part two continued
At the sound of the chime, Ro and Tom were surprised to hear the door unlock and open to admit the Counselor. Tom stood and sighed.
"What now, Deanna? Aren't you finished with us yet?"
"Actually, Tom, this is personal. Perhaps you'll accompany me to the Arboretum. I'm sorry, Laren, but Tom and I have some unfinished business."
Ro stood also, ready to protest, but Tom forestalled her. "She's right, Laren, we do, but I have a feeling it won't take long."
He passed through the doors, and was surprised to see four guards posted outside. The surprise turned to derision when two of the guards followed him and Troi at a discreet distance.
"What do you expect me to do? Overpower you, and run amok on the Enterprise?" he asked.
"It's just a precaution," she answered curtly. "You may have been my lover, but now you are a prisoner and protocol must be followed." He cursed under his breath, and she gave him a sidelong glance, but kept walking.
"Come on, Deanna. What's the point of this? We don't really need to do this," he said, his frustration evident.
"Yes, we do, Tom. We're almost there." They entered the turbolift and she gave the command for the Arboretum. The lift moved soundlessly and smoothly to its destination and the doors opened onto a large expanse of dense and exotic plant life, where horticultural species collected from all around the galaxy flourished in mixed profusion.
Deanna instructed the guards to wait at the turbolift, the only point of entry or exit from the deck designed for enabling crew to be alone if they so wished, to enjoy Nature at its best or ruminate on problems or issues in relative privacy.
She then led Tom into the greenery and selected a seat nestled in an alcove surrounding a fountain complete with aquatic life-forms co-habitating successfully with their galaxian counterparts.
"This is cosy." Tom sat down beside Deanna, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his thighs, watching the play of the water. "I suppose you want to tell me how disappointed you are in me for leaving Starfleet, for choosing the life of a renegade over the straight and narrow path that you and Will tread. That if I had been patient, you would have finally joined me on some ship like I asked ... twice, now."
"Where does Major Kira Nerys fit into all this?" Deanna asked, ignoring his discourse.
Tom's head snapped around to look at her and he straightened in the seat. She had his undivided attention, which was how she planned it.
"What are you talking about?" he bluffed.
"Don't play with me, Tom," she said firmly. "You were in control all through that interrogation. You played Commander Cadwallader and me like a pro. You told us nothing you didn't want to, but at the same time threw us tit-bits to meat out the exchange as if you were co-operating ... to a certain point, that is. You were appropriately stubborn, indignant, belligerent and condescending in all the right places. You were acting a part and you acted it well. Only an empath or telepath would have picked up on the panic you felt at the mention of Major Kira's name. The same panic you're feeling now. And so, I repeat, where does she fit into all this?"
"Damn you, Deanna," he cursed. Boy, had he been way off base in his assumption of why she had singled him out for this tete e tete. "Why can't you leave things alone? It doesn't concern you. It doesn't even concern Starfleet. Kira Nerys' role is ancient history and I won't have you dragging her into this. It happened years ago and the issue should not be resurrected. I won't allow it."
"You're in no position to allow anything! What happened? How were you involved with Major Kira?"
"I wasn't involved with her. I took her hostage on the Defiant. She was dragged along against her will."
"I know that part. It's well-documented and has no bearing on your reaction to Commander Cadwallader's mentioning her name. What is the part we don't know?"
He surged up from the seat and strode over to the fountain, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his trousers.
"Tom, you have to tell me. I have to be the judge of whether it's relevant or not, not you. I'm not going to leave it alone, and I can either report to Will with damaging suspicions or make a judgement-call on something that I understand."
He made no movement, but stood there, head down, watching the fish move lazily in the clear water, free in the captivity of the fountain's confines.
"Tom ..." Deanna prompted, more gently this time.
He sighed and turned back to her, his eyes appealing now. "The last thing Nerys said to me before I was transported aboard the Cardassian ship that imprisoned me was a promise to get me out of there. She kept that promise. Laren broke me out of the prison on Lazon II -- that much was true -- but it was Nerys who organised the raid, unknown to Ben Sisko. She took a tremendous risk, using Maquis contacts like that. She was even on the ship that spear-headed the raid, but she assured me that she didn't make a habit of aiding the Maquis, and I believed her. I don't want her implicated. I can vouch that she's never done anything like it nor contacted us since. Any contacts she may have had then have moved on. She won't know where they are. We're too transient for that. So there is no point dragging her into all of this."
She looked at him appraisingly for a minute and then said, "I believe you, Tom, and I can feel your conviction that Major Kira is no longer associated with the Maquis. But if you haven't had any contact with her since your break-out, how can you know that she's not still working in the wings somehow?"
"I would hear about it, Deanna. I told you, nothing much gets by me. That's what makes my strikes so successful. Nerys is, as the amazon put it, a 'cold' lead, well and truly." He sat down beside her again, his eyes intent and beseeching.
"Why does it mean so much to you, that she not be implicated?" Deanna asked. "She was allegied to Starfleet when she organised your break-out. She should be made answerable for her indiscretion."
His face set and his eyes blazed now with anger. "Aren't you listening to anything I'm saying? I would be rotting in a Cardassian prison now if it weren't for her! How can I allow her to pay for what she did for me? How can you punish her for getting me out of that hell? Have you any idea how I suffered in that place? What they do to their prisoners? We were lower than animals to the Cardassians and treated abominably. Don't you care?" He grabbed Deanna's shoulders as if to shake some sense in her, but his anger disappeared at the look on her face. He could see such sorrow, such longing, such ... love ... in her large, expressive eyes. She still loved him. Despite everything he was, had become ... she still loved him.
He released her shoulders and moved his hands to her face, cradling her cheeks reverently, his thumbs catching and wiping away the large tears that had escaped her eyes. "Of course you do. You suffered along with me, didn't you? You're suffering now as I relive it." He held her to him, stroking her hair and back. "I'm sorry, my love, I didn't mean to put you through that. I never want to hurt you, but I seem to keep doing it, over and over again. I should never have pursued you on Betazed all those years ago. I should have listened to you when you told me to go away and leave you alone, but I persisted and insisted, and now you're paying for it. I ... am ... so ... sorry."
He was kissing her now, punctuating his words with quick fervent kisses on her mouth, tear-streaked cheeks and wet eyes. She tipped her head and opened her mouth to his, unable to prevent herself and he accepted her invitation, humbly but guiltily, because he knew he had no right to this, to her love, nor to her compassion. He had chosen a path in his life where he could not ask her to go and would not take her. She was as lost to him now as she was when he was stranded on Nervala IV or incarcerated on Lazon II, and yet she was with him, in his arms.
Deanna drank him in, desperately and unashamedly, realising the futility of the situation but not caring, determined to have this moment. She unfastened his clothes and pushed them aside, touching him, feeling him, revelling in the strength and familiarity of him. When she saw the scars all over his body, she cried anew, but became even more resolved to assuage some of his hurt. She helped him with her own uniform and then coaxed him down onto the grass with her, uncaring of being in a public place. If she'd thought about what she was doing, she would have hoped the guards' presence would discourage any crewmembers, but she wasn't thinking, only feeling.
Their coming together was reminiscent of that first time in the Jalara Jungle, when, like now, she'd thrown caution and all her convictions to the winds, and had allowed her passionate nature to rule her head -- their first time together, her first time with a man, the first time his soul was captured and held by a woman, and the first time their bond was forged. The bond that would ensure that they would always be imzadi to each other, forever. Now, like then, Deanna gave herself to him, utterly, without reservation and without intellectualising. There would be time for that later, and for the regrets.
Captain Picard was feeling euphoric. They were having a light supper in his rooms at HQ after Theresa had just treated him to a performance of "Midsummer's Night Dream" performed in one of San Francisco's older theatres. The performers had been particularly skilled, the music rousing, and the dialogue had charmed him more than usual. When he informed Theresa of his observations, she laughed delightedly, leaning back in her chair and sipping the tea he had poured for her.
"Ah, Jean Luc, I shall take that as a compliment, if I may, considering how you provide so few. I'm sure it was the pleasure of my company that enhanced Shakespeare for you even more."
He started guiltily. What did she expect from him? He was probably being unfair to her, accepting her company and not reciprocating by refusing to take their relationship further. Some of the ambience of the evening dissipated as he contemplated what it was that prevented him from trusting her. She had succeeded where the other doctors had failed. He had not experienced any semblance of a nightmare since his sessions with her ended. And yet ...
"I'm sorry, Theresa. I feel I am a disappointment to you, but I ..."
"Never feel that, Jean Luc," she interrupted hurriedly. "You are an amazing man and I have enjoyed our time together, but I am very aware that our time together is limited. Very soon, you will be given your new command and I will probably never see you again. I guess that is why you feel I am rushing you. Probably because it's true!" She smiled wryly, and patted his hand where it lay on the table.
"Anyway, you can make it up to me. That Shakespearian Company is having a workshop this weekend and has extended exclusive invitations to the public to attend. I have been able to acquire two such invitations for us, if you would care to join me."
Picard was sorely tempted. To mingle with actors who performed and loved Shakespeare as he did, to discuss the merits and techniques of the plays with those who understood them, and to have a chance to lose himself in a character created by the master playwright, was a dream come true for him. No amount of holodeck simulation could compete with this opportunity ... and yet, he still held back.
He looked at Theresa, at the certainty in her face that she had offered him something he couldn't refuse.
"I appreciate your invitation, Theresa, but I don't ..." he began, regretfully.
"I see, well, if that doesn't appeal, how about we spend the weekend in the mountains. Get away from Starfleet and put all those inquisitions behind you. I can pack a few things in no time."
"Theresa, I'm very flattered, but I really think I should stay here and await further orders. Admiral Nechayev assures me ..."
"The Admiral has nothing to do with this, " she hissed.
He looked at her in surprise as he caught that ephemeral something in her face again. It was as if she wore a pretty mask that slipped ever so slightly, revealing something that was unwholesome and menacing.
Her eyes held his, their hazel orbs growing and glittering silver. His head began to hurt, a curling sensation in the base of his neck that uncoiled and grew and slithered up his nerve endings to blossom in his brain.
Theresa's lips thinned and peeled back to reveal thin, sharp teeth shining with slimy saliva, and the side of her face caved in to highlight high prominent cheekbones that stretched the white marbled skin grotesquely tight.
He gazed at her face now in horror, knowing that if he pulled at her hairline, it would come off in his hands, leaving a narrow bald palate to rival his own. Her previously warm beauty was replaced with a repulsive attraction that was bizarre in its contradiction of revulsion and enticement.
"You!" he shouted, holding his head in his hands and lurching to his feet. His chair overturned, and then he grabbed the table with both hands and shoved hard at the spectre in front of him. "It can't be! We killed you! You disintegrated before my very eyes!"
The thing in front of him went down under the force of the table, legs and arms flailing helplessly in the air. He launched himself at her throat, gripped the slimy surface and squeezed, and squeezed ... and then he realised the neck he was applying pressure to was oozing out of his fingers as the table shifted, no longer pinning anything of substance beneath it, but at rest on the bare carpet.
What had been the reincarnation of the Borg Queen, was now a pulsing shining primordial ooze slithering across the floor like quicksilver. It headed for the door, and Picard, in an attempt to somehow arrest its motion, only succeeded in signalling the doors opening mechanism which enabled the stuff to exit, sweeping down the corridor and out of sight before the Captain could burst through the aperture.
Ro jumped to her feet when the door reopened. She watched Tom closely as he entered the room and the guards that had followed him from the Arboretum about-faced and left. Of Troi, there was no sign.
"What did she want?" she asked him. "It's been over two hours. What took you so long? When are they going to leave us alone?" She followed him to the replicator and watched as he ordered cold water.
He turned to her then. "They're not going to leave us alone until we tell them what they want to know."
"But I already have. I gave Will the location of the base on Taleth IX in exchange for our freedom."
"You did what? Why?"
"Because it was probably the only way of avoiding a Starfleet prison, that's why!"
"Will can't let us go ... just like that! He doesn't have the clout. And even if he did have the influence, why would he? We have both betrayed him by defecting. He's not going to let us live that down."
"He said he would and I believe him," she replied, defiantly. "He set us up in these quarters, didn't he? That's quite out of character as far as I can remember."
"Yes, it is. He must be going soft in the head or leading you down the garden path."
"You still haven't told me what Troi wanted."
"She picked up on my reaction to Cadwallader's bringing Kira Nerys into the conversation. The Commander missed it, but Deanna didn't."
"What did you say?"
"I told her how Nerys organised the raid. There's no point hiding anything from her. I'm an open book to her."
"She's not going to go after Kira is she?"
"I don't think so. I hope I've convinced her to leave Nerys out of it. But we're going to have to be careful and not push our luck."
"What luck?" We ran out of luck when we were transported aboard the Duwain. Gods, I hate this waiting around."
"You'd better get used to it. Unless Will comes through somehow, you won't be able to expect any better."
He watched her prowl around the room while he helped himself to another drink of water. He was glad Ro wasn't empathic. Her jealousy knew no bounds, and she'd started and won many a fight when other women had become too interested in him. If she actually found out that he had been unfaithful to her, what would be left of him wouldn't be salvageable.
He had surprised himself, putting up with Ro's possessiveness for so long, but he had needed her influence and knowledge at first, and then they had become such a good working team that he was reluctant to change the status quo. The sex was good too, and while he had her to watch his back, it saved him from the messiness of other entanglements. He knew she thought of him as her property, but as for love ... he doubted that love came into it, not if Deanna was any indication of that emotion. No, he hadn't been unfaithful to Ro in the truest sense of the word, but he had betrayed her trust.
And what of Deanna? What did she expect of him now? Did she want him to abandon Ro, did she want to see him again in that way, or was it an isolated incident she had no intention of repeating? Afterwards, in the Arboretum, they had both been reluctant to talk about it. Hell, there had been nothing to say. It shouldn't have happened -- neither of them should have let it -- but at the same time it had been inevitable.
And if she felt like that, why didn't she and Will just ... ? But obviously, his duplicate was dragging his feet there. Tom remembered Cadwallader and her interest in Will. The amazon was appealing, but Will was a fool to ignore what Deanna could give him.
But was he, Tom, any better? He had meant it when he told Deanna she would have been better off not knowing him ... them. He sighed and replaced his glass on the replicator's ledge. Ro was still watching him, her eyes narrowed and suspicious.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked her irritably.
"I might just ask the same question," she replied.
"I've just realised we were so good at evading capture, we've never had much experience at escaping capture. Any ideas?"
It was precisely 1500 hours when Captain Riker looked around the table at his senior staff now assembled in the Observation Lounge. Cadwallader on his right, then Hennessy, Troi, Lavelle, LaForge, Data and finally Dr Crusher on his left.
"Okay, people. We supposedly have the location of a Maquis base whose main function is to monitor the comm. traffic in this sector. We have two Maquis members, one of whom is reasonably co-operative, and one Bajoran transport which has recently, if falsely, pledged allegiance to the Maquis cause. What can we do with it?"
Cadwallader slid a look at her Captain, amused at his diplomacy. As if he needed suggestions. She felt sure he knew precisely which way he wanted to go with this, but it was important to everyone involved that all input be sought and considered.
"Captain," she ventured. "Do we know at what range this base will be aware of our presence?"
"Approximately seventy thousand kilometres."
"That negates direct beam-down," supplied Geordi, his new blue eyes almost disappointed.
Cadwallader continued. "We use the Duwain then. They may even recognise it."
"Some of her crew arenít fit for duty," warned Beverly.
"And the shipís not repaired yet," added La Forge.
"How long will it take, Geordi?" Riker asked.
"Well, weíve not been working on it since going into warp. If we come back to impulse, we can continue and it will take another eight hours or so."
Riker looked at Data. "And how many hours out of Taleth IX are we?"
"At Warp 5, another two hours, twenty-nine minutes, and ... seconds are no longer programmed, Captain."
Rikerís lips twitched and the rest of the officers rolled their eyes at Dataís response. "Thank you, Data," the Captain returned. "Another ten hours or so before weíre ready then."
"Who will pilot the Duwain?" Troi wanted to know.
"Cad. will. Sheíll lead the team Iím sending on the Duwain along with you Troi, Hennessy, and La Forge."
"Wouldnít one of our Ďprisonersí be an asset as well?" asked Cadwallader.
"Yes, Iím going to let you take Tom. Think you can handle him?" he quirked an eyebrow at her.
Cadwallader smiled. "Iíll certainly try, sir, but I thought Ro was the more co-operative."
"She was, but I think Tom will be the most useful in this instance."
"With all due respect to the Counselorís abilities, Captain," Data inserted, "why do you consider it necessary for her to be a part of the away team?"
"Deanna will go along to keep Tom honest. Heís not going to do anything that will endanger her and, hopefully, the rest of the team."
Riker turned to his Chief Engineer. "Geordi. You need to put your head together with Data and come up with a way to neutralise their equipment, permanently. Data won't be able to join you on the away mission -- he won't fit in with your cover. I want some serious sabotage with a Starfleet signature, so that theyíll realise they have been exposed. No prisoners, no fatalities, just irreparable damage."
He looked around the room. "Any questions?"
At their silence, he continued. "Okay. Lavelle, continue this course but drop out of warp. Geordi, get your teams back on the Duwain, but get someone else to oversee it -- youíll be with Data. Dr Crusher, report to Commander Cadwallader as to which members of the Duwain crew are fit for duty and what their designations are. We need them to familiarise our crew with that ship. Cad., talk to Tom and see how many personnel you will need to fly that thing. I only want the bare minimum. Troi, you can sit in with her if you like. I want him to know you will be involved.
"Weíll meet here again at twenty-three hundred. I suggest you all get some rest in that period -- at least four hours, is that understood?" He looked keenly for signals of assent from each of his officers and when he was satisfied with their responses, he dismissed them. "Thatís it, everybody. You have your orders."
Cadwallader brought up the rear of the departing officers and stopped short of the roomís doors. "Captain?"
"Yes, Cad., what is it?"
"Thereís nothing preventing your taking a little off-duty time in the next eight hours, is there, sir?"
