And the Memories Lived On.

This story is not my work but was written by my friendChris Wallace. Chris asked me to put it here, and I've finally got my act together :) I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, I know he'd appreciate some feedback. This story appeared (in an altered state) under the name of Remember Me in New Voyages 2, February 1994, edited by Deena Brooks.
By Christopher S. Wallace
-- Historian's Note: Except where noted, this log entry takes place approximately one week before the episode, "Time's Arrow".

STARDATE 28032.1

Commander Christina Stryker had just come from her ten year class reunion at Starfleet Academy, where past lives relived themselves, and old friends had grown older and wiser, but, somehow in their core personalities, they were the same people she once knew so well. Most of her old instructors were still there as well, glad to see her back again one more time. Being at the Academy again was, in a sense, coming back home after a very long trip. But even though the thrill of being home again consumed most of her heart and soul, she couldn't wait to lunge at her next assignment. She was looking very forward to tackling her first opportunity at being a department head on board one of the newest starships to join the fleet, that ship being the USS Alaska, NCC-3001. As excited as she was, she had to tell everyone about it. Her excitment grew with each passing sentence on the subject. So she talked endlessly, she described what her duties would be, what they involved, where it would take her in her career, even though most of her former classmates were coming into their own in similar positions and duties. After the reunion was over, she invited a few of her closest friends to her apartment for a few more words before retiring for the evening. She was due to be on board the Alaska early the next afternoon. Two of her closest friends were sitting in her living room, chatting away, while she prepared a few drinks.

"All these people here, some of the best friends I've ever had in my life, and I have to leave them again." She softly said her words with marked sadness. The first separation at the Academy after graduation was hard enough. Leaving everyone for a second time seemed almost unbearable. At least she had the chance to see most of her old classmates, but as with every class, there were a few that didn't make it back, those that were killed in the line of duty. In light of the fact that most of her class had survived, she knew she was lucky to see most of them again in the first place.

Chris Stryker was a nostalgic maniac. Every chance she had to look back, to remember the the best times of her life, she picked up in an instant. She remembered hopping from place to place, doing everything under the sun at anytime and anywhere. But now it seemed that all that had disappeared. Back then, she thought, I thought that it would never end. Hell, that's what it's supposed to feel like. That's what it always felt like. But when reality brings you back out into the open, it lets you know it.

She brought in the drinks she had made into her living room. Her friends were still talking vividly, still remembering, still laughing.

"Something wrong, Chris?" She gave a look to her questioner, Alexis Peterson. Her best friend for the past fourteen years, Alex always did her best to keep in contact over the years. However, with both being Starfleet officers, it always took a great deal of effort.

"You always could read me like a book, Miss Alexis," she said with an almost disappointing look.

"Okay," Alex said, narrowing her blue eyes and smoothing down her brown hair, "now, which would that be? We have a choice between Romance, Fiction, Mystery, Classroom or Horror. I've never known which one it really is, you've somehow managed to change your personality and priorities so much."

"You know, she's got a point there, Christy," said Francois Deveroux, her former class leader. "You always have changed from here to there ever since I've known you."

"Only for you, big boy," she said playfully. "I have to keep you guessing, you know."

Francois smiled slightly and lightly shook his head at her while he tried to stop old feelings from arising. Ten years ago, at the Academy, he had tried on several occasions to date her, but to no avail. She had been, at the time, in another one of her changes from the Romance books to the Classroom books, saying, "I'm sorry, but I never have enough time for anything but studying anymore. I can't spare the time for you." As it somehow always turned out, Deveroux was always the one she never had time for. It sent him into a serious emotional tailspin, almost forcing him out of the Academy for academic failure. With the help of Alex Peterson, though, he made it through his hardship and the Academy. He'd always thanked her for her patience and understanding, having been there for him when he trusted no one else, to laugh and cry with, to lend a hand and to tell troubles to. But his scar was still there. Since then, he hadn't dated another woman. As a matter of fact, he hadn't even tried to.

"So, where in Starfleet are you stationed at now, Lieutenant Commander Deveroux?" Stryker asked with mild interest.

"Ah, a question about my current life. I'd almost gotten sick of the 'good old days' conversation." For a moment, he flashed a look of disdain for her, what memories she had brought back to the surface. He managed to smother the look that she didn't catch.

"You what?" Stryker asked, almost offended. "Why?"

"What's in the past has long since past. It should stay there." Deveroux said this with a sense of hard-won conviction that came from somewhere deep down, his blue eyes blazing belief in what he'd just said. This sense, however, definitely did not come from the heart.

Stryker gave him a slight scowl.

"Anyway, continuing on. You'll never guess where I'm at. But I will give you a hint: It's so great and so hard of an assignment to pull, you'd kill for it." Francois smiled in deep satisfaction, his French accent now cleanly shining through.

"I know," Stryker said, certain. "You're a Starfleet Academy Instructor now, right?"

"Not even close, Christy. Your turn, Alex."

"Do I get two chances?" Alex asked. "I am one of your closest friends, after all."

Deveroux laughed a little. "If you're that close to me, mon ami, why do you need two chances? In fact, if you're so clued in, you should have the answer already."

"That's not the point. Anyway, I bet--"

"That's exactly the point," he said slyly. "No, just one chance."

Alex proceeded to intentionally drag out her guesses. "All right, then...let's see...knowing's probably...something having to do--"

"Time's up."

"Shut up, Frenchy. I'm thinking."

Stryker laughed at the look of mock anger he gave Alex. "Frenchy" was the nickname Alex had given him at the Academy. It was one he hated at first, but it seemed to stick, and he gradually got used to it. Eventually, he learned to love it, and took to it as though it was his original, given name.

"Okay, I've got it. You're the construction supervisor over the new Wellington class ships. An assignment like that can make a career, and that's hard enough duty to pull." Alex gave him a questioning look.

"Negative, mon ami. Should I tell you?" Then looking at Stryker, he asked, "Should I tell her?

"Don't keep us in suspense," Stryker said, impatient. "Just tell us."

"All right. I never could keep anything from you ladies for very long. I'm sure you'll figure this one out, since it's easily recognizable. The registry number of my new ship is NCC-1701-B."

Both Stryker's and Peterson's jaws opened about three times wider than normal. "Enterprise?!" Peterson said in obvious disbelief. "I can't believe it. I tried and tried to get stationed aboard her when my rotation for a space tour came around. How'd you get on board? All they had left was an assistant engineer position, and that's what I was shooting for. You're right about killing for a billet on that ship, though. Someone got to it assigned to them about three hours before I got the chance, and I, for one, had murder on my mind."

"Here's the big finish, Alex. Remember all that studying I was doing, but I'd never tell you what it was?" Frenchy gave Alex a devilish smile, complete with a cocked eyebrow, proud of his newest assignment.

" didn't get..." Alex said in disbelief again.

"I sure did." Deveoux had been studying for a transfer to Engineering from Sciences for three years, believing that it would be a good career move. He was right. Taking the Transfer Board completely by surprise by his written and oral exams, he received the highest score of fourteen officers competing for selection. In receiving the best score, he naturally received the best assignment. "And it came at just the right time, too. They needed someone right away to repair damage they sustained from an encounter with a renegade Klingon battlecruiser. I was available, I was the best, so I got signed aboard."

Peterson shook her head again. "Son of...I'm sorry, Frenchy."

"Sorry for what?"

Alex looked at him with a half smile. "For almost calling you a son of a bitch."

"It would not be the first time, mon ami," he replied. "I seem to recall a time at the Academy when you did not like me so well."

"I was young and stupid then, Frenchy."

"Ahh, I see," he replied. "In other words, you were a freshman. They never know too much starting out."

Alex's grin was wide in response to his remark. "True. Anyway, I'm happy for you. I really am. It's certainly the first time I've known anyone that's been assigned to a ship named Enterprise."

"Thank you," he replied. "However, that would leave you to explain what ship you have been assigned to, as the fact remains that I got the Enterprise and you did not." He smiled and quickly raised and lowered his eyebrows in an expression of slight superiority.

The expression was not lost on Alex, however, she did not respond. Yet. "Well, I did get the assistant engineering job on board Alaska. She's supposed to be a pretty good ship. Second in the new line of Royal Sovereign class starships." She looked his straight in the eye now, her right eyebrow cocked in a challenging gesture. "And, from what I read from the specs, she can outrun your ship on a bad day, buddy."

