Author's Note: Well, this is the last one. Thanks to everyone who's stuck it out and made it through this long road! A special thanks to Zara08 and Lilith Kayden for all their reviews and kind words of support! And, of course, an extra special thanks to Nightwitch who has been there since the beginning by first convincing me to finish this story! I hope you enjoy the last few pages as much as you have all the rest!
/- A Week Later
It was a grotesque looking thing. The design was sleek, small, and was even coloured a soft cream in an attempt to blend into the skin. It wasn't the design or the feel of it. It wasn't even how awkward someone looked while wearing it. It was what the thing represented.
Riker looked down at the mask he held in his hand. It formed over the nose and mouth; a dermal recognition allowed it to adhere to the skin in seconds. It represented death; it represented an old fear being renewed. One doctor had already died investigating the disease; three more had not died in body but their minds were gone forever. Four lives that would never be restored- lives that never needed to be lost.
Riker tossed the mask down onto his desk. He didn't the added pressure of those thoughts.
Just standing there, thoughts crossed his mind. He could see the fate that awaited him. It was a bothering thought; it was bothering that he had grown to accept the possibility.
He looked out at his bridge crew and out at the ships following his. How many thousands of souls were out there? So many were willingly walking into what may be their last hours. It was an even more bothering thought that he had led them to that; it was more bothering that they all were equally as indifferent to their fate as he.
But the worst was not the souls he could see around him, they were the ones in his mind's eye. In there, he saw the devastation of an entire fleet and the death of an old friend. It was the most bothering experience to have those thoughts weigh on his mind; it was far more bothering to know that they had all long ago accepted their fate, just as the others had.
Riker didn't need to respond to Bryon's hail. He glanced at his mask; he didn't move to pick it up. Byron was looking at him as he stepped out. Riker had once been fascinated at the way he merely had to think an order or inquiry and Bryon would immediately react. That novelty had worn off years ago.
Byron nodded at his thoughts. "That was Captain Data. They have won the battle. They are currently securing control over Vigo."
"Epsilon Fleet meeting any resistance on the surface?"
"Some, but nothing their personal shields can't handle."
It was a weight that was shoved off his chest. Dozens of obsessivethoughts could be thrust from the front of his mind. But it wasn't enough. Still he was disturbed by all the probable scenarios that still faced them. He looked around himself. They surrounded him. He was haunted by living ghosts.
He looked around his bridge and he saw them- looking emptily at their consoles. Fear made their hands tremble; anxiety made them shift constantly in their chairs; acceptance kept them quiet.
He looked out of the viewscreen and he saw hundreds of thousands of ships looking back at him. He saw their caskets trembling with fear for them.
And just coming into view was their graveyard. Trill hovered peacefully, innocently. Soon it would claim more lives.
/- Around the Same Time
What he noticed first was the strips of blue. Redswirled around them, overtaking them. A hint of purple accented the red.
To his left, a man spoke loudly, obnoxiously, in a slurred voice, his tongue overestimating his ability to speak coherently. The bartender laughed at whatever the man had tried to say. But Ken didn't hear; his focus was on the drink in his hand. It struck him suddenly, and only for that short time, that both things were centered around Amen: the barkeeper and the man foolishly debating a world of politics that they could not control and an Arone'an drink that resembled too closely an unfinished painting.
"How 'bout you, mate?"
With his eyes so intent on the vision before him and his mind so fixedly trying to conjure a mental imagine of that same painting, he scarcely recognized the message sent by his ears. At first he didn't react to the Brit's words; at first he didn't realized it was his opinion that they sought. Sluggishly, as if the alcohol had affected him so greatly, he turned his head to look at them. He looked but there was no recognition in his eyes.
"What d'you think 'bout President Amen?"
Ken shrugged, intrigued but not overly interested in the conversation. "In what regard?"
"Well let's start with the fact that he shoulda been out of office a couple of years ago."
"Yeah." The barkeeper nodded, "Any person who rides nearly an entire term without being elected and then gets re-elected is okay by me. Getting elected for a "second" term is all right, I guess. I mean, assuming they did all right the first time around- not that he did, eh. The war hasn't done his popularity much good."
"We had just won a series of major battles around then." Ken's words came easily from his mouth, an off-handed remark installed years before. The cool rim of his glass met his lip and he paused to consider his words.
