Carter Series #5



The Way by Moonlight

by Djinn

The marine lounge seemed unusually loud as Kerr stepped through the doors. He smiled at the marines that noticed his arrival and moved into the crowd, looking for one person in particular. He found her at the pool table, playing nine-ball with Captain Munro. Kerr hung back, content to just watch her as she tried to fight back from a serious disadvantage.

Seeming to sense his eyes on her, Christine looked up and smiled at him. He raised an eyebrow at the state of the table and she gave him a sheepish grin. Munro sank the nine ball, then asked her something. She nodded, and as he racked the balls for a new game, she walked over to Kerr. "Howdy, Sailor."

"Classy, Chapel. And how many times do I have to tell you I'm a marine not a sailor."

She stepped a little closer. "I keep forgetting that."

"You forget nothing. Just yanking my chain." He wanted to pull her into his arms, but his sense of protocol stopped him. He knew that if he had, her own idea of what was proper on the Carter would have been brought sharply to bear, manifesting probably as an elbow in the ribs. Not that he wasn't used to it. Christine Chapel was a rather active sleeper with some violent tendencies when she dreamed. Four weeks of sharing the same bed had taught him not to try to wake her when she was dreaming, and to duck the occasional stray punch that came his way.

"I like yanking your chain." The words were neutral but something in her voice added an additional meaning to that statement.

"You can make anything sound dirty, you know that?"

She smiled and he found himself grinning back. She was proving to be an even more interesting woman than he had originally suspected when he started to pursue her. Tough, smart, compassionate, beautiful, and very sexy.

"Red alert."

His muscles tightened. "What?"

"Just testing your theory out. Did that sound dirty?"

"You can't just say red alert like that."

"You're right. Bad example. How about this?" She moved a hair closer, dropped her voice to a husky drawl. "Hailing frequencies open, sir."

He swallowed hard.

She laughed. "Uhura would kill me for that. Except that I actually sounded quite a bit like her. She had a great voice."

"Go back to your game, Christine. I need a drink. What's your poison tonight?"

"Trilithian Ale."

"Yum. I'll make it two." He fought his way through the marines to get to the bar. He saw three of his marines sitting off by themselves. They looked glum. He ordered his drinks then wandered over to their seating area, his mind automatically identifying them. "Corporals Callahan and Ryndwyck. Private Lawrence. Everything all right here?"

They started to rise.

"At ease. This is downtime. As in having fun not as in being down. What's the problem here?"

They made a lot of noise about everything being fine. He noticed though that they all had their backs to the viewscreens. Without consciously thinking about it he ran through the personnel data he had committed to memory. All had reported within the last week. "First time in space, eh?"

They all nodded.

He laughed. "I remember those days, the unbelievable excitement of my first assignment. The anticipation of what it would be like, what kind of adventure I was going to be living. I wish someone had told me that my first couple of weeks were going to be pure hell."

Ryndwyck looked up at him, her brown eyes solemn. "Hell?"

"God yes. I was sick every damn day. Those stars going by just really got to me. And I was convinced that the vibrations were going to make me go insane."

"But you're still here?" Lawrence leaned forward in his chair. "So you must have gotten used to it?"

"I did. One day I woke up and I was fine. There's a moment when your body kicks over and becomes acclimated. It's different for everybody."

Callahan pointed to his glass. "And Shirley Temples make it better, right?"

Kerr shook his head. Initiation rites never changed. "I think you'll find that if you lay off the grenadine you'll feel more like your old selves."

Ryndwyck pushed her drink away quickly. "I hate this stuff." She rose. "I'm getting a beer, you all want?"

Two heads nodded. She made her way to the bar, careful to avoid looking anywhere but down.

"That's the spirit. You'll be fine in no time."

Lawrence looked apologetic. "We all requested this assignment, sir. The chance to serve under you, on this ship...it seemed like the chance of a lifetime. But then all we felt was sick."

"It is the chance of a lifetime. And once you get your space legs, you'll be better able to appreciate that." He stood up as Ryndwyck came back with the beers. "Salud. You're marines. Don't forget that."

"Sir, no sir," three voices answered.

"Carry on then." He made his way to the bar and picked up the ales. When he got back to the pool table, Munro was winning again. He put the ales on the tall table behind the playing area and settled into the matching chair to watch the game. It was over quickly.

Munro looked at Christine. "Sir, no offense intended, but you're playing like shit tonight."

"No offense taken because you're right. Guess my mind's elsewhere." She handed her cue to a waiting marine and took the chair across from Kerr.

"What's wrong?"

She shook her head. "Nothing really. And everything. Nako still isn't back on her feet and Spock has practically forbidden me to see her. We have a new mission tomorrow and no real role for medical in it, so I guess I'm a little restless."

"We can run some emergency drills if you want. Check on your staff's efficiency rating."

She nodded. "I may take you up on that. I doubt we'll have much else to do. This mission will only affect diplomatic."

"More time for us."

She smiled. "You wanna take these back to my cabin?"

"My cabin's closer."

"Yes, but mine has a replicator and I don't know about you but I'm starved."

"I could go for something tasty to eat."

She grinned wickedly.

"See, there you go again," said Kerr.

"What? I didn't say a word." She got up and headed for the door and the turbolift beyond. When he caught up with her she shook her head. "Not everything I say is an opening, you know."

"Uh huh." He waited till the lift doors closed, then pulled her to him, kissing her hard and letting her go just before the doors opened again on deck five. Saldusta stepped in, her hair still wet.

"Swimming?"

"Yes, Commander." The other woman wore the contented expression she only seemed to have when she'd been in the water. She had not even replaced her humidifier torque; it hung on her wrist like an oversized bracelet letting off no little bit of mist. Saldusta saw Christine's eyes go to the instrument and explained, "For a while, after swimming, I don't need it. I like not wearing it. Makes me feel...less different." She rubbed her neck. "Plus it kind of hurts."

Christine stepped in and touched the red skin gently. "It's rubbing. You should stop at sickbay and get some cream for that."

Saldusta shrugged. "I'll go tomorrow. Besides, doesn't pain build character?" Her voice held an edge, a bit of the Saldusta that had first appeared on the Carter peeked out.

"I doubt whoever made it intended it to be that uncomfortable, Lieutenant." Christine's voice was all business as she ignored the woman's regression into bitchiness.

Saldusta nodded. "I doubt that whoever made it ever had to actually wear it, sir."

Christine seemed to consider that. "Bring it down tomorrow and I'll take a look at it. Maybe we can work on making it more comfortable."

"All right." She was saved from further comment by the lift arriving at deck four. Saldusta got out and Christine and Kerr continued to deck two.

"She's warmed up to you. Although warm for her is still a spring thaw for anyone else."

"She's coming along."

"I wouldn't have given her three weeks. What's your secret?"

Christine's expression became hooded as she remembered. "Just lucky, I guess."

He decided not to press it but followed her in to her quarters. "So," he said as he pulled her into his arms and began to nuzzle her neck. "What's for dinner?"

She kissed him then pulled away. "Food, Randall. I'm hungry. If I let you do that, we'll never get to eat. I know you."

"We could do both. Eat and make love."

She laughed. "You are incorrigible."

He spoke to the replicator. "Finger foods. Terran variety. Strawberries included."

"And whipped cream." She grinned at his expression. "What? I like whipped cream."

He chose not to reply, just grabbed the tray and led her into the bedroom.

-------------------------------------

Sovar looked at the chonometer. "Your dinner engagement with Ambassador Nako is in one point two standard hours."

Spock did not look up from his pad. "I am well aware of the time, Mr. Sovar."

The younger vulcan nodded. "Of course, sir." He had worked for the captain's father for too long, he mused. One of Sarek's strengths was his ability to lose himself in the task at hand. If not watched, however, he also tended to miss important meetings. Sovar only had to face the cold wrath of Amanda once to know he never wanted to see it again. The woman could put the matriarch to shame.

He realized that Spock was studying him. "I'm sorry, Ambassador. I was in the past."

"And I have a good idea where in the past," Spock surprised him with the light look that was just short of a smile. "My mother did not like my father to be late."

"No, she did not." Sovar handed Spock the second pad. "This information came from the Tourmaxian Council. They wish us to understand their side of the issue."

"And they no doubt consider their side the correct one."

"So it would seem."

Spock compared the two pads. "Up till now, the Pesadii have had no one to tell their side for them." He read for a minute. "The Federation assessment team confirmed that they are a sentient race. The Tourmaxian settlers believe them to be a form of vermin."

"They are telepathic, no spoken language ability at all. It is a common misconception to assume that language is equal to sentience."

"Indeed."

Sovar let him read for a while before saying, "I should think this would be a clear-cut case. The Tourmaxian settled on an occupied world."

Spock shook his head. "Unfortunately, they did not do it knowingly. They claim-and the logs of the Federation relocation teams back them up-that their scans of the planet indicated there was no sentient life."

"But the Pesadii were there."

"Yes, in some sort of hibernative state. Their vital signs were far below the capability of the most scanners. The arrival of the settlers-the psychic noise of such a large group-apparently disturbed their slumber. But not before the Tourmaxians had plenty of time to make the planet their home."

Sovar nodded solemnly. "So they woke up and found Tourmax had been overrun."

"Someone has been sleeping in my bed."

"I beg your pardon, sir?"

"It is an old Earth fairy tale." Spock steepled his fingers. "There is something this report leaves out. Something that the Tourmaxian are not telling us." He scanned the text again. "They refer to them as vermin, even as predators. Yet there is not one documented death of a Tourmaxian by a Pesadii."

"The inverse is not true, however."

"No. The Tourmaxian have been systemically exterminating this species. The Federation team discovered this when they made a follow-up visit to the planet. That's why we're here. To try to find the truth in these stories we are being told. If there is a truth." Spock mused.

"It has been my experience that truth is relative not universal." Sovar raised an eyebrow. "Will the Tourmaxians listen to what we have to say?"

"I'm afraid they have no choice. When they asked for Federation aid they agreed to several conditions. The first was that the planet be uninhabited, or if it was home to other sentient life, that this life agree to having settlers on their world. This condition has clearly been breached. It will be up to us to try to find a solution."

"You have a plan, sir?"

Spock shook his head. "I need to observe them, get them talking to each other. Then, perhaps, I will have a plan."

Sovar only nodded.

Spock got up and walked to the viewscreen. "This is the kind of mission that the Enterprise was often involved in. Captain Kirk was a master at sorting these situations out."

"I am sure you are just as accomplished, Ambassador."

Spock sniffed slightly. "Do not underestimate James T. Kirk, Sovar. He was many things and one of those was a born negotiator."

"It is easy to negotiate with the firepower of a starship at your back."

"Undoubtedly. But he rarely resorted to that." Spock fell silent for a moment.

"Is there anything else, sir?" Sovar waited but there was no response. Spock seemed very far away, as he often did when the conversation turned to his former commander. Sovar did not fully understand the ambassador's reaction. But then Spock was half-human. It explained a great deal, he supposed. "Very well then. Have a pleasant evening, Ambassador."