"I'll see to it that it never happens," Deveroux said, answering her challenge.

Stryker broke in now, joy evident in her tone of voice. "You're going to be assigned to the Alaska?!" So am I! I'm reporting there tomorrow. Didn't I tell you?"

"I think she was the only one out of earshot when you told 'everyone', Christy," Deveroux said slowly.

Stryker completely ignored him. "That means I'll be able to see you constantly!" As the fact of this set in on Stryker, she was filled with a sense of pure delight.

Deveroux looked at her closely and could pick out what she must have been thinking. That nagging thought came back to him again. She's got the time for the rest of her old friends, for the rest of the universe, but not me.

Stop it! he shot back at himself. Quit playing the violins for yourself, you selfish bastard! Merde, it's been way too long to keep thinking like that! She's probably forgotten the fact you even asked her out in the first place!

He defeated this wave of self-pity, but suddenly felt uncomfortable being in this place. He got up from the couch, his drink not even touched. "Well, I'd better get on to my business. You ladies have to be at your ship tomorrow, as do I, so I'll head out." He turned to Alex and smiled at her lightly. "Great to see you again, Alex," he said as he gave her a hug.

"Hey, it's always great to see you, whenever the hell that might be." She hugged him back as tightly as she could, prolonging the embrace for as long as she could. "God, I'm going to miss you, Frenchy," she said as a small tear formed in her eye and creeped down her cheek, her voice cracking ever so slightly. "Take care of yourself, mon ami."

He smiled, wiping the tear away. "Listen, I'm assigned to the Enterprise. You do remember the fleet flagship, right? I'll be just fine. By the way, I'm going to make Commander before you do, so don't wish me well just yet. I just might be your next Chief Engineer. Then those tears of sorrow might be replaced with a phaser in the hand."

"Dream on, pal," Alex said jokingly, smiling, laughter light with her words.

He turned to Stryker, smiled and gave her a light hug. "You take care of yourself, too, okay?"

"No problem," she said with a hint of apathy. "Have fun."

He broke the embrace as his smile faded to disappointment. "No problem," he said, almost in disbelief as he turned to leave. Does she care that little about everyone in the world? Without a word, he was out the door in a matter of seconds.

Stryker looked at the closed door for a few seconds, then back to Peterson. "Something's wrong with him. I could tell just by the tone of his voice, the way he walked out. You're the mindreader; what do you think's wrong with him?"

Peterson sat down again, took a deep breath and looked back up at her. "Are you really sure you want to know?"

Stryker sat next to her friend. "Of course. He's my friend, too, you know. I want to see him happy as much as you do."

Alex took another deep breath. "To tell you the truth, Christy, I don't know." She paused for a few seconds, then continued, knowing she would be on very shaky ground. "But if I know Frenchy the way I always did, I can say this much. I think he's still in love with you."

Surprise was evident on Stryker's face, clearly not expecting that kind of analysis. "You really don't think so, do you? After ten years?"

Peterson just sat there, looking at her deadpan. "Old loves die hard. Old wounds, especially to the heart, heal slow. You hurt him pretty bad blowing him off like you did, just now and ten years ago at the Academy. I'm just surprised he even came over here when you asked us to join you for this little nightcap of yours."

Stryker's face turned to suspicion. "How did you know about when he asked me out?"

"He told me all about it at the Academy, though I had to drag it out of him. Eventually, he said he couldn't count on anyone else."

"Why didn't you tell me about it?" Stryker was getting perturbed learning about this. Alex had always told her everything. Until now, she'd never known these conversations had taken place. Stryker took her personal life very personally, and placed great emphasis on keeping it private. That privacy had been breached, even if it was ten years ago. "I thought you were my friend, too."

"The truth?"

"Straight and narrow. Always."

"Because I knew that you'd get defensive about it, like you are right now. And because he asked me to keep it between us."

"Oh, really," Stryker said in contempt. "And I'll bet he wanted you to advise him, right?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued. "Just when have you been in love before? How do you justify trying to give advice on something you've never truly experienced?"

Alex looked at her evenly. "I'm more experienced and natural on the emotional side than you are, Christy. True, I've never steadily dated anyone, but the difference between you and me is that I listen to guys. I give them a chance. I've never known you to give anyone a remote chance for anything."

Stryker's face turned to stone, her eyes accusing and just as hard. "I can't believe you just said that."

"That's what you wanted. 'Straight and narrow. Always.' Or has that position changed with the revelation of the truth?"

Stryker's jaw jutted forward slightly, anger now setting in. "Get out of here. Now."

Alex looked at her with a normal face, as if Stryker had said nothing significant. "I guess it has."

Stryker stiffly rose from her seat. "I said out!"

"All right, I'm out." Alex stook up and looked Stryker in the eye, her voice dangerous. "But remember this, Commander, you can't order the truth into submission and silence."

"I don't forget anything, Lieutenant Commander," Stryker shot back as Alex walked out the door. "Good God, and I've got to see her tomorrow," she said to herself.

As she looked around her apartment, Christina Stryker, soon to be the first Science Officer to walk aboard the new starship USS Alaska, made sure things were in order. She was leaving the apartment for the better part of two years, and she wanted her brother, who was to look after it, to see that not a single thing was out of the ordinary. Starfleet officers, after all, never left anything out of the ordinary.

Looking in the bathroom mirror, the reflection of herself stared back at her. She took in her appearance. Brown hair, blue eyes, sculpted cheekbones, face making her to appear to be a young twenty six rather than her real age of thirty two. In good physical shape, standing five feet, eight inches. Always looking perfect in a Starfleet uniform.

With a nod of approval to herself, she turned off the lights, went to the bedroom and began to pack the remainder of her things.

After all, front running Starfleet officers never waited until the very last minute to do anything.

What was that Alex had said? she thought momentarily, but nearly immediately dismissed the question. She had already disposed of the conversation like so much trash.

She slipped into her sleeping apparel and drifted off to sleep. She had a big day to prepare for, and good Starfleet officers always got plenty of sleep.

"Captain's Log, Stardate 45949. The Enterprise is en route to Starbase 58 via the Kolrami sector to place several marker buoys to rope off a strange pair of pulsars reported there, after which we will bring aboard five members of the Starfleet Academy senior class for their final cadet cruises. Among them is Cadet First Class Wesley Crusher, now the class leader.

"Shortly en route is Dr. Crusher who is taking a slight leave of absence to see her son a day in advance."

Captain Jean-Luc Picard sat in his ready room going over crew evaluations on his junior officers that Commander Riker had given him only a few hours before. He didn't take much of a liking to paperwork, much preferring the bridge over chores like this. He came across the first of many, which, to his amusement, was the report on Ensign Ro. To his mild surprise, it was the first good report on her since she'd been here. She has improved a great deal, he reflected. Who knows? She might even make Lieutenant (jg) this time...

He had barely finished reading the report when his door chime sounded. He looked at the door, then to his screen holding the reports. "Another day," he said to the machine softly, smiling ever so slightly. "Come."

The doors parted, revealing one Doctor Beverly Crusher, one who was ready to start traveling to meet her son, excited and impatient to be off. "Hello, Jean-Luc," she said, a smile blooming from her face. "I just stopped to say goodbye."

"Oh," he replied. Then, with a spurt of what most people would call humor, (Picard thought of it as cunning), he gave her a curt nod, turned his screen back toward him and looked back down to it. "Goodbye."

Crusher's jaw could have dropped through the floor. "'Goodbye'?" she asked incredulously. "Your Chief Medical Officer and friend is ready to leave to see her own flesh and blood, one that she hasn't seen in a year, and you say 'Goodbye'?"

"Beverly," he said with patience in his voice, "I'm joking. Of course I care about your seeing Wesley, and I'm very happy for you. I can't say that it will be hard seeing him again."

Calming down, Crusher smiled to hide her surprise and now repressed embarrassment. "I'm sorry, Captain. I guess I'm eager to get on my way, and I want everyone to be happy that he's coming."

Picard looked at her curiously. "No need to apologize, Doctor. I know for a fact that most of the bridge crew will be happy to see him again."

As Picard finished, a familiar voice came over the intercom. "Data to Dr. Crusher. Your shuttle departs in ten minutes."

Crusher jerked her head up. She didn't think she had this little time left. "I guess I'd better get to it."