"I guess not. What did you have in mind?"
"How about I take you up on that raincheck?"
He smiled at her tenacity and boldness, weighing things up in his mind. "Okay, Cad., Iíll meet you in Holodeck Two in three hours. Weíll have an early dinner together and then you are resting for your mission."
"Aye sir, Iíll be there." With bells on, she thought, walking jauntily from the room.
Will sat back in his chair at the desk in his Ready Room and idly fingered the moustache on his upper lip, debating his next move. Cadwallader had reported in about twenty minutes ago that she had organised her crew for the Duwain satisfactorily and that Tom had been resignedly co-operative.
He still had an hour to fill in before meeting her on the Holodeck, and he figured it was now or never to have a private meeting with his duplicate. Although they had parted on reasonably amicable terms almost five years ago, he had received the distinct impression that there was still resentment brewing in Tom. Resentment that had to be aired and, hopefully, dispelled.
"Riker to Commander Hennessy."
"Hennessy 'ere, sir."
"I want you to collect Tom Riker and bring him to my Ready Room."
"On my way, Captain."
Within ten minutes, the door chimed and admitted Tom Riker closely followed by the Security Chief.
"Thank you, Commander. You may return to your station."
"Aye, sir," and the tough little Irishman pivoted and left the room.
Tom threw himself into the chair opposite and watched Will moodily.
"What is it this time, dear Ďbrotherí?" he asked. "I must say, Ro is getting a little impatient at being denied my company. First, Deanna and that amazon of yours, and now an audience with the illustrious Captain himself." His tone was provocatively sarcastic. He wondered if Will was aware of Deanna's second 'interrogation'. He doubted it. Deanna wouldn't be likely to divulge much of those events to her Captain.
Will ignored the dig. "Sheís going to have to learn to live with it," he replied.
"Ah yes, your fan club informed me I was to participate in the incursion on Taleth IX. Smart move sending Deanna though. Your little guarantee that Iíll behave myself, no doubt, but I donít know how you can send her on such a dangerous mission. The Maquis are a force to be reckoned with, Will. They wonít be surprised for long and they donít have orders not to kill."
"Deanna is a Starfleet officer like the rest of us. She knows the risks and she has the experience. Besides, as you mentioned, I am counting on you to protect her."
"Whoís going to protect your amazon?"
"Commander Cadwallader can look after herself."
"Commander Cadwallader! What a mouthful! No wonder you call her ĎCad.í for short," Tom chuckled. "I wonder what you call her when the lights go out."
Will leaned forward over his desk and pinned Tom with a piercing blue gaze. He smiled malevolently. "Tricia, actually. What does Ro call you? Will?"
"Why, you ..." Tom surged to his feet and lunged for the throat of the man opposite him. Will used his duplicateís momentum to lift him off his feet and throw him sideways across the desk. A padd skittered across the smooth surface as Tom slammed into the comm. terminal. He quickly recovered and rolled off the desk, taking Will with him and both men found themselves on the floor. Will landed hard, his breath knocked out of him by the combination of the fall and Tomís weight on top of him. That gave Tom a small advantage, but instead of using it, he remained immobile with his hands around Willís throat, and the rest of him pinned beneath him.
"Why donít you call out for Security?" Tom grated between clenched teeth, barely resisting the urge to throttle the other man.
"Because I feel somehow we have to get this out of our systems," rasped Will with what little air passage he had available to him. "Now is as good a time as any." With that, he brought a free forearm up and connected his fist with the side of Tomís face. The momentary ringing in that ear disorientated Tom enough for Will to break free of the strangle-hold around his throat. With a superhuman effort and a grunt to match, he pushed at and dislodged the body on top of him and rolled to a crouch, waiting for Tomís next move. When it didnít come, he slowly rose to his feet. Tom did likewise and they watched each other warily, identical eyes locked with identical smiles of anticipation.
Will spoke first, admitting, "Iím going on a diet. You nearly crushed my ribs when you landed on me."
"Sorry, but that was the intention." Tom lunged for him again, but Will dodged him at the last minute, kicking out a leg as Tom went past. Tom anticipated this and as he tripped, he grabbed for Will at the same time. Once again, the two Rikers sprawled to the deck crashing into a chair that bent and gave under the combined weight of the two men now rolling, each trying to gain the upper hand. A small table was knocked on its side, its ornaments flying to become dull thuds on the carpetting. When the menís momentum finally brought them hard up against the bulkhead, Will was on top this time.
"See what I mean?" he grinned triumphantly, as he straddled Tom, and then brought back his right arm and aimed for his adversaryís face.
Tom brought linked hands up just in time to block the blow with his forearm and deflect it. The movement left Willís throat vulnerable and Tomís linked fists carried forward and were able to connect with Willís already mistreated windpipe. The latter rolled off, gasping for air and was hauled to his feet by Tom only to be sent across the room with a powerful right hook to the jaw. His passage was halted by his desk, the back of his thighs coming up hard against its edge. It teetered, threatening to topple, but righted itself as Will thrust forward and under Tomís outstretched hands as the latter followed up his advantage. Just as Tom threw himself towards a ducking opponent, Will snapped his knees upward, his shoulders connecting and thrusting Tom into uncontrolled flight over the desk and towards the wall behind it. Tom hit the wall hard and lay unmoving, just as the Ready Room doors slid open.
Deanna and Cadwallader rushed in to survey the scene of mayhem -- a stunned Tom Riker on the floor and a panting Will Riker nursing a bruised jaw and battered throat.
"What in heavenís name is going on?" cried Deanna. "Tom? Are you all right?" she asked in concern as she ducked behind the desk and crouched down beside him.
Cadwallader surveyed the tousled, bruised visage of her Captain and shook her head slowly, a wide smile lightening her previously worried expression. "I take it you two have been sorting out your differences. Satisfactorily, I hope, because I wonít countenance a repeat performance. Iím not sure, but I think it says somewhere in Starfleet regulations, that a First Officer can relieve her Captain of duty if he persists in engaging in bar-room brawls."
"You could be right, Cad.," croaked Riker, and then grimaced at the pain this action evoked in his sore jaw.
Tom, meanwhile, had made it to his feet aided by Troi. "As far as Iím concerned, one-all doesnít solve anything," he panted.
"Too bad," scolded Deanna. "Youíve had the fight that's been brewing ever since you two met years ago, so thatís the end of it. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Deanna," said Tom sheepishly.
"Will?" Troi turned her ire on him.
"Understood. Why did you come in anyway?" He suddenly put a hand up. "No, no need to answer that. I guess your empathy was picking up on double trouble just then."
"It certainly was, and you two have a lot of apologising to do to make up for it."
"Iím sorry, Deanna," murmured Tom.
"That makes two of us," added Will.
"Both of you get to your quarters. Commander, you make sure the Captain makes it and Iíll see to Tom."
Laughing, Cadwallader hooked her arm into Willís. "Come on, old man, letís go clean you up." They departed the Ready Room via an inner door which led into the Captainís personal turbolift. It was a short trip to his quarters where Cadwallader, pointing meaningfully at a small couch, said, "Take a seat, Captain, and Iíll replicate something for that jaw."
He did as she bid, and she returned with an ice pack. Sitting down beside him, she held it gently to his injured face.
"This really isnít necessary, Cad.," he complained, flinching from her touch.
"Yes it is. I donít want you to use this as an excuse to break our date. Now sit still and take it like a man. That was a really bad idea having a fight with him," she continued. "Iím not going to report you, but I should. Iím perfectly within my rights to do so."
"Then, why donít you?"
"I guess, because it's understandable, considering the extraordinary nature of your relationship with Tom. Anything could happen in a situation like this one, and I guess it probably will if you two arenít kept separated. Why did you instigate it, Captain?"
"What makes you think I did?"
"What makes you think I wouldn't assume it? Well?"
"Iím not sure. Except I hoped it would clear the air between us. I really have no idea if it worked, thanks to you ladies interfering."
"Yes, sorry about that, but Deanna wouldnít be diverted. I tried to stop her, but she said some nonsense about a Counselor having a Chief Medical Officerís clout in matters like this."
"It probably isnít nonsense, you know," he said.
"Well, anyway, I couldn't talk her out of it, and she pushed past me and stormed in, breathing fire."
"Do you mean to tell me that you knew what was going on, and approved?" her Captain asked in surprise.
"No, not exactly. I guessed some sort of confrontation was taking place, but I didn't really think it would come down to fisticuffs, so I chose not to interfere. Deanna had no such compunction, but then again, she probably had a better idea of what was going on. Well, if you don't need me anymore, sir, I'll get back to the Bridge. Are we still on at seventeen hundred? I was just joking earlier ... I'll understand if you want to cancel."
"No, I've planned the evening now. I'll be there."
"Very good, sir, till then," she put on her professional voice and gave him a mock salute, then spun on her heel and headed back to the Ready Room and beyond.
Deanna and Tom entered the turbolift which would take them to his quarters. Not a word had been spoken since the two had left the Ready Room. The Counselor had waved away Commander Hennessy when he would have accompanied them, and when he looked as if he would make an issue of it, she snapped, "That's an order, Commander."
Hennessy backed off.
Now in the turbolift, Deanna suddenly called out, "Computer, halt!" She looked at the ceiling as if for inspiration, her body rigid with anger and then turned to Tom.
"I can't believe you started a fight with him," she burst out in exasperation.
"I didn't start the fight," he defended. "At least, I don't think I did. Actually, I can't remember who did, but I do know I've been itching to wipe that smile off his face ever since I came on board."
"Well, your attitude hasn't been much better. You've been chipping at Will every time you see him, and he's been more than tolerant where you're concerned. Whoever heard of setting up a Starfleet outlaw and his mistress in a cabin of their own!"
"Deanna, about Ro ..."
"Tom, you don't have to explain anything. I wasn't expecting you to remain faithful to me or anything. In fact, I sort of teamed up with Worf for a while after you left, so ..."
"Worf?!" he exclaimed, incredulous.
"Yes, Worf. What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong with ... ? I mean, he's a Klingon!"
"So? He's also a very sensitive person!" she defended, testily.
"Sensitive? That's not a word I would have used."
"Well, he is ... underneath that gruff exterior and rigid adherence to Klingon honour."
"Did you and he ...?"
"Make love? Why not?"
"Why not?! It's well known that Klingons play rough, that's why not."
"Well, they can also be gentle. Bajoran women like it rough too, so I've heard."
"Yeah, well nothing I can't handle, but I'd think twice about taking on a Klingon female."
She put her hands on her hips and looked him squarely in the face. "Now, why do I find that hard to believe? In fact, I'd hazard a guess, you just haven't had the opportunity, and if you did ..." She tossed her head and faced the doors of the turbolift again.
"Deanna ..." Tom took her lightly by the shoulders, turning her to face him again. He looked down at her but she refused to meet his gaze. He finally took her chin and lifted her face to his, his eyes gently beseeching hers.
"I don't want to argue with you, Deanna. I want to remember our time in the Arboretum, how we felt then, how good it was between us, always is between us."
"It can't happen again, Tom. It should never have happened in the first place. There is no future for us."
He pulled back as if she'd slapped him. He'd suspected as much, that she would dismiss the feelings they had rekindled, but at the same time, he didn't realise how hurtful it would be to actually hear her say it.
"Deanna ... imzadi ... I realise it is difficult at the moment for us to be together, but ..."
"Tom ... Pretending we could actually move ahead with this is ludicrous. At least Will was honest enough about his motives not to try and pick up where we left off."
"You'll always stick up for him, won't you? Even when those motives were other women? Do you realise Ro is the only woman I've become involved with since you?"
"That's supposed to make me feel better?" she asked. They stared wordlessly at each other for a heartbeat, and then Troi turned away. "Why am I having this conversation? Computer, resume," she ordered, and the turbolift sped smoothly on its way again. She was fuming, no, livid, with him. She couldn't believe how she could love him so much and yet be so infuriated by him at the same time. She was so ... stupid ... to show him that she still cared, that he still had such power over her.
She walked him the rest of the way to his quarters in stony silence and declined to come in, partially because Ro met them at the door, and partially because she had had just about enough of Riker men for one day. And the day wasn't over. She still had a mission to accomplish where her chief role was to baby-sit Tom.
She decided against returning to the Bridge to check on Will, and headed straight for her own quarters to rest as ordered.
Tricia stood outside Holodeck 2 expectantly. She had no idea what Will had planned for her, but on impulse she had replicated the green dress she had worn for their first dinner date six years ago. She smiled as she wondered if he would remember it.
Her smile grew as the huge doors slid open with the loud hollow clank of machinery and she took in the vista before her. He had recreated the Alaskan cliff-top from that first date and she was glad she had chosen the dress. Huge ice-topped mountains surged upwards towards a crystal blue sky, and all around were the varying shades of grey of the rocky outcrops and the white brilliance of the snow. The only vegetation that could survive such rugged conditions was the luxuriant green moss covering the ledge where Will stood waiting. As Tricia entered and the doors closed, she knew that if she turned around she would see more sheer rock-face, its massive bulk sheltering a picnic spot he had created six years ago from memory of his native Alaska. And yes, he was wearing the black and white tuxedo of that time, she noted, as he turned away from the breath-taking view in front of him to openly admire the vision that had just entered.
He held out a hand to her. "Tricia, you look beautiful. That dress was always one of my favourites."
She took his hand and stood on the cliff's edge with him, enjoying the panorama ahead, but acutely conscious of the man beside her. She had been attracted to him six years ago when he was First Officer and she was a guest on his ship. Now the fact that he was a Captain and she was his exec. changed nothing. She still responded to his dark good looks and undeniable sex appeal.
"Howís the jaw?" she asked quietly, keeping the conversation light in direct contrast to how she was feeling.
"Much better, thanks to your ministrations."
"You never tire of its beauty, do you?" she asked, perceptively, meaning the Alaskan wilderness.
"Never ... it improves with the years," he answered smoothly, looking at her, his serious eyes making it clear he was talking about her.
"And now, dinner," he said.
She walked with him to the tablecloth laid out on the soft moss and decked with food and wine. The gas stove was there and if she remembered correctly, trout remoulade should be frying gently in the pans on the heat. She recalled his telling her it was an old family recipe and she remembered that it was good. But not as good as what had come later.
They sat on the tablecloth together, not touching, and ate and drank, laughing and talking of anything and everything other than the mission ahead. The camaraderie and attraction that had been between them six years ago was still very much in evidence and the time passed quickly and enjoyably.
Eventuallly Riker stood and, still holding his wine glass, went over to the cliff edge and poured the remnants of the glass into the chasm below. He then allowed the glass to follow the liquid, watching it plummet and turn, catching the last of the sun's rays as it fell.
"What was that for?" Tricia asked curiously.
"A peace offering to the mountain gods to ensure your forthcoming mission is a safe and successful one."
"Thank you, Will." She stood also, repeating his actions with her own glass. They stood in silence a moment, looking at the rugged beauty below them.
Cadwallader suddenly sighed.
"Penny for them," he offered.
"I've enjoyed this time together. It's a pity we ever have to walk out that holodeck door again. I'd like to stay here forever."
He laughed at that. "That doesn't sound like the hard-bitten Commander Cadwallader I thought I knew!"
"No, it doesn't, does it, but I guess that's the effect trout remoulade has on me. I'd best be going if I'm to rest for the mission." She turned away from the precipice and looked to where the holodeck exit should be.
Riker suddenly tipped her chin up and kissed her. "In case I don't get the opportunity later ... be careful, Tricia."
"I will. I'll be back. I'll bring them all back."
The final briefing at 2300 was short and merely a formality so that Captain Riker could be assured that his officers were prepared and ready.
Cadwallader, Riker noticed with satisfaction, looked alert and was consummately professional once more, but Deanna seemed preoccupied and edgy, as if she hadn't rested as he'd ordered. She also seemed to be avoiding his gaze and he wondered why.
He brought his attention back to Geordi who was giving his and Data's report on their method for sabotaging the Maquis installation, and, at the conclusion, Riker gave his approval.
"Nanites, eh? You couldn't get more of a Starfleet signature than that. Good work."
He turned to his exec. "You're ready with your personnel to crew the Duwain? Remember, I want only five of people on that planet and you know who you are," he said, looking at each officer in turn. "Geordi, how are the repairs coming along?"
"My team is finishing up now, Captain. We could start transporting personnel over, if you'd like."
"Do it. Now, how are you going to stay in contact with each other and the Duwain whilst on the planet? Communicators are out of the question, even subcutaneous ones. With all the sensitive signal-monitoring equipment on that planet, they're sure to intercept your communications somehow. It's too risky."
"That's the tricky part," explained Geordi. "All we can do is have the Duwain monitor pre-set co-ordinates, and as soon as a life-form or forms recognised by the computer appears there, the transporter is automatically activated."
"Sounds messy," he worried. "And if our people can't get to the co-ordinates?"
"That's the hitch. The Duwain can maintain contact with the base, still under the guise of Tom Riker's band, but they'll only be aware of what the Maquis want them to know. It's up to the away team to get back to those co-ordinates, I'm afraid. That's the best we can do."
Their Captain wasn't pleased with that knowledge. "I know I don't have to say this, but I will. I want every member of that away team to look after someone else's back. Don't work alone, is that understood?" At their nods of assent, Riker looked pointedly at Deanna. "Watch Tom all the time, Counselor. We can't afford to trust him too far. Tell him as little as possible and keep him occupied and out of the way of the rest of the team. I don't want him to see what we're doing."
"I understand," said Troi, looking away, and with that Riker concluded the meeting.
"That's it, people. Let's reassemble on Transporter Three."
As Deanna went to file out, he arrested her with a light touch on her arm. "Deanna ... a moment ..."
The Counselor stopped and let the others pass, looking at her toes.
"What is it?" he asked.
She sighed. "Not now, Will, please ..."
"Are you going to be alright for this mission?"
"Yes, I'll be fine."
"Then, what is it?" he tried again.
"Not now, Will," she repeated.
"Yes, Captain?" Her chin finally came up defying him to push the issue.