"Thank you. The same to you, Sovar." Spock finally turned. His voice and expression were controlled in every way. Sovar could almost convince himself he had imagined the lapse.

-----------------------

Troi nodded to Penhallon as the other man sauntered into the transporter room. As usual, Penhallon was just in time; Spock was already giving the ensign on duty his instructions.

"Morning. Did I miss anything?"

"Nothing that you don't always miss."

Penhallon nodded in satisfaction. "You mean the boring parts. Good."

Troi didn't want to ask, but he couldn't help himself. "Who was she this time?"

"Actually it was Ritsuko." He laughed at Troi's expression. "Not like that, Andrew. She's having trouble coming up with a menu for our visitors."

Troi frowned. "Chef's block?"

"Information block. Have you noticed how little data the Tourmaxians really gave us on the Pesadii?"

"Lots of words, though."

"Exactly." Penhallon straightened as the first of their visitors arrived. "It's odd."

"Everything about this one is odd, Stephen."

"You won't get any argument there." Penhallon pointed discreetly at Spock and Sovar. "Not that you'd know it from them. Gotta admire that kind of cool."

Troi grinned then had to wipe that expression off his face as the Tourmaxian delegation appeared on the pad. There were five of them, two females and three males. They were humanoid in appearance, slightly shorter and bulkier than humans. One of the males stepped off the pad. The others followed.

"Ambassador Spock? I'm Cradash Lir, head of the delegation."

"A pleasure to welcome you aboard." Spock nodded graciously. "This is Mr. Sovar. He will show you to your quarters."

"You putting us close to the Pesadii?"

"We have erected privacy screens. And you will not have to share a lift to get to the meeting areas."

Lir nodded. "Fine." He smiled for the first time. "Nice to be on a starship. Never had the chance before."

"Perhaps we can arrange a tour later."

"Thanks, Captain." He turned to Sovar. "Lead on."

"This way please."

Once they were gone Spock turned to the ensign. "Is the Pesadii party ready?"

He nodded.

"Energize." His command was followed by the slight squeal of the transporter. Something materialized. Four somethings.

Troi had to fight not to take a step back. They were ugly. Hideous really. Hairless and nearly shapeless. Their sunken eyes seemed to swallow the light.

"They don't think you're very attractive either." A black-eyed young man who had beamed up with the Pesadii stepped forward.

Spock looked at Troi, an eyebrow just slightly raised.

Troi blushed. He usually did well among telepaths, generally hiding his feelings with more skill. "My apologies to all. An unforgivable breach."

"They forgive you." The man gestured at the Pesadii standing closest to him. "My name is unimportant. I am the vessel through which you can communicate. I speak so that you can hear the thoughts of Grmm and his people."

Spock looked directly at Grmm when he answered. "Understood. Welcome aboard. You will find the schedule for our discussions in your quarters."

The man must have translated because Grmm lumbered forward and bowed slightly.

"He says he is glad to have the chance to speak for his people."

Spock looked at Troi. "You will show them to their quarters, Commander?"

Troi nodded. "This way please." He turned to Grmm, again fighting the urge to recoil. Even though his own psi levels were documented in the low to non-existent range, he sent a mental apology to both the Pesadii and to their translator. *I am most sorry. I will improve.*

He thought he sensed amusement, then he heard the translator's voice ring in his mind. *You are forgiven. Intent is considered along with action.*

"We have had some trouble determining what sort of nourishment you require," he said to Grmm.

"We require nothing, thank you. Our bodies are self-sustaining."

"Is yours?" Troi asked the translator.

"No. I require food." The man studied Troi. "Perhaps you can show me what is available?"

"You have a replicator in your room. I'll show you how to work it." Troi led them onto the lift and up to deck two. The area looked completely isolated. He knew that several crewmen had been up earlier, sealing off each VIP area so that it was self-contained. The senior officer's quarters sat between the two billets. Hidden entrances allowed emergency access for the Carter crew, but the visitors were effectively sealed off from each other's living areas. Sensors and monitors made sure that they stayed that way. Any attempt by either delegation to sabotage the other would be immediately recorded and stopped.

Troi stopped at the main door. "This is your room," he said to Grmm.

The Pesadii pushed past him. The others followed him in. The translator turned and gave Troi an amused look. "They stay together. It is their way. It is not my way. Please wait for me?"

"Of course."

The door shut and Troi waited, trying to fix the image of the Pesadii in his mind, trying to desensitize himself to it. His earlier breach was unforgivable. And not like him.

The door opened and the translator emerged. "Don't beat yourself up over it. They're just glad you didn't shoot them."

Troi smiled.

"I'm Gallen Rixx."

"Pleasure." Troi led the man down the hall and opened another door for him. "You're from Betazed?"

Rixx nodded as he walked into the room. "Have you ever been there?"

"Keep meaning to. I hear it's beautiful."

"I think it's the most beautiful place in the galaxy."

"But here you are."

"Someone needs to speak for those who can't. Besides, I'm running away from duty at home. I'll go back eventually and face up to my responsibilities, but until then, I'll do this." Rixx walked over to the replicator. "Ginger beer, Betazed origin." At Troi's look he laughed. "Oh, I know how to work them. I've been on more ships than you can imagine. I just wanted an excuse to talk to you." He sipped the beer. "I like to talk. Try to do it whenever I get the chance."

"What's it like to be a telepath?"

Rixx shrugged. "What's it like to not be one?" He grinned. "It's what I know. I can't imagine what it would be like to go through life without knowing what people were thinking. There must be a million missteps. Not that knowing thoughts necessarily prevents that. People often think one thing and do something quite different."

"I imagine that's true." Troi sat down at the table. "We're having trouble getting much data on the Pesadii. The Tourmaxians weren't what you'd call generous. What can you tell me?"

Rixx frowned. "I'm not at liberty to discuss things I've learned from my special relationship with Grrm and the others."

"I'm just asking what they're like. I'm not going to pry into their state secrets."

"I'm afraid I'll have to let you experience them naturally. I can only give you my impression as a telepath, and that paradigm has no meaning for you." He looked genuinely sorry.

"Of course. I shouldn't have asked."

"It's your job to ask though, isn't it, Commander?"

Troi nodded.

"Just as it's my job to protect my client's secrets."

Troi grinned. "So they do have secrets?"

Rixx would not rise to the bait. "Everyone has secrets."

"That is a fact." Troi rose. "I'll let you settle in. If you want to talk more, feel free to comm me."

"Duties permitting, Commander, I just may do that."

------------------2--------------------------------

It was nearly time for shift change when Spock returned from welcoming the delegations. He gestured for Christine to join him in his ready room. She rose quickly, saying, "Lieutenant Kimble, you have the conn," as she walked up to his office.

Once the doors had closed, she asked, "Everybody settled in?"

"So it would seem." He sat down at his desk.

She took her normal chair. "You don't seem very happy about that."

"Happy is an emotion."

She grinned. "And we both know you don't have those."

His expression lightened somewhat. "You know me too well."

"So how can I help?"

"I'm not sure you can." His look of gratitude for her asking took any sting out of the answer.

"I imagine that Nako would be helpful in a situation like this..."

He sighed very softly. "You are not going to leave this alone are you?"

"I'm really not, Spock. Anyone else on this ship would be subject to medical, why isn't she?"

"I saw her last night for dinner. She is not in danger. She is going through something that she prefers to endure privately."

"I understand that. I do. And I don't care. I'm the CMO here. And she has been out for too long for me to accept that excuse any longer. I'm going to go see her. I'd prefer to do it with your blessing. But I'll do it without."

Spock stared at her. She stared right back. Finally he looked away. "You are at times a...pain, I think is the right word?"

She got up. "It is."

As she headed toward the door she heard him say. "You are also a fine first officer, Christine."

She laughed. "I just ask myself what you would have done."

"This is not what I would have done."

"No, knowing you, you'd go see her, then tell the Captain."

"At times it is better to ask forgiveness than permission." He almost smiled. "But not on this ship, of course."

"Of course not." She left him to his work and took the lift to deck two. She rang the chime for Nako's quarters and waited. She rang it again. "Computer, notify Ambassador Nako that I will override her privacy lock in thirty seconds."

The door opened a moment later. "You would try the patience of a saint, child," Nako said as she motioned Christine inside.

"You're not a saint, and I'm not a child, Nako." Christine watched as the older woman sat down heavily on a chair. "You're not well."

"I am not ill, if that is what you mean. My people are not the same as yours, Commander. We go through periods of strength and then those of weakness. Fortunately the times that we are not strong do not last long. And I am old and have weathered many of them. I know what to expect, and what I need to do to get through this."

"In other words, I should butt out. When was the last time you slept?"

"We don't sleep during this time."

"And that doesn't concern you?"

"Why should it?"

"No sleep, no dreams. No dreams, no REM. Humans can go insane without the outlet of a good dream every now and then."

"I am not human."

"So your people don't dream?"

"I did not say that, Commander."

"Sure you did. Just not directly."

"We dream. We dream worlds." Nako seemed very far away for a moment, then she gave a small snort of laughter. "See how fanciful you make me. We dream. But not at this time."

Christine walked over to the table where a large loom had been set up. A vivid red and orange fabric was coming together. It looked as perfectly fluid as the other clothing Nako wore. "Is this what you do then? Weave?"

"Do you like it?"

She fingered the fabric. It felt like silk. "I do."

"Perhaps I can make something for you? Something that the Colonel would like?"

Christine knew she was blushing. "You disapprove of him?"

Nako smiled. "On the contrary. He is of strong character and a good man."

"Yes. But we're not here to discuss him, Nako. I want to talk about you."

Nako pulled the loom toward her. Her hands worked the loom, slowly at first, then increasingly faster. The red and orange came together, seemed to fuse with a new, third thread that Christine was sure she hadn't seen in the mix. She leaned in to check.

"I make it."

"What?"

"The yellow. That's what you're looking for, isn't it? I make it, I make them all."

Christine realized that there was no visible source of all the yarn. "You make it how?"

Nako shrugged. "Ask the spider how she makes her web." She didn't look up from her loom. Her shoulders hunched as she threw the shuttle back and forth. As Christine watched her, Nako's image seemed to shimmer slightly.

She remembered Nako's comment to Redmoon when they had first met. "You called him grandson." Christine took a step back and suddenly felt dizzy. An old legend came to mind. "Ts'its'tsi'nako," she said, stumbling over Nako's cumbersome full name. "I thought it was alien."

"It is, my dear. What else would it be?" Nako looked up from the loom, her face was serene. "I will be fine in a few days. Will you let me be until then?"

"Alone in here? Spinning?"

Nako smiled. "Weaving, child. Weaving." She got up slowly and faced Christine. "Don't be afraid of me, Commander. I am nothing frightening. I'm just not quite what you thought."

"After the magic you worked on the high priest on Canara Seltax, I wasn't sure what you were anyway."

