I knew you were a charmer."
"Not only that, I am a charmer who is off duty. Want to get some dinner sailor?"
"What would my father say?"
"What would your wife say," countered Kate.
"Then we are not talking about a moonlit dinner for two."
"More like a buffet for eight."
"Probably better that way. I always thought you were more woman than I could handle."
Taletier looked at her strangely as she stifled a giggle.
"Your father said the same thing to me once," conversed Kate as they strolled through the base, but Will did not continue the teasing.

"You seem to be doing a good job with him. He seems . . . tamer."
"I always thought my father was like a wolf. Now he seems more like a King Shepherd."
A King Shepherd? A full-grown shepherd could weigh as much as a human male and the two rows of pointed teeth made it quite clear the shepherd was not a creature to be toyed with.
"I do not see the difference."
"The difference is that a shepherd can be trained. A wolf cannot."
"You can train a wolf."
"Perhaps. But you can never be sure it will not turn on you. A shepherd is trained for life."
"Only by Orion monks living on some toehold they etched on Psokair Mountain."
"Takes a special breed to gentle them. Just like my father."
"We're here," announced Kate, steering him in a sharp turn and avoiding responding to Will's last remark.
So was everyone else apparently. Well, almost everyone else. Kate counted seven as she walked in.
Her attention distracted, it was a moment before she noticed Will had slipped away from her. Somehow he had found his way over to the sofa where he stood, casual now in Deanna's grasp.
"O'Brien has been looking for you."
Deanna captured a drink from the floating bar unit making its way around the floor and placed it in Will's hand. "He seems rather anxious."
"Admiral Breeden. Finest poker game on the base."
"And he wants in . . ."
A hand settled briefly on Will's shoulder as the sensors tracked close movement.
"Kate," answered Deanna before he could ask the question. "You going?"
"You mind?"
"No. I want to talk to Kate. Uh oh. Miles. Coming from behind."
She could tell the transporter chief was jittery, but then so could everyone else. He bounced from foot to foot like a small boy.
"Well?" he inquired.
"We will have to go see."
"Can't we just call them?"
"No, he wants to check you out first. See if you look like proper fodder."
"Who is he?"
"John Pierson."
"Captain John Pierson?"
O'Brien's adams apple moved in a nervous swallow.
"You will be in high company. I was the only commander."
"Maybe this isn't a good idea."
Will was not about to allow a hasty retreat.
"They need some new blood."
"Enjoy yourself." Deanna smiled on them through the link before turning her attention to Kate. It was good to get Will out. They'd been on the ship too long. Too easy for him to be reclusive there. He knew it too. Gently she reached back once more to soothe his nervousness. Unlike O'Brien, he hid it well, his Academy posture ramrod straight.
He adjusted his stance further as O'Brien rang the door chime. The transporter chief snapped to attention, too, as John Pierson came to the door. The captain was Will's mirror image, just as tall and just as straight-backed.
"Will," he greeted softly.
"Are you going to let a lowly commander in your new place?"
"How?" The captain unnecessarily whispered to O'Brien.
The transporter chief guided Will's hand to the officer's arm.
"Just walk normally . . . Sir. I will translate what he says."
"Big," observed Will, enviously, as they moved too carefully into the room.
"Three rooms," bragged the captain, forcedly, "and a hell of a view."
"Of what?" asked Will.
They halted before the transparent wall.
"We're geosynchronous over the Pacific this month."
"Nice. What about all the statues? Did you give them up?"
Pierson laughed.
"They're in the bedroom."
"As well they should be," O'Brien coughed out the translation nervously.
"I've got a new one."
"Do I get to see it?"
As O'Brien echoed the words he caught a glimpse of the captain, his face wearing a look he hadn't seen in quite awhile. But one he had most definitely seen before - on almost every face on the Enterprise. On his own. Guinan had made sure of that when she suddenly decided to put that mirror up behind the bar. For no particular reason - he'd assumed.
It was there that he caught himself looking the way the commander's friend looked now - wearing an expression he'd thought he'd hidden. Easy to assume the discomfort didn't show. In fact, the moment he'd looked up he hadn't even thought he felt discomfort. He'd been telling Will some joke - a bad one - letter by letter. Enjoying the night - he thought. Until he glanced in the mirror.
O'Brien cast an unobtrusive glance at the captain's decorative mirrored wall. His reflection looked a little strained, he admitted, but it was no longer Will making him nervous. He had not thought about the commander's disabilities in a long time. Will was merely Will. With time you grew accustomed to it. He had been so concerned with joining what amounted to the highest-ranking poker game this side of headquarter's famous Admiral's Table - so wrapped up in his own nervousness that he never considered John Pierson's - or Will Riker's. Not that it was ever easy to tell what Will felt.
The captain was easy to read, though. His eyes strayed toward the mirror, taking them all in and O'Brien's gaze flicked away as the captain's eyes met his. They lingered a minute on Will, who waited patiently for an answer, his hand still wrapped around the captain's elbow. At this moment it was hard to tell who the firm grasp was aiding.
"Sure," Pierson managed.
A few steps later, O'Brien suppressed a gasp. It was not the numerous erotic statues that surprised him. It was the size of the captain's sleeping quarters. One had the reputation of being a lush post, but he never expected this. Neither had Will.
"Is this place as big as I think?"
"Don't get your hopes up. These are not captain's quarters. These are admiral's quarters."
"How did you get them?"
"By royal flush."
Disbelievingly, Will shook his head. He let go of the captain's arm and moved to one of the statues. His large hands caressed the marble, lingering over the graceful curls of the woman's hair as it lay against her back. This one he remembered.
Captain Pierson moved to take his arm and gently pull him toward his new acquisition.
"It's from Antares."
The grin was lightening quick. His hands traced the cold stone, the grin growing.
"They always overdo it."
"We better go," said the young captain, laughing, finally relaxing a bit.
"You got us in," surmised Will.
"Wasn't hard. They all think this is the first chance they ever had to beat you."
"Wait. I am not playing. I am only bringing O'Brien."
"Sorry. You go, you are going to play."
"John. I can't."
The captain slapped a deck of cards against Will's palm and the long fingers searched the stack.
"Braille cards."
"You are going to play."
"I appreciate the gesture, but there is a lot more to poker than just knowing what cards you are holding."
"Give it a try."
"I would play like Data."
"Android. Everything by the book and he always loses. Never sees a bluff coming."
"So I would be the same. Worse."
"Come on Will. You know these guys. You'll know when they are bluffing."
"I won't even hear the bets."
"You hear me don't you?"
"You are set on humiliating me, aren't you?"
"Absolutely, what are friends for?"
It was just Carl Breeden's usual friendly slap on the back, but it caused the net to burst in a veritable private light show. Instinctively, Will shut his eyes, but it did no good. The flashes were inside his mind. Not to be shut out and not to be ignored. He laughed in silent, amused desperation, reaching blindly for the offending hands.
The admiral steadied him.
"Sensor net," relayed O'Brien.
"Oh God - and I hit him. Will I'm sorry."
"It was very interesting," said Will, attempting to ease the situation.
The images still shimmied. Will shook his head, moving to introduce his two friends in hopes it would take his mind off the overload and their minds off him.
"Admiral Breeden, this is our transporter chief Miles O'Brien."
"I get the gist of it," said the admiral before O'Brien could start. "He just introduced us. I'm sure you got my name. I just didn't get yours."
"O'Brien. Sir."
"Well, Mr. O'Brien. Shall we sit? The others will be here shortly." He laid his hand, softly this time, against Will's back. "They wouldn't miss this for the world."
A few steps away John Pierson frowned over his drink. He didn't want to give the transporter chief the wrong impression and wondered if he should explain. They weren't trying to take advantage of Will. Not that he hadn't taken advantage of them whenever he could. He had nerve. A commander - a young commander - breaking in their game. And taking them all to the cleaners. It was something of a tribute that it was only now they felt they might have a chance to win.
Breeden, Pierson, Admirals Tykar and Mowsonet and Captain Stanhope. The names stumbled through O'Brien's mind as he dealt nervously, his sweaty fingers slipping on the cards.
"In?" he asked Will.
Will tossed the chip professionally, landing it dead center of the table.
"Good aim," admired Stanhope. "You know he could do that dead drunk. There was that time in the Ectavar System. You remember John? Just one of those Ectavon cocktails and we were all so drunk we couldn't stand up, but ole Will there was still flipping chips. Dead center of that table."
"And you remember what happened next," prodded Captain Pierson.
"You tell that story again and I will be forced to let them know what happened on Altair Five," Will threatened effectively.
"I quit."
John Pierson pushed back from the table. His meager pile of chips he pushed toward Will.
"You took the rest of it. Might as well have these too."
He leaned back in his chair to watch.
Next to him Admiral Mowsonet made a low growl of disgust.
"I fold."
"I'm out," conceded O'Brien.
Will rifled his chips and ran his hands thoughtfully over the cards face down in front of him. He sailed a chip into the center pile.
"One hundred," said Stanhope.
"I raise," said Breeden, impassively, "two hundred."
"Too rich for me," Stanhope declared, forsaking her chips and heading for the food vendor.
"Same here." Admiral Tykar stacked his cards neatly. "You're on your own Will."
"Let's see them," Breeden said skeptically.
"Three queens," relayed O'Brien as Will turned the cards.
Breeden's face relaxed into a slow smile. His hands tipped his cards on their backs.
"Sorry Will. Royal flush."
Will relaxed too, the pale eyes lighting.
"Thank God. I thought you were letting me win."
The apartment was much quieter now. The buffet was long over and the informational static that greeted him earlier was gone. Now there was only slight movement. One, no, two people. Neither of them was Deanna. Her thoughts were below consciousness, dreams.
The quarters yielded a still-strange maze. Ungracefully Will put out his hands. Safer that way, though Nyra would be disappointed. But the damn net never worked like it should, and two o'clock in the morning was no time to try and keep up Nyra's illusion.
There was movement and a scent of honeyflower. Kate.
"Come join us."
"Us?" Will asked, somewhat wary. If his father was up at this hour he was not sure he wanted to face him.
He sank comfortably between them on the massive couch.
"Your father is not much of a night-owl. My one regret - not having anyone to talk to."
Neither was Jean-Luc, and they both knew it.
"You didn't have to wait up," Will half-joked to his sleepy captain.
"How was Carl?"
"Richer than he was two hours ago."
"And O'Brien?"
"I think he satisfied his curiosity."
"And lost his shirt," added Kate.
"I'll have to stop and see Carl," Jean-Luc mused, tiredly.
"I'm sure he's still up."
Jean-Luc was far too tired to respond to Will's bedeviling. Besides, he had to admit he deserved it. How would he feel if he found Will waiting up for him?