"Yes. Mr. Data is quite serious about his punctuality."

"I know. When will the Enterprise dock at the starbase?"

"We expect a day. We'll place our marker buoys around the Kolrami sector, after which you'll be back on board with your son and four other hard- charging cadets."

"Bridge to Captain," came Riker's voice this time.

"Go ahead, Number One."

"Sir, we've just received a communique from Starfleet Command. The Branch Admiral of Sciences and Exploration will rendezvous with us in nine hours to oversee our survey of the Kolrami pulsars. She'll meet us with a shuttlecraft while we are en route to Starbase 58."

"Just like that?" Crusher blurted out.

"Just like that," Picard answered. "It's what admirals do best." Then, to Riker, "Very well, Commander. See that the proper arrangements are made for her arrival. Prepare Shuttle Bay One for receipt. Picard out."

"I'd really better get going if there's a surprise admiral visit in store. Have fun, Jean- Luc."

As she turned to exit the doors to the Ready Room, Picard said dryly, "Of course."

Crusher flashed him a quick smile as she left.

Picard looked back at his computer screen, wondering which was easier to take; reading crew evaluations or dealing with admirals, especially ones he didn't know. He called up a brief profile of who held the Branch Admiralty of Sciences and Exploration. A newly created department, recently promoted Branch Admiral Christina Stryker was the first officer to hold the position. She was a science officer by trade; a well respected one at that. Her assignments had included several department head tours as a Commander, two command tours as a Captain, and one overall colony assignment as a Commodore. She had certainly had variety in her two Captaincies. Her first command was the USS Alaska, a huge Royal Sovereign class starship, the other being a smaller science vessel, the USS Sagin. After her star tours, Picard read on, she had gone on to spearhead a major scientific experiment which would eventually result in the discovery in practical use of Tacheons. He was impressed. I should be, he thought. Maybe having her aboard won't be so bad. My officers can learn a few things from her, and while we're charting these phenomenon, she could give some insight as to what these things might be doing there.

Never before had anything remotely like the Kolrami pulsars been charted. One pulsar was a common enough sight, but two of them in close proximity to each other was curious indeed. This was something that was rare, unique and unexpected. So unique was it that the branch head of Sciences and Exploration left her posting on Earth to come see it for herself. Yet another opportunity for history to be written on board the Federation flagship presented itself, and, whether or not in the company of strange admirals, this was one sight Picard was determined not to pass up. He had requested Starfleet make this an exclusive survey with only the Enterprise in the area of the pulsars, reasoning the Enterprise was the only vessel in the area capable of monitoring the pulsars efficiently from a great distance. The pure radiation output of these two pulsars combined would cause havoc aboard an ordinary starship. Of course, she was not an ordinary starship. Out of the five Galaxy class starships that were capable of handling the situation, only the Enterprise was in the immediate vicinity. Picard had told Riker of this when the pulsars were discovered. "Finally," Riker had pointed out, "a starship named Enterprise is the only ship in the quadrant for something good."

Picard decided, after making that claim to being the sole surveyor, that having the admiral aboard shouldn't have been a surprise at all. Maybe a blessing. After all, this ship and her crew had been a blessing to him for more than five years.

Five minutes later, Picard entered the bridge. Data, naturally, was the first one to notice. "Captain, Dr. Crusher's shuttle is departing shuttle bay two."

"On screen, please, Mr. Data."

Data shifted the viewscreen to a rear view showing the shuttlecraft Onizuka as she cleared the shuttle bay and glided safely between the monstrous Ultrawarp engines which carried the Enterprise from star to star. When the shuttle cleared the ships' perimeter, her own engines came to life as she suddenly lept toward the distant starbase, the shuttle seeming almost as eager to be off as Beverly was.

"The shuttle is clear and is on course to Starbase 58. All readings appear normal." Data took the readings off his boards with not the slightest bit of doubt. Picard found himself wondering, with all of Data's attempts to define emotion, if he had ever really known what doubt was. Even if he did know, it somehow made Picard rest easier in hearing that kind of confidence from him.

"Speaking of shuttles," Riker said to Data, "how far to the rendevouz point for Admiral Stryker?"

"After placing our bouys, at warp two, we will be at the rendevouz point in seven hours. We are currently eight hours and fifty-three minutes from our scheduled rendevouz."

Riker looked at Picard in question, who nodded in return. "Very well, then, we should get to it. Set course for the Kolrami sector, warp five. Engage when ready."

"Aye, sir."

"Number One, you have the bridge. I'll be in my Ready Room."

"Standby for launch, Admiral," the pilot warned over the intercom.

Branch Admiral Christina Amanda Stryker looked up from her PADD, a device that she constantly carried with her to keep her up to date on certain events and to remind her of others. As she was interuppted by the pilot, she smiled and said, "Ready when you are, Lieutenant. Let 'er rip."

"Let 'er rip"? the lieutenant thought to himself. There's one I haven't heard in a long time. Must be an admiral thing. "Aye, sir. Ripping now."

As he completed his last sentence, he brought the shuttle out of the Sagin's hangar bay and around to the starboard side. Stryker looked out the portside window to view, once again, one of her two former commands. A sense of pride swelled up in her as she remembered the last time she'd left the ship, she'd left as her departing captain. Now here she was, a Branch Admiral. More respected with more responsibilities.

After three minutes of a full view tour of the outside of her old ship, she turned forward. "All right, Lieutenant, you can stop trying to impress me, though you're doing a hell of a job." After a short pause, she continued. "OK, buster, let's get to the show. Make course for the rendevouz. I always like to be a little bit early. Does a good job of shaking a captain up. Remember that when you make flag rank."

"Yes, sir," he replied. "I've heard, sir, that Captain Picard isn't shaken up by a whole lot. If being turned into a Borg doesn't rattle you, nothing sure as hell will."

"Maybe," she said. "But I still like to try. Best speed to rendevouz point, if you please."

"Yes, sir. Accelerating to warp two."

As the stars started to become so much as multicolored streaks in the starfield, Stryker started thinking about this survey that was about be undertaken on board the most famous starship in the fleet. What a double delight, she thought. Taking a grand tour of the Enterprise and finding out about twin pulsars! Only when she and her staff discovered practical Tacheon theory had she been as excited to see such a phenomenon as this. Seeing something like this firsthand could definitely have the potential to take your breath away.

Lost in thought, she was surprised when her pilot came over the intercom once again. "Admiral, we are five minutes from rendevouz point."

Snapping her head up once again, she smiled slightly. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Just how early are we?"

A short pause passed, followed by his answer. "We're about an hour early, sir."

"Good. As soon as you've set the station keeping at auto, come on back here and have some tea. I always like to get to know my pilots."

This was even stranger, the pilot thought. Why would an admiral want a junior lieutenant to join her in the back to enjoy some tea? A little more than a complete breach of etiquette, it was also a complete shock. Even though he had heard of the kindness of Admiral Stryker, he never really believed it until now. No admiral had ever gone out of his or her way to get to know a junior officer. That was something they just didn't do. But that wasn't true with this one.

After he secured the engines, he engaged the automatic station keeping systems and headed back into the unknown kindness of a new admiral.

"You know, Nikita, I think you're going a little off the deep end."

Cadet First Class Wesley Crusher eyed his best friend with disbelief and humor. He always knew her to be outlandish, but never this much.

"Oh, come now, Wesley," she said with her strong Russian accent. "I was never this bad to begin with. How can you even begin to compare me to myself? And besides," she said with a smile, "I'm not that bad." Nikita Petrovsky gave Wesley a stare that told it all. She stood up, clearing her throat and speaking in a soft tone to the cute little waiter passing by their table. "Excuse me, sir."

The waiter stopped for a moment, eying her with admiration, then continued to go about his rounds. "I'll be with you in just a moment, ma'am."

"WAIT A MINUTE!!!" Her shout rang out like a phaser in the lounge where she and most of her classmates hung out at with a few days to kill while waiting for their "ride", (as Nikita put it, meaning the Enterprise), to show up.

As everyone in the room looked up at her in complete surprise, she looked at the waiter, jolted by the shout, who had just spilled three drinks on multiple patrons in the lounge. His eyes turned from sincere admiration to complete fear as she took small, sexy steps toward him.

"Oh, God, no," Wesley was muttering in complete embarrassment, his face buried in his hands. "Why me? Why does she have to be my best friend?"

