"Captain!" Worf''s call broke the quiet of the Bridge. "We are receiving a Priority One message from Starbase 18."
"On main viewer," Picard ordered, his brow creased in concern. Priority One was reserved for the most serious matters.
"Enterprise, this is Starbase 18. Respond, please."
"This is Picard; we're receiving your signal, Emil. What is the problem?"
The base director, an old friend of Picard's, relaxed somewhat. "Jean-Luc! I wasn't sure we'd be able to reach you."
"What is it? Is something wrong on the base?"
Emil Langston shook his head. "Not here, but 62 minutes ago, a freighter in the Minoan system picked up an automated distress call. The message reads simply, 'Code Eight'."
"Emergency evacuation," Riker murmured.
Langston nodded. "It's from a personal homing device of the type issued to Star Fleet personnel. We don't have the identity codes here, but we've sent to Star Fleet Command for them. In the meantime, Jean-Luc, there's a member of Star Fleet in trouble!"
"Could the freighter localize the source of the transmission?"
"Her captain thinks it originated in the Arcadian system. You're not far from there; can you divert?"
Picard turned to the helm. "Data?"
"We can be there in 17 minutes at maximum warp, sir," the android replied almost instantly.
Picard nodded to Lt.Solus at Navigation. "Make it so."
"I wish I had more information for you, Jean-Luc," Langston apologized. "When we get the reply from Star Fleet, we'll send it on to you. Starbase 18 out."
"A personal locator implies one person," Riker frowned. "The sole survivor of a crash?"
"Then why 'Code Eight' instead of the more general 'M'Aidez'?" Picard asked. "Data, what do we know about the Arcadian system?"
"Relatively little, sir. There is one inhabited planet, technologically primitive. The last Federation contact was eight years ago, and the only recorded comment in the computer banks is 'Routine'."
"That's a big help," Riker remarked sourly. "Should I assemble an Away Team?" he asked Picard.
"No. With a Code Eight in force, it seems foolhardy to send more people down. Let's see if we can locate whoever is sending the message. Once they're on board, we'll get some answers."
As soon as they were within transporter range of Arcadia, Riker went to the Transporter Room while Worf scanned the planet for the source of the transmission. "Got it. Transferring to Transporter Room."
O'Brien frowned at the readout. "The source is in motion. I can't beam him up until he stays still."
Riker looked over his shoulder. "It looks like he's wearing the transmitter."
"Yeah," O'Brien agreed, "but it won't do him any good if he won't stay put long enough for me to get a lock. It's too bad we can't contact him."
"He's moving pretty fast."
"Sensors indicate several other life forms in pursuit," Data's voice informed them.
"He's being chased! O'Brien, get him out of there!"
"I'm trying, sir! He won't -- ah, there now; he's stopped and is turning -- " O'Brien was activating the transporter even as he spoke.
A slight form shimmered into being on the platform. Riker stepped forward, but before he could open his mouth, the newcomer completed the motion he'd begun before the transporter beam snatched him off the planet. His arm came around, the weight of his body behind the throw, and Riker ducked reflexively as an object came hurtling towards him.
He only had time to register a metallic gleam as it flashed by his left shoulder to clang against the wall.
He looked up to find the newcomer's eyes fixed on him in an expression of shock. As he straightened, he noticed for the first time that, beneath the gray furs and leather armor, their guest was a young woman barely out of her teens.
The girl came out of her frozen trance and snapped to attention. "Star Fleet Cadet Mia Latham, sir!"
Riker spared a backwards glance to where O'Brien was hefting the knife Latham had thrown. "Report, Cadet," he snapped.
"Sir, I'm a third year cadet at Star Fleet Academy. I was on Arcadia performing a two month anthropologic study for my concentration requirements. A war broke out this morning, so I triggered my emergency signal and headed for cover. I didn't realize anyone had arrived, sir; I'm very sorry about the knife."
"Is murdering your subjects a normal part of an anthropologic study, Cadet?" Riker asked drily.