"I'm just not sure I am. In fact I better be going."
This must be what it was like when your children found you waiting up for them to come home from a date. And there would be no convincing Will it was otherwise. He exchanged a small glance of contrition with the doctor.
"It's been a pleasure, Doctor, as always."
"Likewise, Captain."
"Admiral," greeted Jean-Luc as Carl Breeden's aide swept him through the open door. The admiral's office rose into a band of windows overlooking San Francisco Bay and the captain paused a moment to admire the unaccustomed view. He could count on his hands the times he had gotten Earth-side since he left the Academy.
"I hope the timing wasn't too inconvenient captain, but when I heard the Enterprise was in for refit I thought it would be an excellent time to discuss your executive position." The admiral sipped reflectively from his cup of coffee. "Did Anderson ask you if you wanted anything?"
"Yes," replied Jean-Luc, tearing himself away from the placid bay. "I've just come from breakfast. Thank you."
"I saw Will last night at the base poker game. Beat the pants off me most of the night, but I got him in the end." The admiral's eyes narrowed in his thin face. "It's a shame what happened."
"Will has adapted well."
"And how is the temporary posting going?"
"We've had no difficulties."
"I'm a bit surprised." The admiral fingered his coffee cup. "Don't get me wrong Jean-Luc, I've known Will since he was a cadet. Hell I've given him half my paycheck more Tuesday nights than I'd like to remember, but I'm not convinced that he should be placed back on active duty. Ship's exec is a line officer position and by reinstating him we're going to be saying that should the need arise, Will is capable of commanding a galaxy class starship."
"Ship's exec does not have to be a line position," countered the captain. "You are, however, correct in that Will cannot and should not be placed in any position that goes beyond his capabilities and, as much as I dislike admitting it, most of the command functions are now beyond those abilities."
"But you feel the executive functions are within his grasp."
"Most definitely."
The admiral nodded thoughtfully, though Jean-Luc knew that fact was already well known to him, as was everything else they'd discussed.
"I've talked to the recruitment staff. They are willing to ignore the 'six solar months' temporary rule, making him a 'permanent' temporary exec."
The captain's head began to shake even before the Admiral finished the sentence.
"That won't do," divined the admiral.
"It would leave him in too precarious a position. He would be left with all the responsibilities of real rank but none of the protection. If I were no longer in command he could be replaced without recourse by the next commanding officer."
"It would avoid an inquiry into his readiness, and I'm not at all sure the appointment will survive it."
"You know Will, he'd want no favors."
"I also know the lieutenants in recruitment. They're a bunch of rule-abiding retentives. There are a dozen ways to knock down this appointment Captain and they'll hammer away at every one of them."
Carl Breeden was right about the three young lieutenants. They had the look of officers who had never seen any walls except those of the Academy and Fleet headquarters. Jean-Luc had often thought service on some spacegoing vessel should be required for all officers. Even those destined to serve out their long careers in the Earth staffing and recruitment office.
It would have at least tempered the smugly bureaucratical look haunting their unlined faces.
"Your recommendations of Commander Riker are glowing, Captain," admitted the lieutenant who sat at the head of the table. Darius, the captain remembered, from their stiffly formal introduction. The two others beside him nodded in concurrence. "But after reading your CMO's medical report, I really don't see the point in our considering this further."
Jean-Luc nodded thoughtfully, careful to keep his posture open and relaxed.
"May I ask which part of the medical report concerns you?"
A look of amusement crossed the young face.
"The commander is blind."
"As is my chief engineer."
"Yes, but Commander LaForge uses a VISOR to compensate."
"Commander Riker has also been fitted with sensor netting to compensate for his lack of sight."
"But," broke in Lt. Yetdne, "according to your medical officer's report and the information we received from Alpha Four Rehab, the netting is virtually useless."
"He is also deaf and mute." From his center seat, Lt. Darius held up a hand. "And before you tell me that so are the Tricapin members of your crew I would like to point out that there is a difference in a species-specific deficiency and a human who has been maimed. The Veindz of Calan III are also blind, deaf and mute according to our standards and they are not allowed to enter Starfleet service."
"They are, however," pointed out the captain, "allowed to teach at the Academy. And their physical 'differences' are only a part of the reason they are not accepted as Starfleet officers. Vendzian codes of behavior do not conform to those of a starship crew and, for the most part, it is for that reason both they and Starfleet have agreed to limit their participation."
Having taken the offensive, Jean-Luc continued. "William Riker is a commissioned officer, among the top of his class, with fourteen years of valuable experience in the service of Starfleet. My service, as I'm sure you know, is more than twice that long. I have had many officers serve under my command. Some have been injured and a few have died under it. Will Riker is not unique because of what has happened, but he is in a unique position. I have aboard my ship an officer I know can be of valuable assistance to myself and my crew. Are you telling me based on some statistical findings in a medical report that you believe he cannot do a job he's already doing well and that I should return my ship to being undersupplied and undersupervised simply because you cannot fathom how the situation can work?"
From the reticent captain it was a strong protest, but the trio appeared unimpressed.
"Thank you Captain. Your comments will be taken into consideration." Darius glanced at his chronometer. "I'm afraid these interviews had to be squeezed into our regular schedule and we have others we must get through before lunch. We would appreciate it if, on your way out, you would tell the doctor we're ready."
"How'd it go?" whispered Beverly as the captain emerged into the reception area.
"I suppose I had as much impact as I could, considering they've already made up their minds."
The doctor flicked a glance at the waiting doorway.
"Wonderful, and I had to cancel an exogenetics seminar to be here."
The ensign at the reception desk coughed pointedly.
"I guess I'll see you tonight then," finished the doctor, prodded to close the conversation by the ensign's stare. "Unless you'd like to wish me luck."
"We have read your report, Doctor, and frankly we are amazed that Commander Riker functions as highly as it says."
Beverly's blue eyes narrowed in anticipation.
"William Riker is blind and deaf," continued Darius, "yet you say he is competent at mountain climbing and a Klingon form of military training and that he still plays the piano. Doctor, from the listing you provided of the type of sensor devices available to the commander, we cannot see how any of them function in a way to make these activities meaningful for him."
"You think he should be content to remain in his quarters?"
"No, of course not, but couldn't these activities be construed as excessive risk taking?"
Beverly showed them her best poker face, the one she'd always saved for Will Riker.
"You find playing the piano a risky activity?"
"In the . . . Kango Dog Bar, in the middle of a drug raid by Alpha Station Four security - I believe that could be considered as fairly dangerous."
Beverly stifled an amazed laugh, unable to hold her neutral demeanor.
"I wasn't aware the bar was raided."
"It wasn't actually a 'raid' Doctor," corrected Lt. Paera seriously after a look at the terminal screen. "Station security referred to it as 'one totally glazed out Orion prostitute and a bartender with an unlicensed Zuli tranquilizer gun'."
The second laugh was even harder to control. Darius frowned disapprovingly.
"We do not find such participation amusing in Starfleet officers Doctor, and we question whether the sudden appearance of this behavior in Commander Riker is linked to the brain damage he suffered."
"Sudden appearance?" echoed Beverly. "Will Riker has always had his nonconformist streak - off duty. On duty he was and remains a model officer."
"Regarding his other activities," pressed the lieutenant, "aren't these only accomplished with excessive aid from others?"
"K'hijei," Beverly pointed out, "is particularly designed to force participants to find ways of dealing without the senses of sight and hearing. If anything, that being Will's constant state gives him an advantage. He's even been known to beat our security officer."
"Your Klingon security officer? But surely he's allowing it."
"Not any more."
Darius frowned further, examining the record screen until he found his next target.
"And mountain climbing?"
Beverly knew why they'd singled out that particular activity. She might as well admit it.
"It is not mountain climbing as such. It is a holodeck approximation of mountain climbing."
"A relatively safe activity if the failsafe is set at its maximum level. Something Commander Riker apparently refused to do."
"Will was a very active man, but you can't infer from one holodeck-related injury or one notation from Station Four security that he is rushing into one dangerous situation after another. You want me to tell you that I find Will Riker takes inordinate risks and I want to tell you 'no.' Unfortunately I can't be truthful and tell you that."
Three hands keyed the statement in with obvious satisfaction.
"However," continued the doctor. "I thought that before the injuries. I think that about most of the bridge officers I know. My answer would be the same if you asked the question about Captain Picard or Commander LaForge."
That statement, she noticed, went unnotated.
"It was practically an inquisition."
Beverly motioned the waiter over and ordered a cup of gumbo. She had found Deanna and Will lounging beneath the shadow of the tall building in the relaxed confines of an outdoor cafe and it didn't take much pressuring on their part to convince her to pull a chair into the pleasant shade.
"I'm supposed to be there at 1500," said Deanna. "It seems the only one they don't want to talk to is Will."
"They'll get to me," signed Will, leaning back in the shade, but he didn't seem happy about it.
"We appreciate your coming, Lieutenant."
The Klingon officer slouched in the furthest available chair and regarded the cordiality with a wary eye.
"Some of the other officers have described your friendship with Commander Riker and we just wanted to ask you a few questions."
"Is there a problem?" asked the security officer in a deep-voiced boom. Yetdne and Paera moved restlessly.
"It is merely a part of the reinstatement process," clarified Darius with a glare at his wavering colleagues. "We'd be interested in learning your opinion of the commander."
"I think very highly of all the officers I've served with."
"But you are particularly close to Commander Riker. Isn't that unusual considering Klingon feelings toward the disabled?"
"Commander Riker is human."
"Yes . . ." admitted Darius.
"Perhaps," growled Worf. "I do not understand your question."
The two other lieutenants exchanged glances.
"What are your feelings about Commander Riker's possible reinstatement to active duty?" continued Darius, undaunted by Worf's bloodline.
"That is the decision of headquarters."
"But you do have an opinion about it."
"As I said, the decision is not mine to make."
"But if it were," pressed Darius.
"Commander Riker has served honorably in the past," snapped Worf, drawing himself up to a far less casual posture. "I see no point in answering the same questions . . ."
"Ah . . . All right. Perhaps we could move on to some other questions. How does he compare with the other officers serving on the Enterprise?"
"As I stated before," Worf shifted restlessly in the chair. "I think very highly of all the officers I serve with."
This time Darius shuffled his transparencies nervously under the stony gaze. "Although we've taken up enough of your time already."
The lieutenant at the head of the table rose in greeting. He looked a little shaken and having seen Worf stomp irritably out of the conference room, Deanna could imagine why.
"Thank you for taking the time to talk to us."
He was also trying with immense determination to foil her empathic skills. A fear that she could somehow read his thoughts most likely.
"I am not a telepath," she said reassuringly, looking straight into his eyes. It had the opposite effect that she had intended and the fear tightened around him even further.
"Please be seated Counselor," he said tightly. "You are our next-to-last interview and this should only take a few minutes."
"Counselor," queried Data, seeing Deanna give a parting glare to the conference room door.
She took a deep breath.
"Will would call them a bunch of desk-bound transparency pushers."
"I take it that is not a favorable term."
"It means they think only about the paperwork that crosses their desks and not about the larger picture."
"Commander Data," reminded the ensign at the reception desk, "they are waiting on you."
The android hesitated, lowering his voice.
"Counselor, I have noted that I sometimes provide information that humans feel is inappropriate or harmful to their decision-making process. Is there something I should avoid saying? I do not wish to compound the situation further."
Deanna smiled, after the intense questioning of the conference room, Data's innocent inquiry was refreshing.
"Don't worry Data, just answer the questions honestly."
Data nodded, satisfied, and turned for the conference room much to the relief of the ensign at reception who was getting tired of spending most of his day holding that particular door open.
"Commander," intoned the lieutenant respectfully. "We only have a few questions. We know it's getting late."
"What do you think of William Riker?" asked Paera.
The golden eyes blinked.
"As a commanding officer or a member of the crew?"
"Either or both will be fine."
"The commander shows marked creativity in problem solving and a proclivity for action based on 'insight' - both characteristics I find to be of considerable interest. They are hallmarks of many accomplished human officers." The android's head tilted briefly. "Captain Picard, however, relies much more on thought processes which you would term 'logical.' I have observed the interaction of the captain and Commander Riker in various problem situations and noted that the two styles of command act as a foil for each other."
"Commander," broke in Darius, scratching his head. "I think what we are getting at is whether you believe Commander Riker would benefit the ship as an officer now."
"I believe my answer does relate to that question. Commander Riker's 'style' fits well with that of the captain and the rest of the senior officers. There has been a certain 'lack' during his absence that I have not been able to compensate for. A team is most effective when all its members are present."
"Then you don't see the Commander's handicaps as difficulties to his returning to functioning as part of this team."
"They are most certainly difficulties for the commander, however, they do not seem to affect his performance as executive officer."
"I see."
"You are still not satisfied with my answer."
Darius shuffled his stack of transparencies irritably.
"No, thank you Commander, you and the other officers have been most diligent in answering all our questions."
"I am to report to personnel conference room twelve at 0800 tomorrow," reported Will, looking extremely displeased when Jean-Luc met him and his father coming out of a station corridor. Not surprising, but this time his irritation did not seem to be with Kyle and the captain wondered if a reminder that this was all his idea, and not Will's, was imminent, but Kyle pulled at his son's arm impatiently.
"BYOT," added Will, heading down the hall under his father's grasp.
"What?" he called after him.
Will swung away from his father's hold, his hands forming the message sharply.
"Bring your own translator."
"Haven't we done this before?" asked Kate.
Deanna crossed her arms as she looked out the window of Kate and Kyle's quarters, reminding the doctor even more of that other conversation they'd held in the Enterprise briefing room. This time, though, the counselor at least looked a little more congenial.
"I have never quite grasped the makeup of the human male."
"Neither have I," confessed Kate, "but over the years I have begun to accept it." She still rose nervously from the couch. "Have they started?"
Deanna drew on what little of the link was left open.
"Not yet."
"Is Will really that good?"

The question carried a worrisome tone and it made Deanna regret even more that the answer - from what she'd been told - was yes.
"For a human he is supposed to be quite remarkable."
"And you said you'd never seen him play?"
"Worf has forbidden me to come. He thinks I would impart information to Will that would give him an advantage."
"He thinks you would cheat?" The doctor was incredulous.
"No," said Deanna, "he knows the link causes Will to see things through my eyes - even if we tried to stop it, we couldn't entirely. The only answer was to banish me from the playing area."
"Well," said Kate, stiffening a bit from the distaste of the idea, "I was invited, but I couldn't bear to watch them pummel each other."
Will removed the translator from his wrist and stripped off the tunic, plunging himself prematurely into the sensory deprivation of the playing field. Even so, he was well aware Worf was watching him, ready to put out a hand at any sign the human was about to try reaching the arena by himself.
Beside him, Kyle snapped the final fastener on his own suit and joined the Klingon's vigil over his son. The object of their attention didn't appear to notice. He continued to dress with methodical precision until at last he was ready to present himself for the Klingon's inspection.
Worf jerked at the fasteners holding the jumpsuit's bib and reattached them properly, almost taking Will from his feet in the process. It was at times like these that Will could easily sympathize with Alexander, who must also know the weight of the Klingon's disapproving eye.
"We are ready," declared Worf when he'd finished his inspection. He planted the human's hand on his elbow like a command - one he expected to be followed.
A few curious onlookers ringed the platform, but the gym was relatively empty. Worf waved his two students up onto the playing area, checking their helmets and clubs before hopping off to raise the force field.
Neither had moved and Will finally broke his habit of letting the other player move first. There was something to be said for being on equal footing again and he couldn't help but take some pleasure in the thought of his father being as helpless as he was.
When Will stepped from the obligatory first pose, Kyle went into an instinctive crouch. Playing with the Klingon's instructions for guidance was one thing - relying solely on what he could feel was another. He had been shocked to learn after a lifetime of studying anbo-jytsy, how unprepared he was for this deprivation. The vibrations grew in intensity and he stepped back from them, holding the club defensively. It was only through a stroke of luck that Will's next move did not succeed in pinning him to the mat.
Worf muttered a Klingon curse at his new pupil's mistake, but Kyle rolled from his son's grasp and got in a parting blow before backing away.
Will swung his club in reply, narrowly missing his father. He dropped into a shoulder roll, moving out of his father's reach to regroup. Kyle followed, hoping to get in another strike, but Will anticipated the move, whirling and taking his legs out from under him. With perfect form, he disarmed his father, pinning him to the padded floor. But Kyle did not yield.
Neither did Will, even when the force field fell. Worf was hesitant to interfere, but as the minutes wore on he realized that the standoff was unlikely to resolve by itself.
There was no communicating with Will, his hands locked on his father's wrists, so Worf reached down for Kyle's helmet. Behind it, Kyle's face was intense with the struggle to break Will's hold.
"Mr. Riker," instructed the Klingon. "You have been defeated, you must yield."

"To Will?" Kyle spat, intensifying his struggle. "You've got to be kidding."
"You have been defeated," stated the Klingon again. "The only proper action is to yield."
"There is no dishonor in losing this match to an opponent of greater skill," said Worf, more to himself than to the enraged human. He did not understand the human's reluctance. Will had always been quite willing to admit his defeat.
Kyle's eyes locked with his and after a moment the struggle ceased. Worf removed one of Will's hands by sheer force.
"He yields. Release him."
To his relief, Will obeyed, rocking back on his heels and shrugging off the helmet. Kyle sat up, too, stretching the muscles in his neck. He caught a glimpse of Will out of the corner of his eye as his son sat running a hand through his sweat-dampened hair.
"Nice match," he spelled across Will's confiscated palm. He got to his feet with a grunt and limped off the platform, one hand on his back.
Will remained seated, his head tilted slightly in the direction of his father's departure.
"He didn't yield."
The Klingon looked toward the dressing room.
"It was," he agreed, "most unorthodox."
"Not at all," said Will, rising smoothly to his feet. "What would happen if a Klingon son defeated his father?"
Worf straightened.
"It is a son's duty to do so if he can. A father so defeated, however, would be in disgrace."
"Humans are not so unlike Klingons," replied Will, taking the Klingon's arm.
Worf looked toward the dressing room again then to the nearly helpless man beside him. It was a statement he'd reluctantly come to agree with. Klingons, however, did not present so obvious a paradox.
"They are ready Commander."
Will swallowed and rose to his feet, taking his time crossing the floor. He prayed there was nothing in his path that the net would miss. At least he could tell where the open door was and he stepped through it with intense concentration.
"Please have a seat, Commander."
The net relayed the ID signals from the three lieutenants' comm badges but gave no clue as to which one of them was speaking. Ahead of him somewhere lay the conference table. He didn't think it was wise to put a hand out, but he did inch his right one forward, hoping it would hit the table before the rest of him did. Damn theatrics - them watching his every move and him pretending there was no reason for them to.
He managed to stop short of the table's edge. Thanks to Deanna's description of the room more than anything else. With luck, the chair would be in reach of his hand. He swung his arm in a tight arc and was rewarded by the solid feel of the chair's back. Having at least made it this far, Will set the keyboard on the smooth tabletop and settled himself in the chair with his best command posture.
"Can we get you anything before we start?"
"No thank you," he typed.
"Are you sure you're comfortable?"
"I am fine. I believe you had some questions for me?"
Darius shrugged.
"Commander, I am sure you know your regulations. Could you paraphrase Regulation 890 for us?"
Will smiled, hopefully to the chagrin of the three officers.
"Officers will not be given any responsibilities which endanger or exceed the physical and/or psychological capabilities of their species or their individual capabilities."
"Would you tell us what you believe that means Commander?"
"You don't send zero-gravity forms to move cargo and you don't send Zachdorns to negotiate peace treaties."
"Deanna . . ."
It was at Will's prodding that she had narrowed the link to the tiniest thread. He'd said that what he had to do was for him to do alone and all but the smallest part of her had concurred. Now, though, his cry had widened the connection, flooding her with adrenaline.
"Will?" Her pulse raced despite her attempt to stop it. "What's wrong?"
The fear coursing in the link lessened, now that he wasn't alone.
"Where are you?" asked Deanna.
"I don't know. Wherever I am I've done a good job of proving Lt. Darius' case."
"What happened?"
"It's not a good idea for me to try to think while walking in unfamiliar surroundings. Hell, it's not even a good idea for me to walk while thinking in familiar surroundings. They'll all love it when they find out I got lost walking back to the station teleporter."
Deanna was silent a moment, letting the link tell her that there was no pain, no imminent danger and the fear it transmitted was rapidly replaced by embarrassment.
"Nobody will have to know. We've been cleared for reboarding. I'll have O'Brien lock on to your signal."
A minute later he felt the familiar tingling in the pit of his stomach as the Enterprise transporter rescued him from a half-completed arm of the new headquarter's wing.
O'Brien's greeting was a welcome relief and Will stepped forward hurriedly, happy to be in more familiar surroundings. Too hurriedly or too confidently to notice how close he was to the edge of the transporter platform. A second later he was on his knees with the transporter chief kneeling beside him.
Will tried to straighten away from the concerned grip.
"I'm all right," he signed as he pushed irritably at the helping hands. "I wasn't watching where I was going."
O'Brien refused to let him up, but it was a mismatch in size. Will didn't need the interruption of the captain's request to beam aboard to draw the transporter chief's attention away, but he didn't let the opportunity to get to his feet without further debate pass him by. O'Brien eyed the accomplishment dubiously.
"Just don't go anywhere," he warned.
Will leaned against the transporter room wall and shook his head at O'Brien's overconcern - at his own at finding himself, first, lost in a perfectly navigable office building then sprawled in the middle of the transporter room floor.
"Is everything all right?"
The captain's question was undoubtedly directed at him - or at O'Brien concerning him and Will sank further into the wall.
"Everything is fine."
"He seemed a bit disoriented from the transport," explained O'Brien.
"I just tripped."
The transporter chief glanced meaningfully toward his captain.
"Perhaps we should drop by sickbay," suggested Jean-Luc. A hand locked on Will's arm - making it clear the suggestion was to be obeyed.
The grip did not loosen as they swung out the door and down the hall.
"How did the session with Darius go?"
Will shrugged, indicating the captain's protective handhold.
"It is a little difficult to deny their concerns when we know I fall off perfectly steady transporter platforms."
The good-natured grin that normally accompanied Will's remarks like that failed to materialize.
"I am sure they will come to their senses. I would far rather have you tripping over your own feet than another servant of E-trans forms."
The sickbay doors popped open and Will went reluctantly through. Looking up from her display panel, Beverly studied them curiously. Will looked a little like a wayward student under the watchful eye of his exacting teacher.
"Something wrong?"
"He took a fall off the transporter platform."
"The captain and O'Brien decided I need to be looked at," added Will, not caring to seem like a medical emergency.
"Ah," murmured the doctor, philosophically. She pointed a mediscanner at her proposed patient.
"You're fine. Your blood pressure is a little high, but Lieutenants Darius, Paera and Yednda will do that to you."
"Can I go then?"
"Yes, you can go. I've got real patients to tend to."
The captain loitered behind, watching the undulating lines of the doctor's display.
"Either you've developed a previously unknown interest in the chemical reactions of the bacteria that cause Nabardian plague or there is something else you want to talk to me about."
"I was wondering if we're pushing him too hard."
"Will?" Beverly shook her head. "He's all right. The way he careens around he's going to fall every now and then."
And he was probably in here more often than his captain knew.

