BRIDGES

A sequel to Tin Soldier

By Rosemary Cullen

Data squatted in the searing sun and let the dust trickle through his fingers. Repeatedly he picked up the same small gray handful, then let it sift gently through his fingers to fall back in a soft cone. He moved his hand minutely, once, to avoid covering a scurrying iridescent beetle. The confusion and depression he was battling had driven him, at last, away from the well meaning sympathy of his friends. He needed to think in the isolation provided by the harsh environment, and hadn't expected company. The temperature in the canyon was now fifty two degrees centigrade, only ten degrees less in the shade. From the buildings he was concealed by the heat mirage that turned the whole flat valley floor into a wavering lake.

"Is so interesting that dirt ?"

Despite the turmoil that occupied his thoughts his sensors had alerted him to the Lorpid's approach. The alien archaeologist was following the shadow line as the sun advanced, looking at the cliff paintings preserved on the roof of an eroded ridge. The speed of the sun was about right for the very slow creature. Its metabolism protected it from the intense heat, and had never affected its power of thought. Exasperated by the seeming impossibility of privacy Data moved his head without moving his body so that he could meet Ttikatik's eye.

" Silica, mica, traces of organic matter." He turned back to his miniature mountain and gently flattened it with the palm of his hand. " Of no consequence."

The Lorpid looked at the crouching android then turned back to the painting above him, a palm print in red ochre, placed there a thousand years ago by the first barbarian invaders of this ancient city. His slow metabolism was not matched by any lack of empathy, and as it worked it considered what to say. Ttikatik had been observing his mechanical friend's distress over the last few weeks and, although concerned, did not judge the time right to subject him to unsolicited advice. The red print on the rock ridge above him showed spayed fingers and a long double jointed thumb. He made a note on his data padd: #386 Native Arand, species as others. Then turned back to the android. Data hadn't moved except to pick up another handful of dirt, he was watching it once again trickle through his fingers starting another cone. His depression was almost visible, a palpable weight bending his slender figure into the ground. The Lorpid felt a familiar frustration that he couldn't take some of the burden.

Unkind fate had dealt the young android a heavy blow when he had lost both his first command and, perhaps, his first love. Ttikatik had sat with Data through the long ship's nights after Threa had died. Data had talked to him then, in the quiet of the night he had told more than he knew as he organized his memory of the whole experience, in the light of the fact that Threa had known she would not survive it. Ttikatik had heard him logically and calmly blame himself for the whole debacle, and had wished for the words that would have helped. It was of little consolation that human counselors and even Data's own friends had had no more success. He disliked the hopeless tone he heard in the android's usually resonant voice. After a little thought he replied to Data's statement, trying to reach through the barriers the android had erected.

" Consequence is always relative."

It's deep voice sounded concerned and Data glanced up again but the bland expression on his face gave nothing away.

Eventually Ttikatik turned back to the cliff face, an android could outwait a Lorpid and the shadow edge was creeping away. It resolved to seek out Lawrence soon. Talking to his large human friend often gave him insights into the working of other minds. Lawrence's clear thinking and meticulous ways often reminded Ttikatik of the delight he had found in Data's conversation the first time he had met him, before this whole episode had blown up. Then the Lorpid had delighted in discovering the unique being that was Data. Very few species or individuals could match the complexity of Lorpid real time communication. Usually Lorpids communicated complex issues to other alien species through the medium of print, only the most flippant, such as Ttikatik could stand the ambiguity of speech. Lawrence gave Ttik the gift of endless patience and affection.Ttikatik earnestly wished Data could find such a friend.

Alone at last, Data let two tears drop onto the dust before controlling the duct that supplied them. He watched as the sun dried them into splattered buttons then picked one up on the end of his finger. It blew away in the slight breeze that had sprung up as the afternoon advanced.

" Of no consequence at all. " He muttered to himself.

He tapped the badge he wore on his chest and dictated a message for Jean- Luc's answer phone. Then he stood up gracefully and loped off into the desert that spread from the gates of the old city to the sea thirty kilometers to the east.

*****

" I don't know where he's gone. He's just....... gone."

Jean Luc Picard looked into the outraged eyes of his wife. Beverly was clutching Data's com badge as if it could be tortured into revealing its owner's motivation. Jean-Luc suddenly wished that the world would go away, he had had enough, of the day, the year and actually the planet. Data's defection was the last straw.

"The hearing is in two weeks; and Nachayev is the last woman in the Federation I want to keep waiting." He stumped out of the living area and leaned on the rail of the verandah that ran along the front of his home. Beverly came out behind him. Both of them looked at the view of the river and far bank and saw the ruins and desert on the far bank silhouetted now against a typical Arand sunset. The extravagant golds and purples painting the high towers seemed to mock their worries.

Jean-Luc turned to look at Beverly's profile, she looked tired and worn. The unkind evening light emphasized the lines stress had placed in the corner of her eyes. He felt a twinge of guilt that he had added, once again, to those worries. He slid an arm over her shoulders and, reaching, took the com badge out of her clenched fist. He looked at it then slid it into a pocket. As of long habit he squashed the anger that had lent an edge to his voice and turned his thoughts away from the frustration of dealing with slightly irrational beings of any species. Determined to be more cheerful he changed the subject.

"Data is quite able to look after himself, we are his friends not his keepers. Tell me how you are getting on with the tribesmen. Any breakthroughs ?"

Beverly leaned against his solid warmth for a moment, accepting the olive branch he was offering, then sighed recognizing the source of her own anger and frustration. When she spoke her voice was low, " I can't get through, Jean-Luc. The city folk are happy for us to help but the nomads...." She shook her head mournfully. " The will of the sands they call it." She looked unseeing into the fading sky and ran a hand through her hair, anger and impotence energizing her briefly. " It's a damn plague Jean-Luc, and with the Enterprise's help last month we now have a perfectly good cure. Why won't they let us help?"

Picard had heard it all before. He held her as they watched the stars come out, and wondered if the clue to Rand stubbornness might be somewhere in the ruins on the far bank.

The silhouetted buildings triggered old memories about the indigenous Arands. They were an ancient people divided, amicably, into city dwellers, mainly female, and wandering tribesmen, mainly male. Not numerous, they were outnumbered in the cities by the immigrants their planet traditionally welcomed. The dry hinterland remained mostly the domain of male Rands. Males who were now dying of the plague that had so recently swept the cities. The female Rands had asked for and accepted Federation help in battling the latest onslaught of an ancient scourge, city dwelling males had also been happy to be helped. The nomads had shrugged in polite refusal, and died. The attrition was so great that within six months the population would reduce to a level below which it may no longer be sustainable. Desert life was harsh and mating festivals were only held twice a year, unshakable tradition meant unions between city folk were not so much banned as unthinkable.

Picard remembered Beverly had telling him that she felt she was witnessing the beginning of an extinction, all the worse for the understanding she had gained through Jean-Luc's study into the history of this culture.

Beverly watched his brow furrow and decided on some subject changing of her own." How about you ?" She said in a determinedly more cheerful voice. "How's that temple excavation coming on, didn't Lawrence think he was on to something?"

Now it was Jean-Luc's turn to sigh.

" We have four new walls of hieroglyphs. Smith is as happy as a boy in a sandbox but it will take a long time to decipher them. They do seem to confirm that Arand has had a long history of accepting visitors from space." He glanced at her shadowed face and continued, " which is not all that surprising as they are on the borders of three ancient empires and now two modern ones, and of course they have the Dylithium."

Picard looked over the river at the silhouetted city, absorbed again by the mystery of the culture he was investigating. "When Smith approached the Rand workers on site for some clues the females told him that the males are the keepers of the past. And you know the attitude of the males." He shrugged his shoulders, a slight smile creeping onto his mouth. " Lots of cats though in these glyphs, it seems to be their earliest appearance.."

The spicy scent of the night blooming flowers under the deck enveloped the two humans and a noisy insect started its evening courting, Jean-Luc shivered involuntarily as the night air cooled. Beverly tugged his hand recalling him to the present and they went back indoors, the door swishing shut behind them, closing out the smells and sounds of the alien night. Beverly called for lights, then collected a couple of drinks from the replicator in the kitchen. They sat in silence for a while.

Beverly found she missed Data's quiet presence in the room. He had only been staying with them for a few weeks but his essential sweetness had not been spoiled by his nearly year long imprisonment. She had hoped that her own, and Jean-Luc's, unconditional acceptance would help him with the dislocation and grief he was experiencing after the loss of both his first command and his Pallal friend Threa. There was no doubt that for Data emotions were hardly an unalloyed gift. His memory was as exact as ever, allowing him to replay situations with none of the blurring that time bestowed on humans. Frowning she wondered if their support had been too low key, and wished she could discuss his mental state with Deanna.

She drank her tea, Deanna was a sector away on the Cardassian border and had her own problems. Beverly could almost hear her advice anyway. " Go with what feels right for you all, Beverly."

Well Data appeared to have taken matters into his own hands and worrying about him wouldn't help. The sands of the desert were infiltrated with minerals that interfered with long distance sensors so he had effectively vanished unless a level one search was ordered. Given his unique physiology it was unlikely that he was in any danger, and he had two weeks to sort himself out. His message to Jean-Luc had been short and to the point, he wished to be left alone and would return in time for the hearing. Mentally shrugging she brought her thoughts back to the problems of the Rand people.

"What happens to the Dylithium if we can't save the people Jean-Luc? The Federation has held the mines in trust for generations. Who inherits ?"