"Yeah, well, that's fine and dandy but, what I wanna know," the man said, leaning closer. Ken wondered if there was some secret to be told; but if it was about Amen, it would be no secret to him. "Is how he stayed in office? His second term was up a while ago."
Ken kept the glass up close to his mouth, though not poised for him to drink from it. Slowly he forced air past his lip; his fingers felt the warmth. The glass came to his lips, the last of the liquid spilling past them. His eyes followed the glass until it hit the counter. He wished it was that easy to get rid of Amen's painting. "There's a clause in Earth's constitution stating that the President, during certain circumstances- like times of war- can remain in office until the problem has been resolved."
"So you're saying that he alone decided that he could remain in office 'til this war's over?"
"Well, Congress approved it as well. But… yeah, basically."
"What the hell's that?"
The barkeeper snorted. "Yeah well… What about the Federation? Don't think it's ever been a secret that Earth has run the show for a while."
"It's a dictatorship, that's what we're living under now."
Ken couldn't look at the man. He could only shrug and then nod. "Yes, it is." He tapped at his glass; the barkeeper filled it back to the brim.
"How'd you know all that stuff about the constitution anyway?"
Ken held his glass up level with his eyes. Staring down into it, he didn't look at them as he thought; he didn't think about them as he thought. The liquid flowed past his lips, burning his throat as he gulped down the entire glass. The glass clanked against the counter; his hands followed it, spreading flat on the counter to push him off the high stool. "I work for the government."
The cold hit him in waves as he stepped out of the bar. It was late-October and not even the little village of Clifton, England was spared. He didn't live there, he lived in a large city back in British Columbia, Canada, but Europe was his escape from recognition, from questions, from stress and pressure.
It was never the same place, never twice, but he never failed to meet someone who wanted to talk with him. Many conversations had fallen to politics and many of those led to Amen. He wasn't a hated man but he wasn't a loved man- though Ken was certain he was deluded enough to think such a thing about himself.
It was late and the line for the transporter was thankfully short. He was never beamed directly into his home, as many others were; he instead always found himself three blocks away. He preferred to walk, or so he told himself.
As he walked, his feet walking by memory and not commanded, his mind collapsed into late-night musings. He had expected, even prepared himself for Amen's reaction when they lost Vigo and Trill- on the same day, only adding to the insult of the event. But Amen had treated him as if he had been solely responsible. And the Sklig Ntsar had become even more aggressive with their methods, enraging Amen and making Ken's job even harder. But it wasn't just these two things that had done it. It wasn't a mystery that the Alliance Fleet was going to continue their push into Federation territory. It wasn't a mystery to Ken that the Federation was going to loose, it was just a matter of time, nothing else.
Documents hovered precariously on top of an old box. But he paid them no heed and they toppled off, scattering all around his feet. Ken stood over his safe, protected from sight by the enclosed back room. Setting the box on top of the safe, he used the knuckle of his index finger to unlock the box and then lifted the lid up with both hands. He paused for a moment after he did so, looking in and observing it for a moment. His hand shuddered when he moved to pick it up, but then it was in his hand and he was pulling the sheath off, allowing the sleek blade to shine after being exposed to the soft light. It was a fantasy, of some kind, one he knew he would never live out. But some days it comforted him to know that it was there, to know the foolish protection he had once sought could still be of some use.
He sighed, content for the moment to return the dagger to its secure home. He wondered, but he never dreamed that it would one day come to be.
/- September 14, One Month Later
It was an old tradition, one that he imagined had been passed down for hundreds of years. There had been dark moments when Picard had still been Captain and Riker would wonder where his mind was as he paced through the ship's decks. Riker had wondered often how that could comfort the man; many years ago he had discovered his answer.
Riker couldn't pinpoint when he had developed the same habit- perhaps not long after he had taken command of Enterprise. But as he turned into the Ten Forward, he paused in his rhythmic patterns. Jack smiled at him from behind the bar- he knew Riker's patterns just as well as Guinanhad always been of Picard's.
It was his habit to walk the length of the room, pause at the bar but not drink or even say much of anything, and then turn back and move onto the next deck. But something interrupted that pattern. Something about the group of young cadets in the front captured his attention. There were seven of them- two females, five males, and all of them young.