"Doesn't it worry you?" asked Jean-Luc, sounding like he'd feel better to learn that someone else was as overly concerned as he was.

"You bet it worries me, but I'm not willing to deny him what freedom we can give him."

"Headquarters may well be willing to deny him the position of exec."

"Then it will be their loss. Will will just direct his talents elsewhere."

Jean-Luc crossed his arms and regarded her with much the same look he'd given Will.

"You appear to have an abundance of faith tonight, doctor."
"Will is not as fragile as Lt. Darius and company would have you believe, and I have a test to run," said the doctor, shooing him out of her sickbay. "I'm sure there's something on the ship besides Will Riker that could do with some similar attention from you."
Deanna giggled.
"You go in there looking like that and Admiral Breeden will have you stripped down to ensign."
Will's pacing came to a sudden halt. With the rising effects of Betazoid hormones he was having a harder and harder time deciding when to take Deanna's comments seriously.
"Looking like what?"
"Like Wesley Crusher on his first tour of the bridge."
"I'm still trying to figure out how I got talked into this."
"You wanted to be talked into this."
"I did . . ."
"You did," verified Deanna. "Come on," she urged.
"Come on? Where do you think you're going?"
"I'm walking you to the admiral's office."
"I'm sure that will make a wonderful impression."
"Not as good a one as you will if you get lost."
Will grimaced, but he offered his hand.
"Lead on."
"Will, come in."
Carl Breeden stretched back in his chair. "I've asked Jean-Luc to meet us here. Can I get you something while we wait? Maybe a cup of Cruvian Coffee - you always did like that stuff."

"No, thank you."
They were simple signs and he hoped they would translate. The thought of a cup of the hot, bitter alien drink did not sound particularly appealing on an empty stomach.
There was a burst of movement near the office door and Will found himself hoping it was the captain to keep the silence from growing more protracted.
"Ah, good, Captain, please sit."
The admiral looked wearily at the stack of data disks scattered on his desk.
"I must say this request of yours has generated more reports than the latest Romulan incursion. All of which," he continued, picking up the nearest disk and waving it in their direction. "I have had to read. And as soon as I read one favoring Will's appointment I'd read one detailing why appointing him would cause extreme detriment to ship's operations. Finally last night I divided all the reports into two piles and stacked them up - pro and con. They turned out to be roughly the same height and I was in no mood to perform a multi-factor analysis. That, gentlemen, was when I realized the decision was mine."
He paused to study the two men before him. "Will, I want to offer my condolences. I've worked with the exacting captain here and I can't imagine any worse job to have than Jean-Luc's ship's exec. But that is the job you have."
Will and the captain both smiled and Carl dismissed the commander with a grin of his own. He held back the captain with another look.
"Jean-Luc," Carl Breeden's large hands toyed absently with the stack of disks. "They nays and ayes weren't as evenly distributed as I made out. Kyle Riker even put in his two cents' worth - sometimes I think I know his son better than he does. His and almost every other answer was 'no.' But the officers who wrote those reports don't know either you or Will Riker like I do. I knew you weren't going to let this drop and I also knew if anyone could find a way to make this work it was Will."
He looked for a moment at the sober gray eyes.
"There will have to be a waiver from line duty and about four hundred forms have to be filled out. I suggest you give them to Will as he is now in charge of paperwork aboard your vessel. Lt. Darius should be extraordinarily displeased with my decision so you can tell Will to expect them to be returned for the smallest of mistakes. I know how he feels about paperwork so you may offer him my condolences on that, too."
"Commander Riker!"
The figure that rushed toward him as he left the admiral's office had no comm badge and the squat shape registering on the net gave no clue as to its identity. Worse, whatever was being said was being said at warp speed. The signals from the wrist translator gibbered as his hand was captured, shaken and dropped and the figure retreated at as fast a pace as it had come.
Will stared after it, perplexed.
This approaching figure did have a comm badge and Will acknowledged the android.
"Are you all right?"
"Who was that?" He pointed in the direction of the mysterious figure.
"Kohlrami," replied Data. "The war games are again under his control. He seemed quite pleased to see you."
"I heard congratulations were in order."
Kate and Will were seated on the couch when Kyle strode in. He reached a hand toward his son, but the movement failed to register on the net and Kyle had to turn the attempted handshake into a fatherly clasp on the shoulder.
"You sure you want to congratulate me?" asked Will, not really caring anymore whether his father could follow the signs.
"You lost me at . . . at . . ." Kyle took Will's hands and set them in motion.
"Congratulate," spelled Will once he understood.
"Will - what I said to Carl Breeden, please understand, it was for your benefit."
"This," interrupted Kate, "is where I bail out." She squeezed Will's hand. "You and Deanna keep in touch this time."
Kyle took her place on the sofa.
"I just don't want you to get into something you can't handle. I told that to Carl, too. He said not to worry - this wasn't it. I trust his judgment and Captain Picard's." He hesitated a moment. "And yours."
"You've amassed a great deal of respect from a surprising variety of places. That is the mark of a successful life."
"And from you?"
"You are my son."
"I see," replied Will carefully.
"And I love you."
"But do you respect me?"
"You are my son."
Will clasped his hands together, having no way to deny that.
"I have to go. I have a lot of paperwork to do."
"I understand. You better let me know when that baby comes, though I'll understand, too, if you don't ask me for parenting advice."
His son nodded, not smiling, but accepting his father's embrace. Finally returning it. Will stepped back, stopping a moment to orient himself before trusting the net's readings. One thing he had lost was the ability to easily leave a room and he had to admit this was one of the few times he had not stormed out after one of Kyle's talks. It made him uncomfortable to think of his father watching him now and he stepped out despite the haziness of the readings, putting what he hoped was his best face forward.
"See you later, Dad."
Kyle watched his son's apparently confident steps in the direction of the door. He found himself more and more amazed by Will's calm acceptance of the darkness and silence that would continually surround him. Kyle had to admit that he had nearly panicked when the Klingon had placed the K'hijei helmet on his head, leaving him in the same state as his son.
He wanted to say that suddenly, but he let him slip out the door while he was trying to find the words. He remained there a long time, thinking that he could catch up to him - first in the hall, then at the transporter pad. Then he let the thought go.
There was a party of sorts in Ten Forward. Everyone just seemed somehow to drift there after first shift. Even the captain appeared to congratulate his new official exec and give the ensigns that had just come on board time to gawk at their first commanding officer. From a distance Will seemed his normal ebullient self, albeit a little lost in the crush of bodies and voices even with Deanna close at hand. But they both appeared relieved when the captain's approach parted the crowd. There was a considerable buzz in the background and Jean-Luc fell back to spelling into Will's palm. He'd noticed Deanna's orienting handhold on the commander's arm and her struggle not to get pulled in some other direction by the crowd jostling around them.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
They looked like they could both use a rest. And no one would dare disturb the captain's conversation with his executive officer.
Deanna smiled warmly at the offer and cast a small glance toward her guiding hand still locked on Will's elbow. The captain nodded, offering his own arm to Will. Only then did Deanna release her grip and turn back to her conversation.
The scrambling of the net must have been bad because Will let him plant his hand on the chair back and the commander failed to notice Guinan's approach or her request for a drink order.
"Overload," she concluded, reaching to tap his hand. "Drink?"
Will shook his head.
"Bring a pot of Earl Grey and two cups."
He turned his attention to his new exec.
"Can you hear me Will?"
"I think we overloaded the circuits."
Jean-Luc reached for his hand, unsure whether that was a yes or a no.
"I thought I'd remind you that we have twenty ensigns we didn't come with and I want you to add another position to the ensigns' duty roster."
"Executive officer's assistant."
Will's eyebrows lifted sardonically.
"A position every ensign will desire."
"I thought Data could give them the complementary tour. The interviews are still your responsibility. I have something for you."
The captain disappeared into the sensors' haze. When he returned he pressed a Braille padd into Will's hand, hovering over his shoulder.
"Your schedule."
Will's head moved in the characteristic tilt that it took on when he read, his left ear moving toward his shoulder. It seemed, as always, to make him appear strangely vulnerable and Jean-Luc laid a hand on his shoulder. Will straightened under his touch, the long fingers continuing to skim the pad.
"Six of the top ten," commented the captain.
"Think they will be deflated to find their immediate CO in such sorry shape?"
"Insecurity does not become you Commander."
The corners of Will's eyes crinkled in a smile that further betrayed the stillness of his gaze.
"I'll try to remember that."
Not that the next morning he had much time to ponder anything as he rushed into the office. Late again. It was behavior he wouldn't have accepted in another officer and he know that they were accepting it from him only because . . . actually, Will didn't want to think about why they were accepting it.
"Good morning Commander."
Johnson, he remembered. The random starting point the computer picked to become the first of a line of executive assistants.
He waved a hand in the ensign's direction, then pointed toward his portion of the office.
"You wanted to see me, Sir?"
Will reached for the keypad, pushing the chair out of his way, not bothering to sit.
"Morning briefing," he typed briskly, scooping up the braille pad before returning to the keyboard. "Captain's ready room. We're going to be late if we don't hurry."
"Yes Sir!"
Will could almost hear the ensign's excitement at the thought of being the first of his class to reach the bridge. He just hoped the young man realized that, particularly in the captain's ready room, new ensigns should be seen and not heard.

"Captain," greeted Will as he settled in the vacant seat before the ready room desk. "This is Ensign Johnson."
"Ensign," acknowledged the captain. There was a hint of amusement in the glance he proffered toward Will. If he was going to force the commander to have an assistant, clearly he was going to have to suffer through it with him.
"Continue, Mr. Data," he instructed. Much to his relief the ensign seemed content to stand - at attention - by the ready room door, taking surreptitious glances at his commanding officers.
"As I was saying. The Sector One war games have been moved up two solar days and the change will necessitate putting off our scheduled computer upgrade."
The captain flicked a button and brought up the terminal screen.
"Regarding the war games." He studied the screen with a look of faint disapproval. "They've decided to give the younger officers a chance to command the larger vessels. You'll be pleased to know Data that you've been chosen to captain the Excalibur."
"And the Enterprise?" asked Will.
"The Enterprise will be the rabbit in the hunt."
"And her captain?" prodded Will.
"Command of the Enterprise has been given to Commander Shelby."
The commander's hands came to a momentary halt.
"And what will you be doing, Sir?" questioned Data.
"I was hoping to be on shore leave," admitted the captain, "but it appears I will be aboard the Hood leading the chase."

The bridge was almost empty, there not being much point in staffing it fully on third shift orbital dock. Shelby hadn't been due to embark until 0800 but she was too restless to sleep. Not that wandering around here made much more sense than wandering around the Hood. The ensign at Ops was beginning to eye her curiously and since she had no good reason to be here at all she made a controlled retreat to the turbolift.
"Deck ten," she finally instructed the patient lift. She wondered if the ensign was watching the doors, wondering why the lift hadn't moved and if Shelby was about to pop back out like a Jack-in- the-Box.
The first shift breakfast crowd had begun to filter into Ten-Forward and Shelby ordered a glass of juice at a table far from where the regular crew gathered. She looked down on the Earth for a while, watching the clouds and the waters move.
The captain's greeting roused her from her reverie.
"You're early," he noted.
Shelby smiled self-consciously.
"Would it be unprofessional of me to admit to a bit of excitement?"
"I wish I shared your enthusiasm."
"I had heard you weren't a big fan of war games."
"I prefer to think of Starfleet as a scientific and diplomatic service."
"Try to tell that to the Romulans - or the Borg . . . Sir," she hastily added.
Jean-Luc showed the tiniest hint of a smile.
"This is a good ship Commander. A good crew."
"Yes," said Shelby distantly.
The bartender gestured to the captain and he started toward the bar, turning back only momentarily to the commander.
"You'll enjoy the experience . . . Oh, and I've asked Commander Riker to brief you when the time comes."
Surprise flared momentarily in Shelby's eyes, but she swallowed back her reply with the rest of her juice and went back to watching the blue-green orb spinning beneath her.
He didn't look up, but one hand moved momentarily from the shimmering pad to motion her in.
"Ro," he finally greeted, using an amalgamation of the signs for the Standard letters that made up her surname.
Of all the crew, it was the Bajoran ensign who'd seemed least fazed by all that had occurred in the past months. Except that she'd somehow learned to read sign, Ro seemed no less - or more - respectful of him and his ideas than she always had. And she managed a level of casualness even Data couldn't quite muster. Ro quite happily let him find his own way - even if that meant letting him run face-first into the nearest wall.
"I have a question and you're the only Level IV pilot on board."
"Lt. Purvis is Level IV certified and so is Captain Picard."
Ro leaned her palms against the desk.
"Let's say you're the only pilot I want to ask."
"You're taking your boards."
"Three days."
"Ask your question."
"That's my problem. It's more of a show-me."
His hands darted out in a slew of half-signed gestures apparently meant to convey the obvious problems with that approach.
"I need you to show me how to navigate near a highly magnetized asteroid."
"You need to talk to Shelby."
Ro closed her eyes and repeated the seven steps of composure owed to a superior, though she doubted Riker would appreciate the gesture. He was entirely unlike a disabled Bajoran, and she tried hard to treat him as a normal human. At the fourth step she gave up the attempt.
"Shelby? Look Riker. I told you I don't want to ask anyone else."
"Not for you. For me. From the rumors I know of, she'd be quite surprised to find anyone expressing belief in my abilities."
"Look, I don't want to do an Andorian line dance with you. I just want to know why I keep crashing into this hunk of rock."
"So, what's the problem?"
"Magnetium asteroid belt." Having managed to herd her reluctant tutor to the simulation room, Ro leaned and tapped the readout on the simulator's front panel as she slid into the pilot's seat. "Every time I try to go through it I end up as a pile of rubble on one of the blasted things."
Will frowned, not following her into the simulator compartment. In a moment Ro stuck her head back out the door.
"What's wrong?"
Will heaved a sigh. "I'm trying to figure out how this can work."
"Just get in here Riker," instructed the ensign.
Will clamored reluctantly into the co-pilot's seat, unusually struck by the lack of information from the net. It had been a long time since he'd encountered something for the first time that should be familiar in the blackness. In fact, he hadn't been on a shuttle at all since he flew one to M491 - hadn't considered there were still things left that he hadn't dealt with in the dark.
"Perhaps I should remind both of us again that I am blind."
Ro waved off the protest with an unseen flick of her hand.
"All right, then you can listen to me crash into an asteroid." She looked over the holographic parsec in front of her. "The simulation has just started. Asteroid belt is in front of us. Tell me what to do."
"Give me the sensor readings."
"There are 485 asteroids. Fourteen in our immediate vicinity. The largest is two kilometers to starboard. 2.48 metric tons."
"And the problem?"
"About 1000 kilometers in front of us. No matter what I do the shuttle is pulled toward it and I end up exploding on impact with the rest of this godforsaken hunk of metal."
Will ran an exploratory hand along the panel beside him. Auxiliary controls. The memory of their placement still lingered but the flat surface revealed nothing to his searching fingers.
"I can't fly. Put the sensor readings on audio and I can try to listen to the readouts but that's about it."
He tried not to remind himself that perhaps listening was not the appropriate word.
"It will have to do," said Ro. "I'm not asking Larry Purvis."
Lieutenant Lawrence Purvis was, like the ensigns, another of those people he knew only as a vibration of the sensitive bracelet. Deanna would know more. Anyone that had such an effect on the Bajoran ensign would certainly be worth knowing.
"Why not?"
"If you hadn't noticed, I have a reputation for rubbing people the wrong way and Purvis and I went out one evening. You know the usual - dinner in Ten-Forward, a walk through the arboretum, a fight outside my quarters."
"Not quite, but he hasn't been too congenial since."
"May I ask what you were fighting about?"
The ensign restarted the simulation and put the readouts on audio. Four minutes later she crashed the shuttle into the no-longer unnamed asteroid for the sixth time.
Jean-Luc reluctantly put another item in his small traveling case before he straightened to meet his caller.
"Am I disturbing you?"
Will stood a little stiffly in the door frame, unwilling, his captain knew, to risk braving the trove of artifacts crowning the tables and desk.
"Not at all."
"I thought you might be at the admiral's party."
"I sent my apologies. And you?"
"I sent Deanna. She said she could do with some time alone."
"Sit down," offered the captain, moving to take his arm, then stopping as Will continued.
"If you have time, I came to ask for a favor."
"What can I do for you?"
"When was the last time you piloted a shuttle through an asteroid belt?"
"I think I hate to admit I can't figure it out," replied Will in answer to the captain's latest question.
The two officers stepped inside the simulator room and the captain grinned at the flashing summary log.
"I have never seen anyone crash a shuttle simulator twenty-seven times."
"No one in my condition has ever tried to fly a shuttle simulator twenty-seven times."

