"Captain's Log, Stardate 2922.7. We are presently in orbit around Belgrath's Planet in the Spican system. The planet is under Federation interdiction as its technology and culture have been judged unready for contact with other races. However, the Enterprise has been granted an exemption from the quarantine in order that we may update the Federation's records on the society. A small Away Team will be dispatched so that a brief investigation can be made.

"Remember, Number One," Picard continued, turning to Riker, "our orders are to limit our visit to one location for a period of less than two local days."

"It hardly seems like we'll get an accurate picture of the culture in so short a time," Riker objected.

"The Federation's main concern is to prevent any interference with the native people," Troi explained. "They feel that a longer study might in some way affect the natural course of the planet's development.

"Besides, by focussing our attention on one of the largest cities, we should encounter the most cosmopolitan features of the society."

"As well as blending in more easily," Riker pointed out.

" 'Cosmopolitan' is not a word I would associate with Belgrath's Planet," Data commented. "It is a fairly primitive world, technologically equivalent with Earth 800 years ago, Vulcan 950 years ago, Kronos --"

"Enough, Data," Picard interrupted. "What can you tell me about the society itself?"

Data paused, consulting his memory. "It is very insular, even xenophobic. This may be due to the lack of technology, which prevents the inhabitants from traveling very far, or it may be a species characteristic. The society is agriculturally based, with the beginnings of trade and skilled crafts in the cities. The populace believe in a number of different deities, and priests hold the highest status in the community."

"This information may be outdated though," Troi warned. "The last survey was more than 90 years ago."

Picard spoke musingly, "Keeping a low profile will not be easy in a place where strangers are noticed. Be careful, Number One."

Riker smiled reassuringly. "As always, Captain."

"Whom do you plan to take with you as an Away Team?"

"Since the natives look Terran, at least superficially, I'm afraid neither Data nor Worf can come. Their appearances alone would be enough to attract a crowd." Worf grumbled audibly, while Data accepted the news with equanimity. "I think Lt. Mwangi from Anthropolgy will be best at gathering the maximum information in the shortest time, and if you can spare Counselor Troi, she would be a big help in gauging the local reactions to the Team."

Troi smiled at the praise, while Picard nodded agreement. "Certainly, but only three members?"

Riker shrugged. "The smaller the better."

"Sir," Worf spoke up," I strongly suggest that a Security officer accompany the Team. If the society is unfriendly to outsiders, there may be problems."

Riker looked dubious. "If there are, then we've failed to keep a low profile," he said. "The more people along, the more attention we'll attract."

"Mm, perhaps," Picard said thoughtfully, "but I agree with Mr. Worf. One more person shouldn't make that much of a difference, and the presence of a Security officer might be useful."

Riker gave in gracefully. "Of course, sir. Worf, why don't you just send whoever is next in line for Team duty to the Transporter Room? Unless you had a particular person in mind?"

"All Security personnel are fully qualified," Worf said severely.

"Then with your permission, Captain, Troi and I will put on native clothing and beam down at once."

"Granted. Oh, and Number One, since you and the Team may be in public areas much of the time, the ship will not initiate any contacts with you. Try to check in at regular intervals so that we can monitor your condition."

Riker nodded and, with Troi, left the Bridge.

Once they'd changed into the heavy furs and linen-like fabrics that scans of the target city had shown were the standard dress, the Away Team assembled in the Transporter Room. Lt. Mwangi, a short, middle aged black man from Aldebaran IV, was struggling with his belt pouch. "The recording device is making it hang wrong," he complained. "It keeps falling over my religious talismans."

"Here, let me see if I can help." Troi offered.

"Where's that Security officer?" Riker fretted impatiently.

"Here, sir. Sorry about the delay." A tall raven haired woman hurried into the room. Her skin, although not as dark as Mwangi's, was a deep shade of brown, while her eyes were a lively green. Her costume was of fur and cloth, like the others', but unlike Riker and Troi whose clothes bore the symbols of skilled leatherworkers or Mwangi whose garments proclaimed him a farmer, hers had no markings. "I thought I'd be less noticeable if I appeared a simple peasant, without land or skill," she explained. "This way, too, I might be able to get into places where you'd stand out."

