"Captain's Log, Stardate 4396.5: While on a routine mapping mission in the remote Epsilon Minor sector, we have discovered the remains of a long-dead civilization on the third planet in the system. The ship's archeologists are quite excited about the find, and Commander Riker will lead an Away Team to gather information about this previously unknown culture."

Geordi LaForge apologized for the fifth time in as many minutes. "I'm sorry that you have to take a shuttle down to the planet, Commander. I never would have scheduled the transporter overhaul if I'd known -- "

Riker affectionately clapped him on the shoulder. "It's all right, Geordi. This thing surprised all of us; there's no way you could have known we'd need the transporter, and the overhaul has been due for weeks."

LaForge still looked unhappy. "I should never have disabled the main unit and knocked out all the transporters. I could have done the work in stages -- "

"We discussed all this before you began. Doing it that way would have taken twice as long, and remember, we thought that we'd just be mapping this system. There was no indication that an Away Team would be needed," Riker said soothingly. "Besides, I don't mind taking the shuttlecraft."

LaForge sighed. "Well, you can carry more equipment this way."

"Did someone say equipment?" a new voice called from the doorway. The men turned to find Lt Sara MacElway smiling at them, her arms filled with instruments.

"Did you leave anything behind?" Riker asked, moving to help her. "It looks like you're bringing every piece of the Archeology department's equipment with us!"

"And Anthropology's," MacElway agreed cheerfully. "This is a big find, Commander. I'll be drummed out of the Archeological Society if my survey isn't thorough."

LaForge turned from where he was stowing the materials in the shuttle cargo bay. "Sara, you do realize that only you and the commander are going down to the planet, right? Who's going to operate all this stuff?"

Sara passed him another recorder. "Most of them are automatic, Geordi. You just set it up and walk away, and it takes detailed pictures of the area. We can analyze the recordings later, after we leave this system."

"That's the last of it," LaForge announced, squeezing in a final box.

"Ready, Lieutenant?"

MacElway nodded. "Yes, sir."

Riker tapped his communicator. "Riker to Picard. Captain, and I are ready to depart."

"Very good, Number One."

On the Bridge, Worf shifted his position, muttering under his breath.

"Yes, Lieutenant?" Picard was facing the other way, but his hearing was excellent.

Caught, Worf had no choice but to speak up. "I still oppose the makeup of the Away Team."

Troi looked at him quizzically. "MacElway is an accomplished archeologist."

Worf glared at her. "It's not the choice of personnel; it's the size of the party. The planet is unexplored and potentially hostile, yet no Security officer is going."

Troi glanced at Picard, hiding a smile. "Did you wish to accompany them, ?'

"I feel that someone with Security training should be present on a mission of this sort," he replied stiffly.

"Lieutenant, your point is well-taken," Picard said equably, "but the shuttle is simply too small for a larger party."

"A different shuttle -- "

" -- would not have as much speed and maneuverability," Picard finished. "The matter is settled."

Worf subsided, but he looked far from convinced.

Meanwhile, in the shuttle bay, LaForge was just lowering the outer force field. Riker powered up the shuttle's engines, and seconds later they had cleared the ship.

"We'll touch down in twenty minutes," he said, turning to MacElway.

"Wonderful. You know, after the instant travel of the transporter, it's nice to go the slow, old-fashioned way once in a while."

Riker grinned. "I don't know that I'd call interplanetary shuttles 'old-fashioned'."

"You know what I mean, Will," she replied with mock asperity. "Besides, I haven't seen you in a while; this gives us a chance to catch up."

"Very true," he agreed, smiling. "Maybe Geordi should overhaul the transporter more often."

Twenty minutes later, the shuttle had landed on the planet's surface and MacElway was unloading her instruments.

"These readings confirm the probe's findings," Riker called to her, studying his tricorder. "Absolutely no signs of life, not even microorganisms."

"Let's get busy then," MacElway suggested, swinging a pack to her shoulder. "I'll start in this building over here." She pointed to the nearest structure, whose octagonal exterior still seemed intact. "I see an opening over -- ow!"

Riker's head snapped up. "Sara!"

MacElway had retreated a step or two and was staring at the doorway with amazement. "Will, there's a functional forcefield on this building! Can you imagine? What can the power source be?"

Riker was at her side. He cautiously reached out a hand and, just as MacElway had, encountered an invisible barrier.

MacElway chattered on, delighted by the discovery. "Do you understand what this means? The interiors will have been untouched by weather and other stresses! A find like this is -- "

"Sara, if we can't figure out a way to deactivate the forcefield, you won't see the interiors."

"Oh." MacElway sobered. "Right."

Further investigation demonstrated that all the buildings in their immediate vicinity had similar forcefields on their entries.

"They must have used them as doors," MacElway mused. "And those on the upper floors must be windows."