The captain nodded.
"Let's see what the problem is." He climbed easily into the pilot's seat, studying the last sensor readings which still blinked from the forward panel. "You compensated for the magnetism."
"I tried to," replied Will, sliding in beside him. "The damn thing just draws you to it."
"I assume you tried going around it."
"The simulation ensures eventually it finds you."
Indeed, a few minutes later the troublesome asteroid loomed large on the viewscreen and the captain paused the program, regarding the readings with an experienced eye.
"Very good," he said approvingly.
"You've seen it before?" questioned Will. He'd never seen readings like that, even on the most exotic of simulations.
"Once," said Jean-Luc with satisfaction. "In the Dabori cluster. Highly magnetized ore. Very rare. Too highly dispersed to mine commercially and when they tried to transport what they had recovered, the freighter's instrumentation went crazy. That is what is happening now." He tapped the panel. "The sensor readings are wrong. Ro will have to steer by sight - or if she prefers - by sound. We can bounce a pulse off of it and use the returning signal to gauge distance. With any luck, we'll stay out of its way."
"Must be working," commented Will. Several quiet minutes had passed since the captain activated the echo beacon and they had yet to be rocked around in the simulator's version of a hull- cracking explosion.
"We're almost through," said the captain, making a minute adjustment to the thrusters. The last of the asteroids passed beneath them and the simulator powered down.
"I'll go let Ro in on your little secret," signed Will, but he remained seated, his head drooping slightly forward. "I thought I'd stopped being surprised by the dark, but this threw me a little. I have a Level Four pilot's license and I'll never fly a shuttle again." He smiled a little tiredly before clamoring out of the simulator. "Smoke and mirrors only goes so far."
He stepped outside the simulator carefully, well aware of the step off the side, not wanting to miss it. The captain followed more confidently, tripping himself on the same step and falling against the commander awkwardly.
"You OK?" asked Will, trying to sign and reach out a helping hand at the same time.
"I tripped." The captain tried to withdraw his arm from the commander's.
"You're sure," he spelled, not relinquishing the captain's arm.
"I just missed the step."
"Maybe we should go to sickbay."
"Just to be sure."
"It was just . . ." Jean-Luc looked again at Will, the meaning of the conversation suddenly clear to him. "We're really that bad."
"Worse. I can't imagine how tired Beverly is of seeing me dragged into sickbay."
The finally-released captain tugged at his tunic.
"I will try to restrain myself in the future.
"I would appreciate it."
"Captain, a moment before you go."
Shelby must have run down the halls in order to catch him on the transporter platform. A fact he would have remarked on had he not been attempting to slip out without giving her a chance to remark on the duty rooster. The duty rooster that was now waving in her hand.
"Yes Commander," he asked, ignoring the fluttering transparency.
"About the duty roster, Sir."
"If I understand it correctly, it appears I have an exec, but no first."
"You are free to choose a first officer from among the crew Commander."
"I am unfamiliar with this ship, Captain. Commander Data is assigned to the Excalibur. Lieutenant Worf will be tied up with weapons calibration for all the ships. Commander LaForge likewise . . ."
"There are over seventy officers remaining on board, Commander. I'm sure you can find someone to fulfill your needs."
"Sir, I need someone familiar with the overall running of the ship."
"That is why I left you an experienced exec. I suspect, however," he said, stepping down from the platform, "that is what you really wanted to talk to me about."
He faced her directly, but Shelby showed no signs of backing down.
"If I may speak freely." The captain nodded. "Your friendship with Commander Riker is well known and, considering the circumstances, your loyalty on his behalf is understandable. But what you've done this time Captain, is practically leave me no choice except to make him my first officer and I resent your using me to legitimize your decision.
"Is that all Commander?" replied the captain evenly, noticing that he had at last made the commander flinch.
"Yes, Sir."
"You are perfectly free to choose anyone aboard as your first officer - except Will Riker. If you will read the contents of his personnel file, you will find he is specifically forbidden from line duty. Upon my leaving, you are captain of this vessel. If you feel it is in the best interests of this ship to relieve Commander Riker, you may do so. If I were in your position, however, I would avail myself of the opportunity to have an ally who knows my opponent so well. That decision, however, is yours."
He stepped back on the platform and dissolved into a thousand prisms before vanishing entirely. In her hand, the roster transparency crumpled. She had expected him to defend his action. Instead, she'd gotten a challenge. And there was still Will Riker to be faced.
"Come in," groaned Ro as she rolled up from the floor. She should have silenced the chime when she started the alpha hypno routine, but she'd figured it wouldn't do much good anyway and she'd been right.
Will took a couple of hesitant steps into her quarters then stopped, surveying the cabin by turning slightly from side to side.
The ensign laid back down.
"I'm going to fail aren't I?"
"Fail? Ro Laren?" He started to step further into the cabin, thought better of it. "Where are you?"
"I'll let you know when you step on me." She closed her eyes for a second. "I keep going over that simulation and I can't think where I'm going wrong."
"Your problem," observed Will, "is that you don't have twenty-five years of Starfleet experience."
The only way to enter the ready room was in full sight of the bridge crew but Shelby still felt she had snuck in. She expected to hear alarm klaxons any second. If not from the door sensors at least from the desk terminal that had no right to be verifying her access to command personnel documents.
Riker, William T., she requested when the authorization was complete. The screen obligingly filled with type and a small service picture. Three or four years old by now, from the look of it. The face in the photo regarded her seriously, the mouth pressed tight to avoid smiling.
William Thelonius Riker. Eighth in his graduating class. Seven commendations, including a star cluster for extreme personal sacrifice in the line of duty. A distinguished service record, though her own was comparable. Admittedly he had more experience in diplomacy, but while he was busy negotiating she had been patrolling the border and she would have set her battle skills against his any day. One day, she had hoped. She bit her lip at the captaincies he had turned down: the Drake, the Aries, the Humboldt. All of them ships she would have taken in an instant. And, yet, he had been content to remain here, at Picard's side. Had he thought that the Enterprise would be his by default? Or was there some fear in him that the academy screenings failed to search out? That had been her first thought, but William Riker, she'd discovered, was one of the most fearless men she knew.
The file spread before her backed that up. He seemed unabashed in his willingness to offer to risk his career or his neck. There were letters of praise from admirals and the ambassadors of several planets. Then there was a short report of the incident at M491 and a much longer medical report followed by Picard's attempt to preserve his rank, his active status.
She shut the terminal off, unwilling to be swayed. What she needed, Shelby decided, was a drink.
Nothing could wipe the smile from Ro's face. Everything seemed inconsequential now that she wasn't destined to spend the first half of the test crashing into hell's own asteroid.
She yanked her benefactor's arm, tugging him in the opposite direction from where he was trying to go. It was a trick that would have gotten anyone else an increasingly irritated lecture in sign. Ro got a look of bemusement.
"I'm buying you a drink."
He set himself against the pull of her hands.
"Oh no. You're coming with me Riker."
She let go, sending him clumsily backwards before he regained his balance. "Come on. I told Deanna I'd make sure you didn't hide in your cabin."
Will grimaced at that remark. One of Ro's hands brushed lightly against his arm again. "Don't make me drag you in there Commander."
"Try it," dared Will, but he relented, changing direction and heading without her help toward the lounge. Deanna was right. Given the chance he would probably have remained in their quarters. And if Ro had instructions to make sure he did otherwise, then he could be sure to expect the same from the rest of the crew.
The lounge was emptier than usual. Quieter, too. There were brief blips from the sensors as they passed chairs and tables, but the general scream the lounge floor usually evoked was gone.
"May we join you?"
Worf wrapped his fingers around the commander's wrist and planted the human's hand on the seat back. Will accepted the invitation, easing himself into the chair, careful to nurse his back which had begun to ache with the first simulator crash. And that was twenty-six crashes ago.
Ro stretched into the opposite seat, her old self again. She grinned at the Klingon and the bar in general.
"You certainly seem happy," remarked Guinan.
"I'm beginning to believe I might pass that damn pilot exam." She glanced across the table. "Thanks to Commander Riker."
"Thanks to the captain," corrected Will.
Guinan moved closer to him and he cocked his head slightly at the motion.
"Get you something?" offered the hostess.
She moved off with their orders, leaving Will to contemplate his companions with the same inaccuracy. He missed seeing their faces more than hearing them speak and he had to restrain his desire to reach toward them, to be sure there was something more solid there than vague sensor images.
The translator vibrated against his wrist.
"Commander Shelby."
He was not sure who had said it, or if it were a warning or merely an observation.
"Personally I'm glad to be leaving tomorrow."
That was Ro - so the approaching figure must be Guinan, not Shelby. The hostess wrapped his hand around a glass of juice. Her attention, Ro noticed, seemed more with the commander occupying the bar than the one who grimaced at the taste of Bajoran cimet nectar.
"I think that was mine."
Ro exchanged the glass of amber liquid she had been offered for the pulpy syrup.
Guinan shook her head apologetically and headed back to the bar. The sensor image faded into the background and Will tasted his new drink with a tentative sip. The synthesized whiskey was a vast improvement over the thick juice and Will stretched his legs out, trying to ease the muscle cramps in his back.
"What's Shelby's strategy?" he asked, temporarily abandoning the glass.
Worf grunted, but that was a reply the bracelet wouldn't translate and Will continued to stare blankly in his direction, waiting for a response.
"She plans a classic attack," confided the security officer. "It is an . . . adequate . . . plan."

Ro cast an odd glance at the Klingon but Will seemed not to notice Worf's reservations. He drained the glass and rose to get another - declining their offers before they had a chance to voice them.

His tablemates watched him a minute then Ro turned to the Klingon, one eyebrow raised.
Guinan looked curiously toward Shelby as she straddled a barstool far from where Worf, Ro and Will were engaged in conversation.