He didn't. "I'll see you in Transporter Room Three."
Within the half hour, the away team had changed into civvies and were on the Duwain and ready at their stations. Cadwallader had the pilot's seat, Tom took Communications with Deanna sitting close by. Hennessy was on weapons, and Geordi settled himself into the engineering section after he had overseen his team's repair work. The rest of the crew was made up of Enterprise personnel of various designations.
It was Troi who reported to Captain Riker that all was ready.
"Okay, Counselor, everyone ... good hunting. See you when you get back." Riker sat back in the Captain's chair of the Enterprise and gnawed on his thumb, keenly aware of the empty chairs either side of him, and the replacement staff on his Bridge. Be careful, my friends, he thought.
"Gul Jukel. The Enterprise has released the Duwain." The Aguin's helmsman reported to his superior.
"What is the Duwain's projectory?"
"It is heading for the Taleth system."
"But that system is of no importance, tradewise or strategically. What would Boland want with that area?"
"Gul Jukel!" Another of his crew caught his attention. "The Enterprise is not moving off, but is remaining stationary."
"As if waiting for something," mused Jukel. "Helm, I think we should investigate this sudden interest in Taleth. But keep a discreet distance. If there's nothing of importance there, we can always pick up Boland."
The Gul's customary sour expression changed to one of cruel anticipation. If the Federation and the Bajorans were up to something, he would be in the enviable position of being able to, at the very least, report their treachery to the Cardassian Central Command and thus instigate the demise of the Treaty and the return of Cardassia to a state of war and show of might.
Since bowing ignominiously to the strength of the Klingons and being unable to stamp out the nuisance factor of the Maquis, Cardassia had become the laughing stock of the galaxy. True, the Dominion had chosen to ally themselves with his people, but in Gul Jukel's opinion, it was simply a token gesture. The Jem H'adar could have wiped out Cardassia without a backward glance. They didn't need the Cardassians, only the political leverage it gave them against the Federation. A taunt, a tease, to the increasingly worried UFP hierarchy.
Jukel's eyes gleamed with excitement. At the very least, the Gul could pull off a coup for Cardassia by forestalling the Federation's plans for the Taleth sector. At the most, considering the Enterprise's interest in Taleth IX, he could be the instigator of the catalyst that finally draws the Federation into a war with the Cardassia and her allies, and Gul Jukel could once again become a part of the might of the military as he was born to be.
When the Duwain was within communication range of Taleth IX, Tom opened a visual and audio channel. Only the audio came through, the ship's viewscreen remaining ominously dark.
"Why aren't we getting visual, Riker?" queried Cadwallader quietly.
"They're not taking any chances on being recognised," answered Tom.
"Transport, identify yourself and your purpose here," was the brusque reply to their hail.
"This is Tom Riker on the Duwain. We don't have clearance for your base, but we ran into a little trouble with the Cardassians. We need some minor repairs and provisions."
"Tom! Welcome to Taleth IX!" A different voice came over the comm. link excitedly.
"Garos! Is that you?"
"Sure is, ole buddy! How's things? I heard you were swapping transports."
"Yep, this one's a lot faster and manoeuvres better. She saved us from the Cardassians, but we need some equipment for repairs."
"Sure, come on down and take what you want. How's Ro?"
"Ro's not with me, Garos."
"What? What happened? She's not ...?"
"No, nothing like that. We ... fell out ... gone our separate ways."
There was a minute pause at the other end, and the voice that came over the link was wary and suspicious now. "Tom, I find that hard to believe. Ro and you were inseparable. Just a minute."
Garos must have asked his operator for a visual link because the viewscreen suddenly burst into life with the image of a tall Bajoran with an impressive amount of ear jewellery and several facial scars. His hair was a lighter shade than most of his race, and it was long and thick and wavy, denoting some mixed heritage. He looked keenly at the viewscreen.
"Sorry for the delay, Tom, I wanted to see your face. It really is you, but I couldn't believe Ro would have let you out of her sight."
Tom thought fast, then pulled Deanna to him so that she was in full view of Garos.
"Ro caught me straying, Garos. She didn't take kindly to it."
Understanding broke out all over the Bajoran's face and he smiled at his friend. "Tom, you'll get yourself burned doing things like that. Well, I insist you bring your lovely lady with you and any of your crew who would like a little hospitality. I'll send the co-ordinates. Garos out!"
The viewscreen died again and Deanna extricated herself from Tom's arm.
Cadwallader turned to Hennessy. "Commander, organise our replacements on the Bridge and meet us on the transport pad when we're within range. Tom, lock in those co-ordinates. Everyone ready? Let's go."
Tom halted Cadwallader with a hand on her arm, holding her gaze with his. "When we arrive, Commander, I suggest you let me do the talking."
The Commander gave him an arch look. "Typical Riker. Fortunately for you, I'm used to it. You have centre stage, Tom, but only for as long as you don't compromise this mission."
"And, you're welcome."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were going to thank me for convincing Garos we're legit. here."
"Move it, Riker."
The smile he gave her didn't reach his eyes, but he merely turned and led the rest of them to the Transporter Room.
As they stood on the pad, Cadwallader checked everyone's appearance. Tom was no problem. He had already been dressed for the part. Deanna had discarded her uniform for tight black leathers and wore her hair unfettered, which transformed the demure Counselor into a vamp. Hennessy and Geordi were dressed similarly to Tom, in space jackets of various designs and modifications and utilitarian trousers, while Cadwallader opted for practical overalls, which although, not exactly hiding her assets, didn't draw attention to herself either. As she gave the order to energise, Cadwallader noticed Tom's hand stretch out and take Deanna's.
They materialised on the pad at the base's receiving station, and Cadwallader realised Troi's choice of costume was going to be beneficial to her purpose. Their hosts' attention was centred on Tom and Deanna, without exception. It gave Cadwallader and Hennessy the opportunity to observe their surroundings unobtrusively.
They had beamed onto the transport pad of an old freighter. After introductions were made, first names only, as was common amongst Maquis members thus preserving necessary anonymity, they were escorted through its corridors. She came to the conclusion that it was no longer space-worthy and was just used for storage. Nothing strategic here. Obviously this base was well-established, judging by this ship's stage of dereliction. Well, it was up to her to ensure that their operating days came to an end.
The face from the viewscreen, the one Tom had called Garos, was up ahead talking animatedly to Tom, glancing continually at Troi beside him, like a compass to North. Hennessy, walking beside the First Officer, caught her glance and winked, then turned around behind him to smile reassuringly at Geordi, who nodded in return. Cadwallader was gratified to realise her team was ready for anything.
They emerged from the derelict to a night sky, studded with stars and two moons hanging low in the velvet blackness. Campfires burned at regular intervals and make-shift fabricated buildings were poorly lit and quiet. Groups of people sat around and near the fires and talk was muted and desultory.
Cadwallader tuned into the conversation ahead of her.
"I'm afraid we can't offer much, Tom," Garos apologised. "Just two-man tents. Will it just be the five of you? Yes, well, you and your lovely lady, and Mike and George, and Trish can have one all to herself. Unless she'd like to share mine?" He glanced around with a grin and received a wry smile and apologetic shake of her head from Cadwallader.
"Mighty fine woman, that," Garos whispered to Tom. "Bit on the tall side, but all woman just the same. Is she with anyone?"
"You'll have to ask her," replied Tom, non-committally.
"I must say I'm surprised about you and Ro," Garos continued, "But I can understand how you were tempted ... with all due respect, ma'am," he added as he caught Troi's sideways glance.
The conversation shifted to other acquaintances then, as they joined a small group by a fire near the shore of a small lake and more introductions were made.
The evening passed amicably enough with talk deliberately general, until Garos informed them their tents were ready and he was turning in. He was on sentry duty soon, he explained, and needed the rest.
On the pretext of stoking the embers of the fire, Cadwallader leaned towards Tom. "Meet me by that large tree near the lake in half an hour." She then rose with Geordi and Hennessy and followed them to the group of tents indicated by Garos.
The tent was certainly small, observed Cadwallader. She had to tuck her knees up so that her feet didn't protrude through the opening, but the slight discomfort kept her awake in order to keep her rendezvous with Tom. She lay there listening to the sounds of the encampment around her, alert to the mission at hand and formulating a plan of strategy.
Some thirty minutes later, she had reached the tree undetected and found Tom already there. The two moons lit the night sky so that it was unnecessary to carry light sources, but at the same time made it possible to blend in with the trees on the lake's shore.
Tricia gave him a long look as he stood there, staring broodily into the water, and she realised with a small shock that he could affect her physically, just as Will could. The same magnetism was there, pulling her, quickening her heartbeat. Careful, Tricia, she admonished herself.
"Settled in nicely with Deanna?" she asked him.
"Yes, thank you. Had a visit from Garos yet?"
"No. Am I likely to?"
"I wouldn't be surprised. He's taken a fancy to you and he's quite a womaniser."
"Something you know nothing about, I suppose?" she responded, just letting a little edge come into her voice.
"Tricia! I didn't know you cared!"
"Well, what did you want to see me about?
"You obviously get on well with Garos. Can you get him to give us a guided tour of the installation?"
"You mean, their intercept equipment?"
"I wouldn't think so, Tricia. There is a thickness amongst thieves, but it doesn't extend to allowing access to sensitive areas like that. I'm afraid you and Geordi are on your own there and I suggest you do it fast. For all his hospitality, Garos won't want to entertain us for long. Tomorrow he'll give us the equipment I've asked for and then he'll expect a quick 'repair' and a hasty departure. It is the safest way for everyone ..." He broke off as he heard footsteps.
Tom quickly pulled Cadwallader into an embrace and kissed her, long and thoroughly, waiting for the sentry to pass by. Instead the man stopped and chuckled. "Tom, you are going to get yourself into more trouble."
Tricia noted from his voice that he was the same man who had originally hailed the Duwain when they had first entered orbit. She made to pull away, but Tom wouldn't release her.
"One of these days," continued the sentry, "one of your women is going to seek a more permanent solution to your philandering. Where did you leave the dark-haired one? Maybe I can keep an eye on her for you?"
"Thanks, Devon, but I can handle her."
"Okay, but let me know if you need any help." He chuckled again and then moved on, leaving them alone.
Cadwallader broke out of Tom's hold and wrapped her arms around herself, regaining her composure. Tom's kiss had been more than a little unnerving. Her mind knew better, but her body couldn't tell them apart.
"What do you want Deanna and me to do?" His voice brought her thoughts back to the mission at hand.
"Stay awake and stay alert for any untoward activity in the camp. Deanna may be able to use her empathy to monitor any increase in excitement. So, if you've got any thoughts of utilising that tent for any extracurricular excitement of your own, forget it."
"What do you take me for?" Tom asked.
Cadwallader, immediately contrite, shook her head. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. It's just that ... well, I know what I'd rather be doing right now," she admitted, surprised at herself for laying bare her feelings.
"Do you love him?" asked Tom.
Tricia didn't pretend to misunderstand him, but debated the wisdom of answering him. Why should she tell him anything? Why did he want to know? But looking into those blue eyes so like Will's, she decided to be honest.
"I love being with him, I love working with him, I want him, but do I love him? Am I 'in love' with him? We're probably too alike for that. We have the same ambitions; we are both adventurers, more interested in what is in the next star system than in making a hearth and home. I will eventually leave for my own ship. Our future is in the stars and as long as we are both serving in Starfleet, it may not be together."
"Then step aside and let Deanna and him ..."
"Will and Deanna have known each other for almost fifteen years," she interrupted. "The last ten of which they have served together in close proximity. If they were going to make a life together, they would have done so by now."
"I know that Deanna eventually wants to have children. She was probably just waiting for Will to obtain his own Captaincy and settle into it. He would make a good father. You're preventing that ..."
Cadwallader turned on him, her light eyes flashing with anger. "I'm preventing nothing! It just isn't going to happen, damn you! If you're so keen to hear the patter of little Riker feet, why don't you do something about it? You had your chance with Troi and you threw it away for a life on the run. She would still have you, but now you want to throw Ro in her face! 'Married quarters', indeed! Will must be going soft in the head to have acceded to that one!"
"My God! You're a heartless piece of goods when you get going, aren't you? Maybe you and Will do suit each other, after all. A Starfleet Regulation book where compassion should be!"
"You're not worth my compassion. You had the potential to be as great a man as the Captain, but you blew it for a hopeless cause. What does that make you?"
Tom had had enough. He grabbed her at the back of her head and yanked her to him. As she struggled, he caught and held her wrists in his hands, and twisted her arms behind her, effectively pinning her to him.
"Never ... ever ... compare me with him again." Tom hissed at her. "I didn't ask to be left behind on Nervala IV. He made it off the planet and went on to have the career and opportunities I should have had. I will not walk behind him in his footsteps, nor will I pick up his breadcrumbs."
Cadwallader's eyes blazed into his only inches away. "I wonder if Deanna would appreciate being called a 'breadcrumb'?" she grated back at him, and then nearly fell when he abruptly released her.
"Deanna, what are you doing here?" Tom asked, the anger dissipating, replaced by concern.
Troi, who had approached them from out of the dark, ignored his question. She wouldn't tell him her duty was to watch him at all times. "Tom, what are you doing to Tricia? How many women do you want? Or is it just that you want what Will has or had?"
"There it is again! Gods, how I hate him!" Tom snarled, and strode away towards the tents.
Deanna watched him go and then looked at Tricia. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. It isn't what it seems, Deanna," explained Cadwallader. "I did goad him. I was throwing Will's name in his face, and then you came along and did it too. We can't blame him for his reaction."
"I don't, Tricia. I sense such turmoil in him ... but just then, I felt murder in his heart. It is disturbing to see what circumstances have done to a good man like him ... but he is powerless to prevent it. And I am equally powerless to change it. I feel I don't know him anymore."
"Leave with him, Deanna. After this mission, take him away somewhere and start again."
"If only it were that easy ... but he has Ro now. She needs him more than I."
"Maybe so, but he needs you more than he needs her or anyone else."
"Tricia, it's not that simple. It has never been that simple, which I suppose has always been the problem between the Rikers and myself." She sighed heavily, looking out over the silvered expanse of water in front of them.
"You don't know which one you want," supplied Cadwallader flatly, her voice devoid of emotion.
Deanna turned back to the Commander and realised she was on very delicate ground here. It was obvious to most that Tricia greatly admired and respected her Captain and would probably do anything for him, but Deanna was acutely aware that there was more to it than that. Not love, not yet, but a sense of wanting and waiting. Deanna felt that she herself was not so much a threat to the Commander and what she wanted, but as a hurdle to be eventually overcome.
"It's not a question of which one I want, Tricia. It's a case of decisions made that none of us are prepared to go back on. I love them both dearly, even though it is still as strange to me that there are two of them, as it is to them. I've accepted the fact that there will never be any more between us than what already is, but at the same time I cannot imagine my life without either of them. I would never allow anything to come between us, and I believe they feel likewise, but that doesn't negate the possibility of any of us living full and rich lives with others."
She watched the other woman closely to determine whether or not Tricia understood even a little of what she was trying to say, but the Commander in profile gave nothing away. Deanna waited.
"I'd die for him, you know that?" Cadwallader made a self-derogatory noise, and then turned to the Counselor. "I realise that sounds very dramatic, but it's true. I take my duties as First Officer very seriously. I would have put any of my former Captains' safety ahead of my own, but Will Riker is different. I believe he is destined to make a difference in this galaxy and any of the lives he touches along the way will be enriched for knowing him. It's my job at the moment to ensure that that destiny is fulfilled.
"Besides which, he is the sexiest man I have ever had the pleasure of ..." Tricia broke off in a laugh, with Deanna joining in.
"There is always that," agreed Troi. Pressing the Commander's arm, she turned to look back at the encampment. "I'm going back now. Good luck." Cadwallader watched her walk towards the tents and slip into one of them. Despite her cautioning Tom to stay alert to camp activity, she hoped the two of them could use this time to resolve their differences and come together again.
She thought again of Will and wondered what he was doing.
Captain William Riker alternatively paced his Bridge and Ready Room in impatience and concern for the welfare of his Away Team. He knew this was going to be the hardest part of his Captaincy. Being in a situation where he was no longer even aware of what was happening, let alone being in control of the events. He couldn't compromise the mission by contacting the Duwain, and he had given orders that they also should maintain comm. silence, but it was the hardest thing he could have done. No news is good news, they say. Well, they didn't know what the hell they were talking about. Not knowing was torture.
It was shortly after 2400 hours, Enterprise-time, and the inactiviity that waiting produced simply allowed all of his doubts to surface. Should he have sent Deanna? Was it really necessary to endanger her like that? Would Tom look after her when it came to the crunch? Yes, of course, he would. At least Will had the answer to that one. There was no way he or any part of him would allow anything to happen to Troi.
But what of Cadwallader? She was his First Officer and it was her duty now to lead the Away Teams. All of them, even the dangerous ones. She knew it and was comfortable with it, and he knew it, but for all his protests to Admiral Nechayev, her beaming into dangerous situations was the only thing he wasn't comfortable with in regards to her appointment as his exec.
He reflected on how he had zealously argued against Captain Picard's beaming down into potentially dangerous situations, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not, without ever giving a thought to how it might have irked his former Captain. Well, now he was getting first-hand experience in the frustration and constriction of being the one who had to remain behind, because of protocol.
He wondered if Picard had ever resented him for it, but then dismissed the thought almost immediately. He didn't resent Cad. He worried about her, was anxious as to what might be going wrong, and then berated himself for having such little faith in her. In the weeks since they left Earth, she had become invaluable to him, indispensible even, and he had every confidence in her abilities. He also acceded that he felt more at ease with her than any other woman, even Deanna ... especially Deanna. And now he had sent her off on a mission from which she may not return.
He recalled how she complemented him professionally, anticipating his every order, sometimes one step ahead of him, and how she challenged him personally, making him laugh and laughing with him, and realised suddenly, that he was missing her, missing having her with him.
Riker mentally shook himself and walked out onto his Bridge again, checking on Data for any news, knowing what the answer would be, but doing it anyway. All was quiet and normal and subdued.