Jean-Luc looked at her over the lip of his cup. " I don't know Beverly." He thought for a moment. "I suppose the Council will; but they will have no mandate if there are no Rands left to vote, the constitution demands a ten percent Rand participation." He gazed into the bottom of his cup, as if looking for answers in the tea leaves. None sprang to mind. " I wonder who the Federation will chose to negotiate with the council?"

Beverly looked at him and smiled. She had a good idea who would be chosen. She suspected that Nachayev had let him stew for just long enough. It would not be like that tough old bird to pass up the services of one of the Federation's most experienced negotiators. And Jean-Luc would jump at it. His exile from Starfleet had never been likely to last long, even dressed for the dig he carried himself as if he was in full command uniform. Starfleet was more a part of him than he had any insight about. It was a commitment she was determined never to interfere with, even if it meant losing him again. It was the most essential part of what he was and she suspected that without it he would be as good as dead. She held his gaze for a moment, loving him because of his humility and arrogance, that vital mix that had landed them on this world together when he insisted on taking leave rather than accept a command he believed belonged to Riker. He had never forgiven himself for not being on board when the Enterprise D crashed, even though the court marshal had exonerated him.

"He married you on the rebound Beverly." This was not an original thought. She would do it again tomorrow if she had the chance, and enjoy the love they snatched from fate. Jean-Luc raised an eyebrow at her broadening smile and she quickly found a subject to cover her less than flattering thoughts. Jean-Luc Picard would not like to think that he had been manipulated again by the various women in his life. She returned to the mystery of the Arand people, always a good distraction for the archeologist she married.

" I treated the chairman of the council, DarEthan, myself today. He's a difficult person, Jean-Luc. Regal. It's as if he never left the desert. He's hardly adapted at all, yet he commands the greatest respect amongst both the city dwellers, and the tribesmen."

She remembered the stark room with its animal skin wall coverings and central fire. DarEthan had neither flinched nor acknowledged her as she treated his plague weakened body, but his dark eyes had glittered in the fire's light and she remembered feeling chilled. She had left his unforgiving presence as soon as possible. Even now remembering the encounter raised gooseflesh along her arms. Bitter. Looking back she could only describe his expression as bitter.

Watching her face fall galvanized Jean-Luc into action. He rose, and collected her cup on the way to the kitchen, then paused by her chair, concerned. " Let's get dinner, you look exhausted."

She looked up at him and nodded, and taking his hand followed him into the kitchen.

*****

Five days later Data watched the sun rise over the ocean from his perch on top of a dune and realized he was bored. The realization sent a tremor of shock through his system and drove him to his feet in a convulsive lurch. For a moment he stood on the knife edged ridge, his eyes wide and unseeing, then gravity took over and he slid down the concave face of the dune causing a mini avalanche. At the bottom he lay for a moment looking at the sky, still trying to come to terms with what he was feeling, then he pulled his arms and legs out of the sand and sat up. An involuntary smile curled his lip as he imagined the picture he had made. Finally he laughed out loud, startling a small group of seabirds that had settled on the beach in front of him.

Data leaned his head into his knees, still smiling, and let himself just be. The black cloud of despair that had settled on him had gone with the dawn, and its absence made him feel reborn." Threa" he whispered. He reached for her image, as he had so many times in the last month, and found her dancing, a moment of beauty. The experiences that had haunted him no longer compelled his attention, and the sucking mire of anger that had drawn him to re-experience Threa's death, over and over, had lost its hold on him. He could no longer be bothered thinking about Fajo. In fact, as he had discovered, he was bored with the whole introspective process.

Eventually, feeling fragile but at peace with himself, he stood up and looked around him with, what felt like, new eyes. The long sandy strand was featureless but he had automatically noted of the positions of the stars and knew approximately where he was. He thought about returning. He could of course simply retrace his steps to the dig, but in the light of this new day he felt adventurous. His preoccupation had meant he had taken little time to explore Arand's unique geography, and his curiosity appeared to be at full strength despite anything else that may have happened to him.

He cocked his head on one side as he calculated distances before finally deciding that he could travel along the coast for several kilometers and still cut back to the city in time to attend the hearing. His lip twitched again as he thought of Jean-Luc's probable reaction if he missed that appointment. For a man so in control Admiral Nachayev was a significant worry, not that he would admit it.

*****

Captain Riker finished his log entry, stretched back into the big chair and wondered when he would stop feeling that this command was temporary, stop feeling that he was minding the shop while the real captain was on leave. Dammit, the man hadn't even commanded this Enterprise, she had been his from commissioning, and still he wrestled with the ghost of his mentor.

Riker ran his eye over the bridge crew, they were attentive to their stations, alert but relaxed. He took a moment to be proud of them. Then turned as he felt the eyes of his first officer on him. He raised an eyebrow at her quizzical expression. " I'm going, I'm going, Number One." He levered himself out of the command chair and stretched once again. It had been a long shift, the nuances of keeping the ship balanced between a white dwarf and its orbiting black hole had kept him alert while the observations had been taken. Now they were en-route for their next assignment and his presence was neither necessary nor desirable. He started for the turbolift and then changed his mind and headed for his ready room.

" Captain !"

Shelby's outraged tone amused Riker and he turned his grin on her for a moment, his hands held defensively in front of him, as if warding off an attack.

" Dr. Keshvare, remember? I put her off over an hour ago."

Mollified Shelby's posture relaxed, and Riker escaped through the doors to his sanctuary. Chuckling he remembered Picard's tightly reigned annoyance when Riker had fussed over his excesses, he guessed he deserved Shelby.

He called up sick bay and a minute or two later welcomed his graceful Indian C.M.O. He stood and showed her to one of the patterned two seater couches he kept for informal conferences.

He sat down quickly, Iri was so petite he felt clumsy around her. She watched him out of almond shaped eyes and waited for him to settle.

" Thank you for your time, Captain."

Riker waved dismissively and raised an eyebrow encouragingly.

" It's about the work we did on Arand." Her incisive tone was at odds with her vulnerable appearance and Riker sharpened his concentration, reflecting briefly that it was no wonder he was haunted by Picard, he couldn't seem to get away from the man. He brought his attention back to the Doctor.

" You know that we were not able to track down the reason for the plague's sudden virulence?" She paused and Riker nodded encouragement." Well I have finally managed to track down the vector and it is no wonder we didn't find it before. It appears that the water supply to the city has been contaminated." She looked a little embarrassed for a moment and met his eyes defensively. "It was passed over by our initial tests as it was masked in a benign algae." She flinched delicately at the idea of drinking natural water. Space born and bred she only trusted thoroughly processed and sterilized drinking water, a flaw in her thinking that she compensated for planet-side by a deliberate lowering of her stringent standards. This time sensitivity had let her down.

Riker looked a little confused. " But the tricorder would have picked up any pathogens.... how was it missed."

Iri pulled a face. "It isn't a pathogen. In sufficient quantity it works as an immunosuppressant. All it did was lower the Rand's naturally built up immunity enough to allow them to be infected. After infection the plague bacillus was able to do its work easily." She looked peeved, " No wonder it was relatively easy to treat."

Riker looked at his bristling C.M.O, and reflected that Iri always felt reverses as personal attacks .

" Does this finding have any consequences for the other races on Arand, Iri?"

Keshvare shook herself out of her annoyance and remembered why it was so urgent for her to report this finding to him.

" Yes." She leaned forward and touched one of his hands, "It may affect humans in a rather specific way. I thought you might want to let your friends know as soon as possible."

She held out the padd she had brought in with her and let him read her conclusions off the screen. As he read it she could see his expression turning from concern, to slight amusement, to outright wicked glee at the results displayed on the screen. Finally he looked up, eyes twinkling and met the look in her eye.

" Without delay, Doctor. I'll see to it, believe me. Somehow this is one surprise I think the Picards could do without." He moved over to his desk preparatory to sending a subspace message. " You will post the general medical alert for the rest of the Human Arand population?" She nodded and left him to his mission of mercy.

*****

Lawrence Smith leaned against a wall of ancient masonry and sipped at the condensation bead water bottle he had brought with him. For once he had remembered to fill his thermos before setting out, it was worth appreciating.

Draped over a stone projection nearby, with all four legs hanging down, Ttikatik watched his favorite human drink. It blinked at Lawrence's enjoyment, then turned its gaze back to the desert.

Lawrence wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and let out a gusty sigh. Today was his last day in the field for a week or so. Picard had left an hour ago. He had been talked into taking leave so that he could accompany his wife on an expedition to the nomad tribes. The team at the dig were sure that the trip was a ploy of Beverly's, designed to use up the time before the hearing so that Jean-Luc had something to think about other than Data's conspicuous absence. Whatever the motivation he had gone, leaving Smith in charge of the dig.

Smith was trying to avoid thinking about being in charge. Not that he had nothing to do inside, but he hated being cooped up.

Ttikatik rumbled into speech. " Mate you found ?"

Lawrence wondered what had prompted that little gem from the labyrinthine depths of his friend's mind. He glanced fondly at the dusty hearthrug, and grinned at its boneless pose. Perhaps Ttikatik had been watching while he had been showing the latest group of students through the ruins. Orientation had become so automatic that he had had time to appreciate the little brunette technician, Dain she had been called, without disturbing his practiced patter. However looking was one thing, the other was something he seldom mastered.

"Nope." He replied, falling into Ttikatik's cryptic mode of speech.

Ttikatik turned its head slowly to look at the man. " Delay at present, Lawrence."

The large blond man rolled his eyes heavenward. As if he had a choice. " Sure thing Ttik. Why?"

But the Lorpid had finished, it shut its eyes and appeared to doze. Lawrence wasn't fooled, no doubt he would find out what he was on about sooner or later.