"This looks like the main power station." Riker was standing at a low pedestal off to one side. "The tricorder is picking up extremely low frequency radiation coming from it."

"How can that little thing provide enough power for dozens of forcefields?"

"It's probably just a conduit; the radiation generator is elsewhere, but it shunts energy to this thing which, in turn, sends it to the buildings."

"So each one would have its own receiver? Hmmm..." MacElway's expression grew dreamy.

"Hey, Sara?" Riker joggled her elbow.

"Oh. Sorry. Just trying to imagine what such an energy transponder might look like."

Riker was scanning the pedestal. "Give me a minute and I think I can give you the opportunity to search inside for them."

"Really?" She stood on tiptoe to look over his shoulder. "You've figured out how to turn this thing off?"

"Mmmm. I think so, but I won't be able to do it selectively. I'll be turning off every force field in the immediate vicinity."

MacElway shrugged. "That's all right. We need to set up recorders in all of the buildings anyway. Just be sure you can reactivate the fields. That way, when we leave, we can be sure that nothing deteriorates before the next investigative team arrives."

Riker nodded, preoccupied with his task. He made one final adjustment to his tricorder, then keyed in the command. There was no noise, but when MacElway tried to walk into the nearest building, she met with no resistance.

"Nice work, Will!" she cried. "Now, let's get these things set up."

"All right. You take this side; I'll take that. If you find anything unusual, report in immediately."

She waved acknowledgement, already well into the structure. Riker picked up his equipment and moved off. His first three recorders were easy to place, but the fourth stubbornly refused to function. Riker reached for the tool kit, then muffled an oath as he realized he'd forgotten it. Leaving the rest of the recorders where they lay, he headed back to the shuttle.

As he approached the craft, he was surprised to find MacElway there, closing the storage hatch. "Sara? Did you forget something too?"

She spun about, as though startled, but didn't speak.

Moving closer, Riker noticed that the engines were powered up and the console was in prelaunch mode. "Sara, what are you doing? Were you planning on leaving?" he joked.

As he came up beside her, MacElway lashed out at him with a roundhouse blow. Taken completely by surprise, Riker was unable to dodge, though he did manage to deflect most of its force. "Sara!"

MacElway pressed the attack, first with a kick that knocked his legs out from under him, then with a wicked swipe at his head as he struggled to regain his feet.

"Sara! Have you lost your mind?" Once again upright, Riker backed away, staying just out of reach. "Lieutenant!"

Even the formal address, complete with harsh tone, didn't bring MacElway to her senses. On her next swing, Riker grabbed her wrist and used his longer arms to enfold her in a rough bearhug. He was reluctant to hurt her -- she was obviously unwell -- but as she continued to struggle, his options were fast disappearing. There was no way he could pilot the shuttle back to the ship with her in this condition.

Finally, she stamped one boot down, hard, on his instep. That eased his grip enough for her to free one arm, and she drove her elbow into his abdomen. He doubled over reflexively, and she banged his nose with the heel of her hand.

The blow hurt, and Riker decided enough was enough. Besides, she was moving towards the arms locker on the side of the shuttle, and once she got hold of a phaser, he was done for. He lunged forward, tackling her from behind. He stood up first, then backhanded MacElway when she staggered to her feet. The blow flung her against the shuttle, and she crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

Riker quickly stripped the carrying straps from a nearby case and used them to bind MacElway's wrists and ankles. Once he was certain that she would not be able to cause trouble en route, he lifted her into her seat and launched the shuttle.

As soon as they had cleared the planet's gravity and he could let the computer take over, he called the ship. "Riker to Enterprise: emergency return. Alert that there is one incoming casualty."

"Enterprise here; acknowledged. What happened, Number One?" Picard's concerned voice responded at once.

"MacElway seems to have gone crazy," Riker said, bewilderment and worry coloring his tone. "She attempted to leave the planet, then attacked me when I stopped her."

"Did you encounter anything on the planet?"

"Negative; the planet was as dead as our scans indicated. Could this be due to something else?"

"Crusher here. Will, bring her straight to Sickbay as soon as you dock."

"Understood. Shuttle out."

Riker turned to check on MacElway. She lay quietly beside him, a nasty bruise already showing on her cheek. "Sara? Can you hear me? It's Will."

She opened her eyes and blinked groggily. "Will?" Her voice sounded a little strange, but at least she was talking.

"How do you feel? Can you tell me what happened back there?"

"N-no... I can't seem to..."

"Don't worry," Riker said reassuringly. "We're on our way back to the ship. We'll be there in just a few minutes."

"We're in space?" MacElway gasped. She began to fight her bonds, trying to see out the viewer.

"Take it easy," Riker cautioned swiftly, alarmed by MacElway's excitement. He helped her sit up, and the sight of the stars seemed to calm her.