He was that age once. He had had dreams; dreams to be someone and something. He had never once thought that those dreams would ever be crushed. But looking at those kids, he wondered what their dreams were. Did they have any? Or was their only dream to survive that day. To survive to dinner. To survive to see their next R and R.
And he wondered, for the first time, if that was what his own children dreamed for. Did they dream of an end to this war? Or were they too unfamiliar with peace to wish for it?
"How old are you, Ensign?" The Cadet looked startled. It wasn't because of the way Riker addressed him, for as young as he looked, he had probably been called by the title for months if not a year. No, he was startled because none of these young children expected their last hours of downtime to be interrupted by him. Because none of them had seen him and snapped to attention. They all tried to, but he waved his hand at them, shaking his head as his one had gently kept the cadet seated.
He glanced over at the rest of his friends- all third year cadets like him; all the same age as him- before his eyes met his Admiral's. "Seventeen, sir."
Riker nodded. He was hardly more than a year older than Liz; hardly more than a child. "How old were you?" he whispered, not meaning to voice his musings.
"When I joined, sir?"
Riker glanced up at him, shaking his head. "No, sorry… How old were you when the Federation split?"
The Cadet's eyes rolled to the side, counting the years. "Well… about five, sir. I think. I don't remember much."
Riker just nodded. The cadets looked at him, shifting uncomfortably under his distracted gaze. One of them finally looked away from their Admiral. The boy wet his lips, leaning his elbows against on his knees, and began to restart the earlier conversation.
Riker didn't listen. He had turned away from them, his eyes surveying the rest of Ten Forward. It wasn't quite like it had once been- the bustling place of parties, chess games, gossip, and late night rendezvous. It was now a place to escape from the tedious demands of life. A place for one night stands, drunken evenings, and late night relation.
"Yeah, well… I don't really care about killing them…"
"Oh come on, after all the family you've lost?"
The Cadet shrugged and Riker finally looked back over at them.
"Had I gone through all that, I'd want to kill them all."
Riker sighed as he looked at them. They had been so young the last time they had been members of the Federation- it was doubtful that even one of them in the group could remember anything of the experience. The Federation had always been their enemy and, ever since they were young, they had learned- through media, through older friends, through bad experiences- to hate that enemy. They had learned a history too foreign to believe or imagine; one too abstract for the mind. He could tell them stories of the days when he had been a Starfleet officer, a member of an elite class of explorers, a leader in a world that preached freedom, advancement of person, and scientific discovery. He could tell them about his experiences, he could tell them about peace, he could tell them about Earth, but none of them would understand. War was all they knew.
He wished that he could teach them that Starfleet wasn't a horrible, brutal enemy. He wished that he could explain the legacy it had once had. He wished that he could teach them to respect that legacy, and the name. But he knew how they clung to that hate, to those vague understandings of war, to be able to fight. How could they kill without that anger? Anger was all they had for there no longer seemed a purpose beyond retribution. He wanted to explain how once there was a reason, there was a noble reason for a just up-rise. But how does one explain that year long pain? How does one explain to them how difficult it was for people to declare loyalty to one side or the other? How hard it was to fire those first shots? They never knew such a pain, such a heart ache. The Federation had always been their enemy, how could he tell them that once it hadn't been like that?
He looked around him and he saw great minds. He saw the potential for doctors, for engineers, for great leaders in a time of peace. But there was no peace, no way for their potential to bloom as it should have. He looked at them and he wondered what would have come of them. In peacetime, Starfleet's numbers were barely half of what Alpha Fleet alone was. Civilians made names for themselves, with research, with politics, with medicine, with art, music, and architecture. All of it, save perhaps politics, had faltered. Nearly every child born seemed destined to join and fight and almost certainly die. He looked at those faces and saw young men and women who had decided when they were still too young to understand, when they were still seduced by the glamour and glory of such a calling, when they were too young to know about the less glamorous side of the war. He stood there and he wondered, what would have become of them had he not fired on those ships all those years ago. Had President Amen not risen to power? Had all those things that had gone wrong hadn't, where would those young people be?
There were hundreds of little sounds that every officer aboard a starship became familiar with. There was an intimacy in being able to hear the most obscure and unnoticeable and even insignificant of sounds.
At any given time, there were at least three soft taps of the pad of someone's finger depressing a button. Someone was always pacing, someone was always shifting their weight, someone was always ruffling the material of their uniform as they reached for a control or stood or paced.