He finished his questions which he knew would never be answered, Nikita had moved into close proximity of her quarry. She raised an eyebrow slowly up and down at him, turning her head slightly down and to the left. "Don't you find me attractive? Stunning? Sexy?" As she spoke her words, she changed her voice to match her chosen vocabulary.

"A typical Russian beauty?" Wesley had seen the routine before, knowing that her target would soon begin to crack.

"Been reading up on classic Neil Simon plays, have we? That one's from 'The Good Doctor', if I remember."

Crusher glanced at his questioner. "Part of the routine, Stephanie."

"Ahhhh," Stephanie, also a Cadet First, said softly, dragging out her breath. "Right," she said sarcastically.

"Yes," Petrovsky continued, playing on Crusher's words like a line out of that play. It was a play she dearly loved, especially in light of the fact that that the entire thing took place in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, the land she was so devoted to. "A typical Russian beauty?"

The waiter hesitated, then pressed into the unknown. "Of course I do. You're more than beautiful. You're...the prettiest woman I've ever seen with my own two eyes."

"She's got him," said Alex, also a Cadet First. He had just joined Wesley and Stephanie at their table, enjoying the show that Nikita was putting on for the whole starbase, if they cared to watch. The waiter was visibly shaken and turned on by this sudden craving for attention by a woman he'd never met before. It never occured to him that this could possibly be a joke. Nikita eyed him even more, giving him a look of "I want you" dead in the eyes. Then, just as suddenly as she had started the advance, she stopped dead cold with his comment, her expression turing to ice. "Oh," she said, sitting back down at the table with Wesley and the newcomers. She turned her head one more time to him. "Never mind," she said apathetically, and turned back toward her friends at the table.

"Sorry," Alex said from the table. "She just has these hormone spurts from time to time. They die down to a safe level in no time."

The waiter looked at the whole table with an expression of serious disappointment. He bobbed his head, still in a daze, and left the scene.

Everyone broke out laughing, save for Wesley, who just smiled and shook his head. "Plan on controlling those hormones anytime soon?"

With that question, she slipped back into her soft voice, her hands now on his. "When there's you around, Wes? My love of loves?"

Wesley resonded with as nerdy of a voice as he could muster. "Oh, now stop it," he said.

"Oh, Lordy," said Alex. "Wes the Genius just turned into Wes the Goof."

"Why, thank you, Alexander the Great," Wesley replied sarcastically.

"Are you making fun of my friend?" Nikita asked with a hurt and "offended" look.

"Nope," Wesley said. "You've whipped me enough times at fencing. I wouldn't want you to do it for real."

"Good," she said with satisfaction. "Don't ever forget that."

"Excuse me," Alex said, trying to be as serious as he possibly could. "Can we talk about something serious for once? All this joking makes me ill."

Nikita looked at him like he had just offended a god. "Hell, no!"

Alex just smiled at her.

"Seriously," Nikita said, almost totally out of character. "How is your mutual mother doing?"

The question was posed to both Stephanie and Alex. The twins gave opposite looks; Alex looked disgusted, Stephanie looked proud. After a few seconds, realizing that her brother would not answer, she said, "She's doing really good. Got herself a new job."

Walking in at the beginning of this conversation was another Cadet First, Riisara, the only Vulcan in the group.

"Who is she, by the way?" Wesley asked. "I'd always heard you two talking about her, but I never knew who she was. You said she was part of Starfleet, right?"

"Right," Stephanie said. "Ever heard of the illustrious Branch Admiral Stryker?"

Riisara raised her right eyebrow, keeping in tradition of the only Vulcan emotion that was ever expressed so openly: that of slight surprise. "The Branch Head of the Sciences and Exploration Department. Interesting."

Wesley looked at them with astonishment. "Your mother is a Branch Admiral? How come you never told us that?"

"There are some things that people just don't need to know," Alex replied.

"Alex," Stephanie said in disappointment.

"Come on, sis, you know that I've never been proud of her."

"Why don't you just leave things in the past? She's our mother, give her a little credit. It's not every day that you're selected to command a brand new department at flag rank."

Alex shook his head slightly. "I can't. Not after what she did."

"It was before our time, Alex! If she'd handled things diffrently, one of us might not even be here!"

"Makes no difference."

"Hold on!" Wesley said, trying to defuse this situation. "Alex, you just made it sound like you wish neither of you were born."

"Not both of us," said Alex. "Just me."

"Logically--" Riisara started."

"Shut up, Riisara! I don't want to hear about logic." With that, Alex Stryker left the table to stare out a window fifty feet away from their table.

"What's his problem?" Wesley asked, staring after him.

"It's a long and difficult story, Wes." As she looked at her brother with sad eyes, Stephanie Stryker wondered why it still ate at him after all these years. It always pained her to see him like this. Alex had been her brother and best friend for her whole life. Only when they spoke about their mother had they ever had a major disagreement over the course of their lives. It makes no sense! she thought. After all, how could he have done anything about it? Does he really think he can change the distant past? We weren't even around then! "And right now, I don't even want to start telling it."

"Personal Log, Stardate 28200.8. I feel so bad about what happened a few weeks ago at my place with Francois. Maybe Alex is right. I did put him down pretty hard, I just didn't realize it. I hope he can find it in his heart to forgive me. He's a good friend, and I'd just hate to lose him in any way."

Chris Stryker sat in her quarters as she finished her log entry with a thought. Maybe I should call him. "No, I probably shouldn't. He's probably mad as hell at me right now." But, her mind reasoned, maybe not.

She instructed the computer to access the private subspace communications code to the Enterprise and waited. A few minutes later, a face replaced the blue United Federation of Planets emblem on the screen.

"USS Enterprise private comm channel. Whom do you wish to contact?"

"Lieutenant Commander Francois Deveroux, Engineering Section, please."

"One moment, please. I will locate him for you."

"Thank you," she said politely. As she waited another few minutes, her heart started to race. "Come on," she muttered. "He's only a friend."

But a good friend, her mind shot back.

After five minutes, the screen finally changed. He looked a mess. He was tired from his shift, and it more than showed.

"Lieutenant Commander Deveroux," he said, and instant before recognition. A large smile instantly conquered his face. "Well, bonjour, Christina. How are you?"

"Good. Am I bothering you?"

"Oh, no. I always have time to talk to you. How do you like your new ship?"

"Simply dazzling, darling," she said in a sophisticated voice, her head upturned.

Deveroux laughed at that one. "Are we becoming admiral material now?"

"Maybe in about ten years, but I'm practicing."

"And practice makes perfect, no?"

"No, but I still try."

"Ah. So to what do I owe this honor?"

She paused a minute before she ventured on. She wasn't used to apoligizing to anyone, not having done so in a long time. "I just wanted to say that I'm sorry for blowing you off like I did a few weeks ago. I know I was kind of cold. I guess I just didn't know how to act."

He didn't believe that last sentence for a second.

"Anyway, I just called to say that I'm sorry."

"I see. Apology more than accepted. It's appreciated."

"I'm sure it is," she replied, almost sarcastically. A part of her mind said, You're doing it again. Stop it.

But she couldn't help it. Her dominant, "untouchable" side, which was usually in place, completely buried the thought before it reached her conciousness.

He gave her a hurt look, suppressing it as quickly as he could. "So, anyway, how are things? How do you like your new job?"

"It's going fairly well. I actually like being in charge. Being a department head does that to you, you know. Maybe you'd better hold off on becoming a chief engineer. Knowing you, it'll go to your head real quick."

Deveroux cocked his head at her like a confused puppy, not understanding why she was talking to him this way. What had he done to offend her? Had she really changed that much over ten years time? Maybe he shouldn't ask her...

"I know you, Frenchy. You've got something on your mind. What is it?"

A smile twitched on his lips. "Becoming a mindreader, too? All that time with Alex must have rubbed some of that off on you."

"What is it?"

God, she was touchy today. Almost offensive. That was something he wasn't used to, especially coming from her. "I was just wondering...well, I took the liberty of sneaking a peek at our operating schedule, and it seems that we're to take five days of shore leave on Risa. Your ship arrives there nearly the same time. The day after, as a matter of fact. I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner sometime while we're there." Deveroux raised his eyebrows hopefully.

"What about Alex?" she asked testily. "Is she coming, too?"