"I'm a little surprised to see you here."
"I'm getting bored waiting for Picard to make his move and the more I think about it, the less I'm sure what it's going to be."
"There is someone who might could help you with that . . ."
"If you're going to suggest I pump Will Riker for information I've already vetoed that suggestion." Shelby ran a hand through her wavy blonde hair. "Get me a scotch and soda." Against her better judgment, her eyes strayed to the three officers. "I know," she said when Guinan returned. She swallowed the scotch decisively. "He's gone against Picard before. Picard's report said he was quite impressive."
"Sounds like a valuable asset to have on your team," observed the bartender, her fathomless eyes taking in Shelby's fine features, the determined set of her chin. "If anyone on board knows the captain, it's Will."
Except to push the empty glass toward her for a refill, Shelby didn't reply. But then she took the glass, studying the clear amber liquid that Guinan had filled it with.
"I made a mistake."
"You did," the bartender replied neutrally.
"I asked Picard for another exec."
"Ah . . ." murmured Guinan.
Perhaps it was some byproduct of the latent link, or perhaps it was coincidence, but Will somehow chose now to rise and cross the floor with his usual measured steps. He pushed his empty glass across the bar and rested his fingers lightly against its edge.
"Another?" questioned Guinan.
"Please," he replied after what Shelby considered an uncomfortably long span.
"He heard you?"
Will's eyebrows rose slightly and he turned in Shelby's direction.
"As well as I heard you."
Shelby couldn't read the signs, but she knew they meant he had known what she said. Who she was.
"Look Riker, I'm in no mood for a practical joke."
"Not so fast," he chided, pointing to one wrist. "Confuses the translator."
"A translator." She reached for his wrist, examining the band that encircled it. "And you know everything I say."
"As long as you speak slowly," supplied Guinan.
"That was what I always figured about you Riker," she replied, but without the lightness needed to carry off the joke. "We need to talk strategy."
"My office," signed Will, letting Guinan continue the translation, "0800."
"I will expect your complete cooperation."
The eyebrows lifted again and he did a little demi-bow, excusing himself, his four fingers moving to press against his left collar buttons.
Shelby stiffened at his retreating back.
"What did he just say?"
"I believe he called you 'Captain.'"
The exec's office lay decks below the bridge, a common enough arrangement though Shelby had always pondered the reason behind it, wondering if it was meant to separate the everyday chores of running a vessel from the natural intensity of the bridge and the more cerebral atmosphere of the captain's private office. Perhaps it was just to make it clear that a first officer's duties were often not on the bridge.
Whatever the cause, she found her own office aboard the Hood cramped and she tended to do whatever she could to avoid it. Whether the luxury of Picard's ready room would change her mind about offices in general she hadn't yet decided. Enticing as it was, it was the captain's seat on the bridge that she craved and having now sat at the center of a flagship she was loathe to leave it for any reason.
Particularly this one.
She would bet, Shelby mused as she crossed the threshold the obedient door provided, she knew as much about this office as its current occupant. It was here she'd come when she'd needed a place to think - to do the duty of a flagship's first officer away from the watchful eye of what she considered - at first - an undistinguished acting captain named William T. Riker.
It had relieved her a bit when she realized he was not a recluse. Far from it in fact, for the office was almost as pristine as the day the ship was commissioned three years before. Except for a precariously learning stack of data disks, there had been no sign of occupancy, recent or otherwise. The desk drawers still retained their seals and when she'd logged on deeper than the first menu, the computer had given her the standard listing of regulations, observations and Fleet-style helpful hints that come with a first log-on at a new terminal.
She began to doubt he was as hemmed in by regulations as she'd first believed. She'd snuck the top data disk off the stack, then the next and found a set of regulation-complying reports complete until the recent crisis when they would have become the duty of the second officer. That she had expected. More interesting was the official log and the set of personnel observations about the freshman class of ensigns that had yet to be transcribed into the usual numeric rankings and precisely worded commentary of a master personnel file.
Ensign Waller, Will Riker's voice had said, attempted to settle a disagreement between opposing groups of Velbriki and Melongth trade delegates by engaging them in a match of Rezenkian Water Polo and has been assigned three days' duty logging incoming cargo in addition to completing the task of drying out the Deck Nine shuttle bay. There was also a note instructing the personnel officer to look into her creativity score. It was obviously much too low.
The next entry noted that an Ensign G'rtstneu had complained repeatedly that the daily Tuerlotsian fare produced by the food vendors has what he terms "one pinch too little Kohlrenke." Kohlrenke seemed to be an extremely hot spice that the computer regarded as dangerous above the level of two parts per thousand. It had been suggested to Mr. G'rtstneu that he simply add more of the spice to his meal after it has been vended, but he insisted that it must be included in the dish during replication to make the food palatable. As this was the only dish deemed proper for nighttime consumption by the familial sect of which Mr. G'rtstneu was a member, the problem was of a more serious nature than its appearance belied. There was a note reminding him to contact Tuerlotsian ambassador's office to see if this problem was cropping up elsewhere since G'rtstneu said three other members of his sect had also joined Starfleet.
Such, she was disappointed to learn, was the glamorous life of the flagship's first officer. Not that to the ensigns, Riker wasn't the most powerful man they could want to imagine. From their viewpoint, Picard would be too distant, a seldom-seen almost ethereal figure haunting the decks far above the communal quarters relegated to lowly ensigns.
The captain of the first ship she had served on was named Hobson. At best she could remember seeing him twice in the six months she had been aboard. Commander Wheatly she saw practically every day. Wheatly was three inches shorter than the smallest of them, but he was still terrifying. His desk, a good deal more lived-in than this one, was topped with a sign. "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here." At the time she'd assumed it was meant for the ensigns.
Back then she'd looked much like the one sharing the office with Will Riker. The office, that like its owner, had now clearly been through a lot. Besides the extra desk where the ensign sat, the previously untouched desktop was now buried under a towering load of equipment.
"Captain," squeaked the ensign, realizing after a second who Shelby was at least pretending to be.
"I believe Commander Riker was expecting me."
The ensign nodded and repeated the information to the small inset microphone in her desktop. A second later the panel returned the reply in a facsimile of a human male's voice. Earth accented. The ensign pointed toward the laden desk.
"Thank you," said Shelby. "That will be all."
Shelby expected the same show of unconscious protectiveness everyone else on board graced on Will Riker. To her credit the ensign didn't hesitate a second before leaving the two senior officers alone.
"So how do we do this?"
"Do what?" asked the voice from the speaker.
"That answers that question," replied Shelby dryly.
"And the next question?"
"Picard. He is being noticeably slow about beginning this game."
There was a noticeable pause as Will keyed the response into the desk terminal.
"He thought he'd give everyone a chance to get used to their ships, and patience is one of his virtues."
Shelby contemplated the toe of her boot to avoid contemplating anything else.
"Well, it's not one of mine."
"He always said we had much in common."
A frown fixed on her face as she realized what she was about to say.
"I hate to say this Riker, but I need you." She hastily qualified the assertion. "At least I need what you know."
"About Picard."
"About Picard." Shelby slid a hip against the desk. "Information, Riker. I want it and you've got it."
"The captain will assume you're asking me this."
"You seem to be a clue he was willing to leave behind and I am willing to use what I can find. Perhaps he thought you wouldn't tell - or I wouldn't ask."
"So I'm a clue."
"A quite important clue," concurred Shelby, feeling rather relieved she'd managed to find some use for him.
"I would prefer to be the ship's exec, however, I will also take what I can get."
"Then you will help me."
"Yes." Satisfied, Shelby rose to her feet, but the slightly tinny approximation of his voice continued. "And in exchange I want a ticket to the light show on the bridge."
"Exchange," echoed Shelby. "Did I hear you right Commander?"
"Yes you did, Commander."
"I knew your calling me Captain was too good to be true. You are aware that technically I outrank you."
Will shook his head, well aware he had retained his rank only at the expense of his status as a line officer. Even then his being appointed as exec required seven different waivers. Despite Carl Breeden's assurances it had also taken quite a bit of persuasive conversation on Picard's part regarding the extreme unlikelihood that the three hundred and twenty-three line officers on board would all be rendered incapable of performing their duties, leaving one - in Fleet's eyes - unable exec in charge of a particularly valuable starship. To know that however, Shelby had to have done her homework.
"I never knew you were so attached to the regs."
"I don't know Riker, somehow with you I felt I better be." She resumed her walk to the door. "Strategy meeting you, me, Worf, Geordie. My office. Twelve hundred."
"No." She was glad he couldn't know that she'd been startled at the reply. "You and me. Holodeck three."
"Shelby," the box managed to reply in the same tone.
"All right," she conceded. "No promises though. I make no promises."
A program was already running on the holodeck by the time Shelby got there, a few minutes before noon.
"Computer," she instructed, "list contents of current program."
"Battle simulation. Omicron Theta XIV beta version."
Omicron Theta X was the current testing simulation at the Academy and Theta XI would be used only when X was successfully completed within the given constraints. XII was said to have been solved by only four of the command level officers chosen to test it. XIII by only two.
Being chosen one of the twenty officers that comprised the beta test list was a coveted, if unofficial, honor and Shelby had made the short list two years ago when it was decided a commander would join the fourteen captains and five admirals. She had, unfortunately, been beaten out. For weeks she'd expected a subspace message rubbing it in, but he hadn't shown her the courtesy - until now. And, she mused, there was one list his recent difficulties hadn't excluded him from.
Whatever she expected when she walked in, be it blazing phasers or a simple, but meaningful, occupation of the center seat, it wasn't the picture that faced her as the portal dissolved into the curving bulkhead wall and gently sloping ramp of a galaxy-class starship. To her right a Romulan battlecruiser glowered on the main viewscreen and to her left Will Riker leaned casually over the weapon's console, unperturbed by the fact a carbon-copy of his tall form stood only a few feet away.
"You bring reinforcements?"
The question elicited a smile from the Will Riker that lifted himself from the panel and stretched, and a retort from the frozen figure which had sprung to sudden life.
"I thought you probably did not have time to learn sign in the last few hours."
The duplicate's monotonous tone was surprising, considering the intensity she'd always associated with William Riker.
"You seem a mere shadow of your former self."
A puzzled look crossed his face and his hand played a long series of taps against his comm badge.
"I thought you might prefer a less realistic duplicate."
This time the double's eyes crinkled as he said it and he made a dramatic sweep of the bridge with his hand. Beside him Will's hands moved more precisely.
"Welcome to Omicron Theta."
"I've been here before," reminded Shelby, settling into the center seat while it was still vacant. "Class M. Two large land masses and a strange magnetic fluctuation at the northern pole."
"And three Romulan lightweight cruisers to keep you company."
The double's voice had taken on considerable animation, but he remained glued to the same small square where she'd first seen him. Will moved expertly to her side, his hand's momentary groping at the empty seat back the only indication he didn't see the perfect facsimile of the Enterprise bridge and the conundrum of ships on the viewscreen.
"Interesting," she remarked.
"You up to it?"
"Were you?"
For the first time she allowed herself to realize the extent of the injuries. The blue eyes that so readily crinkled on the projection stared fixedly past her and his hands, even when not in motion, seemed tensely alert.
"No," came the answer from behind her. For its part, the computer was able to recognize more than the literal meaning of the signs and assigned the correct emotion, for the answer came in the same honest tone that she'd come to expect from Will Riker. "There are some things the sensors can't compensate for. The captain however . . ."
"He completed it," finished Shelby.
"In record time."
Beta XIV had arrived at the height of the captain's theoretical arguments with Fleet and he had decided it was the perfect opportunity to see exactly what Will Riker could and couldn't do. Will was not as enthusiastic. The captain practically had to drag him into the holodeck where, despite Will's protest, he loaded Beta XIV into the simulator, programmed the beta bridge crew to read sign, and leaned back against the science station to watch.
He had already run the simulation and gotten out, hull integrity not entirely breached, only with an unbearable number of casualties. Under other circumstances, Jean-Luc would have enjoyed this. The running competition with his first officer over beta battle scores had become a pleasant diversion and he would have liked to have known what his first would have made of this particular Romulan commander. He was loathe to admit it to anyone else, but his real concern now was not how Will would perform in the battle, but how far in the simulation he would get at all.
The bridge crew came to life around them. A Denebian manned the helm and a Saurian leaned confidently over ops. The first officer was human, as was the engineer. Will observed them a minute, just as Jean-Luc had, wondering whether this simulation held a crisis of relations as well as the more typical battlefield conflict. Or, perhaps, the simulation would be compounded by failing warp engines or a continuously malfunctioning life support system.
"Report," ordered Will, settling into the center seat, well familiar with how the game was played. He slipped easily into the role of Commander, using his hands as forcefully as he would have used his voice.
"Omicron Theta, Sir," crisply returned the first officer. "Distress call received two point four hours ago. Sensors show destruction of populated areas. Faint lifesigns have been detected. Shields are up at this time. Level two alert."
"Long range scanners?"
"Nothing noted, Sir," returned the Saurian.
"Are the lifesigns in one location or several?"
"Several Sir."
Will grimaced.
"Get me sickbay," he commanded the computer.
"Dr. Jarbov here."
"We've got injured people in widely dispersed areas, Doctor and I don't think we have time to send down individual teams. We will beam them to Cargo Bay Four and you can set up triage in there."
"Without knowing the severity of their injuries I cannot recommend transport."
"Your concerns will be noted Doctor. We will try to be as gentle as possible." He closed the comm channel and directed his attention to the ensign at ops. "Lower shields and inform transporter control to begin beaming the survivors aboard. Mr. Alzd, keep an eye on the long range sensors. I want to know if there is the merest blip coming from the direction of the neutral zone."
Those were precisely the actions the captain had taken himself and he knew that in just a second when the shields came down the Romulans would appear, unexpectedly, from the planet's surface - a situation no commander had yet to face, but one anticipated by the strange wrecks found recently on Goralma IX.
"Captain!" said the Saurian, just as he had before. "Sensors show two ships approaching."
"From the neutral zone?"
"No Sir, from the planet."
Jean-Luc grasped the station panel, remembering the jolting that previously accompanied that message. Will had risen to his feet, asking for clarification, but the Saurian's reply had to compete with the rising concern of the engineer and the computer's warnings that phaser fire had been detected. To the sensor devices, it was a cacophony and Will was even less prepared than his captain had been when the first phaser bolt hit the hull.
The fail-safe on the holodeck couldn't be overridden, but it could be adjusted to make the experience nearly as bumpy as real life. The battle simulations pushed that adjustment to the limit. Its force might not have been as great as that of actual phaser fire, but it was close enough to send Will and the holographic bridge crew tumbling across the lower deck.
"Computer stop!" ordered Will as he pushed himself off the deck, groping blindly to determine where he was. Even the dampened pounding had been too much for the fragile net. Jean- Luc was across the deck in an instant, dodging the obediently frozen bridge crew, to help him to his feet.
"Are you all right?"
Will nodded, so the translator was clearly still working.
"Net is down," he reported, straightening away from the helping hands. He tugged at his tunic. "Guess we can safely take my name off the testing list."
Jean-Luc looked him over carefully, glad that Will was unable to see him do so. His ex-first appeared to be unhurt. He also appeared more than a little perturbed. Whether it was with his performance, the failure of the net or his captain's insistence he do this in the first place, Jean-Luc wasn't sure.
"Computer cease program."
At the captain's order the bridge dissolved into the holodeck's usual black and yellow grid, and, having removed all the obstacles, Jean-Luc cut the shortest path to the portal with Will in reluctant tow.
"It's not the connections."

Beverly Crusher had sounded vastly relieved and the look of concern that attached itself to her face the minute the captain and Will walked through the door finally vanished.
"Let's replicate a new net and see if that will solve the problem." She started toward the medical replicator then turned and shook a finger at her patient. "Don't you move a muscle." She crooked the same finger at the captain, beckoning him to follow.
"A battle simulation," she questioned sharply once they were out of the range of the eavesdropping translator.
"You were the one," reminded the captain, "who suggested I use the holodeck."
"I suggested you run some simple tests to gauge Will's capabilities not that you have him command a battle fleet. Those nets are very fragile. And," she admitted, "I even have my qualms about Worf's training exercises. Will is not able to compensate quickly for sudden motion. He definitely has no business being thrown around in a mock dogfight."
The doctor retrieved the newly replicated tunic.
"Besides," she said, throwing an exasperated look toward the examination room, "he probably enjoyed it and now I'll have to talk him out of another dangerous hobby."
"You're going to show me how he solved it."
"You're the one who wanted to go up against Picard."
"All right," agreed Shelby, more than willing to test her skills against the Fleet's finest. "Let's do it."
The ship on the forward screen disappeared as the computer obligingly filled the bridge seats. Three ensigns. Two lieutenants. A lieutenant commander.
"Who's my first?"
"William T. Riker, Commander," replied the computer.
"You?" questioned Shelby.
"My playground," grinned the hologram. The original retreated to the farthest seat in the center half-circle and freed the projection to prowl the bridge with ground-eating steps.
Shelby shrugged and sank a little further into the seat.
"He got out?" repeated Shelby, looking around the frozen image of her demolished bridge. "How did he get out?"
She addressed the question directly to the hologram, having forgotten after only a few minutes, the silent figure orchestrating the projection.
"By sacrificing the repair crew and jettisoning the warp coil."
There was no reply.
"The thought did cross your mind," prodded Riker.
"At that time I thought sixteen crewmen an expensive loss." Fine lines creased her forehead. "I didn't think of Picard as the type to . . ."
"Sacrifice lives so easily? He's not."
"I don't understand."

"You wanted to see the way Picard thinks. He won because he recognized this was a game. No lives were at stake. You reacted as you would in a real battle which is precisely what the academy intends cadets to do, but this is no battle."
"And neither are the war games," concluded Shelby. "You're saying he'll be bolder, take more risks." She shook her head. "So what do you suggest? What would William T. Riker do?"
"Be myself probably. I seem to take unnecessary risks naturally."
"You're saying you're braver than Picard?"
"No, just more foolhardy."
Shelby looked once more around the wrecked bridge.
"Thanks for the insight."
"And that will be all."
"Well, the ship is supplied, the reports filled out. Unless we have serious personnel problems in the next twenty-four hours . . ."
"Shelby I've advised you. I have a right to be on the bridge."
It was a bit difficult to dispute this with the sharp eyed hologram projection, so she turned instead to its owner.
"You have no need to be there. Look Riker, just enjoy the time off. Think of it as a vacation."
"What's wrong Shelby? Can't stand the competition?"
"Riker, you may have been coddled and pampered by Picard, but you have no business on the bridge in your condition. Even as a non-line officer."
"My condition?" The anger in the voice coming from behind her was accentuated by the slash of his hands. Could it be he actually thought it didn't make a difference?
"Good God Riker. I hate to be blunt, but you're practically helpless. You're completely dependent on mechanical devices to communicate. You may still make a fairly good exec, but a bridge officer?"
"Would you care, Commander, to go up against me?"
Shelby eyed both incarnations of the commander.
"Which one of you?"
"The one who beat Picard at Omicron Theta."
The bridge and its other occupants vanished with some quick movements of his hands and he strode to the door, stopping only long enough to instruct the computer. Then the door shut behind him and inside the bowels of the ship the battle began.
"Care for some company?"
With most of the crew taking shore leave while the command officers engaged in heated competition, Ten-Forward was almost deserted. Geordi was happy to see Will nursing a livid blue drink for he was unlikely to want to discuss weapons specs, a topic which was the sole concern of the engineering staff, even if their department head had lost all interest in it after his second war games. In fact, Geordi decided after Will gestured him to a seat, the commander didn't look in the mood to discuss anything at all.
"If you'd rather be alone," he ventured after several silent seconds had passed.
"No. I have this headache."