"Space..." she breathed, gazing out as though it had been decades since she had seen such a sight.

"Where else would the ship be?" Riker asked, half amused, half confused. "Do you feel better?"

"I feel wonderful," she sighed, her face pressed to the window.

"I'm sorry I had to hit you," he said guiltily. "Are you -- "

"I'm fine. Just fine. Now..."

By that time, they were at the ship, and Riker was forced to devote his attention to piloting into the shuttle bay. As soon as the bay had repressurized, he was out the shuttle door.

"Geordi, call Sickbay and tell them we're on our way," he called, reaching in and gathering MacElway into his arms. Not even bothering to untie her, he hurried out of the bay.

"Doctor!" Riker stepped over the threshold of Sickbay, MacElway still lying quietly in his arms.

"Bring her over here," Crusher instructed, motioning him over to an examination table. Her scanner was already out. "Thank you, Commander," she smiled at him. "I'll take it from here."

With one last pat to Sara's shoulder, Riker left, heading for the Bridge and Picard. He was still mystified by MacElway's strange behavior, but he knew the captain was waiting for a report.

No sooner had the lift doors opened than Picard asked, "How is she?"

"Dr Crusher's with her now. She just seemed to go berserk; no explanation, no --"

"And you're certain there was nothing on the planet to cause this?"

Riker shook his head positively. "There were absolutely no signs of life."

"Captain," Worf interrupted, an edge in his voice. "We are being hailed. From the planet."

Riker wheeled about to stare at the Klingon, the hair on the back of his neck prickling. "What?"

"Put it through," Picard ordered.

"Enterprise, this is Lt MacElway. I -- I think Commander Riker abandoned me here." The voice sounded bewildered and scared, but it was definitely Sara's.

Riker looked at Picard. "If that's MacElway, and she's on the planet, then who -- "

" -- just came aboard?" Picard finished, looking exceedingly grim. "Picard to Sickbay! !"

There was no answer.

Worf was already ordering a Security squad to Sickbay; he leapt onto the turbolift with Riker just as the doors closed.

"How could I have been so stupid?" Riker muttered to himself as they waited for the elevator to arrive at their destination. "How?"

They pounded through the halls to Sickbay, arriving even before the Security team, but they were still much too late. and all her staff lay sprawled on the floor. "MacElway" was nowhere to be found.

Riker knelt beside Crusher, while Worf went to the aid of the others. "Doctor!"

To his intense relief, she stirred. "What -- " One hand went to her head and she grimaced with pain. "I have the most incredible headache."

"What happened?"

With Riker's aid, Crusher made it to her feet. Worf and the newly arrived Security squad tended to the rest of her staff. "That was not MacElway," she said unnecessarily.

Riker flushed. "I know. I should have realized it before bringing her -- it -- back to the ship."

Crusher shook her head, then looked as though she regretted it. "No; don't be too hard on yourself, Will. She fooled me at first too. Here, look at this."

She was still wobbly, but Crusher managed to walk over to the diagnostic display. "Remember, I had my scanner out when you brought her in. Her readings were all perfectly normal for a human. In fact, she matched 's physiology exactly."

"You mean it's human?" Riker asked incredulously.

"No," Crusher replied. "When I proceeded to a more detailed scan, still comparing the readings with those from MacElway's last physical, I noticed that the brain wave patterns were completely different. Not just somewhat altered; radically different. Not human."

"What happened then? Why didn't you contact the Bridge?"

"Because that's when our 'lieutenant' turned into a big blue flash," Crusher retorted. "The alien must have realized that it had been discovered and reverted to its natural form."

"Or changed to yet another. Then what happened?"

Crusher shrugged. "Nothing. The flash is the last thing I remember until waking up. From this headache, though," she added, wincing, "I'd guess that a sizable electrical charge was emitted during the metamorphosis. That's what knocked us out."

"You'd better come with me, Doctor; the captain will want to hear your report. Worf, alert all decks: there's an intruder aboard."

"Commander. What do we look for?"

Riker rubbed a hand across his beard. "I wish I knew. Tell them to investigate anything out of the ordinary. For all we know, the alien looks like you or me by now."

Once he'd heard the doctor's description of the events in Sickbay, Picard looked about the briefing room table. ", is there any record of a similar creature?"

The android shook his head. "No sir."

"Is this the last survivor of the planet below?" Crusher wondered.

"I don't think so." Riker shook his head. "The structures down there were definitely built by -- and for -- corporeal beings. From what you describe, this thing is more like sentient energy."

"Yes, but it's proven its ability to assume corporeal form."

"But perhaps not for very long," Picard suggested. "It only posed as for a short period."

"How was it able to mimic Sara so perfectly?" Riker asked. "And why didn't it revert to its natural form when we fought?"

