Bindings

Chapter One.

( Te Kaha N.Z. Maori for Strength in battle.)

Captain Jean-Luc Picard pushed himself away from his ready room desk with his hands and walked over to the viewport. He saw his face reflected, framed by the stars; the view he had worked for all his career.

Now he had to contemplate doing without it. The orders had not really been unexpected, the major refit had been hinted at over the last two months, rumor hardening to gossip and now official announcement.

Technology had caught up with his ship, new propulsion systems had been tested and approved, new concepts in shielding developed. She was to come back to Earth for a complete refit; the orders superceded all mission priorities. The time in dock was expected to be the best part of a year.

" The end of an era," Picard rubbed his top lip, immersed in thought.

The disruption to all the lives he had held in trust over the past seven years was almost more than he could imagine. Children had been born and raised on this mission who knew no other home. He wondered if the planners that had endorsed star ships as family habitats had thought through all the implication when they set up the Galaxy class of vessels.

"Old argument, Jean-Luc". He dismissed his reservations and started planning how to let the crew know that changes were afoot.


******

Alexander heard the front door opening and leapt in guilty horror to the task he had been sidetracked from.

It really was not his fault that every time he started to pick up his room a half completed project caught his eye and his attention. Time just slipped away. Yeah and just try that one on Father, Alex.

He swiftly stuffed junk down the side of the bed facing away from the door, jerked his bed covers over the rest of the project and grabbed a heap of clothes off the floor. He pulled open his closet and stuffed the pile in, then whirled round and pushed the door shut with his back. His eyes darted round the room, it looked okay. Where was his father ? He rarely gave him this much time to cover his tracks.

Alexander crept over to his door and cracked it open a couple of centimeters. He couldn't see anything in the slice of living room revealed to his inquiring eye so he quietly pushed the door open wider and moved into the larger room.

" Oh yuk Father."

His disgusted snort did nothing to end the passionate kiss that his father and Deanna Troi were indulging in just past the threshold of their quarters, but at least explained the lack of parental follow up on his tidying activities.

Troi's sense of humor eventually won over passion and she pulled back from Worf's embrace and turned towards Alex's departing back.

" Leave him." Worf tightened his arms around her. " You know he really doesn't mind."

"I do, " she retorted with characteristic heat. " Having someone find me disgusting ruins my concentration."

She pulled away from his embrace with a final kiss for his chin and walked over to the replicator.

" Alexander, " she called out. " Come out. We've finished, and we have to discuss some things."

Alex stuck his head out of his door warily, he thought his father's new domestic arrangements eminently sensible but wished they would cut out the mushy stuff.

Troi called up an assortment of drinks and carried them over to the room's central table. She sat and indicated that Alexander should sit beside her. Worf sat in the single chair facing them.

"If its about the refit; the kids in school reckon we'll get a whole year off and ...." Alexander's semi hopeful patter was cut off by a rising growl. He hushed and sat looking at his father with feigned contrition.

"When will you learn to attend to your elder's instead of listening to ridiculous gossip? " Worf's eyebrows bristled at Alexander." Be silent and learn."

Troi surreptitiously patted Alex's knee, and smiled at Worf. He caught her eye and made a visible effort to restrain his temper.

"You tell him then."

Troi turned towards Alex and picked up one of his hands, focussing her attention on him.

" Your father and I think that we might take this opportunity to leave the Enterprise and take up a different posting on a star base." She glanced over at Worf then continued."Two positions have come vacant that suit both our careers and will give us a chance to make a home together for a while, as a family."

Troi paused, aware of the mixture of emotions gripping Alexander at this news. The Enterprise was his home and the personnel on board took the place of his extended family. He really didn't want to leave. However the idea of a permanent family home had its attractions.

"Which starbase, Father ? "

" Benmore Station on the border of the Cardassian demilitarized zone. I will be taking over as head of the Federation Security Contingent. Counselor Troi has applied for a position with the Resettlement Commission. "

" When do we go ? "

Worf considered him for a moment then decided to answer.

" That is what we wanted to talk to you about, I have to go very soon. You will need to stay with Counselor Troi until her posting ends . "

Alex's brow furrowed, and he looked at his father angrily. " This is just another excuse for you to leave me behind isn't it ? "

He jumped to his feet ignoring his father who had also risen and was holding out a hand to stop him.

" You would do anything to get rid of me." He glared at the Counselor. " I bet you even took up with her just to get rid of me; anyone else would do as long as you don't have to look after me. Well I'm not staying here to listen to you decide my future. "

The room door shut with its usual quiet hiss behind him but a slam echoed in everyone's mind.

Troi rubbed her hands over her face then sat up straight with her hands in her lap and a falsely bright expression on her face. " Well that went well didn't it ? "

Worf turned from where he had paused facing the wall and looked at her in amazement.

"What ! Oh you are not serious."

Troi rose and walked over to him, wrapped her arms around his back and rested her head on his broad shoulders.

" No Worf, I was not serious, but I think he will get over it. Give him a little time. I'll talk to him later. "

" He has no respect for his elders; I don't know how to teach him."

Troi thumped him on a rock like arm. "Don't start feeling sorry for yourself, we have too much planning to do. Come and finish your drink."

She moved back to the couch and picked up her own cup.

There are times when I wonder what I have taken on with those two. She sighed deeply . I guess at least I'll never be bored.

******

As one argument subsided, another was brewing a couple of decks over.

Beverly Crusher faced her captain in her crowded sickbay and restrained her tongue with visible effort. Eyes flashing with irritation she jerked her head towards the privacy of her office and then strode off into it forcing him to follow if he wanted to carry on the conversation.

To the casual observer, he appeared as impassive as ever, to those that knew him the rigidity of his face and posture would have warned of the fireworks to come. As he followed her into her office, she immediately sprang to the attack.

" For three weeks now you have been demanding I supply you with pain killers for these headaches. Every time you carefully pick a moment when you know I will have no time to deal with you properly. Now, when I make time, you refuse a diagnostic. What is it with you ? You know procedure better than that, and I think it is shabby of you to presume on our friendship and ask me to pass it off with a ' trust me' !"

" Doctor. " He took a step towards her hand outstretched. " Beverly, it's just that the headaches did go away last time. " He dropped his hand to his side as her glare diminished. " And I really don't want you to do a full diagnostic. "

Her eyes kindled again. " For God's sake Captain, what are you saying now ? That you don't think I am a competent doctor ? "

"No ." He met her outraged eyes. " No of course I'm not saying that. It's just... Oh damn it Beverly, won't you give me something for this headache so I can think straight ?"

Concern rose over irritation as he sank into the chair opposite her desk. She walked over to him and ran a tricorder over his head and neck.

" Mmm. Well I can see that it would be a problem dealing with a thumper like that and me in full cry."

She gently rubbed the knotted muscles on his shoulder as she thought for a minute, left the office, then came back in holding a hypospray which she injected in his neck. Leaving him to recover she walked behind her own desk and sat waiting for him to look up, which he did in a couple of minutes.

" Better ? " He nodded then held her eye for a moment, the silent communication letting him know that he was not going to get out of her office without furnishing a decent explanation.

She prompted him. " The headaches ? "

He sighed. " Beverly, they are just the same as the ones I had after the probe gave me all those memories. Of Ressik, my family, Eline and the children, a whole life. You must remember how long it took for me to get my head sorted out. Now it's happened again, thanks to Q, and I have another whole life to assimilate. I think headaches are quite reasonable . " He shot her a piercing glance. " Don't you ? "

Crusher leaned forward on her desk and studied him intently. " And that's the whole story ?" He nodded again, hopefully. " Good, then you can have no objection to me running the neuro- diagnostic so that I can make my own diagnosis and rule out any other cause. "

She went to tap the communicator on her desk preparatory to calling up one of her assistants to set up the procedure.

His hand clamped over hers, preventing the movement, and he found himself eye to eye with a very angry woman.

" Please Beverly, don't do this..."

" Why ? " She hissed at him. Her face grew hard and she pulled away from him. " Why after all this time do you not trust me enough to tell me. "

" It's not that; you know that. " Picard pleaded with her, voice and eyes radiating sincerity.

She got up again, as if she could no longer look at him and remain polite, and stood studying the titles of the books on her shelf, her back eloquent.

Picard took a deep breath. " It has to do with my memories of the future, Beverly. We are going down a different path than the one I followed, but some things are bound to be the same."

He stared at her back willing her to understand.

"And there are some things about the future I lived that I really need to keep to myself." He stood and moved towards her.

"Beverly, please look at me."

She turned towards him slightly, her hair falling forward hiding her face from him. She flipped it out of her way with an impatient hand and met his gaze.

He felt quite overwhelmed by her; many of his most vivid memories of the future had his burning love for her centre stage.

He also remembered how their marriage had fallen apart, torn to pieces by he irumodic syndrome that had crept up on him so subtly. The emotions that had ruled him had seemed so real at the time. His memory of that future self filled him with disgust. He was never going to put her through that, he had already filled her life with enough pain.

He remembered her reaction in the alternate time line when he had asked her to confirm what he already knew; to gain the cooperation he needed to solve the problem of the time rift.

Her sympathy for his plight had overruled her deliberate emotional detachment.

If he told her, or let her find out what was waiting for him, she would react in the same way. He had to find a way around the impasse.

Some of his thoughts must have been in his face because she reached up to brush the side of his face with her fingers.

" Jean- Luc ? "

" I feel like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland with you Beverly, "

"What ? " Her confusion plain the doctor followed him back across the room, and leaned against the desk in front of him as he sat again in the chair. She crossed her arms and peered at him as if an explanation would appear on his forehead.

He smiled slightly at her. " Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow but never jam today. "

She didn't look particularly enlightened. The captain sighed again and spread his arms in a Gallic shrug.

"If I try to explain. Until you are satisfied, would you please have dinner with me tonight ? " Beverly's mouth opened and a shocked expression crossed her face. " One moment you're casting aspersions on my medical skill and the next you're asking me for a date. "

Picard continued to look steadily at her. " You'll explain until I'm satisfied ? "

He nodded gravely.

" Then save it for dinner; I have work to do. I'll meet you tonight at eight o'clock. In your cabin?"

He nodded again, not trusting his voice.

She headed out the door, turned on the threshold to look back at him, then was gone

*******

Picard looked at Crusher across the table and knew that his time had run out, despite the dinner he had ordered, knowing her preferences, the flowers, the music, the whole ambience designed to surprise and delight her, he knew that question time was here.

She leaned back on his comfortable sofa, well fed and relaxed and as implacable in her desire to know what he had been holding out on as ever.

She raised an eyebrow. " Well, Jean-Luc, you have certainly surpassed yourself this time. I don't know how you managed to choose every dish so superbly but I must complement your sources." She leaned forward. " And now you need to finish off a perfect evening by telling me what is going on."

