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There was a real bite in the air, but Will Riker liked watching his exhalations waft through the mostly still air. He and his father had been up before the sun, hiking at least five kilometers to get to this particular spot. The night before, his father, Kyle, had told him they would have to get up that early to stake out the spot for themselves ahead of the competition. It never occurred to the fifteen-year-old that people competed for coveted spots, but it made sense.
His father had rustled him awake and shoved a mug of hot cocoa into his hand. It felt good cupped in both hands, but he couldn't savor it very long because they had to get moving. Will had put on several layers of clothing, all the while hearing his father bang around the house, getting the last of the gear ready.
They didn't speak much during the hike; Will was tired and excited but knew Kyle preferred not to disturb nature if at all possible.
When they arrived at the site, Kyle beamed, thrilled to get there ahead of the other area fishers. It was a small, naturally clear semicircle, obscured from the path by trees. A circle of stones in one corner indicated that many a fisherman had not only caught his dinner, but had cooked it at that spot. The view from the location was spectacular. Will was impressed, even though he had grown up appreciating the natural beauty of Alaska. He let out a low whistle, earning him a broad smile from his father, although it lasted only a moment. Will quickly set up folding chairs, assembled their poles, and found the container with his father's patented bait. Kyle, meantime, set up the makings for a campfire, something they might need later. He also set up a container for their catch and a small transceiver. Will had grown accustomed to the sight of the device. After all, his father worked for the United Federation of Planets and his tactical skills might be needed without advance notice. All too often Will would arrive home from school to a note from his father.
It had been relatively calm the last few months, so Will was anxious, convinced that his father would be called away any moment.
They sat side by side, casting and reeling in their lines, neither saying much. As the sun peeked up over the horizon, it painted the lake's surface in dazzling colors. Once the sun cleared the horizon, his father decided it was time for breakfast. He pulled out a few wrapped meal bars, bottles of water, and a bunch of grapes. They ate in continued silence, his father very content with the slow passage of time. Will desperately wished to use the time to start talking, to have a real man-to-man conversation about the years ahead. He was doing well in school and was beginning to seriously consider Starfleet. His father's missions had captured his imagination, and Will was beginning to yearn to see what was beyond this land's snow-capped mountains. Will considered his grades to be good enough, and he wanted his father's perspective. But every time Will wanted to have this conversation, something came up. He had grown frustrated and more than a little angry. Kyle Riker, it seemed to the boy, was just not interested in his future.
Watching his line, Will grew impatient, and he felt himself starting to fidget. If he was going to spend the day in the chill air, he could at least have a decent conversation with his father. But every time he started to talk, Kyle shushed him. The teen finally gave up and cast at a much faster pace than his father, earning nothing but a scowl.
As the sun neared its zenith, Will finally felt a tug. It had some force behind it, and he imagined it to be a large fish, easily more than five kilos. He didn't say anything, ready to impress his father with the first catch of the day. Slowly, he reeled in the struggling fish, his pole bending in an impressive arc. Finally, Kyle noticed Will's effort and spoke encouragingly, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had grown over the hours.
The line, which he had cast out at least twenty-seven meters, was now half that distance, but Will's reeling had slowed. The fish seemed to be winning the struggle. Unwilling to lose his prize, the teen dug in his heels, gritted his teeth, and yanked a bit on the pole to show dinner who was the boss. The prey responded by yanking back, and it was large enough to gain back some distance.
And that was when Kyle grabbed the pole, his huge hands covering Will's. He used several sharp tugs and then reeled in quickly for several meters before tugging again. Ignoring Will's protests, he took command of the situation. The teen's hands remained trapped. Finally, the catch seemed to give up, and the last few meters were effortless.
Not again, Will thought. His father had done the same thing to him six years ago, and here he was, taking control of the situation again. Dammit, he was fifteen and he was going to bring in the fish or not -- on his own.
"It's a beauty, Willy," Kyle said as the sheefish came out of the water. Its silver-and-blue body wriggled as Will reached down to remove the hook from its protruding jaw. "Make us a fine dinner."
Will didn't say a word as he finished removing the hook and dumped the fish into the storage container. The youth seethed, and didn't say anything to his father for the rest of the day. Not that Kyle noticed. He never picked up on Will's anger, or if he did, he never reacted. Once again, his father hadn't let Will complete a task on his own. He was still taking charge and refusing to let the boy grow up.
