Watching the Sunset

An ST:TNG fic by Princess Artemis

© copyright 1995, 2001, 2002 S.D.Green, except for the TNG stuff, that's obviously © copyright by the Paramounties...

---

The solitary light of one reddish star tiredly lit up the faces of the one planetoid and the few remaining asteroids. Other than that, no star shone. There were no other stars to shine. Blackness enveloped the sky, dark, thick, and utterly void. He looked out, away from the dying star a moment. He had become used to the emptiness, the absence of life and light. He contemplated his immortality, how it had left him to this empty, dying universe, how it had left all those that went before him with a measure of endlessness through him. How immortality blessed him then cursed him, allowing him to witness and participate in wonderful things, only to see those things pass away forever. This always happened in that order and in every situation. Except perhaps once, he thought to himself, and that is enough. He turned to face the star again. He stared at the last setting sun for an hour, watching it dim, watching it burn itself out. There remained only a few more hours of light in that star. He wondered about his fate for a moment. Would he expire with the universe, or would he continue? Surely physical immortality must end with the physical universe. Even so, he could not answer his question, so he would wait. He turned his thoughts back to one course of events, perhaps the most horrible and the most wonderful of all events in his extraordinary life. Trillions of years separated him from those memories, but he remembered them so well that he nearly re-experienced them. It is time to go back. I do not want to, but I must...

Just as he resolved that to himself, brilliant light flashed next to him. Even though he had lived for centuries in the near-absolute dark, the flash did not cause him an instant of discomfort. He looked to the being in human form that had just joined him. He wore an ancient red Starfleet uniform complete with captain's pips. "Q, you cannot stay here, you know it is dangerous." There was no atmosphere, but the spoken words carried anyway.

Q sized up his pale companion, looking at the tatters of ancient cloth that covered him, then the disintegrating planetoid he sat on. "I love what you've done with the place," Q noted sarcastically, "and I'd think you might appreciate some company. You don't need to be rude, Data."

Data stood in one fluid motion, "I was not rude. I simply stated a fact. Anyway, it was you who made a disparaging remark concerning the state of my place.'"

Q crossed his arms in front of him and rolled his eyes. "Hmmph."

"I do appreciate the company. However, I do not wish you to be harmed by the fast decay of this universe. Please, go back to the Continuum."

Q looked at Data for a few moments. "I want to take you out of this place, to make you Q. I know you're holding yourself together by sheer will, and you can't keep it up forever. I want to pay my debt."

"Pay your debt," Data's intonation clearly indicated his belief that that was not why Q had made the offer. He added, "You do not owe me anything."

Q glared at Data for a moment, then sighed. Q honestly liked Data. That Data had saved his life probably precipitated his fondness for the Android, but in the end, it was more than that. Maybe it was his humility, or his deference, or that he had something of a sense of the dramatic, but Q didn't really want to think about what it was that had him going soft over the created machine of a lowly, insect race. (Q could barely bring himself to admit he liked that race.) Q spoke again, without his characteristic haughtiness, "Come back with me to the Continuum." Q paused a moment, then added, "I'm sure you'd enjoy exploring it."

Data considered for a moment. He was touched by Q's offer, and it was tempting in the extreme, but he knew that he could not accept, not yet and maybe never. "I am sorry, Q. I have something I must do, back on the Enterprise. When I return, then perhaps I will accept your kind offer."

Q stood there for another moment, and then he smiled, indulging in one brief but gleeful fantasy concerning the indignation Data could cause back on the Enterprise if he had half a mind to. Then Q sighed. What ever it was that Data had to do, it was probably serious. Data just was not the type to entertain himself by wreaking havoc on Jean-Luc and his crew. Such a pity, he would be so good at it. Then, with mischievous enthusiasm Q announced, "If you ever tell Jean-Luc the secret of the universe, you've got to let me know when so I can relish the look on his face! Oh, mon capitaine, how you would choke on your Earl Gray!"