"No, I meant for just the two of us. To catch up on old times, eh? I know how much you...enjoy memories. It couldn't hurt, could it?"

She let out an apprehensive breath as denial set in again. "It could, and it might. Look, Frenchy, you know as well as I do that I have deadlines to meet. I'm a department head now, and I can't just run off the ship on a whim. I have to get my duties completed first. Understand?" She said the last word like a mother to a four year old child.

"Look, you could--"

"Do you understand?" This time she asked the question like a senior would put to a subordinate.

Deveroux looked at her almost angrily. If he was capable of that emotion. "Yes, sir," he said with a hint of contempt. "I have duties to perform myself, such as sleep operations. Nice talking to you."

"Right," she said, coming close, for some reason, to pure anger in her voice.

He took one last look as he closed off the channel.

"You son of a bitch," she whispered tersly. "If you only had the slightest idea..."

If she might have said anything else to the now closed channel, she had no idea what it might have been. What the hell was he thinking? That they could just get together at any time at any place? If he actually thought that, it was pretty stupid of him.

She threw the idea out of her head, interfaced the computer again, and started working on her weekly reports. She was a department head, after all...

After the screen went blank, Deveroux shook his head in disbelief. Why in the hell did she do that? Calling up to apologize, then blasting him for something he suggested. A nice, quiet dinner for just the two of them. Just relaxing, talking. Maybe he was hoping that it would turn into more. Maybe she figured that out, and got a little defensive when the thought hit her. He'd never know until she really got it out in the open. If she ever would.

"Captain Picard, please report to the bridge." Data came over the comm system as polite as ever. Picard emerged from the Ready Room, heading for the center seat, which Riker vacated upon his entering the bridge. "Report, Mr. Data."

"Sensors are currently registering an SW-21 administrative-type shuttlecraft which is lying dormant at the rendevouz point, sir."

"Life signs, Mr. Worf?"

Worf manipulated his security console, scanning for any energy output from the shuttle, including the thermal readings from active life signs. "Two life signs, sir. Humanoid...uninjured. The shuttle is fully functional, station keeping thrusters are active." Picard breathed a sigh of relief. Worf's board beeped. "Captain, we are being hailed by the shuttle."

Picard looked at Riker in curiosity. "On screen."

As the screen came to life, Picard was caught in a state of mild surprise when a woman in her mid- fifties wearing the uniform of an admiral filled the screen. "Ah, hello, Enterprise. Captain Picard, I presume?"

Picard stood in honor of her "presence". "That is correct, Admiral. We welcome you to the Enterprise. I must say that it is very much a surprise to find you. We were to meet two quadrants from here."

She smiled. "I thought I'd get here a litte bit early. On time is late, you know." She looked at Picard devilishly, as to say, I got you, and you know it. "Jean-Luc," she said thoughtfully. "You're French, are you not?"

"Quite so, Admiral."

That's when Counselor Deanna Troi sensed something very odd about this woman. Something about her emotions turned sour for an instant. Emotions which played over her face in the briefest of moments.

Stryker smiled again, then continued to speak. "Well now, Captain, since you have kept my pilot and I waiting for..." She took a quick look at her wrist chronometer. "...twenty-five minutes and thirty three seconds, would you kindly see to it so that we may board?"

Without hesitation, Picard answered, "Of course, Admiral. Shuttle Bay One will be standing by."

She smiled again. "Thank you, Captain. I'll see you in less than three minutes." With that, she politely cut the comm link.

"Well," Troi said from the back of the bridge, after taking in the conversation. "That was very unique."

"I don't like it," Worf said in his always serious demeanor. "I don't like her."

Riker turned to face him. "How so, Mr. Worf?"

"She did not even identify herself. And for an admiral..." Worf let a small snarl appear. "...she smiles too much."

Picard glanced at Troi. The seriousness of his Chief of Security always made him think twice before entering a situation. "Couselor, do you sense any underlying intentions?"

Troi concentrated for a moment. "No. She wants to be friendly. But she's hiding something I can't get at."

"Are you sure, Deanna?" Riker asked. "This is the best science officer Starfleet has known for a long time. The branch admiralty was created especially for her to head."

"I'm sure, Will. She hides it well, whatever it is that's troubling her. There is a sense of pain hiding behind that smile." She stopped for a moment, long enough to take a long look at Picard. "A pain that crept out for an instant when she asked you about being French."

Picard reacted for only the slightest of moments before continuing. "Whatever intentions might be, a Starfleet admiral is two minutes out of our main shuttle bay, and it would be very impolite not to show at her arrival. Commander Riker, Mr. Data, and Counselor Troi, with me. Mr. Worf, you have the bridge."

"Aye, sir."

As they filed out onto the turbolift, Troi was almost anxious to see if she could get a better feeling for their visitor. The feeling she got was one that disturbed her. Worf may be right, she thought. She surely isn't of the normal admiral breed. She seemed so vibrant, so cheery. Maybe that was what made her sense something odd...

No. It was something very odd, something different, beyond the layer of how she presented herself. Something was buried deep down, very intentional. She needed to get a closer look at this new arrival, and she was glad the captain had thought to bring her along.

"Shuttle now passing through forcefield, tractor beam locked on for final approach."

Picard watched with pride as his shuttle bay technician brought the shuttle in just as smoothly as if it were gliding on ice. As the shuttle came to a slow stop, Picard and his welcoming committee moved to the starboard door.

As the shuttle's doors parted, the Enterprise's distinguished visitor was revealed. She stuck her head out of the doors, letting her eyes slowly sweep over the hangar bay, seeming to inspect it as carefully as any fragile instrument. As soon as she took in whatever it was that she was examining, with one single and deliberate motion, she leaped out of the shuttle doors.

Data looked at her with curiousity as he cocked his head like a confused puppy. To Riker, that's exactly what he looked like. Just as Data was about to open his mouth to ask exactly what the meaning of this action was, Riker gave him a look that told him to keep quiet. As far as Data was concerned, he had enough information stored on human reactions and body language to know what Riker meant, and he quickly took the hint.

Stryker scanned her reception line. Having studied Picard's file for well over an hour on the shuttle, she knew exactly what he looked like even though she had never met him before. Upon seeing his face, she walked directly toward him with her hand outstretched. "Captain Picard. Such a pleasure to finally meet such a famous man face to face."

Going along for the ride, he offered his hand, the two clasping in handshake. "The pleasure is mine, Admiral Stryker. We are honored by your presence aboard the Enterprise."

Stryker raised her eyebrows at him in question. "I'll bet you'd like to say that, considering you arrived twenty minutes late in meeting my shuttle."

As Picard was about to respond, Data's eventual answer to an illogical statement was already at hand. "With all due respect, Admiral, we arrived a full fifty minutes ahead of schedule. Accounting for the fact that your shuttlecraft arrived--"

"Commander," Picard cut him off with an irritated tone. "I'm sure the admiral is well aware of when she arrived in this quadrant."

"Quite true, Captain," Stryker said, taking full advantage of the moment. "The comment is appreciated, though, Commander. That gives me a little more leeway to lord it over your captain. That's something I'm sure you don't see too often...?"

Data interpreted this as a fully legitimate question posed by a superior officer, to which he responded, "No, sir. Not very often."

Picard fumed about as much as he knew how while Riker and Troi stifled a laugh as diligently as they could.

Stryker, however, laughed out heartily. "A most logical answer. You must be the one and only Lieutenant Commander Data."

Data cocked his head once more, trying his hand at making a joke. "Yes, sir. I...must be."

Stryker clapped her hands in applause, which caught Data even more off guard. The only times anyone applauded him was when he played an instrument in public and the one time when he tried, unsuccessfully, to master comedy on the Holodeck. He interpreted it as his attempt at humor being a success, which, for some reason Data would never be able to comprehend, a smile, however slight, formed on his face.

After her amusement subsided, she once again turned to Picard. "So, Captain, are you going to introduce the rest of your staff in would-be formation, or do I have to ask them personally?"

Still flustered, Picard gathered as much self- discipline as he could muster to keep his voice as even as possible. "Admiral, may I present my First Officer, Commander William T. Riker and Ship's Counselor, Deanna Troi."

"Ah, Commander Riker. The hero of the post-Wolf 359 battle. Excellent tactics, Commander, especially ones that kept your then-brainwashed captain baffled."