He could pick Byron out of all the sounds. Riker assumed it was mostly from knowing him longer than the rest of his bridge officers. There was a certain lightness to his step- he was trained in ancient Betazoid poise and grace. His chair gave a familiar creak to it whenever he sank into it as well.
He could even imagine that other things made sound. The humming of the warp core; the hissing of the forceshield; the sizzling of the phasers; the groaning of the photon torpedoes. He was never entirely convinced that he wasn't hearing it.
But there was something about the tension on the bridge that made everything sound louder, more vibrant. It was as if the tension acted as the perfect amplifier.
And the sudden, and yet not unexpected sight muted it without warning.
Riker stood awkwardly, hovering just behind his Ops officer, his eyes unwavering from the foreign sight. Earth. Had it truly been over a decade since he had been so close? Had it truly been fifteen years since he had been welcomed there?
Even the words from his own mouth could not seem to reach his ears before they had lost their volume.
And then, equally without warning, fear replaced tension. Tension could amplify sounds, but fear exploded them, making them echo in the deepest crevices. He might not be sure if his ship actually made any sound, but when fear took hold of the senses, it certainly seemed to make some of the most hideous sounds.
"I've never actually killed anyone."
The hushed confession startled him. Andy looked over at his long time friend and accomplice in the Sklig Ntsar. Reggie stood awkwardly against the hard wall. He wondered if she was trying to hid from Manick or what they were about to do. He glanced over at the others, all mulling about, wasting nervous energy as they waited, before he stepped closer to her.
He didn't say anything; there was nothing for him to say. She looked at him, her eyes were wide but he wouldn't characterize what he saw as scared or even nervousness. There was almost a peacefulness to them that he found eerie.
"It's been a game all these years." He just kind of nodded. It had certainly been some ride, that he wouldn't argue with. "We get some half-baked scheme in our heads and run off half-cocked, break in, break out, no worse for wear. Nothing but an adrenaline buzz and a little something to keep the boss happy."
He just smirked at her, the way she so calmly and so easily degraded all the hell they had gone through over the past decade. They had lost people to their mindless frolicking. And she knew that, just as painfully as everyone else there.
"You've killed people before, haven't you?"
Andy just nodded. "Not because I wanted to."
"What does it feel like?" she asked a moment later, her voice timid. Her weariness wasn't a concern for the ghosts that haunted him; it was just Reggie's way of trying to sound like she wasn't so desperate for an answer. Andy could only sigh and look away. He had no answer. She slouched against the wall even more, putting as much weight against it as she could without sliding to the floor.
"Do you miss him?"
Their eyes meet, dark eyes trying desperately to see into the pain of her bright ones. He sighed, running his hand through his growing dark locks. When had the rebellious days of spiked and dyed hair lost to a more conservative look?
"Bres?" She merely nodded. And he shrugged. "Yeah… I keep expected to see that smug face around every corner… All I can think is that… wherever he may or may not be, he's gonna be pissed that he's missing out on the big one."
Reggie laughed at that. And Andy was right. She could imagine those cool dark eyes, glowing with that smug smirk as he leaned up against some table, arms crossed over his chest and his right heel resting on the left, annoyed as he watched the AF surround Earth with them fighting the SF on the ground. She knew that he had looked forward to that day- planned for it even. There was a stash of Romulan ale hidden in his room for the day they finally won the war. She wondered if she would get it when the day was over. She wondered if she'd be alive when the day was over.
A sudden stillness throughout the room caught their attention. Reggie's next words faded from her mind as she watched Manick silently gather his people around him. She straightened but didn't move away from the wall. Andy turned to see his friend and leader, but he didn't move away from her. Something about Manick radiated a cool confidence. He was cocky enough to think that, after years of careful planning, they would single-handedly win against the SF. Andy wasn't so sure, but he let the others believe. He let them believe in Manick and in a cause they had fought for, and in the hope that this might be the last day of bloodshed. He didn't believe it, but that didn't mean that they couldn't.
It took eight photon torpedoes to take out one weapons platform. It took ten ships and a lot of time to destroy the moon's automated defensives. It took a lot more to rid Earth of hers. Earth held four times as many weapon satellites and a fleet of ships.
All of a sudden the Sklig Ntsar's recklesslittle plan to knock out defensive on Pluto, Jupiter, and Mars didn't seem like such an insignificant victory.