Nako reached out and touched her arm. The touch was warm and comforting, same as it ever was. "I am who I am." She squeezed Christine's arm, then turned back to her loom. "Now let me be."

I don't understand this, Christine thought as she walked out of Nako's room. And I may never understand this, she realized. She could still feel Nako's touch on her arm. She felt protected, as she always did when she talked to the woman. Maybe understanding wasn't necessary. Maybe only faith was.

-----------------------------

Penhallon was studying one of the pictures on the wall of the conference room when Troi arrived. Troi put his pads down then joined him. "Thinking of stealing it for your quarters?"

"God no!" Penhallon moved to the next painting. "I'm trying to figure out just what makes these paintings so universally bland and inoffensive without being boring."

"Seriously?"

"I had to do something while I was waiting. It's a rare day that I report in earlier than you."

Troi rubbed his eyes. "I didn't sleep well last night."

Penhallon stretched slowly. "That is why I recommend not sleeping alone, if you can help it. It's good for what ails you."

"I'll take that under consideration. Does it help with dreams though? Because I think I was having a nightmare." Troi frowned as he remembered snippets of the dream. He had been running then he was cornered by monsters that looked like the Pesadii. Only once they had cornered him they began to ask him questions, just as his thesis board had done. Only he was so busy staring at them in horror that he couldn't answer. He shuddered slightly. "I dreamed about the Pesadii. I felt like a teenager again yesterday, Stephen. Reacting to their looks the way I did."

Penhallon shrugged. "They are powerful ugly."

"You didn't react visibly."

"My friend, when you make it your practice to experience as much of the galaxy as I have, you get to see some pretty scary things."

"You mean the females."

"Female is not a universally defined term. I've seen some bizarre things in my time once the clothing comes off. Taught myself not to react to it, just to go ahead and see what happens."

"And it all worked out in the end because of your ability not to judge?"

"Well, mostly. One time I nearly lost a vital part of my anatomy. If you ever see teeth, Andrew, run like hell."

Troi laughed. "I'll remember that."

The door opened and Troi steeled himself not to react but it was only Kerr with the security detachment.

"Now there is a man who isn't getting much sleep," Penhallon said sotto voce. "I wonder what she's like?"

"I'm not going to speculate."

"You're a prude, Andrew. You know that?"

"I just think some things should be left alone."

Penhallon smiled smugly. "What you need is to settle down and start a family. You're long past your wild days. Hell, do you even remember your wild days?"

"At least I didn't take this assignment as a way to meet women."

"Neither did I." Penhallon laughed. "The women just keep showing up."

Troi tried not to smile, but as usual, found it impossible to stay mad at his friend. Any further conversation along this vein was halted by the appearance of Spock and Sovar.

"Good morning, gentlemen," Spock said graciously. "Our visitors will be here shortly." He looked mildly in Troi's direction. "We are all prepared for this?"

Troi smiled sheepishly.

Seemingly satisfied, Spock looked over at Kerr, waiting for him to finish briefing the three marine security guards before asking him, "I take it there were no incidents last night?"

"Nobody even left their quarters, sir." Kerr approached the table and handed Spock a pad. "This is the observation vid. No activity."

"Not even to the observation lounge?" Troi asked. "They didn't want to look at their planet from above?"

"Guess their viewscreens were good enough last night. But if they don't want out after this meeting, I for one will want to know why." It was clear how Kerr felt about long meetings.

Spock nodded. "As will I. Thank you, Colonel."

"Sir." Kerr left.

Troi found himself envying the man's confidence. He thought about Stephen's comment regarding Kerr and Chapel and also found himself envying the man's domestic arrangements. Maybe his friend was right. Maybe it was time to settle down.

The conference room door opened again and Cradash Lir led his delegation in. Sovar stood and indicated the chairs on his side of the table. Lir sat down and Troi noticed a small, almost anticipatory, smile as Lir watched the Pesadii came in. Rixx led them to the remaining chairs. Grrm sat down tentatively, then seemed to relax as the chair adjusted to his body contours. A small sigh escaped him then he looked at Spock.

"Most kind to make special arrangements for us," Rixx translated. "We appreciate it."

Spock nodded. "It is the least that we can do to facilitate this meeting."

"Whose side are you on, Captain?" Lir's deep voice boomed in the full room. "Looks like you've already made your decision regarding our case!"

"We merely wish for all to be comfortable in what will be undoubtedly long discussions. There have been no decisions made, I assure you." Spock faced down Lir, the smallest amount of censure showing on his face.

Lir stood up and slammed his hands on the table. The marine guard behind him looked ready to spring. "I think you have. And I think that this meeting isn't going to start today. We'll come back when we think we're getting a fair hearing and not before." Lir nodded to his team. "Come on."

One of the guards followed them out. In a few minutes she was back and said, "They went to Mr. Lir's quarters and engaged the privacy lock. They didn't say anything on the way up."

Spock looked at Grrm. "I cannot continue without them, it would not be fitting. We will have to adjourn until they are ready to return to the table."

"We understand. We will wait." And the Pesadii delegation rose and left the room, followed by the guard.

Troi looked at Spock. "Sir, if I may, that seemed scripted. Lir appeared to be waiting for an opportunity to blow."

Sovar raised an eyebrow. "How do you conclude that?"

Spock answered for him. "The look on this face. I saw it too, Commander."

Troi nodded. "But why? What does stalling get them?"

Penhallon frowned. "Unless they're planning something on the surface?"

Sovar looked concerned. "A massacre?"

"Possibly."

Spock hit the comm button. "Spock to Kerr."

"Kerr here, sir."

"The Tourmaxians have left the table. We believe they are stalling. We are unsure why but anticipate that it might be to allow something else to occur."

Kerr was right with him. "Something on the surface?"

"Precisely."

"I'm on it, sir."

"Excellent. Spock out." He looked at his staff. "Gentlemen, until they come back to the table we are back to business as usual. I'll let you know when that changes. Dismissed."

Troi followed the rest of the delegation out. He noticed Spock slowing down to talk to him. "Sir?"

"Did you have any luck getting to know the translator?"

Troi looked at him in surprise. "Excuse me, sir?"

"I did not send you with the Pesadii to punish you for your slight break in protocol, Commander. I sent you because I thought you would be able to forge common ground with the Betazoid. I have noticed your ease in making friends on this ship. I had hoped that this skill would work with him too."

Troi smiled. "It might have."

"I'm sure he is getting tired of those quarters, Commander. Betazoids are known for being extroverts. A tour of the ship perhaps?"

Troi nodded. "I'll ask him, sir, after my shift. I imagine he will be quite ready to get out by then."

---------------------

Kerr commed Major Collins as soon as he was out of the conference room.

"Sir?"

"We're going planetside. Get up a discreet detachment--recon at this point but ready for more--and meet me in the transporter room."

"Yes, sir."

Collins and a group of marines were waiting for him when he arrived, discreetly loaded for bear. Collins handed him his jacket, also loaded up with his gear, and a phaser. They stepped on the pad and beamed down to the outskirts of Tourmax's only city. It was filled with people.

"There's a Starfleet assessment team down here. We'll start with them." Kerr walked off in the direction his pad said the team's headquarters lay. As they passed the settlers, he studied their faces. Everyone looked sluggish, exhausted even. Like they hadn't slept in days. And Spock was right. It did look like something was up down here.

Collins asked quietly, "Where are the Pesadii, sir?"

Hiding? he wondered. "I don't know, Collins."

They reached the Starfleet offices and found only the team lead there. "Dr. Mobley? I'm Lieutenant Colonel Kerr. From the Carter."

"What's the problem, Colonel?"

"Have you noticed anything unusual? Any sign that the Tourmaxians might be planning a more permanent and speedier solution to their problem with the Pesadii?"

Mobley laughed. "More permanent? You mean genocide? I hardly think they'd dare do that when we're all here watching them. Although, I might not put it past them if they thought they could make it look like an accident."

"Are this many people usually on the streets?"

"It's a busy city. But something does seem off. That's where the rest of my team is. I sent them out to investigate as soon as I noticed."

"I think we'll do a little investigating too."

"Be my guest, Colonel. The more eyes the better. Now if you'll excuse me, I owe Starfleet an expense report." He rolled his eyes at the bureaucratic requirements of his job and Kerr smiled in sympathy.

Once back outside, Kerr and his team stood to the side of the building and watched the people. Some of them were nearly stumbling.

Collins leaned in. "Are they drunk, sir?"

Kerr shook his head. "No. Not drunk." He pulled out his communicator. "Kerr to Chapel."

Her answer was immediate. "Chapel here. How's it going down there?"

He wasn't surprised that she knew where he was and what he was doing. Not much got by her when she was in charge. "We're ok. But I need a medical opinion. Care to come down here and give us a hand?" He saw Collins fight a smile and glared at him.

"Love to. But we just started a diagnostic up here. Hold on."

He heard her page sickbay.

"Carpenter here, Commander."

"Colonel Kerr has a medical puzzle down on Tourmax. Care to give him a hand?"

"Delighted. I'll be right down."

"I'm transferring his coordinates to the transporter room, Chapel out."

He heard her talking to the transporter room then she came back on his line. "Colonel, Doctor Carpenter's on her way."

"Appreciate it, sir."

"Good luck. Chapel out."

A few moments later, Carpenter materialized in front of them. "Heard you needed a sawbones."

He grinned. "You heard right. What do you think of them?" He pointed with his chin toward the Tourmaxian that were passing them.

She watched them for a moment. "If I didn't know better, I'd say they were on something."

"But you know better? How?"

"They sure don't seem to be deriving any pleasure from the experience. Look at their faces."

The Tourmaxians did look grimly determined. To do what, Kerr wasn't sure. But she was right. This was no simple high.

She scanned the crowd with her tricorder. "Compared to the norms in the database for Tourmaxians, these people's hormone and neurotransmitter levels are all off."

"Off how?"

"Elevated. If I had to guess, I'd say they hadn't slept in days." Her eyes met his. "That's the best I can do from here. Let me beam back up and see what some additional analysis gets us."

"Of course. Thanks."

Carpenter nodded and called for a beam up. Once she was gone, Kerr led his team back down the street. "Let's look for any obvious gatherings. We still don't know what they're planning, if anything."

-------------------3---------------------------

Christine watched the results of the diagnostic come in and tried not to feel envious of Carpenter. She'd get Kerr all to herself this evening.

"Sir, communications diagnostic is finished. All systems performing at 98% or better efficiency."

The rest checked in with similar results.

"Looks like we might be here for a while with nothing but time on our hands. Let's try to get that rating to 100% or better."

"Yes, sir," they all responded and turned to their tasks.

She got up and walked around the bridge, watching them as they worked. She noticed Saldusta adjusting her torque and walked over. "Is that still bothering you?"

"It's fine, sir." But she didn't stop pulling at the instrument.

"Lieutenant Kavall, you have the conn. Lieutenant Saldusta, you're with me."

"Sir, I'm fine."