Mild amusement played out on Data's face. "Q, I will certainly invite you to witness it if I do reveal that secret." Data looked at the star again, gold eyes reflecting the red light, his expression changing, reflecting ancient grief. No, grief was not the right word, but it was the only word. Softly, he said, "I do not want to do this...but I cannot do otherwise." He turned away from the star, and as he did he disappeared without warning or visible sign. Q started, then peered at the space Data had so unceremoniously deserted. Only his footprints remained. Q briefly thought of following Data to find out what he was up to, then decided against it. Q looked out at the star. He wondered what Data saw in it. He shrugged, then disappeared in his customary flash of light.

* * *

"First Officer's Log, Stardate 47995.1: We have recently discovered an unusual star system in the Keleian sector. According to stellar physics, the star Keleia Sigma is orbited by two planets. They are on opposite sides of the same orbit. We are en route to investigate, traveling at warp 5. Captain Picard has allowed extra recreation time, as it will take us at least three days to reach the Keleia Sigma system."

"Personal Log, William T. Riker: Why did I get stuck with all the bridge duty? It is unfair that Picard gets to romp around on the holodeck for three days while I'm stuck on the bridge. On top of it, Deanna won't even give me the day off. My Imzadi can be so cruel. She can take the bridge; why won't she? Oh well. There's a poker game tonight, and I'm going in with guns blazing."

* * *

Captain Jean-Luc Picard strolled up to the holodeck doors. He carried his English saddle and wore classic horse riding attire. Smiling, he pecked the controls for the holodeck, instructing it to conjure up a forest and place to run his horse. He stepped over to the holodeck doors, which obediently opened with their characteristic sigh. He stepped in, breathing the clean, crisp air. The scent of pine hung in the atmosphere. The doors closed behind him, soon hidden by forest. He walked over to the post that would shortly have a horse tied to it. "Computer. One Arabian horse, English tack, please." With an audible swish, a magnificent Arabian stood before Picard. He gazed at the horse, appreciating its striking beauty. As he took a few steps toward it, he noticed the horse looking intently at him. He patted its nose, then moved to place the saddle on its back. Much to Picard's surprise, the horse sidestepped. Picard looked at the horse another moment, then moved to place the saddle again. Again, the horse sidestepped, more aggressively this time. Picard, with determination etched on his face, again tried to saddle the horse. This time, the horse trotted out of the way then lowered itself enough that Picard could mount it without much trouble. Picard stared at the horse, wondering why the holodeck computer would choose to display a horse with an obvious dislike of saddles. He walked over to the horse, thinking. He decided that he wouldn't mind riding bareback, but he would have to ask Lieutenant Barcley about the holodeck's initiative later. He mounted the horse, which then stood to its full height. Just then, he realized that the holodeck had not provided him with any tack, including reigns! He pondered his concern over the holodeck for a moment, then, with the same disregard he fell victim to time and again concerning the holodeck, he decided the problem was probably minor and that he would get it fixed after he rode for awhile. Curling his fingers into the horse's gray mane, he gently spurred the horse to a light trot.

---

Commander William T. Riker could not believe it. His friends, his supposed friends, were cleaning him out! He glared over his busted flush at Counselor Deanna Troi, who at the moment gleefully raked in her winnings. He mentally growled at her.

Quiet enveloped the darkened room. Five players sat intently around a green felt table, the single over head light casting shadows upon their faces. Riker examined each of his opponents with a critical eye. Lieutenant Worf, with his heavy Klingon brows, deep set eyes, and slouching back, grumbled in Troi's direction. He had very few chips in front of him; this was not one of those friends who had called every single one of Riker's bluffs on this luckless night. Next, he glowered at Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge. Geordi just sat there, leaning back a little. Then he turned and looked at Riker's diminishing pile of chips and his full lips twitched in a just controlled smirk. Geordi had a sizable amount of chips before him, many taken in conquest from Riker's pile. Riker threw mental curses at Geordi as he turned to glare at Lt. Commander Data. Data, in his ever-present green visor, carefully stacked his mountain of chips. The Android had called four of Riker's bluffs and adding insult to injury, had bluffed him twice. Data's golden eyes flicked up from his stacking only long enough to register Riker's unpleasant look. Riker huffed a bit, then turned his attention to Deanna Troi. He knew she was behind this amazing losing streak. His suspicions rose when he remembered that she, Geordi, and Data had all walked into his quarters at the same time, Troi leading. All of them wore decidedly mischievous looks, even the normally expressionless Data. Worf had growled when he saw them come in; apparently he smelled dishonorable intent. Riker couldn't blame him, especially after how the game progressed. Riker lobbed venomous thoughts at Troi, knowing she would sense them with her empathic ability. She glanced up with a fiendish smile, her huge black eyes aglow with mirth. She contentedly returned to counting her chips.