Riker smiled at her. "Thank you, Admiral." Frank little thing, isn't she? he thought of her.

"Counselor Troi. You're name is well known in certain circles back on Earth. I am priveledged to know you, as I am with the rest of this fine crew that I am certain to meet. You're a full Betazoid, are you not?"

"No, Admiral. My father was human."

"Ah. My father was human, too, so at least we have something in common."

Troi kept her smile, but didn't know what to think of her at this juncture. "Thank you, Admiral. It's nice to know that I'm...sought out in many ways, even in places far from this ship. I am honored, sir." At this juncture, she tried to sense anything that the admiral might be feeling right now, including anything reactionary to her response, no matter how slight. Her senses revealed nothing.

But it was a sensing that, somehow, Stryker caught on to. As a reaction, she blocked Troi's attempt at contact and wiped it out completely. "Are you?" she said in slight contempt. She moved closer, lowering her voice a little, her head down. "Did you know, Counselor, that back home at Starfleet Command, people sometimes say, behind my back most of the time, that I'm part Betazoid because I can read people so well?" Troi gave her a confused smile and a slight shake of the head. Stryker continued, looking her straight in the face now, eyes locked. "But right now, you're trying to read me, aren't you?"

Troi gave away her surprise by a mixture of facial expressions sweeping across her face. She'd never been confronted so openly and so directly before. It was a reaction that Picard also noticed, deciding to let their discussion, one he couldn't hear, pass to its final words. "That's what I thought. Don't do that, Counselor, please. I can read you just as well." Her voice turned to challenge now. "And I don't take too well to people trying to read me. I can very easily drum you out of Starfleet, Deanna. Imagine that. A Ship's Counselor broken for the highest mental crime one can be accused of: Invasion of privacy. Do you understand what I'm driving at, Lieutenant Commander?" Stryker stressed her rank here, a little more that forcefully. She also meant to convey the reminder that Troi's commission was in an honorary status only. And honor could suddenly and very quickly turn to Worf had learned once in accepting a forced Discommendation.

Troi remained silent, a little shaken. After a short, awkward silence, and a few scrutinizing looks, Stryker's pleasant smile returned, her voice a little louder now. "Good. Now, Captain, that all of the pleasantry poo-poo is over with, how about a tour of your ship?"

"Of course, Admiral. You'll forgive me if I don't escort you myself, as I have business to conduct." Then, to Riker, "If you would be so good as to show our guest the ship, Number One?"

"Of course, Captain. I'd be delighted."

"Ah," Stryker said, "'Ship's business' keeps the good captain from showing an aging old maid admiral his own ship. Never fear, Captain. I used to use that excuse on many an admiral when I commanded my two proud ships. I understand." She looked up at Riker, who stood a full head taller than her. "Besides," she said, playfully pulling at his beard, "Commander Riker is much better looking. I do so love good-looking, non-balding escorts." She looked at him with a small smile and upraised eyebrows that said, "Well?" With a single, very deliberate motion, she thrust her arm out in a hoop for his arm to go into. "Shall we, Commander?"

Taken aback, then recovering, he smiled, taking her arm as requested. No sense in disappointing a senior officer, much less a beautiful woman, especially for her age. "We shall, Admiral." They walked away in style, heading for Engineering.

As they left, Picard dismissed Data and moved toward Troi. "Counselor," he said in an investigative tone. "Did she... threaten you in any way?"

Troi shook her head, still shocked by the blindsided attack on her. "No, Captain. I think her lashing out was her version of a defense mechanism."

"Defense mechanism?"

"Yes. I think by trying to sense her feelings, I somehow touched something off inside her. Something very sensitive, as if that part didn't want to be touched. She's very perceptive, Captain. Don't underestimate her."

"You sound as if you don't trust her, Counselor. Is she fit for her position?"

"She's more than capable of doing her job, and I see no reason why she shouldn't be. I'm concerned about her well being. There's something inside her that is buried so deeply, we may never find out what it is. She has placed strong emotional barriers around it and feels so strong about it that I'm afraid it may very well, if directly confronted over it, destroy her and possibly others, however locked away it might me."

"Any suggestions, Deanna?"

She shook her head. "Other than staying businesslike around her, no. I have to try to bring her out of her shell surrounding this part of her." She paused, sighing slightly. "I think she needs more help than even she knows."

Picard thought that one over. Outside of this incident, she seemed almost... what might Guinan say? Terminally happy? Worf didn't seem to like her either, and his instincts were ones that he came to trust over the years. Was she hiding something from them? Picard nodded his head. "Very well. You're free to go, Counselor."

Troi gathered herself and walked to the door. As Picard looked on, he thought back to all the occasions he had ever seen Troi this shaken, and decided that he'd never seen her at quite this type of shock. A shock which almost seemed to give her some sort of vendetta to find out what was really going on here. She knows what she's doing, Picard thought. She always has, and probably always will. She was too disciplined and too much of a professional to go chasing after something unless she felt it warranted enough concern to act upon it. Concern for this matter seemed very high on her priority list.

Picard decided to keep a close but distant eye on his flag-rank guest and the progress his counselor and friend made with her.

Chief Miles O'Brien and Lieutenant Duffy had just departed Engineering after completing a level one diagnostic on the trasporter systems, and were heading to Ten-Forward when they came across Riker and Stryker arm in arm, talking like old friends. Neither of them gave it a second thought until they saw Stryker's shoulder boards that marked her as that of an admiral of some sort. Both jaws nearly dropped when they realized who she was. Upon seeing them, Riker gave them a look. "Problems, gentlemen?"

O'Brien came out of his trance first. "Uh, no, Commander."

"Oh, I know what it really is," Stryker offered. "I'd just bet that you boys have never seen an old, weakly admiral with a deathly cute commander, such as William."

Duffy looked at O'Brien with an expression he thought had never been thought of before, such was his amount of surprise. "William?" he mouthed.

"That's right," Stryker said, catching Duffy's silent word. "OK, Will, who are these fine Starfleet personnel?"

Riker let another smile loose. "Admiral, may I present Chief O'Brien, our local transporter systems expert, and Lieutenant Duffy from our Engineering section."

"Finally," Stryker shouted in triumph. "A transporter chief. I've seen so many transporter officers who don't know what's going on, I'm just about ready to hack up."

"Sir," O'Brien said, "I am a transporter officer. Full Lieutenant."

"Oh, well. Good to meet you and the other Lieutenant." To Riker: "Shall we once more?"

"Very good, Admiral," he replied as they walked off again.

Duffy shook his head slowly gaze locked after them as they departed. "He looks like a man possessed."

Coming fully back to his senses, O'Brien also looked on at them, shaking his head. "He's finally done it."

"Done what?"

"After all the women Riker's chased, he's finally caught one with blond hair, blue eyes, life, brains, looks, rank, and a rhyming last name! Perfect match, wouldn't you say?"

"Right," Duffy said. "Purely poetic."

"They're headed for engineering, right?"

"Looks like it...what do you think Commander LaForge is going to think?"

O'Brien shook his head. "He'll either be laughing or running a diagnostic on his VISOR in a few minutes. But personally, it's not Mr. LaForge I'm concerned about right now."

It struck Duffy like a bolt from the sky. "I forgot Broccoli's the Duty Engineer today. Engineering's going to hell in a handbasket and Barclay's going to be the egg that gets fried."

Barclay was checking a systems readout from the power transfer conduits and was about to check matter/antimatter balance readings when he noticed the pair walking in. Just seeing Riker with a woman was no major oddity on the ship, but seeing one with admiral's rank almost made him freeze as the sight was so out of place. Just being in the company of an admiral was an experience that Barclay had always been able to avoid. Even on the days where the high and mighty Commandant of Starfleet Academy had come to inspect his class, he had always found a way to draw a watch or some other perfectly legitimate excuse to sneak out of an admiral's presence. However, on a day like today where he was required to be in Engineering for the better part of the day, there was absolutely no way in the universe that he was going to escape attention.

After a couple minutes, Barclay saw that Riker and this unknown admiral had been touring the actual power parts of Main Engineering: Intermix chamber, matter/antimatter injectors, power readouts and the like. There was the possibility, he hoped, that he need not be hindered by having attention directed to him...

