Chapter X

USS Enterprise, Joral System

"At last, my love has come along..."

The man holds the woman closely as they move in time through the room. Candles, being lit in their dozens, gift a soft light on what was happening. Hand in hand, and body on body, the couple pull back from one another, the dance becoming but a sideshow to what they feel for each other.

"Is everything all right?" The woman cocks her head to the side.

The man smiles, "Everything – everything is perfect, absolutely perfect."

They move closer together, the woman resting her fair face on the man's shoulder, listening to the music that is growing stronger and more powerful around them. They pass by the remnants of a half-eaten dinner, neither of them hungry tonight, neither of them wanting to spend more than only a few minutes out of the arms of another. The woman frowns to herself, wondering what is happening. A wonderful man – the most wonderful man – is in her arms, dancing with her, which doesn't make any sense.

Doubt fills her mind as she thinks on this harder and harder. Why her? What makes her special amongst the trillions and trillions of beings in this universe. What about her makes her even close to worthy of this – this god. His hand moves on her lower back, tracing patterns on the skin, making her suddenly feel uncomfortable, unworthy, uncertain. her heart beats faster and faster as fear, true fear, grips her in the vitals. She is about to pull away until he does first. She knows what's coming, and is dreading it.

He smiles at her, and the cloud of fear that had formed about her burned away.

"Jean-Luc? I'm-I'm really happy. I just wanted you to know that." She smiles again, and rests her head against his shoulder and neck, kissing him softly, and her hand is moving slowly down his back, tracing out intricate sketches there.

"Beverly? You took the words right out of my mouth."

The music stops, but neither of them give up their hold on one another, and their eyes are closed to the world.

USS Titan, Sol System

"Well, I don't care, tell space dock that we're leaving within twenty-four hours, regardless of whether the booms have been retracted. Advise them that the Titan's impulse engines are more than powerful enough to break out of here."

Jonas smiled at his Captain. "Yes, sir!"

Riker sat back, surveying the bridge. Outside the viewscreen, he could see the spacedock's worker bees buzzing about the ship, making late hour repairs before being the Titan was sent off into one of the furthest reaches of the Federation. Beside the Titan, he could see the Dauntless and the Defiant undergoing similar final checks and repairs. Holding their station a few hundred kilometers to port, the Damocles and Odysseus waited for the larger ships to become ready to fly with them. Will smiled at the image of horses chomping at the bit, eager for the fight that would be ahead. Reports were troubling from that sector of space. Reports that made it all the more urgent that Riker get his squadron to meet up with the 132nd, and Picard.

The M'loi had committed a larger portion of their ships to that area than was strategically warranted from Starfleet's point of view. The Utari Sector was not an important part of space, and the Joral system was an unimportant star system in that unimportant Sector. Starfleet Intelligence hadn't been able to make heads nor tails of the whole situation, so the Fleet hadn't sent more ships into the area, thinking it was a ruse. Will wasn't sure either way, but he did know that his mentor was in trouble, and that was enough for him.

"Riker to Troi. Deanna? Lunch?"

"Sure, Will. I'll meet you in the lounge in half an hour?"

"Sure thing. See you then."

"Trevor? I'll be in my ready room."

"Aye, sir."

Something just doesn't add up – why would this many ships be deployed to this sector? Nothing is there of any import – gas nebulae and deserted planets, what could be so-

Then it hit him. It wasn't the sector, it wasn't even what was in the sector, it was who was in the sector.

"Riker to the bridge. Advise spacedock that we will be leaving within twelve hours."

"Aye, sir"

"Riker to La Forge. Geordi, we're leaving within twelve hours. Is that gonna be enough time?"

"Yeah, it should be, Will. What's the rush?"

"I'll tell you at dinner tonight. 2100?"

"Sounds good. See you then."

"Riker to Worf. We'll be leaving within twelve hours. Will the Defiant be all squared away?"

"Yes, Captain. We shall be ready to leave when you are."

"Good to hear. Dinner tonight here on the Titan. 2100 all right with you?"

"Yes, sir. I will be there."

"Riker to Tannar. So you know, we'll be moving up our schedule and leaving within twelve hours. Damocles up to it?"

"Yes, sir. We are ready to depart with the Titan at any time."

"Good to hear. There will be a briefing dinner here on the Titan at 2100."

"Very good, sir."

"Riker to Grande. Christine, we're leaving within twelve hours. Ready to head out?"

"You know it, sir. Ready and willing to show them what we can do."

"Great! Listen, there'll be a dinner here on the Titan tonight so we all know what's going down. 2100. Good for you?"

"Aye, sir. Dress casually?"

"Whatever is comfortable. Nothing too sexy, I don't want Deanna to get grumpy." He could hear the smile in her response.

"Haha, right. Noted, sir."

Breathing our slowly, he shook his head at the process of inviting some guests for dinner. Damn comm system. Why can't I just send text to everyone at once?

It would be more than two months before they reached the system in which Admiral Picard was stationed. Will hoped against hope that it would be enough time.

USS Enterprise, Joral System

"Captain Data, what is the status of the search?"

"We have not yet found traces of the Revenant, Admiral. They seem to have gone missing during a routine scan of the fourth planet in this system. It is Class L, but Starfleet has never scouted it as to whether it holds any advanced lifeforms due to the location of the planet within the nebula."

"Speculation on the cause of the disappearance?"

"Without sufficient data regarding the event, I cannot offer an explanation for the disappearance, sir."