When he heard about uprisings throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, he was thoroughly convinced that they were all insane. But whatever worked. Whatever the price…
The place was already in chaos. The Sklig Ntsar had their own ground troops pounding the Consulate. The once pristine white was charred; the ancient architecture was falling to shambles.
Ken's feet faltered as another photon blast hit the building. His feet shook in sync with the ground and his hand reached out to grab the wall to steady himself. But that only made it worse. Pain surged through his arm and he snatched back his hand, cradling his bleeding palm against his chest. Ken quickened his pace; he needed to find the President and they needed to get out of there.
It might have surprised him years ago to find Amen just standing in the centre of his office, paint brush in hand. But not that day. Not after years of watching the once brilliant mind deteriorate.
"Oh, Ken, there you are, my boy. Come here. Come here."
"No, Mr. President. We have to leave. Now!"
Amen didn't seem fazed by Ken's urgency. He kept his eyes focused, his mind occupied in a land of its own.
"Oh calm yourself, boy."
Ken pulled the paintbrush from his hand, letting it fall carelessly to the floor. "We have to leave."
"I'm not finished with my painting yet."
"Yes you are… Whatever the hell you've been painting for all these years isn't that important."
"Oh but it is." The mad gleam in Amen's eyes scared Ken. He had seen him in moments of lucidity, of insanity, and of every level between but never before had he seen the President so far gone from reality. He had to look away. "Look at it." And Ken did as ordered, if only to look at something but Amen. It was almost completely red and black now. Beneath it, he could see years of layers of blue and green, of purple and even some white, but now they were hidden from sight but the darkness and boldness of the first two colours.
"I had such great dreams for my empire," Amen said softly. Ken made to look at him but thought better of it; the movement looked more like a child flinching away from something frightening. "It's all gone now."
Ken latched onto the hope that Amen understood that they were in danger remaining there. "We need to leave, sir. Please, before it gets too dangerous." Amen shook his head, slowly at first. "Mr. President-"
"I have to finish my painting." And before Ken could stop him, he was picking up the discarded paintbrush and returning to his manic strokes. There was nothing Ken could do. Ken knew that he couldn't stay or he would be captured but Amen wouldn't leave. He was beyond help, beyond knowing reality from his warped mind. There were ways of solving that.
He couldn't have described the feeling if someone had given him all the words in all the languages surrounding him.
Surreal, perhaps, described a small portion of it.
There was Earth before him. Just sitting there, spinning delicately on its axis, completely uncaring and unknowing of the battle raging around it- the battle raging for it. He had seen that same sight nearly every night when he went to bed- the gorgeous sight of the deep blue oceans and the dark blotches of land that made up his home. He had waited for that moment since the day he had watched the convoys of Humans leaving Betazed and the transports of aliens crowding their way out. He had waited for that moment since the day the first shots had been fired. He had waited for that moment since the day he had first ordered a fleet into battle.
Victorious was another word.
As the words left his throat and he ordered the Epsilon fleet down into the streets of Earth. He had heard Captain Griffin say before that to win the planet was to win the space it owned. Certainly, to win the planet Earth was to win it all. He could only imagine the chaos that was wrecking havoc in the streets down there. He could only imagine what the Sklig Ntsar had in store for the planet. But, whatever that condition was, he trusted Captain Griffin to secure the planet for them.
Anticlimactic was perhaps the most over powering impression he had of the entire affair.
He saw the way their firing had died down. He saw the way they fought without heart as the battle neared the end. He couldn't help but wonder if they were just tired, if they were ready for the war to be over just as much as he was. He couldn't help but wonder if they had simply calculated the risk and realized that giving in would be less painful than loosing for real.
Or, perhaps, no matter how hard they were really fighting, no matter how gruesome the reality of the battle actually was, maybe he couldn't see past the fact that they were actually, finally winning back Earth. Maybe that was what felt so anticlimactic.
Ken could still remember the day that he had chosen to become a diplomat. He could still remember the day that he had started as a fresh, eager young intern serving under one of Earth's finest. Amen had been a young man and a senator in the World's Congress. It had been a long twenty-five years of working with and for him; Ken had learned a lot. Many tips, many lessons, many strategies. But none seemed more vivid than the one Amen had forced him to employ several times over in the past two decades. None more important than the one he had learned to employ for himself.