The moment he had been dreading. He looked regretfully at the remains of their meal, and then back to her.

" Beverly, I have been trying to think of a way to tell you all day. "

"The truth would be a good start," Beverly interjected.

"No" He cast a guilty glance in her direction. " No, I didn't mean that. It's just that it's complicated."

He got up and started to pace around in front of her. She followed his agitated movements with a glacial calm.

" Well I had worked that much out for myself. Try starting at the beginning."

"But that is the problem." He leaned his head against the cool viewport, his voice distant. "Beginnings. You see, in the future, one of the ones I lived thanks to Q, we were affected by a beginning. I am trying to change that, for us at least."

Beverly looked slightly less aggressive. She patted the seat beside her.

" Sit Jean- Luc."

Turning from the window, he came and sat beside her and she caught his gaze with hers. " What sort of ' us', Jean-Luc, I really think you should tell me. At the moment you are not making a lot of sense."

He leaned back in the chair and just looked at her for a space.

She smiled at him then said. " What is it ? Have I got some food on my chin ?"

He smiled too and reassured her, reaching forward to gently brush a bronze hair off her forehead.

" No, of course not. " He paused, and mentally took a deep breath. " Beverly, do you know that I love you ? Not just in the past, not only in the future but now ?"

Her eyes widened in shock, it was so unlike him to express such emotions that she wondered for a ridiculous instant if she had misheard him.

" What ! " she whispered harshly, her eyes intent on his face.

She only read sincerity there and bent her head down covering her face with her hands. She peered at him out of a crack in her fingers.

He sat beside her, as regal as ever, a slight smile tugging the corner of his mouth at her reaction. It was her turn to get up and pace an agitated track over to the viewport.

" Beverly. " His deep voice at her shoulder told her that she had pulled him with her. " I didn't tell you that to distract you from why I don't want you to do a full neural scan. I just wanted you to know some of why I am feeling pressured. I am trying to cheat one possible future, to give us, to give you a fairer chance. "

He gently turned her round and looked intently at her, keeping a grip on her arms. " I have a plan if you would be willing to listen to it."

She nodded slightly and, still rather dazed, allowed herself to be led back to the couch. He sat beside her and took both of her hands.

" Would you let me get the scan done by one of the other doctors ? And, if nothing comes up that has a direct bearing on my current health, would you leave the subject. Just this once ?"

Beverly looked at him, her thoughts in turmoil.

"But I don't understand Jean-Luc, what have your feelings for me got to do with a neuro- diagnostic ?"

" Beverly. " He pulled away from her a little. His hazel eyes were pleading. " I will get the headaches checked out, I promise. Tomorrow."

"And what about that amazing statement of yours ? What do you expect me to do with that, Jean-Luc? I thought we had an agreement. I thought you understood, I'm just not ready to develop our relationship."

She looked at him, attractive and terrifying and just out of arm's reach.

" I know, Beverly. I won't push you. But please, let us carry on being friends." She smiled at the naked vulnerability in his tone, and then had to blink back tears as he completed his plea.

" And please be kind to me, I can't help loving you. Don't pull away from me. I need you."

" Oh Jean-Luc, you make it so hard to resist." Unbidden, she moved into his arms and rested her head on his chest. His arms circled her protectively.

Crusher wished with all her heart that life could be more simple, that she could unreservedly return his love, that she could bring some happiness into his life.

Finally she tilted her head up to meet his eye. "Okay, I 'll play it your way. Once. And for the rest..." She paused and tried to read his eyes, they remained hooded. " Keep after me, you never know...." She kissed him lightly on the lips and subsided again on his chest.

" This is a time of changes who knows what the future will bring."

Picard looked over the top of her head to the stars streaming past the viewport and felt depressed. "If only I didn't know, love. If only I didn't."

Chapter Two

Data sat in the Ten Forward lounge, thinking.

Emotion seemed to hang in the air of the Enterprise at present, he was forced to conclude, that as usual, it had passed him by.

Uncontaminated by the nostalgia and slightly hysterical planning going on around him, he leaned back in his inconspicuous seat to observe the patrons and try to fathom the mood of the crew.

Throughout the lounge the tables were full of small groups of people with their heads down conversing in urgent tones. Wild plans and speculations were being aired as the specialists and generalists who made up the crew of this floating city tried to make the most of the opportunity Starfleet had handed to them with the refit.

The crew was free to take temporary postings or sabbatical for the duration. Captain Picard had negotiated with Starfleet on their behalf with the result that all positions were secure on this flagship of the fleet. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to pursue shelved dreams and interests without prejudicing career opportunities.

Data spotted Geordi la Forge coming in to the lounge alone and raised his hand to attract his attention.

His observations had left him more confused than ever and he was looking forward to hearing some of Geordi's reactions to the behavior he had been watching.

The Chief Engineer collected a drink at the bar then threaded his way through the tables to Data's secluded spot.

He sat down with a weary thud and took a long swallow of his drink, his visor catching the light as he looked up at his constructed friend.

" People watching again, Data ? "

" I am finding the crew's reaction to the refit and the end of our mission intriguing and rather puzzling Geordi. Even amongst our own friends I have noticed some out of character behaviours occurring."

A sly smile tipped the corners of La Forge's mouth.

" Such as our esteemed captain's dogged pursuit of our C.M.O. for instance ?"

Data looked hard at La Forge to try to gauge his tone, then allowed a slight smile to grace his own expressionless mouth.

" Exactly, Geordi. I find the widespread changing of established behavior patterns rather difficult to understand." La Forge sighed and leaned back in his seat. "

Well changes do that to people, Data. They sort of lose their way for a while, until they find a new direction. This crew has been focussed for so long it's not surprising they are breaking out."

Data looked unconvinced but shelved it as a subject that needed more study.

" Have you made plans for the next year then, Geordi ?"

" Ha, " snorted the chief engineer. " My department is coming apart at the seams, no one wants to do maintenance on engines that are going to be scrapped and I have been seconded to supervise the Enterprise's refit along with all my senior staff. The captain gave us the choice to bow out of the commitment, if we had a pressing research project or something, but no one took him up on his offer. God knows how I am going to get over the next two weeks. I can't find out who is going to be heading the refit at space dock and the preliminary specs Starfleet have sent me don't even make a lot of sense."

La Forge looked out of the viewport away from his friend's passive gaze.

" Perhaps Wesley was right when he said I was so far behind current thinking."

Data brightened at being given a chance to help out his friend.

" I could run a personnel check for you tonight and find out who the project head is, Geordi. "

He looked at his friend and decided a little more encouragement was in order.

" I do not think that Wesley's assessment of your abilities was objective. He was having trouble relating to all his friends at that time. I do not believe he would want you to be discouraged."

Geordi smiled at his earnest tone, finished his drink then got up to leave.

" Thanks, Data. I think I will go and read up some more on those specs. Let me know if you find out anything huh ?"

He left and Data remained seated. Eternally separate wherever he was.

******

Later, in his quarters, Data indulged himself with one of his most relaxing pursuits.

He found the computer minds of the Starfleet operating systems such a relief from trying to understand the vagaries of Human behavior that he scheduled searches and complex routines for his relaxation time, treating them as refreshers for his soul. The systems were so logical and predictable, he gained great satisfaction from interacting and manipulating their pathways. They were so, uncluttered and unambiguous.

Data had kept his hobby to himself. Once or twice he had shared some of his understandings with Wesley. The Bynars had come close to his meld, but he did not think that even the Vulcan programmers, whose footsteps and thought processes he followed so closely when linked in a net, appreciated the glorious global completeness they had created.

He searched the bases looking for references to Utopia Planetia staffing. Lingered and flipped and wriggled between security blocks, opened files and closed them after him, sliding beneath virtual trip wires and landmines.

The chain lock and trap on the file alerted him to its content, it was time sealed as well; that gave him pause for nearly a minute.

Such complexity delighted him and a smile involuntarily formed on his mouth. The challenge was such that he was having his equivalent of fun.

The loop caught him before even his lightening fast reflexes could withdraw. By the time he was able to disengage he found himself regarding the amused face of the instigator on his viewscreen.

" Ah, that accounts for it. "

He looked at Leah Brahms and shrugged his shoulders in defeat.

" I was outclassed."

She laughed in delight. " It's good to see you too Data. I set it just for you. Did you enjoy ?"

Data took a breath intending to deny the emotion, caught himself, raised his eyebrows and finally settled for a simple, "Yes I believe I did, thank you."

She let her smile fade and then leaned forward to talk urgently to him.

" Data, don't tell him, please, I want it to be a surprise. I have a little pleasant revenge to take on Geordi La Forge; that is why I have kept my appointment secret. Geordi thinks I am still at the Institute. Promise ?"

Data tapped the side of his nose in theatrical affirmation and Brahms broke the link, laughing again.

******

Morning happened on the Enterprise, shift change, lights up the bustle of a routine ingrained over years.

At times like these, momentum carried the crew over the knowledge present in every mind that this was their last week of service aboard the ship.

Captain Picard strode onto the bridge, acknowledged the crew and entered his ready room in a sequence that was as predictable as the plot of one of his Dixon Hill novels.

Will Riker eyed his closed door and counted under his breath. The summons in response to the decision he had made the previous night was as predictable as the routine. On fifty .

"Would you step into my ready room, Number One?"

He stepped. Behind his desk, Picard looked as in place and right as any Human could be. Riker wondered if he could ever aspire to attaining such competence; he didn't have long to wonder.

The captain asked him a silent question with a raised eyebrow, Riker answered with a nod and a grin.

Picard's face was a picture of honest delight. He stood and came round the desk with his hand out, grasping the younger man's hand he pumped it and used his free arm to clasp Riker's shoulder.

" Congratulations, Will, I couldn't be happier for you. The Te Kaha looks like a wonderful ship and I know you will make a great captain. Well done."

Riker looked abashed but couldn't mask his own glee. His own command offered to him now when the Enterprise was unavailable, was just too good to refuse.

In fact, Picard had come as close as he was ever likely to to give him advice last night. He had implied he would be a fool to turn it down.

On his own, in his quarters, Riker had to agree, and had signalled his acceptance to Starfleet last night.

Picard sat Riker on the couch and went over to the replicator to collect a tea and a coffee. He came back looking apologetic.

"This should be something more celebratory, but it is rather early."

Riker's grin widened again and he sipped his coffee, feeling appreciative. No doubt he would miss this man. Hard master and driving force on the Enterprise, Riker could imagine serving under no one else. A large part of his decision to take the plunge into command was because of that.

Picard fixed him with one of his penetrating looks." And just who are you head hunting from my crew to take with you, Captain Riker ? " The twinkle in his eye belied the sternness of his tone.