Will swore it was the last time he was going to let Kyle Riker control his actions.
Christine Vale ran a hand through her thick auburn hair, smoothing it down. She had already washed up from her last visit to the surface and changed into a fresh uniform. She refused to beam back down with Aiken's blood splattered all over her. It was their first casualty on Delta Sigma IV and she wanted it to be the last one. She knew, though, that was not likely.
Leaving her quarters, she refused to acknowledge how tired she felt. Vale would have to exist on adrenaline and caffeine for the moment, since she was needed down below. Sure, she could get some sleep and send down her second-in-command, Jim Peart, but she was their leader. Captain Picard had specifically asked her to oversee the deployment. She didn't want to let the man down. If they were going to suffer, she was going to suffer right beside them. And if she fell, Vale knew Peart was eager to step in and complete the mission.
The mission. She laughed mirthlessly to herself. Vale sent down her teams of security guards to augment the meager numbers of peace officers that were all the police or military support the planet had needed until this week. Her teams had been detailed to help maintain order while the public was panicked over the planet's first murder in a century. That homicide had quickly turned into a string of murders, and then a wave of madness had engulfed the populace. Vale's people were suddenly endangered on all fronts, and she hated it.
She preferred things to have reasons, patterns she could see and react to. Instead, the citizens of Delta Sigma IV were rapidly losing their inhibitions, acting out without rhyme or reason, and her people were managing, at best, merely a holding action. There was no victory to be had here; they could only minimize the damage.
Christine took the turbolift to engineering and, emerging, practically walked into the chief engineer himself.
"Sorry, Geordi," she said, stepping aside. They were approximately the same height, and she looked right into his eyes, which were augmented with cybernetic implants. Their irises narrowed, adjusting the focus, and she found herself staring and quickly looked away.
"I'm fine, but I think you need some rest," La Forge responded, unperturbed by the penetrating look.
"Later. I have to get back to the surface. Listen, the people have escalated the violence. It's also become destructive, and I'm going to need some of your people down there. I'm afraid of infrastructure problems, and the last thing we need is to incite further troubles because people can't get fresh water."
La Forge stroked his bearded chin and nodded in understanding. He turned around and led her to a workstation where he called up duty rosters. Names rolled upward on one screen, color coded by shift. "I'll alert my damage control teams, equip them for general-purpose needs, and have them on standby. You call, they'll come running."
"And my people will be with them, providing protection. Still, captain's orders are they beam down with sidearms."
La Forge nodded again, not surprised, but also not pleased that his people would be facing danger. His features softened a bit and he added, "Hey, I'm sorry about Aiken. He was a great kid."
"Yeah, he was." A kid, fresh out of the Academy, and all his promise snuffed out. The pain refused to budge.
And she could tell from La Forge's expression that he understood why she was pushing herself to get back below. He'd do the same thing if it were strictly an engineering problem.
"Listen, I think we need to start by restoring water to Testani."
"That's the city that burned first," he said, clearly having stayed current despite remaining aboard ship during the mission.
"Right. The fire in the capital was smaller and was extinguished pretty quickly."
La Forge went back to studying the roster, his hand back to his beard. "Have you heard from the captain?"
"Not since he and Counselor Troi returned to the planet," Vale said. She felt herself growing anxious and got ready to leave. But first, she had to get something out in the open.
"I know you're working with him, but if Nafir screws up and costs me time, I'm going to use him to clean the armory."
La Forge frowned at that, thought a moment, and responded, "Look, I know he's not at the top of anyone's competency list, Chief, but T'Bonz and I are working with him. He's gotten better since he transferred over. He won't fail you. You have my word on it."
"Good." She turned to leave and could hear La Forge already ordering his alpha team to go on standby. Vale couldn't help but grin at Geordi's attitude. He worked hard and was easy to get along with. He was one of the people who made her feel most welcome when she had transferred aboard a few years back.
Vale exited the deck and headed to the main transporter room, ready to return to her people. Along the way she mused on the difficulties many department heads experienced with recent crew assignments. At one point, the Enterprise was the number one choice of all graduating cadets. For the last several months, because of its tarnished reputation, the ship had been receiving fewer requests on and many more off. As a result, people were rotating aboard who would not normally fit the crew profile for the best ship in the fleet.