He held the weight in his hand, feeling its power, feeling its danger. He could only stare down at the object he had hidden in his office for years. Cautiously, almost awkwardly, Ken adjusted his jacket, pulling it tighter around his waist to hide the knife.
A distant echoing rang throughout the hallway. The heavy crashing of officers running. Ken spared them only a glance when they called to him, warning him of the danger. Had his mind been clearer, he might have yelled back to them. He might have berated them for their obvious stupidity. But as it was, a stillness had fallen over his thoughts, preparing him for what he was planning.
It had been some time since Ken had been a green intern. A long time since he roamed the halls of the Senate house, lost both in the labyrinth of hallways and in his own trepidation of meeting his mentor. That very first day Amen had begun to teach him. Taught him to watch his words as carefully as he watched his back. He taught him that both enemies and friends had uses to be exploited, but as soon as one lost that use to be manipulated, they were useless. And once anything became useless, it was trash to be discarded.
Amen looked in Ken's direction, but Ken knew that he didn't see him. His eyes were glassy, his face was slacked, his postured hunched. And, for only a moment, Ken hesitated. There, before him, was a picture of vulnerability that Ken had never imagined could be associated with Amen.
But as suddenly as the thought came, Ken crushed it down. His chin rose and his shoulders squared themselves. One hand pushed away his jacket as the other gripped the weight of the knife.
Ken had never had a word to describe his relationship with Amen with. Amen was his mentor, his boss, his leader, but he was also his enemy. A face and a name to be hated and despised and even feared. But, for a long time, Ken had needed him to survive and ascend. But as the war drew to a close, Amen's mind had deteriorated along with their front lines. He was no longer an ally to defend nor an enemy to hate; there was nothing left in him to manipulate. There was nothing left but a liability.
Ken never heard the sounds of Amen's limp body hitting the ground. He never noticed the way his body seemed to relax, almost with relief at the knowledge that every stress his life had once held was falling away. Instead he watched, oblivious to the danger, oblivious to the crime he had just committed, oblivious to the fact that fear should have been welling within him. He simply watched as the walls shook and the forceshields covering the windows shimmered and died away. He watched with cold eyes as a fire stripped the garden bare of its elaborate forest. He watched as the fire spread into Amen's office, flames licking the large oak desk and fire breathing its hot breath against the years' old painting. He watched as the canvas shriveled under the heat. He watched as the insanity of Amen's mind fell to ashes.
Manick stood, his back to the fighting, as his eyes skimming over the dark night. The SF were retreating to their strong hold a few miles away, leaving the Earth Consulate unguarded and uncared for. It was a symbolic victory at best, but a victory.
Movement caught his eye. He could imagine a man, mud sloshing under his feet as he tried to run, water slashing onto his pants, making them grow heavier with every step. With night-vision aids already to his eyes, he took in the familiar face and sighed.
His hand gripped at a young man's shoulder. Jakob only paused a moment to look up at his leader. He kept his eyes trained on the enemy as he waited for orders. Manick ordered his attention elsewhere and he peered through the darken sky to find his target. Manick didn't watch to see if the man had hit his target; he knew he had.
Movement behind his men caught his attention momentarily, but he looked back to the fighting. The actual physical aspect of fighting wasn't his strong point. He came up with plans; he figured out the puzzles of tactics. He didn't fire phasers or storm buildings.
Reggie was at his arm suddenly, surprising him when she pulled at his arm to get his attention.
"We've found something. You have to see it."
"Is it about that weapon?" She merely shook her head.
Hardened eyes meet her shaken green ones. He nodded once, curtly agreeing to follow her. She led him into the building at a secured site and pulled him through a maze of corridors. He was impressed, for a moment, at her knowledge of the place. But that faded as he recalled the many hundreds of times she had infiltrated the building. Then she stopped short. Manick looked about himself, but there were no doors or access panels. Instead there was a picture that had been removed from the wall to reveal a hidden stairwell.
Reggie hesitated but nodded at him. She stepped through first and Manick followed, nervousness growing in the pit of his stomach at what he might find. The place was dark and old, unnaturally so. It reminded him of the ancient buildings he had visited in Europe, the crumbling stone walls and the damp staleness that accompanied such age.
Several light-torches left in the hallway lit their way. "Over here," she called to him as she turned into an opening in the stone wall. He looked in, blinking hard against the darkness the room was still plunged in. A cell was the only word he could find to describe it. Reggie tugged his sleeve, beckoning him to step further into the room.