"Now, Lieutenant." She gestured for Saldusta to precede her to the lift. The woman did but her expression left no question as to her mood. As soon as the turbolift's doors closed, she turned on Christine. "You have no right. This is a personal issue that I can take care of myself."

"And if you had taken care of it yourself, I wouldn't be doing this."

"I will take care of it."

"When?"

Saldusta crossed her arms. "When I'm ready. I don't see you forcing the others down to sickbay for their own good."

"Well, you don't see everything that goes on in this ship. I have a right as CMO to make sure that everyone is functioning at peak medical condition. And since you are not, I'm taking action. Whether you know about the instances or not, Saldusta, I have exercised this right with other crewmember before."

"I don't need a mother."

Actually, thought Christine, that's exactly what you do need. But we both know that's not going to happen. "And I don't want to be your mother, Lieutenant." She turned away and faced the doors.

"I--"

"This discussion is over, Lieutenant." Christine did not turn to look at her although she could practically feel Saldusta's anger. The lift doors opened and she walked quickly to sickbay. She could hear Saldusta's boots hitting the floor behind her. "Take a seat," she directed the other woman.

Saldusta sat down and silently glared at Christine. Carpenter stepped out of her office in sickbay and asked, "I thought you were on the bridge?" Saldusta's angry stare didn't waver off of Christine's face. Christine turned to the other doctor and smiled. "Just going to fix her torque and then we'll be back up there."

"Fine." She watched as Christine checked several drawers. "The microtools that would work best for that are in the top right cabinet."

"Thanks," Christine said as Carpenter walked back into her office. She hadn't had much call to familiarize herself with sickbay. Especially not since Carpenter had rearranged it to her liking. She held her hand out to Saldusta, who reluctantly removed the humidifier. Her skin on her neck looked raw, rubbed in some places so much that it had blistered. Shaking her head in dismay, Christine grabbed a dermal regenerator from the counter and started to work on the wounded skin.

"There's no reason to walk around with something like this." The skin slowly healed under the light from the regenerator. She dug around in one of the drawers until she found the cream she wanted. "That tissue is still tender, even if it looks fine now. Put this on twice a day for the next few days."

"Fine." She held out her hand for the torque. "Can I go now?"

"No. I'm going to see if I can't fix this." She ran her finger around the torque, feeling for any rough spots. She kept her tone neutral as she asked, "What's eating you, Saldusta? You haven't been this rude since you reported."

"I'm fine."

"Uh huh." Christine located the sizing apparatus and used one of the small tools to extend the telescoping ring a few inches. She tried it around Saldusta's neck and saw that it was hitting too low on her neck. She made it a bit smaller and tried it again. Perfect. As she finished locking the setting into place she looked over at Saldusta. The woman's eyes were drooping. "Did you sleep well last night?"

Saldusta's eyes popped open. "Fine."

Christine pretended to make another adjustment to the torque as she surreptitiously studied Saldusta. The woman's normally vibrant scales seemed grayish. "Your color's off."

Saldusta looked away. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine. And you're cranky as hell. Now either you tell me what the matter is, or I leave you here with the doctors for a full medical workup."

"You can't do that."

Christine sighed. "I can. And I will. What is it about CMO that you don't get?"

Saldusta looked away, frustration coloring her face.

"Trust me, Saldusta," Christine said gently. "You did once."

When the woman finally spoke, Christine could barely hear her. "I dreamt of her."

"Of your mother?"

Saldusta nodded. "It wasn't a very nice dream."

"I'm sorry. Recurring dreams can be disturbing."

"But I don't usually remember anything I dream and this was so vivid. I can still see her."

Christine didn't know what to say.

"Can I go now, Commander?" Saldusta took the torque from Christine and left sickbay.

Carpenter walked up to her stool. "Still having troubles with that one?"

"Not so much. Something's wrong with her. I have trouble believing it's one bad dream."

"Well at least she's sleeping. We have a planet's worth of people that aren't. Come look at the scans I took."

Christine followed her into her office. She studied the overlapping readings that Carpenter had gathered. "GABA and serotonin levels are off the scale. Adenosine is way up too."

"I know. You should see these people, they are bumping into things, very lethargic. I'd say they are sleep deprived. But that doesn't mesh with this here." She pointed to another line on the scans. "Elevated levels of dopamine, which are consistent with arousal."

"You're right. That makes no sense." Christine scrolled through the other information. "None of this makes sense."

"I'd like to run some scans on our Tourmaxian guests, if you don't mind. See if their readings are consistent?"

"Fine but take it from the transporter reading. I don't want them finding another reason to walk out on the Captain."

Carpenter recalled the transporter scans and compared them to the ones from the rest of the Tourmaxians. "They are similar, but the levels are all much lower. More in the normal range." Carpenter looked up at her. "I'd really like to know where those levels are now."

Christine nodded. "As would I. If I can find a discreet way to get the scans, I'll bring them to you."

Carpenter handed her a very small instrument. "Use this. It's a whole lot less obvious."

Christine palmed the scanner. "Can you pull up the Pesadii readings, just for the hell of it?"

"Sure." A moment later the screen filled with four bizarre scans and one more consistent with human norms. "This is the Betazoid translator," Carpenter pointed to the familiar pattern. "The rest are Pesadii. I don't even know what to make of this."

Christine studied the chart. "This norepinephrine is high, as is the dopamine. If that's even what it is."

"At least the Betazoid is easy to read. Perfectly normal."

Christine sighed. She hit the comm. "Chapel to Kerr."

"Kerr here."

"We've analyzed the scans Dr. Carpenter took. I'm not sure we can tell you anything. Has there been any change in behavior?"

"Nope. Still a bunch of people wandering around, looking tired as hell. We did find out where the Pesadii are though. They're underground, quite a ways out of town. The assessment team said they never come out during the day. And, while they seem to be nocturnal, they really don't come out all that much at night either."

"They certainly do seem happy to stay in that one room. But Spock didn't say anything about them being nocturnal. We're running the meetings on a normal schedule here."

"Maybe they didn't want to rock the boat by requesting special hours?"

"Maybe. Let me know if you see anything new."

"Roger that. Kerr out."

Christine looked at the Pesadii scans. She had the feeling she was missing something. "Can you bring up the Tourmaxian's readings again?" Nothing. She knew she was missing something but it wasn't going to come to her this way. She fought a yawn.

"Not sleeping well?" Carpenter grinned. "Or not sleeping enough?" When Christine just stared at her, she rolled her eyes. "Ok, forget I asked."

"I will." Christine hurried out before Carpenter could say anything else. She had guessed right though. Christine wasn't getting enough sleep. She couldn't help smiling at the thought of what she was getting instead. She wouldn't trade her nights with Kerr for all the perfect slumbers in the world.

--------------------------

"It is your turn," Spock said gently.

"What? Oh right." Kettering looked at his cribbage hand. "Sorry I'm distracted.

"Not distracted enough. You have a sizeable lead. If you are not going to pay attention, you might at least have the grace to lose."

"In your dreams, Spock. I'm not about to give away a five game lead without a fight."

"I suppose not." Spock arranged his cards for a moment, then asked, "Why are you distracted?"

Kettering snorted. "Some genius at headquarters decided that all the chief engineers need to be recertified."

"You are one of the finest engineers I have worked with. You have no need for concern."

"Oh, I know the material. But I don't test well. I never have. I'm afraid I'll choke."

"Yet you managed to get through the Academy tests."

Kettering shuffled the cards and said, "That was different. I was used to it then. And to be honest, I didn't have the best test scores but my instructors knew me and understood that I knew the material. But now, they'll just be going by the test score. I'm really nervous."

"If you wish assistance in preparing, Ron, I could help you."

"I'd appreciate that," Kettering replied gratefully. If someone had told him that he would become friends with the most famous Vulcan in the fleet, he would have asked them what they were drinking. But over the years that he'd known Spock, their relationship had blossomed into a real friendship. Kettering couldn't remember the exact moment that Spock has started calling him 'Ron' in private. It had happened so gradually that it took Kettering a while to realize he could drop the Ambassador or the Captain, when they were off duty.

"Only two points to go and I count first. You think you can keep me from getting there?" Kettering taunted Spock good-naturedly.

"Probably not. But I will make the attempt."

"You always do."

"Someday you should play chess with me."

"You say that every time you lose, Spock. You just want a game where smarts count for more than luck."

"That would be a pleasant change."

Kettering laughed as he won the game. "That puts me six games ahead. Four more and you'll owe me dinner." It was a running joke between them. In the years that this impromptu tournament had been going, no one had ever held the lead past six games.

Kettering, rising to pour himself another drink, asked, "You want anything?" Spock surprised him with a request for Guinness. "Room temp?"

"Of course." Accepting the drink, Spock looked at Kettering thoughtfully. "You are as accomplished an engineer as Mr. Scott."

"I'll never be that good." Kettering took a sip of his beer and frowned. "He could look at a problem and just know what was going on. It was like he didn't have to even open the damn console."

"I have seen you do the same. You just aren't aware of it."

Kettering thought about that. "Maybe. But if I'm that good, why don't I feel it?"

"We rarely judge ourselves the same way we judge others."

"I suppose. But you have no idea what it's like to always have this unattainable person in front of you. Someone that you are trying to emulate while at the same time you know you'll never be good enough. For you. Or for them."

Spock smiled very slightly. "I have a very good idea of what that's like. I have told you that my father and I are somewhat estranged? It is in large part because of the choices I have made in life and his disapproval of them."

"You had the right to chart your own path."

"Tell that to my father." Spock picked up his glass and studied the dark brown liquid. "Tell that to my schoolmates when I was young. I know all too well what it feels like to be judged inferior." He stared deep into the stout and then looked up at Kettering, his expression lightening. "I also know what it is like to prosper despite this. You will too."

Kettering smiled. He held his glass out. "To success." When Spock held out his own glass, Ron tapped it gently. "But you'll help me study?"

"I will."

"Thanks." They drank in silence for a while. Then he looked up at Spock slyly. "You think I can finally make it seven?"

"There are always possibilities, Commander," Spock said, indicating Kettering should deal the cards out again.

-----------------------------------------

"Mr. Rixx? It's Lieutenant Commander Troi."

"Hello!" The Betazoid looked overjoyed to hear from him, just as Spock had supposed. Troi was again impressed with the Vulcan's insight into other cultures and their motivations. Troi was supposed to be an expert on that, yet he was constantly learning from Spock. Just another reason to be glad that he got this posting.

"I was going off shift and thought you might want company for dinner?"

"So we could talk?"

"Exactly." Troi grinned. "I can throw in a tour of the ship if you're interested."

"Just get me out of these rooms and I'll even pretend to be interested in antimatter engines." Rixx laughed.

"Fine, I'll be by shortly."

Troi finished up the last of the things he wanted to get through and, saying goodnight to his staff, walked to Rixx's quarters. The Betazoid was ready to go--he'd obviously been standing by the door waiting. He grinned, "Sorry, I just was going a little stir crazy."