"I think I can answer the latter," Crusher volunteered. "From the readings I obtained before its transformation, it seems clear that during the time it looked like MacElway, it was, for all intents and purposes, human. It could fight only as a human; you remember, Will, you even bruised it. When you knocked it out, it was helpless until it regained consciousness."

"At which point it was where it apparently wanted to be: in space," Picard pointed out. "Why didn't it change back at that point?"

Crusher frowned. "This is only conjecture, but its transformation may require a special expenditure of energy on its part, perhaps accompanied by a characteristic movement or contortion. Its human form was securely tied up; it wasn't until it got to Sickbay that we removed its bonds."

Picard nodded slowly. "That sounds reasonable. But what does it want?"

"Access to outer space, apparently," Data replied.

"Now it has that, Data," Crusher said.

"And it may be gone, Doctor. Security has not sighted it."

"Do you believe it's left the ship, Data?" Picard asked.

Data paused, thinking. "No, sir," he said finally. "I believe that our sensors would have detected its exit."

"Then why is it hanging around? Does it want something? Are its intentions hostile?" Riker wondered aloud.

"That is impossible to say, sir."

Picard stood up. "This is speculation; I want some answers. Data, review the doctor's scans of the creature. There must be some way we can detect its presence -- find it."

"Yes, sir."

"Lieutenant Worf, post Security teams in all strategic areas."

The Klingon nodded acknowledgement.

"Number One, return to the planet; see if you can find any answers there. Oh, and inform of what has happened."

MacElway greeted the shuttlecraft with an uncertain smile. "Commander? What's going on?"

"Apparently this planet wasn't as dead as we thought. When I returned here for a tool kit, I found you -- or what I thought was you -- about to leave in the shuttlecraft."

MacElway's jaw fell open. "Me?"

Riker nodded, still too upset to smile at her expression. " 'You' acted strangely, so I immediately returned to the ship, at which point it became painfully clear that it wasn't you."

"There's an alien aboard the ship? Does it seem friendly?"

"Hardly. As soon as it saw me down here, it attacked."

"You mean -- you thought I was attacking you? No wonder you thought I was acting strangely!"

That prompted a rueful grin. "Exactly. I brought the alien, which still looked exactly like you, to Sickbay. There it changed into what we assume is its natural form, a mass of energy, and zapped the entire medical staff into unconsciousness."

"Oh no! Has Security been able to contain it?"

"Not yet. So we need to see if there's anything here that will tell us about it."

"I understand. You know, this may not be anything, but for a while, right when I first started placing the recorders, I felt as though someone were watching me. At the time, I just put it down to jitters, but now I'm not so sure."

"You think maybe the alien was studying you?"

MacElway nodded. "If it was able to copy my form so closely that it fooled all of you, it must have observed me for some time."

"That makes sense. Where were you when you had this feeling of being watched?"

"Over here." She led the way. "It was in the first building, right after we deactivated the forcefields. Will!" She spun about, staring at him as an idea struck her. "Do you suppose it was trapped inside the building? And that our deactivating the barrier freed it?"

Riker looked dubious. "It's possible, but without proof..."

"But if it weren't trapped, why didn't it come out when we first arrived?"

"Sara, we don't know what it wants; how can we hope to guess at its motives? Maybe it didn't come out because it was waiting for a chance to steal the shuttle."

"What does a mass of energy need a shuttle for? There must be some other reason."

"Apparently it needed the shuttle to get off this planet. And it did."

"If it's pure energy, why couldn't it leave on its own? If it weren't trapped inside the forcefield, that is."

"Gravity. Remember your physics: nothing escapes the pull of gravity. Black holes appear black because even light can't escape their gravitational pull. Even though the being doesn't have a form like ours doesn't mean it can ignore the gravitational force of this planet."

MacElway thought for a moment. "All right then, what about this: The alien was trapped here (it doesn't matter how) and couldn't leave without some external boost to overcome the planet's gravity. When we arrived, it realized that we must have come from somewhere else, and so it decided to use our ship to escape."

Riker was nodding. "It studied you and assumed your form to work the controls-"

"And it was about to leave when you interrupted it! But, Will, this means that maybe it's not hostile; it's just looking for a way to get home."

"Then why did it attack Sara? And why hasn't it left the ship?"

MacElway sighed. "Oh, yes, I'd forgotten. Well, here we are. This is the building where I started."

"Good. Let's look for any signs that the alien was here."

Back on the ship, Troi walked into Crusher's office. "Beverly, I need to speak with you. It's urgent."

Crusher laid her databoard down. "What is it? Are you all right?"

"No. Yes. I mean, I'm fine. It's not about me."

"Are you sure?" Crusher asked, her brow wrinkled in concern. "You seem distracted."

