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The Enterprise-E, a Sovereign-class starship, orbited a planet of great seas and lush landmasses. The ship's oval saucer section gave the ship a more forward thrust than its predecessors. The Enterprise seemed poised for action, like a silver raptor coiled to leap.
In his quarters, Captain Jean-Luc Picard struggled with the collar of his jacket. Blasted thing is supposed to fasten on a dress uniform. His fingers fumbled with the four shiny pips, making sure they were all clasped properly.
Finally Dr. Beverly Crusher reached over to help him. "Allow me, Captain," she said with a smile.
"Thank you," answered Picard with relief. He dropped his hands to his sides and let someone with nimble fingers take over.
Counselor Deanna Troi hovered at the captain's elbow, waving a padd crammed with information. "We're running late, so let's keep at it. The population of Evora is three hundred million."
"Say the greeting again," said Picard, thinking they would be the first words from his mouth when he met the planet's delegates.
Troi nodded, taking her task seriously. With her charming accent, she intoned, "Yew-cheen chef-faw. Emphasis on the 'cheen' and the 'faw.'"
Before he could practice it, Beverly yanked tightly on his collar, nearly strangling him. "You either need a new uniform or a new neck."
Picard peered briefly into the mirror. Certainly there was some wrinkled skin around his neck. But he was still slim and fit -- not bad for a man his age with an artificial heart.
"Yew-cheen chef-faw," he snapped. "My collar size is exactly the same as it was at the Academy."
Beverly smiled dryly. "Sure it is." Her sSo they need us to put out one more brushfire," muttered Picard. "Anyone remember when we used to be explorers?"
When no one cared to answer, Picard led them into the turbolift. "Yew-cheen chef-faw," he repeated to no one in particular.
Troi edged closer, still prepping the captain for the reception. "Remember, the Evora have a significantly less advanced technology than ours. They only achieved warp drive last year."
"A year?" asked Crusher. "And the Federation Council decided to make them a protectorate already?" Membership status in the Federation usually took much longer, with very strict application procedures.
Picard scowled. "In view of our losses to the Borg and the Dominion, the Council feels we need all the allies we can get these days."
The turbolift doors opened, and the captain faced a bustle of activity. Cheerful music spilled from the lounge, and Picard mustered a cheerful expression to go with it.
"You'll be expected to dance with Regent Cuzar," Troi reminded him.
"Can she mambo?" asked Beverly.
"Very funny," whispered the captain.
Wistfully, Crusher added, "Your captain used to cut quite a rug -- "
Picard hurried away from the discussion of his youthful escapades. In the corridor, several officers in dress uniforms moved to make room for him and his staff.
"Captain on deck!" announced one young ensign.
Picard kept smiling and moving through the large crowd. His combadge sounded again, and Geordi La Forge's voice cut through the chatter. "La Forge to Picard. Captain, I need to talk to you before you go into the reception."
Before the captain could respond, he ran into Worf among the officers. "Captain -- " began the Klingon.
"Worf, what are y ou doing here?" asked Picard with surprise.
"I was in the Manzar colony, installing a new defense perimeter, when I heard the Enterprise was in this sector."
The captain was distracted by Riker trying to explain to La Forge why this wasn't a good time to talk. "Have him come to the reception," Picard instructed his first officer, not breaking stride. "We'll talk here."
Riker nodded, and the captain turned back to his old comrade, Worf. "Stop by my quarters later. I have a few ideas about Manzar security."
They entered the banquet room, with Picard feeling as if he were being pulled in ten different directions. He heard Riker still talking urgently to La Forge, but then he was engulfed in the crowd and the music.
As a string quartet played a lively waltz, the sea of officers and dignitaries parted before the captain. Troi steered him efficiently toward Regent Cuzar and her delegation of eight extremely short aliens. Picard bowed his head toward her in an attempt to make himself shorter.
"Yew-cheen chef-faw, Regent Cuzar," he said impeccably. "Welcome aboard the Enterprise."
The Evoran dignitary smiled with delight. "Captain Picard, may I welcome you in the time-honored tradition of my people."