"Not a problem. It's why I called," Troi said with a smile as he led him first to the VIP observation lounge. He was surprised to see the Tourmaxians inside. He'd assumed after their walk out that they would keep to themselves. They were drinking and laughing about something, but their conversation ceased the minute they saw Troi and Rixx.

"Sorry to disturb you," Troi said politely.

"Compared to some other things we could name, you aren't disturbing at all," Lir said. The other members laughed again. Troi wished he were in on the joke.

"Hey Mr. Translator, how do you like being so close to them? Guess you can block them out sometimes, huh?" Lir was definitely drunk.

Rixx looked very uncomfortable. "Any good telepath can block."

"Fortunate for you," one of the women yelled. Her colleagues looked amused and angry at the same time.

Troi took a step forward. "If you know something that would help us understand the Pesadii better, why don't you tell the captain?"

Lir smirked. "Oh, your captain'll find out soon enough, I imagine. Maybe even first hand."

Troi felt his patience snap. "If you think you're being clever, you're not. If you think you're hiding that you know something, you're failing dismally. I may not know what it is, but I know that you're hiding something."

Lir just raised his glass at Troi and laughed again.

Rixx touched his arm. "Let's go, Commander."

Troi let himself be guided out of the lounge. "They make me so mad."

"They have an agenda."

"What about you, Mr. Rixx? What's your damn agenda? I know you know something, just like I know they know something, I'll just be damned if I know what that something is." He pulled away. "That sentence made no sense."

"Actually it did. And I'd tell you if I could. But I can't."

Troi looked at Rixx. The man's eyes were haunted. "What is it?"

"I wish I could say. But I can't, I gave my word."

Troi took a deep breath. He wasn't sure why he felt so off balance. He let his breath out slowly, seeking a calmer place. "Let's continue the tour then."

"Fine, Commander."

"Call me Andrew."

Rixx smiled. "And I'm Gallen. Mr. Rixx is my father."

Troi nodded. He showed Rixx the normal tour spots, then took him to the greenhouse area. As soon as he had keyed in the pass code and motioned Rixx in, the smell of flowers and other growing things hit him. He took a deep breath of the warm air and let it out slowly, feeling himself relax finally starting to relax.

Rixx had already stepped deeper into the space. Troi allowed him to lead them from room to room, stopping here and there to smell an unusual bloom.

"This is so beautiful. Flowers from every world blooming along side each other peacefully. If only people could do the same."

Troi laughed. "Well, we have left out all the carnivorous plants, the poisonous flowers, the creepers that tend to strangle other root systems, the succulents that hoard all the water and cause the plants around them to die..."

"Okay, okay. I get the picture." Rixx laughed as he bent to smell a rose. His smile was serene as he looked up at Troi. "This is the loveliest smell. It reminds me of England."

"You were in England?"

"I told you. I've been around." Rixx walked to another rose, a deep coral. He touched it gently. "My betrothed colors her lips this shade."

"She sounds lovely."

"She is." Rixx looked at Troi. "If it were just Larissa that waited for me, I'd go back to Betazed without hesitation. I love her."

"If you love her, what else matters?"

"Spoken like a man who hasn't fallen in love yet." Rixx smiled gently. "You'll find that while love can make you feel wonderful, it can't fix everything. What's inside us is still there."

"I suppose so." Troi sat down on the grass. "I would like to fall in love. I've even tried a couple of times. But it never felt real."

Rixx joined him. "Probably wasn't. Once it hits you, you'll never mistake anything else for it again. But until it does come, it's easy to imagine that what you are feeling is it. Oh, but it's wonderful. To know someone, really know them. To finally feel the way you always knew it was possible to feel."

"So what's keeping you out here in space?"

"My family." Rixx tore up a few blades of grass, then looked guilty. "I'm probably not supposed to do that, am I?"

Troi shrugged. "I won't tell, if you won't."

Rixx smiled and looked down. "My family is sort of a big deal on Betazed. Kind of a form of royalty."

"Really?" Troi laughed. "I didn't realize I was giving a V-VIP tour."

"I said they are, not me, not out here. I'm just a translator. I wanted a chance to live like a normal person before I took up the challenge of the Fifth House."

"Fifth?"

"As in there are four ahead of it. Funny how that title isn't flaunted the same way when we're among members of those houses." Rixx tore up another large hunk of grass. "I'm not saying that we don't have a responsibility to the people, but there is more to life than just spouting off about the chalice of Rixx and the holy rings or attending royal functions." He turned to Troi, his expression desperate. "There has to be."

"Looks like you're seeing to that. Whenever you do go back, it won't be just a prince that returns. Look at the good you've done as a diplomatic translator, the experiences you'll take home with you. Who knows, Gallen, maybe diplomacy will become a Rixx family tradition because of your little detour?"

Rixx smiled. "Then the Fifth House would mean something again."

"And the chalice would shine," Troi added.

"The chalice can't shine. It's a misshapen wooden drinking cup that has been in the family for centuries. Supposedly the first ruler of Betazed drank out of it when she visited our family."

"Do you think that's true?"

"No more than she ate off the sacred platter of the Fourth House or used the sacred cutlery of the Third House. And sure we're the heirs to the holy rings of Betazed...if about twenty people die childless." Rixx grimaced. "My people are really good at pomp. If it isn't there, they'll make it up."

"But if you are all telepathic, surely everyone knows what is true and what isn't."

"Well there are protocols for how far into someone's mind you should go depending on the circumstance. And I wasn't kidding about being able to shield. We learn that in defense, if only from prying siblings." His face fell.

"Gallen?"

"I had a younger brother. Lwaxen. He died when I was five. He was sick for a long time. I learned how to shield even more so I wouldn't feel his pain. And so he wouldn't know how scared I was for him when I was trying to cheer him up."

Troi touched Rixx's arm. "I'm sorry. I do understand a bit of what you went through. I lost my grandfather to disease. He was like a father to me."

"What was his name?"

"Ian. If I had a son, I'd name him that. Just seems the right thing to do, to honor my grandfather."

Rixx's voice was very soft. "I'll name my son Lwaxen."

Troi nodded.

Rixx smiled. "Now if it's a girl, I guess I'll have to get creative. Lwaxine maybe."

Troi laughed. "Sounds like a chemical byproduct."

"You're right. It needs work. Oh well." Rixx stood up. "I'm starving. How about you?"

"Let me introduce you to the mess hall." Troi ran his foot over the grass where Rixx had been sitting. "Don't want to leave any evidence. You haven't seen scary until you've pissed off a starship gardener err botanist."

Rixx laughed. "I don't know. I bet the groundskeeper for the Fifth House could give you a run for your money."

"Keep your credits. I believe you." With a last look for bald spots in the grass, Troi led Rixx to dinner.

---------4--------------

It was murky gray and very cold. This wasn't what Qamaljr felt like. Where was she? Saldusta swam frantically, trying to get her bearings.

"Pathetic," a voice sounded behind her.

"Mother?" She flipped gracelessly and tangled herself in a long strand of sea grass.

Her mother hung motionless in the water. Her scales were molting off of her slowly.

"Mother!"

"I'm dead, Saldusta. Can't you let me rest? Why do you keep calling me back?"

"I don't."

"Why else would I be here? Do you think I'd come to see you just for the fun of it?" The eyes in the corpse moved slowly to fix Saldusta with a cold glare.

She shivered as their eyes met. "I didn't call you."

"Isn't this what you wanted? Me all to yourself? Well here I am, girl. I can be the mother you wanted. The one who had no life of her own. I don't know how you made it at all on Qamaljr. What you want is not our way. What you are is not what we are. You don't belong here."

Suddenly Saldusta found herself on land. She began to cough. A hand held out her torque. "Here, I fixed it for you. Again."

"Commander?"

Chapel turned and walked away. "You really need to grow up. No one cares about you and your little problems."

"Wait. I don't belong here."

Chapel turned and Saldusta saw her mother's lifeless face superimposed on the Commander's. Stringy hair floated in the slight breeze as if underwater. "You don't belong anywhere, Saldusta. You should never have been born."

"No!" Saldusta sat up in bed. The torque softly blasted mist at her. "No," she said as she began to cry. "Not again. Please not again." She was so tired. But she forced herself to get up and dress for the pool. She rubbed her eyes and took off the torque. She had three hours to go until she was due on duty. She'd spend them swimming, or maybe studying the lastest protocols from Starfleet. Anything but have that dream again.

---------------------------

Troi heard laughter and turned over in his bed. "Hi," said a small voice.

He sat up. "Hi." The room was completely unfamiliar. As was the small black-haired girl staring at him with intense black eyes. "Who are you?"

"I'm your granddaughter. Don't you remember?"

"I don't." Rubbing his had through his hair, he looked at the young girl. She had changed, her hair was blonde now and she was older. "Who are you?"

"No one remembers me."

He reached for her but she skipped out of the way laughing.

"I love you, grandpa." She ran out of the room.

Troi got out of bed and followed her. He walked out into the living room of a large manor house. An elegant gray-haired woman got up and gave him a cheek on the kiss. "Darling, I was so afraid you'd miss us again."

"Miss you?"

"Yes. We can't wait forever you know. There are only so many opportunities to find us."

"Find you?" He felt very stupid.

"Or else you'll be alone." Suddenly everyone disappeared and he was alone in the room. Then he heard the echo of a child's laugh. Trying to follow the sound, he turned and saw Penhallon sprawled on a sofa.

"Stephen?"

Penhallon rose and shrugged his shoulders. "I told you that you were the kind to settle down. But you ignored me. Now it's too late."

"No, it can't be."

"You're alone, Andrew. You'll always be alone."

"No!" Troi woke up with a start. He sat up gingerly and realized he was in his own bed again. The dream came rolling back over him. He got out of bed quickly and went to the replicator. "Coffee, black. Hot." When it came, he sipped it and took out a novel he was reading. There would be no more sleeping tonight.

--------------------------------

"So, you think you're as good as me, do you lad?"

Kettering turned to see Commander Scott standing before him. "Sir. I'm so glad to see you. I've got this problem. They want me to take a test."

Scotty shook his head. "You've got more problems than just some test, Ronald. You've got an engine about to overload."

Kettering turned and realized he was in engineering. Every monitor around the warp core was flashing and a klaxon was blaring in the background.

"Warp core breach in thirty seconds," the computer offered helpfully.

"What do I do?"

Scotty waved his finger at him. "You know I can't help you when you're in the middle of the test. Really, lad." He crossed his arms over his chest, staring at Kettering with a disappointed look.

"But I don't know what to do. I don't know what happened. You can't just test like this. It isn't fair. There's not enough time to figure out what caused this."

"Everyone else figured it out." Scotty pointed to a group of other engineers. They were all laughing at Kettering, pointing at him.

"It's not fair."

"You want to be me like me, boy? Nothing is fair then. Nothing. Now fix that warp core on the double."

"Warp core breach in five seconds."

"I don't know what to do," Kettering moaned as he jerked awake. Oh god, he was going to fail this test. He just knew it. Dragging himself out of bed, he sat down at the table and started studying again.