Troi managed a brief smile. "I am; that's why I'm here. I've been picking up some very powerful emotions, so powerful that I can't concentrate on anything else."

"What do you feel?"

"Terror... Despair... A dreadful sense of urgency and frustration... The sensation is so strong that I'm beginning to share the emotions."

"What can I do to help?"

"I believe the source is one of the children on board. The 'taste' of the emotions is immature." Troi smiled. "I'm sorry; I don't imagine that makes much sense to you, but it's very hard to describe empathic communication."

Crusher smiled back. "Especially to a non-empath. That's all right, Dianna; I'm perfectly happy to accept your interpretation. So you think it's a child? Perhaps one of the Vulcan children having problems controlling his emotions?"

"Yes, although the intensity of the feelings is such that I think there is more to it than a simple lack of control. It could also be a child from a species that's not normally psychic. In that case, a budding telepathic ability could be very frightening."

Crusher nodded. "I can order all of the children to report for physicals. Will that help you to identify him or her?"

"I think so. As soon as I'm in the same room as the child, I'll know it."

"I'll call the first group in immediately. In the meantime, why don't you try to relax?"

Troi smiled wearily. "Could you relax if you heard a small child crying hopelessly nearby?"

Crusher squeezed her shoulder sympathetically. "I'll go issue the order."

While Troi and Crusher examined the ship's children, LaForge and his staff were installing new security devices in the shuttle bay. Although it was unclear whether the alien still had need for one of the craft, Picard had chosen the prudent course and ordered the changes.

LaForge glanced over his shoulder at the technician assisting him. "Antonelli, would you get me the schematic for the bay doors? I left it next door."

"Sure, Commander."

LaForge continued to reprogram the system, but then a movement in the bay caught his eye. He looked up quizzically. Routine safety regulations mandated that no persons enter the bay while work was being done on the systems which regulated the hangar's forcefield; it was too easy for an incorrectly entered command to suddenly evacuate the airlock.

"Antonelli?" LaForge peered through the transparent wall separating the control booth from the bay. "What are you doing in there?"

"You asked me to get the schematic," a puzzled voice behind him replied.

LaForge spun around. Antonelli stood there, holding the forgotten databoard in his hand. LaForge turned back to the shuttle bay. His eyes were not deceiving him: another Antonelli was walking through the bay. "Bridge! The alien is in the shuttle bay!"

"Security is on the way, Commander," Picard responded immediately, nodding to Worf. "What is the alien doing?"

"He's moving to the panel that -- oh no!"

LaForge forgot the Bridge as the faux Antonelli reached the emergency panel situated in one corner of the airlock. Placed there only for use under the most dire of circumstances, it included controls for the manual override of the bay forcefield. The alien wrenched the panel's cover off, then, exactly as the engineer had feared, reached for the override.

LaForge instantly tried to reroute the circuits, to deactivate the emergency panel. If the alien succeeded with its attempt, the shuttle bay would experience sudden decompression as the forcefield vanished. For all intents and purposes, it would be as though the hull had been breached.

In the back of his mind, LaForge registered the wail of the evacuation klaxon; Picard had obviously decided to take no chances and was ordering the surrounding decks cleared. LaForge hoped that even if the forcefield fell, the bulkheads would hold, but the abrupt depressurization that would result was a far different stress from the one which they had been designed to withstand. Even if the walls remained standing, the contents of the bay would certainly be blown out into space. Three shuttlecraft, perhaps a dozen space suits, and a hangarful of equipment would be lost.

"Damn!"

Although his initial attempts at blocking the alien's commands had been successful, "Antonelli" had found the emergency panel's failsafe. Once that was engaged, all external commands would be disregarded. "Bridge, it looks as though we're going to lose the bay," LaForge reported grimly.

As "Antonelli" reached for the failsafe, Worf's Security team raced through the doors. The officers did not even have time to draw their weapons before the decompression sirens began to shriek. The doors through which they had just entered sealed automatically, blocking any escape. Worf grabbed the two people nearest him and threw them towards a console in a valiant but futile attempt to provide them with an anchor in the upcoming maelstrom. Not even Klingon muscles would be able to withstand the pull as the ship's atmosphere boiled out into space.

LaForge watched horror-struck, painfully aware that there was nothing he could do. Just as the bay forcefield gave a last flicker, the final sign before complete failure, the bogus Antonelli stabbed convulsively at the panel.

LaForge's jaw dropped as he realized that the alien had reengaged the forcefield. The panel whined protestingly as its machinery, driven by conflicting orders, sparked and stalled. In the end, though, the forcefield stayed up.

Even as LaForge was fumbling for the intercom to reassure Worf and the others that they were safe, the alien was initiating its metamorphosis. It brought its arms into its sides, flung its head backwards, and vanished in a burst of blue light. The intensity of the flash was sufficient to force LaForge and the Security team to avert their eyes; by the time they looked back, it was gone.