"Worf, do you smell a rat?" Riker asked, his distinctive voice full of significance. He looked pointedly at Troi.

Worf turned his gaze from Troi's chips to her face. "Yes," he rumbled. Geordi could barely control another grin. He then leaned over to make some idle conversation about a musical piece Data had been working on. Riker shot a quick glance at LaForge. Three rats.

Troi looked up, her voice full of mock innocence. "Why are you looking at me? It's not my fault you two aren't doing well."

Riker leaned sideways in his chair, looking steadily at her. "I think it is."

Troi glanced at Geordi and Data. They both glanced back; Geordi's grin widened, exposing teeth. Troi sighed dramatically. Then she revealed the conspiracy. "I decided that it was time we played no-holds-barred. You get to play with all your native abilities, so I thought that we should too." This confession elicited an amused gleam from Worf's eye; finally, Riker had been soundly beat in poker by opponents that could easily take on the best card sharks and reduce them to helpless tears. He wasn't quite amused enough for his lips to twitch, however. After all, Riker wasn't the only one who had lost chips to the conspirators.

Now it was obvious that Riker was being teased by the lovely Counselor, and probably by LaForge and Data too. After he realized this, he took the nettling with his characteristic humor. But he wasn't about to let them off easy!

Grinning, Geordi added, "Don't you remember I've got humans pegged? I can see when you're bluffing Commander!" The low light hit his sight-giving VISOR just so, giving the impression of a mischievous glint.

Riker glared at Deanna and Geordi for a moment. He hadn't thought that Geordi ignored what he saw to even out the odds. He turned to glare at Data, then grumped, "Well?"

Data gazed intently at Riker. He explained in his matter-of-fact tone, "If you are asking how I was able to see through your bluffs so easily, the answer is that I can see when you are bluffing by your tells', galvanic skin responses, and other tell-tales of your sympathetic nervous system. Also, I have a degree in probability mechanics, in case you had forgotten." He reshuffled the cards, then, in a blatant display of manual dexterity, cut the deck in one smooth motion and with one hand. "I also stacked the deck."

"You what?!" Riker exclaimed incredulously. He turned to gape at Troi. It amazed Riker that she could cajole Data into cheating, especially if it was all just to tease a certain First Officer. That explains why he has most of the chips, though...

Worf growled menacingly at Data. He disliked in the extreme having been cheated. Data had apparently anticipated Worf's reaction, as he silently slid over enough of his own chips to make up for all that Worf had lost, without further provocation. Worf grumbled, somewhat satisfied.

Riker saw the exchange, then he raised his eyebrows at Data. Data paused for a moment, cocked his head, then separated out enough chips to cover only what Riker had lost to him. He passed them to Riker. "Why, thank you," Riker said while graciously accepting the proffered chips. He turned to look pointedly at LaForge.

"Not a chance, buddy! I won these fair and square," Geordi exclaimed good naturedly, while putting his arms protectively around his chips.

Riker accepted that, even though technically Geordi probably won from Data's cheating. He moved to gaze at Troi. He knew she had cheated with her empathy; there would be no fair and square' excuses here. Troi sat up, squaring her shoulders. She then asked sweetly, "Have you learned your lesson, Will?"

"My lesson? Yeah, never play poker against a Betazoid with a mean streak! What do--" Riker was interrupted by a hail from Lieutenant DeSora. Riker shot one last look at Troi, then answered the hail, "Riker here, what is it?"

"Scanners have detected a ship at extreme sensor range. It seems to be shadowing us, sir. I tried to contact Captain Picard, but he didn't answer," DeSora explained.