"Data ..." Riker settled himself into his command chair and turned to the android at Ops.
"What is the status of our remaining prisoner in crew quarters?" his Captain asked idly.
"Ro Laren is still currently confined to quarters," Data replied.
"Have you been monitoring the cabin?"
"Yes, sir, just as you ordered."
"Well, how has she been reacting to that confinement?"
The android pursed his lips slightly and cocked his head in mild confusion, not precisely sure what information his Captain sought. "Within normal parameters, sir," he supplied, hopefully.
"Yes, Data, but what do you mean by normal parameters?" Riker persisted.
Data thought a moment and then volunteered, "Ro Laren has taken sustenance when supplied, exuded bodily fluids regularly, engaged in sexual relations with Tom Riker ..."
"Data!" the Captain interrupted quickly, "that's not what I meant. I mean, how would you gauge her mental or emotional reaction to being confined?"
"Judging by the number of times she has traversed the rooms within the cabin, I would say she was ... "
"Bored ... Yes, probably very bored. And what happens when someone is bored, Data?"
Data was beginning to warm to the impromptu psychological testing. "I would hypothesise that a humanoid in such a situation would formulate a method of occupying oneself ... through increased activity, thought processes, and eventually devise a method of ... escape, sir?"
"Precisely, Data. So let's give Ro Laren something to do, shall we?"
"As you wish, sir."
Ro heard the whoosh of air through the ventilation duct seconds before she felt the cool air circulate somewhere near her feet. Vacating the sofa for what seemed the hundredth time since they took Tom away yet again, she went in search of the grille that allowed air to recirculate through the room. She found one to the left of, and slightly obscured by, the couch where she had been sitting. It was about forty-five centimetres wide and thirty high. Not very big, but then she was a very slight woman. It just might be big enough. Getting down on her knees, she worked at the grille with her fingers and nails. It came off easily enough and with minimal noise and she poked her head through, assessing the possibility of using the duct as a means of escape. The passage was narrow but she just might fit. She pushed herself in further, testing her manouverability. By stretching herself out flat and bunching her elbows beneath her and using them to inch herself forward, she found she did indeed fit. Backing up, she wriggled back out of the duct, replaced the grille and planned her next course of action.
The guards regularly checked in on her every two hours. It was now after midnight and they were due again in about twenty minutes. She waited.
Sure enough at 0040 hours, the door chimed and opened to admit one of the guards. Ro came out of the bedroom wearing a simple loose shift she had replicated for night attire and, yawning, informed the crewman that she was turning in for the evening.
"If you're going to check in on me again before morning, try not to disturb my sleep. Who knows what the Captain has in store for me tomorrow and I'd rather be alert," she smiled without humour.
The guard merely nodded and left the quarters, securing the door once again.
Ro quickly changed back into her serviceable clothes and just for good measure, rumpled the bed and stuffed the bedclothes with a spare pillow and blanket to give some semblance of a body asleep. Not that it would fool them for long, but it might make the difference between success or discovery.
Sprinting for the ventilation duct, she pried it open once more and began her slow journey through the bowels of the Enterprise-E.
Ro had no idea where the shafts would eventually take her, but it was important to put as much distance between her and the guards as possible in the two hours she had before their next check-in. Her best bet would be some other cabin, hopefully empty, although at this hour, most of the crew would be in their quarters; or an unattended office, which was more likely, and from there a swift passage to a shuttlebay. She doubted if she would be able to access a weapons locker, but hopefully, a shuttlebay at this hour would have a minimal contingent of personnel that she could overpower providing she had the element of surprise on her side.
Within ten metres she came upon her first obstacle. A force-field stretched across the shaft's circumference prevented her from moving deeper within the ship. She back-tracked a metre, remembering a connecting shaft going upwards. There was no other option. She would have to go up as well. It was tough going, the vertical shaft being at least five metres high, but there were hand and footholds presumably designed for maintenance purposes, and Ro was able to haul herself up with some effort. When she reached the next level she looked right and left contemplating which path to take. Going right might end in another force-field if the precautions were preventing access to sensitive areas like Engineering, and so she chose left, assuming it would take her to more crew quarters.
Bad choice. After two metres of crawling, she hit another force-field. Strange, what would they be guarding this way? A weapons locker? Maybe even a shuttle-bay? Wouldn't that be injustice? So close to freedom and yet so inaccessible to her. No point teasing herself about what was on the other side. There was no way she was going to get past a force-field without help. She back-tracked once more to yet another vertical shaft she had passed and climbed upwards once more.
Cadwallader wandered back to the tent shared by Geordi and Hennessy. She absently brushed against the outer frame and whispered a quiet "Ready" as she passed, heading nonchalantly towards the first row of buildings. She was able to reconnoitre the buildings unchallenged. Obviously the patrol consisted of only one man, which meant the Maquis had accepted their presence here without suspicion, Tom being in no small measure responsible for that.
She eventually stopped outside a small hut, dimly lit from within. Cadwallader figured that if the Maquis were monitoring communication traffic they would have to do it around the clock. The hut was the only structure boasting any lighting inside, so it made sense there was someone at work there. Judging by the size of the hut, she doubted that there would be too many for them to handle.
Geordi and Hennessy soon joined her in the shadows.
"I'd bet a few latinum bars that's our target. It's occupied, but it's not secured. Hennessy and I will go in first, then you, LaForge. Ready?" At their nods, Cadwallader led them stealthily towards the door of the hut. Pushing gently against the latch, the door opened soundlessly, but the movement caught the attention of the two Maquis inside. Cadwallader launched herself at the closest one sitting at a table and chairs, while Hennessy took the one at the comm. console. The element of surprise was with them and they soon overpowered the occupants, knocking them unconscious while Geordi went to work on the console.
"Anticipate any difficulties with it, Geordi?" Tricia asked, straightening up from the prone man on the floor.
"Well, I'm unfamiliar with the techonology, Commander, but I can try a few things. It appears to be a mixture of Cardassian and Bajoran components with something else thrown in. How they got it compatible enough to do anything, is nothing short of amazing."
"How much time do you need?"
"Well, once I've worked out how to get the nanites settled in there, I'll still need some time to monitor their progress. I'd say, give me at least fifteen minutes, Commander."
"Okay, do the best you can." Cadwallader retrieved the weapons from the unconscious Maquis and threw one to the Security Chief. "Hennessy, watch our two sleeping beauties ... I'll take the door." She stood at the entrance to the hut and looked keenly out into the darkness. No movement amongst the tents, and the fires were damped and abandoned. Everyone had obviously turned in for the night. She then scanned the other buildings, motionless dark shapes against the backdrop of trees. Not entirely motionless, she saw with misgiving. The patrolman was doing his rounds there and moving this way.
"We've got company," she whispered back into the room. "I'll stall him. As soon as you've finished here, collect Tom and Deanna and head for the transporter co-ordinates. I'll meet you there."
"But, Commander," the Security Officer objected. "We have our orders not to go an' separate."
"I know that, Hennessy, but it's more important that Geordi's work is completed successfully, and I want you to stay here and see that no one disturbs him." As she saw that Hennessy was about to say something more, she continued, "That's an order, Commander!" and, tossing him her retrieved weapon, she slipped out the door.
Cadwallader silently ran to a point at right angles to the patrolman and the hut she had just left, and then about fifty metres away she stopped and sat down against a tree and began to quietly hum a favourite tune, just loud enough to catch the patrol's attention.
It worked. He changed direction and headed towards her and as he came out of the shadows she recognised Garos. Devon's shift must be over, or else there were two men working it now. She hoped the former were true.
Garos' smile was wide and interested as he recognised her. "Can't sleep?"
"That's right," she returned, smiling back.
"Something wrong with the tent?"
"It's a bit cramped. I prefer open spaces."
"I thought it might have something to do with having no one to share it," he said, looking down at her.
"Now, why would you think that?"
"Devon reported seeing you with Tom earlier, by the lake. Tom can't be in two places at one time, although I'm sure he'd like to, and so, while he's with the brunette, I reckon you must be feeling a little lonely. Am I right?"
"Maybe ..." she replied.
"I wonder how he does it," mused Garos, dropping down on the ground beside her.
"He likes to share himself around," Tricia supplied, just to keep the conversation ball rolling.
"You don't mind?"
"My, you're a cool one!" he said, appreciatively.
"Look, I'm not even sure why we're having this conversation," except that I want to keep you occupied and away from Geordi, she thought, "but I'm not after involvement. Tom ... satisfies ... me and that's all that matters. Dee had him first and I'm willing to share." Nothing like making up a good tale, she thought, even if it was third-rate fiction.
"But is she?" asked Garos.
"That's her problem, not mine," answered Cadwallader, looking past him into the darkness.
"Actually, I've a feeling it's going to be Tom's problem shortly, and a big one!"
There was a small pause as Garos attempted to gauge Tricia's mood. "Perhaps you'd care to share my tent after all?"
She looked at him then, seemingly weighing up his worth. "This is your watch, isn't it? Who's gonna mind the fort?"
"I think the camp can look after itself for an hour."
"I already told you. I prefer open spaces."
"Well, why not right here and now," said Garos, moving in on her.
"Hardly," Cadwallader said, ducking his advances, "let's walk by the lake for a while. Get to know each other better."
"Well, if you insist ..."
"I do." She rose gracefully to her feet and began to walk in the opposite direction from the communications hut. Garos fell into step beside her and they walked some way in silence.
"How long have you known Tom?" he asked eventually.
"Does it matter?"
"No, except the last I heard of him, he and Ro Laren were a team. There was no dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty or tall, golden goddess accompanying him then. Ro wouldn't have allowed it."
They had reached the side of the lake and started to traverse its circumference. "Times change," said Tricia. "The old has to make way for the new." What a god-awful conversation, thought Cadwallader, but if it keeps him busy and interested, it was worth the effort.
He suddenly put out his hand, took her arm and backed her against a tree. Cadwallader's first instinct was to lay him out on the ground with a self-defence throw. Then she remembered her role in this little scenario and restrained herself.
"Well, how about you making way for the new? Stay on Taleth after Tom leaves and fight the cause with me." He pressed his lips to hers and kissed her coaxingly. She stayed in character by wrapping her arms around his neck and lengthening the kiss, trying to promote an interest she didn't feel. Besides, Geordi's fifteen minutes were nearly up and she could drop this guy and meet them at the rendezvous soon.
"Sorry to break this up, but I need to take this woman into custody. We're going to need her."
The couple broke apart, Garos looking guilty and confused as he recognised Tom standing between them and the lake. Cadwallader looked suspiciously at Riker as she sought to evaluate the situation. What was he doing here and where was Troi? Tricia darted a look behind him, but couldn't see the Counselor. "Where's Deanna?"
"Deanna's gone, and so are the others. She's safe ... I kept my promise, but I never made any promises regarding you. In fact, when I asked Will who was going to watch out for you, he said you could look after yourself. Well, let's see if he was right."
"What's going on? What are you talking about, Tom?" asked Garos, recovering from his surprise.
"I'm afraid, my friend, you have been infiltrated by Starfleet. They've probably wrecked your communication system by now and you'll have to move your base, but I'll help you relocate. Meanwhile, we have a very important hostage. I'm sure she'll prove very useful to us before we're finished here."
Garos turned on Tom. "You knew about this, and you didn't stop it?! You lead them to us?"
"No, I didn't lead them here. They didn't find out about this base from me, but once I knew they were heading here, I decided to use it to my advantage. Now, Commander, if you would be so good as to come with us, we will find more permanent housing for you."
Cadwallader shot him a lethal look, but moved off obligingly. There was no point fighting him yet. She would wait for an opportunity, but it wasn't now. What was important was that the rest of the Away Team had made it safely away and the job was successful. Tom wasn't concerned about what they had done, but he had to be concerned that the Enterprise still had Ro. She would bet anything that that's how Tom intended her to be useful to him. Whether he wanted Ro back because he loved her, or because she was a security threat to them, was immaterial. She would be used as a bargaining tool for Ro's release.
"How did you get away from Deanna?"
"I'm afraid I had to render her unconscious. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. Under normal circumstances, I couldn't hurt a hair on her head, but these are hardly normal circumstances. Once the transporter beam took Geordi and Hennessy, I simply used a Vulcan grip on her and pushed her onto the same spot. I'm hoping I was skilled enough not to cause her too much discomfort, but it is a hard talent to acquire, finding just the right point."
They had been heading towards the derelict transport while Tom spoke and he urged her inside once they reached it. He turned to Garos. "I suggest you alert someone and tell them to check on the comm. hut. They'll probably find your man there incapacitated and your network useless. I take it there's somewhere secure in here where we can leave the Commander?"
"Yeah, just down the corridor here. There's some cabins still intact which can be secured. What are you going to do with her?"
"Nothing for now. I'll join you soon."
Garos didn't move. "Tom ... how do I know I can trust you? That they haven't won you over to their side?"
"Garos, old friend, why would I exchange my life with the Maquis for a Starfleet prison? I've had enough of incarceration. I only went this far with them to safeguard Deanna. They knew what they were doing when they sent her to keep an eye on me. Well, she's safe now, where she wants to be, but I feel no such loyalty to this one. This one I have plans for," he added, ominously.
"Why keep me at all? I'm not going to help you!" she spoke defiantly, as he nudged her down the corridor indicated by Garos.
"It's obvious, my amazon. I need bargaining material. I want Ro back and you are going to ensure that. I'm relying on Will's desire to have you back under his wing as much as I want Ro." He released a door and ushered her inside. Garos had obviously done as Tom suggested and gone to awaken someone, for the corridor was now empty. "Well, I hope you'll be comfortable here, while we wait for the Enterprise to arrive. Not as comfortable as I was on your ship though. That really was rather generous of Will, I thought. Not like him at all to go all soft like that. I wonder if that's your influence?" Tom speculated.
"Hardly," sneered Cadwallader. "I would never have been so accommodating. Maybe you've missed sight of the other side of the coin. Maybe Will wanted to get on side with Ro, soften her up for his own reasons. Why, even now, while we're down here, they could be on the Enterprise together going hard at it ..."
"That's enough," he snarled. He grabbed her arm and hauled her to him, thrusting his face at her, his breath fanning her face. "You don't believe that any more than I do, and you'd loathe it as much as well. For some reason, you just like to push me to see how far I'll let you go. Is this how you get your kicks? Making love with the Riker who is your superior, while you get your jollies fighting with the Riker you don't have to respect?"
He released her suddenly, but she was ready. She ducked under his arm, grabbing it with both of hers and swung her hip into his side. Using almost herculean effort, she pushed up and out, pulling the arm down, so that he lost his footing and swung over and onto his back. She lunged for the door and would have made it too, but he just managed to grab her ankle with one hand as he hit the floor. She sprawled forwards, her arms reaching for the door, but not quite making it. No sooner had she landed on her belly, he scrambled over to her and flipped her onto her back, straddling her, grinning widely.
"Nice try, but you'll have to do better than that next time."
"I will," she gritted breathlessly, "don't worry."
Her breaths were coming in short pants but he suddenly noticed she wasn't struggling. Her light eyes were watching him with speculation, waiting for his next move. "You want me, don't you?" he asked, amazed. "For all your thinking I'm the galaxy's lowest life-form, your body still wants mine."
"You flatter yourself," she spat, struggling now, but he held her wrists above her head easily.
"Why lie? A man can tell these things and I can prove it. He lowered his head to hers but he stopped with his mouth mere millimetres from hers, touching, then not, teasing her and then moving away. When he lifted his head, her eyes were closed and she had stopped struggling again, turning her head away from him.
Suddenly, Tom jumped to his feet. "I was tempted, my amazon, but I have more respect for you than that. I don't want to turn you into an instrument of revenge on Will, just as a means of securing Ro's release."
He backed out of the cabin, and shut the door. She heard it secure and then he was gone. She still hadn't moved.
Geordi and Hennessy rushed to aid the unconscious figure that materialised on the transporter pad of the Duwain. They gently turned Deanna over onto her back as the crewman manning the console called for a medical team.
Troi stirred almost immediately.
"Counselor," Geordi prompted worriedly, "what happened?"
Deanna slowly opened her eyes and looked for ... "Tom. Where's Tom?" she asked groggily.
"He's not here. He was supposed to be with you," replied Geordi.
"He ... grabbed ... me ... on the neck, somehow." Her hand went to the spot and she flinched at the aching sensation she felt there. Hennessy looked at the area she had touched, but could see no bruising.
"I'd reckon he used a Vulcan grip on you, Counselor," the Security Chief declared. "I'm not seein' a mark on your lovely skin, but you were unconscious when you arrived, so I'd 'azard a guess it's what he did. It tweren't a clean one, otherwise you'd still be sleepin' like a babe, but it t'were an effective one, 'cos you're here an' he's still down there."
"The Commander?" she asked.
"She didn't come up either, Counselor," answered Geordi. "And I'd say Tom would be making sure she doesn't."
"I'd have to agree with you, Geordi," Deanna sighed. Whatever she felt for Tom didn't matter anymore. He was determined to alienate himself at every opportunity, his life with the Maquis more important than making amends and appealing to Starfleet's generosity.
They helped her to her feet and assisted her to the Bridge, where all eyes turned to her. She was the highest-ranking officer there in Cadwallader's absence, and it was up to her to make the decision to remain in orbit and attempt a rescue of their First Officer or return to the Enterprise. Considering the fact that the Maquis would be well-alerted to the situation by now and the Away Team's limited human resources and fire-power, the former course of action was out of the question. The principal goal of their mission, the sabotage of the communications-intercept equipment, had been achieved, and it was up to her to get the ship and the crew out of there before the base could deploy their weapons. Turning to her helmsman, she reluctantly gave her order.
"Break orbit, Lieutenant. Head back for the Enterprise. Maximum warp."
On board the Aguin, Gul Jukel was reading the limited information provided on Taleth IX, a confused scowl on his face. "What is happening on that planet? What are they doing down there?"