Fortunately, her recent recruits were young and still moldable, and she recognized her luck. Still, the eager-to-please smile on Aiken's face haunted her as the lift slowed to a stop. She tried to concentrate on the next assignment as she determinedly strode down the corridor. At no point did Vale notice crewmembers get out of her way.
Gripping her phaser, Vale stepped onto the platform and nodded toward Nafir, a tall Gallamite. She bit her tongue as he activated the controls and gave her a small wave with his pale hand. Within moments she was on her way back to the troubled world.
The Council had been relocated to an adjacent office building after the riot broke out just hours before. When Jean-Luc Picard materialized in the Council's new center of operations, he was impressed by the sounds of activity. Maybe being forced to move had finally shaken the people out of their torpor. At first, the captain thought they were so far in over their heads that they would remain paralyzed with inaction. Now, aides of both the Bader and Dorset races were scurrying between a set of rooms, many carrying wires and isolinear chips. They were clearly trying to turn these rooms into a functional seat of government. What concerned the captain, though, was that only the Dorset councillors were present in this room.
He exchanged curious glances with Deanna Troi and then stepped forward, making his presence known. El Rodak El noticed him first and came gliding over, a small smile on her face.
"Captain, you've come just in time."
"Yes." She paused, gesturing with a sweep of her arm to take in the entire room. "The Bader have chosen to set up a separate facility until things can be calmed down."
Picard was alarmed to see the Council, whose members he tried to protect from the spread of the contagion, suddenly split along racial lines. Troi seemed to share both his confusion and concern.
"Why is this better?" Troi asked.
"We've lost too much time to petty bickering," Rodak replied. "We feel we can split the planet in two, each of us concentrating on relief efforts for our respective continents."
While the woman had a point, the conclusion was not one Picard agreed with. "That may sound like a good plan to you," he said in a measured tone. "I, though, do not think it helps anyone in the long term."
"Aren't all four continents mixed race?" Troi asked.
"But predominantly Bader or Dorset, Counselor," Rodak replied. "We argued about it and then decided to stop arguing. It's what our ancestors did."
"Yes, stopped arguing to unite a world. Now you've stopped arguing and have effectively divided it." He keenly felt the need for Ambassador Colton Morrow, who was still in sickbay, recovering from injuries sustained during the riot that had forced the Council to relocate. If the Council was split, at least Picard would have someone he could trust in the other room.
"And what have you accomplished since this 'enlightened' plan of yours?"
Rodak's smile faded. "We're still rebuilding our communications network so we can track the problems and communicate with peace officers in the afflicted areas."
In other words, Picard concluded, nothing had changed. No one seemed to be working with any sense of urgency while the contagion spread across the planet. He was tempted to seek out the Bader, but suspected they would be in much the same situation.
He turned to ask Troi a question, but noticed his counselor was by a door, speaking with a Dorset aide. They were having a conversation he suspected was no more productive than the one he just concluded, but he decided to let it run its course rather than interrupt. Instead, the captain turned his attention to the monitor screen. It had snapped to life moments earlier and someone was fine-tuning the controls. Blurred images sharpened, and then the Dorset-dominated continents of Fith and Tregor came into view. Colored lights then were overlaid, and Picard was astonished to realize each one represented a recorded instance of the madness that was gripping the people.
Only it wasn't madness. It was their true nature, and they didn't know it yet. He was hoping to explain Crusher's news to the complete Council and dreaded having to do it twice.
As Picard idly watched Troi work her magic, Ensign George Carmona approached him. Picard was quite pleased with the man's dedication and performance during the mission. Vale chose well, he considered. The burly, olive-skinned man's curly hair was unkempt, but that could be forgiven under the circumstances.
"Captain, I tried to talk them out of it, tried to explain this was adding to the hazards..."
"Slow down," Picard suggested. "What do you mean, Ensign?"
"The Bader set up their base on the opposite side of the building. To get there, you cross an exposed courtyard. Any of the councillors or staff become targets when they go from one setup to the other."
Picard shook his head in disappointment. Ever since he had beamed down two days ago, his impression had been that the government seemed ill-equipped to make a lunch selection let alone rule the people. He had hoped that with Jus Renks Jus replacing Chkarad as Speaker, things would improve. Clearly, they had not, since they were not taking their security seriously enough.