His stomach rumbled reminding him that his lunch was still in his backpack in the office, he lumbered to his feet and left the glaring contrasts of the baking city for the relative cool provided by the office's thick stone walls.

Picard's office was like the man, a study in contrasts. His elderly battered desk was clear ready for work, only a Pallal icon balancing the screen. The rest of the room was lined with inadequate shelves, crammed full of cascading heaps of reports and research articles. A picture of Beverly hung on the wall by the door, surrounded by curling charts of the hieroglyphics previously discovered in the ruins, penciled notes meandered across the lines. Lawrence looked at the picture meditatively for a moment, if a dry old stick like Picard could pull a woman like Beverly.......?

Lawrence fished his sandwiches out of his pack and then paused. He walked over to the desk, drawn to pick up the icon that had pulled him into the events surrounding Data's rescue, and allowed him to glimpse a rather more interesting side of his reserved boss. He held the artifact in his hand for a moment, savoring the calming vibration it gave off, then started guiltily as he realized that the desk screen was flashing red. An urgent message had come in while he had been sitting in the shade, Lawrence crammed his sandwich in his mouth and leapt around the desk to answer it.

*****

Jean-Luc, checked the saddle bags, the tent roll and his horse's girth for the fourth time. He wondered what was delaying Beverly this time. He could hear her talking on the com to her department. A jealous thought reminded him that handing over to Smith had taken him all of fifteen minutes. He shook himself into a more positive mood and checked the pack animal's loading. Beverly's precious supplies took up both saddle bags and the load on the animal's back enough camping gear for a two week tramp into territory that ate technology. The scraggy Llama-like beast lowed mournfully at him, he was not impressed.

" Beverly." He shouted," If we don't get moving it will be to dark to see the bridge."

Beverly's head poked out the window and she waved down at him, he could hear distant, 'good-bye' noises.

A moment or so later he saw her emerge from the back of the house, tugging on her jacket and looking back as if she couldn't believe that she was able to get away at last.

With a feeling of relief, Jean-Luc mounted his horse, settling into the saddle with the ease of long practice. The gray Arab had been dancing and champing for the last five minutes. He walked the animal in circles to ease its excitement and watched as Beverly stowed the last of her things in her own saddle bags. Feeling his proprietary gaze Beverly glanced back at him and grinned. He blew her a kiss and she leaned down to make a final adjustment to her stirrup. They both heard the house com shrill into life again, along with a muffled beep from Picard's remote badge, stowed for this trip in the saddlebags attached to Beverly's mount.

Beverly pulled a disgusted face and made to dismount again but Jean-Luc moved his restless animal alongside hers. She found herself held in place by his powerful grip.

" Leave it. What could be so important ?"

Beverly turned shocked eyes on him. " Jean-Luc!" He grinned at her, feeling wicked, and they heard both devices click off as the answer machine kicked in.

Jean-Luc moved forward and tugged the pack animal into motion with him, Beverly fell in behind them on the trail. In the clatter of their departure neither of them heard the com shrill into life again.

Some time later Beverly called to his rather distant back. "How long to camp Jean-Luc?" He turned in the saddle to answer her and then had to turn back to control his impatient mount, who still wanted to get the sillies out of its system and took every opportunity to grab at the bit. Beverly winced at his difficulty but admired the ease with which he controlled the beast. She leaned into her saddle and her horse jog trotted until she was riding beside him.

"Tired already?" He teased.

Beverly took off her hat and fanned herself with it. " No of course not, haven't I been riding with you for the last two weeks getting in shape?"

Jean-Luc gave her an old fashioned look.

" Nothing wrong with your shape." He waggled his eyebrows at her and she swatted at him with the hat. Jean-Luc's horse decided that this was too much and attempted to rear, causing the pack animal to bellow at the sudden tug on its tether. As he wrestled the animal down again, Beverly could hear her husband swearing under his breath.

"Give me the leading rein and, for heavens sake, give Charlie a run." Beverly reached across and unhooked the rope from Jean-Luc's pommel. " Otherwise there will be no living with you both ."

Jean-Luc looked as if he was going to argue but then shrugged. He waved at the dusty, scrub lined, trail. Beverly squinted at the route as he explained.

" Follow this road to the bridge, it'll be about an hour's ride for you. I'll go across and set up camp." He bought the dancing horse close and leaned across to kiss her, then the two of them were gone in a cloud of dust.

Beverly looked at the flicking ears of her own incurious mount and then twisted round to check out the pack beast, it chewed and batted its long eyelashes at her before letting out a resounding belch. Already the scattered houses belonging to their neighbors were hidden by the scrubby trees that lined the river bank, a solitary window caught the afternoon sun and winked at her, reminding her that the best part of the day was over.

"Well girls, I guess we had better do as the man says." She dug her heels into the ribs of her horse and ambled off after the rapidly dissipating cloud of dust.

*****

High in the foothills behind the modern Rand city of Atarl, the dam that held the drinking water for the population shone deep blue in the afternoon light. It was a popular picnic spot for families from the city, people of many races came to admire the views and the lake.

Dar Ethan clan chief, patriarch, exile, stalked along the top of the dam, a sand colored cloak flowing from his shoulders in the updraft from the cliff like drop to his left. He paused to lean his desiccated length on the metal of the balustrade, grateful for the support. The engineers had been most helpful, flattered that such a famous anti-technologist would pass the time of day with them. He squinted into the wind, the skin beside his eyes crinkling . It was going to be harder than he hoped but he put fear behind him. As he had as a young man during his ordeal, as he had in his maturity when his health had betrayed him into the city. He turned his face and drank in the view of the new city, the old city and his lost sands. His world, and his mistake.

He felt the familiar uncleanness of self disgust. At his age to be so naïve. Gulled by his desires into believing a lying Ferengi.

How could he have been so stupid? The merchant's pitch been perfectly judged. Had he been so transparent that even an outworlder could work out his weakness? Yet the fertility enhancer the wizened little toad had offered seemed the answer to his people's troubles. He remembered the sweet taste of hope in his heart. If only the breeding rate would go up, then the majority of the council would see that the old ways were sound. There would be no more talk of reformations.

The merchant had been flattering. He had given Dar Ethan the respect he had been missing since he had been forced to give up his leadership of the desert tribes. The weasel had assured him of the substances' safety, and had assisted his client when he had wanted it added to this lake so that it would reach the whole population. All his money and most of the council's had been given to the honorless trickster- Dar Ethan wondered if the Ferengi had stopped laughing yet. Weak tears stung his eyes, water wasted as he remembered the dreadful toll of lives the plague had taken from his people. The timing was too exact. He may be easily fooled by flattery but he was neither stupid nor a coward. What he had put in the water had somehow caused the plague, the irony of it ripped him to pieces. He would put it right, and relieve from his soul the dreadful burden of guilt that weighed every breath, and colored his world gray.

He glanced around, alone he stood and unremarked, just another tourist admiring the technology that sustained a city. Then he adjusted the belt he wore around his waist and, with no fuss, dove over the restraining rail to tumble down the face of the dam. With his last conscious thought he removed his finger from the button on his belt and let matter and antimatter combine. The concussion from the powerful explosion killed everything living within quarter mile radius, and blew a massive breach in the earth wall holding back the lake.

The water roared and steamed as it answered gravity's call and poured through the suddenly opened hole. Unheralded, it formed an wall of destruction that roared down the river valley leaving nothing standing behind it. It boiled through the city and its suburbs like an express angel of death, and the shock of its passing reverberated throughout the sector.

The Enterprise heard the Mayday only a short time after sending their last unanswered message. Riker called from sleep met Shelby's eyes as he read the location and then glanced at the ship's heading. They were on their way. He patted her on the arm.

" Thank you Number One." She grinned at him and with a hand on his arm, turned him back towards the turbolift.

"E.T.A. four hours, Sir. I'll call you when we are in orbit."

"Mother hen." He grumbled, but went. However once in his cabin sleep eluded him and he looked out at the stars streaming past his window and felt, as he had got into the habit of feeling, guilty that he had been unable to prevent or foresee this.

The thought of his three old friends in the path of such destruction chilled him. " Let them be safe" he whispered to whoever may be listening. He had a cold feeling that 'whoever' may just be busy.

*****

Jean-Luc sat on the crest of the abrupt hill that sloped up from the river bank, and let the heat of the sun-warmed earth ease the riding kinks from his lower back. From his vantage point he could see Beverly, and her plodding pack animal, making their leisurely way onto the insubstantial looking swing bridge. He glanced back at the camp site he had set up in a pleasant dell about fifty meters away upslope, and was distracted to see his horse standing silhouetted on the skyline, looking at the mountains shining orange and purple in the distance.

He turned to see if he could see what had alerted the animal but could see nothing in the gathering evening shadows. Charlie whinnied, twice, sharply and was answered once by Beverly's more placid mount. Jean Luc smiled.

'Must remember to set up a perimeter shield tonight.' He thought to himself, ' We could do without the local wildlife disturbing our sleep.'

He glanced back to Beverly and grinned to see her tugging on the reluctant pack animal's lead rope. It appeared that the bridge was spooking the animal. Its will was no match for Beverly's determination, and she soon had her little caravan in motion again. Picard could just hear Beverly's encouraging chirrups and the sound of the horses shod hooves on the planks.

Jean-Luc stood up and waved at her. She spotted him, and waved briefly before concentrating on the animals again. He saw that she was coping so made his way back to the camp site and aimed a remote he was carrying round his neck at the gray cube he had put in the center of the space. The sudden flicker of holographically generated flames lit up the side of the dome tent he had put up earlier. The camp fire was an early birthday present for Beverly, and he was looking forward to her delight in the clever gadget. Satisfied with the effect he wandered back to the edge of the river bank to see how Beverly was getting on.