And that's when he saw him. A tiny shadow of a man, hunched in the corner, his shoulders shaking in silent tears. The dim light filtered in from the hallway, allowing Manick to make out the once proud and triumphant Starfleet uniform that hung in shreds from the man's hollow body.
"Are there others?" he found himself saying, but his eyes never left the pitiful sight.
"Andy's looking. We're almost certain there must be." He could only nod.
Cautiously, not wanting to startle the man, he stepped forward. The man didn't look up at him, didn't acknowledge him, but he did grow still. Manick knelt, wincing at how cold the floor was even through his thick clothes. As gently as he could, he placed a kind hand on the man's shoulder, hoping to gain his attention. It took some time for the man to recognize the action, but slowly- uncertainly- he raised his eyes, his empty eyes meeting Manick in a wary gaze.
"My name is Manick," he said slowly, "I am the leader of a rebellion against President Amen." Manick shivered at the coldness of the man's gaze. His eyes stared straight at Manick; straight through him, really. "Who are you?"
The man's tongue rolled over his lips, wetting the cracked skin, "Date," his voice cracked again.
Manick glanced back at Reggie. She shrugged. Looking back at the man, "On the Human calendar… September 14, 2386."
Slowly Manick nodded, translating the raspy, neglected voice. He twisted again, finding Reggie's horrified stare. "Fifteen years, he's been here. Amen is a sick and twisted bastard."
"Well, who the hell is he?"
"What's your name?"
The man was looking at Reggie, but slowly- just as uncertainly as before- he returned his gaze to Manick. "Name?" He had the look about him as a man trying to recall the remnants of a blissful dream. Manick touched his shoulder again; the man looked at him, blankly at first.
"Picard… Jean-Luc Picard."
The name was familiar but Manick shook his head and stood. Reggie watched as he stormed past her and back into the lit hallway. "Find every soul in this place and get them upstairs on a transport. I don't care what kind of casualties they're already dealing with, these people are priority."
"Yeah…" Reggie's voice trailed away as she looked back to the man- to Picard huddled in the corner.
/- A Few Days Later
He couldn't control himself as he walked, his gait growing faster with every step. His eyes were focused on the end of the hall. Room after room passed by, but still he stared at that last one.
But then he slowed as he neared it, a sudden nervousness attacking his body. He tried to sigh it away and breathe in deeply to beg a calmness to come in and replace it.
He inhaled a shaking breath as he looked at the closed door. He had to enter and see for himself. The news alone had nearly shocked the life from him; the reality was more than his mind could handle. And yet he felt his hand reaching for the release. The door slid away, revealing a thin, frail body hidden by hospital sheets and a food tray. A shaking hand picked at the food, but Riker noted that little had made it off the plate and to his mouth.
Riker sighed as he watched. It was Picard; there was no doubt in his mind that the aged man was once his mentor.
He wasn't sure what noise he had made that caught the man's attention, but suddenly pale blue eyes were staring back at him. Riker's breath caught at the blankness, at the uncertainty. He watched as a shadow of a memory passed over the old man's face; he watched as Picard desperately sought a memory or a name.
Riker had buried his Captain years before and years later he had finally accepted him as dead. Then he had heard the news. Picard had been a prisoner of the Federation. His mind had been tortured and his body had faded with the years. Riker had buried the man he once knew, and he wondered briefly if that man was gone forever, replaced by a ghost of his former self.
It felt good to be back. Good to be back on her ship and among her crew- her family. It felt like she had never left as she stepped out of the close confines of the turbolift. She paused as she looked out over the bridge- not quite as she left it. The bulkheads were cleared away, the open conduits were shut again from sight, even the burn marks had been covered.
She scrunched her eyes together as she approached her chair, but it was mostly habit by then. There was a certain blurriness to everything that she had come to expect every morning. She had learned to compensate, to use her knowledge of her surroundings and a "blindsuit" to assist her.
Janeway sighed, contented, as she sank into her chair for the first time in seven months. A smile spread over her lips as she peered over her bridge crew. Tom sat anxiously at the Helm, fingers tapping as he waited for her to give the command. Tuvok stood, stoic, at his tactical station. Harry was at ops, his stance a little looser and his mind far sharper than the first day she had met him. And to her left she knew Chakotay was at her side, smiling down at her.