She motioned, and an aide stepped forward with an exquisite but bulky headpiece. Picard feared the worst -- that he would have to wear it -- and his fears were confirmed. Regent Cuzar held the headpiece toward him, and he bent down even lower to allow her to place it on his head.
"We are so honored to be accepted within the great Federation family."
Picard straightened and nodded bravely, trying not to imagine how silly he looked in the ceremonial crown.
The reg ent allowed him to escape. "Please, I know you have other guests to greet."
"We have a dance later, I believe?" added the captain.
"I look forward to it." The regent walked away, surrounded by her ministers.
Picard turned to Troi. "Counselor?" He indicated the headpiece. What am I supposed to do with this? he wondered. How long do I leave it on?
"Nice beadwork" was her only comment.
Before Troi could advise him of the protocol for this prickly situation, they were interrupted by Geordi La Forge. The Chief Engineer pushed his padd into Picard's hands. "Excuse me, sir. This message came in from Admiral Dougherty. He's aboard a Son'a ship in Sector Four-four-one. He's requesting Data's schematics."
"Is something wrong?" asked Troi, overhearing them.
"The message doesn't say," answered Geordi.
Picard frowned with concern and kept his voice low. "Data should have been back by now. They were only scheduled to observe the Ba'ku village for a week."
He turned to Geordi. "Set up a secured comm link to the admiral in the anteroom."
Geordi moved away, and Picard was about to follow him when a Bolian science officer grabbed him by the arm. "Captain, Hars Adislo. We met at the Nel Bato Conference last year. Did you ever have a chance to read my paper on thermionic transconductance?"
The captain smiled painfully, not remembering a thing about the Bolian or his paper. He was relieved a few moments later when La Forge notified him that the comm link was active.
"Excuse me," said Picard, rushing away and removing his headpiece.
The captain entered a small anteroom off the banquet hall and looked at a viewscreen. The face of Admiral Matthew Dougherty glowered at h im. Behind the admiral were the unfamiliar sights and crew of a Son'a ship.
"Data is not acknowledging any Starfleet protocols," complained Dougherty. "Not responding to any of our hails."
"You have no idea what precipitated his behavior?" asked Picard.
The admiral shook his head. "And now he and the Ba'ku are holding our people hostage down there."
"The Enterprise can be at your position in two days," promised Picard.
"That's probably not a good idea," grumbled Dougherty. "Your ship hasn't been fitted for this region of space; there are environmental concerns."
"What kind of concerns?"
"We haven't fully identified the anomalies yet," explained the admiral. "They're calling this whole area 'the Briar Patch.' It took us a day to reach a location where we could get a signal out to you. Just get me Data's schematics. I'll keep you informed."
Picard nodded, worried about his unique comrade.
The screen switched back to the Federation seal, and Picard turned to La Forge. "Send him the schematics."
"Yes, sir," answered Geordi with a sigh.
"Ensign!" called Picard to the young officer guarding the door.
He popped inside the door. "Sir?"
"Report to the galley, and tell the chef to skip the fish course."
The ensign looked puzzled for a moment, but an order was an order.
As he hurried off, Picard turned to Geordi. "I want our guests to depart as quickly as etiquette allows. I'll ask Worf to delay his return to DS9, so he can join us. We're going to stop by Sector Four-four-one on our way to the Goren system."
La Forge gave him a curious smile. "They are in opposite directions, sir."
"Are they?" asked Picard innocently.
With a grin, Geordi head ed out of the anteroom, leaving the captain to gather his thoughts. There had been enough diplomacy and cleaning up of messes -- and far too much war. Captain Picard was ready for adventure of another sort -- almost any other sort.
He couldn't think of any job more urgent than protecting Data. Nobody understood the android like his own crew.
With a scowl, Picard put the ornate headpiece back on his head, mustered a smile, and strode into the banquet hall.