Picard nodded, thankful for the steadiness of his android friend. It was likely not the M'loi, as in-depth scans of the outer edges of the system over the past several days revealed that there was little quantum bending in the area, normally a sure sign of the M'loi's warp engines at work. The Revenant was an Akira-class ship – powerful weapons and shields mounted on powerful engines. Whatever took her down would be a dangerous hazard to scout out with any ship in the fleet – Enterprise included. However, Picard could not give up the search, and if any ship had a chance of making it through the nebula undamaged, it would be the mighty Sovereign-class.

"All right, Mr. Data. The Revenant has been gone for three days. We'll take the Enterprise in and search for some more clues as to our mystery. We'll leave in four hours. Please ask Mr. Barclay to meet me in my office."

"Aye, sir."

Picard walked the short distance from the science station on the bridge to the Observation Lounge that now doubled as the Admiral's Office on the ship. Two women looked up and smiled at his approach, each rising from their seats and walking towards him, each with a PADD in their hands, and each with a need for his approval on some policy or other.

"Sir, these are the orders that you asked me to prepare for the other ships in case of your incapacity. I have included, even though it is redundant with established Starfleet protocols for such an event, that Captain Data will be in charge of the fleet until your recovery. I deemed it prudent to do so since he is...not...quite...?"

"Alive?" Picard smiled and supplied the word that the young Lieutenant was dancing around.

"Uh, yes, sir. I thought it best to put it in your standing orders – to remind some of the fact."

"Wise. And you, Bellia?"

"I've got the new format of condolence letters that you asked me to write up. I think they are what you were looking for, but I'd like your approval before putting them on file as such."

Picard took the PADD from her hand and, giving it a once over, passed it back to Bellia Korax. She had done a marvellous job of conveying a sense of grief at the loss of a crew member. It was a beautiful passage, but Picard knew that it was an empty gesture on his part. Signing a name to the end of a letter telling someone their loved one was never going to come back home seemed like a empty, vacuous gesture for what would be one of the most traumatic experiences of anyone's life. He remembered taking Jack's body home to Beverly all those decades ago, and the reaction on her face as he told her that her beloved would never again walk through her door


He tried to imagine himself getting one of those pre-written messages, signed by some pompous old fool with far too much power and far too little sense.

Mr. Picard,

I regret to inform you that BEVERLY CRUSHER has died in the line of duty. She died as she lived, dutiful and honourably. The entire Federation mourns with you for her. She was a true...

Tearing himself out of that thought, he hated himself more keenly and more passionately than he had ever hated anything. It was because of men and women like him that millions had lost a family member or friend during the conflicts of the last decade. It was the fat cats in their big chairs who sent good, innocent men and women to their deaths.

God, what the hell am I doing? I should be disgusted with myself.

The two lieutenants looked at each other with some concern, until Rachel reached out any touched his hand, then concern turned to horror.

USS Dauntless, Sol System

"Mr. Michaels, I'll be leaving the bridge this evening to go to the Titan. Make sure we're ready to go by the time I leave. Captain Riker made it clear that we would be leaving soon."

"Aye, sir. And sir? Can you tell us where we're going?"

"I hope to get that information tonight. I'll be in my ready room."

Geordi La Forge made his way across the tight bridge of the Intrepid-class to the spacious captain's ready room. Sitting down behind the desk, he mused on how his life had gone. He knew from the reports that Picard had gone into 'hiding' in some far away sector of space. Geordi wondered if Jean-Luc Picard had ever truly tried to hide from anything in his life. Reading the battle reports from the Dominion War, he knew that his old Captain favoured the hit-and-run tactics that had seen Enterprise through some of the heaviest fighting during that conflict with one of the lowest casualty counts of any of the allied ships.

And now, that same man needed some help. Nothing wrong with that. But it still felt odd for Geordi – going to the rescue, of sorts, of a man Geordi had always looked up to. It felt like the first time he had ever beaten his father at chess – there was no loss of respect for the man, but a coming of age of sorts for Geordi. I am now a Captain.

Hunching over a computer terminal, he began work on testing a warp field theory that had come to him during his morning shower. By the time he was ready to go, his theory had collapsed – but he had thought of a half dozen ways to fix the problem.

They can promote me, but that just means they have an engineer in the Captain's chair.

Geordi smiled.

"So, that's the long and short of it. I think that the M'loi are in the sector for the Cap- Admiral Picard. We're nine weeks away at warp 8, but long range sensors indicate the M'loi haven't moved a substantial number of ships to the area. They probably figure they've got Enterprise trapped, and with the step up on attacks all along the frontier, they probably don't think anyone is coming in to save him."

"Will, why Picard?" Geordi asked the question he had been wondering about all through the briefing, and now dinner. The engineer liked these sorts of briefings – he always got hungry when he was mulling over new information, a likely cause of the few extra pounds he had put on in the last year. Got to do something about that.

"I'm not entirely sure, but it is the only logical explanation for why they are so interested in that sector – otherwise, it's pretty barren. I know Starfleet Command had been thinking of abandoning it before Picard got there, but now that he's stuck – we're getting him out."

Tannar spoke up. "Sir, there is a possibility that this is a trap set to lure ships into the area for just such a rescue."

Riker nodded, the Vulcan, as he was beginning to suspect, was a master of saying what people were thinking. "I had the same thoughts, but the mission is still a go. Picard is a valuable resource to the Federation, and Jeraal has given me the green light to go for it."

Tannar seemed satisfied by this, and sat back.

"It's just us, Captain?" Worf rumbled from his seat.

"Yep – just us."