Star Trek: The Next Generation

The Final Reckoning Trilogy

Book Three – Focal Point

("Thou art notified that thy kind hath ventured too far…")

Q's first words to Jean-Luc Picard, 2363

Captain's Log: Supplemental – Upon departing from the Briar Patch, the Enterprise has been assigned to the Cardassian border in the wake of the successful invasion of Cardassia. The Jem'Hadar have been routed, and the long war is finally over.

Chapter I

Kiros was a small M-class planet orbiting a small unexceptional star on the Romulan side of the Neutral Zone. Inhabited by a population of humanoid beings, similar in genetic stock to humanity, it was unexceptional, dull almost.

Except when close to, mused Subcommander Serisa, as she stared from the small porthole that was currently facing towards the sunrise portion of Kiros. Golden light flickered along the horizon of the planet, signalling imminent dawn, and from her privileged vantage point, Serisa could see the sunlight racing across the ocean towards the darkened main continent. It was like watching fire creep across a burning page, she thought quietly, marvelling in such a simple yet beautiful event.

The Romulan science ship Talkaris was assigned to an eight month period of observation of the planet Kiros. It was expected that the planet would begin its first space flight experiments very soon, and the Romulan science council was anxious to observe first-hand the results of those experiments. Serisa, an anthropologist, had volunteered for the command of the assignment, and it was at times like this that she felt she had received her reward.

She glanced across at her close friend, Mallara, a geologist, who was currently glowering at a read-out on her screen. 'Problem?'

Mallara shook her head, not looking at her friend. 'Just annoyed at not being able to get down there and look at these results first-hand.'

Serisa nodded understandingly, turning her eyes to the screen itself. It was displaying a scan of a large desert on the second continent. 'What's so interesting?'

'There's a huge deposit of metal buried beneath the sand in the centre of this desert. It's a material I've never seen before, and I'm willing to bet that it's unique. Look at these readings.'

'I'm not a geologist,' Serisa reminded her, but she stepped across the small bridge and leaned over Mallara's shoulder, looking intently at what was displayed.

A huge desert area covered the second continent, one that extended from coast to coast and made the area uninhabited. But deeper scans that were made nearly four hours ago had showed up a huge black mass buried beneath the sand. Serisa stared at it for a long moment, occasionally flicking her gaze to the read-outs, her earlier flippancy replaced by genuine scientific interest. 'Do we know how big this thing is?'

Mallara shook her head, annoyed. 'The scans weren't aimed specifically at the object in question, so I only managed to get a partial picture of it, and that only when I went looking.'

Serisa nodded to herself, and glanced at the ship's position. 'We'll be going over the site again in two hours,' she said. 'We can devote scanner time to it if you like.'

Mallara looked away from the screen for the first time and smiled at her friend. 'Thank you.'

Far below the cloaked Talkaris, directly over the point of interest, two Kirosians, both geologists, stood on the burning desert sands and dug laboriously.

Kirosian technology was far below that of the advanced spacefaring civilisation that quietly observed them, but they used what was their most advanced technology to sift away the material of their planet to reveal the hidden secrets within.

A small probe sank slowly into the sand, disappearing from sight, and Beral Dalnar, the older of the two, wiped his faintly ridged brow with his hand and directed a solemn glance at his brother, Elgrad Dalnar. 'Probe set.'

Elgrad nodded and activated a small unit attached to the winch unit attached to the probe. 'It's burrowing down at full speed. No obstructions reported.' He smiled at his brother. 'Good job as well.'

Beral forced back a smile in return. They had spent a frustrating day repairing the sensitive probe after it had been damaged somehow during the long flight from their camp thirty miles away. Only now, with the sun about to set in a couple of hours, did they finally manage to conduct their first experiments.

Elgrad stared at the horizon, working out in his mind the time they had left before the sun dipped below the curve of Kiros. 'I think we'll only have time for once, Beral,' he said quietly. 'Unless you want me to fly in the dark.'

'We should have fitted the helicopter with lights,' remarked Beral.

'We can get the technicians back at base to do it for us,' replied his brother.

At that moment, any further conversation was stopped by a series of loud bleeps from the winch unit. Frowning, Elgrad checked the readings. Beral saw his brother's face suddenly go slack with shock. 'Beral!'

His brother moved to his side, and read the results being displayed on the screen. The probe only sent back numbers, but that information told him that they had found something totally unexpected below the sand. 'What is it?'

'The probe seems to have collided with a huge, solid mass of metal below the surface,' said Elgrad, struggling to recover his scientific detachment. 'It's buried about thirty metres down.'

'Any idea of what the metal is?'

'The probe doesn't seem to be able to identify it,' replied Elgrad.

'Take a sample and withdraw the probe. We'll take it to base camp and come back in the morning,' decided Beral immediately. He smiled excitedly at his brother. 'This was worth waiting all day for, wasn't it?'

Elgrad laughed and nodded. He turned his attention to the probe again as the winch hummed and began to pull the probe and its sample to the surface.

'Coming into scanner range,' reported the pilot, a young man by the name of Jolmar.

'Activating scanners,' acknowledged Serisa. She glanced at Mallara. 'It's all yours.'

'Thank you,' replied her friend. 'Beginning sensor sweep.'

The probing beams swept down through the atmosphere, undetectable, past the two Kirosians, and into the sands of the desert. Almost immediately, they made contact with the mass, and began mapping its structure.

Mallara waited impatiently for the first results to come in, and as they did so, she jumped on them and began analysing them. After a moment, she faced Serisa. 'Our initial scans confirm that the metal is an unknown alloy.'

'Carry on,' said Serisa unnecessarily, as Mallara had already turned back to the screens.

The next couple of minutes were spent in silent contemplation of the stars, as Serisa waited patiently for the scans to be completed. Eventually, Mallara turned to face her friend, her face worried. 'Serisa, this isn't right.'