The Son'a spaceship cruised through ghostly tendrils of glowing plasma and dust. They resembled the stingers of a giant jellyfish, trying to ensnare the graceful craft. In the distance, a ringed planet was visible through the wispy clouds. It looked trapped by the forces of the universe.
Inside the ship on an observation deck was a beautiful salon. It was called the Body Enhancement Facility, and Son'a men and women lay on the massage tables, with Tarlac and Elloran attendants working on them.
Admiral Dougherty paced uncomfortably. As many times as he saw it, the skin-pulling and dialysis machines of the Son'a rejuvenation process made him squirm. As their skin stretched and was smoothed with fluids, laser surgery, and makeup, his own skin crawled. But it wasn't his place as a Starfleet officer to criticize alien behavior. After all, it wasn't as if humans were immune to such vanity.
The admiral had to admit that the extravagant costumes of the Son'a, with all the different fabrics, feathers, and jewels, were wonderful. The Son'a took a pride in their appearance that he found refreshing. So what if they tried to prolong their youthful looks?
They might as well make use of the technology.
Even as he told himself this, he looked a way. The skin-stretching process still unsettled him.
"Admiral Dougherty," said a voice with a sneer in it.
"Yes." He turned to look at Ru'afo, the ahdar, or commander, of the Son'a forces. The two most beautiful attendants worked on Ru'afo, which showed his importance as much as anything. They gently massaged creams and oils into his plumped and soothed skin.
"I never should have let you talk me into the duck blind in the first place," complained the Son'a commander.
The admiral stiffened in his crisp uniform, trying to maintain some dignity in this place. Alien alliances are always tough, he told himself. Best to hold my tongue.
"Your Federation procedures have made this mission ten times as difficult as it needed to be," said Ru'afo.
Dougherty stuck his chin out. "Our procedures were in place to protect the planet's population from unnecessary risk."
"Six hundred people!" scoffed the Son'a. "Do you want to avoid unnecessary risks? Next time, leave your android home."
A voice echoed over a nearby comm panel: "Bridge to Ahdar Ru'afo. We're approaching the planet."
The Son'a commander motioned to his attendants to hurry; then he pressed his comm link and said, "Take us into a high orbit."
Ru'afo rose from his chair and motioned to Dougherty. "Lie down, Admiral. The girls will take twenty years off your face."
"Another time," muttered the admiral, trying not to show his distaste.
"Your self-restraint puzzles me, Admiral," said Ru'afo, admiring his own face in the mirror. "You continue to deny yourself every benefit this mission has to offer."
Dougherty shrugged. "I prefer to wait until we can share the benefits with all the people of the Federation."
Suddenly the ship was rocked by a blast that staggered the admiral and the Son'a. As everyone talked at once, Ru'afo scowled and stalked out of the salon. Dougherty hurried to keep up.
A few moments later, they emerged on the bridge of the Son'a ship. Purple alert lights were flashing, and frantic beeps sounded in the air. Two Son'a officers remained calm at their stations, their faces masks of stretched skin. Tarlac and Elloran officers manned the rest of the stations.
"Report," demanded Ru'afo.
"Phaser blast. Unknown origin," replied the Son'a on the helm.
"Raise shields," ordered Ru'afo as another blast shook the starship. "Take us out of orbit."
Before that command could be carried out, a Tarlac officer shouted, "Photon torpedoes. Brace for impact!"
A swift succession of jolts knocked Dougherty off his feet, and smoke began to pour from an auxiliary instrument panel. If we don't do something to stop this attack, we're in serious trouble! But he was a guest on this ship, so he could only stand aside while Ru'afo ordered his crew to prepare for the attack.
A flat computer voice reported. "Warning. Outer hull damage, deck three."
"Visual contact!" said the Elloran on ops.
All their attention was riveted on the viewscreen. They saw a small but powerful warship emerge from gas clouds looking like a shark rising from the depths. It's a Federation scout ship, thought Dougherty with alarm.
"That's our ship!" he gasped.
The sleek vessel unleashed one final burst of fire as it sped past the floundering Son'a ship. In the forward cockpit, Dougherty could almost see him -- It's that crazed android!
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