Riker nodded approvingly. "Very good. You are --?"

"Ensign Lee, sir. I'm fairly new to the Enterprise."

"Lee?" Riker looked puzzled. "I thought Lee was an man from New Beijing."

"Oh that's the other Ensign Lee. Can you imagine? Two Security ensigns with the same name on the same ship."

Riker smiled. "I'm sure it's confusing. Are we all ready?"

A chorus of assent answered him, and the Team took their positions on the platform. A sparkle of light and they were gone.

The Team materialized at the end of a dimly lit alley. The noise and odors of a marketplace reached them clearly. "Wonderful!" Mwangi exclaimed, clearly eager to begin collecting his data.

"Remember, we do not want to attract attention," Riker cautioned. "If you're approached by a native, use your judgement, but divulge as little information as possible. Be alert, and stay in character." At the others' nods, Riker led the way out of the alley.

Once in the bazaar, the Team spread out into a loose line. No one was out of sight of the others, but a casual observer would not suspect they were together. Mwangi led the way, stopping frequently to listen at the outskirts of large groups, his recorder automatically taking down everything. Troi and Riker wandered from stall to stall, eyeing the goods on display. Often they were met with urgings to buy, but many shopkeepers merely gazed at them suspiciously. Lee brought up the rear, blending inconspicuously into the crowds.

At the local lunch hour, they regrouped. "Shall we purchase some food?" Troi asked.

"I've found what must be the storyteller's corner!" Mwangi said excitedly. "I've got to go back there and listen to more of the stories! What better way to --"

Riker coughed warningly as a native passed. "Understood," he said once the man had gone by. "But Troi is right too. We need to find some food."

"Over there maybe?" Lee suggested, indicating a crowded tavern-like storefront. The patrons seemed to be of all guilds and ages, and the noise level was high enough that the Enterprise people could talk unnoticed.

"Let's go," Riker agreed. "And hope that our money passes muster."

"It should," Mwangi volunteered. "I threw some into a beggar's bowl and he didn't seem to notice anything odd."

The four seated themselves at one of the few empty tables, and Riker, imitating the gestures of the other diners, managed to call over one of the servers.

"Yahr?" The woman looked more bored than unfriendly. "Food or krahl?" The latter was a reference to the mildly narcotic chew sticks enjoyed by many of the planet's inhabitants.

"Just food," Riker replied.

"Our sticks are church certified," she offered half-heartedly.

"Maybe later." She nodded and left.

"Impressions thus far?" Riker asked, lowering his voice.

"Wherever we've gone, I have sensed suspicion and hostility. These people have a deep rooted, almost pathological fear of the unfamiliar," Troi said.

"The conversations I've overheard support that," Mwangi agreed. "It's fascinating! I wonder how it developed."

"Lee?" Riker invited the ensign's comments.

"Well, I don't know much about the psychology or mores of the group, but the warriors guild is definitely well represented in the city. It seems like there are six man patrols everywhere and their weapons, while crude, are effective."

The conversation halted as their server dropped a large bowl of stew on the table and placed four mugs alongside. "Well?"

Riker glanced at the others, puzzled. Mwangi came to the rescue, proffering a large coin. She took it and eyed it warily, then, apparently satisfied, dropped it into a pocket. "You be strangers," she stated positively. "From where come ye?"

"Far enough," Riker said easily.

The woman's glance travelled around the table. "Why you here?"

"Errands in town," Mwangi volunteered.

"Aye? In planting season, farmer?"

"Even so." The woman looked skeptical, but left the table.

"Troi?" Riker asked, watching the server go.

"Again there is that same unfocussed suspicion. But she is already being distracted from her thoughts of us."

"I wonder if the abundance of patrols is linked to this xenophobia," Lee said. Copying the other tables, she served the others by dipping the mugs into the main bowl. "Are these people that leery of foreigners?"

"Perhaps they are simply the local constabulary?" Troi suggested.

"Well, Mwangi?" Riker asked.

"Hm?" Mwangi was gazing, interested, at a nearby table whose occupants were engaged in a loud dispute. "Oh. Sorry." He sipped absently at his stew. "Probably it's some combination of the two. What I'd like to learn about is the religious background to this fear. What do the priests say about foreigners? How do they encourage this prejudice?"