The bottom dropped out of his world.

Beverly was desperately kicking at the sides of her horse, trying to pull the pack animal behind her. All her body language screamed terror. He could see her looking up river even as her horse reached the bank nearest him and started up the steep hill.

With acute dismay he became aware of a vibration that he could feel through his boots. Small pebbles started dancing on the ground adding to the roaring noise, a noise that had been building below his attention threshold. The noise grew quickly to a deafening rumble. A sharp wind, smelling of lightning and rain, blew dust into his eyes. He impatiently knuckled his vision clear and squinted up the river, crouched now in a defensive posture as if he could take on this attack physically. He saw the last of the sunlight backlighting the leading edge of the torrent bearing down on the bridge below him. For what seemed like ages he stood dumbfounded, captivated by the almost solid wavefront that seemed to have sprung from nowhere, it looked like liquid earth, sullied by the debris it had picked up in its rush through the city.

He looked at the bridge again and the scale of the monster became clear. The large structure looked like a matchstick toy, and Beverly and her terrified animals like ants scurrying before the wash brush.

He started forward involuntarily, sliding down the grassy slope in a barely controlled rush, as if on his own two feet he could reach and rescue them. He shouted, trying to reach her over the increasing roar of water.

" Drop the leading rein. Beverly. Run!"

The wave crashed into the bridge with the sound of cannon. With a fearful grinding the whole structure vanished in a maelstrom of spray. Jean-Luc heard the pack animal scream and strained to see what was happening. His heart lifted as out of the mist he could see Beverly, pressed flat against the back of her horse, pounding up the slope towards him.

She was so close he could see the oval of her face. In the wind whipped up by the wave front strands of her hair were writhing like snakes. The horse, ears flat, was straining to get up the hill to safety, but she was just too far away. With a crashing roar, the water was upon them and Jean-Luc had his feet knocked from under him.

The noise and the confusion lasted for an instant and an eternity. He felt his head connect with a rock and the shock brought the metallic taste of blood to his tongue, followed by the wash of water that choked him. His flailing hands grasped at a branch, that snapped then was replaced by another. This he held, against the sucking backwash of a current that sought hungrily for his legs and arms and consciousness. He coughed, and coughed again and fought against a rising tide of black and red that wanted him.

Then it was over, and the last coughing fit seemed to wake his fuddled senses, the overpowering scent of wet earth made him sneeze. He blinked the water out of his eyes and looked around at devastation.

Using the tree he was clinging to for support he stood up and looked around. A scoured landscape met his gaze, yellow mud and tufts of matted vegetation iced the wrecked slope that led down to the stubs of the smashed bridge.

"Beverly." The shout emerged as a rasp. Impatiently he stepped away from the tree and tried to fill his lungs. Another coughing fit drove him to his knees and the world swam away from him again.

After a moment he climbed to his feet, more steadily this time, wiped a trickle of blood out of his eyes then tried, futily, to dry his hand on his sopping trousers. He stood and scanned the valley for any sign of life, the creamy churning river rushing past flung a black branch suddenly at the sky, making him jump; nothing else moved.

He cautiously filled his lungs again and suppressed the cough. "Beverly!!"

The world was filled with the empty sound of water. He felt his chest constrict as his mind automatically pictured finding her, broken, drowned. With a reflex born of years of command he shut the images off, subconsciously straightening. With a shudder he started to walk downstream.

******

Krisfer, son of An, approached the figure, sprawled face down at the base of the sand dune, and prodded it with the butt of his spear. Nothing happened. The young Arand squatted on his heels and thought for a moment. A tongue, rough as sandpaper, rasped over the back of his hand causing a smile to twitch the corner of his mouth.

"What manner of visitor is this, Sandsmoke?" He turned a deep brown look on his companion. The cat yowled and, tail twitching, stalked over to the man and bestowed one of its sandpaper kisses on an exposed ear. Once again Krisfer noted no reaction from the prostrate form.

"Is it dead then, my Guide?"

Sandsmoke yowled again and sat in the sand to wash. He obviously felt his mission was accomplished with his uniting of the two.

Krisfer sighed, then moved forward to roll the person over. It was hard work, the man was heavier than he looked. Sandsmoke stalked forward again and once again drew its tongue over the man's face. The golden skin glistened when it was moistened but the rough caress still caused no reaction.

Krisfer touched the pale cheek with the back of one brown hand. His eyes flicked to the cat again.

"Warm, Sandsmoke. Not dead then ?"

The cat chirruped and walked into the shade cast by the dune's crest and flopped down to sleep.

" Aye, lazy one, leave me the work."

Krisfer worked his hands into the man's armpits and dragged him into the same scant shade. Then settled on his haunches to look at him again. He didn't seem to be injured and his skin had no sign of the dryness thirst brought. He wondered what had happened to strand him in the desert. He was far away from the destruction wrought by yesterday's flood. The Mother flowed half a day to the sunward.

Krisfer squinted into the morning sky. Vapor trails criss-crossed the eggshell blue.

" Still searching. Am finding perhaps?" He folded himself into an efficient crouch and awaited developments, one thing a year of manhood had taught him was that Sandsmoke usually had his reasons for acting.

His patience was rewarded suddenly about an hour after midday. The man sat up like a clasp knife, and stared, wide-eyed around himself. Krisfer had unfolded to his feet in one eye defying movement and the man eyed the business end of his spear with the same incredulity as he took in the sand the sky and the large cat crouched behind the youth's legs.

" I have been turned off." The bewilderment in the man's yellow eyes stopped Krisfer's amused grin half formed. The man tilted his head, thinking, obviously questioning.

"Why am I sitting in the sand ?"

Krisfer did grin at this.

'Where else would you sit, stranger. Sand is the world. Sand the Sea and the Mother."

Krisfer squatted down again, using his spear as a staff.

" Who are you. Have you a name ?" The head tilted again and the bewildered expression on the man's face seemed to deepen.

" I do not know," He looked up into the brown eyes looking into his, and the boy was touched to see tears forming in the golden eyes looking into his own.

"I do not know my name. Do you ?"

" I know not the names of outworlders, Stranger. The names of my clan and my clan's fathers, those I know. Are you injured then, that you know not your name ?"

The man tilted his head and seemed to look inward. " I am not.....fully functional." He almost whispered the words and Krisfer leaned forward to hear. "My operating system is reporting damage in three key memory functions. Did you do this to me ?"

Krisfer stepped back, offended that he should be accused unjustly. The man looked after him and reached out a hand. " If not you, what ?"

Krisfer found it hard to maintain a stern face, he seemed so vulnerable. Sandsmoke chose this time to stretch improbably, then rub himself around the man's torso, purring volcanically all the while. Both men smiled at the cat.

" Sandsmoke of you approves, he is rarely wrong. Perhaps the explosion that caused the flood had something to do with your illness. The Registrar will know. Come you with me?"

The man had his head tilted again, and a faraway look in his eye. Krisfer shrugged and started away. The man rose to his feet and looked at the attentive cat, who was now weaving between his legs.

The man's eyebrows drew together. He reached down and ran a hand over the cat's supple spine. The cat met his yellow eyes with its own, then set off after Krisfer. Shaking his head the man followed for the want of something else to do. He caught up with the youth and, after watching his efficient step slide method of traversing the dunes copied it, and was afterwards able to keep up easily.

Krisfer watched him sideways for an hour or so, then abruptly stopped under the lee of a large curving dune, and squatted to drink sparingly from his waterbag. He offered it to the man, and was amazed when he waved it away.

The man found the point of the spear once again pressed firmly against his chest and looked up in obvious confusion at his travel companion.

" Be you enemy that you would rather thirst than share water bond with me?"

" I do not require water at this time, but meant no offense. Please." He reached a slender hand for the bottle. " If it is important." He tipped a sip into his mouth and visibly swallowed. Krisfer lowered his spear.

He leaned forward and peered closely at the pale gold skin of the stranger. " You don't sweat." He wiped the loose end of his dusty blue turban over his own forehead and glanced at the moisture before tucking the end back in. " Can you remember anything of your world?"

Sandsmoke jumped suddenly down on them from above and sat himself beside the stranger. Krisfer was starting to feel a little jealous of the attention. Before this morning Sandsmoke would regally ignore anyone that dared to court him. Krisfer was his sole concern. Now it would appear he had a rival.

The man scratched the cat absentmindedly under the chin and behind the ears. Sandsmoke dribbled. Krisfer looked away.

" I,..." the man hesitated trying to sort images that seemed to crowd in without reference. " I have lived amongst the stars." He dropped his head in his hands and rubbed his face as if he could rub the memories back in.

" I remember some faces. Friends?" He asked the question on a rising note, his eyes flicking as he attempted to access memory denied. " I....I can not link the information together."

Krisfer stared at the sand grains between his feet. He could hear the pain. He too had lost friends lately, and loved ones. It would appear that despite their physiological differences his traveling companion had much in common with him.

The man jolted him out of his reverie with a question.

" What explosion?"

Startled, Krisfer met the golden eyes. " Yesterday. Near the city a cloud and a great noise. Then the tribe's communicators were dead and the ground trembled as with a mighty spirit passing. The Mother has risen up and we are cut off from the city. My father sent me to see if I could find out what has happened. There is much smoke over the city and we are worried for the family."

" An explosion resulting in an electromagnetic pulse. That could have done it." The stranger was nodding to himself. " You have a communicator?"

Krisfer tossed him a metallic disk, it remained inert despite the man's manipulations. The man looked up as another vehicle crossed the sky high above them.