Serisa frowned. 'How do you mean?'

Mallara glanced at Jolmar, and lowered her voice slightly. 'If I didn't know better, I'd swear that thing down there was artificial.'

Serisa scowled at Mallara, annoyed by the cloak and dagger acting. 'Come out with it, Mallara,' she said, her voice irritated.

Mallara pointed at the screen. 'What we are looking at,' she said, her voice not increasing in volume, 'is a perfect circle of metal, approximately fifteen miles in diameter. Surface mapping indicates that it is carved with decorations and symbols that make no sense to the scanners, but the computer agrees that the symbols all lead, in a spiral, to a central point.'

Serisa felt, for some unknown reason, a chill run down her spine. She dismissed the thought to the back of her mind, and said, 'Any indications as to its purpose or even the reason it was buried?'

Mallara shook her head. 'I want to continue making scans, and I want all scanners running a full probe of its structure.'

Serisa nodded. 'You've got them.' As Mallara turned to her console, Serisa activated the intercom. 'This is Subcommander Serisa. All scanners are now linked to the bridge consoles, scanning the planet's surface. I apologise for the disruption to your experiments, but we believe that we have made a major discovery on Kiros. We will keep you informed. Serisa out.'

Scanner beams are undetectable, unless your technology is equipped to do such a thing. Scanner beams probing the object below the sands of Kiros had been noted and analysed long before, and the observers were being observed in return.

A decision was taken. It was time to end that observation.

Beral put the last piece of equipment gently into the helicopter, and jumped into the cockpit beside his brother, who had already warmed up the motors of the craft. He glanced at Beral. 'Ready to go?'

Beral nodded, but his ears picked up something. 'Did you hear that?'

Elgrad listened, and nodded. 'Like a low rumbling noise?'

At Beral's nod, Elgrad shrugged. 'Thunder,' he said dismissively.

Beral pointed mutely at the clear blue sky, and Elgrad was forced to concede the point. As they silently listened for a moment, the rumbling seemed to get louder. Elgrad said, slowly, 'It's getting louder, but not closer. I think it might be coming from around here –'

As he said that, Beral turned his gaze downward, at the sand that was now vibrating gently. As the rumbling slowly increased from a growl to a quiet roar, Beral seemed to see the sand become more and more agitated. 'Take us up,' he said quietly.

Elgrad had already come to the same conclusion, and he fired up the engine, and lifted the craft from the ground.

'Hell,' whispered Mallara. Serisa heard her, and stepped over.

'What's the problem?'

'I'm reading a power build-up from the object,' said Mallara, her voice hushed. 'I don't know what to make of it.'

Serisa's nerves tightened, but she refused to panic. She turned to Jolmar. 'Get Vrellis up here now,' she said.

Jolmar nodded, and put the call through. A few moments later, Vrellis, a physicist, came through the door, his normally lofty countenance replaced by one of concern. 'You called me?'

Serisa nodded, and motioned for him to take Mallara's place. As he did so, she said, 'We've been reading an enormous power surge from Kiros' surface.'

Vrellis took one look at the figures, and his eyes widened in horror. 'I've never seen a power surge this big in my life.'

Serisa frowned. 'It couldn't be produced by the Kirosians?'

'No chance,' said Vrellis. 'Even we don't have the capability to do something like this.' He looked at Mallara. 'What's been going on up here?'

Beral and Elgrad were now very worried. Far below the hovering helicopter, the sand was moving visibly, shaking from side to side as if placed in a sieve. All of a sudden, an enormous crack of power rang through the air, and a series of gigantic fissures appeared in the desert sands.

Vast tracts of sand ran into the fissures, but that was not what transfixed Beral's and Elgrad's attentions. For from the sand, six immense black pylons of metal lifted up, unfolding themselves slowly, with an undefinable air of menace.

It was obvious that the pylons had lain flat over a central point, and were like a giant door, opening and shutting under command. Each pylon was a hundred metres in length, narrowing from the bottom up to a blunt top that towered past the tiny helicopter, which now hovered over this central point.

Suddenly, the pylons stopped, all perfectly vertical, pointing like a giant hand to the sky. Inside that hand, a vast bowl-like depression filled with sand had formed, nearly a full mile in diameter.

Beral and Elgrad were too stunned by what they saw below them to do anything except watch in terror.

In the centre of the bowl, a small object forced its way up through the sand. Compared to the rest of the mass, it was tiny, but it was a globe of black metal, which shimmered with suppressed power.

A field of green energy radiated suddenly from the globe, vaporising the sand around it. Within seconds, the sand had vanished, allowing Beral, Elgrad and the watchers on the Talkaris to see a vast field of light green energy, the same colour as that from the globe, pouring towards the centre of that point.

A moment later, a beam of that energy was focussed by the globe, and shot into the air, past the startled Kirosians, who were buffeted as if hit by a solid object.

The beam transfixed the Talkaris, holding the ship within its confines. Jolmar struggled to keep the shaking craft under control, as Serisa stumbled to her command chair. 'Report!' she shouted over the noise.

'A field similar to a tractor beam has captured us and held us in place, Subcommander,' said Vrellis coolly. 'We are not being scanned.'

'Can you break us free?'

Jolmar shook his head. 'No, Subcommander! It's too strong for impulse, and we'll tear apart if we go to warp!'

Serisa never had time for another command.

Below Beral and Elgrad, a crackling ball of white energy formed over the globe of metal. Tendrils of plasma spiralled from the edges of the bowl towards the centre, enlarging the ball of power, until, without warning, it flashed into the sky, directed along the green beam of energy.

Flashing through the helicopter, Beral and Elgrad were vaporised in an instant. They never knew what hit them.

Vrellis spotted the beam an instant before it struck, and shouted, 'Brace -!'