"Can we attend one of the religious gatherings?" Troi asked.

Mwangi shook his head regretfully. "We can't risk it. Most religions have a very strict set of rituals, and our ignorance of them could prove dangerous."

"Listening to those storytellers should be some help," Lee said encouragingly.

Mwangi brightened. "I'd almost forgotten! Are you all done? Can we go?"

"Hold on." Riker grinned. "Give us a moment."

They finished the meal in short order and headed to Mwangi's destination. Once there, they seated themselves among the crowd gathered around one old woman and listened to her tales. "Shall I go and explore another area?" Lee whispered to Riker after a while.

"No, we'll all stay together. Mwangi and Troi are both gathering information from the stories and the crowd, so we'll remain for a while."

They sat for hours as the old woman spun story after story. Mwangi was in ecstasy at this fountain of folklore, and Troi learned much from the peoples' responses to the tales. As the shadows lengthened however, Lee noticed that one patrol had been watching them for some time. "Sir?" She quietly told Riker and, after a quick look at the warriors, he nudged Troi and Mwangi.

"Come on; we're leaving."

As the four moved to the edge of the crowd, the patrol moved to intercept them.

"I don't sense any directed purpose in them," Troi murmured. "Just the same malevolence towards outsiders."

"Who be you?" The patrol leader demanded, brandishing his sword. "You are not from this city!"

"We're just passing through," Riker said amiably. "We mean no harm."

"Where from? Why here?"

"We've come a fair distance on errands. We leave tomorrow."

"Where bound? Why going?"

"We travel to a far place. Our purpose is not your concern." Riker's voice was calm, but this grilling was doing the Away Team no good. Their cover story could never hold up under such close scrutiny. Indeed, the leader was now regarding them with naked suspicion.

"You be leatherworkers? A farmer? Who be this?" He pointed to Lee.

"Our servant," Mwangi said. "She helps us in our travels."

"You be far from home in planting time, farmer. And you two? You be leatherworkers, you say, but your hands and clothes bear no stains." An unfriendly crowd was beginning to gather behind them, their presence serving to further incite the warrior. "Where be your passes?"

"Passes?" Riker echoed blankly. Research Division had said nothing of passes.

"When ye entered the city, ye received a pass. Where be it?" Now the other guards had drawn their swords.

"I lost them," Mwangi spoke up. "I had them all in my pouch, but I had a bit too much krahl and -- " He shrugged expressively. The crowd laughed, but the patrol leader did not.

"Your pouch looks heavy enough! Your passes be gone, but not your money? That be nonsense!" He made a sudden grab and had Mwangi's belt pouch before the Enterprise man could react. "What be this?" He drew out the data recorder, and the crowd recoiled with a gasp. The instrument, while designed to be inconspicuous, was nevertheless clearly of alien origin. The soldier gazed at it in horror. "This be foreign!" he cried.

The crowd hissed and muttered. Riker's attempts to explain were drowned out by their noise. "Come with me!" the patrol leader ordered. With naked blades at their throats, the Enterprise crew could only obey.

They were taken to the city's fortress, a large building made of stone. Inside, they were searched, stripped of all items save their clothes, and roughly shoved into a crude cell. The room was gouged out of the native rock and equipped with a metal door. As it was locked behind them, they were told, "Ye'll be dealt with later. First they be calling the priest to see if ye be demons."

"I didn't really plan on researching the culture's beliefs in the occult in quite this way," Mwangi said plaintively to no one in particular. "I'm sorry, Commander. I thought losing the passes sounded plausible."

Riker waved away the apology. "It was a good try. Besides, I wasn't doing any better."

Troi shook her head. "As outsiders, we start out in a poor position. It will be difficult to convince them of our benign intentions, especially now that they have discovered all of our equipment."

"Without our communicators, we can't even contact the ship!" Riker exclaimed in frustration. "Lee, do you have any suggestions?"

Lee turned from where she'd been looking out the cell door. "For starters, the counselor's not completely correct. They didn't get all our equipment." With a grin, she reached up into the hair behind her ear and withdrew a thin metal instrument. "An Arcturan pick-lock. I never leave home without it."