"Sensors would be out," he mused almost to himself. " And transporters." He looked at the young Arand squatting in front of him. "Are your people at war ?"

Krisfer's eyes widened at the word, then he glanced down at the sand, as if to avoid the man's gaze.

" War is the evil. We live thus.." He waved an arm at the desert and then clasped an amulet that hung from a thong round his neck. " So that war would not scourge our people."

The man could only see the top of his turban, then suddenly Krisfer looked straight at him. " Welcome we all Strangers, to stop war." He paused again, searching the face that looked into his, alien. His eyes slid away from the golden gaze and his voice dropped to a murmur. " Still the sin dwells with us."

Sandsmoke yowled and butted the boy's shoulder. Krisfer buried his face briefly in the fur of the cat's ruff. Then looked again at the patient stranger. " I don't know whether we are at war or no. Council have declared none. I don't think so."

The man nodded at stood, surveying the horizon. " Is that the river ?" He pointed to a wavering line of black dots that shimmered in and out of mirage on the horizon. Krisfer stood beside him and peered in the direction he pointed. He grunted, "The Mother lies that way, aye. You have eagle eyes to see through mirage stranger."

The man shrugged. " I am what I am. Does our path lie that way?"

Krisfer nodded and they set off again along the sliding faces of the dunes.

*****

Riker insisted on personally piloting the shuttle that was to check out and evacuate the homes on the left bank of the river and the ancient, and now even more crumbled, ruins. Finally the ionization fuzz caused by the explosion had cleared but still no communication had been received from the three people he was most concerned with. Transporters would apparently remain unreliable for another week.

Admiral Nachayev had arrived in orbit with what seemed half of the bureaucracy of the Federation in tow, and his overall command was de-facto if not officially usurped. So he was indulging himself. After days of search and rescue and disaster relief in the stricken city all the urgent work had been attended to and what remained was quite literally a mopping up process. Time to tie up some loose ends.

He landed the shuttle in a cleared area near to the road that had, in the past, led down to a small jetty. As he stood in the blazing sun on the road he could see that the jetty was now marooned, the force of the flood had moved the river's right bank so that the main flow was now further from the shore. It appeared that the same chance had spared the row of four homes that led down to the jetty. Even the closest to the water, Picard's home, seemed from this distance to be untouched by the ravages he had come to associate with the torrent. The first three homes were displaying the yellow evacuated sign, but the road in front of the Picard's appeared undisturbed. Frowning Riker walked to the front gate.

Braced to find rubble, the muddy mess in the front garden seemed insignificant despite the overpowering smell of decaying vegetation. Considering the smells that had been rising from the drowned city over the past couple of days, silt smelt almost sweet. Only one line of footprints disturbed the muck, the front door was closed and a blue 'empty' sticker was pasted on it. Riker's heart sank again. He had been hoping....but he should have known better. Discouraged he made a fruitless circuit of the closed home and then made his way back to the shuttle.

Sitting in the pilot's position again he tried to contact the dig on the opposite bank with the shuttle's booster on, and was overjoyed to get an answer.

"Lawrence !" He grinned at the disheveled image forming on the com panel in front of him. " Good to see you."

" Will!" Lawrence leaned out of shot for a moment and called. " It's Riker. Ttikatik, Dain." He explained quickly to Riker. " We have some casualties Captain. Can you evacuate us?"

Riker leaned forward " I'm on my way Lawrie." He suited action to word and initiated start-up, leaving the channel open as he took off. After a moment he continued " Are the Picards with you by any chance, or Data?"

The big man's grin faded. " I'm sorry Captain, I hoped you would know if they were safe. The Picards left the day before the flood and Data long before that. Haven't you heard from them? What about their home ?"

Riker shook his head and the other man looked serious. " I'll see you in five minutes."

Lawrence nodded and Riker just saw the Lorpid coming into the picture as he signed off. He had no doubt he would be met by the unusual team as he landed. Ttikatik draped over Lawrence's shoulder like a shawl.

He landed outside the old city walls and saw his prediction fulfilled. Leading the welcoming party, Lawrence stood with Ttikatik and seeing the two of them together he was irresistibly reminded of the last time they had all been together, on the search for a friend that Lawrence hadn't even known. On Ttikatik's word Lawrence had traveled half way round the galaxy to help find Data. With a twinge Riker wondered if anything he could do or say would inspire such loyalty.

He jumped down from the shuttle door and embraced one of the few humans he could meet eye to eye. Turning to the rest of the party he smiled at the young woman who stood behind Lawrence, small and dark haired she fitted his 'type' parameters almost exactly. He raised an eye in invitation to Lawrence, who was turning an interesting shade of pink. It clashed with Ttikatik's fur. Smith visibly pulled himself together and managed to introduce her.

"Dain, meet Captain Riker, of the Enterprise. William Riker, Dain Andrews, specialist in historical cryptology; and acting medic."

Dain turned a cool green gaze on Riker, that turned his avuncular leer into something more formal. She nodded then turned her luminous smile on Lawrence. Lawrence looked at her with the completely dopey expression of one lost to normal human interactions. Riker felt like kicking him in the shins but Ttikatik took care of that for him by tapping Smith's cheek with a six inch long claw. With a start Lawrence returned to the day and his duties.

Riker shrugged mentally and decided to take pity on the poor man.

" Lawrence. Tell me, how did the ruins survive the flood?"

Lawrence waved a vague arm at the erosion that was evident everywhere, " A coating of mud is not going to make much difference here Captain. We win some new artifacts, and lose some covered by mud." He shrugged his shoulders, jiggling Ttikatik, who opened an eye at the disturbance.

" Casualties." It reminded the two men, and the patiently waiting Dain.

Lawrence flashed a grin at Riker then became serious for a while. " We had no warning and a team of Arand students were at the water steps when the flood came through. We lost one and two others seem to have picked up some bug -Dain here has done her best but we have just about run out of supplies."

Dain shrugged gracefully, "I am very pleased you contacted us Captain. We were considering sending someone up the river to Atarl, but I am not sure how long Evane can last on just hydrating fluids. "

"Evane?" Riker cocked his head inquiringly.

Dain glanced at him again " One of the students, he took a nasty blow to his head." She touched Lawrence on the hand, " How soon can we get started?"

Lawrence covered her small hand with his much larger one, seemingly lending her strength with that unconscious contact. " Right away, Dain." He looked over to Riker, who nodded.

" I can take four casualties at a time to the Enterprise's sick bay. Its a twenty minute trip, if you think he will be able to last that long?"

Dain looked thoughtful then nodded decisively. " That's good Captain, I'll go and get them ready." She trotted off into the shadows cast by the looming walls, unaware of the two men watching her. Riker recovered first and contemplated that kick on the shins anyway as he saw Smith still following her with his eyes.

" After you Lawrence." He clapped the man on the back, recalling him yet again to the time and place. They made their way into the city and spent the rest of the day evacuating the archaeological team and their helpers.

In the evening Riker joined Lawrence and Ttikatik in their makeshift camp near to Picard's office. Lawrence had lit a wood fire from some debris cast ashore by the flood, and the two tired men and one permanently quiet alien gathered in the desert gloom to review what they knew of the whereabouts of the three missing persons.

Dain had accompanied her head injured patient to the Enterprise sickbay and convinced Dr Keshvare to let her stay until he regained consciousness. Riker suspected she could organize her way into anything she wanted, and envied the obvious mutual attraction between her and the big archeologist. However at least Smith was a little less distracted with her temporarily gone.

" So where exactly did Picard say they were going?" Riker swallowed his scalding coffee and waited for Lawrence to explain.

" Dr Picard wanted to visit the desert tribes." Lawrence kept the gossip about Beverly's supposed ulterior motives to himself. "The plague has hit the tribesmen very hard and they don't respond well to city based treatment."

" And you have had no contact with them since the flood?" Smith shook his head. Riker leaned back on his elbows and looked at the brilliant desert stars twinkling in the heat shimmer from the fire. " So where do we start?"

" Follow River."

Ttikatik finished the discussion with one of his pithy solutions yet again. The two men watched the camp fire and followed their own thoughts silently.

*****

Jean-Luc knew that he would remember the emotions generated by finding Beverly, after the flood, for the rest of his life.

Night had fallen like a stone over the wasteland that the river valley had become, and he was as close to despair as he cared to remember. He had slogged on foot about half a mile down the drowned landscape before finally thinking of his horse. He moved to higher ground and let loose the piercing whistle he reserved for catching the flighty animal, and was rewarded within minutes with the welcome thud of hooves. Charlie thundered up to him and then dipped his head to sniff suspiciously at his still wet clothes.

" Steady boy."

Picard ran his hand down the animal's neck and swung on to his bare back, picking up the halter tether as he sat down. As the animal moved off, obedient for once, Picard started to feel more in command of the situation.

The light was very bad, the swollen river seemed to glow with its own light, making the banks even darker in contrast. At intervals of a minute or so he yelled for Beverly, more to feel as if he was doing the right thing rather than from any conviction that she was near. Charlie flicked an ear back at his master's bellow, then pricked both ears forward as they both heard a faint reply. Picard did not dare name the emotion that flooded through him as he realized whose voice he was hearing. He kneed Charlie into a rapid walk and leaned forward calling urgently into the gloom.

" Beverly, where are you ?"

Picard could hear the hope cracking his own voice. Charlie's ears flicked back, then forward again as the sound of Beverly's voice came out of the darkness. The horse picked his careful way down the riverbank, moving so slowly Picard thought there would be a good chance of going mad from tension before finding her. Gathering his courage he patiently followed her cries, until at last he was looking down on her bedraggled, beautiful form. In the dark all he could see was the oval of her face, and the elongated streak of one bare arm.