The white ball of fire slammed into the Talkaris, shattering the science ship into flame and debris. As it burned for a brief time before extinguishing itself, the green energy faded.

In the desert, the pylons closed slowly over the depression, leaving no trace of its existence to any outsiders. As sand closed once again over its black hull, the destroyer waited patiently.

It had been found, and risks could not be taken.

Far away from the darkness, a man clutched at a glass convulsively. The water inside sloshed about, as it's holder's hand shook as he raised it to his lips.

It spilled some onto his uniform trousers, and a curse in French escaped his lips. He stood, set the glass down, and brushed ineffectively at the stain.

After a moment, he gave up, and decided to change his trousers quickly. He was on duty in a few minutes. He stepped into the bathroom – and stopped, staring at his reflection in the mirror.

Reaching out, his hand brushed something only he could see – the cheek of a young, dark-haired woman, smiling at him gently, love shining in her eyes.

Tears ran down the cheeks of this man, as he whispered her name over and over again, in a tortured voice that spoke of pain beyond that which should be endured.

A moment later, her face faded, replaced by his own. He stared, lost for a moment, hand still outstretched. Fury crossed his face, and his hand curled to become a fist, and, almost nonchalantly, he drove his fist into the mirror, shattering it.

As he stared for a moment at the spiderweb of cracks that spread along the glass surface, and then turned his attention to his bleeding fist, he remembered the face again, and Jean-Luc Picard turned, his face weary with shock, tears still trickling from his eyes, and slumped to the floor, whispering a single name over and over.

'Rosanna....'

Counsellor's Personal Log: Supplemental – Since departing the Briar Patch, the crew has gradually returned to normal. I am pleased to note that Anij's burgeoning relationship with the captain has improved his mood impressively. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I haven't seen him this happy since...

Deanna Troi stared silently for a moment at the screen, realising that there was no way that she could possibly complete that sentence. She sighed, and said, 'Computer, delete last log entry.'

She pondered for a moment, and then said, 'Counsellor's Personal Log: Supplemental – I am most pleased with the progress of the crew following our mission to the Briar Patch.'

She turned away, dissatisfied with her statement, but also aware that it was the best she was likely to do under the circumstances that had produced that self-imposed censorship. Even now, a special team of Federation censors was still anxiously scouring all news reports and archives, making sure that a dead name did not destroy the captain of the Enterprise.

But what had made her think of that name, today?

On the off-chance, she said, 'Computer, what's the Earth date today?'

The computer's soft tones replied, 'It is March 12th , 2376.'

No wonder, she thought. It was three years to the day that... she... had died.

Would it be worth checking up on the captain, surreptitiously?

At that moment of indecision, a knock came at the door. 'Come in,' she said.

Will Riker stepped in through the door, a faint smile on his face, one which was even more obvious now he had lost his beard. 'Am I interrupting you?'

'No, of course not,' replied Troi in an admonishing tone. 'I'm just on my way for duty,' she added, guessing as to Riker's reason for coming in.

He smiled. 'That's not why I'm here,' he said. 'Do you realise what the date is today?'

Deanna's smile faded, and she turned away. When she spoke, her voice was bitter. 'You weren't thinking of having a celebration, were you?'

Riker frowned, and stepped closer to Troi. 'Well, I thought after what happened back at the Briar Patch, it might have been nice –'

'I don't think it's particularly funny, Will!' said Troi angrily, and instantly regretted her outburst. 'What happened nearly tore the captain apart.'

Riker really looked puzzled now, as well as somewhat hurt. 'Deanna, what are you talking about? What's the captain got to do with the anniversary of our first date?'

Troi whirled to face him, mortified. 'Will, I'm sorry! I didn't realise!'

Riker nodded, slightly mollified. 'So what did you mean?'

Troi sidled closer to him. 'Today is also the day that... she died,' she whispered. The smouldering anger in her eyes as Riker looked at her told Riker all he needed to know.

Riker closed his eyes, remembering that dark day. 'I didn't know. What reminded you of that?'

'Well, ever since it happened, it's been in my mind just about every day,' admitted Troi. 'I've never been able to forget, no matter how hard I tried. It just kept getting back to me, usually in the middle of the night. Those first nights after the captain came back, I would wake up screaming in the middle of the night with nightmares.'

'I didn't sleep well either,' said Riker. 'She affected us all more than I think we realised at first.'

They stood together for a long moment, wrapped in their own thoughts for a moment, before Troi roused them by saying, 'We'd better get onto duty.'

The Enterprise cruised slowly along the border of the former Cardassian Union, a position that was once one of the front-line positions in the Dominion War. Since the surrender had been negotiated, it was now a Federation protectorate and as such, it's border was now patrolled regularly by those ships which had been held in reserve during the war. The Enterprise was one of those, a fact that had never failed to irritate its captain.

It sometimes felt, especially during the darker early days of the war, that Starfleet would have held the starship in reserve even if Earth had been attacked – and when it had been, Picard had felt physically sick.

But now, with the Breen, the Dominion, and the Cardassians defeated, Picard could get back to doing what he termed his proper job – exploration.

The captain of the Enterprise was the second member of the bridge crew to make an appearance for the day shift. He was, as always, beaten to the punch by Lieutenant Commander Ghia Hedly, the tactical officer. She and Picard exchanged greetings before Data, who had been on command for the night shift, relinquished the command chair.

Before Picard sat, he turned to Hedly. 'Commander, in our service together, I don't think that I've ever been first on the bridge. You always get here first.'

'Sir?' asked Hedly innocently.

'Before you were assigned to the Enterprise, I was always first on the bridge. How exactly do I get here before you?'

Hedly gave him a bright smile. 'Don't sleep, sir,' she said.