-------------------------------

"Spock? Why won't you help me, Spock?"

"Jim?"

"Spock. I'm not dead. You know I'm not dead."

"Jim." Spock tried to see through the fog. Kirk's voice lay straight ahead. He started walking.

"Not that way. Don't you know where I am?"

He stopped, searched the unending gray for some sign of his friend. "Jim, I am here."

"But where am I, Spock? Where the hell am I?" Kirk's voice grew frustrated. "You sit there, on your brand new ship but you're not even looking for me, are you?"

Spock felt his own agitation level rise, tried to reach for the calm within. "I did not know that I was supposed to, Captain."

"Spock, it's Jim. Don't you remember?"

"Yes, I remember. Jim, you are dead."

"I don't think I am."

"Yes, you are. You are here because I have not let you go."

Kirk laughed, the sound echoing in the fog. "So it's all up to you?"

"I believe so. You are a construct of my subconscious mind. I see you because I have not fully dealt with your death."

"Bull, Spock. You see me because I'm asking you to come find me and you aren't even listening."

"You are dead. I mourn your loss, but I must move on."

"Spock, dammit, I'm holding on but it's getting harder. It's so much easier to just drift. Then I forget where I'm supposed to be. Help me!"

Spock tried to ignore his pleas. "I understand this. You are a representation of the pain I have felt...still feel. But as I grow accustomed to your absence, you deconstruct. It is logical."

"Forget logic. I don't want to deconstruct. I'm here. I want to stay here."

"You are often here. I have dreamed you before."

"No!" Kirk's anger was nearly palpable. "You're not listening. I need your help. Find me, Spock. Find me before it's too late."

"You are not real. I cannot continue this. I will not-" Spock sat up in bed, fighting for mastery. The dream had been so real. Jim had seemed so real this time. What if he wasn't dead?

Spock tried to still his churning thoughts. This was not logical. Jim was dead. He was not trapped somewhere between life and death. For to be so was what Spock both feared and wanted more than anything else. If he thought his friend were really alive, he would give up the Carter and spend the rest of his life trying to find him. But that was exactly what he must not do. Jim was dead. Spock's life must go on.

He could find no fault with his logic, but his mind would not settle. He rose and pulled on a robe. He felt an unaccustomed need for company. He needed to talk to someone who knew Kirk. He looked at the chrono. She would still be up if she were keeping to her normal schedule. "Spock to Commander Chapel."

She was long in answering and he feared he had disturbed her sleep but when she finally answered she seemed wide-awake. "Chapel here. Is there a problem, Spock?"

"I...," he suddenly did not know what he wanted. "Would you care for some company, Christine?"

There was a significant pause.

"If this is a bad time?"

Her voice was gentle, "I sort of have company."

Spock had a sudden uncomfortable picture of her and Colonel Kerr and what he might have interrupted. "I apologize, Commander. I should not have called so late."

"Spock, is something wrong?"

"It is nothing."

"You don't call at this time of night over nothing."

"I believe I did."

"Can you let me decide that?"

He recognized the medical officer in her tone. "I had a dream. It is illogical to let it disturb me."

"A nightmare?"

"Vulcans do not have nightmares.

"Humans do. Did you?"

He decided not to lie. "Yes."

"We'll be right over."

"You will?"

Her voice was resolved as she said, "We will." The communicator went dead and Spock felt illogically relieved that his CMO seemed to view this as important enough to come over.

You are dead, he thought of the lingering memory of Kirk's voice. You are dead and I must let you go.

--------------------------------------

Kerr handed Christine her shirt. "Is it true he doesn't dream?"

She shrugged. "I don't know for sure."

"So you've never been in a position to know how he sleeps?"

She shot him a sidelong look. "Well, actually he was in sickbay unconscious enough times for me to get a pretty good idea of how he sleeps...but that still doesn't give me any insight into his dreams or lack thereof."

"I get really stupid about you and him sometimes, don't I?"

She nodded.

"You don't have to agree."

"Sure I do. That's why you like me." She smoothed his hair off his forehead, couldn't resist following the touch with a kiss. "Earlier, when I was in sickbay with Saldusta, she complained about a dream she'd had."

"There's no such thing as a coincidence in my line of work. Especially not when we've got a planet of people that look like they haven't slept in a week." He reached for his communicator. "Kerr to Major Collins."

The response was impressively quick. "Collins, here."

"Have you had any nightmares?"

"Sir?"

"Bad dreams, Collins. Have you had any in the last few days?"

"No, sir."

"Find out if anyone else has, will you? It's urgent."

"Yes, sir."

Kerr smiled grimly. "No marine is going to willingly admit to having nightmares. But if any of them are, Collins will find out. We should know shortly."

Christine led him across the hall to Spock's quarters. He answered their chime at once. There was an uncomfortable moment as Spock seemed to study Kerr. She felt herself beginning to bristle-this was not a choice she intended to defend to him.

Kerr's communicator broke the tension. He reached for it. "Go ahead."

"Sir, five marines report vivid nightmares. They seem unusually shook up."

He turned to her. "Do you want them to go to sickbay?"

She nodded.

"Have them report to the docs at once. We need to run some tests."

Christine woke Carpenter next. "I've got five marines on their way down to sickbay and I bet they'll have scans worth looking at."

"I'm on my way," the other doctor answered through a yawn. "I'm glad you called. I was having the worst dream."

"You're not the only one," Christine said.

Spock waited until she signed off to ask, "Shall I report there as well, Commander?"

She shook her head as she pulled out her medical tricorder. "If I know you, you've had a chance to meditate most of the effects away."

"Your arrival was not as alacritous as predicted."

Kerr nodded, "That was my fault." He seemed to realize how that sounded and hurried to continue, "Commander Chapel mentioned hearing a crew member complaining about nightmares. Given what we'd seen down on the planet, I wanted to check with my exec to see if anyone in the unit had similar problems."

"I take it you two have not had any nightmares."

Christine's eyes met Kerr's; his expression was as guilty as hers.

"But then one would need to have slept to have a nightmare." Spock's continued smoothly. "I understand."

Christine felt a small sting of resentment. She didn't have to justify this to him. It wasn't as if she and Randall had been sneaking around behind his back. She pushed the feeling away. They didn't have time for this.

"So it's definitely a nightmare?" Kerr walked over to the replicator, then he looked at Spock. "Looks like it's going to be a long night, who else wants a raktajino?"

Spock demurred, but Christine nodded gratefully. He brought the drink over as she called sickbay. The marines were just reporting in.

"Let me speak to one of them, will you?"

Another voice sounded. "Sir, you wanted to talk to me?"

"What's your name?"

"Corporal Ryndwyck, sir."

Kerr mouthed, "New."

She nodded understanding. "It's Commander Chapel. I don't think we've met formally, Corporal. Welcome aboard. Can you tell me about the dream?"

"Uh, it's rather personal."

"Well, compared to other dreams you've had, how would this compare."

The marine didn't hesitate. "It was the worst I've ever had, sir." Her voice was shaken.

"Are you prone to bad dreams?"

"Sir, no sir."

"Corporal, I realize that as a marine on this ship you are in top physical and psychological form. I'm not contesting that. Do you have bad dreams?"

"Sometimes, sir. But never like this."

Christine decided not to press her. "Go get checked out, Corporal."

"Yes, sir."

She turned to the others. "Something is going on here and I intend to get to the bottom of it."

"I read your report, Colonel. An entire population that appears to be sleep-deprived, and now some of us are experiencing nightmares." Spock nodded thoughtfully. "I do not think it is coincidental that these nightmares are starting so soon after our guests have arrived."

They shared a look of perfect understanding. "I don't think so either," she said as she turned to go. "I'm going to sickbay. I want to check out some scans"

Kerr followed her. "I have some marines to debrief."

She looked at him in query.

"Ryndwyck has been having some trouble settling in. I want to make sure this isn't just due to stress."

Christine looked at Spock. "You've been under some stress ever since Jim died."

For once he didn't try to hedge but simply agreed, "I have."

"And Saldusta is a ball of stress. Maybe that's the connection on who is having the nightmares. But I still want to know what's causing them."

As she and Kerr walked to the door, Spock sat down at his computer. She turned back to look at him and smiled at the familiar sight of him hunched over his monitor. It was a relief to know that some things never changed.

-------------------------------

Troi bumped into the door frame of the conference room, splashing coffee on his uniform. "Damn," he murmured.

"Commander Troi?" Sovar rose at once. "Are you all right?"

"Of course," he answered irritably. "Why wouldn't I be?"

He was surprised to see Commander Chapel at the table, even more surprised when she got up and scanned him. "Bad dreams?" she asked quietly after she glanced at the results.

"You are a master of understatement, Commander." He took a seat next to Sovar, nodding at the others at the table.

The Tourmaxian delegation appeared at the door. Lir took his seat then looked around at his hosts. "Slept well, did you?"

Spock fixed him with an intense look. "That is what we'd like to talk to you about."

"Where are the Pesadii?"

"They'll join us a little later."

"I thought we couldn't start if both parties weren't here?"

Sovar glanced at Spock before answering smoothly, "We're not starting, sir. We're just collecting data."

"Well, collect away. I'll tell you anything you want to hear."

"That wasn't your story before," Troi pointed out. "You haven't seemed to be exactly generous with the information." He sipped his coffee, hoping the caffeine would perk him up.

Lir shook his head. "Doesn't work. You need something stronger."

Chapel took out the scanner Carpenter had given her and, keeping it out of sight underneath the table, scanned Lir and his party. Their readings were even more elevated than those from the people on the planet. She looked up. "So that's why the dopamine levels were so high. You've been taking stimulants to stay awake. But you can't survive that way. You'll burn out."

"We don't plan to live without sleep. But you're only here for a short time and we wanted you to get the full treatment so you'd understand what we've had to live with. We decided to deprive those bastards of their food for a while in the hopes that they'd turn to you. Looks like it worked."

Lir sat back in his chair. "Imagine how it was for us. Tourmax was a paradise. It was far more hospitable than the old Tourmax had ever been. We were happy. We were productive. We built our city and made it beautiful. And then the nightmares started. Just little ones. Mostly in those who had been undergoing stress for some reason. But pretty soon it was nearly all of us. Night after night. The worst nightmares we'd ever had. If we slept through them we were drained in the morning. Or we could not sleep and be exhausted from that. Either way we were sleep deprived. Take a look at the accident rate." He handed a pad over.

Spock looked at it. "The increase is most profound."

"That's a nice way to put it, Captain. Profound. People died because these monsters were feeding off our dreams. Were controlling our dreams. Making us have nightmares every night. But we didn't know that. Not at first."

"Nobody saw them. They're nocturnal," Chapel offered. "You didn't know there was someone behind this."

"Sure didn't. Not till we saw our first Pesadii. Then we understood. Then we knew what we had to do."

Troi looked down. "You began to hunt them."

"Can you blame us? Could you live like this every day of the rest of your life?" He turned to Spock. "Could you?"