Riker's headhunting skills had been honed in his present position; the captain would expect him to try for the best.

Riker looked serious for a space. "I'll give you a list, Sir. The only one I really need to check with you on is Data. I would like him as my Number One, but I won't ask him if you want to keep him."

Picard looked at him, feeling old. With a pang he wished himself in Riker's shoes with an intensity that made him gruff.

" Of course you may ask him; he will make up his own mind as will the others no doubt. I don't have much to offer at present. " He looked up, steely and in command again. " But look to your back, Captain. When we are operational again, I'll be after your staff."

Riker couldn't answer for a moment; he empathized with Picard's dilemma so strongly that Deanna would have been proud of him.

It didn't give him any words to ease the age gap. He fell back on protocol and stood. " Anything else, Sir."

" No, carry on, Number One. " Picard waved him out, heard the door swish shut behind him then sat, letting his tea grow cold in his hand .

******

Three months later, near an asteroid, on the border of the recently defined Federation/ Cardassian demilitarized zone, a Romulan Warbird decloaked and hung in synchronous orbit above a large installation.

A three winged Cardassian scout hung under its orbit. The commanders of both vessels beamed down to the bleak surface beneath.

The place was a laboratory. The palate-tickling aroma of unnamed acids caught the back of the throat as the guards pushed the double swinging doors open. Professional eyes flicked round the sterile room, then nodded safety to the party of officials following.

Yar's daughter stalked through and took up a position of parade rest, back to the wall, flanked by her men. She did not look impressed.

Gul Madred noted and discounted the sneer that faintly twisted her mouth. " You have the item we negotiated ? "

Sela snapped a look at one of her guards, who unslung a small carrying pouch from his belt and handed it to her. She opened it and pulled out a vial contained in a self generating stasis field. She studied it dispassionately for a space, then held it to her chest and met his anxious reaching with a frown.

" You have yet to convince me that it was worth the exposing of such a well- established mole. The bioresearch he was following was of great interest to the Empire. After this theft he is useless to us."

Gul Madred's eyes burned into her. He itched to snatch the vial from her and backhand her for her insolence. Something of his anger must have shown in his face as two of Sela's guards brought their disruptors into a half ready position.

She held his gaze without flinching, a faint raising of her eyebrow her only reaction to threat and counter threat.

" Our masters have agreed to this.... cooperation. " He fairly spat the words."The breakthrough our scientists have made requires a Human specific virus to trigger the immune response. I presume you would prefer a vector that would spare our controls by not triggering the immune systems of non- Humans ?"

Gul Madred missed the twitch that passed over Sela's face . He walked idly over to a bench and picked up a vial of yellowish liquid that steamed slightly as he swirled it.

" Our sources have Riker's ship near the demilitarized zone for the next two months. I believe you have a personal stake in this ? "

Sela's frown deepened. "The immune response will destroy their starships but not ours?"

"Not unless you have Human's working for you, my dear."

Sela could not keep the anger from her voice at his superior attitude. She took a step towards him.

"You are confident that this complicated scheme of yours will work. The Federation will be disabled?"

Madred nodded curtly then modulated the anger and anxiety out of his voice. His knobbly face twitched into an unctuous smile.

"And given the target, my dear, our mutual enemies, both personal and political, will be amongst the most affected." The smile came nowhere near his eyes. "I have some scores to settle ...."

Sela closed the remaining distance between them and slapped the vial into his hand.

" As have I, Gul Madred, but never underestimate the Empire, or the Federation. We require success from this venture. Failure will have repercussions."

She turned on her heel and stalked out, inwardly seething. With military precision her guard snapped to attention and then followed her.

And if he ever calls me ' My dear' again the accord can go for nothing. I will kill him with my bare hands.

******

The Te Kaha was temporarily back in Sector 001 to report on the resettlement program being carried out along the demilitarized zone, its six month maiden voyage completed.

Balancing his trombone case and a large tankard of Romulan Ale, Will Riker threaded his way through the crowd, stepping automatically over the Trivilbrin.

So accustomed had he become to the little alien's presence underfoot, the half step had become second nature in just a month.

The Te Kaha had been surveying the fauna on Trevel, one of the ceded Cardassian planets, and, as they worked alongside the remaining colonists, the crew had started forming relationships with the engaging little creatures.

Once certified non-sentient, non-threatening and prolific only in their native habitat, clearance had been given to ship some as pets.

Now on shore, leave his crew had brought their pets with them, and here they were at this special celebration at the Utopia Planetia yards, as underfoot yet unresented as ever. Each animal had its own highly individual patterning gracing its back, unique enough to be used as personal identification.

Riker harbored an irrational suspicion that they had to have some genetic relationship to Tribbles as they insinuated themselves into every heart and managed to charm even the most unlikely of potential owners.

Vibrating happily, the sinuous coppery green creature slipped between the legs of the party goers. Its tennis ball head ringed with a white fuzz reminiscent of fibre optic strands. The whiskers twitched and the pointed tail flicked in indecision. It paused poised in mid-wriggle, the Human that belonged to it was over there, but just here there was a even better source of the aura it lived on. Diverted, it slid at right angles to its previous path and coiled up the leg of the appetizing emitter.

Data glanced down as the Trivilbrin made its leisurely way up his body. The chirping noises it made as it ascended seemed to suggest it was enjoying its meal. The arm sized creature flashed an array of colors from head to tail as it made its way chestward.

The creatures always sought him out; the electromagnetic fields he generated seemed irresistible to them.

They could learn, however. Spot had dispatched two of the inquisitive beasts that had the temerity to invade his quarters, after that the population on the Te Kaha had been more circumspect in their attentions.

Intrigued by this one's greed, Data accessed an internal diagnostic.

The emissions the creature fed on were by products of almost all sentient life; he wondered if he could detect the drain.

With a high pitched squeal the little beast jumped off him, hit the ground with a splat and slithered over to its owner, Lieutenant Barclay.

Quickly it coiled up Barclay's body, wrapped itself around his neck and chittered in his ear, its annoyance plain. Barclay, who had spotted his pet's advances and had been trying to pick his way through the crush to retrieve it, looked at his flashing friend in some consternation.

" He's never done that before, Sir. Did you do something to it?"

Data shook his head and shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of incomprehension he had practised in front of a mirror until it caused no comment.

Barclay crooned soothing noises at his pet, acquired only two days ago from the chief engineer on the Te Kaha, and Data moved away, filing the creature's odd behavior for future study.

The crowd swirled forcefully and Data found himself in front of La Forge andBrahms as they sat in some state accepting the congratulations and best wishes of the party goers.

Half an hour earlier they had announced that they were to marry. News to no one who had seen them working together over the last six months on the refit project.

La Forge spotted Data, leapt to his feet and thrust a drink into his hand.

" Toast our happiness, my friend. It's so good to see you. How is it on the Te Kaha ?"

Data drank, congratulated Brahms and chatted with them both for a few minutes. It was hard to maintain any sort of coherence as friends of the couple kept coming over to lend their own congratulations to his own.

Soon the group became so noisy he caught Brahms' eye and, smiling slightly, withdrew.

The lights were low and Riker was setting up in the corner to play some jazz.

Suddenly weary of the crush, Data picked his way over to the back of the room then quietly walked out of the party.

The normally sombre halls of advanced engineering were full of slightly inebriated revellers and tinsel adorned some very unlikely pieces of scientific equipment.

A large illuminated Christmas tree rotated gently in the middle of an empty dry dock.

Data had explored and experienced thirty Human Christmases. He was no closer to understanding the tradition than he had been the first time.

Over half way through her refit the Enterprise was skeletal, looking nude in the adjoining dry dock, warp nacelles removed and half of her skin panels open to vacuum.

Data still felt a need for quiet, so he walked briskly along the catwalk and down the steps to the pylon nearest the Enterprise.

He made his way along the echoing metal strip and let himself into the darkened control room, only to find he was not the first to seek out the solitude of this oasis. Leaning against the polarised glass, gazing out at his ship, Jean-Luc Picard turned and smiled briefly at Data before returning his attention to the outside of the booth.

Picard almost welcomed the interruption, his thoughts were getting him nowhere. In his hands he held a printed sheet that outlined the results of a final and definitive set of neurodiagnostic tests. Whatever this future held, Irumodic syndrome was unlikely to be part of it. Now he had to come to terms with the fact that Q had restored him undamaged to this time line. The full neural scan had shown no deformity of the Parietal lobe.

His personal future was as blank now as it had been before his time travel experience. As usual, he did not know whether to curse or thank the elusive being.

" Captain." Data moved up so that he stood shoulder to shoulder with his mentor. " Am I disturbing you ?"

Picard shook his head slightly. He quietly crumpled up the paper that had delivered his salvation and put it in the disposal chute. It vanished with a small flash. He turned back to the window without comment and the two men stood in companionable silence for a few minutes. Eventually with a sigh Picard turned away from the window and moved to sit in one of the swivel control chairs.

He swung round to look at Data who was still contemplating the flood lit Enterprise.

"How goes the party, Mr. Data ? Surely they have not wrapped up the celebration so early ?"

Data tilted his head slightly, and met Picard's eyes in the reflection cast on the window.

"No, sir. I believe the announcement of Geordi and Leah's engagement will prolong the seasonal festivities beyond the traditional late hour. "

" Yes, it will. They will be happy together."

The Captain stated this with unconscious authority, still drawing automatically on his future experience.

He looked up to see Data turned now and looking at him a little strangely. A change of subject seemed in order.

'Will brought this from Deanna yesterday. Life on the border seems to be suiting them all. Here scan it at your leisure."

He tossed a data cube at his former second officer.

Data reached to catch it automatically, without taking his eyes off Picard. It clattered onto the console behind him, and he turned his head in astonishment to follow its fall. He had missed catching the object and he could hardly believe it.

He quickly scooped the cube up with his right hand and held his left out in front of him. He looked at it as if it had suddenly sprouted feathers, his expression comical in its dismay.

" Why Data, don't tell me Geordi has finally managed to manufacture some concoction that leaves you inebriated? I thought your internal systems were protected from such follies ?"

Data blinked and seemed to come back from rather a long way off.

" My internal diagnostics are not reporting any malfunctions. Perhaps he has sir."

Picard smiled. " Better get it sorted out before you go back to the Te Kaha. Riker will not be amused if you start dropping things on his bridge."

Picard surged up out of his seat and took Data by the arm.

"Come on, let's go and find out what Geordi's done to you. It's time we rejoined the party anyway."