Riker stared at her. "How --"

"It's amazing how few searches include the hair," Lee continued conversationally as she turned back to the door and started fiddling with her instrument. "And, of course, the pick-lock was designed for easy -- ah!" With a click, the lock released. Cautiously Lee pushed the door open, took a fast peek outside, and pulled it shut again. "There's one guard, back towards us, at the end of the corridor. I can take him out easily, but what then?"

"Unless you've got a communicator too, our next step must be to locate our things. That done, we'll call to be beamed up."

Mwangi nodded. "I've gotten enough material for the report and staying longer may cause some real questions to arise."

"I'm sure they'll have moved our things by now, but to where?"

Lee thought a moment. "Remember how, when we were brought in, there was a corridor off to one side? I'm sure I saw some priests coming from there. Maybe that's where the warrior leaders are too, and I bet they're the ones who will have taken charge of our things."

Riker nodded. "It's our best shot. All right, I'll go first; Lee, you're next, then Troi, and Mwangi, you'll cover our rear."

"Sir, as Security officer, I should --" Lee began to protest.

" -- follow orders, Ensign," Riker finished sharply. "Let's go."

The four crept from the cell. Riker overpowered the lone guard with ease, then led the way back to the corridor Lee had mentioned. They had to dodge several groups of warriors, but they made it to the hallway undetected. Once there, they found a door behind which some sort of conference was being held.

"I tell you, these be devils' work!" One voice shouted. "Have ye ever seen suchlike before?"

"Bingo," Mwangi breathed.

Troi touched Riker's arm. "There are several people in there," she warned.

Lee caught Riker's eye. "I've got an idea. Give me a moment, then come in."

Riker frowned, then nodded, and Lee boldly pushed open the door and went in. "Anything t'eat, m'lords?" she asked politely, acting the part of a peasant servant.

"Nah, nah," One of the six men in the room waved her away impatiently. They were seated around a table, the Enterprise equipment strewn across its top.

"Klahr maybe?" Lee pressed, moving closer.

"Get away, woman! We be busy with these things!" another man ordered, gesturing at the tabletop.

"Oooh! What be they?" Lee asked, reaching the table edge.

At that moment, Riker kicked open the door. As soon as the warriors' attention was diverted from her, Lee knocked the man nearest her unconscious with a quick blow and grabbed the nearest phaser. Riker had already dispatched one, but another three were advancing on him, weapons drawn. The last of the warriors slammed a heavy tankard against Lee's hand, causing her to drop the phaser, but she countered with a solid blow, felling the native. Riker, meanwhile, was warily retreating as the other warriors approached. The foremost gathered himself for a lunge, but a low power burst from Lee's recovered phaser stunned him first. Two more quick bursts took care of the other two. "I got them all from behind, sir. I'm sure they didn't see the phaser."

"Good work." Riker motioned Troi and Mwangi in, then shut the door. "Let's get out of here!" He activated one of the communicators, passing the others around, as Mwangi and Troi gathered the rest of the equipment. "Riker to Enterprise. Four to beam up immediately."

On the Bridge, Picard leapt to his feet. "Transporter Room!"

"Aye, sir!" Transporter Chief O'Brien acknowledged. "Locking in on them now."

A moment later, the Away Team and all their instruments were safely back on board. "Number One?" Picard called over the intercom. "Can your Team report?"

"Yes, sir," Riker answered, glancing warmly at the others. "We'll meet you in the Briefing Room right after we change."

"Grand."

Within ten minutes, Picard, Riker, Troi, and Mwangi were assembled. " -- and so, sir, I've got plenty of material on the society," Mwangi finished happily.

"Including some unexpected information on the local gaol," Picard observed drily.

"At least we were able to escape without an overt demonstration of our technology," Riker pointed out. " And Ensign Lee was the person most responsible for that. I'd like to recommend her for a commendation."

Picard nodded approvingly. "Where is Lee? Was she injured?"

Riker paused, puzzled. "No. She should have arrived by now; she heard the order."

"From the start of the mission, I sensed uneasiness in the ensign," Troi said slowly. "I thought it was just nerves, related to the mission, but it intensified after we returned to the ship. It's almost as though she were hiding something."