Picard forced back a smile at the flippant tone, and nodded. He turned, and sat down. At that moment, Riker and Troi emerged onto the bridge, followed a moment later by –

There was a long moment in which Picard was absolutely convinced that someone else was about to emerge from the turbolift. His worried stare must have concerned Troi and Riker, for the latter glanced back at the lift while the Counsellor approached him. 'Captain, is there something wrong?'

'Is there anyone else in that lift with you?' Picard asked.

'No, sir,' replied Troi, her tone very worried.

'I just had this feeling that there was going to be someone else coming out of the lift,' said Picard, and then shook his head. 'No, not a feeling; I was certain!'

'Lieutenant Truper isn't here yet,' suggested Riker.

Picard nodded very slowly. 'That could be it, yes.' He glanced up at Troi's concerned face, and managed a reassuring smile. 'Thank you for your concern, Counsellor,' he said.

Troi nodded, and took her place, as did Riker, but neither of them looked happy.

When Truper arrived and took his place at the helm, Picard still did not feel that he was happy with the situation. He resolved to check the crew roster first chance he got.

'Sickbay to Counsellor Troi,' said Beverly Crusher's voice suddenly.

Troi responded. 'Troi here.'

'Can you come down to sickbay, please?' Crusher asked.

'By all means,' replied Troi, but her voice was slightly puzzled.

Before she could leave, Picard said quietly, 'Counsellor, would it be possible to make an appointment to see you in a professional capacity sometime in the next week?'

Troi frowned, but nodded. 'I'll try to fit you in for tomorrow, Captain,' she replied. 'If that's all right?'

'Yes, that's fine,' replied Picard, smiling faintly.

'You wanted to see me?' said Troi, as she entered Crusher's office.

The other woman nodded quietly, and activated the lock on the door. 'The captain came into sickbay this morning,' she said quietly.

Troi frowned. 'And?'

'He had a severe laceration on his right hand, as though he'd put his hand through a glass window.'

'How did it happen?'

'He wouldn't tell Alyssa Ogawa why, and I'm the only person in sickbay who'd dare to push the point with him.'

'He seemed okay this morning,' said Troi, deciding not to mention the unusual episode with the turbolift to the doctor. 'I can't be sure –'

'Oh come on, Deanna,' said Crusher crossly, 'You know as well as I do what the date is.'

Deanna frowned. 'I didn't realise that everyone on the ship was checking the date.'

'I know that Riker knows, you know, I know and I bet Data, Geordi, Hedly and Truper all know,' replied Crusher acidly. 'It affected us all deeply.'

Deanna nodded sadly, but she felt compelled to reply, 'The captain does not – cannot – know. His memories were suppressed. Why would they suddenly return?'

'I have no idea,' replied Crusher, 'but I believe that there is something behind this that he's not telling us. I don't want him to go through what he had to go through again – nobody should, especially not someone with the dignity he has.'

Troi nodded her agreement. 'What do you want to do?'

'What happened took place in his quarters,' said Crusher. 'My authority as CMO allows me to gain entry to any crewmember's quarters, even the captain's, if I feel there is a serious medical issue at stake. I intend to find out what happened last night, even if the captain won't tell me.'

Deanna considered pointing out the fact that that particular privilege was in the case of a medical emergency, and an incapacitated crewman, but wisely decided not to say anything. 'And if the captain says anything?'

'He will say something,' remarked Beverly cynically. 'And then we can ask him what's wrong.'

'We won't necessarily get an answer,' said Deanna pessimistically.

Beverly didn't say anything, but Troi saw the glint of determination in her eyes.

The door slid back to reveal Picard's darkened quarters, unlit for some reason unknown to the two intruders. Troi followed Beverly into the room, closing the door behind her. Crusher looked up at the ceiling. 'Computer, lights.'

As the lights came on and bathed the room in a soft glow, the pair stared around the large stateroom. For a quiet moment, both wrestled with the unfamiliar feeling of being in forbidden territory, before Crusher moved silently to the small table that rested in a corner of the room, opposite the desk in front of the large painting that Picard had rescued from the Enterprise-D. She noted the glass of water, untouched, but with several droplets on the surface around it.

A sharp intake of breath made Crusher turn. 'Deanna?'

'In here,' was the hushed response from the bathroom.

Crusher hurried to the door, but she didn't need to go through the door to see the smashed mirror. 'He smashed his mirror,' she whispered.

'Why?' asked Troi, horrified.

'I don't know,' said a new voice, and Crusher and Deanna both whirled to see Picard looking at them placidly from the doorway. For a moment, they both stared at their captain, who returned their gazes coolly.

Finally, Crusher managed, 'I can explain.'

'Oh, I know that,' replied Picard, 'but it's obvious what you were looking for. Before you ask, yes, I did smash the mirror. And no, I don't know why.'

Deanna stared for a moment at her captain. 'Sir, I'm sorry.'

Picard stepped into the room, allowing the door to close behind him. He smiled at her. 'It's all right, Counsellor. It's partially my fault for not speaking to you about. Doctor, please give my apologies to your staff. I should have never told them not to speak to you about it – although I suspect that one of them disobeyed a direct order.'

Crusher nodded, regaining some measure of calm again. 'If it makes you feel any better, Alyssa was sorry that she did it.'

Picard kept his smile, but it turned amused. 'Tell her not to worry – it was a bad order.'

'Captain,' said Troi carefully, 'can you tell us why you gave the order?'

Picard dropped the smile suddenly, and it was as if a pall had been cast over his mood. 'Counsellor, it is not given for starship captains to admit to mental difficulties.'

'No,' replied Crusher instantly, 'but it is vital for any member of this or any Starfleet crew to be able to admit to themselves that they have mental difficulties, and seek help where appropriate.'

Picard glanced at the doctor, and it was obvious that he realised that he had been warned – No dodging the question. 'Very well. How long has it been since we departed the Briar Patch?'