"I do not know." Spock scrolled through the pad. "Hundreds institutionalized."

"That was the worst part. People would just crack. One minute they seem okay, and the next they're gone. We have to keep them on meds to keep them calm, but the meds make them sleepy. And then they dream all the time. They don't get any break from those fiends. And they can make the dreams worse. Make them the most awful dreams you've ever had." Lir slammed his hands down on the table. "Let's hear their side, Captain. I'd really like to know how they will justify what they've done."

Sovar looked at him. "They will not have to justify what they've done. It was their planet first."

Spock nodded. "The best we can hope for is a way for your two peoples to coexist peacefully, without harm to each other."

"Yeah, good luck with that." Lir shook his head.

Spock looked at one of the guards. "Please bring in the Pesadii."

She nodded and hurried out. A few minutes later, she led the delegation in. Once they were settled, Spock looked at Grrm. "You did not see fit to mention that you feed off of dreams."

"You did not ask," Rixx translated. "The discussions could not begin until the Tourmaxians sat back down with us. There was no good time."

"Is it the only way you can feed?"

Grrm seemed to move uncomfortably. Rixx listened for a long time then replied, "The planet has been empty for hundreds of years. We do not originate here. We were moving across the galaxy with others from our planet when we were attacked. All the ships were destroyed except our vessel. It crashed on what these people now call Tourmax. But it was a long time ago. We have been there for thousands of years, stranded on this world on which we could barely live. There were only the most rudimentary animals. They did not provide sustenance. They did not dream the way we needed. We became weaker and weaker. Finally we slept. We do not sleep, Captain, ever. But we slept. And we grew weaker even as we slept."

"So you did not register on the Federation scans."

"That is so. Then the Tourmaxians came. Their life force woke us. Their emotions called to us. Their dreams sustained us. We grew strong. Then we could make the dreams stronger and we could grow. In time, some split off into new life. More of us to live. To eat. We could all live now. There was plenty of food. All could eat. All could thrive. It was good."

"It was not good!" Lir shouted. "Those dreams, those emotions don't belong to you."

"We do not understand that concept...belong. We belong to each other. We belong to the planet. Your dreams are there, we can touch them. If we can touch them, we can have them."

"They aren't yours to have!" one of the Tourmaxian women said fiercely. She turned to Lir. "You heard him. They aren't even native. That changes everything."

Spock turned to Grrm. "I'm afraid it does change everything. Unless you misspoke."

"I never misspeak," Rix relayed. "We are not native but this is our world now too."

"Not if all you do is bring harm," Lir taunted. "If you don't want us hunting you down, I'm sure Starfleet can find a nice post-cataclysmic world for you to live on."

"We will not move. We need to be near food. We wish to be safe. We have a right to survive."

Spock held up his hand. "No one is saying yet what either of you will have to do. We will work through this. Talking is beneficial and will allow us to unearth facts as opposed to emotion. We may find an alternative there among the facts. I suggest we go through the list of grievances." He turned to Lir. "Why don't you go first?"

Troi took another sip of coffee. It was going to be a long day.

--------------5------------------

Their first real meeting with the Tourmaxians and Pesadii had gone very long. Christine was just settling in at her desk when the chime sounded. "Come."

Penhallon walked in. "Commander, I'm sorry to bother you."

"Not at all. What can I do for you?"

"I think there is something that I can do for you."

Christine could feel her eyebrows rising. "Really?"

"What I'm going to say is a little unorthodox. But hear me out." Penhallon sat down across from her. "We were both in that room today. We both heard what was said. And it's clear that there is no easy solution. Or at least not one that most of the people in that room will think of."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning, I think I know the answer."

"You do? Well, if that's true, go tell the Captain. I'm sure he'll be thrilled."

Penhallon looked down. "It's the kind of solution we need to test beforehand. It may sound a bit...outlandish."

Christine tried not to sigh in impatience.

"They are feeding off of our nightmares, right? And they regularly feed off the Tourmaxians?"

"Feeding and possibly psychically enhancing the nightmares in order to get an even more intense rush."

"Yes, well, it's about that rush...I think there is another way to get it. A way that the Tourmaxians might not find so offensive."

"I'm not following you."

Penhallon smiled. "The Pesadii are like little children at a sleepover."

Christine felt the familiar annoyance she always did when she had to deal with Penhallon. Could he never just get to the point? She didn't try to hide her impatience when she said, "And?"

"And what did you do at a sleepover?"

"I slept. Over. Really, Commander, I don't have time for this."

Suddenly his fist came down hard on her desk. "Yes, dammit, you do. Now hear me out. And help me out. What did you do at a sleepover?"

She held up her hands. "It was a long time ago." At his look she tried to think back. "We did each other's hair. And we played spin the bottle. And we told scary--" Her eyes met his.

"Exactly. You told scary stories. Why?"

"Because it was a rush."

"Yes. Because it was a rush. Being scared was a huge rush. As we got older we watched scary vids and we rode on thrill rides in the amusement park all to get that wonderful feeling being afraid gave us. And then later, we wanted that feeling to continue. Tell me, Commander. Would you say there is an activity that gives you a bigger rush than being scared did?"

She blushed.

"Yes. Exactly. And both of us are having that rush rather frequently these days, wouldn't you say?"

"That's really none of your business."

"It is in this case. You've been free of nightmares too. We all have."

"We all? We all who?"

"I've been doing some discreet snooping. Lt. Kavall and Dr. Redmoon. Farrell and Ritsuko. My various partners and I. None of us have had the nightmares. You and the Colonel can say that too, can't you?"

She nodded.

"I think that sex protected us, worked off our stress, and some chemical that goes along with the act staved off the dreams enough to prevent the Pesadii from getting control of our sleep."

She nodded. "That would make sense. Dopamine can inhibit REM in the initial stages of sleep, which is when REM normally happens. So by the time we got around to dreaming..."

"The Pesadii weren't looking anymore," he finished for her.

"But the Pesadii would figure it out, they'd adjust. Those having sex would be at risk eventually."

"You're being too logical and missing my point, which is that we go to the Pesadii and tell them about sex. Just think, Commander, you and I tell an entire race about the birds and the bees. Once they taste the rush sex can give, I guarantee they'll stop looking for scary stories. Plus, if their observation enhances the experience the same way it does the nightmares...?"

She thought about that for a second. Then asked, "And if you're wrong?"

"That's why it's just you and I that go. I think we can trust the Betazoid. Andrew speaks highly of him. And I have a feeling the Pesadii aren't going to tell anyone, given their natural reticence." He looked at her hopefully. "Come on, Commander. If it doesn't work, Captain Spock will never have to know. He can keep looking for his diplomatic solution."

"And if it does work. Are you going to tell him that we despoiled an entire race?"

"Hell, no. It'll be our little secret. I'm sure the Pesadii can think of a way to break it to him."

Her mind was already roaring along the same track as his. "The ship was very confined. They felt new sensations and followed them to the source."

"That would work."

"Let's do it now. Before I lose my nerve." She rose. "I guess I don't need to ask if you'll find yourself a partner for the evening?"

He grinned at her. "You're right, you don't need to ask. But it's nice that you're concerned for me. Would you have volunteered?"

"In your dreams."

"Or not. That's quite the point, isn't it?"

She tried not to laugh as she stood up and walked to the door. Just as they reached it, she turned so quickly that he nearly walked into her. She put her hand up to stop his momentum and forced her expression into a scowl. "For the record, I resent it like hell that it's you who came up with this, and it isn't going to change how I feel about you."

He put his hand on his heart and made a face as if to say her statement touched him.

Again she had to fight back laugher. "Go to hell."

"Only if you'll come with me, Christine."

"That's Commander Chapel to you, Penhallon."

"If you insist. But I really feel this is going to bring us closer."

"Oh, shut up."

"Very well, dear." He followed her out onto the bridge.

As they entered the lift, Christine nearly forgot to assign someone to be in charge. "Sabuti, you have the conn," she called out as the doors were closing.

The trip to deck two seemed to take forever. Rixx was just coming out of his quarters when they left the lift. "Is there a problem, Commanders?"

Christine tried to give him a nonchalant smile. "We think there's a solution for your clients. If you'll help us talk to them?"

Rixx nodded and was silent for a moment. Then the Pesadii's door opened and Grrm stood looking down on her.

She tried not to gulp at his appearance. "Tell them we think we have an answer to their problem."

Grrm motioned them all in. Christine nodded to the other Pesadii, grateful that the lights were turned down low.

"I am interested in hearing your proposal," Rixx relayed.

For a moment, Christine was at a loss as to how to begin. Finally she looked at Rixx. "Do they know about sex?"

His eyes got very wide. "What?"

"Sex. Do they reproduce that way? We have no data on them, Mr. Rixx."

Rixx was silent for a moment, then he shook his head. "They do not understand the concept."

Christine turned to Penhallon. "I want you to think of the best sex you've ever had. Think only of that."

He smirked at her and closed his eyes.

"Tell them to focus on our thoughts. Ask them what they feel?"

She thought of her nights with Kerr. Of the different ways they had found to join their bodies and bring each other pleasure.

"Oh my," Rixx said.

She looked at him. "Is that you or Grrm saying that?"

"Well, all of us actually." Rixx pointed at Penhallon. "Did you know he's thinking of sex with you?"

She slugged Penhallon in the arm. "Knock it off!"

He grinned unrepentantly. "You said the best I've ever had. I should think it would be a compliment that I imagined it with you."

"It's not. Don't do it again." She turned back to Rixx. "So?"

"We are intrigued." Rixx moved closer. "Why don't you tell us what you had in mind?"

--------------------------------

Kerr poured himself a drink and wondered where Christine was. He rubbed his eyes and tried to hide a yawn. He could remember many a mission where he'd had to go without sleep for extended periods, but he really had no excuse now. He knew Christine was just as tired as he was. They'd both been burning the candle at both ends; maybe tonight they should just eat and sleep and hope for no nightmares from the Pesadii. His door chimed and he said, "It's open."

"Sorry, I'm late. A last-minute meeting came up." She seemed flustered. And she didn't look him in the eye.

Old jealousies reasserted themselves. "With Spock?"

She looked up in surprise. "No."

"You could tell me if it was." He took a long sip of his whisky.

"Randall, I would tell you if it was." She looked away again.

"I'm not so sure." He put his drink down and walked over to her. "Look me in the eye and tell me where you were." When she didn't, he gently tilted her chin up until she was looking at him. "Christine?"

"Oh, dammit. I told him I couldn't lie to you!"

"You told Spock that?"

"No. Penhallon."

Now he was really confused. "You were with Penhallon?"

"Yes."

"And he wanted you to lie to me about it?" He dropped his hand. "I thought you detested him?"

"I do detest him."

"But that's a turn-on or something?"

Her look at first was uncomprehending. Then she began to smile. "You think that I.... slept with him?" She put her arms on his chest and met his gaze directly. "I didn't sleep with him, Randall. But sex does come into this. Why don't we sit down?"