"No, sir, but I wasn't trying to murder anyone, sir. I was just hoping to slow them down so I could get away."
"Is there anyone else from Star Fleet on the planet?"
"No, sir. Just me, sir."
"All right, Cadet; at ease."
Latham relaxed from her brace, her eyes wandering about the room. "Sir? Commander," she hastily amended, glancing at Riker's collar. "What ship is this?"
"The Enterprise. I'm the First Officer, Commander Riker."
The cadet's face wrinkled in thought. "The Enterprise? That's -- " she gasped " -- Captain Picard's ship!"
Amused, Riker nodded. "That's right."
"But -- but -- we've studied him in class! He's, well, just -- I mean, the whole ship is -- "
"Anxious to hear your report, Cadet," Riker interrupted. "Come with me. O'Brien, get rid of that knife, will you?"
"Commander, if we're going to see the captain, could I take two minutes to change? Please, sir?" Latham chewed her lip nervously.
Riker couldn't hide his grin, but he aquiesced. "All right. My quarters aren't far; you can get your uniform from the computer and change there."
"Thank you, sir!" Latham beamed in relief. "I've been dying to get out of these furs for weeks!"
Riker was too polite to comment, but he could understand why. The clothes smelled as though they hadn't been washed in at least that long. When they reached the cabin, Riker directed Latham to the bedroom with its adjacent shower, then called Picard.
"The distress call came from a Star Fleet cadet, Captain, on the planet for an anthropology course. It seems some kind of war broke out, and she was caught in the middle of it."
"I see. Escort her to my Ready Room, Number One -- we'll need to hear the whole story."
"Aye, sir." Riker switched off and called to Latham. "Hurry up, Cadet!"
"Yes, sir! Just a moment, sir!"
It was more than a moment, but less than three minutes before Latham reappeared, freshly showered and changed. "All set, sir," she reported, running a hand through her wet hair.
Riker ran a critical eye over her uniform, checking for any flaws. Satisfied that Latham would pass even Picard's inspection, he led the way to the Ready Room. "Captain, this is third year Cadet Mia Latham."
"Sir!" Latham stood stiffly at attention, not even daring to breathe.
Picard glanced over to where Riker was trying to hide a smile behind his hand. "At ease, Cadet," he said kindly. "Sit down."
"Thank you, sir!" Latham perched on the edge of the chair, overcome with awe.
"What exactly were you doing on Arcadia?" Picard asked, seating himself and waving Riker to another chair.
"Sir, I was conducting a cultural observation for my Advanced Anthropology and Primitive Cultures course. Sir," Latham added for good measure.
"How long had you been there?" Riker asked.
"I was dropped off five and a half weeks ago, sir, and the Rickover was scheduled to pick me up in another four. That way, sir, I'd be back at the Academy for the start of the new semester. Sir."
"But..." he prompted.
Latham sighed, thinking back. "But things went a little crazy," she said sadly.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Sir!" Latham snapped back to the present. "I mean, sir, that the situation on the planet did not conform to projected -- "
"No, Cadet," Picard said patiently. "I mean, what happened?"
"Oh! They went to war, sir," Latham replied simply. "And I was the main target. So, you see, sir, I had to call for a Code Eight."
"What do you mean, you were the target?" Riker demanded. "Did you provoke the conflict?"
"Oh no, sir!" Latham's eyes widened in horror. "That would be a violation of the Prime Directive!"
"Then why were you a target? As an outsider, you should have been neutral in the conflict."
"Um." Latham looked embarrassed. "It doesn't quite work that way on Arcadia, sir."
"Yes, sir. The society on Arcadia, sir, is organized around tribal units not unlike the clans of ancient Scotland on Earth." Latham's tone took on a professorial note as she began to lecture. "These familial groups are in constant struggle against one another for supremacy within a given locale. Strict traditions have evolved to regulate these conflicts, most of which serve to prevent the spilling of blood.