"Worf, it's all right; the field is intact," LaForge gulped.

Worf finally relaxed his deathlike grip on a utility pole; his staff followed his example. "Where did it go?" he asked, darting glances all around the shuttle bay.

"It just -- disappeared," LaForge replied, still dazed by the events. "Worf, you'll have to go to that open panel over there to unseal the doors. Just flip the switch; that should return control to me."

"Shuttle bay! Report!" Picard's shouts finally penetrated.

"All secure here, Captain," LaForge answered, a bit belatedly. "The alien is gone, but and the bay itself are unharmed."

"What happened?" Picard demanded.

"I -- I'm not sure," LaForge replied slowly. "It's almost as if the alien abandoned its attempt when it realized the Security team was in danger."

There was a pause, then: "Report to the Briefing Room."

LaForge and Worf met Picard, Data, Troi, and Crusher in the Briefing Room. "What's the alien up to?" LaForge asked of no one in particular. "Is it trying to kill us or not?"

"Perhaps it's just trying to communicate with us?" Crusher suggested.

"By evacuating the shuttlebay?" Worf rumbled skeptically.

She shrugged helplessly. "Maybe it was trying to get our attention."

"It already has mine, Doctor," Picard snapped. "Data, do you have any ideas on how we might locate it?"

"I have been attempting to refigure our sensors, sir, but I have been unsuccessful thus far."

"Counselor, can you sense anything from it?" There was a pause. "Counselor?" Troi was staring out the window.

"Dianna?" Crusher gently touched her shoulder, and Troi returned to the meeting with a jerk.

"What? I -- I'm sorry, Captain. What did you say?"

Picard looked at her more closely. With all the furor over the alien, he hadn't noticed how drawn she appeared. Dark circles ringed her eyes, and her hair was slightly disheveled.

"Are you all right?"

She gave him a wan smile. "Yes. I'm sorry -- I just wasn't paying attention."

He disregarded her remark. "Doctor?"

Crusher glanced at Troi. "The counselor has been distracted lately, Captain. It's a matter concerning one of the children."

"Oh." Picard hastily dropped the subject. "I'm sure the two of you are handling it."

"Captain," Worf spoke up. "I believe we should restrict all personnel to their stations. Then the computer could scan the corridors for any movement and locate the alien as it travels through the ship."

Picard nodded. "Make it so."

"Once we've found it, what do we do with it?" LaForge asked. "We don't even know how to hold it in one place. Will a normal forcefield work?"

Picard looked dour. "Let's take this one step at a time. First, find it."

Back on the planet, MacElway and Riker had made several discoveries. "Will, look at the residual energy levels in this room!" Sara called. "What do you think could have caused it?"

Riker looked around the bare chamber. "There's no machinery in here, nothing that would store power."

"What if the energy weren't artificially produced, but natural?" Sara asked, eyes wide. "Say a life form?"

"To leave behind this much energy, it would have to be enormously powerful."

"Or have remained here an enormously long time," she pointed out. "The material of these walls would have acted like an energy sponge. It would have sucked the life force out of any such being, leaving it terribly weak."

Riker stroked his beard. "Your theory is looking more and more likely, Sara. Those forcefields might have trapped the creature in here initially, then over the course of time, it would have lost so much of its energy that even when we lowered the fields, it couldn't leave the planet on its own."

"But why is it still on the ship?" MacElway asked. "And why is it attacking us?"

"I can't answer the latter, but remember, there are plenty of forcefields around the Enterprise: navigation fields, protective fields against micrometeors... If the alien can't pass through energy fields, then it might not be able to leave the ship. Not without help."

MacElway frowned. "Then why doesn't it just ask for help?"

Riker shrugged. "Maybe it's intensely xenophobic. Maybe it thinks we'd say no. Who can tell?"

"I don't know what else we can learn from the planet, Will. Hadn't we better return to the ship?"

"Yes. At least we've come up with a plausible theory for what the alien wants -- now the question is how to communicate with it."

Crusher turned to Troi with an exclamation of frustration. "Dianna, that's the last child on the ship. Are you sure Aaron isn't the source of the emotions?"

Troi nodded, exhaustion evident in every line of her face. "Positive. Could you have missed one?"

"Absolutely not. Every single child has reported. Do you think you might be sensing an adult? Or ... " Crusher trailed off. "Dianna, could you be sensing a mind in utero?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" Troi snapped. "I know every adult mind on this ship; these feelings don't come from anyone I've ever sensed before. And as for telepathic embryos, even you can't be foolish enough to -- " She broke off, appalled at herself. "Beverly, forgive me! I didn't mean it -- "

Crusher patted her shoulder reassuringly. "Don't worry. You're not the first patient who's snarled at me; it's an occupational hazard. I know how tired you are and how concerned."