"Sensors?" asked Geordi in sympathy. The mere mention of it brought the constant dull ache that resided in his own temples sharply to his attention.
"Ah," sighed the engineer, understanding that too.
Will ran a hand over his useless eyes.
"She feels I have been rendered incompetent."
Geordi moved restlessly and the sensors translated the information, registering the changing depth of the returned signal. "And I'm not entirely sure she's not right."
"Don't give me that Commander."
"You may see as well as a human, better than a human, but I am completely blind to anything smaller than half a meter and if it's moving fast it doesn't matter how large it is. I can decipher what you say, but if I have to follow two voices I become hopelessly lost. To someone who doesn't know sign I am still mute."
Behind the VISOR, Geordi raised an eyebrow.
"You are feeling sorry for yourself."
"You sound all too much like Deanna."
"She gave you a lecture in human psychology?"
"No, she told me to snap out of it."
"May I?"
Beverly Crusher held a plate in one hand and a steaming cup of tea in the other and she nodded gratefully as Geordi pulled out an empty chair for her. She settled the dishes skillfully, took a bite of her sandwich, her blue eyes contemplating her companions.
"What are you two so glum about?"
"Well," said Geordi, downing the rest of his drink, "the commander has a headache and he's giving me one."
"A headache," echoed the doctor worriedly and Will grimaced, knowing Beverly would quickly trade her meal for the medical tricorder she seemed never to be without.
"You are a bit tense," she admitted, waving the scanner.
"Shelby," explained Geordi, "she's got him convinced we should drop him off at the nearest rest home."
The doctor snapped the tricorder shut. "Shelby is probably not helping, but most of it is the sensors." She fixed him with a look that meant business. "You should be on shore leave."
"At least you and Shelby seem to agree on something."
Beverly turned her attention to the more agreeable engineer.
"You'd like a couple hours off, wouldn't you Geordi?"
"I'm not going to turn it down Doc, but why?"
"You," said the doctor conspiratorially, "are going to take him somewhere he can relax."
She clapped a hand down on the two extremely expressive ones beside her.
"That's an order. Both of you could use with some rest. Actually," she continued, the idea suddenly occurring to her, "so could I."
"Strip," she ordered again. This time she pulled the translator from his wrist. "Tunic, too."
He did his best to glare at her.
"Do you know what you're asking me to do?"
"I am asking you to give yourself a break. Things a bit confusing? Sensor info blurry? That's signal degradation and it will only get worse."
Reluctantly Will shrugged out of the tunic, taking the offered jacket and refusing to admit he felt the ache ease behind his eyes.
"Come on," signed the doctor and with Will safely between them, she and Geordi stepped out into the sweet, sunlight-laden grass of a northern valley.
They hiked over a mile before sitting down to rest and bask in the sunshine.
"This is just what I needed," sighed Beverly, stretching languidly and rolling onto her back. She reached up to where Will still stood and pulled him down beside her. "Relax."
There was little time for him to obey. The soft rush of the wind failed to cover the opening of the doors or the sound of Shelby's voice.
For a second the doctor thought of ignoring it. Having stripped him of all the sensor devices, she knew Will certainly would.
"Over here, Shelby," she finally called. There was no reply, only the rustling of the grass increased, telling her that she'd been heard.
"Shelby," she warned Will, but he did ignore her. Rising up enough to see the figure stalking toward them, she couldn't blame him.
"What was your score Riker?"
Shelby came to an abrupt halt and planted her hands on her hips, looking down to where Will lay in her shadow, his eyes closed. "Come on Riker." The toe of her boot kicked toward him, showering his hair with dried grass. He raised a hand to brush it away then resumed his relaxed posture.
"Why don't you sit down," offered the doctor.
Shelby scanned the meadow doubtfully.
"I appreciate the offer, but if the commander will just tell me his score I'll be out of your way."
"Everyone can do with some relaxation Commander, even you."
"Not with less than twenty-four hours to go before the start of war games." She glared down at Will's reclining figure. "Not before he tells me his score."
"Geordi," sighed the doctor. "Ask him what his score is."
"1680," repeated Shelby incredulously.
"Yours?" inquired Will without opening his eyes.
"1435," she admitted grimly, watching Geordi tap the information into Will's hand.
"Very close to Picard."
"There's no way you could have scored 1680. Unless you managed to destroy the Lexurz and rescue the colonists . . ." She pondered a minute. "Get up Riker. You're showing me how you did it."
Will shrugged and rolled to his feet only to be stopped by the doctor's firm hand.
"Not so fast."
"You can go, but without the net."
She cast a sharp look in Shelby's direction.
"He's been wearing that net for practically the last thirty-six hours straight and he's got to get some rest or he'll end up with a migraine so severe I'll have him in sickbay right through your important war games."
"It's up to Shelby," signed Will. "How badly she wants to know."
"I just need the file password."
Will smiled.
"The one I was threatened on pain of death not to reveal." He reached a hand toward her. "Take me to the interface."
Geordi rose instantly, giving Will his arm. That Shelby was uncomfortable with the thought of having to lead Will Riker was quite clear from the VISOR's heat readings. Will was not much more content himself with the thought of being without the net and without Deanna. He had worn it far too long these past days and he knew it, but he couldn't stand to grope around the cabin, feeling lost even in his own quarters, or here, with Shelby judging his every move.
And grope he did, his hands searching the portal wall for the terminal until Geordi directed them to the keyboard. Once he'd found it, it was a simple matter to release the recording of the last simulation he'd completed. He had run through XIV before, serving as the captain's first, just as he had served as Shelby's, but XIII had been only days before the rescue of the agent. The last time he'd commanded a ship of any kind. He and the captain had not yet gotten around to trading scores. The thought had occurred only months later when Beta XIV arrived. He remembered being pleased with the score. He knew it was good, but not that good. Not enough to surpass his captain, even on an off day.
He set the program to run and paused it to release on Shelby's voice command.
"It's all yours."
His reply was the rush of air as the holodeck doors parted and reclosed. Beside him Geordi shook his head and headed back to the meadow.
Beverly Crusher lifted her head and smiled politely at the figure leaning in her door.
"Come in Commander."
Shelby glanced around the office.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you."
The polite smile remained.
"Not at all. How can I help you?"
Shelby settled into a chair, effecting the same smile herself.
"I must have seemed rather brusque in the holodeck this afternoon."
"How did the simulation go?" asked the doctor, neutrally. Had Shelby not been a well- decorated officer, Beverly would have sworn she squirmed.
"Captain Picard is highly regarded as a tactician, I would expect to lose to him."
A slight frown marred the doctor's brow, but Shelby didn't notice, intent on the reason she had come.
"What exactly is Will Riker's condition?"
The doctor shifted noncommittally in her chair.
"I can give you a copy of the medical report in his file."
"I've read it. No offense doctor but I believe it is a bunch of statistical whitewash used by Captain Picard to assure Starfleet his decision to reinstate Commander Riker was correct."
"The report is accurate."
"Highly confusing and almost completely uninformative," finished Shelby. "If I have to make a decision of whether to allow Will Riker on the bridge I need something more than a discussion of the asymptotes of learning curves."
"It is only a 'mock' battle, Commander." Beverly Crusher's fingernails tapped out a staccato rhythm as she said it.
"Does he need protection that badly? Because if he does, he does not need to be on the bridge."
One auburn eyebrow raised itself a bit higher than its partner.
"Shelby, all I can give you are medical reports. I can tell you what percentage of normal sight and hearing the sensor devices provide. I can verify Will's extraordinary sensitivity to vibrations. I can tell you he shows no cognitive deficits, that he somehow took naturally to sign but Braille continues to give him difficulty. All of which is in the report. I cannot tell you whether he should be on the bridge, even if it's only a 'mock' battle."
"What he did in the Theta battle simulation was brilliant and if I can pull off the same thing now, the Enterprise will win the war games," explained Shelby. "It is however a bit risky. Done properly it will cause the ship to go into an extremely tight downward spiral. You fire as the phaser ports turn outward and your opponent is able to lock onto only a small percentage of your ship's defenses. No one tried it because it was always assumed the couplings of the saucer section wouldn't hold on these big galaxy class starships."
"If you know how to do it . . ." began the doctor.
"It was his idea."
Shelby shook her head as she said it, not exactly sure herself what she was trying to get the doctor - or herself - to understand.
"It would help," she admitted, "if I thought I'd ever really known him. Will T. Riker was two years ahead of me at the academy. One of those 'top ten' seniors. The ones the underclassmen emulate. The only one of the bunch that wasn't forthrightly brilliant. That interested me. I wasn't brilliant either, I just tried harder than the rest. That's what I thought Riker did, too. All I had to do was try just that much harder than he did and I could take him. I set my sights on his scores. Tried to better them. Sometimes I did. Almost always I came close. And then sometimes he was brilliant."
Shelby noted the doctor's expression and wasn't quite sure why she was smiling. She continued anyway.
"And those were the times he seemed most casual, like what he did could even have been accidental. But I've watched him, followed what he's done. Too many times he's pulled himself out of some tight spot for it to be luck. Yesterday I finally get my hands on his personnel file and looked up his scores. They're high, but only 'averagely' so. Mine are just as good. But he aced the entrance exam at fifteen, and it's been known to upset certified geniuses. Then I see how he handled that beta test, how he thought of something no one else even imagined, and I realize I still know nothing about him." Shelby looked helplessly at the doctor. "Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"Technically I wouldn't know what officer's performance scores meant if I saw them. If you're asking whether Will Riker is still that cadet you knew or that officer that came up with some brilliant maneuver that escaped you and Captain Picard, I'm afraid you're not going to like the answer."

"I may not like it doctor, but I need to hear it."
"Part of it lies with how much you are willing to accept."
"Will cannot function without assistance."
"That's what the sensors do."
"That's what we do to make up for the sensor's failures. You said you read the report. If you had the visual acuity the sensors give Will you would still be considered blind. The device on his wrist will only translate the spoken sounds of one individual at a time. Will cannot follow a conversation unless everyone speaks very slowly and intermixed voices will not be translated at all."
Shelby looked bleak.
"Over the years I've noticed that one of Will's greatest strengths was his ability to accept other life forms, new ways without placing his own expectations on them." The doctor's look was almost challenging. "Perhaps you have the same ability."
"So I am to take it that the CMO has no objections."
"I have a great many objections to the things Will Riker does," corrected the doctor. "I'm just not sure one more will make any difference."
The cabin door slid open and Will rose from the couch, a Braille padd in one hand. The sensored tunic was spread carelessly on the unmade bed and Will's face held a faintly perplexed air. Shelby had moved a few more steps into the cabin before she realized she should announce herself.
"It's Shelby."
There were some antique books on the nearby table and a silver brush. The sweet scent of Iden flowers lingered from a bouquet that bore a white ribbon.
Will moved to a barren desk, activating its inset speaker.
"What can I do for you?"
Shelby's inquisitive gaze halted on the commander.
"I want to beat Picard."
"Badly enough to come here."
Shelby straddled the nearest chair, leaning her weight against its back.
"Badly enough to come here," she admitted.
There was barely any illumination and the commander seemed hidden in the soft-edged shadows. Shelby wanted to be able to see his face. She wanted that advantage.
"Do you mind if we turn the lights on?"
The darkness lessened and Shelby could pick out the colors in the delicate paintings on the walls. The clear blue of Will's tunic.
"What exactly do you want Shelby?"
"I've got what I want Riker - command of the Enterprise."
"But at what cost?" asked Will. He was unsure himself whether this time he was joking.
"I don't understand."
"You're here. Look at yourself Shelby. Look who you are asking for advice."
"You know things about this ship I couldn't hope to learn without years of experience and as I've been reminded at least a dozen times in the past two days - you know Picard. Better, it's said, than anyone has in years." She scratched a thumbnail against the chair's soft fabric. "And I just watched your solution to Omicron XIV." Shelby waited for some sort of response but there was none. "You know I hate it Riker when you're that good."
She spun the chair on its base, catching a glimpse of Will's academy diploma on the wall.
"Will it really work?"
"What?" responded Will.
"The Riker maneuver."
"Cute Shelby. Very cute." He looked like he wanted to rise from the desk, to pace his long steps across the room, but he was tied to the speaker. The restless fingers drummed against the desktop, then against the keys. "It should work. I'd run it by Geordi before I tried."
"Then let's go."
"Get Geordi's opinion."
He didn't move, but Shelby still surveyed him with a measure of satisfaction.
"Come on Riker. You know you want to try it. You want to know if you really could have beaten him. Not in some holodeck simulation or with him in some Borg-induced haze. In the real game."
A slight smile formed on his face.
"You think this is real?"
"As real as it's going to get."
Shelby debated a moment, unwilling to voice what needed to be said.
"I need you Riker. I need to watch you one more time."
"To see what?" questioned Will.
"To see what I missed. What I don't understand about the way you command."
Although Shelby was sure it made the images no clearer, Will turned toward her, an uncertain look on his face.
"Now I don't understand."
"No," admitted Shelby. "I don't suppose you do. I know every regulation by heart. Have studied every major battle that's occurred over ten feet off solid ground. I can look at any battle simulation and suggest a dozen viable options." Her head lifted suddenly. "But none of them will be unique. None of them will be the 'Shelby' maneuver. I need you Riker. I need to watch you not go by the rules - any rules - one more time. I need to know if there is something missing in me. Something I once thought I saw in you."
He did rise then, as if it were a necessity.
"You were right. I don't belong on the bridge."
Shelby regarded the moving hands coolly.
"You're not getting out that easily Riker. You're not just going to shut me out. I am offering you an opportunity to finish unfinished business. For both of us to. For you to be who you were and for me to see who I'm not. Like it or not Riker, we are alike in one way - neither of us is comfortable being the pursued. We prefer to be the hunter.
He made no reply other than to sink on the sofa, apparently studying the stars.
"Damn it Riker!" Shelby exclaimed, nursing a wave of irritation at the silent form. "Why does everything with you have to be so difficult? I offered you what you said you wanted."
Will's hands half raised before he realized the effort was useless. He swept one arm gracelessly across the low table in front of him, knocking books and empty glasses into the floor. One glass rolled to Shelby's feet. She stooped to retrieve it, placing it back on the polished table as his mad grasp fastened on the portable speech unit. He stabbed at it and the synthesizer produced a shaky Standard.
"Don't patronize me."
"Is that what you think I'm doing? God, Riker, I find all this sympathy you evoke just as annoying as you do. I could care less if you're more liable to walk into walls than I am. If you should be upset about anything, it should be that I'm willing to take advantage of the situation." He seemed to regard the tirade stoically. "Give me a break Riker. We can win this thing - if you can get used to the idea that I'm in command. And that I plan to stay there."
A shadow of a smile moved across Will's face. He'd managed to get used to the victories being small and the defeats growing in the opposite direction. The problem now was that he was unsure which this was - a small winning or the final loss of who he had been. He yearned to reach inward, to touch Deanna's thoughts. To see himself through her eyes. To see himself whole again. If he had any hopes of this not being a defeat, though, he knew that was the very thing he could not do.
"Geordi won't like it."
"That," replied Shelby, accepting the concession without gloating, "is why you'll do the talking."
"You want to tell me that again Commander?"
The chief engineer regarded both of them with a barely restrained incredulity that only managed to grow as Will's hands repeated the flowing signs.
"You are talking about 400 megatons of starship."
"The computer simulations say we'll stay in one piece," offered Shelby.
"The computer simulations . . . " Geordi threw a look of consternation toward Will. "Omicron Theta."
Their acting captain tapped her foot in impatience.
"All right," conceded Geordi under her stare. "I'll take a look at it."
"Good," returned Shelby. "When you get done I'll be in my ready room."
"Her ready room?" the engineer questioned when she was out of earshot. "And please don't tell me you back her plan to put this ship into a three-hundred-sixty-degree spin."
"It was," confessed Will, "my idea."
"Aha . . ." Geordi rubbed one side of his VISOR reflectively. "You really think the locking clamps will hold?"
Will crooked a finger at the engineer. "Follow me."
Geordi took his time studying the simulated readings and Will roamed the holodeck- created bridge restlessly, running a hand lightly along the ops panel.
"I still don't like the stress readings," complained the engineer, planting Will's finger against the panel. "Look. This is the start of the danger zone." He brought Will's other hand within an inch of the first. "This is where we are. Not much of a safety zone. Do we want to take this kind of chance for a war game?"
Will held up his hands, forming the space of the safety zone between them before breaking off into sign. "That is a fairly wide margin. The ship will take it."
"I agree," conceded the engineer. "But who takes the blame when we pull off this stunt?"
"Shelby. I hope."
"Shelby," echoed Geordi, doubtfully.
"Captain Shelby."
Jenette Mesean's greeting filled the forward viewscreen.
"Admiral," returned Shelby, comfortably ensconced in the captain's seat.
"You have until twenty point four to seek a defensible position then three cruisers will come after you."
Mismatch. She'd complained to Riker late last night, after he'd convinced Geordi to go along with her plan and she'd allowed the synthohol to go to her head. He'd laughed in that odd way of his and said that how you perform in a mismatch was exactly what Starfleet wanted to know. Now she showed no sign the thought of being outgunned three to one bothered her at all.
"Understood, Sir."
The admiral observed Shelby's equanimity with a glint of amusement in her eye.
"Very good Captain - and good luck."
"I don't need luck Sir. I have the Enterprise."
"That has been noted Captain," replied the admiral dryly. The young captain reminded her uncomfortably of herself at that age. "Mesean out."
"Well," said Shelby, addressing no one in particular, "let the games begin."
Even with the surety of knowing all their weaponry was disabled, Jean-Luc couldn't help but feel a bit of concern for the sleek ship turning slowly on the Constellation's viewscreen. Firing even dummy phasers on his own ship seemed somehow distasteful - particularly with an unseasoned captain at the helm.
The wait should have given him time to consider what Shelby's first move would be - something classical he supposed - but he found himself spending most of the time wondering how Will was getting along with the commander. Or, more to the point, how the commander was getting along with Will.
"The Enterprise has moved from our sensor range," reported the ensign at ops.
Jean-Luc nodded distractedly at the information. Shelby had ten more minutes to find her defensible position then three of the fleet's finest would be on her.
Ten minutes later, to Jean-Luc's considerable surprise, the Enterprise had vanished.
A smile reshaped the captain's face.
"Get me Commander Data aboard the Excalibur."
Data's smooth face was incapable of surprise, but he paused a moment after receiving the captain's information.
"There are three possibilities, assuming the Enterprise has not left the playing field," the android informed him. "There is an area at the northern pole of Uranus where sensor images are distorted; there is a portion of the Jovian asteroid belt where there is a significant concentration of magnetized ore and a corresponding decrease in sensor efficiency and there is an artificially generated sensor blind spot at the interior junction of the Outer Sol defense line."
"Which of those would you predict the Enterprise is using?"