"All my life I've been waiting for a knight on a white horse. Your timing is excellent my love."

Her voice, that he had thought, feared, not to hear again.

Picard flung himself off Charlie's back and gathered her into his embrace. The warmth of their bodies pressed together, shoulder to thigh, drove out the damp and the fear. The pleasure almost made up for their bitter separation.

He kissed her cold lips and warm eyelids. Held her as if they could stay this way for eternity.

The spell was broken by Charlie who placed his soft muzzle on his shoulder and blew horse breath in his ear.

Beverly reached over and stroked Charlie's nose.

" I found my horse, before the light went. She's dead poor thing." Beverly gulped a little, on the edge of what she could cope with. " I brought her saddle bags." She bent over and hoisted the bags, Picard reached quickly to take them from her.

" I saw the camp site, when I was looking for you. It wasn't damaged, the water didn't reach so far. Come on, I'll help you onto Charlie."

He boosted her onto Charlie's surprisingly patient back and draped the saddlebags in front of her. Looking up now at her bowed form he could see she was at the end of her endurance. "Not far Beverly, hang on to his mane." The oval bobbed as she nodded and he led Charlie back to the cheerful glow of the fake campfire he had activated a lifetime ago.

Once at the untouched hollow he held his arms up for her as she half fell off the horse's back.

" A fire. How in God's name ?" She looked at him, astonishment warring with exhaustion in her voice. She walked the few steps to the cheerfully dancing flames and crouched down before them holding her hands to the heat. He dumped the saddle bags beside her and stooped to touch her shoulder and place a kiss on the top of her wet head.

"I'll explain in a moment, let me see to Charlie first, huh ?"

Her hand reached up to cover his for a moment and she flashed him one of her fleeting grins. A lump unaccountably rose in his throat and involuntary tears stung his eyes blurring the fire lit image.

The emotions he had so ruthlessly suppressed as he had searched for her crashed down on him as he left the fire's circle. Helpless he leaned into his horse's warmth for what seemed an age, trying to collect himself from the scattered fragments he found in his soul. Her voice called him back.

" Jean-Luc, are you OK."

" I'll be there in a moment." He croaked in his best command style. Grinning at his own foolishness he finished tethering the horse where he could reach both food and water, then returned to Beverly.

She was now sitting cross legged in front of the fire digging in one of the saddlebags. Triumphant she pulled out a separately packed inner bag and produced from it the communicators and the case that contained her field medical kit.

She activated the communicator, and was answered by silence. They exchanged a look and Jean-Luc took both of the devices from her and tried to make them work. He was no more successful than she had been. With a shrug he put them back in the bag and then turned to watch Beverly, who had clicked open the lock on her med. case.

"This is shielding." She tapped the lid of the case. " Let's see...." She pulled out her slightly battered personal tricorder and activated it. A cheerful chirp answered her and Jean-Luc could see her shoulders relax slightly. Communicators they could do without, she would feel crippled without the tools of her trade.

"The atmosphere is ionized." She read the small screen, then pointed the machine at him briefly before shutting it and restoring it to its case. She smiled up at his raised eyebrow. " You'll live." She shook out the bag containing clothes and picked up a warm top.

Jean-Luc sat himself down beside her. " That's mine," he pointed out. Beverly looked sidelong at him and dug further into the pack. She pulled out a lacy underthing and waved it at him teasingly.

" Going to claim this too ?"

He raised his eyebrows at her, and then took the flimsy thing and held it near his chest as if measuring it for size. He shook his head " Wrong color." Looking up he met her glinting teasing eyes, and, crumpling the garment carelessly in one of his hands, leaned forward to kiss her. Her hands crept around the back of his head and held him as the kiss deepened. Out of breath at last Beverly pulled back from him a little.

She reached up and traced a gentle finger over the cut on his forehead. " Let me fix that for you. It looks sore." Picard caught her finger in his mouth but subsided obediently enough, relaxing a little as she ran the healer over the contusion. As the pain went he shivered convulsively. Beverly kissed the healed area as if to make it better and then took his hand.

" We should get warm." He nodded, captivated by the reality of her. She caught her breath, mesmerized by his intensity. " Let me ?" She lifted the bottom edge of his top and pulled the wet garment off him. He felt the sharp warmth of the fire on his chilled skin, and shivered as she ran her hands over his shoulders and chest.

Not breaking the contact she stood, pulling him with her. " Did you finish setting up the tent?" She moved over to the opening. He nodded, and she looked up at him.

" Let's get out of the rest of these wet things and then go in huh." The promise in her eyes was not dimmed by the year of marriage they had shared. As she undressed she watched his beautiful body as it was revealed in the firelight.

They crawled into the tent and embraced on the cold fabric that covered the outside of their joined sleeping bag.

" Have I told you how much I love you Jean-Luc Picard." She whispered into the darkness, she felt his cheek rub against hers as his body warmed the chill out of hers.

"Not today." He replied, his breath warm against her ear.

She slid a leg over his hip and pressed against him, " Well I do. And thank you."

" What for?" He raised his head for a moment.

" Later." She gasped as he bent his head to her chest, and decided to let passion speak for her.

Later she woke in the fire tinged darkness, and lay silent for a while trying to identify what had disturbed her. A small sound was repeated, and she scooted over to Jean-Luc's back and ran an exploratory hand over his shoulders.

" What is it." She whispered into the dark.

Jean-Luc was lying on his front, his head pillowed in his arms. "Nothing, I didn't mean to wake you."

His voice was hoarse. She raised herself up on an elbow and stroked his head.

" Tell me." She insisted.

He sighed, then turned towards her and circled her waist with his arms.

" I thought I had lost you." He paused and got his voice under some kind of control. "Even though I kept looking, in my heart I didn't think I was going to find you. I kept reminding myself that I had managed all my life, alone. I tried telling myself I would manage again. I didn't believe it Beverly." He turned so that he was lying on his back and covered his eyes his forearm. " Years stretched out in front of me. So empty." He fell silent, the words stuck in the blockage that filled his throat.

Beverly sniffed. He moved his arm quickly so that he could see her face, then folded her to his chest, where he held her precious warmth.

He stroked her hair away from her face eventually , then they both jumped as her stomach growled loudly, demolishing the fragile mood.

Picard let his head fall back on the pillow. " All is well, Beverly is hungry."

She giggled damply into his chest, then sat up and threw her pillow at him. " So, are you going to feed me?"

He surged up, out of the warm nest they had created, and wriggled out of the tent entrance. A moment later her dry clothes were tossed in followed by his disembodied head. " Coming out?" She nodded and shortly joined him in front of the flickering camp fire under the blaze of the desert stars. They ate self heating rations from the packet, and leaned against each others shoulders.

You going to tell me about that?" She nodded at the camp fire. He swallowed, reached into his jacket pocket, then tossed her the remote control.

" Happy birthday. The flames are holographs, the heat is from a shielded fusion core, we'll never run out of firewood again." He spread his arms in a theatrical gesture, then lifted her hand and bestowed a gallant kiss on the back of it. " I'm very pleased you are here with me to enjoy it."

She smiled at his half mocking eyes and reclaimed her hand.

" Thank you. For finding me, for the fire, for dinner." She waved the ration pack slightly then looked into the darkness. " What do you think happened, Jean-Luc? What could have caused such a flood, and a big enough explosion to wipe out all communication.?"

" It has to have been the dam." He looked at her for confirmation and saw her nodding, her eyes distant. " Perhaps there was some catastrophic accident at the power plant, or a shuttle core breach, or something...." He left out terrorist attack, although that was the first possibility that occurred to him. Her eyes widened as she thought the implications through. Finally she looked at him.

" The city, Jean-Luc. What must it have done to Atarl if it was this powerful here?'

He nodded and slid an arm around her shoulder. " We'll start upstream tomorrow. It'll take us at least four days to reach Atarl on foot. They will be too busy to look for us for some time, so we had better get ourselves to them."

She nodded again, worried now that she was not where she was most needed. Jean-Luc looked at her furrowed brow and guessed her thoughts.

"We will start at first light, shall we go back to bed?:"

They tidied up, then climbed back into the tent. At the last moment Beverly turned back to the camp fire and, using the remote, turned it off. She shivered, more from the pressing dark than the loss of heat, and hurried back inside.

It was a long night.

*****

Data had been noticing signs that they were following a party of one or two up the river bank for four point five hours, but he had refrained from pointing out this to Krisfer. In his judgment Krisfer would not last on his feet for long anyway. The pauses Krisfer found necessary to cough, and regain strength, were coming closer and closer together. Krisfer was clearly ill, but refused to acknowledge his debility. Data had tried every persuasion he could think of to make him stop, but the tribesman felt a duty to get Data to the city before the deadline for his hearing ran out. Data was experiencing both acute frustration and regret that he had told Krisfer about the hearing at all. Flushed with the relief of regaining his memory he suspected he had been babbling, and Krisfer, unlike those that knew him better, had politely listened.

Sandsmoke appeared from the desert on their right, and sat himself regally in front of his master's feet. He yowled plaintively when all Krisfer did was stop and sway slightly, before hunching over in an attempt to control yet another coughing fit.

Data moved until he was standing beside the boy and placed one hand under his elbow. Almost unconsciously the young man leaned into his strength. Then with a sigh he sat cross legged on the sand and mopped at his forehead with the much abused end of his turban.

" Do you remember yet whether you can be infected, Data ?" He looked blearily into the gold eyes looking at his. " After that last dream, did it help?"