Troi sank her head into her hands. "It's intensified. I can't think without it penetrating my mind. The desperation and terror..."

Crusher pulled her scanner out and ran it over Troi. "Hmm."

"What?" Troi dragged her head up. "Are you going to tell me that I'm imagining this whole thing? That I'm going mad?"

Crusher smiled. "As a very wise woman once told me, if you can ask that question, you're not likely to be nearly as confused as you fear you are. No, I'm just wondering about something. Come with me for a minute."

Troi obediently followed the doctor into her office. Crusher downloaded the data from her scanner into her desk terminal and called up some records. "I thought so! Dianna, look at this," Crusher swiveled the terminal around so that Troi could see. "Your brain wave readings show a decided shift from your last physical."

Troi stared at the lines on the screen. "What does that mean? Am I going insane?"

Crusher laughed and hugged her. "No, no. The distribution is a classic pattern: your mind is receiving, and being influenced by, another mind. Remember how the captain felt when that Ferengi tried to tamper with his consciousness?"

Troi struggled to understand in her dazed condition. "But Betazoids are resistant to all forms of mind control."

"All known forms," Crusher corrected. "When did you first start sensing these emotions? Wasn't it around the time of the alien's arrival?"

Troi nodded slowly. "Yes. Almost exactly."

"Dianna, is it possible that you're sensing the alien?"

The counselor straightened up. "Yes! Yes, I believe you're right!"

"We'd better get to the Bridge -- the captain needs to know this."

Picard looked from Riker and MacElway to Crusher and Troi. "So if you're correct, the alien is a stranded traveler, trying to get home?"

Riker nodded. "We can't begin to guess how long it was trapped on the planet; no wonder Troi senses desperation and longing from it."

"I still don't understand why it didn't just ask for help in the first place!" Sara burst out.

Troi spoke up, "For an energy being, used to roaming the cosmos, confinement would be a terrible trauma. It's quite possible that its imprisonment has left it... impaired."

"If I might suggest another alternative," Data volunteered politely, "perhaps the alien considers us responsible for its incarceration."

"But, Data," MacElway protested, "we're the ones that rescued it! We turned off the forcefields."

"True, lieutenant, but the alien may not realize that we were not the ones who activated them in the first place."

Riker looked perplexed. "What are you saying, Data?"

"The society that built the structures on the planet were certainly corporeal in nature, Commander. The alien, as an energy creature, may not be capable of distinguishing between different matter-based species. It was trapped by something constructed by corporeal beings; corporeal beings later came and deactivated the device. Could it not consider the same beings responsible for both?"

"It might have seemed as though we knew what we were doing," Sara admitted. "We were on the planet less than an hour before shutting off the fields; the alien was stranded there a lot longer than that without being able to."

Troi was nodding. "That would account for the fear I sense. It is afraid to contact us, lest we try to trap it."

"What does it think we'd do with it?" LaForge asked. "Put it in a zoo?"

"We don't know that the structures on the planet weren't a zoo, Geordi," MacElway replied. "Or it might have been a snare, set to catch energy creatures."

"It could just as easily be a simple dwelling," Riker reminded her.

"If the alien merely wants to leave the ship, why hasn't it done so?"

"The ship's forcefields may be preventing it," Riker said, explaining his and MacElway's theory.

"That was why it was trying to open the bay!" LaForge exclaimed.

"Why not beam itself off the ship?" Crusher asked.

"The transporters are still off line," Picard explained. " had not yet completed the overhaul when all this began."

"Captain, the alien is not belligerent," Troi said earnestly. "It abandoned its attempt at the shuttle bay when it realized Worf and the others would be killed."

Picard nodded. "It is an entity we should be privileged to meet. How many other creatures would have acted so compassionately towards those it considers enemies?"

"Captain! We have an unauthorized person moving in corridor 23J!" Worf called over. "Visual pickups identify it as... Lieutenant MacElway?"

Sara stared at the others. "But I'm right here! I -- oh!"

Worf glared at her suspiciously. "Can we be certain you are the genuine MacElway?"

She glared right back. "Would an alien remember beating you at poker three weeks ago?"

Riker hid a grin. "Captain, 23J is close to the shuttle bay. The alien could be trying for it again."

"Lieutenant, seal off the alien using forcefields of a type similar to those on the planet. Counselor, I think we should go meet the alien. You have the Bridge, Number One."

"Captain, be careful!" Worf cautioned. "A trapped creature is extremely dangerous, and this one believes we mean it harm."

"Yes, sir," Picard said gravely, entering the turbolift with Troi.