"I've got Williams posted at the Bader entrance, and I've been keeping watch here. I think that's about all Lieutenant Vale can spare, to be honest, and I worry every time the door opens."
"As you should," Picard said. "But you can't influence the Council. I should know -- I've been trying for days." He gave the weary guard a smile of support, which seemed to brighten the man's spirits. "We'll try and get you some support. Carry on."
Carmona nodded. He walked back across the office and left, no doubt taking up his post on the opposite side of the door. Picard felt safe, knowing how much he could trust the man.
Troi finished her conversation and came back to the captain. She looked pleased with herself, and Picard gave her a quizzical look.
"There's an old saying: 'It's the clerks who run the government.'"
Picard nodded. "I've heard it."
"Well, here it is in practice," she said, sounding just a tad smug. "Even though the Bader and Dorset councillors feel the need to separate, the aides and staff disagree. They are keeping links open between the two rooms, sharing information. Generally, they have a better grasp on the reality of the situation than either room full of councillors."
"Indeed," Picard said, only mildly amused and impressed by the revelation.
"They share their leaders' concerns but are far more fatalistic. They've seen the damage reports and casualty counts. Sir, it's far worse than they are admitting to," Troi said.
"I can't step in and tell them how to do things. I'm limited by our rules and regulations, including the fact that they are the sovereign government."
The captain then took a moment to wander to a far corner of the large office and contact the Enterprise. He wanted to check in before he got too distracted by the problems before him.
"Status, Mr. Data?"
"We have received no word from Commander Riker, and he is overdue to check in."
"Have you tried to hail him?"
"Actually, sir, we cannot seem to locate him."
"The sensors aren't picking up his badge?"
"No, sir. He has vanished like his father."
"I'd like to take that as a sign he has found his father. They had headed north, if I recall. Please see what you can do to find them. Anything else?"
"Geordi has had to take the warp engines offline to try and resolve a plasma injector problem. Since we are not likely to need warp power while in orbit, now seemed like the best time to deal with that."
"Agreed. Picard out." He only hoped that La Forge would be able to handle the repairs on his own without having to summon assistance from Starfleet. The captain thought he had more than enough to occupy his attention.
Beverly Crusher felt that she had a purpose again. Over the last few days, she had studied the Delta Sigma IV problem to find out what had turned a cure for a genetic disorder into a poison. She had finally figured out the mystery and could go to work on a solution. She let her coffee go cold as she worked in the lab without interruption. Fortunately, the casualties from the planet had slowed to a trickle as her staff set up triage stations on all four continents. Dr. Tropp was supervising the planetside work while she remained aboard and concentrated on the long-term issues.
Crusher pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear and ran a series of studies on the brain chemistry of the five test subjects. They had spent nearly a year in quarantine, waiting to see if the cure provided by Starfleet Medical would change their genetic codes back to normal. Everything seemed to check out until one, El Bison El, killed Unoo of Huni and fled the building, breaking quarantine and unleashing the problem on an unsuspecting world.
When the native plant liscom's natural gases were filtered from the blood, the body chemistry began a return to normal. But normal also meant that both races' violent tendencies reasserted themselves. The liscom gas had actually worked like a narcotic, lulling the people into a peaceful frame of mind and allowing the two races to coexist in harmony and to gain Federation membership for their world, unlike their belligerent parent worlds.
Rather than study the blood work, she concentrated this time on the brain chemistry, watching how the buildup of gas altered the way the brain governed personality. All in all, it was both fascinating and chilling, something she wanted to study in greater detail. Time, as usual, was the enemy. In fact, it was this kind of research, as opposed to the emergency room atmosphere of the last few days, that got her to thinking once more about Yerbi Fandau's offer. The current surgeon general had let her know, several months back, that he was planning on retiring and that she had been approved as his first choice to replace him. Given all she had been through over the last few months -- the sudden return and departure of her son, Wesley, the loss of face within the Starfleet community, and the growing notion that Picard would never entertain a romantic relationship -- made the offer incredibly tempting. She needed to make a decision whether or not to accept, but she didn't want to do it without discussing the issue with her longtime friend. However, the crisis below would have to be settled first.
Once again, she leaned into the microscope and watched the microbes. Her left hand fine-tuned readouts, one finger activating a color-coded field that helped identify the various elements on the slide. A greenish tinge was suddenly highlighted, something she hadn't seen before. With a contented sigh, she straightened up and began taking notes.