Picard frowned. Activating the public address system, he ordered, "Ensign Lee, report to the Briefing Room."

"Did you sense this feeling throughout our time on the planet?" Riker asked Troi.

"No. It subsided once we were down; that's why I felt it might be related to anticipatory fears."

"Well, clearly Ensign Lee performed well under fire," Picard said, "but this behavior does merit some explanation."

"Could she have been injured in the melee?" Mwangi asked. "It looked like she took a hard knock on her hand."

"Maybe -- " Riker began, then stopped as the Briefing Room door opened to admit an Asian in a Security uniform.

"Ensign Lee reporting as ordered, sir."

Riker shook his head. "We meant the other Ensign Lee."

"Sir?" The ensign stared at him blankly. "I'm the only Lee on the ship, of any rank."

"What?"

Picard looked grim. "Lt. Worf, report to the Briefing Room."

Moments later, Worf entered. "Sir?"

"Did you assign a Security officer to the Away Team?"

Worf answered, confused. "Yes, sir. Ensign Lee was ordered to report to the Transporter Room."

"This Ensign Lee?"

"There is no other one." Worf replied, brow ridges twitching.

"Excuse me, sir," the young ensign interjected, "but I received no orders to join an Away Team."

"I gave the order myself!" Worf snapped.

The ensign chose his words carefully. Contradicting a senior officer, especially a Klingon senior officer, was never wise. "I don't mean to imply the order wasn't given, sir, but I never received it."

"Who was the duty officer yesterday?" Riker asked.

"A new transfer, Lt. Stevens."

"Computer," Picard ordered, "display a picture of Lt.Stevens."

The viewscreen lit up, and, "That's her!" cried Mwangi.

"That will be all, Ensign." Picard dismissed Lee, then explained the situation to Worf.

"Why would Lee, I mean Stevens, do this?" Mwangi asked. "Why impersonate a fellow crew member?"

"I intend to find out," Picard said grimly. "Lt.Stevens, report to the Briefing Room."

"Captain, this is Dr. Crusher. I'm treating Stevens for an injured hand. Can the summons wait?"

"What sort of injury is it, Doctor?"

"It's fairly minor: a hairline fracture of two metacarpals. She says it occurred during sparring practice. Is there a problem, Captain?"

"No, Doctor. Finish the treatment, but inform Lt. Stevens she is not to leave Sickbay until Commander Riker and Lt. Worf arrive to escort her."

"Very well. Sickbay out." Crusher's voice was puzzled as she switched off.

"I suggest the two of you collect our imposter and then we'll try to sort the matter out." Picard stood, dismissing the group.

Meanwhile, in Sickbay, Crusher relayed the message to Stevens as she completed treatment of the injury. "So you're to stay here," she concluded, her tone carefully neutral.

"Oh, it's probably about some paperwork," Stevens said with an attempt at a light chuckle.

"Mm." Crusher looked skeptical.

"Doctor!" A very pregnant crew member staggered in, supported by her husband. "The baby's coming!"

Crusher rushed to their side and began to help them into the second treatment room. Halfway there she paused and looked back at Stevens. "Remember, wait here."

Stevens nodded and smiled, but the instant the door shut behind Crusher, she was sprinting for the exit. She went through the door just as Worf and Riker left the elevator at the other end of the corridor. "Stevens!" Riker shouted. "Stop!"

Stevens didn't even look back; she just took off in the opposite direction. Worf and Riker pounded after her, but by the time they reached the intersection, she had vanished. "Computer." Riker activated a wall panel. "Where is Lt. Stevens?"

"Sickbay."

Riker and Worf looked at each other, then retraced their steps. Lying on the examination table was Stevens' computer link. Riker glared at it in frustration, then called Picard and reported what had transpired.

"We've left orbit, so she cannot beam off the ship," Picard mused.

"Captain, the shuttlecraft!" Worf exclaimed.

"Data, place an emergency override on Shuttle Bay doors."

"Aye, sir." Data keyed in the necessary orders.

"I'd rather not start a full Security search," Picard told Riker, "but she must be found."