Data meekly allowed himself to be led along the metal walkway, still puzzling over his unexplained lapse. His internal sensors checked out even on a level four diagnostic and he could not believe he was suffering from some externally inflicted malady. He turned his head to say the same to Picard and fell over gently as his left knee joint gave way. With an equal lack of fuss he felt his consciousness slip away, his hearing the last to go. He tried to rouse himself enough to tell the captain not to disturb La Forge on this special night, but could not make his mouth work.

The sound of Picard activating his communicator was the last thing he experienced, it was a sound that comforted him as he floated into darkness.

******

La Forge and Brahms had not intended to spend Christmas at work, in fact they had scheduled a week's break to celebrate their official engagement.

They had planned to spend the time scouting for a home on Earth. La Forge had felt the need to establish a base, Brahms went along with him.

She had the feeling she would often go along with his domestic impulses as she seemed devoid of any innate ones of her own. It was one of the reasons she had come to love him.

However, here they were, she bending over a console running tests, he reassembling a tricorder on the bench that ran at right angles to the work station. La Forge was trying to get the device to detect the source of the malfunction that had devastated Data's neural net.

The machine was not cooperating and Leah was beginning to think that their problems might not be limited to Data's unexplained collapse.

She checked the test results again. Suspicion firmed and she called up a printout, ripped it off and stalked over to her partner.

"Geordi look."

La Forge scanned the sheet, then raised his head to meet her eyes. He smiled slightly. Just to have her so close cheered him up; if he weren't so worried about his friend he would almost be happy. Checking the printout again he ran a finger down one of the columns and grunted in affirmation.

" Every time we run a diagnostic, see there and there and even there. Yes look it is forming a pattern. "

Brahms nodded, ahead of him on this. She pointed further down the flimsy.

" And failure of all systems there I think, triggered by the most comprehensive one."

La Forge slid an arm around the slim waist along side him and pulled Brahms into a comforting hug. They were silent for a while as they contemplated the implications of something that attacked the self repair mechanisms of the systems they relied on to survive.

" Could be tricky, " La Forge commented at last." Shall we put Riker and Picard in the picture, then look at repairing Data? His input is going to be important. How long he can function without self repair is going to be interesting."

She nodded and kissed him on the top of his head. " Nearly as interesting as how long this drydock and any starship will last with all maintenance needing to be hands on if this malfunction spreads to our own computer systems. "

La Forge nodded and hand in hand they went to find the officers.

******

Voices then lights. Consciousness snapped back and Data found himself awake again. He sat up and looked quickly round the circle of concerned faces ringing the bed he was lying on.

Automatically he tried to access his internal diagnostics for a status check. He tilted his head and opened his eyes wide in surprise when no information was forthcoming.

At the foot of his bed, Dr. Crusher was checking a tricorder screen, then double checking the results on a screen above his head.

She shook her head and turned to meet first Riker's then Picard's eyes.

Geordi La Forge perched a hip on the end of his bed, blocking his view of any more byplay between the Doctor and his commanding officers.

" Data."

" Geordi ?"

"We had to make some rather radical changes to your programming to bring you back on line. At present your self diagnostics are disabled as are all your repair programs. It seems we are having a problem with something that has taken a fancy to your neuroconductive filaments. "

Data inclined his head again then turned a rather bewildered expression on him. "And?"

"And so my friend you are going to have to learn to live rather more carefully than you are used too. We have replicated the interactive nodes that were affected this time but you seem to have developed patches of what looks like some nonconductive scar tissue over your neural fibres. We can't predict when they will break down and your automatic repair mechanisms seem to activate another flurry of scar formation. Come over here, Leah and I will explain. "

La Forge led Data over to a computer interface near one side of the sick bay, and Beverly was left contemplating the two men in front of her.

" He may not function for long. That repair Geordi and Leah managed was inspired but his transmission rates are way down. "

" And the cause, Doctor ?" "Well it's most similar to some of the human auto-immune diseases that attack neural fibres. But it makes no sense that Data should be suffering. He doesn't have an immune system to produce the T cells that cause the damage. It's very strange."

Riker rubbed at his beard, his memory triggered by her explanation.

"We had an outbreak of a particularly nasty fever amongst some of the members of the away team that investigated Trevel. Data was leading that team but nobody would have thought to vaccinate him, and he certainly didn't report any symptoms. Dr. Keshvare had the disease under control in a matter of days and made up a vaccine before the team transported back on board."

Picard and Crusher both looked hopeful.

Crusher asked, "did she happen to mention the family the virus belonged to ?"

Riker shook his head dolefully. " No, not that I remember. High fever, a rash and sore eyes was what she reported."

Crusher screwed up her eyes in thought, " that rings a bell."

Picard snorted. He turned so that he could lean against the end of Data's vacated bed. "Could Data's disability be related to that fever ?"

Crusher shrugged. " I don't know yet. The engineers are worried about how to detect a vector that only shows up when the system is near collapse. Most of our computers run self repair programs not very different from Data's."

Picard looked at Riker then over at Data who was accessing the research to update himself. As Picard watched he saw Data slow the information feed down twice until it was scrolling at a almost human legible speed. Riker interrupted his observations.

" This could be some kind of sabotage I suppose ?"

Crusher eyed him. " Pretty pointless if all it manages to disable is Data's functioning."

Picard shook his head. "From what I gather we won't know if other systems have been affected until they start breaking down; sounds a efficient enough way to sabotage the Federation to me. And any other space going culture unless they have an antidote."

" And your best bet is ?" Crusher looked between the two captains.

" Romulans." Riker was emphatic.

"Cardassians." Picard's assertion coincided with Riker's and both men smiled at the conviction in the other's voice.

" Or both." Crusher finished the exchange with the worst case she could imagine, only to find the two men nodding sagely.

" I was joking gentlemen."

Picard smiled grimly at her. "The joke is on us I believe Doctor, whoever was responsible. Until we can find out whether the computer's data transmission has been compromised, all Utopia Planetia's systems and of course the Te Kaha's are suspect."

He straightened up and gathered his command presence around him with a characteristic tug on his tunic hem.

" Lets get on to it, Captain Riker, I think perhaps we had better go and do some investigative work on your ship."

CHAPTER THREE

Deanna Troi gave up on her meditation when she was interrupted for the fourth time by a noisy and wet sneeze.

Her Trivilbrin slithered off her lap chittering in apparent disgust at being nearly blown off its perch.

" Sorry little one, I must have caught that virus the Te Kaha's team suffered from last month."

The alien slithered over to a far corner of the cabin and bristled at her from within its coils.

Troi unfolded her legs from the lotus position and swung down off the bunk that fitted into the aft bulkhead of the small shuttle.

" Computer, raise temperature of cabin five degrees. " She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself as she went forward to check the flight program. She flicked the log on .

" En route to Benmore Base e.t.a. 16 00 hrs. Over the last eight weeks I have completed the initial assessment of the facilities on Trevel." She paused to rub at the irritation in her eyes. They were starting to feel very gritty. " The Cardassians have been very thorough in removing all useful buildings and fixtures. The remaining population is under stress. All power generating and communications equipment is compromised and the remaining settlers are camping out in sub standard conditions on outlying farms. The community leaders... " Troi paused again to sneeze violently, left the flight deck and headed over to the replicator to request a glass of water. She picked a tissue from the dispenser and used it noisily, chucking it into the recycler.

Her symptoms steadily worsened as the morning progressed. She finished her preliminary mission report, decided against lunch and sat suffering watching the autopilot fly her home.

She wished she could snuggle into Worf's broad chest and be looked after for a change. She smiled at the unlikely thought of Worf giving up some of his precious duty time just to coddle her.

She wouldn't even change him, but just for once her mother's ever present Mr. Holm seemed like a wonderful institution.

All her joints ached despite pain killers from the first aid kit. The ship's afternoon dragged. She played solitaire with the ship's computer for a while, until her eyes got too sore. Eventually she left instructions that she should be awakened on approach to Benmore Base and put herself to bed.

Curled up unregarded in the corner of the cabin, Deanna's Trivilbrin chittered to itself in agitated alarm. Each time the shuttle made a course correction its fuzzy head tracked a disturbance behind the panelling. Finally the little creature slithered up on to the bunk and crept into the hollow made by her knees.

The cabin lights faltered and it squeaked mournfully before hiding its head under the corner of Deanna's blanket.


******

Beverly Crusher was not paying attention.

She sat huddled in thought, one elegant leg tucked under her, her gaze on the view of Mars outside the lounge's viewport.

She was wracking her brains. She knew that she had seen the symptom pattern before, she even thought she could remember where she had seen it, described in an old text.

The computer had matched the antibody to an enormous and diverse viral group but found no exact match. Now she was trying to recall all the times when she had consulted such books instead of using the usual interface.

Picard found her eventually. He had paged her twice, had no reply, and finally instructed the computer locate her. He sat down opposite her, and, realizing that she still did not know he was there, looked his fill for a minute or two. After his clear scan he felt entitled to return to the hunt. He had to admit that the pursuit had its attractions.

Finally he broke into her reverie. " Beverly."

Startled she looked up and then around the room. She blinked at him ruefully.

" Oh no. I'm sorry Jean-Luc. " She ran agitated fingers through her hair. " I simply can not remember and it is so important." She looked distracted again.

Picard leaned forward to catch her eye.

" I thought you would like to know. Data's misfortune has had at least one positive result. He noticed that the Trivilbrin that used to swarm all over him now avoid him, and Geordi has confirmed that the animals detect the formation of the bioeletric interference sites before irreparable damage has occurred. Now the crew are using them as canaries.

Also they were able to determine that whatever has affected his systems is not interfering with any of his higher functioning. His body may not work too well but his mind is all right and is going to stay that way. He lost consciousness initially because the damage activated an emergency shutdown subroutine. He has disabled that routine so that he will stay mentally active even though his physical body is letting him down."

" But what is causing it ? We won't be safe until we know how it is transmitted."

" Well, Riker says Data is working on it full time. Since his motor control is rapidly becoming erratic he is staying in his quarters and using the Te Kaha's computer interface."

Crusher looked concerned at this news, but Picard, seeing her distress, reassured her.

" He told me. 'My less than optimal functioning appears to distress the crew so I have decided to stay out of sight '. He considers his gradual loss of ability.... interesting."

Crusher smiled. " He would."

" Dinner ?" Picard stood and extended a hand to her.

" Mmm, " Crusher stretched a little then shaking herself into social mode asked. " Where are we going tonight, Captain oh my Captain ? "

"Mensels on the rim. The view isn't as good but I thought the service we got at Atru was rather spotty the other night. Is that all right with you ?"

Beverly suddenly whirled round and grabbed him by the arms, her expression intent. " What did you say ?"

Picard looked at her in consternation, taken aback by her sudden intensity. " Is that all right with you ?"

Impatiently she shook her head. " No before that, the restaurant, what did you call it ?"