"All right Lieutenant. Go to Yellow Alert. I'll be right up. Riker out." Riker wiped his beard, then he rose from his chair and turned his head to address the air, "Computer, locate Captain Picard"

The computer responded in its mild feminine voice, "Captain Picard is in Holodeck 3."

Riker nodded, then turned to those standing about him. "Worf, go find Captain Picard. The rest of you with me." The officers stood then filed out of Riker's quarters, abandoning the game, forgotten in the face of duty and possible danger.

---

The wind whipped by him as he clung to the gray mane of this magnificent steed. Picard had never ridden a horse more agile, more fearless. The horse took each step surely, as if it had days to ponder each movement, yet it moved faster than any other horse. Mearas, thought Picard reverently, in reference to the noble beasts that were no mere horses in Tolkien fiction. Picard reveled in the speed, the whistle in his ears, the sound of hoof beats. The Arabian deftly leapt a small bubbling creek, landing nimbly on the opposite bank. After a few more exhilarating moments of speed, Picard pulled lightly on the great horse's mane, instructing it to stop. Breathing hard, Picard wiped a small bead of sweat off his brow. It was just about time to turn back. The horse turned its head back, almost in a gesture of impatience. Picard could see that this horse loved the speed as much as he did. He smiled, then patted the horse's neck. "Just a minute, then we'll turn back."

The horse just looked at him. Mild, pondering.

Something about the horse's level gaze brought Picard's thoughts to sudden attention. He looked into the eyes of the horse and what he saw shocked him. The horse's dark eyes held an intelligence that should not have been there. These were the eyes of a being that let nothing slip its attention. This seriously concerned Picard. "Computer, end program," he snapped.

The horse blinked once, then turned to face forward. Obviously the computer had failed to input Picard's instruction. As the horse broke into a sudden gallop, Picard seized its mane. He barely managed to stay mounted as the horse accelerated to speeds well above those any horse, even Mearas, were capable of. "Computer! End Program!" The wind snatched the words from his mouth. The horse remained; the forest sped by in a blur.

A voice from seeming nowhere spoke, but Picard could not hear what it said, so fast moved the Arabian. Before he could react to the voice, the holodeck doors opened. The horse leapt over some form at the doorway, but it now moved so fast that Picard couldn't even see if the shape was one of his crewmembers. Picard had gone quite beyond concern; his stomach knotted in genuine alarm as he and the horse careered through the corridors of the Enterprise. Barely heard cries of alarm reached Picard's ears as the horse quickly dodged two shapes in the hallway. How had this happened?

---

"Sir! We've located Captain Picard! He's left the ship...on the horse. He's alive and the horse is a Terran Arabian, sir. I'm putting it on the viewscreen," DeSora informed Riker. After Worf's run in with the horse at the holodeck doorway, Riker knew trouble was brewing. His blue eyes narrowed at the Bridge viewscreen. Upon the face of the screen was one small, fast moving horse with one human mount. Riker glanced at Troi, who seemed lost in thought.

Riker slapped his communicator. "Transporter room! Lock onto Captain Picard and beam him back!" he barked into the air. Then he looked to the Counselor. "Do you sense something?" he asked gently.

Troi looked over to him, her face reflecting her concentration. "The captain is concerned, and not a little frightened, but there is something else. Something...familiar. Perhaps more than one something. I can't quite place it," she answered in her lilting voice.

Riker turned to consider the viewscreen. A moment passed. Two.

Then, "Sorry sir, we can't get him. There's something blocking the transporter."

"Damn!" Riker brought his fist down hard on the arm of the captain's chair. He glared at the viewscreen. The horse moved at incredible speeds toward an unknown destination, with Picard on for the ride. "Send a shuttle out!"

"Sir, I do not believe sending a shuttle will accomplish anything," Data stated, turning to look at Commander Riker.

Riker shot a frustrated look at no one in particular. Data was right; who ever could make a horse run through walls could easily elude a shuttle. "Do you have any other suggestions?" he asked Data.