"Give us a few more minutes," Riker suggested. "There aren't many places on the ship that she can go without someone noticing the absence of her communicator."

"Agreed. Keep me informed." Picard switched off.

Riker and Worf began a room by room, deck by deck search. They avoided common areas, where a fellow crew member would surely report a missing communicator, and private residence quarters were also ignored as their privacy seals could not be easily overriden, even by a Security lieutenant. On the Children's Level, the two split up, checking classrooms and play areas separately. "Anything?" Riker asked when they regrouped.

"No," Worf said disgustedly. "The last group of children just kept asking when it would be their turn to 'seek'."

" 'Seek'? Like in 'Hide and Seek'? Come on!" Riker led the way back at a run. As they approached the door, it opened and Stevens headed out.

"Halt!" Worf shouted.

Stevens fled, but this time the men were at her heels. As they rounded the corner and headed for the elevator, Riker shouted, "Emergency lift override!" The lift doors stayed tightly shut, and Stevens wheeled about desperately. The two men blocked the corridor, and she dropped into a fighting crouch.

Disdaining his sidearm, Worf approached, equally prepared for battle. "Give it up, Stevens," Riker advised. "Shuttle Bay doors are on override, there are no planets in transporter range, and you'll never hide forever on board."

For a long moment Stevens held her position, then, defeated, she relaxed with a sigh. "It was a stupid idea," she said bitterly as Worf seized her arm.

"Captain, we have her."

"Excellent. I'll meet you in my Ready Room."

In the lift, en route to the meeting with Picard, Stevens turned to Worf, still holding her tightly by the arm. "Lieutenant," she said in a strangled voice, "if you aren't deliberately trying to inflict pain, I'd appreciate it if you'd loosen your grip."

"Oh," Worf said guiltily, easing up. "Humans are exceedingly fragile," he commented defensively at Riker's reproving look.

"What is your explanation, Lieutenant?" Picard demanded icily as Stevens entered the room.

An angry Picard was most intimidating, and Stevens gulped before answering. "I don't have one, sir," she apologized weakly.

"What?" Picard said in disbelief. "You disobey orders, impersonate another crew member, flee when confronted, and you have no explanation?"

"Perhaps she is a spy for the Ferengi," Worf rumbled blackly. "Or the Romulans."

"Yes!" Stevens jumped on the suggestion. "That's it exactly, sir; I'm a spy. May I go now?"

"Which is it?" Riker asked skeptically. "The Ferengi or the Romulans?"

"Uh... both. I work for whoever pays me," Stevens offered lamely. "Will that be all? Lt. Worf can take me to the brig."

"Sit down, Lieutenant," Picard said, his voice softening somewhat as Stevens' outrageous claims were made.

"Sir, I really think I should just go to the brig," Stevens persisted.

"Sit down!" Stevens sat.

The captain and first officer regarded her with a mixture of annoyance, confusion, and amusement. "Why would you rather confess to imaginary espionage and face a discharge from Star Fleet than tell us the truth? From Commander Riker's account, your actions on the planet were admirable."

"Honestly, sir, I am a spy. I -- " Stevens' voice trailed off as Picard's eyes grew steely. "Sir," she began again after a pause, "how much autonomy does a starship captain have?"

Picard's eyebrows rose in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"

"For example, hypothetically, if you learned of a violation of Federation law, say a serious violation, could you handle the matter yourself? If the accused admitted her guilt, I mean. Would you have to report the entire matter? Couldn't you -- "

"Star Fleet regulations are quite explicit, Lieutenant," Picard told her crisply. "And captains aren't notorious for their flagrant disregard of regulations."

Stevens sagged in despair. "But sir -- "

"Stevens," Picard cut in gently, seating himself on the edge of the desk. "It's time you told us the truth."

Stevens hesitated, then nodded weary agreement.

"Why did you join the Away Team, pretending to be Ensign Lee?"