"This has caused the struggle to become one of prestige, with 'battles' being Machiavellian intrigues designed to humiliate the enemy clan. The history of the clans is fascinating, filled with cross and double-cross. The Arcadians may well be the best strategists in -- "
"Oh. Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Uh, well, sir, while I was on Arcadia, I stayed with the L!Xu family, the leading clan in my area. But this morning, the rival clan launched an offensive to wrest that title away. The centerpiece of their campaign was my death."
"I thought you said that custom forbade killing in these fights."
"Yes, Commander: the killing of members of the enemy clan. That's to prevent never-ending blood feuds from erupting. But for clanless outsiders like myself, well, sir, those rules don't apply. You see, sir, I was the guest of the L!Xu, so if the Ch'Chn could kill me, it would bring great dishonor upon the L!Xu house. As soon as I heard that the Ch'Chn assassins were coming, I knew I had to be their target, so I hit my distress beacon and fled."
"Wouldn't the L!Xu protect you?"
"Yes, sir; their honor would demand it, but if one of them were killed in the attempt, or if they were to kill the Ch'Chn, then a major war might have resulted. I thought that by getting away from the L!Xu estates, I might lessen the chances of the two sides coming into open conflict."
"While increasing the chances of your own demise," Picard commented.
"Yes, sir, but sir, even if I were killed, so long as I was off the L!Xu lands when it happened, then the L!Xu's responsibility to me was greatly reduced. So the Ch'Chn's victory wouldn't mean as much. I couldn't just let them use me as a pawn, sir; the Prime Directive specifically states that -- " the cadet broke off, blushing. She knew better than to tell Jean-Luc Picard what the Prime Directive said. "I'm sorry, sir. I mean, I was just trying to minimize the damage that my presence had clearly caused. I thought that running away and calling for an emergency evacuation was the best way to do that, sir."
"That would appear to have been very sensible."
"Do you really think so, sir?" Latham asked plaintively. "I don't think my anthro professor will agree. He didn't even want me to have a distress beacon. If my Cadet Commander hadn't gone to the Commandant and insisted, I'd never have gotten one." She sighed gloomily. "Professor Babson is so dedicated to the field that if the group he was studying decided to cook him for dinner, he'd take notes on the condiments they selected! He's going to say that I should have stayed behind."
"To be assassinated? Or to incite a war? Nonsense."
"Thank you, sir. And thank you for responding to my beacon, sir."
Picard glanced at Riker. "Well, Cadet, in three weeks, our schedule calls for us to arrive at Space Station Magellan. We should be able to arrange for you to be picked up there and transported back to the Academy."
Riker nodded. "I believe the Nelson might be going that way."
"Thank you, sir."
"So long as you're on board, though, I see no reason you shouldn't make use of the opportunity. Commander Riker will devise a duty schedule for you."
Latham's jaw dropped. "Yes, sir! Thank you very much, sir!"
"It's a shame Wesley is with the engineering team on Galor III," Riker remarked to Picard.
"Yes." Picard nodded.
"An ensign on the ship," Riker explained. "He hopes to enter the Academy next year."
"An ensign, sir?" Latham looked puzzled. "Who hasn't gone to the Academy?"
"Ensign Crusher received a field commision," Picard told her, "but he's spending a month off the ship on an engineering design project."
"I'd suggest you go to the Quartermaster's for a cabin assignment, then get some rest, Cadet. Your day will start at 0630 tomorrow."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Rising to her feet, Latham saluted and marched out.
Riker and Picard stared after her. "God, was I ever that young?" Riker asked, more to himself than to the captain.
Picard grinned. "Or that spit and polish?"
"Never. I was always the one out of step in the drills. And I think that three 'sir's in two sentences was my limit."
Picard smiled indulgently. "She'll become more comfortable soon. Where do you plan to assign her?"
"If you have no objection, I thought Bridge duty. She could monitor the Environmental station and look over Worf's shoulder at Tactical."
Picard nodded approval. "Excellent."