"Duty Engineer!" Riker called out. There was no chance of avoidance this time. Mr. LaForge was in a meeting with some of his more junior engineers, and left instructions to Barclay that he was not to be disturbed unless there was a dire emergency. As being called by a senior officer was of no danger to the ship, he had to answer himself.

As Barclay hesitantly moved over to their position to the engineering console, he answered with as much courage as he could muster. "Yes, sir."

Riker smiled at him as he approached. "Admiral, I'd like you to meet Lieutenant Reginald Barclay. He's one of our current masters in the engineering field. He's helped us out of a couple tight spots here and there."

Stryker offered her hand and smiled once more. "Lieutenant, good to meet you."

Barclay stood unmoving for a moment, then jerked his head and shook her hand. "Y-yes, sir. Good to you. Sir."

Stryker smiled comically and tilted her head slightly. "Don't be afraid of me, Reggie. I don't bite..." She lifted her head to see Riker looking at her from that last comment. She took on a questioning look. "...At least, not that I know of..." With that, she bared her teeth at Riker, snarled and slightly growled at him. After a second of that, she resumed a straight face; only for a second. She smiled again, looking back at Barclay.

By this time, Barclay was almost completely comatose as his reaction seemed to be one of extreme disbelief. "I know, sir."

"Oh, do you?" Stryker challenged. "How?"

"B...because you just told me, sir."

She nodded. "That I did. Good on you, Lieutenant. You've just given an old admiral the most intelligent answer she's heard in a good long time."

Barclay smiled nervously. "Thank you, sir!"

She smiled at him sweetly and turned to leave. "Does jet lag still exist, Will? I feel like I'm a prime target of it. Do you know where my quarters are?"

"Yes, admiral. I'd be happy to show you to them, if you wish."

"By all means, please do."

Ten minutes after Riker had departed, Stryker changed into a silk robe. Very impressive, this ship and crew. She made a mental note to survey both more closely in the near future. But that note seemed to throw an off switch in her brain as she crashed into sleep only five minutes later.

The dream started up again. A deep part of her mind wanted to fight it, but the rest of her subconscious blocked that want out as the horror of her life started it's dream sequence again. Being an Admiral, she had the priviledge to, and made the mistake of, watching the flight recorder tapes which now and forever occupied a place in her mind and heart. A dark place at that.

A dream that Troi sensed to a distant extent. A dream that disturbed the both of them, one much more so than the other.

STARDATE 28204.2.

It had been eight hours since Stryker had been relieved of her watch. I should be in bed, getting some sleep, she thought. But she just couldn't. She tried to put it out of her mind, but her emotional shields which usually worked so well had failed miserably. The Triangle incident only intensified in her mind. Only now had she realized what she had done to him.

Now she sat in the ship's chapel, deciding whether or not to start praying for forgiveness for what she had done to Frenchy all these years. She was jumbled between sadness and guilt, and she didn't know which particular emotion won out. They seemed to be running a pretty even race.

Then her intellect started to debate both sides of the issue. Why? she asked. One side answered, Because you needed time to yourself, to get things done that you thought you needed to get done. You've done a superb job in your handywork. Look where it's gotten you. You're a commander, due for promotion to captain in a couple of years, and getting a ship of your own. You should feel proud of yourself.

The other side started reasoning now. That may be true, but look at what it's cost you. You've already lost a friend as a whole. One who could have been more than a friend if you would have let it. The feelings came so easily for you. The only problem is, you never let him know it. You always had to keep to yourself, to your work, to thinking of your past and how wonderful it was instead of looking to the present and the future and how wonderful it could have been. You could have shared that future with the most important person in your life. Then again, you never let yourself be aware of that, did you? He loved you, and you know it. You loved him, and you know it.

But he never did know it. He died not knowing.

The darker side of the debate obviously won out. "It's all my fault."

"You're damned right it is."

Stryker spun around to find a young female officer standing behind her. "Just what the hell does that mean, Lieutenant?" she demanded, trying hard to keep the dismay out of her voice.

"You are Commander Christina Amanda Stryker, aren't you?" Each name was pronounced with great emphasis...and contempt.

She didn't have the slightest clue of what was going on or how she knew who she was. "Yes. Just who the hell are you?"

"Mary Anastas."

Stryker waited for more, which she would not volunteer. "And?"

"Does the name 'Frenchy' ring a bell at all with you?" She glared at her with utter hatred. "It should. He told me all about you; all your accomplishments, your strengths, your likeness, your beauty. How he wanted so much for you to be happy, no matter how you treated him. He's the only man I've ever known who felt so strongly for a woman for ten years straight. Right now, for the life of me, I just can't see why he'd fall for someone so cruel and cold-hearted. He'd just started to get over you when you two talked over the subspace private channel." Strykers' jaw dropped almost instantly when she said that, her defensive posture being aroused. Her private life had just been invaded again, this time by someone she didn't even know. "Yeah, he told me about that, too. You see, we became friends very quickly. Said that I was the only other one he'd trust with his personal feelings. The other person is apparently aboard this ship also. But he told me about every nook and cranny of what he knew of you. He seemed almost proud of you."

Stryker was almost afraid to ask. "What about?"

"About your current assignment as Science Officer. He said you'd been working toward it for the past three years."

Stryker nodded her head. "I didn't think he was that interested. When I told him about it, he seemed almost remote, not even caring."

"Oh, he cared, all right. That's all I heard for three days straight from him. Everything that he knew about your job progress. I'd always joke with him, said that it wasn't the best time for a special news bulletin. But he didn't care. Just as long as he could get it out to someone he trusted, he was happy." Stryker dropped her head at that. "And I bet that you never even gave him a second thought."

Stryker snapped her head back up. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about! I always tried to keep up with him! I..." she stopped herself in mid-sentence, realizing that it wasn't a good thing to say. Or maybe it was. "I loved him."

Anastas nodded her head with conviction. "Now if only he could have heard you say that. But he's gone now. He'll never know that you would have made him all too happy. And I'll never know what it would have been like to see him that happy." She let that sink in for a few seconds, and turned to leave. Before she reached the hatch, she stopped to say one more thing. "You know, being married to him would have been wonderful for you two. Charming man. I considered dating him myself once."

"Did you?"

"No. He was still head over heels for you, and I realized that it'd be impossible. He wanted you for his wife. Just a dream of his, but his dreams died hard."

"I doubt I would have married him," Stryker countered weakly.

"Sure you would have. Your tone just said so. And you know what the funny thing is? We would have been friends. But now I want nothing more than to see you fall. Trust me, Commander, I have contacts with people I can accomplish that with. I'm very respected in certain circles. People listen to me." And with a certain finality, as she raised one eyebrow, Mary Anastas turned to leave, her gaze still locked on Stryker until she left the chapel.

Stryker just watched her leave. In a sense of severe rage, she thought about how Anastas had absolutely no reason or cause to even approach her with a threat like that, much less with the guilt trip routine.

Then she started looking at it realistically. The threat was hollow, of course. She knew that now. She also started to look at just how absolutely right she was. About him. About her. About everything she'd said.

"Captain's Log, Stardate 45951.6. We have arrived at Starbase 58 to restock supplies and to bring five of Starfleet Academy's finest aboard for their week-long training cruises. After resupply is complete, we will continue back to the Kolrami sector to begin sole surveying of the twin pulsars there."

Five cadets and one Chief Medical Officer stepped aboard the great ship Enterprise. Some astounded, some familiar, they all took in their surroundings with a mixture of excitement, wonder and pure awe...but also a feeling of being right at home.

Wesley Crusher was the first one in the group to speak. "Fellow cadets...any comments?"

Nikita turned to stare him dead in the face, pointing at him as she spoke. "So, you thought you could keep this ship a secret from us, did you? Never, my friend." She narrowed her eyes and spoke in a dangerous, soft tone. "We at KGB have spies from here to Borg space, foolish boy. Nothing is safe from us." She turned "normal" again. "Especially me. How could you stand to leave from this piece of art?"

Wesley smiled. "She does kind of grow on you."

Beverly cut in. "The ship..." She looked at Nikita. "...or the girl?"

Nikita only feigned being a shy girl, turning her head away from them slowly.

A voice chimed in almost on cue, sounding distant but getting closer each second. It was a voice that most on the Enterprise learned to quickly enjoy hearing...with the exception of one new arrival. "Definitely the ship, but my kids run farther ahead in the growing category."