He let her lead him to the couch. She sat at the other end. "Penhallon had this idea about the Pesadii. It's pretty wild, but it actually made sense. So he and I met with them to broach it. But that part is sort of a secret."

"Why?"

"Because it may not work, and we don't want to get people's hopes up. Plus, it's genuinely unorthodox."

"And it has to do with sex? Is this his way of getting you in bed with him?"

She moved closer to him. "No. It's actually not about him and me."

"No?" He noticed she was looking at him rather hungrily. "You and Spock then?" He teased.

She moved closer. "Not him either." She was practically sitting in his lap.

"Hmmm. Then who?" He pulled her on top of him. "Better be me, Chapel," he said as he dragged her down for a kiss. Then another.

"Oh it's definitely you." She put her finger over his lips when he tried to kiss her again. "And this is definitely the idea. But there's more I have to tell you."

"So talk fast." He began to unfasten her uniform.

"Well, we won't be exactly alone."

His hands stopped moving. "I'm sorry. I may not have heard that right."

"You did. There will be observers."

"If this is your way of saying you're bored, it's not the approach that I'd probably recommend."

She leaned down and kissed him hungrily. "I'm not bored, you idiot. And it's precisely because I'm not bored that we're part of this." She ran her hands under his shirt and kissed him again. "The Pesadii may not have to feed off of nightmares. There are other activities, which they happened to be unaware of, that can deliver quite the jolt in terms of physical reaction."

"And this was Penhallon's idea?"

She nodded. "The Pesadii liked it though. They want to try it. And it's not like they won't give something back. The Tourmaxian's believe that the Pesadii enhance the nightmares, so it's just possible they will enhance this..." She trailed off and looked at him wickedly.

He started working at her uniform again. "So when do we start?"

"I'm supposed to think really hard when I'm ready and they'll pick up the message. I wasn't supposed to tell you, but since you know, you might want to do it too. That way you'll be in for the whole ride."

"I just think it? That I'm ready?"

"Think really hard." She leaned in and kissed him.

He deepened the kiss and thought as hard as he could, *All right, you nosy sons of bitches, come and see what you've been missing.*

Faintly in his mind he heard, *We are here.* He heard Christine gasp and realized he'd made the same sound. Every touch, every kiss was suddenly augmented. It was as if his skin was on fire. He pulled away from her and saw that her eyes were as wild as he imagined his own to be. "Don't know what you've gotten us into, doctor..."

"But it looks like it will be an interesting experiment." She pulled off his shirt and lightly ran her fingers across his shoulders and chest.

He sucked in a large gasp of air at her touch. Her fingers felt like icy- hot feathers across his skin. Every place she touched was tingling. He touched her in the same way and watched as her breathing increased.

"I'm suddenly not very hungry," Christine said as she lay back on the couch.

"Not for dinner," he agreed as he kissed his way down her body, removing clothing as he went. "Remind me to buy Penhallon a drink the next time I see him."

Any answer she was going to give was forgotten as he found a particularly sensitive place to explore.

Guess we can forget about sleep for tonight, he thought to himself. He wasn't sorry at all.

----------------------------------------------------------

Sovar watched his captain digest what the Pesadii had just told him. Spock steepled his fingers as he considered this new information, then looked at Grrm. "You discovered this new source of energy how exactly?"

Sovar was sure that he saw Commander Penhallon and Commander Chapel look at each other then look away quickly. Interesting.

"This ship is very confined compared to our own world. Signals are amplified. We noticed a new sensation and followed it to its source. The byproducts are more satisfying than those produced by our earlier method. And perhaps more attractive to the Tourmaxians if a suggestion for a trial was put forward on our behalf?" Rixx seemed to be working very hard on his phrasing.

Troi interjected, "How do we know it will be more attractive? What if it makes that particular pleasure into some kind of nightmare?"

Rixx tried not to laugh as he translated, "If it had been unpleasant for those engaged in the activity last night, they would surely have stopped, would they not? Just as those having the nightmares sought to wake up. But we noticed no cessation of activity. We of course have no prior experience to tell if the encounters we observed were normal or more vigorous than previously experienced."

Sovar was sure Commander Chapel blushed at this. He saw Spock glance at her quickly but "I see," was all the captain said. There was a moment of silence, then Spock said, "I would like to propose this to the Tourmaxians. It may be the answer we have sought."

Grrm bowed. "Thank you, Captain."

Sovar thought he saw Commander Penhallon smirk. This really was a most unusual discussion. Sovar looked around the table. Many of the participants seemed somewhat uncomfortable with the way things had gone. Humans, he thought, for all their emotions, were quite prudish. This was an eminently logical, if somewhat bizarre, solution. Working with Sarek had taught Sovar that the best solution is often not the one you first thought of, or even the most elegant. It is the one that at the end of the day holds the most promise. He sat back satisfied that he could not think of a better answer than the one that now lay on the table.

"Please bring in the Tourmaxian delegation," Spock said to one of the guards.

Lir led his people in and sat down. "So how did you all sleep?" he asked with a mean grin.

"We all slept quite well, thank you," Spock replied. At Lir's look, he continued. "It would appear that the Pesadii have found a new source of energy. That is what they wish to talk to you about. I will cede the floor to Translator Rixx."

Lir looked at the Betazoid curiously. Rixx smiled and said, "First, we wish it known that we did not intend to injure anyone. We regret any harm we may have done. Knowing now that how we feed causes problems for you, we wish to suggest a new arrangement. It is one we discovered last night. While most sleep, some do not. Some are engaged in vigorous activity. We were not aware of this before. In the past, we went for those sources of food with which we were familiar. It did not occur to us to look past those for others. It was our way to feed off the energy of dreams. It had always been our way. But we seek a new way and a new way has presented itself. We have been told the activity is called sex."

Lir sat silent in shock, but one of his team members said, "You want us to have sex for you?"

"Not for us. But while you do it, we can benefit. And then we do not have to engage in the form of feeding that you object to so strenuously."

One of the Tourmaxian women flushed as she asked, "Do you affect the sexual process in the same way you do the dream one?"

"It is possible."

Sovar saw Commander Chapel fight a grin. He was relatively certain Captain Spock saw it too.

"This is an interesting development," Lir said. "But it doesn't take away from months of abuse."

"Nor does it excuse months of slaughter of our people. Our abuse was an accident. We did not realize our crime." Grrm held out a withered hand then let it drop. "We regret that. Perhaps we can work together to help those we have harmed?"

Lir sat for a moment, then his expression softened. "Perhaps. We didn't know you were just trying to survive. Maybe there is another way. Maybe this is it?" He turned to Spock. "So what now?"

"We will work with the Federation assessment teams to monitor a trial of this. If it seems a good solution then no further action will be required. Both of your species will be able to survive on Tourmax. If it does not work, then we will resume the discussions in hopes of finding another solution."

Lir looked undecided.

Commander Chapel spoke up. "If nothing else, sir, many of your people will finally get a good night's sleep."

Lir looked at her. She nodded nearly imperceptibly. Sovar thought something seemed to pass between them, then Lir said, "We'll give it a try. Tonight. On the planet."

"Then we are adjourned." Spock stood up and the rest followed suit. Both delegations filed out. Spock looked at his team. "An interesting resolution to this. Quite fortuitous that the Pesadii happened upon this so precipitously. Wouldn't you say, Commander Chapel?"

She blushed slightly but did not look away. "Quite fortuitous, sir."

Commander Penhallon looked down, then back up as Spock said, "An interesting protocol question, wouldn't you say, Commander Penhallon?"

"Sir?"

"I'm thinking of Mr. Lir's instructions to his people. How does one encourage an entire populace to engage in sexual activity?"

"I'm sure I don't know, sir."

"Of course not." Spock nodded thoughtfully before saying, "You are all dismissed. We will reconvene on this only if the trial is a failure."

--------------------------------

Christine was in her office when the call from Cradash Lir came through the next morning. She hurried out to the bridge. The Tourmaxian was all smiles. She had to stifle a giggle. It looked like he had been one of the participants in the trial.

Spock was saying, "So the experiment appears to be working?"

"Works fine as far as we can tell. The assessment team said they would monitor for any long-term side effects. But so far, everyone who participated feels great." He grinned unabashedly. "We're talking to the Pesadii even now about some of their plans to help those who experienced breakdowns. They have some interesting ideas. And we also thought that maybe eventually we'd think about inviting tourists here? You know for R&R or what have you. Why should Risa be the only place for that?"

"Why indeed, Mr. Lir. I applaud your ability to put the past behind you and focus on your future."

"Couldn't have done it without your help. I'll be putting that in my report."

"You are most kind."

"Not at all. Lir out."

The screen went dead.

"Lieutenant Sabuti, lay in a course for Starbase Six."

"Aye, sir."

"Lieutenant Kimble, warp five at your discretion." Spock rose and as he walked past Christine said, "A word with you, Commander."

She nodded and replied, "We've created a monster."

He waited until the door closed before saying, "I don't believe I had very much to do with that, Christine."

"I don't know what you mean," she said as she grinned at him. But her grin faded as she realized he wasn't amused. At all.

He sat down and steepled his fingers, studying them for a moment. He did not ask her to sit. "Diplomatic is my responsibility, is it not?"

She wet her lips nervously. "It is."

"And yet I was out of the loop on this one, Commander. Why is that?"

She looked down. "I'm sorry. I should have told you."

"Yes. You should have." He indicated she should sit down and waited till she was settled to ask, "Why didn't you?"

She took at deep breath. "I wasn't sure..." She trailed off.

"You weren't sure I would understand?"

She nodded.

"Why? It seems a logical solution. A race that feeds on the byproduct of dreams can now feed on the byproducts of sex. What about that did you think I wouldn't understand?"

"It wasn't that. I just..." Again she found herself floundering for words.

He sat back in his chair. "I imagine you had to conduct an experiment? To see if your theory would work? Was that what you thought I might not understand?"

She nodded half-heartedly. Why hadn't she told him what they were up to?

"I see. In the future, Commander, you will keep me better informed. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir." She felt like she was a green ensign again as she stared determinedly past his right ear. "I'm sorry, sir."

"At ease, Christine." Spock rose and walked to the window. He seemed lost in thought as he murmured. "Things are different between us now."

"They're not bad."

He turned to look at her. "The ease is gone." He walked back to his chair. "To expect that over the course of this mission, we will not make choices that displease the other would be naïve."

She looked up at him in surprise. Was this the closest he would get to saying he was sorry she had chosen another?

"We must learn to work though this. We must learn to trust each other in command situations, whatever the nature of our personal relationship."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"You have said that, Christine. And I have said my piece. It _was_ a good idea."

She smiled slightly as she rose. "Just shaky on the execution."

"Precisely."

As she neared the door, he said, "It is reassuring to know that you and Commander Penhallon can work together so successfully." When she turned, he raised an eyebrow then turned back to his work.

She left his ready room, hurrying to her command chair and trying to look like she hadn't been taken to the woodshed. Or wherever they had just gone.

FIN

"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world." -Oscar Wilde