" Mensels, Beverly we don't have to ...."

" Hush, " she hissed, " I've almost got it. Mensels and spotty service."

She screwed her eyes tight forcing the memory.

" Yes. Not Mensels, measles. Jean-Luc you are brilliant. "

Leaning forward she kissed him hard on the mouth, then broke away and headed fast for the door, calling over her shoulder.

" Our colonial past has come back to haunt us Captain. Measles used to devastate new populations, and one of the rare long term side effects of surviving measles was the immune system attacking the host's nervous system. Come on, we have to find out whether any of the Federation's secure holdings has had a break in recently. I think we are on the track of our vector. I have to check with Data, then we had better call a meeting. If I am right, not only can we fix our problems but we can prove who is responsible for this sabotage."

With a swirl of red hair and determination she was gone, and Picard had to pull himself together swiftly to follow her. So much for dinner, he thought to himself and hurried out of the room after her.

******

Troi's shuttle started to drift, captured by the gravitational pull of a binary system that straddled the demilitarized zone. First warp and now impulse drive had failed. In the cabin the temperature started to drop. At first she slept on, but as the temperature fell far enough to condense dew, a drop formed on the light fitting above her. It hung trembling and swelling then finally fell with a cold shock onto her forehead.

With a start she jerked awake, sneezed mightily, and, with a pained groan, opened her crusty eyes.

" Wha...."

She sat up clutching the blanket to her chest and peered around the cabin. Emergency lights cast a subdued yellow glow over the dead telltales on every panel. Seriously alarmed, she shivered, got off the bed and went forward to the control console. No lights showed, nothing came on line for all her increasingly frantic attempts at accessing the control computer, no communication bleeped cheerfully when she tried to call out. The numb realization came over her that very soon she was going to die.

She rubbed her eyes, sat silently in the pilot's seat and tried to remember her emergency training. The twin suns framed by her viewport mocked her with their cheerful warmth She stroked her pet, who had slithered over to climb on to her lap.

" I'm sorry little one, I'll do what I can but I don't know if we are going to get out of this."

The shuttle drifted on, powerless and minute in the void, lost in the vastness of space. With even less fuss it crossed the arbitrary line that divided neutral from Cardassian space, and started its long spiral down into the binary suns.

Beverly Crusher worked on in something of a frenzy, using the sickbay facilities put at her disposal by Dr. Keshvare on board the Te Kaha.

The slight Indian woman had made no fuss when Crusher had requested the logs and samples from which she had synthesized her vaccine.

After a couple of brief questions the two women had worked in companionable silence, Keshvare watching and assisting as the vastly experienced Crusher pulled the offending microbes to pieces then forced the pieces to yield up their secrets.

With a final double check of her findings Crusher looked up from the display screen and caught the other woman's eye.

" What do you make of this insertion on the RNA band ?"

" Interesting, and it has to be manufactured don't you think."

Dr. Keshvare punched up a comparison with archived information about the measles virus stored on data bases for centuries. At the molecular level the two organisms showed a detectable difference.

Crusher tapped her com badge. " Data, what do you think? Could this inclusion alter the antibody the way I suggested?"

There was a pause. Crusher could visualize Data's arm making its jerky journey towards his computer console. Only his innate stubbornness was keeping him functional at all.

" It is worth further investigation Doctor. It gives us a starting point. "
There was another significant pause. Finally he spoke again with the merest touch of frustration in his voice.

" It appears that my dexterity has now deteriorated to such an extent that I am unable to manipulate my work console. Could you perhaps join me here ?"

" Of course Data, we will be with you in a minute or so, Crusher out. "

" He will not last much longer if this deterioration continues. " Dr. Keshvare voiced Crusher's thoughts. " How much is his intellect dependent on his physical functioning ?"

" Not at all, " Crusher leaned back in the chair and stretched, " but without a functioning body he is going to have to learn some interesting coping techniques. Somehow I just cannot envision Data getting much satisfaction from being a disembodied intellect communicating through a voice interface."

In his cabin, Data had finally given in to the inevitable. With an agonizing slowness he picked up a prepared jack and connected himself to the Te Kaha's computer web. When Crusher and Keshvare arrived in his cabin it was to find him composed but non responsive.

As they stood in front of him in dismay his distinctive voice came over the 'com system.

" I have studied the molecular reconstruction, Dr. Crusher. Obviously the modifications have activated human antibodies to make them attack my bioelectric systems as you hypothesized. It appears that, like the T cell mutation that used to trigger multiple sclerosis in humans, this modified antibody is specific to motor equivalents in mechanical neurological systems. "

" Data are you okay in there." Crusher spoke to Data's comatose body but his answer came from the air.

" I am treating it as a holiday Doctor. You have some interesting leads to follow up regarding the neutralization of this damage. But I do agree that all contacts with the Te Kaha and Utopia Planetia yards need innoculation against measles with a vaccine made up from uncontaminated virus or the human immune response will keep spreading this through bioelectric webs. And I am sure that I need not remind you that the computer controls of starship engines are very similar in nature to my afferent fibres."

" Is there anything you need? It seems callous somehow, just leaving you here."

" All I need is an uncontaminated neuromotor system Doctor Crusher. I trust you to be working on it. I am going to be visiting through the computer nets."

******

Worf sat behind the large wooden desk that filled half of his overplush office, and fought down the tide of red that threatened to fill his vision.

The office had been inherited from a Gnarlish head of Security who had indulged his lack of taste.

Worf, six months into his new job, had kept the decor because it irritated the hell out of him. Being irritated kept him on his toes and kept those under him guessing. Now the red velour walls and highly polished decorative weapons mocked his attempts to remain in control.

She's lost, she's gone, she's lost, she's gone....... It beat with the blood in his ears, and a growl rose primal in his throat. A tide of anger that if he allowed it to spill may or may not be curbable.

His second-in-command scuttled in the door, twitched its antennae at the rigid Klingon and decided to jerk its way up the wall and creep across the ceiling to a position above and in front of him.

" Mr. Worf ?"

One of its independently mobile eyes watched calmly as a paperweight bisected the airspace in front of the desk and shattered against the wall.

It concentrated on radiating its emotion flattening thoughts as it contemplated how to go on without losing important parts of its anatomy. It waited.

Finally its commanding officer looked up, and it read more reason than rage in the gaze that rested on its faintly quivering form.

" Fize ?"

The Klingon's voice was deceptively mild and low.

Fize radiated with even more intensity.

" You have a report, or are you just enjoying the show ?"

Fize recoiled three steps at the bitterness in his voice.

" From Tarnan, flight two, Sir. It may be a lead Sir. "

Worf fixed a more calm gaze on his second officer.

Fize tasted his emotional state and slid down an extruded web filament onto the royal blue and gold carpet.

Worf leaned forward and examined the Arachnid. " And?"

Fize noted his change of mood and altered its presentation to suit the demeanor of its superior.

"Tarnan reports that his squad has picked up an impulse trace. It is not far off Commander Troi's filed flight path."

Fize clicked nervously and scittered backwards as Worf got up and strode round its side of the desk. One eye flicked back to check that it had a clear escape path to the door.

"Sector ?" Worf ignored the anxious movements of his second and called up a star chart on his wall screen.

Fize forgot its nervousness and demonstrated why Worf tolerated its mannerisms. Quickly it called up the relevant information, rotated the system so that it was displayed in relation to both Benmore Base and the deployed search squads, pulled out the relevant borders and demonstrated the three dimensional relationships between all the participants. The proximity of the projected course to the Cardassian border became obvious.

Fize highlighted Tarnan's last position, and, without being asked, the limits of the squad's sensors.

The illuminated cone only just penetrated the demilitarized zone and showed Cardassian space hardly at all.

" Give me the best penetration with all available scouts."

The cone expanded but still did not give anything like comprehensive coverage of the area of Cardassian space near the border.

"Implement anyway Fize."

Worf listened impassively as Fize relayed his instructions to the scattered squadrons.

He returned to his desk and sat patiently, suppressing thought, as the twenty ships manoeuvered to scan the area. Fize played the incoming information though its own customized console and fed the results in real time to the visual display. The ion trail was confirmed and followed, its reducing intensity charted, the final shut down of the engines pinpointed. No sign of the missing shuttle registered on any screen or simulation. Fize clicked and rustled as it tried various permutations of sensor configurations.

" Tarnan has a probe on board Sir." It twitched an eye back to check Worf's reaction.

"Not without Starfleet backup. Get me Fleet command and recall the scouts. And Fize. "

Fize stopped its sideways scurry to the door. Worf's forehead creased with the weight of the duty that waited for him.

" Then track down Captain Riker and the Te Kaha. I need to let him know."

Fize left and Worf stayed for a space trying to find a way through the black gulf of his future. Without Deanna Troi.

******

Data, flying perforce with the Te Kaha, was travelling further than his crewmates would have believed.

Threading his way through cyberspace he had left the confines of the ship's computer net through several information feeds.

He was experimenting with splitting his consciousness through multiple channels.

A thread of communication flashed from Sector 001 and Data hitched a ride, examined two other incoming data streams, then diverted his attention back to the outgoing.

The end interface was not one that he recognized and that piqued his interest enough to divert some more attention to the content. Though it was encrypted, the programming patterns were familiar; he took note and copied it for later study.

Then his attention was claimed by his body on the Te Kaha. He brought his awareness back to his quarters.

Riker was leaning on Data's desk, easily within Data's proscribed field of vision. Data examined him through his familiar android senses for a minute then quickly interfaced with the ship's sensors and checked his impressions with a comprehensive scan. His hunch confirmed, he used the computer's voice to enquire.

"Is something wrong, Captain? You seem distressed ."

" I have had some bad news, Data. Deanna is missing, presumed dead. Out on the border. Worf just let me know. I know you are, were, fond of her. I thought I should be the one to tell you."

Riker seemed to sag; he folded his length into a chair and rested his head in his hands.

For the first time since he had had to abandon his body Data felt the loss of his ability to move.

His friend and Captain was distressed and he could not even give the simple physical comfort of a hand on the shoulder.

There was a pause as he sought for some words.

" What happened, Captain? I have heard no reports of hostilities in the demilitarized zone recently."

Riker pulled himself together and told Data what he knew, little as it was and second-hand at that.

Starfleet had sent the Reliant.

It had scanned further along the projected path of Troi's shuttle and then had made contact with Gul Evak.

In the spirit of cooperation that had begun to characterize that Cardassian's dealings with the Federation, a sensor buoy had been allowed to be sent into the binary system that had captured the shuttle. The buoy had detected a debris field that was all that was left of a Federation shuttle. The only other vessel detected in the area had been a marauding Ferengi trader that had turned tail at the first sign of interest in its activities and warped out of the area.