As soon as they turned the corner to corridor 23J, they saw the sparkle of the forcefield. A second field lay perhaps ten meters behind the first, and between the two, a whirling ball of energy spun, hurling itself from wall to wall with a frenzy born of panic.

Troi staggered against Picard. "It is so afraid," she moaned, hands going to her head.

Picard stepped up to the field and raised his hands in a calming gesture. "No one means you any harm. We do not seek to hold you against your will."

The blur slowed.

Encouraged, Picard continued. "We will help you leave this ship, if that is your wish."

The mass of energy hovered in the center of the hall for a moment, then -- a blinding flash of light -- and MacElway stood before them.

"Greetings," Picard said gently. "I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the United Federation of Planets."

"H-hello," "MacElway" said timidly.

"Can you understand me?" Picard asked.

It nodded.

"Do you want to leave this ship?"

Again, a nod.

"But you can't?"

"Your energies, they prevent me," it explained, gesturing to the forcefields. "Like on the world below. They hold me in. I want to leave. I need to leave!" "MacElway" was beginning to tremble.

"I understand," Picard said swiftly. "And I will help you to leave. We did not understand at first. We did not expect to find you on the planet below -- we thought it held no life forms."

The alien regarded him with a puzzled expression. "Then -- the energies below were not of your doing?"

"Oh no," Picard said, smiling. "The beings who built those structures ceased to exist many centuries ago. We went to the planet to learn about them."

"MacElway" smiled shyly. "That is why I went there too. I was curious. I wished to see what sort of creatures lived in little shells. But although I was strong enough to enter, once I was within, something began to sap my strength. I could not leave, no matter how I tried. I was trapped there for a very, very long time.

"When you arrived, and the barrier was lifted, I thought only of leaving. I wished to return to my home among the stars as soon as I could. But then," the alien began to grow agitated again, "I realized I was not strong enough to leave the world on my own. I tried to use your devices, but I was discovered, and then imprisoned here on this big shell of yours. I only want to go home!" it ended with a wail.

"And so you shall," Picard agreed strongly. "Lieutenant, lower the forcefields at 23J."

The shimmer faded and Picard stepped forward. "Will you trust us?" he asked quietly, offering the alien his hand.

It stared at the hand for a long, long moment, then hesitantly reached out and grasped it.

"Excellent," Picard beamed. "Let us go to the shuttle bay."

"Do your travels include the entire galaxy?" Troi asked as the three walked.

"Oh yes," the alien nodded, its hand still on Picard's arm. "And beyond. There are many like me, you know."

"And many like us," Picard agreed. "We have encountered energy life forms before, although never one quite like you."

"Are you travelers as well?" the alien asked wonderingly. "But you must go so slowly! And carry so much with you! You require air and food and... How can you bear the pace? I should go mad!"

Picard's eyes were clouded as a memory overtook him. "Once, I traveled as you do. I remember very little, but what I do was -- magnificent."

"Even though we must go slowly, the adventures we have along the way make the journey worthwhile," Troi said, smiling. "Like meeting you."

"MacElway" smiled back. "I thank you for your kind words. And for your rescue. I regret my suspicions."

By then they were at the shuttle bay. "I hope that we will encounter you again," Picard said. "You and your people would be welcome members of the Federation, if you would ever care to join."

The alien looked thoughtful. "I will consult with the others. Perhaps..."

"For now, though, farewell," Picard said. "If you will step into the bay, I will lower the forcefield for you so that you may leave."

"Thank you!" There was no mistaking the gratitude and relief in the voice. "MacElway" rushed into the bay, hurrying towards the main doors.

Picard and Troi stationed themselves by the control panel, and the captain began the field deactivation sequence. Slow, steady depressurization began, timed to reach a vacuum just as the main field fell.

"MacElway" stood in front of the forcefield, bathed in its blue glow. A radiant smile wreathed the alien's face.

It spread out its arms as the field flickered and stepped forward into the void of space as though ascending into heaven. Even as it began to float away from the ship, the metamorphosis was beginning. The human shape dissolved, leaving behind the mass of energy which was the alien's true form. It paused for a moment, as though to say a last goodbye, then zipped away, gone in an instant.

"Well, Number One, the alien is gone," Picard's voice held a tinge of regret.

"We saw it all on the screen, sir," Riker replied softly. "It looked like it was glad to be home."

Sara's cheeks were wet with tears. "It was transformed with joy. How long it must have waited for release!"

"And what would have happened to it if we'd beamed away after setting those recorders?" Riker asked. "Without the shuttle it would have been stranded all over again."

LaForge sighed. "I guess it all worked out for the best then. But I'm not going to disable all of the transporters at one time again! What if the alien hadn't been so friendly?"

Picard smiled. Over the still open channel, he replied, "I think the risks are worth it, Commander, if the rewards are so rich."

END