She leaned back into her chair, her right leg crossing over the left. She smiled up at Chakotay and then over at Tom. No, nothing had changed. Not her crew, not her ship, just their mission. She smiled as she thought about that. They wouldn't be exploring any unknown civilizations just yet, but in time perhaps.
She smiled as Tom shot a glance at her over his shoulder. "Take us home, Lieutenant. To Earth."
Jadzia wiggled her toes as the sand assaulted the tender skin. She just smirked, letting the old forgotten sensations over come her. The feel of the course material scrapping and tickling her skin; letting the soft song of the water lapping over the short tickled her ears.
Laughter was carried to her by the soft wind and she smiled as she looked up at the shrieks of her two little boys. JJ ran into the ocean, letting the waves chase him back to the shore. Ty stood just at the edge of the tide, laughing as the water cooled his toes and laughing as he brother tripped into the water and laughing as the sand flaked off his little body.
She smiled at them, her eyes softening as she watched. It had never escaped her mind that they had never experienced such a day. A day of utter peace. A day unmarred by the possibility of danger. Never before had they lived in peace.
The urge overtook her senses. The urge to cry for them- for the children who had never experienced a childhood filled with innocence; for the children who's father had been stolen from them, but not taken completely to rest; for the children who would have to fix the mess of years of war as those who caused it faded into history's grasp. And she did cry for the man who had dreamed of that day that she was finally living and for the man who had been taken from her before he could see it come to life.
JJ's laugh brought her mind away from all that. And she smiled again as she watched Ty run out into the water with his brother. And she laughed as she watched Ty turn and run before the wave had even formed. And she laughed because she felt guilty not laughing.
He shielded his eyes from the mid-day Betazoid sun as he stepped out of the transport shuttle. His eyes met the dirt path first- the long path that would finally lead him home. But despite the urge to run down it and to burst through the doors and hold his wife and children, he stood there, simply staring at his home. He had almost forgotten how lovely it was, how perfect it was. He had almost forgotten all the good memories he had made there.
And then, there she was. Deanna stood in the doorway, her body stiff in anticipation, but her eyes smiling at him. He could feel the emotions brushing at the front of his mind. He could only smile at her. And then she was running toward him and he laughed as he met her halfway up the path, wrapping his arms around her slender body and pulling her to him.
And then another weight gripped at his waist and another mind laughed. He looked down and smiled at Liz, surprised to see that he didn't have to arch his neck down as far to look into his little girl's eyes. He smiled and moved one of his arms to pat her back and hug her close.
Then his eyes found Lwaxana's- a stoic presence, smiling on at the sight. And he smiled back at her; a silent thanks for being there for them, for being there for him, for just being Lwaxana.
And his were the last he found. Cool blue eyes looked back at his. And Will just smiled at the boy, opening up his one hand, beckoning him to join the circle of hugs. But Chamberlain just looked away, his eyes finding the ground first before his body turned and he walked back into the house.
Will looked back to Deanna, but, in the excitement, she had missed the interaction between father and son and she just smiled back at him. He tried to smile convincingly, but she had always known him. And so he looked away, his eyes finding the horizon.
/- Recorded Around the Same Time
"Message sent from: Chamberlain Jean-Luc Riker. Message sent to: Jonathon James Bashir.
"It's over. Well, at least that's what they tell me. You know… I was born and there was war. Every day was plagued with the sights of war, and I didn't even notice for a long time. And now this war is over… and all I can think about it what it could possibly be like to live without everything I've always known…
"I wonder what life is going to be like. What am I going to do? I had just assumed that I would go to the Academy, learn to pilot a starship or something, and fight. I never really considered anything beyond that. You're going to be a doctor- in war or peace there's always room for them. But what about me? There's still Alliance Fleet. They'll still need people in five years from now…
"You think, in five years, they'll still be rebuilding worlds, rebuilding trust and communication between us and the Federation? You think they'll try to reunited us? Gamma says that's a plan. That would be weird, don't you think? Can you imagine Earth being an ally? A place to actually go and visit?
"Liz joined the Academy three days ago without anyone's approval. I think they might be all right with it, considering she's not in that much danger anymore. But mom's upset.
"Do you think things will ever feel normal again?"
Once again, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed! Please leave one final review and let me know what you thought!