"Nobody knows what happened Data. Our only clue is that Deanna's last contact on Trevel was infected with the altered measles virus. Perhaps her shuttle's systems crashed, who knows? Worf is devastated and so in truth, am I."

"Thank you for telling me, Captain. I am sorry I can be of little practical help. Geordi has cleared almost all of the Te Kaha's systems but mine are proving rather more difficult."

" It's okay, Data. I'm sure you will come up with some answer soon. I'd better go; I still have a ship to run."

Riker stood and left Data alone. And Data stayed in his own head for a while mulling over what he had been told. And the relevance, perhaps, of that cryptic communication that probably had a Ferengi recipient. Data had cultivated a deep distrust of Ferengi.

******

Jean-Luc Picard was, he supposed, slumming.

The noisy dirty bar on Mars was probably the last place that anyone who knew him these days would expect to find him. But it was one of the haunts of his youth and he was feeling old these days, and not a little redundant as his ship entered the last quarter of its refit.

Sitting in the darkest corner, shadowed by the high sides of the booth, he drank fiery Saurian brandy that was guaranteed to do damage to his liver if not his brain.

His brain refused to switch off, even as he drank another toast Deanna Troi, to all those he had let get close and then lost.

The crowd was basic and loud; mixed air breathers from many worlds caroused in melting knots.

The most exuberant party consisted of three enhanced "hostesses" whose attentions for the night had been bought by a particularly snaggletoothed Ferengi. Money was flowing like the wine, and the volume of the gathering seemed to be rising in direct proportion to the currency being expended.

Picard turned his head, faintly amused, and peered into the red dark of the Martian night. The few patrons that had been sitting nearby left, drawn to the magnet of a fool and his money, and soon Picard was alone in his dark corner.

He looked into the reflective depths of his glass and became gradually aware that a faintly vibrating warmth was twining itself around his foot. The darkness below the table was impenetrable, but Picard had been around the engineers on Utopia Planetia enough to recognize this particular sensation.

A Trivilbrin was snacking. On him. As the creature made its way up to his thigh Picard reached down and pulled the little animal to his chest. Leaving his drink on the table he leaned back against the booth wall and stroked the warm length of its body.

" What're you doing here then hmm ? "

His fingers found that the animal was very thin, and along its back were some odd ridges that defied explanation until Picard held it out into the light to see. They were scabs. The creature had been either beaten or trod upon.

Slightly drunk as he was, the creature's pitiful condition got to Picard, he snuggled it back into his lap and stroked it absentmindedly .

The harsh voice of the Ferengi rose over the general clamor for a moment, only an inarticulate shout but the Trivilbrin reacted by burrowing frantically under the flap of Picard's jacket until only the tip of its pointed tail showed to the room.

"So that's the way the wind blows."

Picard cast a baleful glance over towards the party, then settled back a little and allowed the animal to hide itself more fully in his jacket.

" I know someone who would love to meet you, just stay there."

He reached forward and picked up his drink again. Saurian brandy was far too good to waste.

Later that evening, after leaving the bar without incident, Picard took a good look at his new pet. He had moved back aboard the Enterprise. Even non- operational, she was his home, and now that she was habitable again, he liked to feel in touch with the refit by being in the middle of it.

The animal was not well; even his untrained eye could see that. It lay in a listless heap on his sofa, vibrating bravely when he came near but fading before his eyes. The distinctive swirling pattern on its back looked muddy instead of coppery and its green color was fading.

Picard swore and wondered who on earth would have sold one of the treasured animals to a Ferengi. Only a strictly limited number had been allowed off-planet; they had a two year breeding cycle and none were near that yet.

As their talents as virus finders had been confirmed over the last few months their value had increased even more.

" You are a puzzle," Picard mused sitting himself down beside it. "And I think you are also going to ruin my surprise ."

Sighing, Picard rubbed his hand over his face feeling the prick of a day's growth of beard. It was late and he was rather under the weather but he didn't think this would wait. Crossing to his desk console, he called up his intended recipient and hoped she wouldn't be too cross with him. He didn't think his head would stand it.

Beverly Crusher paused in the threshold of her nearly completed and revamped sickbay about an hour later.

Her mouth twitched into a smile; the gentle snores that greeted her were familiar, if not expected after his cryptic but urgent summons.

She walked quietly into the room and found him, head tipped back, sitting in a high backed chair in her office. Sound asleep.

The Trivilbrin he had been so concerned about sat cradled gently in his lap. It sensed her presence and raised a dim but welcoming vibration.

Crusher thought she had rarely seen Picard look so raffish yet attractive. The silver and blue tunic he was wearing showed up his unshaven chin.

Giving into temptation she woke him with a kiss on his forehead. A smile spread across his face and he woke to look her in the eye. "Oops."

" Oops yourself. If I have to be up the least you could do is stay awake for me." The rather tender smile on her face took the sting from her words.

"Lets have a look at your beastie, although I might remind you I'm a doctor not a vet."

Together they moved over to one of the retuned diagnostic beds and Picard lay the animal on it. Crusher ran a tricorder over it and called up some of the relevant information about Trivilbrin's from the newly reinstalled data core.

Picard gently stroked the green brown skin and looked anxiously at her.

"I think it will be all right, it's just suffering from a greatly depleted energy store. Judging by these contusions it has been mal-treated as well. "

She ran a healing field over the worst of the scabs and Picard was gratified to see the skin forming unmarked behind the humming machine.

In the quiet dark of the dimly lit sick bay they both could feel the special bond that formed every time they let their guard down.

He took a half step towards her then they both jumped as the distinctive triple tone of the ship's communicator sounded.

Amused they both rolled their eyes and Beverly called out, " Crusher here."

" Doctor, I noticed the activity in the Enterprise's nets. I wonder if I may join you."

" Pleased to have you, Data. Hasn't Geordi managed to fix that motor system of yours yet? I thought the last antivirus was working well."

She sounded concerned.

Data's neural net was more of a challenge than any of them had realized.

" We are working on it Doctor, my body has been transferred to Geordi's lab on Utopia Planetia so that he can spend more time on the problem. Could you move aside a little so I can get a better look at the Trivilbrin ?"

Crusher glanced up at the ceiling and noticed the nearest optical pickup. She moved slightly sideways and watched as the optic zoomed in on the animal on the biobed.

" Have you done a scanning match on the animal's markings yet ?"

Picard answered. " We have only just started working on it. Are the markings familiar to you?"

" No, Captain, and I admit I find that surprising. I have a record of all the animals shipped on board the Te Kaha, and only two others were licensed off Trevel."

" Easy enough to solve, Data."

Crusher finished her work with the healer and picked up a tricorder instead.

"I'll scan the markings into the data base and find out who the animal is registered to."

The sense of shock was palpable as the registered owner of the animal was displayed on the view screen.

The Trivilbrin belonged to Deanna Troi, presumed lost near the Cardassian demilitarized zone.

Data, undisturbed by the emotion that had rendered the other two speechless, sounded slightly smug.

"That is consistent with some covert Ferengi communications I have been monitoring. Now I have a good idea of what happened."

" Perhaps you would be so good as to enlighten us then, Data." Picard's tone was somewhat dry. "I can assure you that you have a captive audience."

Chapter Four

Deanna Troi woke; she hadn't expected that.

She hadn't expected to still be in her escape capsule if she did wake.

Her empathic sense told her to keep her eyes shut; nothing outside the capsule was friendly, but something was out there. She could hear voices, harsh voices, loud contentious voices, familiar voices.

She risked a peek from between her lashes, keeping still. She felt strongly that any advantage she could wring from this situation would be necessary to ensure her survival, and she hadn't cheated that ridiculous shuttle failure just to muff it now.

The lid of the capsule was casually shut; a gap showed under the rim and under it she could see mid sections of the warring parties.

Something clattered to the floor after a particularly acrimonious exchange and the flash of a head she saw as it bent down confirmed her hunch.

Inwardly she groaned; if there was one species she loathed more than any other it was this. Gradually the gist of the argument filtered through. The Rules of Acquisition, what else.

"Finder's keepers."

"The Daimon has disposition of all booty."

" He who holds the blaster holds the situation."

"He who has the computer codes runs the ship."

Troi groaned audibly this time, pushed the lid of the capsule up with one convulsive movement and glared at the Ferengi disputants who had swung round with admirable speed to confront this interruption and try to turn it to their advantage. The tallest waved a blaster at her.

" You are mine, woman."

The other Ferengi, the one with the gold skull decoration, growled and swung an accurate fist at his crewmember catching him about the ears.

The taller Ferengi screeched and stepped back.

The shorter one moved forward to keep the upper hand.

" She is not yours, Daimon's privilege overtakes the first rule. And if you don't shut up I will eject you from that airlock and you can argue 'Finders Keepers' with the vacuum."

The taller Ferengi snarled, backed off and scooped up Troi's Trivilbrin and her small pack of supplies all in one move.

" I'll get my profit, you see. "

He backed out of the door, blaster wavering between the Daimon and Troi.

" Your woman, Damon. " A fetid grin split his face and he waved the stolen animal and bag over his head. The door swished shut behind him.

The Daimon shrugged his shoulders at the door, then turned quickly pointing a previously concealed hand blaster, ready to stop Troi, who was indeed halfway out of her capsule and on her way to try to overpower him.

She stopped, eyeing the weapon. He smiled. It was a memorable if not pretty sight.

"You are mine wooman. Federation wooman. How am I going to profit from this I am wondering? Are you going to help me wooman ? "

Troi sneezed and blinked watery eyes.

The Ferengi was unimpressed by her ill health. He walked a couple of steps towards her and ran the blaster along the line of her chin, forcing her head up and away.

"Will be fun finding out I am thinking."

He started to laugh; the sound giggled on in the cluttered hold. She felt sick to her stomach, and it had nothing to do with the virus.

******

Captain William Riker suddenly realized that he wasn't acting in a particularly rational manner. The realization came upon him fully-fledged but rather too late to take back the last taunting statement he had flung in Worf's face.

The Klingon, goaded beyond his slender patience, was at that moment stalking round his monstrosity of a desk with an expression in his eyes that suggested that Riker was about to add to the decorations that glittered on the wall.

Riker swallowed and backed up until his shoulders were pinned against one of the ornamental swords . He devoutly hoped that he would not be forced to try to defend himself with one.

Worf was shaking as he tried to contain the rage that was boiling within.

He forced words through gritted teeth.

"Would you like to explain exactly how it is my fault that Deanna was lost. And just how you would have stopped her from doing her work, and what you meant by cowardice ?"

Riker screwed his eyes shut; a Klingon at close quarters was overwhelming, and he felt a fool. All his secret jealousy and anger had come out of his mouth bypassing his brain entirely .