Troi was leaning against a wall, watching the scurrying back and forth, wondering if things could possibly get worse. Aboard the Enterprise, she was counseling several crewmembers, many of whom were ambivalent about remaining loyal to the captain and staying on the Enterprise, or looking after their own careers and seeking safer assignments. Was it really only days ago, she wondered, that she and Riker were reviewing the latest transfer requests?
But not everyone was looking to get out. Anh Hoang, an engineer, didn't want to leave and didn't seem to be all that concerned about the current political brouhaha regarding the crew, but had other problems that were of concern to the counselor. After losing husband and child in the Breen attack on San Francisco several years back, Hoang seemed to have closed in on herself, holding herself in a type of personal stasis. No friends, no romance, no off-duty hobbies. It appeared her life was just work and sleep. And that, Troi knew, was only a recipe for long-term trouble. They had begun speaking over the last few days, and Troi began to wonder if she was using Hoang as an excuse not to focus on the horrible problems plaguing Delta Sigma IV.
She had walked the streets, felt the people growing angry, felt their sense of loss and their insecurity as they came to grips with their natural tendencies for the first time in their lives. The two races could not solve their problems entirely through diplomatic means, nor could they achieve any form of peace as long as the people gave in to their new impulse to violence. None of them had grown up developing the moral codes and internal governors sentient beings require, so things had spiraled quickly out of control.
An aide went by, surreptitiously handing her a glass of water. His body language indicated that the presence of the Federation was barely tolerated by the Council. Picard had quickly determined that keeping the contagion away from the Council was of paramount importance, and so far there had been little evidence of the "madness" taking hold. She presumed, though, that it was possible that someone had gotten infected during the escape from their chambers. Currently, there was no way to scan for the disorder with tricorders, a further complication. If the Council members were infected, the government was done for.
"This is Protocol Officer Seer of Anann."
The voice drifted toward her from the status board that had recently been completed. Two aides and a councillor drifted over to the board, all looking surprised. Their representative had clearly been forgotten.
"Councillor El Rodak El speaking," the woman began, only to be interrupted by a second voice chiming in from the other room, "Cholan of Huni here."
There was a brief flash of consternation on Rodak's lined features, but she willed them away and awaited Seer's report.
"We're still on the island of Eowand. There was a fight, and we spotted Kyle Riker. Commander Riker went after him, and both appear to have vanished. The local officers and I have scoured the area, but there's no trace of either human."
This confirmed Data's earlier report that Will had not checked in on schedule. Troi frowned at the message, listening carefully to the cadence of Seer's report. He was telling the truth, and this bothered him. Clearly, he and Will had formed a bond that had no doubt helped them get this far. The concern in his voice was genuine. Just then, a hand gently grasped her right shoulder.
"It's all right, Captain," she said before turning her head.
"Counselor, I knew the Enterprise lost Commander Riker's signal a little while before the protocol officer's report came through. I took that to mean Kyle Riker had been found, so I was not concerned."
His voice was calm and professional, his use of titles reminding her that this was an ongoing mission. She turned all the way to face him, and his hand fell to his side.
"I have every faith in Will, sir," she replied, using his first name to indicate she was not going to treat this entirely on a business basis, because there were also personal issues attached.
"Good. So do I."
"I will continue to look for a little while longer, then return to the capital."
"Fine, fine," Cholan barked from the other room.
Jus Renks Jus, Speaker for the now divided Council, had joined the growing crowd, and his look of distaste spoke volumes to Troi. Someone, if not all the Council members, must be infected. Controlling the government was going to become a serious problem over the next few hours.
As Picard looked at the updating monitor screen, Troi stepped back, forced herself to drink the last of her water, and concentrated all her skills on finding her link with Will. Although she had been born with only half the normal Betazoid's telepathic talents, her bond with Will Riker was strong enough always to be there, online in her mind. When she discovered almost immediately after they met that they shared this bond, the knowledge scared her. No one except her mother had ever been able to achieve that level of intimacy with her before. Since then, though, the bond had been a constant source of comfort. Now she found it with little effort: a golden thread, glowing amid the shadows of her mind. He was alive, and that was enough for her.
Copyright © 2004 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.