'One month, maybe two,' said Troi.

Picard nodded. 'The day after we returned from the surface of the Ba'ku planet, the very day, I had a nightmare about a woman on a mountain.'

Troi stared into her captain's eyes, and found herself saying, 'What happened in the nightmare, Captain?'

'The images are very confused – they were confused as soon as I awoke – but the one lingering image is of this woman's face – dark hair, brown eyes, soft features. And I know, when I see her, that I love her. And I also know that I have never, ever, seen this woman before.'

Troi nodded slowly, not daring to look into Crusher's eyes to see the expression that she knew must be there. 'What else, Captain?'

Picard had retreated slightly into himself, she could see. The captain moved to a chair and sat down heavily in it. He did not look up as he began speaking. 'At first, they were only nightmares. Infrequent nightmares, but they always held the same image in themselves – a woman on top of a mountain. They increased slowly in intensity over time, however, and in clarity.'

'Do you still get them?' asked Crusher, unhappy to see her friend in his withdrawn mood.

'No,' said Picard. 'It's worse. I'm starting to hallucinate in a waking state.'

'What?' Troi's voice was horrified; she could not restrain it. The tone caught Picard's attention, and he looked up and saw the horror in his Counsellor's face. 'Captain, why didn't you mention this before?'

Picard struggled for words for a moment, something that his friends had never seen before in him. After he had exhausted all possible excuses, he looked at them and said, 'I was afraid to. I was afraid that you would take me off duty, or something worse, simply because I was seeing things that weren't there.'

Taken back by the naked honesty in his voice, Troi fought for balance. 'What were the hallucinations of?'

'Mostly, they are meaningless shapes in the light. Large black objects, simply floating in the light of a lamp or a fitting.'

'Can you describe them?' asked Troi, but she already knew what the answer was.

'They are regular shapes, probably not natural, with large black protrusions hanging from their underside. Some of them are smaller, perfectly circular, with large circles of light beneath them. The others are like tiny flies, barely able to be seen. They buzz around me.'

Troi was staggered by what Picard was telling her. 'Anything else?'

'Occasionally, I see flames where there shouldn't be any. Sometimes, I'll look up and something in the room is burning. And I always feel that the fires are connected to the black shapes. And I see faces as well.'

'Who?'

'The most common is, for some reason, Admiral Nechayev. She is often connected in my mind to the mysterious woman. But she looks different somehow – angry, hate in her eyes – not at all as I remember her.'

'Any others?' asked Crusher.

'Occasionally, although not often, I see random faces. Small, unfamiliar in some cases, but I recognise others.'

'Names?'

Picard did not respond for a moment, and he looked as if he were scared to answer. And then, with an almost visible resolution, he looked at the two women. 'Benjamin Sisko, although a lot older than I ever knew him. Some of his old command crew from Deep Space Nine. Some of you.'

Troi did not blink or look away, filing away all of Picard's reactions. She did not doubt that he was telling the truth, but she also knew that he was not telling her all of the story. She could sense the fear and concern radiating from both herself and Crusher, but she could sense the torrents of emotion that Picard was feeling. Those emotions were not ones she was used to detecting from her commanding officer, but they were ones she could understand and analyse. Anger, fear, horror, confusion – all of these, and more were radiating from Picard in waves that rippled through her mind like breakers on the shore. And she knew what was causing them. 'Captain, do you see anything else?'

Picard did not look at her. 'Her face, the woman I don't know, looking at me.'

'Does she have an expression?' Troi's question was gentle, but firmly pushing for an answer.

Picard looked up, and Troi could see the tears in his eyes, shining like jewels in the light. 'She loves me.' He broke down.

For a moment, as Picard wept uncontrollably, Troi and Crusher were at a loss to do anything. Then, slowly, Picard brought himself under control. He fought for words, trying to stem the flow of tears, trying to explain himself to the two women before him. Troi reached out to him, not saying anything. Picard didn't respond immediately, but a moment later, he looked up at her, eyes red, and forced a smile. He patted her hand. 'Don't worry, Counsellor.'

It took Troi a moment to realise that Picard was trying to comfort her! She scowled slightly. 'Captain, there is a lot to worry about. It is very important that we begin counselling sessions. What you are experiencing may be the beginning of something worse.'

Picard glanced up at Troi, an odd expression forming on his face. 'Irumodic Syndrome?'

Troi frowned at her captain, surprised at what he had said, but Crusher leaned forward. 'Irumodic Syndrome is just one of a number of factors that could cause hallucinations such as you describe, but I want you to come down to sickbay once you come off duty for a series of scans.'

Picard nodded, but his face looked almost relieved. Troi cast a quick glance at Crusher, who sent one back that seemed to say, Trust me.

Troi turned her attention back to Picard, who seemed to have regained his composure. 'Captain, I'll let you stay on duty for now, but you must inform me if and when you have these hallucinations again. It is vital that we get to the bottom of this.'

Picard nodded. 'Very well, Counsellor.' His voice had also regained some of its strength, but it was a false power. Troi could still sense the tightly bound feelings that Picard kept hidden in his psyche.

Dissatisfied, but pleased that she had started to uncover what was wrong, Troi stood up, followed by Crusher. Picard stood as well, and escorted them to the door. 'Thank you for your time,' he said.

Troi shook her head at his old-fashioned politeness, knowing that Picard thought they had been doing him a favour. 'I expect to see you, Captain,' she said, and her tone brooked no disputes.

'Same here,' said Crusher, but her voice was much more concerned. They stepped into the corridor, and the door slid shut, cutting Picard from their sight.

Troi immediately turned to Crusher, her face indignant. 'What were you thinking of, allowing him to think that he might have a degenerative brain condition?'