"Given Commander Shelby's past performance records I would say that the Enterprise is hiding in the distortion over the Uranus pole - it would provide the most classically defensible position."
Jean-Luc's eyes narrowed as he considered another possibility.
"And if Commander Riker is assisting her?"
Data started to reply, but the captain was thinking aloud, more than asking a question. "Will would not chose Uranus."
"No," concurred the android, "Commander Riker would prefer the ability to surprise over the safety of an easily defensible position." The golden face on the forward screen tilted barely to one side. "Would he not chose the Jovian belt?"
The captain nodded his agreement, but he couldn't see Shelby taking that kind of chance. If you weren't careful the asteroid belt would box you in and her with an unknown ship, an unknown crew.
On the viewscreen, Data continued his analysis. "In such a dispute would they not compromise?"
"Set course," instructed the captain, "for the Outer Sol defenses."
Shelby studied the view before her warily. She turned to the Enterprise's security officer with much the same look.
"Where's Riker?"
"Engineering," replied Worf, locating the signal from the commander's comm badge.
"Tell him to stop arguing with Geordi and get up here." Worf looked at her with a thinly maintained restraint. "Call him to the bridge," she re-instructed and this time she was obeyed.
"We've been found," she informed Will as he stepped off the turbolift.
He settled over the bridge railing like he belonged there.
"Have they locked on?"
"No," replied the Klingon. "They are continuing to close around us."
Worf regarded him with the look Shelby thought was reserved only for her.
"We are surrounded," he pointed out.
"And," grinned Will, enjoying the Klingon's shock, "at exactly the right distance."
"What are they doing?"
The Constellation's first officer crossed his arms and his right foot tapped blisteringly against the bridge floor. From the perspective of the command chair, Jean-Luc had to admit a certain unsurety himself. The Enterprise was simply keeping station, floating there in front of them. Unarmed. Unmoving. Unlike anything he expected by looking at Shelby's record.
"Mr. Roem." The captain's address brought the first officer's toe tapping to a quick halt. "Request their surrender."

Not that he expected Shelby to acquiesce. They were not merely playing some game of hide and seek. Shelby was expected to go down, true, but to go down fighting. Not just to sit there and succumb to a barrage of fire from ships she'd calmly allowed to ring her.
"Surrender?" laughed Shelby at the receipt of the message. "We're just getting started." She looked back toward Will. "Is everything ready?"
Will nodded, his hands forming some statement that caused the Klingon to grunt in half- concealed pleasure.
"Let's do it."
Shelby sank back into the center seat. "Mr. Worf, fire phasers. Full spread."
The Constellation rocked gently from the phaser's contact.
"Return fire," instructed Jean-Luc.
"I still don't understand." Roem slid into the right-hand chair. "This is suicide on their part."
The Constellation's temporary captain tended to agree with him - except that he doubted Shelby had intentions of making it that easy.
The Constellation returned its own volley of dummy blasts and the ship rocked the slightest bit.
"Now Geordi," ordered Shelby. "Three hundred sixty degrees. Lay down a pattern and drop the mines."
The Enterprise swung into a graceful arc, firing as she went. Then she dropped the metallic mines and fled into a sharp spiral.
"They're moving."
Indeed, the Enterprise's image shifted on the forward screen, bringing the rest of the Melonga's hull into sight. Its heading appeared to take them straight through the Constellation's bridge.
"Evasive?" asked the first officer.
The captain didn't appear to hear the question.
"She's going to do it."
"Sir?" questioned Roem.
"She's going to drop into an inward spiral."
"An inward spiral? Has she lost her mind? Helmsman!" ordered Roem, never missing stride. "Back us out of here. If those locking clamps go that saucer will take out anything in its path."
"Belay that," instructed the captain, unconcerned by either the Enterprise's maneuver or the first officer's histrionics. "Target the phasers to catch the warp nacelles as she turns. We won't get much more than a piece of her as she goes down - let's make sure it's the right piece."
He wasn't as surprised to see Will's simulated battle plan come to life as he was when he contemplated Will talking Shelby into it. And he still had to admit that he didn't see how - apart from surprising a few seconds reaction time out of everybody - it was going to do them any good.
That was before the saw the mines.
"Fusion mines," he murmured in amazement.
Or at least Shelby's or Will's approximation of them. The Enterprise turned gracefully, her outer hull brushing off the strokes of their phasers and showing no strain from the effort. Then she slipped from their screens, steadying beneath them and pulling nose up to get her own view as the harmless mines released a spray of colorful ionized particles. An unnecessary effect - Kolrami would have awarded them the victory without the special effects making the point that the ships had allowed themselves to be drawn one and all into the mines' force. Jean-Luc was still unsure whose idea the mines were but the display was classic Will Riker. A winning that managed to be graceful in its execution but still quite pointed.
The saucer groaned with the strain of the spiral, but the locking mechanism held. Above them the Federation ships were blanketed in blue and crimson particles from the colorful, but harmless Dobry mines. Shelby was just about to accept their surrender when Worf's warning rang out across the bridge.
"Internal stabilizers are failing. Gravity fluctuations imminent."
The computer was issuing its own urgent alarm and it was hard for Shelby to catch exactly what they were being warned of. She had enough idea, though, to clamp down hard on the command chair, fearful of being thrown across the bridge. Will did not have the luxury.
He reached for Worf's arm, unable to decipher the garbled code, and the Klingon reached back - but not quickly enough. The sudden change in gravity sent Will tumbling out of his reach. Worf could only watch as the human hit the side bulkhead at the speed of free fall and crashed to the floor.
"Will!" cried Shelby, but she, too, was hanging on to a console for dear life.
The gravity fell again, lifting the commander's limp form, before the controls stabilized. The return to normal pressure dropped Will heavily to the deck floor a second time.
"Medical team to the bridge," ordered Worf, crossing the bridge in three large steps. He knelt protectively by Will's side, his fingers searching hurriedly for the neck pulse.
"Oh God, Will . . ."
Shelby reached toward the fallen form but the Klingon refused to let her come any closer.
The medical team pushed her even further away.
"What happened?" Beverly Crusher's tone demanded an answer and Worf looked pointedly at Shelby.
"The gravity fluctuations," Shelby replied. "He must not have heard the warning."
The doctor's face hardened, but she merely nodded, turning her attention to the disturbingly still form beside her.
"Congratulations Commander. The Enterprise has been unanimously declared the winner."
Picard seemed genuinely pleased and Shelby felt her cheeks flushing unprofessionally.
"Thank you Captain," she replied shortly. "We must request that you beam aboard as soon as possible."
"Is there a problem Commander?"
"Commander Riker was injured during the exercises. Dr. Crusher has him in surgery. We beamed Counselor Troi aboard a few minutes ago."
There was a slight tightening of the captain's lips.
"I'm beaming now."
"Understood," said Shelby glumly.
Normally the medical staff wouldn't have allowed the crowd gathered on the main sickbay floor, but, realized Beverly, brushing her hair back from her face as she stepped out from the surgery, no one was going to order the senior officers out. Deanna looked up at her, her eyes uncertain, her empathic sense blocked somehow by Will's unconsciousness. The counselor's figure was starting to round under the blue and black tunic and the reminder of Deanna's pregnancy caused Beverly to smile.
"He's going to be OK," she said, reassuring the counselor that the relief she'd thought she sensed dimly in the doctor's mind and countenance was true.
All across the room, tense postures relaxed. Beverly put a hand on Deanna's arm.
"Give Selar a few minutes and then you can see him."
The captain stepped closer and Beverly's tone changed to that of a formal report.
"He hemorrhaged pretty badly but I've repaired the damage. He'll be weak for a while, but he should be fine."
Selar stepped out of the observation room and Beverly released her hold on Deanna, nodding her in. Jean-Luc crossed his arms, clearly wanting a more thorough report, although she suspected he'd already grilled the Klingon officer. At least Worf breathed a little more easily and the fiery look had left his deep brown eyes.
"He hit the bulkhead pretty hard. Internal bleeding, broken ribs, punctured lung, concussion. Nothing we couldn't handle." The captain's eyes narrowed.
"We'll yell at him together," promised the doctor. She looked back toward the recovery room. "When he wakes up."
When Will did wake, it was to a suffused warmth - the comfort of Deanna's thoughts, soft, yet warmed by some anger he at first didn't understand. For a moment he thought he was dreaming, but he felt her hand gripping his own. Then he became aware of the dull throb in his head, his side. Gingerly he tightened the grasp on her hand, testing to see if the movement would hurt. It did.
"Do I want to know what happened?"
He tried his other hand and found it less sore.
"You sent a galaxy-class starship into a three-hundred and sixty degree spiral," reminded Deanna, letting the warmth grow in intensity, wanting Will to know there was point beyond which even she found his behavior reckless.
"Did it work?"
Deanna rolled her eyes, but Will was only aware of the burst of red heat in her mind, the sharp temperature spike that dulled just as quickly as it had come.
"Of course," she replied. The pressure on his hand tightened a little past the point of comfort. Will tried to shift on the bed and was rewarded with another stab of pain.
"Well it wasn't worth it."
The quicksilver of laughter broke across the link, easing both the pain and the heat.
"Good. I was rather hoping our child would know his father."
What was left of the warmth enveloped him. Spread. It was a part of the bonding he hadn't expected, the temperature extremes. The chill of separation, the warmth of rejoining. Other times he wondered if it had been like this for Deanna always. If she'd paid a similar price for letting him in long ago, and then letting him go.
"I see you woke up."
Without the translator, Will sensed the doctor's entrance through the link. Her irritation muted by Deanna's touch. As if realizing his, the doctor took his hand, the letters sharp against his palm.
"The captain and I have been wondering just what you thought you were doing?"
"My job," replied Will, moving as little as possible.