Data smiled slightly at the young man. " I am within five percent optimum function now Krisfer." He tilted his head as if checking internally. "Thank you, I do not believe I am susceptible."

Concerned about Data's distress over his lost memory, Krisfer had diffidently offered his tribe's belief in the truth held in dreams. He had hesitantly suggested sleep as an option after realizing that Data had stood all the night watches on the first night of their travels. Out of ideas, and grateful for the suggestion, Data had initiated his sleep program on the second night, wondering why he had such a strong feeling that dreaming was not something he wanted to do. In fact, as he lay down, he had a vivid recollection of deciding, sometime in the not too distant past, to not initiate his sleep or dreaming program ever again.

He dreamed, perceiving a reality that to all his senses seemed tangible, while the sequence of events made little or no sense to his analytical mind. Even now he had little idea of why a complex dream of cruising green countryside in an antique automobile had resulted in his waking with all his identity components ordered and organized in his mind. Nor could he see a link between a long corridor filled with people who were dressed in various Starfleet uniforms applauding as he ran through the middle of them, and the obvious integration of his short term memory. His name had returned at the end of the first night and his memory was integrating even now

He hadn't told Krisfer of the dream of falling that had woken him, filled with the terror of his ship breaking up around him. He could still taste the isolation and grief for his crew he had experienced. At least the waking of that memory had explained some the pervasive feeling of unease he had felt when initiating dreaming. That and the whole episode with Threa and Fajo. He was beginning to wonder whether his loss of memory had had more to do with a subconscious wish to forget the anguish of the recent past than with the effects of an electromagnetic pulse. With a mental shrug he filed the dreams away again for later analysis, and turned his primary attention back to Krisfer

Krisfer was having considerable trouble breathing and Data was feeling more and more helpless. Sandsmoke yowled and butted his blunt head into his master's knee. Krisfer toppled over into Data's waiting arms and apparently passed out. With a feeling of intense relief Data implemented a plan he had been trying to broach for half a day. He stood, and carrying the young man in his arms, started to run up the riverbank towards the city and the only help he could hope for.

He felt a surprising connection with the young man in his arms, Krisfer had spent the early part of his life in the city, and had graduated last year from what sounded like an advanced sciences course. Then he had sought out his roots, wanted to explore the philosophy that had shaped the culture of his planet. His father had welcomed him into the physically simple, spiriturally complex life of the sands and he had found peace among the monotony of the dunes. A peace that Data had felt drawn to, and healed by, himself. He glanced down at the unconscious youth. Images of Threa's last few minutes, and of his powerlessness, rose up to taunt him. Distantly he wondered how he was going to manage losing another innocent friend. Some things, it appeared, did not get easier with time and experience.

*****

Picard finished tethering Charlie and stowing the saddle bags and packs for the day. He glanced down towards the water where he could still see Beverly's crouching form. He watched until he was sure she was finished vomiting, then walked over to the ever burning camp fire and snagged the billy off its hook. As she walked back into camp he handed her a cup of hot weak tea and nodded at her murmured thanks.

" Still as bad as ever I see." He guided her over to what had become 'her' spot beside the campfire. She sat like a dropped sack and rested her head on her forearm for a moment.

" I *hate* being sick." She said with more animation than he had heard for a while. " What a stupid bug."

"What a pity that you only packed medicines that worked on the native Arands in that saddlebag you saved." He quipped back.

" What a pity I couldn't keep my mouth shut when we were swept away." She replied acerbically. "I must have picked up this bug from that incredibly filthy water." Picard nodded, but wondered privately why he hadn't gone down with it too, as he had swallowed what felt like a gallon of the stuff when he had been dragged under.

" We'll be at the city tomorrow," he sat beside her and poured himself a drink of rather stronger tea. "The way the water has cleared makes me think that they have had Federation help."

'The communicators still don't work though do they?" He shook his head. " They might at short range though. Do you want me to try?"

Beverly raised her head to look at him, he looked as if he had to do something or jump out of his skin. " Go over that ridge then and let's try."

He nodded seriously and trotted out of sight behind a nearby rock formation taking his own com badge with him. Beverly tapped her badge experimentally, it chirped at her. "Jean-Luc?"

His mellow tones came out of the air by her badge. " Well at least they work locally." He came into view again and Beverly watched him as he approached the camp. Suddenly he stiffened and she rose to her feet to see what it was he had spotted.

" Beverly, what do you think...." He broke off as something solidified out of the heat mirage and approached the camp.

Beverly could see the figure now, running smoothly along the path they had just followed. She reached into the pack for her hand phaser and tossed one to Jean-Luc. They moved closer together, guarding each other's backs. Gradually the shape came closer, a large cat could be seen loping at his side. Then all of a sudden he was close enough to see, and they both holstered their phasers and stepped forward to greet Data as he jogged calmly into camp, still carrying Krisfer.

" Data. We are very glad to see you." Beverly was looking at the young man Data had brought to her, even as she subjected Data to a firm hug. " He doesn't look well...." She reached for her med. kit and flicked the tricorder over his still form. She looked up into Data's concerned gaze. " This isn't good Data, how long has he been unconscious?"

"One hour, thirty seven minutes, fif...."Data broke off, embarrassed and looked at Jean-Luc who was bringing some bedding over to the fire. Jean-Luc grinned at the anxious android, and slapped him on the back as he passed by way of greeting. Sandsmoke was suddenly between them, teeth bared. Data grabbed the cat's ruff in an iron grasp and pulled him away.

"Sorry sir, he belongs to Krisfer." Sandsmoke growled in his throat, and Data hauled him out of the camp. Jean-Luc had to stifle a grin at the sight of his friend crouching in the sand lecturing a semi -(at a stretch) sentient cat that was showing every sign of listening to him. Whatever Data said, it must of worked because the big cat trotted tamely back into camp at his heels and took up a watchful position at Krisfer's feet. Beverly pretended not to notice.

Beverly left her patient for a moment and fetched some medicine from the recently despised saddlebags. She loaded a hypo and injected it into Krisfer's neck. Data waited, then could restrain his impatience no longer.

" Is he going to be all right?"

Beverly glanced up at him, remembering one of her tutor's favorite replies to that question. With a feeling of being wicked she gave in to the temptation of teasing him a little.

" Data, I'm a doctor not a prophet." She snapped in a mock annoyed voice.

She concentrated on her tricorder trying not to grin, remembering her own chagrin when her professor had pulled her leg.The silence from the other side of her patient could have been cut with a knife. Relenting she raised her eyes to look at the dismayed android and smiled at him. " He's young and strong and I have given him the antidote we designed specifically for this disease. Given a modicum of luck he'll be fine."

Data felt as if something had broken, tears sprang to his eyes. Mortified to be so transparent, again, in front of his friends, he nodded, then sprang to his feet and strode away. Stricken Beverly looked after Data, then over to Jean-Luc who was frowning at her.

"Was that necessary, Beverly? You could see..."

" Oh stop it !" Beverly bent over her work, hiding behind her hair. " I'm sorry. I keep forgetting how sensitive he is now." She took off the boy's turban and stroked a dark hair off his forehead. " I'll apologize to him later, but right now you need to watch my patient because I am going to be sick again." Suiting action to word Picard saw her head off to the side of the river. Jean-Luc sat beside the cat, sighing at the situations he found himself in.

" If I were you lad." He said to the unconscious youth, "I would stay like that for as long as possible."

Sandsmoke yowled in agreement, then crouched warily as the shadow of a low flying Federation shuttle craft passed over their campsite. The cavalry had arrived.

*****

Krisfer opened his eyes with an effort and then tried to make sense of the blues and whites that swam indiscriminately in front of him. His eyes teared at the brightness, blurring the scene. He blinked rapidly finally making out the inside of a clinically clean room and the face of his mother.

"An," he tried to reach a ridiculously heavy arm up to her.

"Welcome back sleepy, for once you have outdone that animal of yours."

The weight depressing the end of his bed moved, and Sandsmoke's rumbling approached his head. A cold nose was inserted in his ear.

" Get off, you great fool." An stood and leaned over Krisfer. A heavy thud announced Sandsmoke's arrival at floor level again. An rested the back of her hand on Krisfer's cheek for a moment, smiling, then turned away from the bed to busy herself on the other side of the room.

Krisfer thought about sitting up, next year perhaps.

An came back with a cup in her hand. " Beverly said you would be thirsty when you woke, I thought Plaris juice ?"

Sitting up seemed a better idea, Krisfer managed to lever himself up enough to take the beaker.

The juice lubricated his throat and its tart sweetness cleared his head. " What's happened while I slept ?" He felt as if he had walked out in the middle of an exciting play and didn't know the punch line. "Did Data get to the hearing in time?"

Another voice answered him. " It's on now."

The woman who walked into the room would be of an age with his mother but she suffered from the comparison. Beside his mother's olive skinned rude health the woman looked drawn and not very well, her pale skin stark against red hair. An met her half way across the room and touched her elbow, concern folding a familiar line between her eyebrows. Subtly she guided the woman to the chair she had recently vacated beside Krisfer's bed. Krisfer doubted the woman had even noticed the help, she was studying the readouts on the diagnostic panel above his bed and then the screen of a battered looking handheld padd she had been carrying. She met his look with an intense blue eyed stare that did not look in the least impaired, and in fact was the twin of the one his mother was wearing at the end of the bed. Krisfer began to feel besieged. The woman's face softened at his slightly panicked look and she glanced quickly at his mother, sharing a smile.