Data thought for a brief moment, then stated, "No, sir, I do not." Just then, Worf entered from the turbolift, a deep scowl creasing his face. DeSora moved to Science II when Worf returned to Tactical.

"Commander," Worf's deep voice called out, "the ship that has been shadowing us has moved to intercept Captain Picard. It appears to be approximately three times the size of the Enterprise"

That was one big ship. "On screen," Riker ordered.

A jet black raven-shaped ship sped towards the moving horse. The ravenship's wings gracefully beat, though no air existed to support its flight. Riker sat up a little straighter in his chair. He looked at Troi again, then turned to face Worf. "Life signs?"

Worf worked his controls, then stated, "None."

Riker looked at the screen again. He put a hand to his beard in frustration. Things were going from bad to worse, and there didn't seem to be any thing he could do about it.

---

The wind stopped. Sound ceased. And the stars shone under the blurred legs of the horse. Picard gasped, then looked back over his shoulder. The Enterprise-D lay behind him, shrinking as the horse sped forward. What he saw might have scared him, but it didn't. Instead it angered him. Picard spun forward. Q! Picard mentally roared. It had to be! Who else would kidnap me on a horse!

Before him, suspended in space, lay a shape much like a crow or raven. Its wings moved as though it were flying in normal air. Picard supposed it to be the size of a Terran raven, but as it grew, he realized it outsized the Enterprise by quite a good bit. He knew it could not be an actual raven, so he thought it must be a ship made to appear as one. Or one of Q's tricks...

---

Riker leapt out of his seat. "What the hell...! Where did he go?" he exclaimed.

"The ship has intercepted the captain. It is turning away," Worf informed.

Riker paced, then stood facing the viewscreen behind Ensign McKnight. "Heading?"

McKnight pecked at her console, then stated incredulously, "It's heading directly towards the Keleia Sigma system! It's on our course exactly! It's moving at warp 9.7"

Riker's eyes narrowed questioningly. Damned peculiar. "Go to warp 9.75 and pursue." He could not have the Enterprise go any faster without putting them all at risk.

---

Suddenly the stars blinked out. The horse slowed down, then stopped. He could hear his and the horse's breathing, but nothing else. Where ever he was, it was pitch black. He looked down at his hands and the mane. He could see them, despite the lack of light source. His knuckles were white, and he realized his hands were slick with sweat. He loosened his cramped fingers from the mane. The horse lowered itself, enough so Picard's feet touched the black ground. He tentatively dismounted, realizing his legs hurt more than his fingers. He stood there for a moment, surveying the nothingness that surrounded him.

As Picard rounded on the horse, he prepared to yell at it, sure that it was Q in disguise. But when he saw the horse, his voice caught. The horse was no longer the speckled gray of an Arabian; its pale hair now glittered in the sourceless light, its mane and tail a deep brown, and its eyes an unnatural and suspiciously familiar yellow. The horse moved its head slightly, in a manner that would have screamed Data even if its coloring had not. Then it disappeared without warning, leaving Captain Jean-Luc Picard alone to ponder this strange turn of events.

* * *

"Come here pretty! You can't run forever!"

Tasha Yar ran headlong through what used to be the business district of Turkangorod. It was dark and raining; Tasha hoped against hope she wouldn't slip on the slick mud. If she did...she didn't want to think about what would happen if she did. She looked back for an instant at her pursuers. There were five of those zhivotnoi behind her, and they were gaining. As she turned to look forward again, something shadowy stood directly in her path. She cried out as she slipped in her attempt to go around it. She desperately tried to get up, but she only managed to get to her knees when the leader (if he could even be called a leader) of the rape gang tackled her. But before he even had the chance to gloat, he found himself roughly grabbed by his throat and lifted several inches off the ground.

The others stopped in surprise; most of them slipped the same way Tasha had. Tasha looked up at the leader who hung kicking in the air, held by a shadow. He sputtered, turning red, then blue. The shadow-shape tossed him to the side after he stopped struggling, unconscious. Apparently the shadow Tasha had nearly run into had hands with which to strangle. The other gang members could not decide what to do with themselves, while Tasha began sneaking over to a small cubbyhole beneath one of the old restaurants. The three that had slipped managed to stand up, then all four stood there, looking blankly at each other, then to Tasha, then their leader, then the shadow-shape. They all appeared phenomenally unintelligent, standing there, trying to think of what to do.