Crusher dragged Troi further down the corridor. 'I'd much prefer it to be Irumodic Syndrome than what I think it is.'

Troi nodded, her momentary anger fading as she realised what Crusher had done. 'Very well,' she said after a moment. 'What will your scans turn up?'

Crusher smiled slightly. 'The scans will be inconclusive.'

Troi frowned. 'How do you know?'

Beverly gave her an odd look. 'Trust me; I'm a doctor.' Her face became serious again. 'To give us more time. We need to know why he's starting to remember, even if he still believes they're only hallucinations.'

Troi nodded again. 'Thanks, Beverly. You're right. We need to get to the bottom of this. I don't want the captain to go through that again.'

Beverly's face turned solemn. 'No-one does.'

Picard slowly tidied his room up, trying to erase whatever wounds had been laid open by the events of the previous night. He kept his troubled gaze averted from the broken mirror.

Suddenly, he jerked upright as the desk viewer bleeped. He stared at it for a moment, shocked at his nervous fright at a simple, familiar noise, before he activated it.

Admiral Drayton's face appeared on the screen before him. `I hope I'm not disturbing you, Captain.'

Picard forced a smile. `Of course not, Admiral. What can I do for you?'

'I wanted to talk to you, Captain.' Drayton paused. `I know the last few months have been difficult for you and your crew,' he said. `It was not my idea to keep you away from the front lines,' he added. `Somebody decided that it might not be wise to risk the flagship being destroyed.'

Picard raised an eyebrow as he settled himself into a chair, but decided not to comment.

`Jean-Luc,' said Drayton, leaning forward, `things are changing back here. Starfleet's been shaken by the war, and some of the things that have come out of it. Most of all, your actions alongside those of the Son'a have caused considerable comment. Your report of Adhar Ruaf'o's feelings towards the Federation has provoked a feeling of…' Drayton sought for the word. `Agreement.'

`Starfleet feels that the Federation is weakened?' asked Picard. `I wouldn't place too much credence in the words of a madman, Admiral.'

Drayton shook his head. `Your report has merely caused some critics of the way Starfleet has been run to become more vocal. Before, they were more private, but now they speak more openly.' Drayton sighed. `You might as well know now – I'll be leaving my post at the end of the year.'

Picard frowned at him. `Why?'

`I'm resigning to take a post on the Cardassian homeworld. It's a job I wanted – I've dealt with Cardassians before, and since we promised to help with the reconstruction of Cardassia, Starfleet needed someone who had dealt successfully with them before.'

Picard nodded. `I understand. Your diplomacy during the first Cardassian War has made you something of an authority on them.'

Drayton nodded. `And, it is my feeling that the next Chief of Staff will be a member of the modernist group. I have no concerns – what I know of the people in this movement is that they all adhere to the principles of the Federation and they are loyal members of Starfleet. I have no worry that they might be a danger to the Federation.'

`Then why do you look so worried?' asked Picard.

Drayton smiled. `No secrets from you, Captain. I am concerned that other groups may seek to use this as an opportunity to bury themselves in the changing structure, and that we may never find them again.'

Picard knew exactly what he meant. `I see. Is it our old friend again?'

`Yes. I've decided that it needs to be taken out of circulation now, before it can lose itself in the administrative upheaval. There are big plans afoot for Starfleet,' said Drayton. `I fear you may no longer be able to hold off Riker from the Captain's chair.'

Picard nodded, his face sombre. `I understand. The Admiralty calls?'

Drayton smiled, half-sad. `Indeed it does, Captain. It is now believed that youth needs to be brought forward to the front line and that experience needs to be concentrated back here, so that the reforms may be pushed forward both here and in the fleet. Riker is the most experienced First Officer in the fleet, Captain. He needs a command of his own now. They want him to have the Enterprise, and they want you back here.'

`And if I refuse?'

Drayton half-smiled again. `Captain, be aware that your time is now running out. If you turn this down, you run a serious risk of becoming side-tracked into a job you don't want any part of. Riker would be moved on, but you would lose a significant part of the crew in the planned changes. Crusher, Data and Hedly are all wanted in other places. And you personally would lose almost all influence that you carry back here, as the old Admiralty moves out. You know that some of your actions recently have carried a high risk with them, risks that were right to take, but whose consequences were only deflected from hitting you and your crew due to the protection afforded you by the command structure on Earth and your personal influence within Starfleet and the wider Federation. Going against the wishes of the new regime would severely curtail a great deal of the freedoms that you currently enjoy.'

Picard nodded silently, mulling over the information. `When do you believe this will all begin?'

Drayton shrugged. `The first steps have already been taken. With my resignation, Admiral Rynar will become Chief of Staff. He's firmly in the modernisation camp. Then, I expect that there will be several key appointments made, including your promotion. And then, the changes will filter through to captaincy level until they are satisfied with the way things are going.' Drayton paused. `I personally agree with them for the most part,' he added. `Starfleet has become very stagnant over the last few years. A breath of fresh air will do us all some good.'

Picard nodded. `You may be right. And, if you see no cause for complaint as yet, then I am satisfied. But I will reserve my judgement for the correct time.'

Drayton smiled, genuinely. `I am not surprised. Besides,' he continued, `you have a year left on board the Enterprise at least. Enjoy it.'

Picard smiled back. `I intend to.'

The Chief of Staff's face became serious again. `You know what to do, Captain,' he said. `I expect regular reports.'

Picard nodded, his own face sombre. `Understood.'

Drayton's face vanished from the screen and Picard took a moment to stare out at the stars before he decided on a course of action. He turned to his desk, and activated the viewer again. Thoughts of promotion and change vanished in an instant as his troubled mind circled the issue of the missing memories again.

A moment passed before he could decide how to do what he wanted to do. He couldn't very well ask the computer to identify someone who he didn't know of himself.