"You're fine. A little rest and you will be as good as new." She rubbed her hand over her mouth and face, as if to rub the sleep out of it. " I'm sorry you don't know me do you?" Seeing his slight head shake she continued. 'I'm Doctor Beverly Picard, I'm, we're friends of Data's."

Seeing the boy's dawning comprehension she turned once again to his mother. "Another day here then you could take him home." She reached down absent mindedly and stroked the top of Sandsmoke's head. Sandsmoke looked sideways at Krisfer, the boy could have sworn he grinned.

Krisfer shut his eyes and when he opened them again the two women were standing by the door, An again had her hand on the woman's elbow."I wish you would rest, Beverly."

The woman, Beverly, squeezed his mother's shoulder with her free hand. " When I've told him, An. Its keeping me awake nights trying to decide, that's all."

An looked singularly unconvinced, drew breath as if to argue, then visibly changed her mind.

"Rest, Beverly."

The woman nodded then squared her shoulders and left the room.

His mother now had an expression on her face that boded little good for anyone. Krisfer wished he was asleep as the furrowed brow pointed in his direction. His thoughts must have been on his face because An chuckled at the sight of him and plonked herself down in the chair beside his bed again, ill temper forgotten. She picked up one of his brown broad hands in her own wiry grip.

" And are you returning to me to study, great tribesman, or has the sand yet to wear away the romance in your soul?"

Krisfer groaned at the recommencement of an old argument. It really began to feel as if he had come home.

Sandsmoke yowled at them both, and they met gazes, telling each other silently of the pain of being separated and the joys of reunions.

"Data was talking of moving into research into quantum conditions, he's thinking of an offer he has received from Cambridge. It sounds interesting. Physics was my major, there's a lot of time for thinking in the desert."

"Off planet." An's voice sounded scandalized. " You would move from a physical desert to a cultural one?'

" What is wrong with Doctor Picard ?" Krisfer tried a change of subject.

His mother glared at him then stood up. " Nothing that you could explain with Physics, son of mine." She walked briskly to the door. " Try not to think too hard. I'll see you tomorrow."

Krisfer raised a hand in farewell then grinned at his cat. " Divide and conquer, Sandsmoke. Works every time."

Sandsmoke stalked, tail flicking, out of the door.

******

Jean-Luc sat back in his seat and resisted the urge to run his finger around the constriction of his collar. "Some people," he mused to himself "must manage to live their whole lives without needing to attend a formal court marshal." He found the emotion uppermost in his thoughts to be envy, heartfelt.

Somehow the court rooms in his life were beginning to run together in his memory, this one the distillation of all those gone before.

Now, at the end of the formal hearing, Nachayev sat isolated behind the massive desk, hewn in one piece from the local sandstone. Her petite form was undiminished by the furniture. Data sat to the left of the desk, upright and maintaining his blandest android face, however his armless chair paradoxically made him look both fragile and vulnerable.

Picard positioned in the front row of the tiered benches wished he could have been seated beside him, lending him physical support along with the official and moral support of the testimony he had already given. Data was not meeting his eyes and Nachayev was extending, uncomfortably, her silent deliberations. Picard could hear the audience fidgeting, the rustle of clothes as people shifted position and a couple of whispered conversations from the back of the room.

Data had managed to tell his story with the utmost simplicity, without a trace of the emotional instability that had dogged him over the last couple of months. But the hurt had come through, and the guilt he felt for losing his ship and his friend, Threa.

Somehow by accepting the responsibility for all the lives lost he had managed to diminish, in Picard's ears, the crime committed against him by Fajo.

Picard studied Nachayev as she gazed thoughtfully at the information scrolling on the screen that marred the smooth top of the desk . Which way would she jump? Predicting her was an impossibility for him, he simply had no idea what made the woman tick. " Or any other woman." He thought ruefully, Beverly's behavior since they had arrived in the city was as opaque as Nachayev's. He felt as if he was married to a stranger. One that didn't sleep well and had a temper to match.

Nachayev looked up and swept the courtroom with a frosty look that suggested, as it brushed past him, that she had read his mind. The murmured conversations stopped . Her expression softened as it rested on Data's form.

" Captain Data." Data's head came up, he looked surprised to be so addressed. Nachayev smiled at him. " You have been a victim, not the cause, of your misfortunes."

Picard felt as if scissors had snipped the band of tension around his chest. He breathed out gratefully.

" I will release you from active duty, as you have requested, but I do not release you yet from Starfleet. Apply again in a year if you still want to resign. These events are too recent and we need a men of your caliber in the service."

Data looked as if he was having trouble believing the evidence of his ears, he nodded at the Admiral dumbly. Nachayev banged her gravel on the desk.

"Let it be recorded that the ship " Far Star" was lost to hostile forces. The crew and its commander will be honored as usual in these cases. Captain you are dismissed."

Data stood up, rather hesitantly and looked towards Picard. Nachayev followed his gaze and her brow furrowed again.

"Picard." Preemptory her voice summoned him to her desk. He closed the gap between them, his footfalls muffled by the noise of the other members of the court leaving, and paused at the side of the desk. He pulled Data into a brief shoulder clasp. Then turned to Nachayev.

" Admiral?"

" Have you finished sulking yet?"

Picard felt his eyebrows climbing to the vicinity of his absent hairline. " I assure you....."

" Nonsense man, call it what you may, this ..." She waved her arms, somehow managing to indicate the city, the planet and his general state of non- uniformed formality. " This retreat of yours is inconvenient. When are you coming back to work?"

Picard opened his mouth, absolutely nothing came out. He turned and looked at Data who was trying to keep a straight face, with limited success, and then looked back at the admiral. Nachayev cast him a shrewd look and continued.

" Starfleet needs a negotiator here, you're on the spot. Will you do it? Or do I have to pull Riker off the flagship ?" She darted another assessing glance at him and changed tack. " And what on earth do you think you are doing to Beverly she looks dreadful?"

Picard tried to rally. " She's not been well."

" I can see that. What do you intend doing about it? Oh, for gods sake Jean- Luc shut your mouth, you'll catch flies. Call me in the morning and tell me your decision. What I said to Data goes doubly for you, you know. Starfleet and the Federation need you, and you can start by helping us sort out this mess with the Dylithium mines. " She stood and gathered up the data padds that littered the desk. " Captain Data. Picard."

Nodding to the two men she marched out of the courtroom and left a strangled silence behind her.

Jean-Luc leaned on his hands on the desk and shut his eyes. That damnable woman, she had him coming and going again. He felt Data's hand on his back.

" It is time you went back to Starfleet, Sir."

Picard straightened and met Data's concerned expression. " I know, Data. Beverly knows too. It's just....Nachayev." He sighed and shrugged. Then turned and headed for the door, "Let's go and find Beverly and celebrate."

They reached the door. Beverly was leaning against the wall obviously waiting for them but looking rather startled at Nachayev's briskly departing back. She caught sight of the pair of them and hurried over.

"What did she mean, 'she'd twisted your tail', Jean-Luc? How did the hearing go?"

Picard grinned at her befuddlement and clapped Data on the back again. "Home free, and he can take up that research post if he wants, she wouldn't let him out of Starfleet though."

Beverly hugged Data, " I knew it would be all right. Krisfer is awake, he was asking after you. Why don't you go and tell him the good news? I want to talk to Jean-Luc for a moment. We'll meet you there."

Data nodded and headed off towards the hospital wing that was annexed to the administration building. Beverly watched him go, then turned back to her husband. She took both his hands in hers.

" What has she done to you this time?"

"She wants me to mediate the talks with the Arand counsel. For Starfleet."

" You knew they'd want you back." Beverly looked into his eyes, " You did, you know. You said yes?"

Jean-Luc huffed in annoyance at her lack of surprise. " She didn't wait for an answer, I'll call her in the morning. She did find time to haul me over the coals for abusing you," he wagged his eyebrows at her. " When are you going to tell me what's the matter ?"

Beverly let go with one hand and started walking in the direction Data had taken. Picard allowed himself to be towed along by their remaining joined hand.

" Beverly?"

His voice had taken on a plaintive note and she glanced at him sideways, a small smile on her lips. She paused in the junction of the corridor, then, after looking at him again, seemed to make up her mind. She headed for an unoccupied window seat set in a blind alcove and pulled him onto the red leather cushion beside her.

"Jean-Luc, do you remember, when we were leaving home for this trip? Do you remember not answering the com for the last time?"

Jean-Luc nodded, puzzled.

" We really should have answered it you know."

She looked away for a moment, then glanced at him again and focused on their joined hands. " Dr Keshvare had isolated the vector for the plague, it was an engineered immunosuppressant, she found out that it had contaminated the water supply. We both got a good dose before Dar-Ethan took matters into his own hands." She looked into his eyes again then slid her hand up his arm and rested her index finger on the implant he had under the skin of his forearm. " Do you know how these work?"

Jean-Luc shook his head at the apparent non-sequetor. What could his contraceptive implant have to do with this conversation? They both had one of course, as they didn't plan a fam..........

His face went so pale she thought he was going to faint. Of course he knew how they worked, they tweaked the immune system into neutralizing sperm and egg. The words immunosuppressant seemed to echo around his head; a head that had assumed the empty proportions of a shuttlecraft hanger. He had a sudden clear memory of Beverly crouched beside the river loosing the contents of her stomach. In the morning, among other times of the day.

He looked beseechingly at his wife and saw her nod at him.

" You're pregnant?" he whispered.

She nodded again, then slowly smiled as the shock was replaced by an unguarded expression of the purest wonder. If she had had doubts about the wisdom of continuing with this in the dark of the night, that expression would justify her decision, and again. He looked besotted, and, as he folded her into his embrace, she could not find room in her heart for regrets.

The middle