When the youngest of them, perhaps he was thirteen, took a step toward the shadowy figure, it spoke. "If you touch her, I will kill you. If you touch me, I will kill you." The shadow's speech was in as perfect a version of Russian as the gang members could understand, and its voice was more bird-like than human.

Tasha stopped behind some fallen brick, and turned to look at the shadowy thing and at the gang whose leader was now coming around. The thirteen-year-old stopped, and watched as the leader got up, rubbing his bruised throat. He was not a small man, and not a young one either. He might have been in his late thirties. His face was wrinkled, and he wore such a look of rage it scared the others and it scared Tasha as well. The leader did not seem to phase the shadow at all, however. It just repeated its warning to the older man.

The older man fumed, wanting badly to hurt someone and furious that someone had dared stop him. As he stared at the shadow, it resolved into the dark shape of a human man whom light was loath to touch. His form was so dark that no feature could be made out, except that he wore loose clothing. The furious man suddenly charged the dark silhouette. The dark man stood there, motionless until the instant the leader touched him. With one swift motion, the dark man stepped aside and struck the other's spine, which shattered with a thick crack. The leader of the rape gang died before he hit the sodden ground.

The four younger men stood horrified at how quickly their leader had been dispatched. They turned and ran when the dark man looked over at them with invisible eyes. He made a sound like a soft pop, which seemed to fell the running Turkanans. They all rubbed their ears while the dark man stalked over to them. Tasha didn't wait to find out what the black man did next; she took this opportunity to run to her own dugout hole-in-the-ground that she called home.

Her dugout was a few hundred meters away under the foundations of another old restaurant, and when she got there, her cat Spot greeted her by rubbing against her muddy legs. She reached down to pet the orange striped cat, looking back the way she came. She then stooped and climbed down into the small dugout and grumbled at the wet floor. Her "home" was essentially a small cave. It had a small entrance, just large enough for her to crawl in without effort. The ground from the entrance to the larger cave gently sloped down, with no standing room. The larger cave, which was now about an inch deep in rainwater, was just large enough for her to lie down comfortably. She could keep some few possessions in her dugout, but she couldn't really stand in it. There were a few niches to hide in, and the ceiling was the cement and old pipes of the decrepit restaurant above her. From all locations in her dugout she could keep an eye on the entrance.

She searched her cave for her knife, which she had foolishly forgotten to bring when she went out to find food earlier. She cursed silently when she discovered it missing. She then carefully searched her other possessions to see if anything had been stolen. Nothing but her knife was missing. She began searching frantically for her only real weapon when Spot hissed at the entrance of her dugout. She started, then fearfully crawled to one of the few defensive niches she had carved out. She moved with absolute silence; she had learned the necessity of silence one unfortunate night when a rape gang caught her when she had not been quiet enough. She had hidden in one or another of her niches on a number of occasions when someone entered her dugout, and the intruders had never found her. She fervently wished she had her knife.

Tasha saw the silhouette of a person's feet at her entrance, then saw a dark hand reach down and pick up her cat. Spot meowed in surprise, then to Tasha's surprise her cat purred. Turkanan cats never did that! They were the most fanatically loyal animals on the entire planet; they always protected their masters tooth and claw and they never let anyone else even come near them. The person at the entrance murmured to her cat for a moment, then bent down to peer inside the cave. Tasha could just see Spot curled up in the stranger's arms, in total bliss as the person scratched under her chin. She could not make out any of the stranger's features; it was too dark to see much of anything except a faint backlighting from a dim street lamp. Who ever it was, it didn't appear to be the dark man; she could see some light on the stranger's clothes and hair, while no light had touched the other person.

The stranger looked at Tasha for a while, seeing even in the dim light that she was dirty, unkempt, and perhaps twelve years old. He sighed softly. Then he said in a voice identical to the dark man's trilling, "You have a beautiful cat." Tasha heard sniffing, then the dark stranger said, "I think she is going to be a he soon. Her, or rather his, fur will be long and brown, so do not be alarmed when he comes home and you do not recognize him." With that, the now not-so-dark man (his voice gave away his identity) set the cat down and then set himself down next to Tasha's entrance.