"Our sensors are limited by the distance at which we must maintain to be invisible to the other ships, but it appears there is some sort of settlement there, Gul Jukel. There is almost one hundred life-forms, several buildings and sophisticated electronic equipment."
"And a Bajoran ship in orbit around it. Could it be a Maquis base they've led us to? How sloppy of them, but typical."
"Shall we approach, Gul Jukel, and take out the Duwain as well?"
"No, I don't want to engage one and alert the other. I'm much more interested in the settlement on the planet. Monitor the Duwain. Wait for it to depart, and as soon as it does, take us in."
Jukel actually smiled. He didn't smile often -- he normally didn't have anything to smile about, but today was different. Today had begun badly, but it looked like turning into a good one after all. Good for him, bad for whoever was on Taleth IX.
After what seemed hours of encountering force-fields at various points of the ventilation shafts and constantly doubling back to climb yet higher again, Ro finally happened upon a duct which led out into open space unprotected by a force-field. She peered through the grille at the room beyond which was well-lit and appeared to be crew quarters. Judging by the size of it, one of the senior officers. She listened for several minutes and hearing no sounds, assumed the quarters were unattended. All seemed quiet and yet she felt sure she had been in the ducts for so long now, that the guards must have discovered her disappearance by now.
Gently and quietly pushing out on the grille, she managed to dislodge it, and wriggled forward still using her elbows for propulsion. She was wet with the sweat from her efforts, her hair hanging damply around her face and plastered to her neck. There was a surfeit of blisters and bruises on her skin from the constant friction of crawling in a confined space and occasional encounters with awkward corners and apertures.
Once her head was through, she reconnoitred further to assure herself the room was indeed empty. Pushing herself the rest of the way through, she remained at a crouch getting her breath and her bearings. Definitely a high-ranking officer's quarters judging by the size and luxury of the room and the numerous padds scattered on the desk around the large computer terminal. One that got around a lot too, she observed, considering the various souvenirs arranged on the other surfaces in the room. Then her sharp gaze alighted on a very handy object ... a phaser had been tossed carelessly on a small stand near the door. Very careless, but then the cabin's occupant wasn't particularly tidy considering the state of the desk.
She listened for a further half a minute and then made a dash for the phaser and freedom beyond the door. She had just closed her hand over the weapon when she heard movement behind her. Wheeling around, phaser in hand and aimed at the bedroom door, she used a split second to decide whether to stun the crewman and run, or hold him/her as hostage and bargain with the Bridge. When she saw who it actually was, her choice was easy.
"What the hell are you doing here?" The Captain of the Enterprise-E stood framed in the doorway, his face registering shock and then wariness as he saw the phaser in her hand. "Put the weapon down, Ro, it won't do you any good."
"I'll be the judge of that, Captain. Actually, I'm going to need it. You really should be neater, you know, and not leave these things lying around."
"How did you get in?" He started to move forward, but she forestalled him by tapping the phaser up a notch and pointing it straight at his head.
"Don't move, Will. I'm an excellent shot, and although I want you alive for my purpose, I needn't have you conscious."
He stayed where he was, but repeated his question. "How did you get in?"
"I crawled through the ventilation ducts. I kept getting detoured at every turn, but finally the system led me right to your quarters. Now I wonder why that is? Could it be that this is your secret passage to admit all your ladies of the moment?"
"If that's the case," he said, eyeing the gaping hole in his wall, "I'd have to limit myself to small and petite, which could become a trifle boring, to say the least. What do you intend to do now?"
"I'm not sure, but I'll come up with something. When I was planning my escape, I considered several options. For instance, working my way to a shuttle-bay and stealing a runabout except that I probably wouldn't have got very far. Or, taking a hostage to secure Tom's and my release, or even sabotaging the Enterprise somehow and holding its safety to ransom. But considering the status of my first and only hostage, I consider higher stakes are involved."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I figure having the Captain of this ship at my mercy would entitle me to control over the ship entirely. The Maquis would love to add this beauty to its backup."
"You're crazy if you think you could pull that off," he retorted, scornfully.
"Maybe ... maybe not. Do you know what they call me, Will?" she asked, her satisfaction evident in her voice.
"No, do tell me," he replied, sarcastically.
"My plans are usually well organised, executed and successful, but this is my most enterprising yet!"
Cadwallader was asleep when the attack came without warning. She had soon realised there was no advantage in staying awake after Tom had left her locked in the cabin. She'd only had about four hours sleep in the last twenty-four hours and surprisingly had managed to drift off to sleep on the hard cot that was all her prison offered.
But now she was fully awake and aware of the vibrating walls of the derelict around her. The muffled sound of explosions permeated the cabin and Tricia rolled off the cot and darted underneath, it appearing to be her safest option. Not that it would afford much protection if someone out there was determined to destroy the ship.
She watched the door expectantly. Were they just going to leave her here, trapped and helpless? she wondered. Maybe there was no one left to release her. She instinctively ducked as another volley of explosions rippled around her.
The door opened and Cadwallader scrambled from under the cot as Tom erupted through the entry.
"Hurry!" he shouted over the noise.
"It's about time!" she shouted back. "I could've been killed!"
Tom grabbed her arm and propelled her forward, shielding her body with his as debris rained upon them.
"You may yet!" he returned.
"We're under attack!"
"Not the Enterprise, surely!" Tricia denied.
"No, the Cardassians. Somehow they found us."
"I've no idea, except maybe they intercepted the Duwain again and came investigating its last orbit. Now, shut up and run!"
He led her through the corridors but came to a sudden halt at a dead-end caused by fallen debris.
"Damn! That's the only way to the Transporter Pad I used. We're going to have to do this the long way. Follow me." He pushed her ahead of him again, and headed in the opposite direction, through the ship and out into the open air.
Tricia looked in horror at the destruction around them. The buildings were levelled, the tents reduced to torn, flapping cloth alight with sporadic fires, and the ground was carved into scarred furrows by phaser fire. Of the rest of the rebels, there was no sign. Tom dragged her towards the lake.
"Where are we going?" she shouted.
He didn't bother to answer, but kept running and pulling her. Even when he reached the water's edge, he didn't stop. He was in the water up to his ankles when she began resisting him, refusing to go any further.
"In the water!" Tom shouted. "Dive!"
"Damn you, dive!"
More phaser arcs strafed the camp near them, heading their way. Tricia dived, preferring her chances in the water.
The land shelf dropped away sharply, surprisingly so. At first she could see nothing in the inky water, but her eyes quickly adapted and the water became darkly translucent revealing a wide black aperture rising from the lake's bed. She struck out for the gaping darkness, followed closely by Tom.
When she was almost upon it, the blackness resolved into two sliding doors that broke apart and beckoned them into a dimly-lit holding tank. Her lungs almost bursting from the effort, she swam towards the light. As soon as they were in, the doors slid shut and the water emptied rapidly, almost before Tricia could find her feet. Tom grabbed her to steady her.
"Thanks," she said, gratefully, looking around. "What is this?"
"It's the Maquis' latest acquisition," supplied Garos, who was opening the door of the tank in which they stood, water streaming from their bodies. Garos beckoned them out, a disruptor trained on Tricia.
"A spacecraft built by a race called the Galeans," he continued. "They can live both on land and in the water and so they designed their spaceships to land in, and take off, under water as well as on dry land. Makes camouflaging a simple matter, wouldn't you say, Commander Cadwallader?
"Tom has informed me of your identity, Commander," he added, at her start of surprise when he used her name.
"I see. Well, in answer to your question, I would say the camouflage is visually effective, but why couldn't the Cardassian's sensors locate it, even under water?"
"It's composition so closely resembles that of water that is doesn't register as anything worth their notice."
"It looks solid enough," she said, with awe.
"It is. Galean technology has advanced in different ways to most races. They have learned to exploit resources that are abundant to them, such as water, rather than compete and fight over resources that are precious and hard to come by. And now, if you would follow me, we have to secure you once more." He indicated that the still-dripping Commander precede him out a door.
The corridors they walked down were smooth and gleaming, and Tricia was fascinated by the notion that it was of a similar molecular structure as water. She noticed that they did not meet nor pass any crew.
"What were the casualties, Garos?" she asked quietly.
"Heavy," he said bitterly. "Not many of them made it. Most of my people were asleep in their tents when the Cardassians hit. There's only a handful of us left."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said genuinely.
"Are you, Commander? Well, maybe you should have thought of that before you sought us out here and brought the Cardassians with you."
"Garos, we had no idea they were still in the area. We knew of their interest in the Duwain, but we monitored them right back to their own space. They must have maintained a position just outside of our sensor range and waited for us to release the Duwain, hoping to investigate it further. Charting it to Taleth would have been a bonus for them."
"That's not good enough, Commander! I lost a lot of good people!"
"You knew the risks in being a Maquis, Garos, you both do ...!" She said vehemently, shooting a look at Tom.
"That's enough from both of you," Riker interrupted. "It's done with. We can't change it by arguing."
They had reached a cell-like room that wasn't much larger than the one on the derelict, but looked a lot cleaner and more comfortable. Tom motioned her in, following her.
"Get rid of her, Tom, she's trouble," Garos spoke from the entrance to the cell. "If we keep her, we're only going to have Starfleet breathing down our necks as well."
"That's the idea," Tom snapped back, losing his patience. "I want Ro back and Cadwallader's the only way I'm going to get her. Now, get us some dry clothes, Garos." He levelled a look at the other man, daring him to defy him. Garos glared at Tricia one last time and left without another word.
Cadwallader shivered and lifted an eyebrow. "I'm impressed. Have you assumed leadership of the remaining band?"
"No, Garos and I go back to when I was originally busted out of Lazon II. We have a lot of respect for each other."
"Respect? That's an odd word for a rebel to use."
"Is it? Well, let me tell you, Commander, there is a life out of Starfleet. There are good people, talented and exceptional people who don't aspire to wearing a fancy uniform ... What are you doing?"
He broke off as she began to peel the wet overalls off her shoulders and down her arms. Turning her back to him, she pushed the sodden clothes further down to her ankles and stepped out of them, after first discarding the wet boots. Shaking out a blanket that had been neatly folded on the cell's cot, she wrapped it around her nudity and curled up on the cot, her legs tucked under her.
"I'm cold. I'd rather not wait for Garos to find something dry to fit me. I'd suggest you do the same. The environmental adjustment in here is a little over-done and you must be feeling just as uncomfortable." In reality, Cadwallader was not so much concerned for his well-being as determined in setting him up. She shook out her wet hair and watched him as he shrugged and peeled off his own clothes and came to sit beside her.
"Care to share your blanket?" he asked, dryly.
"I think not," she replied, passing him a second blanket that doubled as a pillow. She eyed his torso appreciatively, examining the myriad of small scars across his back, shoulders and chest, as he wrapped the blanket around his waist. "You have a lot of scars," she observed.
"Courtesy of the Cardassians. I still have a long way to go to make them pay for what they did to me," he said, bitterly.
"That doesn't justify what you are doing with your life. It's a destructive attitude that will only make you a lesser person."
"Maybe so, but it sure feels satisfying when I 'hit and run' them."
He lifted a wet lock of dark-blonde hair from her shoulder and smoothed it against the blanket. "I can't make up my mind whether you would have had me back there on the derelict because I look like Will or whether you just like men in general," he said, changing the subject.
"What makes you think the latter?" Tricia acceded he didn't want to talk about his life as a Maquis, but she wondered about his motives. Was he indeed ashamed of what he was doing? Was the Starfleet officer he once was, opposed to the course he had chosen?
"Just that you seemed to be enjoying leading poor old Garos on when I found you by the lake."
"That was just in the line of duty," she replied matter-of-factly. "I had to divert his attention away from what Geordi was doing."
"How far would you go? For duty's sake?"
"That's difficult to say, but I could tell you how far I have gone."
She paused to watch his reaction. "I've allowed my current Captain to screw me. Well, admittedly, he wasn't a Captain at the time, but ..."
He laughed at her boldness. "Now, I was under the impression you weren't adverse to Will-boy, and that you would quite willingly accept his advances!"
"You're right. I was only trying to shock you. I met Will Riker on the Enterprise-D six years ago. I wanted him then and I want him now."
"So, then it is because I resemble him."
She eyed him up and down. "Maybe ... but don't think that's an invitation," she said, hurriedly, as he made to move closer. "It's not. I prefer my men with more stability." She asked curiously, "Why did you stop before, in the derelict? I really thought I'd pushed you too far that time."
"You had. Maybe I'm not as unstable as you think."
"Seriously, Tom," she chided.
"Seriously? The thought of Deanna stopped me. I've caused her enough pain without confirming what she already thinks of me."
"How do you mean?"
"Deanna told me yesterday, in one of her lesser tactful moments, that I would sleep with anything if given the opportunity. That's just not true anymore. Maybe, it was in my youth, before I met her, but do you have any idea how many women there have been since Deanna?"
"I can guess. One. Ro."
"Good guess. So there's no justification in what she thinks."
"Maybe there was no opportunity. You were isolated for eight years and then imprisoned for over twelve months." She reached up and traced one of his scars with her finger. It stretched from his collar bone to just below his top rib, not quite hidden by the hair on his chest.
"I was on the Potemkin for over a month before getting stranded on Nervala IV and then I was on the Ghandi for three months. Both had their complement of available female crew. And there's been no shortage of Maquis women."
Tricia had abandoned the scar and was smoothing her hand across his chest to his other collar bone, enjoying the tactile sensation of soft hair and warm, hard flesh.
"I was under the impression Ro never let any of them get close enough to you for a handshake, let alone anything else." Her hand moved higher to explore his relatively smooth upper jaw bone, the caress stopping just short of his bearded chin.
"Um, ... Tricia ..."
"You've either changed your mind and are issuing that invitation now, or you're doing a comparative inventory on me against Will. Either motive is going to present you with consequences you may not be prepared for."
"I'm sorry, you're right." She dropped her hand as if on fire. "I ... I miss him ... miss being with him. Every minute spent with him is so exciting I ... tingle ..." She broke off, self-consciously. "Listen to me, I sound like ..." She stopped mid-sentence.
"You're in love?" he supplied.
"No, I was going to say 'like a teenager'!"
" ... in love," Tom added.
She jumped up quickly from the cot, but he was sitting on an edge of the blanket that was wrapped around her. The covering pulled away from her, but she unhurriedly turned and held out her hand to retrieve it, unabashed by her nudity.
"You're a magnificent piece of womanhood, Commander," he said seriously, his eyes glittering as they appreciated her assets. "Everything about you is ..."
"Big," she supplied, derogatively.
"No, I was going to say, well-proportioned." He stood and retrieving her blanket from the cot, wrapped it around her back. "You are very tall for a Terran woman. I've never met one before who was eye-level with me. Your ... bigness ..." he continued, openly admiring her large breasts, "... suits you." He kissed her then, firmly, with precision and skill but without passion.
"What was that for?" she asked, confused by it.
"I'm not sure. Just another little something you can compare next time you're with Will."
Tricia raised her arms and circled his neck, shrugging the blanket off her shoulders as she did so. "I think it's time you stopped teasing me, Tom, and did something about it," she insisted huskily.
She met his mouth half-way and returned each caress automatically while her brain was switched into high gear. Where the hell was Garos? she thought. He should have returned by now. It was important to her plans that he catch them together like this, but he was taking forever to find clothes for them. She didn't know how long she could lead Tom on like this, without reaching the point of no return, and there was no way she was going to pass that point. Her undefined but very real relationship with her Captain was not going to be jeopardised by fooling around with his duplicate.
All she needed was Garos to arrive in time, but failing that, she hoped that Tom was astute enough to realise she was faking it. Her body was sending out all the right signals again, but her heart wasn't in it. If he were suspicious of her motives, she was counting on him to play along to see where she was leading. Providing, of course, she'd chosen the correct way to play these men, but she seldom missed her mark.
The door opened with a prominent hiss. At last, she thought, and pretended to break away self-consiously from Tom. She turned in time to catch the clothes that Garos threw at them.
"Tom," the rebel warned, "if you thought more often with your head instead of your ..."
"Out, Garos!" barked Tom. "Wait for me on the other side of the door." He turned to Tricia as Garos, cursing under his breath, exited.
"I'm sorry, my amazon," Tom apologised as he slipped into the dry clothes provided by Garos, "but I doubt if we can pick up where we left off. The Enterprise should be here soon, and hopefully Will can be convinced to make a peaceful swap for you. After that, we'll probably never see each other again." He pulled her to him again and swiftly kissed her one last time. "Not that it wasn't nice while it lasted," he added and then stepped through the automatic doors and once again secured her in a cell.
Ro upped the phaser's strength one more notch and levelled it at Captain Riker's stomach. "Inform your First Officer that I'm in charge now. Oh, that's right, she's off gallivanting on Taleth IX with Tom. Your second officer, then. Inform him that I now have control of the Enterprise-E and he is to set a course for Taleth immediately. We'd better pick up your First Officer and Tom before Cadwallader does something I'm not going to like."
"You're probably too late. They should have sabotaged the installation by now."
"Oh, that's not what I meant. I saw the way she was with you. She could easily figure that Tom would make a good substitute while she was away."
"You don't trust him very much, do you?"
"I trust him alright, it's just the rest of the women in the galaxy I have to watch. I almost killed a woman once over him and I'd do it again, so Cadwallader had better be careful ..."
She was interrupted by the disembodied voice of Lieutenant Commander Data over the Comm. system. "Data to Captain Riker. The Duwain is hailing us, sir."
"Take it in here, " ordered Ro.
"Patch it through, Data," said Riker, eyeing the Bajoran.
"Aye, Captain, coming on-line now."
Riker raised his eyebrows and indicated his terminal on the desk. Ro motioned him over, following his progress with the phaser.
The Captain leant down and pressed a button on the terminal and the small screen became filled with the head and shoulders of Counselor Troi.
"Deanna!" he said, the relief evident in his voice. "Report!"
"You could say our mission was successful, Captain ..." she replied, reservedly.
"But ..." he supplied for her.
"But Commander Cadwallader and Tom are still on the planet."
"What?" said Riker.
"What?! " exploded Ro at the same time.