"When Mr. Worf called down from the Bridge and ordered Ensign Lee to report to the Transporter Room, I didn't know if he'd already mentioned Lee's name to the commander, but I felt I had to assume the name when I took his place. In any communication with the ship, if Commander Riker referred to anyone but Ensign Lee, I was sure Mr. Worf would catch it. Once that deception began, I just had to continue it. When we returned to the ship, I thought that if I just disappeared back into my own identity, it might go unnoticed. I hoped the absence of a Security ensign at a debriefing would not be seen as too unusual; after all, it was Mwangi who had the important information, and I knew that if I tried to bluff it out, you'd pick up on the deception at once, Captain. It's no secret that you know the name and face of every crewman."

"But why did you join the Away Team in the first place?" Riker asked.

"Lee is good, but he's young and inexperienced, and I was sure you'd run into trouble on the planet. Oh, not to say anything about your abilities, Commander," she added hastily, "but I knew that as strangers you'd stick out, and I was the best qualified person to assist. Since I was duty officer, it was simple to intercept the assignment."

Picard persisted, "Why were you so well prepared to assist?"

Stevens took a deep breath. "Because I'd been to the planet before."

"What? It's interdicted," Riker protested.

"Yes, sir. I hereby confess to violating a Federation interdiction, sir." Stevens' voice was steady, but her eyes would not meet Picard's.

"That's a grave charge," Picard said soberly. "What was your reason?"

Stevens sighed. "I had a good reason, sir, honestly. But you won't believe it, and I can't prove what I say is true.

"It started about a year ago. I received a message from the parents of my oldest friend. Dolph was missing. He'd taken a single man ship and gone off to go 'exploring', which is what he called 'looking for trouble.' He was long overdue, and his folks were frantic. Well, I did some checking and his ship had last been sighted in the vicinity of Belgrath's Planet. Dolph was always wild; until I entered the Academy, I spent most of my time bailing him out of scrapes, and I knew that sightseeing on an interdicted planet was just the kind of idiotic scheme that would appeal to him.

"I had no proof though, and who would believe someone would be crazy enough to violate a Federation quarantine on a lark? Star Fleet wasn't about to grant an exemption to the order on the basis of my hunch, especially when there were rumors about smugglers trying to get around the ban and gain access to Belgrath's supply of tellurium. That didn't leave me many options, so I told my captain -- I was on the Crippen then -- that I had a family emergency. He granted my request for an extended leave, and I headed for Belgrath's. Once there, I spent a few weeks just monitoring the society, learning how to fit in. Then I started looking for Dolph. They'd grabbed him, of course; he couldn't stay inconspicuous even when his life depended on it. He'd been bright enough to keep his mouth shut, and they were trying to decide whether he was possessed by demons or just terminally stupid. I worked as a drudge in the fortress long enough to catch a glimpse of him and know he was all right -- that's also how I knew where to go for our weapons, Commander.

"Then I changed characters and became Dolph's rich older sister. I went to the priests with a sackful of money and a pathetic tale about my feeble minded brother, begging to be allowed to take him home where I swore I'd keep him locked in the attic. By that point, I was ready to really do it once I got my hands on him. Well, the priests convinced the warriors to give Dolph another chance, and once they'd turned him over to me, I got us both off the planet fast. Dolph swore up and down that he hadn't let any advanced technology fall into their hands, and since my scans showed he was telling the truth, I figured no harm was done.

"I still planned to turn us both over to Federation authorities -- I swear I did, sir! -- but Dolph was pretty broken up over his adventure. They hadn't been particularly gentle with him, and the seriousness of his little jaunt had finally penetrated. So I took him home first, to get some medical attention and to reassure his parents. As soon as they saw him, and heard that I planned to report our actions, they spirited him away somewhere to 'recuperate' and swore they'd deny everything if I went to Star Fleet. I'd end up looking like a would-be smuggler, while Dolph would have some phony, but airtight, alibi.

"I didn't know what to do at that point. I told them I was through with them and Dolph, and I headed back to my ship. I was still trying to decide whether to tell Captain Porschenko about it when my transfer to the Enterprise came through. I guess I just decided to drop the matter then. Nobody'd been hurt, and I wanted this posting more than anything, so...

"That's about it, sir. I can't prove any of my story, but I swear it's true; I didn't go to Belgrath's to smuggle tellurium. Anyway, that's how I knew so much about the planet and why I felt I had to beam down with the Team. Once you learned about the deception, I just panicked and ran. I'm sorry, sir." Stevens gulped and looked at Picard fearfully.