The rain pittered for a while. The dark man sat and Tasha hid in her niche, frightened. Spot curled up in another niche and went to sleep. It was painfully obvious that Spot had no qualms about the strange man sitting outside. Tasha had trouble maintaining her alert; she was exhausted and upset from the day's events. After an hour, the man still hadn't left, so Tasha carefully moved out of the cramped niche. She wearily crawled over to her entrance, figuring that if the man had any intentions toward her or her few possessions he would have acted on them already instead of sitting in the rain for so long. She stopped about a foot inside the entrance, so that if she figured wrong, the man would have trouble reaching her. Tasha looked at the shape of the enigmatic man at her entrance for a minute, then said in her stilted Russian, "Who are you?"

The stranger turned to look at Tasha, gazing at her with still invisible eyes. "That is a difficult question; I think any answer would be useless to you," he stated in his bird-like voice. He then asked, "What is your name? And your cat's?"

Tasha paused for a moment, then said, "I'm Tasha, that's Spot." Then she added by way of explanation, "She has a spot on her stomach."

"Tasha and Spot. I have something to give you, if you want it."

Immediately Tasha's defenses went up, sure that he meant nothing innocent by that statement. When he moved to retrieve something from a pocket, she quickly and silently backed into her niche. He stopped moving, apparently reacting to her distress. Tasha stopped short, more alarmed than before. How could he know how she had reacted? She knew it was too dark to see inside and that she had made no noise in her movements. Spot woke up at her master's distress and quickly poked her head outside to survey the situation. Tasha stared at the strange man, not even daring to breathe. Spot went back to her niche and slept after seeing nothing more alarming than the dark man outside.

He paused for a moment, then he said softly, "I know you do not trust me. I understand that, but someday you will. I will not move even a finger into your home. I will stay here tonight, and I promise you that as long as I stay with you, you will be safe. I will only stay here tonight, though. I will keep this promise forever, Tasha."

That surprised Tasha; no one had ever said anything quite like that to her before. It sounded nice, but people had made her promises before, and they never kept them. She didn't think this man to be any different, even if he was unusual. She then pondered her cat's reaction to the man for a moment, knowing that Spot had never let her down before. She decided to let her guard down just a touch and warily moved up a little closer to the entrance to her dugout. With a defensive edge to her voice, she asked, "What's your name? What did you want to give me?"

The dark man looked away for a moment, thinking. Then he said, "You may call me Daniel. It is not my real name, but it will do. What I wished to give you is a small dagger. I thought you could use it."

A dagger! She certainly could use one, considering she lost her old knife. But she still didn't trust the strange man. She asked suspiciously, "How do I know you won't stab me with it?"

"I will set it right here, then I will get up and stand twenty meters away until I see you take it. Then I will return when you are back to your current location. When you take the dagger, be careful that you do not touch the blade. It is exceedingly sharp," he replied. He then set a small, glistening object just outside her entrance, walked twenty meters away, and waited. Tasha looked to see if the street lamp would illuminate this Daniel's features, but as soon as he got far enough into the light where she might have seen him, he somehow covered himself in a black shadow.

Tasha cautiously crawled to the entrance, and sitting half in, half out of her dugout, picked up the dagger. She turned the dagger in her hand, examining it. The hilt and sheath were cylindrical and of the same crystal substance. The sheath met flush with the hilt, giving the sheathed dagger the appearance of a small, faceted diamond baton. The ebony blade of the dagger, which was just an inch and a half long, was visible as though it was caught and imbedded in the crystal. Tasha removed the sheath and moved to run her thumb along the blade, ignoring Daniel's warning. But just before she touched it, she found an ice-cold hand clamped about hers, preventing her from touching the blade. She cried out in shock at Daniel's unexpected speed and near painful cold of his hand. She stabbed his hand, intending to hurt rather than injure. The dagger impaled him so easily and quickly that Tasha nearly cut herself. She heard a sharp intake of breath as Daniel loosened his grip on her hand. Strange, viscous blood dripped from his wound as he drew out the dagger with his other hand. Tasha wondered at the strange Daniel as he held out the dagger, offering it to her again. She took the blade and retreated back into her cave.