"I'm sorry, Captain. The Commander ordered the team to the transporter co-ordinates while she engaged a sentry guard. Tom was with me, but just before I was beamed aboard the Duwain, he rendered me unconscious and remained on the planet. The Commander failed to arrive at the co-ordinates. I felt it would not be prudent to mount a rescue mission at that stage with the Duwain's limited resources and so we are returning to the Enterprise. We will be there in," she looked down at her instruments, "approximately twelve minutes. I'm sorry, Will," she said again.
"It's okay, Deanna, you did the right thing. The Enterprise will get her back. See you in ten. Riker out."
"Well," said Ro, "how ironic. Tom has yours at his mercy, and I have hers. Isn't that interesting?"
"No, I don't find it interesting at all. I find it damned inconvenient. Give me that phaser. This changes things."
"I'm afraid it doesn't change anything, Will. You are still my hostage, and I still intend to commandeer the Enterprise in the name of the Maquis movement. Don't come any closer," she warned, as Riker came around from behind his desk and advanced towards her, his hand held out.
"Give me the phaser, Ro. You're not commandeering anything."
"I'll shoot, Will! I don't want to kill you, but it will still be very unpleasant for you at this range."
"The phaser's not charged, Ro. It was a decoy, just to keep you interested."
"What do you mean?"
"Your whole 'break-out' was staged by Data and me to keep you busy and preoccupied from making a real escape attempt. The forcefields were positioned so that your only avenue was into this room, where I was waiting for you. Data even engineered the phaser to appear charged, although it's actually just a mock-up. He estimated it would take you one hour and forty-nine minutes to get through those ducts, but it took you longer than that. He didn't count on your waiting a further twenty minutes for the guard to check in on you one more time."
Ro was standing rooted to the spot, her eyes huge and mouth agape in horror at how she had been duped. "You mean I crawled through that tight maze of shafts just for your amusement?"
"No, not my amusement. Yours. To give you something to do, rather than cool your heels in those quarters. You'd been stuck in there for more than twenty-four hours. I figured a diversion was in order."
"Why you ...!" she bit out and then lunged for him. He caught her outstretched hands easily, but he discovered she was stronger than she looked and had difficulty keeping her under control.
"Riker to Data! I need help in here, Commander," he gritted, whilst wrestling with the undisciplined she-demon that the Bajoran had become in her fury. The door opened a few seconds later and Data pulled Ro from his Captain, but not before the former had managed to plant a few well-aimed kicks and scratches.
"Be careful, Data. She's feeling a little wild at the moment. Get at least two Security personnel to take her back to her quarters and add another forcefield at the entry of the ventilation shaft there. The game's over. We've got more pressing problems."
Gul Jukel gazed with immense satisfaction at the destruction his ship and crew had wrought on the planet below. He had allowed the Duwain to leave the planetís orbit unchallenged -- there would be time enough to intercept the small ship and 'talk' to its Captain. His eye had been on a more glorious prize, having no doubt that the encampment below was indeed Maquis. The Commanding officer of the Aguin felt confident he would heralded for this piece of work. He might even be spared the task of recapturing Riker if this installation were important enough.
"What do our sensors tell us about the nature of the equipment that was on that planet?" he asked his operations officer.
"Mostly communication equipment, Gul Jukel," was the reply. "There was some quite sophisticated and powerful weaponry, but they were caught completely unawares. The Maquis did not anticipate an offensive strike."
Ahhh! This then would have been one of their communication intercept installations, he surmised. This will set back their intelligence activity for a good while. He wondered why they didn't detect the Aguin's entry into the planet's orbit. "Well done, crew," he beamed. "Now, what is the Enterprise doing?"
"It is heading this way, Gul Jukel, and it is towing the Duwain once more."
"Then move us out of the vicinity and weíll see what they do. This grows more and more interesting every moment."
"Gul Jukel, our weapon systems are sadly depleted after emptying most of our firepower onto the planet," reported his tactical officer.
"Should we not return to Cardassian space and report our success to Cardassia Prime?" asked his exec. "We cannot hope to take on the Enterprise."
"Iím not going to take on the Enterprise, you fools!" barked the Gul. "I still have a score to settle with Boland, however, and the Enterprise is obviously still monitoring him. However, they have to lose interest in the Duwain eventually and when they do, weíll be there to pick him up."
He sat back in his command chair, pleased with himself and his decision.
As Tom and Garos strode down the corridor outside Cadwallader's cell, Tom suddenly stopped, and turned to the other man.
"I want you to go back in there and guard her," he informed his friend.
"But," said Garos, "she can't get out of there. What's the point?"
"The point is, she's up to something, and I want to know what it is. She was either making a rather poor play for me or trying to get *your* interest -- I'm not sure which -- but I want to know either way, and it could prove useful in my negotiations with the Captain of the Enterprise."
"Never mind how, just do it. Whatever she suggests, go along with it, after a suitable amount of token resistance. See what she's up to and report back to me. But be on your guard and play your part. She's clever -- I just don't know how clever, yet."
"Right," Garos nodded, "what are you going to do?"
"I'll be on the bridge. I'm expecting a call from my 'brother'. Keep me informed."
Garos watched Tom stride away and then headed back to the holding cell. He released the doors and walked hesitantly inside, holding his disruptor at the ready. The Commander was fully dressed again in her borrowed clothes, and was sitting, seemingly patiently, on the cot. She raised her brows at his entrance and then smiled welcomingly.
"What can I do for you, Garos?"
"Tom wants me to guard you ... just in case."
"In case, what? I escape? There's nowhere to go. I doubt if I could easily leave this vessel, but if I somehow managed it, my choices are very limited on an uninhabited planet, or what's left of it after the Cardassians finish with it." She looked around at the spartan cell disapprovingly. "You're very fond of locking me up in places with minimal comfort, though. Surely a bigger cabin would be equally as secure, and a little more hospitable?"
"Whose did you have in mind?" he sneered. "Mine?"
"Actually, I've a feeling you're not very kindly disposed to me at the moment, so I wouldn't presume upon your generosity. I was thinking more along the lines of the cabin you're going to assign to Tom." She flashed a look at him from under her lashes.
"What makes you think he wants you hanging around his neck?"
"I would have thought it was fairly obvious when you walked in earlier and interrupted us," she said, meaningfully.
"Yeah, well I'm not sure that's such a good idea."
"Tom mightn't agree with you." Tricia felt sure Tom would have told Garos to play along with her, so why was he being so stubborn?
"Why should I care?"
"Because he told me you were good friends and good friends should do things ... for each other." Come on, Garos, she thought frustratedly.
"Very well, then." He kept his disruptor levelled at her and indicated the door. "But I'll be aiming this at you at all times, so behave yourself."
He stepped back out into the corridor and motioned her to precede him in the same direction Tom had taken. They walked in silence which suited Tricia. Small talk seemed pointless with a disruptor aimed at your back. After several more turns and changes in levels, he eventually stopped and released the door mechanism of a spacious cabin. Cadwallader glanced around interestedly. She had calculated that the cabin to be assigned to Tom would have the one thing she needed. All the surfaces were smooth and round and gleaming. The floor covering was soft and the walls were bare and of the same muted grey-white that seemed to be characteristic of the whole vessel. Her eyes passed over, but noted with relief, the computer terminal on a large polished desk. She'd calculated correctly.
"The Galeans did it in style," she remarked, off-handedly.
"You should see the one that I've got ... not that you're going to. You'd better hope that Tom is more kindly inclined towards you or you'll be back where you were."
She nodded and went to sit on one of the rounded well-padded chairs. Tricia tossed a wave off to him as he backed through the door.
Tom broke off his conversation with one of the other Maquis members as Garos walked onto the bridge.
"What's she doing?" he asked.
"She wanted me to set her up in the cabin I was assigning to you, so she's on level Gamma now."
"Is there a computer terminal in there?"
"Yes, we've outfitted all of the larger quarters with them, but she won't know how to access our computer. It's a hybrid of a lot of technology."
Tom swung himself into a console and his fingers flew over the computer panel. "Don't underestimate her." He typed in a few more commands and then sat back, tugging at the beard on his chin, a frown furrowing his brow as he watched the schematics before him.
"Well?" asked Garos, impatiently.
"She's on the computer all right, but she's bypassed the command language and is writing her own program."
"Stop her!" cried Garos. "If she gets into our main systems ..."
"I don't think this program is going anyway but in a circle."
"What do you mean?"
"It's a looping sub-routine designed to access a small memory of nine-letter words, choosing one word at random, while another sub-routine prompts the user for single letters. She's even given it a title ... 'Hangman' ..."
"What in the galaxy ...? Where's the program getting the nine-letter words?" Garos wanted to know.
"She's created a small data file containing about twenty of them. She's still typing them in now, increasing the file."
"What's it supposed to be? Is it anywhere near our main systems?"
"No, it looks innocuous enough. It looks like a ... game ... Wait a minute, she's expanding the data file by accessing our Universal translator memory bank, downloading words with five letters or more. Where did she learn to do that? Stay here, I'm going to check this out. Keep monitoring for the Enterprise. It has to arrive soon." Tom left the bridge hurriedly and headed for Gamma Level.
"Captain, we are now in sensor range of Taleth IX," reported Lt Commander Data quietly.
Riker leaned forward in his command chair. "What are you reading, Data?"
There was a slight pause as Data consulted his panel. "Captain," he said curiously. "The coordinates given for the Maquis base show extensive firepower damage. Fires are still burning. There are no recognisable structures or active monitoring systems. The base has been destroyed." He turned to his Captain, almost apologetically.
Riker gripped the arm-rests of his chair as he fixed Data with eyes that dared him to give him anything but good news.
"Life-signs, Mr Data?"
Data turned back to his panel and entered more codes, assessing the computer's response. He turned back to Riker.
"I am sorry, sir ... there are no life-signs."
Beside him, Riker heard Deanna gasp in horror or disbelief -- he didn't know which. He surged from his seat and joined Data at Ops, looking down at the read-outs. They only confirmed what he didn't want to believe.
"How long before we reach the planet, Commander?" Riker's voice was low and ominous.
"At Warp Nine, Captain ... nine minutes, sir," replied the android.
"What could have caused the destruction, Data?" Troi asked quietly.
"The extent of the damage and totality of it indicates phaser power and photon torpedoes."
"Any ideas as to which race would have done it?" asked the Captain.
"I am sorry, sir, there is insufficient data at this time and distance."
Captain Riker returned to his chair and grimly watched the viewscreen ahead, as the stars careered toward them even faster than before. As the minutes in waiting ticked by, he felt Deanna's eyes on him. No doubt she was asssessing his reaction to the development, perhaps to evaluate his ability to remain detached and objective, but he wasn't ready to acknowledge her yet. He had to come to terms with the fact that he may have lost a life under his Captaincy command already, and a valuable one at that. His First Officer ...
"Dropping out of warp now, Captain," Lavelle reported. The front screen's view changed to highlight a dark cream and green ball hanging in space, innocent-looking, the destruction reported by the sensors not evident at this range.
"We are in static orbit above the Maquis base now, sir," Lavelle added.
"Magnify!" barked the Captain of the Enterprise, looking at the screen ahead of him.
The view changed and Deanna gasped anew at the ravaged area presented to them. There was nothing left that was recognisable, only a huge smouldering scar on the planet's surface where an outlaw band of idealists had futilely attempted to make a difference.
Riker thought again of Cadwallader being down there as the type of violence necessary to cause that destruction raged around her. He thumped the arm of his chair, refusing to believe she was lost to him.
"Mr Data! Scan for life-signs again!"
"Aye sir." But his response was almost immediate. "I am sorry, sir, there is no one left alive."
Tricia looked up from the terminal as the doors opened and admitted Tom Riker. About time, she thought. She looked up at him, innocently, smiling enquiringly.
"Hi! Has the Enterprise arrived yet?" She dropped her hands in her lap, giving him her undivided attention.
"No, it hasn't." He noted she abandoned the terminal, but refrained from mentioning it for now. "Any ideas why?"
"The mission was a success in terms of sabotaging the installation, which is what we came here for. He's still got Ro, who is a pretty good coup, politically and strategically. Perhaps, the Captain has decided that I'm expendable."
"You don't believe that any more than I do. He's not going to leave you behind."
Her smile disintegrated as she fixed Tom with an angry glare.
"You underestimate your 'twin', Tom. He is a Starfleet officer first, and a man, second. Whatever we are or were to each other will have no influence on his decisions as Captain of the Enterprise. He takes his duty to Starfleet very seriously, and protocol is very cut and dry when it comes to bargaining with rebels. He is not going to hand over Ro to you nor do anything else to compromise his mission in exchange for an officer. You know that as well as I do. Civilians are different, but Starfleet personnel know the risks and are prepared for it."
Tom's eyes narrowed as he considered the truth of her words.
"Let's just hope you're wrong, for your sake." He came around to the other side of the desk to look at the terminal's screen. "What have you been doing?"
"Amusing myself. A guessing game I like to play when I haven't anything better to do. It keeps me sharp. Do you want to try it?"
"No, I don't. You've been accessing the memory bank of our Universal translator," he commented, suspiciously. "I want you to terminate the program and keep away from our computer in future. If not, you'll be back in the cell."
She shrugged off-handedly, and placed her fingers on the terminal again, rapidly keying in a terminating sequence and then switched off the unit. "Done," she said helpfully. "Now what do you suggest I keep myself occupied with?" She flashed him a glance which she hoped looked like a 'come-on'.
"Don't bother trying that again," he said. "I didn't swallow it before, and I'm not buying it now. I just can't work out what you're up to and it bothers me no end."
Tricia held up her hands, palm upwards, in a gesture of 'Look, no tricks!' and stood up, smiling ingenuously.
The ship's comm. system halted her next move. "Tom, the Enterprise has arrived," came Garos' disembodied voice.
"I'm on my way!" Tom replied, then grabbed Cadwallader's arm. "You're coming with me. I don't trust you as far as I can throw you."
"I love you, too," she returned flippantly, looking down at his grip on her arm. "But the caveman tactics are unnecessary. I'm not going anywhere. In fact, I wouldn't miss this confrontation for the galaxy!"
Tom's only reaction to that was to loosen his grip somewhat, but he still held onto her, steering her slightly ahead of him.
Tricia went willingly. She had achieved what she had set out to do. As a communications expert for most of her career in Starfleet, it had been an easy matter to access the Maquis' data files undetected and discover co-ordinates for seemingly unrelated but strategically placed planets and their moons. It was now up to the Enterprise to recognise and decode her program when it transmits.
"Captain!" shouted Lavelle on Conn. "There is an incoming message, asking personally for you!"
"Answer the hail, Commander!"
"Aye sir! We have audio and visual, sir."
"Very good, Lavelle," prompted Riker, and watched the viewscreen keenly. The head and shoulders of a man Riker didn't recognise was projected onto the screen before him but he heard Deanna whisper, "That's Garos!"
"Captain Riker!" said Garos. "I believe we have something that belongs to you."
"My First Officer. Is she alright?"
Riker repressed his reaction to the news beneath a poker face. "Where is she?"
"Tom's with her at the moment. She's in ... capable ... hands." Garos smiled.
Riker ignored the innuendo and asked instead, "Where are you? What happened to the base?"
Garos' smile twisted into a sneer. "You should know! You lured the Cardassians here, destroyed our monitoring system, enabling them to arrive undetected and wipe us out. If it weren't for your away team, the Cardassians would never have known about us. I would have disposed of your First Officer if it weren't for Tom ..." He was interrupted by movement out of the viewer's range and then Tom himself stood next to Garos, looking meaningfully at the rebel. After a silent war of wills, Garos stepped back and Tom turned to look into the viewer.
"Hello, 'brother'. You certainly took your time."
"Where's my First Officer, Tom?"
"The amazon's here, don't worry, still in one piece."
"Where is 'here'? Our sensors aren't picking up any life-signs on that planet."
"You don't need to know that, Will. You just need to transport Ro down to the surface and we'll send your First Officer back and go on our way."
"You know I can't do that, Tom. I cannot exchange prisoners for officers, under any circumstances."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Will. In fact, the Commander has already reminded me of that particular Starfleet regulation and it's a shame you see the need to uphold it. I'd really like to have Ro back with me, but if I must make do with the amazon, then I guess that's the way it will have to be."
"She'll only be a liability to you, Tom. An unwilling officer will have to be watched around the clock and you'll never be able to let your guard down."
Tom appeared to consider his words. "An asset to you and a liability to me. Maybe that could change. You see, she's a little susceptible to my resemblance to you, Will, so I could capitalise on my advantage and who knows where it may lead. She may not be as unwilling as you think."
There was a scuffle followed by a grunt of pain beside him and he turned to look at something out of range of the viewer. "Fiery piece, isn't she, Will?" Tom laughed, turning back to grin at his 'twin'. "I bet I could have a lot of fun taming her."
Captain Riker had had enough and made a slashing movement across his throat with his hand and Data, picking up the movement, cut communications. The viewscreen went blank.
"Did you manage to get a fix on the source of that transmission, Data?"
"Yes, sir, but I do not understand it. The source is below the surface of the lake. The sensors are still not picking up any life-signs down there, nor structures of any kind, but the transmission was definitely originating from beneath the water. It could have been projected there in order to disguise the true source of the signal."
"It could be a new technology that the Federation is unaware of as yet. The Maquis are infamous for being able to acquire and integrate other technologies with bits and pieces they've stolen from other races."
"There is something else, Captain," supplied Data.
"Yes, what is it?" Riker's attention was caught.
"There was an underlying code 'piggy-backing', I believe Geordi has called it, on the transmission. The computer is still processing it now."
"Let's have a look." Riker leaned over his second officer's shoulder to watch the display.
"The code is assembling into a data file, Captain." Both officers watched and waited as the computer ran routines and sub-routines to make sense of the new data it had received.
"The data file is complete now, sir," Data informed his Captain, and they both studied the words on the panel's screen.
"It is merely a collection of words, sir, the shortest being five characters in length, the longest, eleven. They are not arranged in any logical method," the android reported, disappointed.