Picard eyed her sternly. "A full report of your actions will be made to Star Fleet, and they will determine the disposition of your case. Do you have anything to add?"

"No sir, I guess not," Stevens said, woebegone. "Except that I'm prepared to plead guilty to all charges and to waive my right to a trial. I don't expect they'll allow it, but if I can, sir, I'd do anything to stay in Star Fleet, and, if you'll have me, on the Enterprise."

Picard's eyes softened, but his voice remained severe. "Noted. Until Star Fleet sends further orders, you are confined to your quarters. Understood?"

"Aye, sir," Stevens said meekly. At Picard's nod, she left the room, escorted by Worf.

Riker looked at Picard. "What now?"

"We contact Star Fleet," Picard said in surprise. "Violating an interdiction is a serious offense."

Riker nodded glumly. "I know, but she is a good officer, and -- "

" -- and no harm was done, and she was rescuing a friend and -- yes, yes, Number One," Picard said testily. "But the facts remain. Star Fleet will investigate Stevens' story and decide on the appropriate action."

"But your appraisal of the case and her record will influence their decision," Riker pointed out. "Especially if you say you're willing to keep her on the Enterprise."

Picard gave him a sharp look. "Is that a recommendation, Commander?"

"Merely a statement of fact, sir," Riker replied innocently.

For a long moment, Picard simply stared out the window. "All right, Commander," he said finally, "I'll recommend leniency, but how Star Fleet Command chooses to respond..."

Riker smiled. "Not all Star Fleet captains are hidebound by regulations. I recall when one captain's violation of certain rules uncovered a conspiracy that -- "

"All right, Number One," Picard interrupted hastily. "Hadn't you better return to the Bridge?"

"Yes, sir," Riker replied, straight faced, and left.

It was eight days later that Lt.Stevens was summoned to the Captain's Ready Room. "Sir?" She viewed Picard with apprehension.

"After investigation into your story, Star Fleet Command has reached a verdict," Picard told her gravely. "You have been found guilty of knowingly and with premeditation violating a Federation interdiction." Stevens gulped. "However," Picard continued, "in view of the extenuating circumstances, as confirmed by Dolph Chaves, and your careful planning in preserving the planet's ignorance of other worlds, the normal disciplinary actions will not be implemented."

"Dolph admitted it? He told them what happened?" Stevens asked, astonished.

"The testimony of Mr. Chaves, along with the evidence of his rehabilitation provided by his wife and small daughter, were instrumental in Star Fleet's decision," Picard told her, a twinkle in his eye.

"A baby?" Stevens said in surprise. "Good for Dolph!"

"As far as you are concerned," Picard said, steering the lieutenant back to the matter at hand. "Star Fleet, while not condoning your actions, nevertheless does not condemn them. However, some official recognition of your illegal actions must be taken."

"Can I stay in Star Fleet, sir?" Stevens burst out, unable to bear the suspense any longer.

The captain glanced at her in mild reproof. "As I was about to say, you may remain in Star Fleet if you will accept the disciplinary actions to be levelled against you."

"I will, sir!" Stevens replied instantly.

Picard repressed a smile. "Very well. You are suspended from duty for eight days, time already served, and a note of your actions in rescuing your friend will be placed in your permanent record, directly beneath the commendation for your role in the Away Team's experiences on Belgrath's. Do you have any questions?"

Stevens gaped at him. "C-commendation?" she finally managed to stutter. "But -- I mean -- I -- " She visibly got a hold of herself. "I can stay on the Enterprise, sir?" she asked, her voice squeaking in excitement. "There's not even a reduction in my rank?"

"If you have a complaint --" Picard began severely, rising from his seat.

"No! No sir! No, not at all!" Stevens hastily assured him. "Thank you, sir!"

"I'm just doing my job," Picard retorted, although a smile began to play about his lips. "Well, Lieutenant? Report for duty!"

"Aye sir!" With a radiant smile, Stevens saluted smartly and left the room.

Picard returned to the Bridge, a pleased smile on his own face. "Steady as she goes, Mr. Crusher," he ordered, relaxing into his chair and watching the stars rush by.

END