Tasha stared at Daniel, who had sat down at her entrance again. A thousand questions came to mind. She picked one, demanding, "Why'd you grab my hand?"

"I warned you not to touch the blade. You might have split your thumb in two if you had touched it," Daniel replied, his trilling voice trembling slightly in pain. He held his injured hand, blood seeping profusely between his fingers and spilling out on the ground. He made no move to wrap it in anything.

Tasha understood Daniel's warning now; she had never used a blade that cut so effortlessly. Now she wondered why he didn't wrap his hand. She saw the faint light reflected in the steadily growing puddle of blood below Daniel's hand. As she looked at the blood, she found that she didn't want the strange man hurt. The thought surprised her, the feeling scared her; she had rarely cared even that much about anyone ever. She hardly cared that little about her sister Ishara, especially after she joined the Coalition and coldly took all Tasha's food and clothing with her. She had seemingly lost her capacity to care a long time ago, but then no one had shown any compassion for her for much longer. After a moment, she shook off the introspection somewhat and crawled back into her cave to retrieve a piece of cloth. She ripped off a strip part way, then decided to test the dagger on the cloth. The cloth seemed to separate of its own accord rather than the dagger cutting it apart when she drew the tip of the knife across it. Still wondering at the sharpness of the black knife and the unfamiliar sensation of actually giving a damn, she moved back to the entrance, this time sitting down just inside. She paused a moment, then said quietly, "I'll wrap your hand if you want."

Daniel held his hand out to Tasha. It began to glow slightly, enough so Tasha could see what she was doing but little more. She would ask him about his ability to control light later, when she got a chance. She took his hand, startled again at how incredibly cold it was. She quickly wiped off the blood with the larger cloth, then let his hand go for a few moments when the cold became unbearable. She set the large cloth down and rubbed her hand on her leg to warm it up, then took Daniel's hand again. She wrapped his icy hand tightly with the strip of cloth and tied it. Just as she finished wrapping Daniel's hand, she yawned. She had forgotten how tired she was.

Daniel looked at Tasha and said, "Thank you." He paused a moment, then said, "Tasha, you should sleep. Sleep well; you will not be harmed tonight." With that he turned to watch the street.

Tasha turned to crawl into the larger cave where she slept. She paused, then said, "Thank you for helping me, though I don't know why you would." She then went to lie down and sleep, not noticing in her tiredness that the ground was dry and warm.

Daniel replied, "You are welcome," then, in a soft voice, "and you will one day know why I have helped you today."

Tasha didn't react to the puzzling statement; she was nearly asleep when she heard it. The last thing she heard before she slept was one word. The voice seemed different and the same as Daniel's simultaneously. There were bird-like sounds in it and a musical humming; a soft, melodic, human voice said "Tehnehnehsehlehk."

When Tasha awoke the next morning, she crawled up to her entrance and looked out. The rain had stopped and Daniel was gone. The ground was still quite muddy, and in the mud Tasha saw several sets of footprints going to and fro before her entrance, along with dropped knives and gouges where people had fallen or been thrown. Apparently, several people had come to her dugout last night and gotten into quite a fight. She wondered what had happened as she carefully collected the few knives. Daniel might have fought them off and she hoped he hadn't been hurt, but she figured she would never know what had happened. All she could be sure of was that Daniel kept his promise; she hadn't been hurt that night. As she returned to her dugout, Tasha picked up the ripped cloth with which she wiped Daniel's hand. Tasha wished she had gotten the chance to ask him what he was, how he could keep the light from touching him. The cloth bore neither mark nor answer; the rain had washed away all of Daniel's blood.

Later, Tasha forgot Daniel, as memories tend to fade over the years. All that remained for many years of Daniel was a fleeting impression, a wisp of ether, and a minor mystery to ponder behind the curtain of forgetfulness.


End Section 1