Eventually, he said, 'Computer, display Admiral Alynna Nechayev's service record.'

The record came onto the screen, and Picard spent a few minutes perusing the details. A singularly impressive career, rising through the ranks of Starfleet, from cadet to Fleet Admiral in forty-two years, was given a single ignominious ending – died in the line of duty, stardate 50993.

Picard sat back and stared out at the stars again. 'Computer, what were the circumstances of Admiral Nechayev's death?'

'That information is classified at security level seventeen,' replied the computer after a moment.

Picard frowned, his attention caught. 'I thought there were only sixteen levels of authority in Command Authorisation,' he said to himself.

'That data is classified.'

Picard tapped his finger on the desk, a sign of impatience and frustration. Admiral Nechayev's death had come at almost exactly the same time that he had been struck down with Altarian Encephalitis, erasing his long-term memory for the short time he had been under it's effects. That could be coincidence, he knew, but why was his unconscious mind connecting her face with this mystery woman?

An idea struck him. 'Computer, what is the last log entry I recorded before stardate 50991?'

'There is a Captain's log entry for stardate 50989.2, and two personal log entries for stardates 50990.3 and 50990.9 respectively.'

'Let's hear the Captain's log entry first,' said Picard.

Picard's own voice spoke to him from the past via the speakers. 'Captain's Log: Stardate 50989.2 – We are en route to Deep Space Nine following completion of repairs to the Enterprise, where we intend to drop Mr Worf off before resuming our patrol of the Neutral Zone. Astrometrics has requested that we perform some tests and scans of the Bajoran wormhole.'

Picard nodded to himself. No help there. 'Put the earlier personal log entry on, computer.'

'Captain's Personal Log,' said his voice again. 'Stardate 50990.3 – The Enterprise is currently docked at Deep Space Nine. We have said our farewells to Mr Worf and I am looking forward to the boring routine of patrolling the Neutral Zone in anticipation of an attack that will never come. The crew, as well as myself, has been tried hard by the Borg over the course of the last few days. Maybe this mission will serve as R & R for our shattered nerves.'

Picard stared at the screen for a moment. 'Log for stardate 50990.9 please, computer.'

'Captain's Personal Log,' said a voice and Picard stared for a moment at the screen, watching as the words were printed on the screen before him as they were read out over the speakers. 'Stardate 50990.9 – Since leaving DS9, I have begun to feel ill. I intend to speak with Doctor Crusher about my infirmity.'

Picard sat upright, surprised. That had not sounded right at all. He was not in the habit of recording log entries simply because he felt ill at the time. Plus....

The captain looked at the words for the short entry. 'Computer, are there any log entries between stardate 50991 and 51000?'

'There are no log entries for the dates specified.' Picard smiled slightly.

'Computer, authorisation Picard 8-5-gamma-omicron. Are there any log entries in my private file for the earlier specified stardates?'

'Five recorded logs – two Captain's log entries and three personal log entries,' replied the computer.

'Let's hear them,' said Picard.

'Those logs are classified at security level seventeen,' countered the computer. Picard stared at the screen, worried.

'Who could classify my own logs against me?' he wondered aloud, and the computer gave an answer.

'Admiral Drayton, C-in-C, Starfleet.'

Picard glanced up, involuntarily, at the ceiling. 'Admiral Drayton?' he asked himself. 'Why?'

'That data is unknown,' said the computer stupidly, and Picard frowned at the screen annoyedly.

'Well,' he said to himself, 'I need someone who knows.'

Data's doorknocker bleeped and the android looked up from his desk. 'Come in.'

The doors slid open and Picard stepped into the room. 'Data, can I have a word?'

Data looked at his captain in surprise. It was a rarity for the captain of a starship to come to your quarters and ask for a "word" at any time, and even more so when the captain did not alert you beforehand. 'By all means,' said the android.

Picard looked slightly uncomfortable, Data noted. 'Data, do you know how to extract deleted and classified information from the computer?'

'Deleted information, yes,' said Data immediately. 'Classified is different. What level of classification?'

'Starfleet level seventeen,' said Picard and Data gave him a puzzled look.

'I thought –'

'That there are only sixteen levels of classification in Starfleet: I know,' interrupted Picard. 'So did I. At the moment, my personal log back-ups that I record in case the main computer is wiped for whatever reason are being locked out by a classification level seventeen order from Admiral Drayton.'

Data stared at his captain for a moment. 'Sir, why do you want the logs?' he asked finally.

Picard looked increasingly uncomfortable. 'They appear to have been recorded after I contracted the encephalitis,' he said.

Data tried not let his horror show through, as he looked at Picard for a moment. 'Captain,' he said slowly, 'I can access the logs you need, but I will require much time in which to do it.'

'Very well,' said Picard, who looked relieved that the android had not asked further. 'How long?'

'I will notify you when I have completed my task,' said Data carefully.

Picard nodded. 'Thank you, Mr Data,' he said. He turned, and left.

Immediately, Data hit his commbadge. 'Data to Counsellor Troi.'

'Troi here.'

'Counsellor, the captain just asked me to break into the classification around his personal log records,' said Data without preamble.

'Damn!' said Troi angrily. 'I knew he wouldn't leave it!'

'What should I do, Counsellor?' asked Data plaintively.

'How long did you say you'd need?'

'I said that I would notify him when I completed my task.'

'Okay,' said Troi, her voice thoughtful. 'I'll arrange to meet you in your quarters when I come off duty.'

'Very well,' said Data, relieved that the matter had been taken from his hands.

To Data's surprise, when the door opened and admitted Counsellor Troi, it also admitted Riker, Hedly and Geordi. Immediately, Troi said, 'We all needed to meet, Data.'

The android nodded calmly. 'I am not upset, Counsellor,' he said. 'Merely curious.'