"Worf I'm sorry." He raised his hands to his shoulders in surrender. "The idea of Deanna in the hands of the Ferengi is just too much."

Worf turned away from him, barely able to refrain from wrapping his hands around his former friend's throat.

He strode over to his desk and leaned on it, struggling for control.

" All they have confirmed is the fact that somehow her Trivilbrin survived the destruction of her shuttle. You would have me plunge the Federation into war on a shred of information like that."

Riker snapped back.

" I will do whatever is necessary. I would have thought that if you cared you would too."

Worf's face twisted further with disgust at Riker's emotive reasoning.

" Do you not think...." He could not finish the sentence. The red haze was threatening to overwhelm him.

"Leave." He spat the command over his shoulder." You have proved yourself without honor. I will speak with you no longer."

Riker took a half step towards him, full of remorse and anger, only to spin on his heel and remove himself from the office at Worf's bellowed repetition. "LEAVE !"

Ramrod straight, he marched out of Fize's anteroom and disappeared into the Station's corridor.

Fize poked a feeler up over the edge of his desk and tasted the emotions seething in the air. Clicking loudly it approached the door to Worf's office. Hearing an inarticulate yell from inside its courage failed it on the threshold and it scuttled back under its desk.

******

"Captain."

Data's voice intruded in Picard's ready room.

Picard, who had been working on staff schedules and loading specifications for his soon to be recommissioned ship, stretched back out of his chair

" Yes, Data."

" Captain, I finally have managed to track down the Ferengi ship that was the recipient of the coded message I intercepted a fortnight ago. It is the vessel Caveat, last listed as docking at Benmore base. It appears that it has just been granted trading rights with the Cardassian Empire. " "Any news of Deanna ?"

" Nothing since that first communication, sir. But I find myself wondering just how the Ferengi managed to win that concession. "

Picard looked thoughtful. " I will have to get the diplomatic service on to this. Can you interface with Cardassian communications ?"

" No, but if you initiate a routine enquiry I could travel down the information feed and search their data bases."

Picard raised his eyebrows at the ceiling.

"There is a name for that sort of activity, Data. Let's try diplomatic channels first. I will contact Starfleet again. And let Captain Riker and Worf know; perhaps they will be able to follow up some of your leads."

******

Gul Madred liked to be able to observe his subjects, watch the gradual erosion of their will, orchestrate the destruction of self-respect and pride.

It worked well with the Bajorans.

Cardassian malcontents were even easier.

His only failure had been at the hands of the Federation. It boded well to be repeated.

Troi was sick of the whole situation. She had spent a miserable month fighting off the increasingly personal approaches of the Ferengi Daimon as he had tried to find a way of making money from her.

Finally he had been contacted by his second-in-command, the Trivilbrin thief, who had returned to Sector 001 to make the most of the loot he had acquired from Troi and other unfortunate clients.

His subordinate had found out about a Romulan spy who was presently being held by Terran Security following a theft from the secure medical base he had infiltrated.

This was information that the Daimon could use.

He held a suddenly useful Federation citizen that could be sold for barter, perhaps, to the highest bidder, of course.

Trade access was what he had been negotiating with a bored and disgusted Cardassian official at the time. Trade access that was promptly granted when the goods, Deanna Troi, were hinted at. The Daimon was well aware of the Cardassian's attempts to curry favor with the Romulans.

Like a sack of potatoes she had been sold, and she had been in Gul Madred's hands for a whole week.

She felt that her resistance was weakening. The aura of sadistic glee that oozed into the room every time he graced her with his presence was tearing at her soul.

He looked at the helpless seeming woman; she should be debased, despairing. She remained inviolate. He had tried drugs, she slept. He had tried starvation, she starved elegantly. He had quickly given up physical torment. After she had recovered from the first application of the device she had calmly looked him in the eye and stopped her heart, consciously. It took three demonstrations before he had believed she meant it and the medics were getting concerned. As she woke for the third time she had smiled at him and remarked on the frustration he was feeling. She was a Betazoid empath, she had informed him, and could read his mind. Deanna did not feel that she owed him anything of the truth.

The truth of the rope she was at the end of. The terror that was mounting, convincing her that she would never be released. Never feel Worf's arms around her, or hug Alexander, or brush her thoughts across the surface of Will Riker's mind.

Gul Madred sat behind his desk and glowered at her.

She appeared to be asleep again. He almost wished he could simply send her back to her Federation. The Federation that did not look at all as if it was being debilitated by the plague he had unleashed. And now Sela had called for an accounting. She had received information that stated Madred had a means to recover their compromised agent and she wished to take possession of the hostage as soon as possible.

It really wasn't Madred's year.

As he approached the rendezvous coordinates it got worse.

" Gul, there are twenty Federation scouts on an intercept course. Instructions please."

Troi's head lifted wearily and she looked at Madred with a raised eyebrow.

"Did you think they wouldn't find me ?" she asked, with a outer serenity hardly matched by her inner jubilation.

Madred glared at her and stomped out of his office.

******

The Te Kaha had resumed patrol along the demilitarized zone.

Riker, smarting from the fiasco at Benmore Station, spent a week driving his ship and crew to their highest level of performance. He pulled double shifts and refused to appoint another first officer. His crew, used to a more laid back approach, grumbled but complied.

Eventually Dr. Keshvare was seen entering his ready room with a determined expression on her normally serene features.

The bridge crew waited, wishing to a being that they could be a fly on the wall during that particular conference; empathy was not required to guess at its content. Three quarters of an hour later the captain and his chief medical officer emerged. Riker handed the official control of the bridge to his Vulcan second officer, Ellam.

Ellam left Navigation and sat in the command seat with the lack of reaction typical of her race, but could not resist an eyebrow raised in communication with her Betazoid husband, Leltan, on Ops as the turbolift doors shut behind the pair.

Leltan, later in the afternoon, noticed an alert on his Ops console. After systematically checking for possible malfunction, routine after the net infection, he routed the call to his wife and sent a telepathic alert to her along their pair bond.

Given the delicate emotional health of the crew after the captain's atypical behavior, he wanted his conclusions checked before he disturbed the whole ship again. There was a pause as Ellam rechecked the input and routed the identification through the ship's computer. Finally Leltan heard his conclusions verified with Ellam's calm call to Riker's quarters.

"Priority one Mayday received from Ferengi ship Caveat drifting without power. Message is being transmitted from emergency buoy. Shall we proceed to the last given coordinates Sir ? We are the closest vessel "

" Repeat that name Ellam." Riker's voice held more animation than his crew had heard for weeks.

" It is the vessel mentioned in connection with Commander Troi's disappearance, Sir."

Ellam could have been reporting the state of the ship's coffee supplies for all the emotion she gave the statement, but a collective indrawing of breath was evident from the emotionally inclined amongst the bridge crew.

" I'll be right there Ellam. Lay in a course, maximum allowable warp. Those are some Ferengi I have a great need to talk with."

" Understood, Sir."

Ellam allowed the merest trace of satisfaction to color her tone. The whole crew had a bone to pick with those particular Ferengi.

******

Riker settled into his chair feeling more in command of himself, his ship and his future than he had since he heard of Deanna's disappearance. On the viewscreen was an image of the Ferengi ship, Caveat, drifting powerless in the void. It was a sight that gave him an inordinate amount of satisfaction.

He sat considering the picture for a moment or two, relaxed in his chair, a thoughtful stroke of his beard the only clue to internal processing. Finally he toggled a switch on his chair console and opened the channel Leltan had patched in for him.

"Ferengi vessel, Caveat. Are you having difficulties ?"

The screen cleared to show the side profile of a miserable looking Ferengi, huddled in some kind of quilt with a drip visible on the end of his reddened nose. He turned slowly towards the viewscreen and gazed at Riker for a moment as if he could not believe the latest turn fortune had dealt him. An oily smile spread over his features.

" Your arrival is most opportune Captain. We have a mere hour of air left and life support is in the process of crashing as you can see."

He waved an expansive arm around his deserted bridge, not that much could be seen in the emergency illumination, then hitched the quilt up over his shoulders again with a shiver.

" Can you beam my crew and myself off ship, and perhaps a few trifling items of cargo ? "

Riker leaned forward.

" That might be possible, Daimon. It depends on the price you can pay. "

He leaned back in the command chair and smiled amiably at the Ferengi, who had suddenly lost his pleased expression.

" You see I have been studying your culture, particularly some interesting items I believe you call the Rules of Acquisition. The Ferengi's face fell even further. " I think the one we need to apply in this case is ' Nothing for nothing' , don't you think ? Or perhaps the older but truer one ' No good deed ever goes unpunished. '

" Riker leaned back in his chair and grinned at the flabbergasted Ferengi. Protests were tumbling from the Daimon's lips but Riker overrode them with his best command tone.

" You tell us who you sold Deanna Troi to and we may, and I emphasize the may, be willing to fix your ship and save your miserable lives. How does that suit ? "

The negotiations continued for nearly the whole of the hour left to the Ferengi. The end, however remained in doubt to no one.

******

Worf schooled his features into passivity, Fize, out of viewing range, clicked loudly as it opened the communication channel to the Cardassian ship captained by Gul Evak.

"They are acknowledging our hail, Sir."

" Onscreen." Worf watched as Gul Evak's craggy features filled the viewscreen.

He looked like Worf felt, wrathful. Worf kept his tone mild.

"You have confirmed the intelligence ?"

" A Federation spy is being held by Madred for questioning. I have confirmed your intelligence,' Commander. I was warned not to pursue the matter as it is sensitive. My hands are tied, Worf, I am merely a border Captain. I do not have political influence. My sympathies.

" The communication cut off with a prolonged beep. Worf looked at Fize who was frantically accessing sensor and computer consoles. After a pause it swivelled an eye so that it faced Worf. "

It was in the beep, Sir. Coordinates and a projected flight path of a Cardassian military scout. There appears to be details of some kind of rendezvous, but compression has smeared the data.

" Worf leaned forward, the light of battle in his eye.

"The position of the rendezvous."

"Neutral space, Sir. Near the Romulan border."

Worf thumped the desk causing all the papers and Fize to jump convulsively. He strode round his desk and out of the door of his office.

" Alert all twenty ships, Fize, we are going to get her. You're with me."

Fize clicked, it had been afraid of that.

" Yes Sir ." It ran up the wall and scuttled along the ceiling until it was in front of the hurrying Klingon. Worf stopped.

" Should I let Captain Riker know, Sir ?"

" When we are on our way, Fize. I intend to be the one who rescues her."

Fize hung from the ceiling gently rotating in the breeze caused by his passage.