The doctor's hands were cool against the shared heat.
"As I understand it, your job was to make sure Shelby didn't do anything rash."
Somehow Shelby had reached the ready room before Jean-Luc and he could have sworn she had flinched when he entered.
"I have already made my report," she stated formally.
"And I have read it."
"I accept full responsibility for what happened."
Her voice was calm and steady but her eyes refused to rise from the desktop.
"For the victory?" the captain asked innocently.
The downcast eyes blinked.
"I beg your pardon, Sir?"
"You won the wargames."
"Yes Sir . . ."
"Why did you think I called you in here?"
His tone made is quite clear he already knew the answer.
"I assumed . . ."
"You assumed I wanted to talk about Commander Riker."
"He never should have been on the bridge."
"Commander." He gestured toward a chair as he said it, wishing she would sit down, but she continued pacing, reminding him all too much of another first officer he'd once known. "You and Will Riker share the same rank. He is a Starfleet officer - and a damn good one. He has been injured in the line of duty before. Under my command and on my order. You know it is something captains live with - something first officers live with."
"Tell that to your crew. Tell that to Beverly Crusher."
"Tell that to yourself Commander."
Her eyes showed that she had tried - and failed.
"Will is not any other officer and I should have taken more precautions."
"Commander." He gestured to the seat again and this time she sat. "If I or you or anyone is going to give Will the chance to be somewhere other than a rehabilitation colony then we're going to have to accept that these things will happen. In fact they happen constantly because Will refuses to accept the few limitations we do try to set for him."
Will was still a little pale and he moved gingerly against the pillows propped beneath him, but he managed a smile in her direction and his hand brushed the keyboard, spelling her name.
"God, Riker," she returned, "you almost got me killed."
"Then why am I the one in bed?"
Shelby settled herself on the bed's side.
"You didn't have to face Worf . . . You heard we won."
"We?" questioned Will. "Don't you go soft on me too, Shelby."
"You giving me credit makes me think you no longer view me as a threat and that shortly you'll be offering to learn sign to make it easier on me or you'll be telling people how courageous you think I am."
"I do . . ."
She was not sure if it was a warning or a plea.
"I do," repeated Shelby, "not believe you're treating me like this. I came here to . . ."
"To see how I was doing," finished Will. "And I don't appreciate it in the least."
"Riker!" exploded the commander. "Would you stop being so damned self-absorbed for a minute and let me finish? I appreciate the help. You didn't have to give it to me. I'm not sure I would have helped you had our roles been reversed. And I resent you thinking my behavior is rooted in some pity I feel toward you. Whatever I have felt Riker, it's never been pity."
Will shifted carefully on the bed. He was unable to follow the hurried speech, but it didn't matter much - he knew she was angry. At least he had not lost the ability to vex the commander sorely.
"When I get out of here there's something I'd like to show you. I think you might appreciate it."
The commander's hands dropped to her side and the translation slowed to a manageable pace.
"Riker, you never fail to amaze me. One minute you're dressing me down and the next you want to show me something you 'think' I'll enjoy."
"Consider it an apology," offered Will.
"And as he doesn't apologize often," bantered Deanna as she entered the room. "I think I'd take it."
"Where are we going?"
The translator rendered Shelby's words for Will's benefit, but there was nothing to translate the reply of Will's hands.
"Great," muttered Shelby. Lucky that she spied Data as they neared the turbolift and commandeered the android away from the ensign he'd been besieging with sensor imaging specs. It got her a grateful look from the ensign and an instantaneous translation.
"Where are we going?" she repeated, looking expectantly at Data.
"Hiking," relayed the android.
Shelby looked more dismayed at the answer than she had at the previous silence. Then she developed a most charming smile.
"Data." She placed an arm around the hard shoulders. "How would you like a day in the wilderness?"
"Shelby, when was the last time you took shore leave on something besides a space station?"
The voice belonged to the android, but the question was undoubtedly Will Riker's. In response, Shelby looked at the pine-covered hills spread in front of them with a bit of a frown.
"I'm not much on these nature-retreat things. I was born on a space station, raised on a space station. I never quite understood this obsession with trees and flowers." She stooped to pick up a shiny rock. "Is this Earth?"
"Where I was born and raised," said Will, "Alaska."
"Much larger than a space station," admitted Shelby, falling for the illusion of the holodeck walls. "I'll grant you that."
"Come on," said Will. "I'll race you." He started off at breakneck speed and after a quick shrug to the somewhat puzzled android, Shelby followed. Data matched her pace easily, jogging unhurriedly across the tundra. Throwing a little more power into her sprint she halved the distance Will had put between them. In a second she would have been able to reach out and tag him, but the race was ended instead by a petrified log. Half buried in waving grass, it didn't appear on the sensors. Shelby barely saw it, herself. In time to jump it, but not to warn Will. He took the fall like a professional, rolling to a stop before either of them could reach him.
"Picard told me you were going to get yourself killed one day."
Will grinned and attempted to wave off the android, but Data would not be deterred. He pulled the commander to his knees and moved a hand to his communicator.
"Don't you dare," warned Will, somehow aware of the android's intentions. After a brief pause, Data relented, rocking back on his heels. Will kicked back against the spiky grass and stretched out his legs. He reached a hand to his own communicator and tapped a series of instructions. Beside Data, a checked cloth spread itself on the ground and a wicker basket materialized.
"A picnic?"
Shelby lifted the lid of the basket and peered inside. Bread, fruit, some kind of meat slices and cheese crowded the interior. Plates sprang up on the cloth and glasses of pink juice.
Data picked up the nearest glass, holding it to the artificial sun's light and examining it intently.
"Lemonade," explained Will.
The android sipped the pink liquid thoughtfully and followed the taste with a chemical analysis of the components. Shelby continued to stare worriedly at the contents of the basket and Will surveyed them both with a crestfallen expression.
"I think you two are missing the point."
The android's dissection of acidic and sweetening components came to an abrupt halt.
"I should simply drink it," concluded Data, his gold eyes widening microscopically as he stored his new-found knowledge of lemonade-drinking behavior.
"And you should make yourself a sandwich."
This particular instruction was directed at Shelby who still stood, her arms crossed, at the foot of the red and white cloth.
"A sandwich," she said. She looked momentarily in the basket's direction, but made no move to retrieve it. "Riker, most food these days comes out of a replicator. Not out of a basket."
"You've never made a sandwich."
Shelby finally sank to the grassy floor. She pulled her knees up and wrapped an arm around them.
"I've made do with rak eggs on Ciren II and waterlung larvae on Enid Seven. I have not, however, made a sandwich."
Will gestured for the basket. "Give it to me. I can't understand what everybody has against preparing food."
"Inefficient," suggested Shelby.
"A pleasure," corrected Will.
The conversation was suspended as he examined the contents of the basket, lifting the bread to the cloth and skimming the length of the knife in search of the handle. The large hands grasped it skillfully, slicing the bread in even slabs and crowning the slices with ham and swiss. He tossed Shelby a globe of yellow-brown mustard. She tossed it back.
"You're the cook."
She did accept the sandwich and ate it with studied deliberation. Data took one also, but kept the ratio of its organic compounds to himself.
"Not bad, Riker. I'm impressed. I didn't realize you had any talents."
Data's gold eyes regarded them both curiously.
"May I ask what is the purpose of this exercise."
"Yes. I have attended picnics before. They are a human form of entertainment. Commander Shelby, however, does not appear to be enjoying the procedure."
"I think she's enjoying it. She'd just never admit it."
Shelby brushed crumbs from her lap. She looked at Will's hands skeptically.
"What did he say?"
"That despite appearances you are enjoying yourself."
"I wouldn't go that far."
Will stood up, crooked a finger at the two figures still reclining on the ground.
"There's more?"
"I told you I wanted to show you something."
He started up the nearby slope, one hand out to ward off the branches the net would miss. Data followed with alacrity, catching up to Will in a few quick steps. Shelby watched them for a while, then heaving a sigh, she trotted up the mountainside.
Only the birds spoke as they moved under the forest canopy. Will seemed engrossed in the experience and even Shelby appeared taken with the breeze and the dappling of the setting sunlight. Data took the time to observe the two humans, their competitive interaction a fascinating change from the friendly relations that were the norm of the Enterprise officers.
As they crested the summit, Data stepped ahead of the commander, unwilling to trust either the fail-safe or the sensor net completely. Before them the forest floor dropped off sharply. A glacier spilled in front of the cliff, rising from the crystal waters.
"It's beautiful," said Shelby. The water rippled away from the half disk of yellow slipping further into the waves with each passing second. A lone seabird wove a pattern of arcs across the sky.
"Sit down," instructed Will, allowing Data to clutch protectively at his arm as he sank on the rock ledge. He came to rest on its edge, his legs dangling off the rock's peak. The sunset had deepened to an orange glow and Shelby felt its pull, the relentlessly fickle tide moving toward them, then changing its mind. She stole a sideways glance at Will. He must have come here often.
"What do you see?"
Will maintained his contemplative pose.
"Nothing," he said simply.
"But the net . . ."
"I know you're there," he admitted. "Solid object 0.6235 meters to the right and I know you're not part of the rock because your topography changes."
"And the sunset."
"That is no sunset, that is the aft holodeck wall."
Data's voice held none of Will's irony. Shelby looked again at the sunset.
"You see the wall."
"No. I sense the wall and I remember the sunset."
Shelby nodded. She closed her eyes. The breeze still drifted over her and the seabird's cry echoed against the cliff. But, she thought, that would be missing, too.
"And you still come here?"
"Deanna and I have come a few times."
"But you used to come alone."
"From the time I was ten." He turned toward her, the blank gaze seeking her eyes. "And where did you go on the Space Station?"
"It was not like this."
"Where?" pressed Will.
"There was a storage room off the control center with a huge ventilation duct. I used to lie on my stomach and watch the base commander through the vent."
"You watched the base commander in your spare time?"
"He was my father."
"My father was precisely who I was trying to get away from."
The breeze rippled softly through her hair.
"Your choice does have distinct advantages."
"Glad you like it," commented Will, "because it's yours." He slipped a data disk out of his pocket. "When we leave it will be wiped from the computer's memory."
"Why?" asked Shelby though she accepted the disk.
"My taste for the solitary isn't what it used to be."
The sun was barely above the horizon now, mixing the last of its red glow with the swiftly darkening blue of the night sky.
"Use it Shelby. A captain needs a place to think. The Reliant has three holodecks."
Shelby studied Will's profile in the waning light.
"The Reliant."
"Word gets around Shelby."
"Word got around before, too, Captain Riker."
"Now there's something I'm unlikely to hear again soon."
"You had plenty of opportunities," said Shelby accusingly.
Will shifted position, pulling one leg up atop the boulder.
"You ever felt at home?"
Too easy a question.
"In the center seat of a bridge."
"And no where else."
"Then your choice is simple."
"And yours was not."
"I love this ship. This crew. I had the unfortunate experience of being happy here and happiness is very hard to turn your back on."
"So you wish me the greatest unhappiness," remarked Shelby.
The conversation appeared to confuse Data even further than the picnic and there was a noticeable pause before he translated Will's reply.
"Only for your career's sake."
The sky had darkened to blue-black and the stars were coming out.
"Come on Riker." Shelby hauled him up and took a firm grip on his arm. "If we're going to explore each other's innermost souls then I need a drink."
She took one last look at the glacier traced by the glowing sea.
"So how's the sunrise?"
"I might have to check it out."
"You got a minute?"
There had been no one at the first desk to warn him and Will seemed surprised by the entrance.
"I thought you already left Shelby."
"I came back. Seems I have something to show you, too."
"Well," said Shelby, an unaccustomed twinkle in her eye. "Dad's not home and I have the keys to the new planet hopper."
Will shook his head.
"I think I'm having a bad effect on you."
"Does that mean you wouldn't like a personal tour?" She glanced at the keyboard and the miniature speaker. "Would Deanna want to come?"
The question seemed to hit him at some level she hadn't expected, but he recovered, answering her smoothly.
"She's got a full counseling load this morning, but I know somebody who would love a tour."
Though the chief engineer had been brought along to translate, they finally had to do without him or chose never to get out of engineering. Will was not quite so at ease as on the holodeck, but he crossed the bridge with dexterity and stood in front of the command center. From what he could tell, except for being slightly smaller, it was a duplicate of the Enterprise.
"Sit down," offered Shelby, her pointing hand directed unnecessarily at the captain's seat.
Will sank into the chair, slouching comfortably. For only a moment, though, as curious hands examined the built-in consoles and then followed the sloping rail leading to the weapons station.
It was the first thing he'd said since they'd left Geordi and as she'd feared, Shelby had no idea what it was.
"Riker, we've got to get you a voice if we're going to continue this relationship."
"My voice is perfectly fine," retorted Will. "Your ears need some work."
His head turned sharply toward the viewscreen, the net registering the transporter beam before the telltale hum that caught Shelby's attention even began. The sparkling mass solidified itself into the surprising but not unwelcome form of Jean-Luc Picard.
"Station control said I might find my two wayward officers here."
Shelby did not point out that communications were completely operational and all he had to do to retrieve his officers was to call. He'd wanted to see the ship. Her ship, realized Shelby with a considerable amount of pride.
"I also thought I might like to take a look at the newest member of the fleet."
He ran a hand over the navigation panel. Shelby straightened.
"Anything in particular I can show off Captain?"
"Actually, I'd like to see your shuttle bay. They're thinking of renovating ours and I heard this is the only copy of the new design."
Shelby motioned toward the turbolift.
"You coming?" she asked the figure leaning over the weapon's console.
Will rested his elbows on the station, freeing his hands.
"Shuttle bays all look the same to me. Think I'll just stay here and eat my heart out."
Shelby took it as a complement but there was something in the captain's voice when he translated it. Some look on his face that refused to disappear even when the turbolift doors closed off sight of the bridge.
"We still find it difficult to treat him normally."
Shelby frowned slightly at the statement and pressed the toe of her boot into the pile of the lift floor.
"I was under the impression I was considered something of an ogre."
The lift glided to a smooth stop and she ushered him out into the hall.
"You merely continued the relationship you and Will had always had."
Shelby disagreed.
"I ignored that Will was more fragile than I would have liked to believe and it could have cost him his life. If I had to deal with that fact day in and day out . . . I would probably lock him in his quarters permanently."
"Fragility has no business on a starship," concluded the captain.
"Fragility," restated Shelby, stopping before the bay doors, "has no business being close enough that I can harm it."
The shuttle bay doors opened onto a high arched space that was wider than that of the Enterprise. It made the two officers seem insignificant in comparison.
"I'm not sure I like it," stated the captain, craning his neck to see the roof.
"Not aesthetically pleasing," surmised Shelby.
"But it is a shuttle bay," Jean-Luc reminded himself. "It's not exactly somewhere you'd want to work very long, though. There's something . . . dehumanizing about it."

He rubbed his hands together.
"Can I show you something else?"
"No," said the captain. "I have my own ship to attend to." He looked around the shuttle bay once more. "May I offer you some advice Captain?"
The corners of Shelby's mouth twitched upward slightly as she settled at his shoulder, her pace matching his own in the hallway.
"I can't get used to hearing that - 'Captain,'" admitted Shelby. "But I can do with all the advice I can get."
"Get yourself a good first. One who makes up for your weaknesses. It will be harder than it looks. You'll have to make yourself search for those candidates you'd rather overlook."
The turbolift doors were still open and they stepped into the waiting lift, Shelby considering.
"And what would you suggest I look for?"
"Diplomatic skills would be desirable, and might want to consider someone with a fairly large amount of experience."
The fleet's newest captain grinned like a rank cadet.
"It has been a while since anyone accused me of youth and exuberance - with the exception of Will Riker."
The doors opened obediently on the bridge and the captains stepped out. Jean-Luc stopped to admire the forward screen's view of his own ship, leaving Shelby rocking on her heels.
"Can I ask what he said about me?"
"Who?" returned Jean-Luc.
"He said you shouldn't be given the Delrevky Run."
"And what patrol did he suggest?"
"That he didn't say."
The captain grew serious again.
"With you patrolling sector J, it will be a long time before our paths cross again." He extended his hand. "You led us on a fine chase, Captain. Congratulations."
Shelby accepted the offered hand. She had already decided she would not dwell too much on the knowledge that she had drawn the furthest of duty stations, and one of the most dangerous. Far from the diplomatic Delrevky Run.
"Captain," she said.
"Have Geordi and Will beam over when they're ready."
He touched his comm badge and a few seconds later Shelby was alone on the bridge.
Shelby pressed her own communicator.
"Commander LaForge?"
"Yes Captain," came the answering voice.
"Is Will with you?"
"Do you have any idea where he could have gotten to?"
"Maybe he beamed back to the ship."
"Could he do that?"
Geordi laughed. "Oh yeah. Three dots and a dash. His comm badge is activated by touch rather than voice."
Shelby looked around the deserted bridge again.
"Yeah, that's Riker. Gone without so much as a 'thank you.'"
"Captain?" questioned Geordi.
"Nothing Commander."
"Actually I guess I should be getting back there myself. I appreciate the tour."
"My pleasure Commander. Let me know if Will's not aboard," instructed Shelby. "I'll send out a search party of one."
On second thought, she decided, why was there any reason to wait?
"Computer. Is William Riker aboard?"
In three steps she was at the ready room door.
"You're in my chair."
Not only that, his feet were propped atop her new desk. He swung them down slowly, then leaned forward, his hands - for once - still.
"Not bad for a once and future pain-in-the-neck is it Riker?"
She studied him a moment and he somehow seemed to know it.
"You are staring."
"I'm looking at you?" She translated with sudden comprehension. "I guess I am. I've watched you for years, why should today be any different."
"You can stop. I am no longer in your way."
"Sorry," reported Shelby. "That one I didn't get."
Will shook his head.
"Time for me to leave."
He gave his tunic a familiar pull as he rose to his feet.
"Wait," said Shelby. "I've got something for you - in exchange for the holo program."
She took the metal replica of the Reliant from the desk and placed it in his hands. The long fingers caressed it intricately, following its curves.
"Do you think you could think of me from time to time Riker? It would make me feel I left some sort of an impression."
The blue eyes did not quite succeed in meeting hers and the answering signs were unreadable.
It was, Shelby decided, a fitting ending to their relationship. Begun in one incomprehension and ended in another.
Will, however, seemed unwilling to let whatever it was go unsaid. He slid from behind the desk, and finding her hand, traced the reply letter by letter onto her palm.
"I have found I can do almost anything with a bit of practice."
"Thanks Riker. You've always been a great boost to my confidence."
"My pleasure - Captain."
And Shelby realized almost with a bit of hesitation - he meant it.
"Commander?" Jean-Luc repeated, a little worriedly this time, not knowing if it was possible for Will to be so deep in thought that he didn't feel the comm bracelet's code.
Will started slightly at this second greeting and turned his face in the captain's direction.
Even without Deanna physically beside him, he could sense his captain's concern. It did not bother him now as it had in the beginning. Apparently his captain had also decided it was something - if not to be accepted - then at least it wasn't to be worried about for he didn't try to erect any barricades to contain his thoughts.
It didn't make the slightest difference to Will, but when he turned his sightless eyes in the direction of his commanding officer he could sense relief from the captain. It didn't make the slightest difference to Deanna either - whether he "looked" at her or not - Deanna saw through him no matter which direction he faced and it was getting harder as the months passed to remember that he needed to smile when he thought they'd smiled, to set his face with the appropriate prevailing emotion, not merely to let it mirror what he felt.
Jean-Luc had noticed lately that Will's smile was not the effortless greeting it used to be. It somehow seemed tentative, forced, and he wondered if Will was succumbing to the pull of the bonding which must seem more real than the dark, silent void through which he moved.
"Is everything all right?" He placed a hand against Will's arm when he said it, using the touch to draw him back as he would when Deanna was distracted with the sensations of others. Will's gaze settled unfocused on his captain's face and the conjuring trick eased the radiating concern further. Will ignored the knowledge, grinning as if caught in some adolescent prank.
"Ensign Gomez has been put on report by Lieutenant Campbell for insulting the visiting Merdank engineering staff by mentioning the possibility of time travel. Byron mistakenly sent us the Xais' specialty food shipment and we have the equivalent of sixteen drums of live mealworms in the cargohold and Data wants to join me in the childbirth experiences of a human male." The blue eyes somehow lighted from within. They seemed to regard the blackness that was all they saw with a touch of amusement.
"Everything," Will reported to his waiting captain, his hands in fluid motion, "is quite surprisingly normal."