Troi turned to face the others. 'The captain's been trying to access his personal logs that we couldn't delete.'

The look of consternation that crossed Riker's face was it's own story. 'I thought Admiral Drayton was able to lock them out.'

Troi nodded. 'Fortunately, he hasn't managed to access them yet. He's asked Data to find a way past the classification.'

'With time,' said Data, 'I would be able to do it. The captain knows that.'

Hedly nodded. 'What are we going to do? We can't just admit the entire thing to the captain.'

'That is not an option,' agreed Troi. 'Any ideas?'

'What's brought it on?' asked Geordi.

'I'm not sure,' said Troi, 'but I think it has a lot to do with what happened at the Briar Patch. His unconscious mind may be reacting badly to the prospect of another relationship after what happened. We never found out exactly what happened to the captain when he was healed,' she added.

'The person impersonating Ambassador Spock may have planned this to happen,' said Riker. 'We don't know who it was or why they did it.'

'Is there any way of deleting his back-up logs?' asked Troi.

Everybody looked at Data. 'Theoretically, yes,' said the android eventually. 'But Captain Picard would know immediately. I believe that doing so would endanger him even further.'

'We need to head him off at the pass,' said Riker. 'I think –'

'Bridge to Commander Riker,' said Truper's voice.

'Go ahead,' said Riker, tapping his commbadge.

'Commander, we're receiving a transmission to you from Admiral Drayton at Starfleet Command.'

'Put it through to Commander Data's quarters, Lieutenant,' said Riker.

He stepped around to the desk and activated the viewer. Drayton's dark face appeared on the screen before him. 'Admiral,' greeted Riker.

'Commander,' said Drayton, 'I received your call regarding Captain Picard's strange behaviour.'

'Sir,' said Riker, 'he's been trying to access the personal logs from the back-up memory. The ones we couldn't delete.'

Drayton nodded, looking irritated. 'Very well, Commander. Have you any suggestions?'

Riker glanced up at the rest of the group, but they all looked blank. With a sigh, he turned back to the C-in-C. 'We've discussed the situation, sir, and I can't see any way out except for Operation Wipeout.'

'Are you sure?' asked Drayton.

'Certain, sir.' Riker's voice was firm with no trace of the foreboding that lurked within.

Drayton nodded, and pressed a few buttons before him off-screen. 'I'll have Commander Quinteros meet you at Starbase 445. I'll inform Captain Picard of the change in route. I'll not mention this conversation, obviously. You and the senior staff play it dumb.'

'Understood,' said Riker. 'Anything else?'

Drayton nodded. 'I was going to inform you later anyway, but there have been some unusual ship movements along the Romulan border lately.'

'Is that a worry?' asked Riker. 'They are our allies, strange as it may seem.'

'Whenever the Romulans shift ships to the Neutral Zone border, it is a concern of Starfleet,' said Drayton reprovingly. 'Whether they are our allies or not.'

Riker nodded, appropriately chastised. 'Understood.'

'It is probably nothing to be concerned about,' said Drayton. 'Just trying to keep up appearances. They lost a lot of ships in the war.'

'So did we,' said Riker.

Drayton smiled slightly. 'That's why we're being extra cautious. Anyway, I'll call Captain Picard later. Drayton out.'

Riker glanced at the others after the Admiral's face disappeared. Hedly wore a puzzled frown. 'Sir, what's Operation Wipeout?'

'We're going to have the Enterprise's computer completely wiped, Commander,' said Riker. Hedly's face paled.

'Everything?'

Riker nodded affirmatively. 'It's the ultimate step. Admiral Drayton and I worked it out with Commander Quinteros after the... incident. We couldn't get at the captain's personal back-ups, so Admiral Drayton locked them out with a top-level authorisation code. However, now that we know that it is possible to get at them, we're going to wipe the Enterprise's computer core.'

Geordi's eyes widened in stunned disbelief. 'Sir, that'll put us out of action for eight weeks!'

Riker gave him a stony stare. 'For the captain?'

Geordi could not hold Riker's stare in the face of that argument. He smiled faintly, tightly. 'I'd better let my engineering crews know, so that they can start counselling sessions early.'

Riker glanced around at the others for a moment, not able to bring himself to join La Forge's forced jollity. 'We all said, two years ago, that we'd do anything to keep the captain from finding out the truth. It looks like we are about to be tested on that statement. I just want you to know that whatever happens, I trust all of you implicitly.'

He looked again at their faces, but failed to find what he was looking for. For once, the senior crew of the Enterprise was split and fractured. Unity, what Riker now sought above all else, was not there for him.

He waited for a moment, hoping that that might change, and then he nodded. 'Dismissed.'

Picard stepped out of his ready room, and nodded to Data, who now sat in the centre seat. 'The bridge is yours, Commander,' he said.

'Thank you, sir,' said Data.

Picard turned to Lieutenant Truper. 'Lieutenant, I want you to lay in a course for Starbase 445 and engage at warp seven.'

Truper nodded, not showing any emotion. As the young man laid in the course, Data glanced at Picard, his face calm. 'Any reason, sir?'

Picard nodded. 'Admiral Drayton has informed me that there is a chance that the Enterprise's computers have been infected by a worm virus. If so, we will have to have a full wipe of the core.'

Data nodded. 'That is the appropriate course for a worm virus.'

Picard nodded back, but his eyes were distant. 'Have you made any progress on the issue I discussed with you, Mr Data?' he asked.

Data shook his head immediately. 'As yet, I have not, Captain. However, as soon as I do, I will inform you.'

'Thank you.' With that, Picard turned and left the bridge. Data looked at Truper, who had turned to face the android.

'Course plotted and laid in,' said the helmsman. Data nodded.

'Engage.'

The Enterprise swung around majestically, gathered herself, and then jumped into warp speed.