"Not quite, Data, some of those words are names. Names of planets, perhaps, ... locations? ... bases? ... Data! Commander Cadwallader was a communications officer on the Stargazer with Captain Picard -- it was her field of expertise! Could she have done this? Programmed this code to 'piggy-back' the transmission while we were talking to Tom?"
Data considered his question. "It is possible, sir." Data looked at the list of random words again. "Sir, I believe one of the words is attributable to you. Valdez. Were you not born in Valdez, Alaska?"
Riker squinted at the panel again. The next two words following Valdez were 'trout' and 'roumelade'. He straightened, beaming. "That clinches it, Data. Cad. has sent us a list of Maquis bases! 'Valdez' was just a means of getting my attention. We don't need Ro anymore. We've got what we came for and more." Riker stood still, stroking his chin with thumb and forefinger as he thought fast.
"Lock onto those co-ordinates and monitor them, Data. I'm going down, but I want you to put me on dry land, if you would."
"Captain, as second officer, it falls upon me to caution you and dissuade you from leaving the ship."
"I know, Data, I know. Caution noted and dissuasion rejected ... I'm going down."
After Will had cut the signal from his end, Tom turned to Tricia. "Touchy, isn't he? Or is it just where you are concerned?"
"Why do you continually bait him? Where does it get you?"
"I don't know. I just can't seem to help myself. I guess he just brings out the worst in me," Tom replied, shrugging.
"That's crazy. You are both good men. You should work together, not against each other."
"I'm afraid that's not going to happen, Commander. What do you think he's going to do now?"
"I've no idea. He's not going to exchange me. I told you that."
"Yes, I know, but I also know that he's not going to leave you behind. His only option then is to beam down to the surface, guns blazing, and look for you himself."
"He won't do that either. The Captain stays with the ship."
"Not this one, I'll wager."
Ro spun around at the sound of the doors to her quarters opening again, and when she saw who it was, she launched herself at him, hands aiming for his neck.
"Damn you, Riker, if you try a trick like that again, I'll ..."
Riker was ready for her this time, just managing to keep his neck safe, but his ribs and stomach took a few more bruises before he was able to secure both of her arms behind her back.
"You'll be doing nothing. Settle down, will you!" he gritted as it took most of his strength to contain her. "I'm taking you back ... now keep still and listen!"
She did stop struggling then. "What do you mean, you're taking me back?" Her eyes were on him now, suspicious and alert. "Is this another trick?"
"No, it's not. I'm taking you back to Tom. I'm just not sure whether I'm doing him a favour or not. We're going down to the surface of Taleth and hopefully we'll all come to a mutually satisfying arrangement. Now, can I trust you enough to let you go?"
She nodded silently and he released her and stood back slowly.
"Tom is down there somewhere and he's got Cad. I want her back and he wants to trade you. Now, this conversation isn't happening, Ro, because in no way will Starfleet condone this officer-exchange."
Ro looked at him keenly. "I know, I can't believe I'm hearing this from 'Rulebook' Riker," she said incredulously.
"No, I can't believe it either, and so I suggest you come with me peacefully or I'll change my mind."
She went to collect her kit and Tom's also, and followed Riker out the door. The guards were gone and the corridor was deserted. They met no one in the turbolift or the corridor leading to the Transporter Room. In fact, the latter was not even manned, circumstances all previously arranged by the Captain. Riker tapped in some instructions on the transporter panel and then motioned for Ro to stand on the platform. He set the auto-delay and joined her. Within seconds, they were gone.
When they materialised on the surface of Taleth, Riker whipped out the phaser at his side and swung it around in a three-sixty circle. Nothing. Nothing but the smouldering ruin of an encampment.
It was almost daylight now, and the full extent of the destruction could be seen. Buildings and vegetation alike had been levelled into blackened debris. There was very little of anything recognisable, but Ro could make out metallic shrapnel, proof that someone had made this area habitable.
She ground her teeth at the devastation and hitching the kits over her shoulder, started to walk off.
"Did anyone survive this holocaust?" she asked, quietly, as if in dread of waking the dead.
Riker followed her, phaser at the ready, kicking debris aside as he did so. "I know of three that did, at least."
"Where are we heading?"
"I've no idea. I'm hoping Tom will find us. If he wants you as bad as he makes out, he'll be here. Though why, I don't know."
She turned around at that and smiled, a rare thing for Ro Laren to do. "I add a little excitement to his life," she said, genuine humour in her eyes.
"I'll bet you do. It's excitement I could do without, though," he replied, unconsciously rubbing his bruised ribs.
"So why do you want Cadwallader back so badly that you're willing to put your career on the line?"
Riker debated whether to just ignore the question, but she had stopped walking and was waiting for his answer. He shrugged. "She's a damn good First Officer and I'd rather not have to break a new one in."
"And ..." Ro prompted.
"And, she ... suits me," he supplied, off-handedly.
"Suits you? What does that mean?" Ro asked, still smiling.
Riker found himself smiling back. "She ... suits ... me," he repeated.
"Don't tell me, 'Riker the Rake' has been smitten at last?" Ro was laughing now, an even rarer occurrence.
"Riker the ...! How many nicknames have I got?"
"Too many to recount now, and most of them are fairly descriptive of your prowess in the cot, which, I might add, was impressive ..." She broke off as there was a shimmering of movement a few metres ahead of them, and the forms materialised into Tom with a firm grip on Cadwallader and pressing a disruptor into her side.
Will reached out for Ro and dragged her to his side, his stance mirroring his duplicate's.
"Hello 'brother'!" said Tom. "Glad you could drop in like this. Laren." He nodded at Ro, his eyes sweeping her to check that she was alright. He appeared satisfied.
"I'm glad you didn't bring your Maquis friends with you," returned Will.
"There's not many of them left to bring, but don't let Garos know I told you that. He thinks he has the element of surprise on his side, with your not knowing where he is. Anyway, I saw that you came alone, and figured you had your reasons. I just hope they're good ones."
"You're right, I do, and they are. I didn't bring back-up because I don't want Starfleet involved in any way. Anything that happens here will remain between us."
Tricia gave a start at the admission, which Tom felt. He gave her quick glance. It seemed as if she had underestimated her Captain, not he.
"I'm glad to see you bending some rules for a change," Tom said. "I think your amazon was a little surprised by it too. So, it comes down to trust, now. I trust that you will release Laren at the same time as I release Tricia, and you trust that I will allow you both to leave the planet in one piece."
Tom turned to Cadwallader. "I'm going to have to trust you, Commander, not to reveal our whereabouts and to persuade your Captain to leave the area, while we make good our escape. Will's breaking a lot of rules for you. Can you do it, too?"
"Why should I? I don't owe you anything. And you deserve everything you get."
Tom looked at his 'twin'. "You're going to have your time cut out handling this one, Will."
"She'll do as I say," Will replied confidently, without looking at her.
"Is that so, 'Cad.'?" asked Tom. "You'll blindly follow where he leads?"
"He's the Captain," she said, evenly.
Tom looked impressed. "Perhaps you've got it made after all, 'brother'. Mine's more in the habit of throwing her weight around freely," he added, smiling indulgently at Ro.
Ro pulled at Will's hand on her arm. "Enough of this bantering!" She turned on Will as Tom sotto-voce'd 'See what I mean?!'. "Are you going to let me go or not, Riker?"
Will dropped his hand from her arm and motioned her over to Tom, watching the latter for a similar show of faith. Tom released Cadwallader, but kept his disruptor at the ready.
"Goodbye, Commander Cadwallader, it was ... interesting ... knowing you." As Ro joined him, she tossed him a sharp glance, but he ignored her, putting an arm around her waist and pulling her to his side. "And as for you, dear 'brother', I sincerely hope we never meet again. I have a feeling next time you won't be similarly disposed in allowing me to live to fight another day." He pulled a small device from his pocket and paused, his hand hovering just above it. "Oh, and Will ..."
"About Deanna ..." he paused again, not quite sure what he wanted to say or how to say it.
"Yes?" prompted Will again.
"Tell her ..." This time Tom stopped as he felt Ro pull against his body in impatience.
"What do you want me to tell Deanna?"
"Let's go, Tom!" Ro turned on him, her eyes flashing with annoyance now.
"Tell her Ďgoodbyeí for me," finished Tom.
"Goodbye? That's all?"
"That's all ... Sheíll understand ..." Tom tapped the disc he had withdrawn from his pocket and the Maquis pair were enveloped in a shimmering veil before disappearing.
"Yes, she always does ..." murmured Will.
Cadwallader stepped up to her Captain and held his look with a level gaze. "You don't intend for them to escape, do you, sir?"
"Yes, I do," he sighed, realising he had to weather another confrontation.
"But, sir, I know where they are. The Enterprise can ..."
"Stop right there, Commander! I order you to not divulge their whereabouts at this moment. We are going to let them go."
Tricia's mouth opened but no words come out. She was unsure how to handle this. What was wrong with him? The Enterprise should have the locations of the Maquis bases by now thanks to her little 'Hangman' routine, he had his First Officer back, the Maquis were sitting ducks with her knowledge of their camouflage, and Ro and Tom were big prizes in the political prisoners stakes.
She told him as much, but he was still adamant. "I've made up my mind, Cad."
She tried again. "Captain, I can understand your allowing Tom to escape for personal reasons, but you have no loyalties to Ro, unless, of course, you were indeed swapping favours with her whilst I was on the planet." Tricia regretted her words as soon as she had said them.
"Commander, I'm not even going to grace that one with a rebuttal!" He took her arm and strode away from the open area where they stood, heading for the edge of the battle-scarred base where cover was still possible.
"How are you going to explain this one ... sir!?"
"That's my business. You're not involved."
"Not involved?" Now she was angry. "I damn well am involved! Right up to my neck. I have knowledge which will apprehend two wanted Federation criminals and you're ordering me not to use it!"
"Like I said, you're not involved. They can't fry you for not disobeying an order!"
"No, but they can fry you, well and truly."
"Yeah? Well, I am going to be so busy cleaning up those base locations you sent us, that I'll just miss this little episode in my report."
They had reached cover and Cadwallader stopped to confront him again. "Why are you doing this?" she asked, more quietly this time.
He wiped a hand over his face and behind his neck as if to clear the tension in him. "I thought it was obvious."
"Yes, ... Tom ... but despite who or what he is to you, you can't put your career in jeopardy for him. He's not worth it! Not after making the choices he made!"
"Tricia! It isn't Tom!" He took her by the arms as if to shake the realisation into her.
Cadwallader's eyes widened in shock. "Ro ...?" she whispered.
"No! Not Ro! You! I never would have picked you for being so slow on the uptake! You! I couldn't see any other way of getting you back on board safely. Crazy though it sounds, I trusted Tom to give you back if I sent Ro down here, but officially, I couldn't do it. No one on the Enterprise knows what's happening down here, only that I came down. The last conversation entered into the records stated emphatically that I refused Tom's offer to exchange hostages.
"I intend to report that I brought Ro down with me as a physical shield and ace up my sleeve, but she and you managed to escape in the confusion ..." He stopped mid-sentence at her shaking her head in disbelief, or was it horror?
"I'm so sorry," Cadwallader whispered, her eyes wide and pained.
"What do you mean, you're sorry? For what?"
"For being the cause of all of this. For making you do something you would never have done, should never have to do ... compromise your beliefs, your loyalties, your self-respect ..."
He still had his hands on her arms and this time he did shake her. "Stop it, Tricia. You're not making me do anything. This is all my idea!"
"I know, but if it weren't for me ... Captain, I can't allow you to do this. We're going up to the Enterprise and blow that Maquis ship's cover, and ..."
"And break a trust, even if it is between me and 'myself'? Do you think I will thank you for that? I told Tom you would do as I said. Was I wrong?" Riker demanded.
Tricia caught her breath. He had put her on the spot now. She would either go along with him or destroy his faith in her. She couldn't do it. He was her Captain and a litte more ....
She looked at him steadily. "I think it's time we beamed back to the Enterprise," was her only reply.
Riker returned her enigmatic stare for a heartbeat and then tapped his comm. badge. "Commander Data! Beam two aboard at these co-ordinates. Now!"
They materialised on a Transporter Pad which was now manned. The Captain stepped off the pad and headed for the corridor beyond. "Change into uniform, Commander, and meet me in my Ready Room, asap."
"Yes, sir," Cadwallader said quietly and left in the opposite direction.
All heads turned on the Bridge as their Captain emerged from the turbolift and headed for his Ready Room.
"Data! Follow me."
The android rose smoothly to his feet and walked swiftly after his Captain. He, like the rest of the crew, had no idea what had occurred on the planet's surface, but calculated that he would be briefed now that the Captain had returned. Fortunately for Data, and fortunately for the new Captain of the Enterprise-E, he would not learn the exact circumstances of what had transpired. This prevented the android being confronted with the dilemma of agonising over whether his loyalties lay with Starfleet or his Captain, and prevented Captain Riker from being summarily dismissed from his position.
When Tom and Ro rematerialised, Ro was surprised to see that they were still on the planet's surface. They were surrounded by luxuriant vegetation, which was just coming alive with the morning watch of the animals native to Taleth IX.
Tom immediately went over to one of the larger of the trees and sat down, leaning his back against its trunk. He held out his hand.
"Come and make yourself comfortable, Laren."
"Why aren't we joining the others?"
"The 'others' are sitting ducks under the surface of that lake," he said, indicating the general direction of the water, "should the amazon decide to ignore Will and turn us in. I'm not taking the chance of getting captured again, or blown out of the water. We'll stay here until the Enterprise leaves orbit and then join Garos and his friends."
He took a small electronic device out of a pocket and tapped a few commands into it and studied it closely, then chuckled. "Two life-forms still on the planet, about five kilometres away. They're probably still arguing about his 'deal' with me."
"She'll do as he says," said Ro confidently, as she joined him against the tree, snuggling into the crook of his arm, and nipping his neck playfully.
"What makes you so sure?" he laughed, tipping his head to the side to give her better access.
"You saw how she was with him! The perfect First Officer, a half-step behind him at all times, the picture of solidarity. She'd die for him. Bending a few rules will be child's play for her."
"We'll see. And you? Would you die for me, Laren?" Tom asked, half in jest, half-serious, as he hauled her onto his lap and held her chin in one hand while he looked into her flashing dark eyes.
"Depends on whether you behave yourself or not, Riker, else you might be the one doing the dying!" She pushed his hand away and brought his head to hers, kissing him with the fierce possessiveness that characterised her feelings toward this man.
Ever since watching her father die under the torture of a Cardassian monster, Ro Laren had shied away from ever allowing herself to come close to people who might abandon her again. Her dependency on this man was totally out of character and frightening to her, and she disguised it behind her gruff, proprietorial manner.
Tom Riker didn't appear to be complaining.
"Garos! The Enterprise is leaving orbit!"
The Maquis swung around to the man at Ops and looking over his shoulder at the schematics, let out a sigh of relief. Tom had done it! Convinced his duplicate to allow them to leave unchallenged.
"Okay, Devon, fire up this baby and prepare to launch. I'll contact Tom and beam him aboard." He sat down at a console and realised how tense he had been, kicking his heels on this bridge, wondering if they were to be aquatic bait or not. His instruments soon located Tom's signal and he activitated the transporter.
Tom and Ro materialised back onto the transporter pad of the submerged ship and headed rapidly for the bridge.
"Garos! You ole sleaze!" Ro greeted the Maquis as soon as she saw him, thumping him on the back.
"Ro! Good to see you again. How are they hanging?"
Ro slid a look at Tom. "Still hanging just fine, last time I looked," she rejoined. "What have you been up to?"
"Not so good, Iím afraid," he said quietly.
"Catch up on the pleasantries later, you two," Tom interrupted. "Garos, what ships are in the area?"
"We've been tracking the Enterprise out of the sector, so no problems there. But sensors indicate another vessel just staying out of identification range. Itís tagging the Enterprise, but covertly so, so as not to be detected."
"Whatís the armament on our ship?" Tom asked, looking around for the weapon station.
"Adequate, Tom. Although we couldnít do anything to save the base whilst camouflaged, once weíre space-borne we could probably take on a vessel of similar size. Not the Enterprise though," he added hastily.
"I wasnít thinking of her. I have my suspicions about that other ship. Monitor it until you can get a signature on it. Letís get off this damn planet!"
"Already taken care of. We're surfacing now."
If anyone had been standing in the ruins of the ravaged camp on Taleth IX, they would have been awed by the sight of the broiling water of the lake spewing forth a ship of enormous dimensions. It was completely smooth and round like a worn coin, but several metres thick, glistening with streaming water as it horizontally broke the surface of the lake and hovered mere metres above it, preparing itself for atmospheric departure.
The ship's hum built in crescendo, drowning out the slap of the waves on the shore of the lake, before the craft itself quivered and vibrated as it seemed to bunch itself with leashed power, slowly projecting itself diagonally upwards and then suddenly, shockingly, shot towards the last morning star that died against the planet's rising sun.
Cadwallader stood at ease in front of her Captain's desk and awaited further orders. Will Riker regarded her steadily.
"What are you going to do?" he asked quietly.
"Whatever you want me to do, sir," she replied, not meeting his eyes. She had made her decision whilst changing into uniform. She had never let a Captain down, and she wasnít about to start on this one, duty or not.
"And your report to Starfleet Command?"
"The conclusion of it will be written by you," she replied, still looking ahead. "I'll be endorsing whatever story you trump up, but I'll worry about that when the time comes."
He was silent for a minute and then rose to his feet and came round the desk to her. He raised a hand to her face and gently smoothed a lock of hair behind her ear.
"I missed you," he said simply.
She laughed softly, meeting his gaze now. "Which part of me? The part that serves you, or the part that keeps you on your toes."
"The part that makes me feel good," he returned, seriously, moving his hand to the back of her head and drawing her to him. He kissed her tentatively at first, and then, as if he couldn't help himself, deepened the kiss, pulling her closer still. She returned the embrace and then pulled away, lowering her head.
"What happened down there?" Riker asked, intuitively sensing she was holding something back.