It was calculating the firepower of Worf's combined scouts in relation to the Te Kaha. and the archived reports on Cardassian military scouts. The equation did not quite balance and Fize swung itself over to the wall and then to the floor. It didn't like the odds at all.

******

" Madred ! Oh Will, I am sorry. "

Picard felt his stomach contract as he remembered the horror of his confinement in the hands of that Cardassian sadist.

Riker watched the color drain out of the captain's face and felt sorry that he had had to tell him. "Worf has confirmed that Madred has a Federation citizen and has some information on his movements. It appears that Madred is playing some sort of political game. The Cardassian high command seem to be confused over exactly what is going on and factional bickering has intensified.'

" The diplomatic service has had little luck penetrating the united front the military puts up. Do you have anything planned ? "

"Worf appears to be onto something but he is not speaking to me at present. We had a..... " Riker paused searching for some way to explain the rift that had grown between them. " A disagreement." He finished lamely.

Picard raised an eyebrow at his former first officer. " Then I suggest you remedy it Captain. More is riding on this than your pride."

Riker looked at him for a beat, stung but aware of the truth in Picard's words. Eventually he nodded, his expression grim.

" As you say, Sir, Riker out."

The blue Federation logo replaced Riker's face and Picard sat stunned for a while. The communicator sounded and he jolted himself back into the room.

" Picard here."

Geordi La Forge's voice was a welcome relief after the turmoil he had experienced during the last call.

" You asked to be notified when Data was reactivated. We are ready when you are Sir."

" I'll be right there, Geordi." Picard left his ready room and his ghosts at the same time.

******

Data slipped back into his body and experienced a reaction that he could only describe as relief.

He sat up and reached out for La Forge's hand, then clasped it in both of his.

" Thank you," he said simply.

La Forge's beaming smile was echoed by Beverly Crusher's.

She was running a diagnostic through her tricorder and the results were good. She turned to show Picard, who was leaning over her shoulder.

The emotion of the moment over, Data turned a more serious gaze on the captain.

" Have you heard the latest demand that the Romulans have given the Diplomatic service They want the return of the operative who was discovered working in Medical Base Twenty. In return, they claim they have gained possession of a Federation agent. They propose a swap."

Picard placed a hand on Data's shoulder.

"Thank you, Data, I won't ask you how you found that out."

He smiled at the android and shook his head.

" It is going to be difficult for us, learning to live without your inside knowledge again, but it's good to have you back. "

Data looked a little bemused.

Picard squeezed his shoulder and let him go. " Geordi, just how soon can we run those test flights on the Enterprise ?"

******

Worf managed to catch the Cardassian vessel identified in Evak's covert intelligence just as it emerged from the Cardassian side of the de-militarized zone.

The squad shadowed it carefully until it could be confirmed as heading directly for Romulan space, then Worf gave the order to engage.

Unfortunately, the fight, such as it was, lasted only ten minutes.

Worf, as Fize had kept telling him, found himself outgunned and unable to penetrate the Cardassian's shields.

Eventually the squad had to retreat and regroup. The Cardassian ship had brushed the engagement off as if it had been a minor annoyance and Worf's sense of helplessness was only matched by his frustration level.

Fize scuttled swiftly around the cabin of Worf's scout; it clutched several delicate pieces of equipment to its abdomen then retreated to the ceiling to await the expected fireworks.

As usual his Klingon superior surprised him. Instead of shouting or ranting he sat looking at the spot in the starfield that had been their last sight of the Cardassian ship and was silent.

Finally, Fize's anxiety reached such a peak that its trembling caused it to drop a padd. It clattered noisily to the cabin floor and broke into Worf's abstraction.

He turned in his seat and looked at the pendulous arachnid.

" I felt her Fize; I am sure she touched my mind. We have never managed that before."

Fize slid to the ground, and quietly replaced the equipment in the various positions on the flight deck. Clicking in a non committal way at this revelation from its boss, it set to finding out the disposition of the squad, then alerted Worf to the immanent arrival of the Te Kaha .

Riker listened to Worf's tale of woe with sympathy and then asked to beam over.

The two men rebuilt some bridges and made plans.

******

As the Federation vessels retreated beyond sensor range, the vast green shape of a Romulan cruiser decloaked above Gul Madred's ship.

Sela beamed onto Madred's bridge without asking permission and strode over to the weary Cardassian.

"Where is she then?" She fixed him with one of her intense stares. " I suppose that despite your incompetence you have managed to retain your prisoner ?"

Gul Madred stood. " Come." He lead her into his private office and pointed at Deanna Troi. Troi looked up then started to laugh. " YOU!"

Sela stepped back until she was brought up short by her guards. She whirled on Madred.

" This is the spy you want me to trade for my operative ?"

Troi sneezed, and grinned cheerfully at Sela. She was at a stage of exhaustion that made flippancy seem the most logical response to any situation. That or tears.

Madred looked confused. " And why not ? She is obviously prized by the Federation even if she is not Human."

Troi could not resist. " And I'm as Betazoid as you are Romulan am I not, Sela?"

The smile that had teased the Romulan turned into another sneeze.

" Sorry, I'm almost over this cold. I hope you aren't susceptible."

She was rewarded by the look in Sela's eye, an almost unconscious drawing back.

Madred lost his patience with her again.

" Silence, " he thundered. The two women looked at him. He walked round his desk and sat. " Take her. " He waved his hands at the pair of them. " I wish you more joy of her than I had. All I want is to see the back of both of you."

They left and Madred rested his head in his hands. At least we are safe from that virus. My scientists have assured me it is only spread by the human immune response.

What a debacle. He instructed his ship to return to Cardassian space. Just inside the border the failure of his bioelectrical systems started to tell him the truth of Deanna Troi's ancestry.

******

One day later, Captain Riker, with Worf's squadrons as an honor guard, approached the rendezvous.

On board the Te Kaha the Romulan spy was held in close confinement.

"Romulan Cruiser decloaking, Captain," Ellam reported. "The Romulans are hailing us, Captain."

Leltan twisted a little in his seat so that he could see Riker's reaction. Riker leaned forward in his chair. " Onscreen Leltan. Let's see who we are dealing with this time."

Sela's blond features stared out of the viewscreen at him. Impassive, but achingly reminiscent of her mother.

Riker nodded at her but did not take his eyes off the screen. Partially hidden by Sela's chair he could see Deanna Troi, held by two guards.

He felt the whisper of a touch across the surface of his mind. A weight he had not realized rested on his shoulders lifted and he breathed a fraction easier.

Sela inclined her head at Riker and then directed a look at Troi's guards. They yanked her forward.

" Our part of the bargain Captain. And yours ?"

" When we have her safe, Sela. Not before."

" And if we chose to take what we want? Which of course we could, your brave show notwithstanding."

" Forward disruptors on Romulan vessel powering up Captain."

Leltan flicked his fingers over his console. "Second Romulan Cruiser decloaking to port."

The view screen showed another green bird like ship, above and behind the first.

Riker held Sela's eye steadily. " Then I suppose we would have to call in reinforcements."

Above the two Warbirds, and completing the circle made by the Te Kaha and Worf's squadrons, the rebuilt Enterprise decloaked and stood revealed in all her bright splendor.

Sela's eyes flicked to the side of her viewscreen. A slight smile seemed to touch her eyes.

"So. Transport coordinates if you please, Captain."

Riker nodded to her again and looked at Ellam who reported.

" Transmitted and locked in, Captain. Shall we lower shields ?"

" I think that is reasonable. Bring the Romulan to the transporter room. We will beam simultaneously. Okay, Sela ?"

" As you wish, Captain." Sela broke the communication link.

" Transport complete, Captain. "

The two Romulan ships shimmered out of view and disappeared off into their own space.

" Incoming from Captain Picard and Commander Worf, Sir."

"Put them both on, Ellam."

Riker grinned at both men as their images came up on the viewscreen.

"Worf, beam over, she's here. Captain, it's good to see you again. Your timing is as impeccable as ever, Sir."

Picard smiled back at him. " Just as well they didn't try us out, Will. None of our weapons are on line."

Riker laughed out loud. " Thank you anyway; she looks most impressive."

" Just you wait until you come on board. You will be tempted to come back. Data is in a dilemma. "

Data moved into the pickup at that moment and Riker's relief was complete. All of his friends safe and the mission successful. He invited everyone over to the Te Kaha and sat back in his seat with a sigh of satisfaction.

*****

Beverly Crusher walked briskly down the oval white corridors of the saucer section. The sound of her footsteps echoed a little eerily in the unpopulated residential sections that waited, refurbished, for their occupants.

Deck Ten, the wall told her in several scripts. If she had cared to touch the com panel it would have told her the same. She could have gone by turbolift and got there in seconds. She preferred to walk.

It was the only way she could understand the immensity of the ship, feel the life it breathed even without thepeople who occupied and animated it. In her mind she could see the children who ran these corridors, despite regulations. The people whose triumphs and tragedies were so much a part of her life.

At last count, she had attended the births of seventy five Federation citizens who had the Enterprise listed as their birthplace. She also had signed thirty-two death certificates. Many of those she preferred not to dwell on.

She paused outside her destination. And if you have to sign his? Could you bear it? Could you, having given in to his insistence that love was worth the risk? She rested her head on the wall panel beside the door. He would be inside, waiting for her. She was late and he was always punctual. She couldn't imagine him otherwise.

She took a deep breath and pushed the doors open, flicked her hair over her shoulder and let her smile build at the sight of him, rising from the table where they often sat, under the stars.

She took his hand and met his intense gaze, losing herself once again in the depths of his hazel eyes. She reached up and traced the shape of his lips with her finger, the empty lounge allowing them privacy for intimacy that would always need to be curbed in public.

" The answer is yes, Jean-Luc. If you still want me after all this time, I' ll take the risk. " She had more to say, but for the moment under the stars in Ten Forward, his enormous grin was reward enough.

They both sat, Picard still holding her hand. He gazed at her for a long time without words at the success of his long courtship.

Eventually the moment was too much for Crusher. " I must remember that accepting your proposals leaves you speechless, it could come in handy."

She met the twinkle in his eye with an unladylike giggle and before long the Ten Forward lounge rang with peals of laughter.

******

Light years away, in another room, another couple were completing a lingering kiss. Alexander wandered through the living room and didn't bother to make a comment.

In fact, after unwinding the Trivilbrin from his arm and dumping it on the sofa, where it trilled in sulky petulance before settling down to sleep, he walked over to the couple and grabbed them both round the waist.

He butted his head in between them and then looked up. " I'm glad you are back."

Deanna looked down, the tears that still came too easily these days welled in her eyes momentarily, but were soon dried.

She stroked Alexander's hair. "So am I, Alex, so am I."

Worf wrapped his arms round the both of them and wished he could hold the universe at bay forever.

THE END