Cadwallader was not one to prevaricate nor did she withhold information from her Captain. "Tom almost raped me, and I would have let him," she said simply and unemotionally, staring straight ahead once more.
Riker reacted with a swiftly indrawn breath. "No wonder you wanted to blow him out of orbit."
"I kept baiting him, comparing him with you, needling him. I couldn't help myself. He suggested that I was exploring the darker side of you, something I couldn't do normally because I have to respect you as my Captain. And I think he was right. I pushed him too far, reminding him that you had Ro here at your mercy, just as I was at his. He saw red. I deserved it, but I wasn't going to stop him. He was the one to pull back at the last minute."
Riker gazed at her steadily and she held his eyes unflinchingly. "What do you expect of me, Tricia? If you want me to beat my chest and vow vengeance on Tom and never rest until I make him pay ... well, that's not going to happen. I'm not going to treat you like a leper either, just because you would have welcomed relations with another man, albeit one that looks like me," he smiled wryly. "I didn't think that's what you wanted from our relationship. I thought you wanted what I wanted. The companionship, the laughter, the intimacy without the all-abiding love, jealousy and possessiveness. Was I wrong?"
She shook her head in wonder, beaming at him. "íO Captain, my Captainí, I was hoping you'd say that! No, you're not wrong. You have my allegiance and respect and I want to be with you, but I need to follow my star, and when that star moves on, so will I."
He made to draw her into his arms again, but she resisted. "Sorry, sir, we're still on duty. I have a report to write up, which will take me a couple of hours, and you have to assure Starfleet that all is well, somehow. I don't envy you."
"You're right, Commander," he said, dropping his hands to his sides. "Perhaps I'll meet you in Holodeck Three again when we've straightened all this out."
"Actually, Captain, make it your quarters. I don't need a fantasy when I'm with you, just a flat surface ... sir." She wheeled around and left his Ready Room accompanied by the pleasing deep sound of his laughter.
"We're almost within range of the Enterprise now, Tom," reported Devon.
"Stay back and invisible! Have you identified that other craft?" Tom asked, barely keeping his impatience in check.
"Yes, it's Cardassian alright and it's still following the Enterprise. The databank has a match on it. The Aguin."
"Ahhh!" Tom could almost taste the revenge he was about to extract on his ex-gaoler, and he knew it would be sweet. He turned to Ro at the helm. "Take us in, Laren ... fast. Let's be humane about this and not prolong the inevitable. Garos! Are you ready with those weapons? I want everything you've got!"
"Ready, Tom," Garos grinned, caught up in his friend's excitement.
The Aguin and all those on it didnít know what hit them.
One minute the bridge crew were conscientiously monitoring the Enterprise still towing the Duwain in its tractor beam, and the next their ship was exploding about them, the bulkheads caving in from the viciousness of an unseen attack. Their sensors could not isolate and identify the molecular composition of the unusual craft as it came within weapons range, and their viewscreen showed only the innocuity of the space sector they were travelling through. As far as the instrumentation was concerned, the Aguin was being attacked by a giant wave of water.
The water-ship came from behind and above, and Tom gave the order to blow the Cardassians into the void. The Aguin was a sitting duck, and Tom its hunter. His ship gave it everything she had -- rapidly, repeatedly, mercilessly. Against a ship of the size of the Aguin, they had only one chance, and Tom made the most of it.
Garos applauded the decision, and Ro looked on in satisfaction. She moved closer to Tom, lifting a hand to lightly caress his shoulder, as she and he watched the Cardassian ship hang in space for a second, then noticeably shudder before it exploded within and without, scattering debris, bodies and shrapnel in a brilliant display of fireworks. Isolated matter cartwheeled in space and then dispersed, reverting into a simpler form. Tom let out the breath he had been unconsciously holding and visibly relaxed.
"Goodbye, Gul Jukel. You finally got what you deserved and Iím glad I was the one to give it to you," he said quietly.
Captain Riker ceased playing his trombone mid-song and bid enter as he heard the chime at the door. He was out of uniform, a rarity now since assuming Command of the Enterprise-E, but the sapphire-blue velvet pullover coupled with dark cream slacks were a more comfortable combination for playing the instrument. He glanced at the chronometer.
"You're half an hour early," he remarked when he saw who it was. "And still in uniform."
"I know," said his First Officer. "I finished what I had to do and didn't want to wait. How did Starfleet take your report?" She stood just inside the door, at ease, but refusing his offer of a seat.
"They're probably still spluttering about it, but they were mollified by the list of bases we've got to work on. We're heading for the first one now. Well done, Commander. Your methods easily rival my so-called reputation for the unorthodox."
"I have a good teacher," she smiled. "But, Tom is bound to persuade the Maquis to be prepared for us now. I mean, I doubt if he realised exactly what I was doing with the computer, but to be on the safe side, considering he knows what our mission is, he may decide to warn the movement anyway."
"I'm sure that he will, but they can't all mobilise and relocate at the same time. We will get our fair share of them, and the reigning confusion and scramble is precisely what Starfleet was aiming for in sending us out here anyway. So, I think we've done quite well, considering."
"As for your enabling Ro and Tom to escape ... do you realise the chances of my allowing you to pull off a stunt like that again, sir?" she asked, watching him mock-sternly.
He laughed. "Little or none?"
"Correct. Did you give Captain Picard the run-around like that?"
"Oh no, I was a model First Officer," he dead-panned, and then changed the subject, broaching his original statement. "So, why are you early?"
"I told you ... I didn't want to have to wait for it."
"Being here, with you."
"Now that's really unusual!" Riker grinned broadly.
He indicated again she take a seat, and this time she acquiesed, but he himself stood and returned the trombone to its resting-place. "A woman who is not just on time, but early, and who's honest about her motives."
"That's stereo-typing, Captain, and I wouldn't have thought you would be guilty of it."
"No, it's actually fact ... at times like these."
"Times like these? What do you mean?"
He returned and sat in a chair opposite her, his eyes serious. "When I socialise with a woman, I'm accustomed to her playing games with me."
"What sort of games?"
"Hard-to-get, coquettish games."
Tricia leaned forward in her chair, just as serious. "Is that what you want me to do?"
"No, I don't ... I like this."
"Good, because I can lead a man on with the best of them. But I don't want to play with you, my Captain. With you, I am deadly serious."
"I can tell."
"You drop the sense of humour and become more ... intense."
"Does that bother you?"
"No, that way I know where I am and what is expected of me."
She laughed aloud at that. "Then what are you doing still sitting in that chair?"
"What's wrong? Not 'flat' enough for you?"
She pushed herself out \\u of her chair and came to him, settling herself on his lap and threaded her fingers through his hair. "You don't drop the humour."
'It's what I am," Riker replied, simply. He reached behind her head and pulled at the ever-present tie so that her hair spread around her shoulders.
"Perfect," she murmured.
"Perfect for me ... I love your eyes ... they are ..."
"'Damnedest blue ... come hither'?" he supplied, smiling widely, enjoying their banter.
She pulled back. "You remembered? ... That night at Quark's already seems a lifetime ago."
"I remember. It was the night you convinced me that we could do this."
"Was I right?" She was tracing his lips with her fingers now, testing their firmness and brushing his beard with her palm, filing that tactile experience away also.
"Only time will tell." He closed the gap between them.
Admiral Nechayev looked worriedly at the officer seated in front of her. She had listened to Picard's description of what had occurred in his quarters in silence. Picard, expecting surprise, disbelief and then ridicule, had forged on with his story, and was in no small measure, amazed at her silent acceptance of his strange tale.
"Admiral ... you've encountered this before?"
"Yes, Jean Luc ... a shape-shifter."
"Admiral, I too have heard of shape-shifters and have met Odo on DS9. But lurking in Starfleet Headquarters? The Dominion on our doorstep? Masquerading as Starfleet personnel? How could this happen?"
"Unfortunately, it happens very easily. We are powerless to prevent an enemy from infiltrating our ranks when they can impersonate us without flaw."
"Theresa Marsden was a very respected member of our medical corps. As to her whereabouts now, it would be anyone's guess, but I'd say her chances are not good," the Admiral sighed heavily, lowering her eyes. "In fact, I would hazard a guess that you have not actually met the real doctor, and were attended by the shape-shifter from the very beginning."
"But 'she' stopped the nightmares. I haven't experienced any since."
"Yes, well, as to that, who can say what the Dominion is capable of. She could easily have inhibited your sleep cycle if that was her intent, in order to earn your trust. What is more important, Jean Luc, is why she wanted you on-side in the first place. That is the question we need answered. Why you?!?"
While Starfleet officialdom mulled over the implications of the shape-shifter's interest in Captain Jean Luc Picard, that officer downloaded all available information on the Dominion and their threat. Also, his persistent perusal of Starfleet communiqes revealed another report concerning the Enterpise-E, its details niggling him, festering at the back of his mind like a small cancer, insubstantial in size, but potentially damaging.
The report indicated that in trying to release his First Officer from a hostage situation, Will Riker had come face to face with his double, Tom, and the ensuing encounter resulted in Will's hostage escaping as well as the Starfleet officer. He knew about Will's not-so-copybook command style, which had worked where others may have failed on a number of occasions, but he had no first-hand knowledge of any situations where Riker had deliberately disregarded specific regulations. Rules were made to be followed and deviations from those regulations would eventually come under someone's scrutiny. He intended to monitor the situation and deflect any such interest if he could. If he couldn't be there on the Enterprise for Will, he would be here, in the wings, if necessary.
His concerns were interrupted by a summons from Admiral Nechayev to her office.
She was wearing her best foreboding face as she dropped her bombshell.
"Congratulations, Jean Luc, you are to be given command of the Moltoya. She's a new Galaxy-class starship, recently commissioned, and her chief purpose is to be the Federation's answer to the Dominion threat. You are to take her out to the last known sighting of the Dominion and patrol that area."
"Admiral, that sounds suspiciously like a decoy in a duck hunt," protested Picard quietly.
Nechayev lowered her eyes as if the same thought had occurred to her, and she was not comfortable with it. "Nevertheless, Captain, that is your mission. Your crew have been briefed. All that remains is that you meet them and settle into your new command and then you can take her out."
"With all due respect, Admiral, how did Starfleet arrive at this decision?"
The woman seated opposite him shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Jean Luc, the shape-shifters singled you out for a purpose. We're hoping that purpose is still current and you are still of interest to them. If they are in HQ somehow, somewhere, they may be aware of your new mission and see that as an opportunity to approach you again. We would prefer they do that away from Earth, but with the best available resources at your disposal, hence the Moltoya."
"Ahh," smiled Picard, wryly, "I'm not only to be the decoy, but the lure away from vulnerable areas. Well, so be it, Admiral. Let the Dominion follow me, and we will see how they 'shape' up to the Federation's latest pride o' fleet."
Nineteen hundred hours in the rec. room of the Enterprise-E was filled with the crew from the Alpha Shift. Talk was desultory, the effects of their first mission already old news. The Enterprise had been ordered to head for Starbase 19 where they were to disengage the Duwain and then proceed to R'hen II, one of the many base locations Commander Cadwallader had downloaded into the ship's computer.
Geordi, Data and Hennessy held down a table near the back of the room and were surprised to see the Captain and First Officer enter the premises. Many heads turned as they made their passage through the room, slowed down by greetings and nods of respect from the patrons. They finally made it to the friendsí table and the trio made room for their superiors.
"Captain, Commander, what can I order you?" Geordi asked cheerfully.
Riker slid a glance at Cadwallader who signalled a passing waiter. She whispered something to the man, while Riker explained, "Actually, Cad. has something she wants me to try. It seems she has a private stash that rivals even Guinanís collection."
Talk was general and companionable while the group sampled Cadwalladerís choice. Riker noted Counselor Troi enter the room and, after a minute hesitation, move off to a table on her own. He excused himself to the group at his table, and made his way over to her.
Cadwallader watched him go, ambivalent about her feelings for him. She knew that Deanna would always come first with him, but she didnít fully understand why. She didnít even know how it was going to affect their own relationship, but instinctively knew that his ties with the beautiful Counselor were going to be more detrimental to her peace of mind than the Captain/First Officer intimacy equation. She watched him settle into the seat opposite Troi and then turned to her companions.
"Well, fellas, how about a game of poker?" she asked, aware of the legendary nature of the poker games played on the Enterprise-D.
"It is customary to play poker in the First Officer quarters, if the First Officer is in the game," Data observed.
"A tradition ..." Geordi added.
"Okay then," said Cadwallader, rising from her chair, "far be it from me to break with tradition."
Deanna looked up as Will approached her table.
"Is this seat taken, Counselor?" he asked, smiling disarmingly.
"You know itís not, Captain. Be my guest," she replied quietly, looking back out of the viewport, seeing only the loneliness and unending nature of the vast space they were traversing at warp speed.
He quirked an eyebrow at her disinterest. Lowering his large frame into the chair opposite, he leaned over the table. "I detect a distinct lack of enthusiasm, Counselor. Had a bad day?"
"Itís not really something I can talk about here, Will," she said, looking around the crowded room.
"My quarters or yours?"
"Umm, neither, actually."
"Well, then ..." he prompted, when she ventured no more.
"It's not really necessary, Will. I'll be alright."
"Deanna ..." he warned. "You know me better than that, and I know you. I'm not going to leave this alone this time," referring back to the time when she had fobbed him off in the Briefing Room, "so you might as well give in gracefully."
"Oh, very well, Will," she sighed frustratedly, and not in the least gracefully. "How about the Arboretum?" Now, why did she say that, she wondered, regretting it immediately. The Arboretum was the last place she wanted to be alone with a Riker again, but somehow their quarters were no longer appropriate either.
She knew she was indulging herself, allowing self-pity to interfere with her usual professionalism, but reaction from her abortive efforts in the mission, the effects of seeing Tom again and coming to terms with his changed circumstances, guilt at having succumbed to him, all had driven her to the rec. area in search of what ... ? Absolution? Sympathy? Or was she just being drawn to the only person who could really help her.
"Good choice," he said, standing again and holding out his hand for hers.
She was committed now, taking his hand reluctantly and walking out of the rec. room with him.
They were quiet for most of the walk and then she was the first to break the silence. "Arenít you worried what the crew will think?" she asked curiously.
"What? That I walked in with one woman and left with another? No, it throws them off the scent!" he laughed.
"Youíre very happy with your life at the moment, aren't you, Will?"
"And youíre very sad. What is it?"
They had reached the Arboretum by this stage and as the turbolift doors opened and Deanna stepped out, she suddenly lost her nerve and whirled around again in flight. Willís hands gently grasped her shoulders and steered her out again. "Letís walk," he encouraged. When she fell into step beside him, he prompted, "Out with it, Deanna."
She sighed heavily. "Itís Tom."
"I guessed as much. Youíre taking his defection hard."
"No, itís not that. I ... He ... I did something stupid."
"We ..." She couldnít go on. They had arrived at the fountain and she looked down at the grassy spot where she and Tom had lain, shaking her head slowly.
"I ... He ... We ... ? Deanna, what are you trying to say? That you let him make love to you?"
She nodded numbly. "Only it was more like my encouraging him shamelessly."
"On the Enterprise?"
She hadnít yet raised her eyes from the spot, and he quickly swung her around and guided her down another path.
"Deanna, that was a very destructive thing to do."
"I know, but I thought I loved him."
"Thought?" he asked, acutely aware of her using the past tense.
"Yes, but now I realise it was merely pity. He was telling me how the Cardassians tortured him and I could feel his pain so clearly and then I saw the scars. All over his chest and shoulders and back. The scars were everywhere, Will ... he must have suffered so."
"Deanna, if he appealed to your sympathetic nature, you canít be to blame for what happened."
"He wasnít appealing to my anything, Will! He was furiously angry with me. It was me that broke down and became all emotional and I got the better of him. He didnít stand a chance. I wanted to make up for all his suffering and sense of loss. It was only afterwards that I felt let down when it changed nothing. I really expected things to be different. I canít blame Tom for my stupidity this time."
"The last thing he said to me, was to tell me to say Ďgoodbyeí ... from him to you."
She lowered her head, saying nothing.
Will tried again. "How do you feel about him now?"
"Confused ... and for the first time since you came aboard the Enterprise-D ten years ago, Iíve regretted our decision to just stay friends."
"If we hadnít been afraid to go with our feelings, I wouldnít have been thrown into such a quandary since Tom was rescued from Nervala IV."
"You canít really think like that, Deanna. Things may not have worked out for us."
"I know thatís what we keep telling ourselves, but somehow, I really doubt that that would have been the case. And now itís too late for us."
She looked up at him with her dark liquid eyes, huge and troubled, and Will began to have an inkling of what Tom must have felt at the fountain. He folded her into his arms to comfort her as heíd done numerous times in the past.
They would always be there for each other, and each instinctively knew it. But, thought Will, was it fair on Tricia? She seemed to accept his extraordinary relationship with Troi, but that didnít mean it was acceptable. While he and Deanna continued with the unresolved nature of their feelings, there would always be a part of him that he could not offer another woman. True, he hadn't committed himself to Cadwallader either -- she didnít seem to expect or want it. But wasn't he just allowing history to repeat itself? Would he always shy away from commitment?
He looked at Deanna, into her expressive dark eyes, and felt himself being drawn into their welcoming depths. His eyes narrowed in confusion as he read the invitation on her face, felt the familiar caress of her mind against his, as if encouraging him to draw closer.
"Imzadi?" he asked softly, the endearment a mere rumble in his chest.
Deannaís ears strained to hear the treasured word, and her heart leaped to acknowledge it. "Imzadi ..." she nodded, her smile wide and beatific.
He was crazy to fight it, the irresistible pull she had on him and his emotions, had always had, but he'd fought it for so long now, it had become second nature to him. And now, as before, he drew back from that irrevocable step, allowing the status quo to continue.
"I have to go ..." he whispered.
Deannaís eyes closed tightly and she drew back, finding her centre of control and resuming her calm facade. "Rahbeem ..." she whispered back.
Copyright Narelle Allen 1997
Characters remain property of Paramount ....