Alex and Stephanie turned; she went to greet her, he stayed firmly put. "Mom!" Stephanie and Christina embraced long and hard, not having seen each other in over three years.

The older Stryker smiled warmly. "How ya' doin', kid of mine?"

"Great mom, just great." She proceeded to speak about how she missed her mother, wishing she could see her more often, then leading her to her brother, trying to get them to embrace.

"How are you, Alexander?" Christina asked.

He gave her a venomous look in reply. "Don't you ever call me by my full name. You know I hate it."

Down the ramp a second later walked Picard, having originally intended to walk with the admiral and greet the lads formally. Another great plan phasered away, he began to address them. "Good morning. I'm Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I wish to welcome all of you to the flagship of the Federation fleet. I trust that your stay here for the next week will be productive, thought-provoking and a very worthwhile experience which you will take with you as you start your careers in Starfleet." He looked around, making sure everyone was paying attention. These were cadets, after all, and he remembered just how...restless cadets could be. And as Picard continued to address the cadets, Beverly looked at the three Strykers. Almost like a family reunion with one member wanting to break away from the group altogether. Wesley had told her about his classmates, the twins in particular, including Alex's rejection of his mother, who was the surprise visiting admiral, no less. She had never been able to comprehend a child having no love for a parent, and now seeing the absolute hatred this child produced had her in a state of mental shock. She decided not to be around this particular group of family, instantly preferring to spend time with Wesley, who was very much the opposite in behavior toward his mother.

Picard dismissed the cadets, letting an ensign take charge of the group and showing them to their quarters.

"You know," Christina started off, "I've found the perfect place on this ship to talk. It's called Ten Forward, and it's comfortable as hell. Why don't you guys join me for a drink? Catch up on a few things."

"Delighted," Stephanie replied.

"No thanks," Alex said coldly. "I need some sleep and help finding my quarters." With the exception of picking up Stephanie's bags, Alex gave no sign that he knew they existed.

"Alex, what--"

"Don't even try it, 'mother'," he yelled. "You've ignored us for the past three years. You think I'm just going to sit down and forget all that? Where were you when we needed you six years ago, huh? You were zipping around the stars. Commanding a starship that had more than enough room for family members, especially for the captain's family!" His tone softened, became more contemptuous. "And I, for one, have no reason to believe that you want to 'catch up' now any more than you did five years ago when dad died." He turned and stormed off to follow the group.

"He's just got a lot on his mind, mom."

Christina looked at her daughter with a bit of anguish. "So it seems."

"Captain's Log, Stardate 45953.2. We have arrived at the Kolrami Sector to start our investigation on the twin pulsars, nicknamed 'Mutt and Jeff' by Branch Admiral Stryker. As we approach the pulsars, we grow more impatient, more cautious and more curious. Safety protocols are now taking effect."

"Shields up, Mr. Worf. One half power shall be sufficient for now." Picard was, like everyone else, getting excited about actually seeing this new wonder which would be visible in front of them in only moments. He'd have to be careful of where his ship was at all times, however. The pure energy output of one pulsar was deadly at only a few million kilometers. Two such energy sources would have the same range, but double the radiation.

"Shields up, Captain, fifty percent," Worf said as the protective energy of the deflector shields surrounded the ship, keeping out the harmful radiation.

"Mr. Crusher, thrusters at station-keeping."

"Aye, sir. Thrusters are active, now at station-keeping, sir"

"Admiral on the bridge!" an ensign called out as he noticed Stryker moving out from the now- empty turbolift.

Stryker had been looking over the bridge, the only part of the ship she had not seen yet. She looked around with sheer amazement, seeing nothing but perfection in motion as the bridge personnel started at the sudden announcement that she had arrived.

"Don't worry about me, people, as you were." Then, to Picard, "I only dreamed about having a ship with this combination of people and technology. I envy you, Captain, I really do. I thought I was in heaven when I commanded the Alaska. When they built the Galaxy class, they were building art, not just a starship." Stryker shook her head in awe. "Anyway, back to our main reason for being here; are we within range of the pulsars yet?"

"Mr. Data?" Picard asked.

"We have entered visual range, sir. Full magnification on screen."

As the screen switched from normal to full mag, nearly everone at once took a sharp inhaled breath. It was stunning. These partners in space looked so in place together. So beautiful and stunning were they, that Picard forgot what he was going to say next. A pair of white stars spinning in place, they seemed to be exactly the same in every respect, but different somehow. So very beautiful and so very deadly.

Stryker whistled softly in pure astonishment. "Hellooooo, Mutt and Jeff," Stryker said, barely audible in her words, but enough that Riker and Worf heard her. Riker smiled while Worf grunted agreement.

"There's what you came for, Admiral," Picard said. "Is it at all what you expected?"

"A hell of a lot more, Captain," she replied, awe still quite evident in her voice. "A hell of a lot more."

"Then let's start our readings, shall we, Mr. Data?" Picard said.

"Aye, sir. Beginning scientific surveys."

Stryker leaned walked over to Data's console, leaning over him while he took his readings. Normally, it would take a minute or two to get all this information digested, analyzed and reported. And even though she knew of his abilities, Stryker was amazed at how quickly Data processed all the dozens of small pieces of information as they all became part of the larger picture. "You're a very amazing individual, Mr. Data," Stryker commented.

He looked up at her briefly. "Thank you, Admiral."

As she left his station, she patted him on the head, bewildering him for a moment as he wondered briefly what that meant. He shrugged it off and continued to monitor his instruments, which now showed a slight curve in radiation output readings, but nothing major at the moment.

Troi entered the bridge now, wearing her standard duty uniform. Troi locked eyes with the admiral and gave her a warm smile as Stryker walked up the ramp toward Worf's tactical position, tensing up a little. "Hello, admiral," she said, probing where she stood with her right now. After that first experience, she didn't want to try to read her. If she had triggered some sort of instinctive response in Stryker the first time, she could make it much worse by trying a second time. Besides, she had learned to use her own instincts when her empathic powers were disabled for that one most horrifying day of her life. "Are you enjoying your stay?"

Stryker seemed to relax a bit at her calmness. Maybe that first snap was the only one needed to keep this woman off her mental back. "Very much so, Counselor. Great ship, great crew, good looking first officer..." As she said this, she took a glance at Riker, who was still working on coordinating data at the Science I station. "...Yes, I'd say it's going much better than I'd ever hoped. I'm very impressed with everyone, especially the first officer. I'll just have to make sure to take him with me when I leave. Who knows? Could be the best decision I've ever made." She gave Troi a questioning look. "What do you think, Counselor?"

Troi simply looked at her deadpan. "I think there's one person who might object."

Stryker cocked her head. "And who's that?"

Troi smiled now, full of guile, and said, "Imzadi." She moved toward her chair next to the captain.

Stryker looked after her. Who the hell's that, she wondered. Troi couldn't help but sense her puzzlement, getting a slight surge of accomplishment. After all, even admirals weren't all knowing and powerful.

Riker supressed a laugh as a stole a peek at the two women. That's Deanna, he thought. Always looking out for others.

His thoughts were interrupted when a disapproving beep sounded at his station, then at Data's a moment later.

"Captain," Data called out in a more interested than alarmed tone. "I am reading a very unnatural energy flux eminating from 'Mutt'."

"Confirm, Captain," Riker said, leaving the status board to go to Picard's side, another crewman taking his place.

As they said this, "Mutt" seemed to turn from nearly pure white to a seemingly dark gray very quickly. This struck Picard and Stryker as extremely and obviously unusual. Picard was about to ask, but Stryker beat him to the punch. "Analysis, Mr. Data."

Data responded to Stryker just as he would to Picard. "Sensors are showing a rising amount of plasma and other gaseous materials building up inside the core of the pulsar. The gas has started to compress upon itself slowly, however the pressure is being doubled by a factor of twenty at a rate of every five seconds."

Stryker suddenly got a very serious look on her face, only the second such look Picard had seen from her since she'd been here. "And that means, Mr. Data?" she asked, even though she knew full well what it meant. Even so, she hoped that her human mind had made a mistake, hoping to hear from a mechanical mind that she was wrong. Both came to the same conclusion.

"Its means, Admiral, that we are seeing a pulsar going nova at approximately five hundred times the rate of a normal dying star of relatively equal mass."

Wesley turned his head to look at Data like he had just lost his mind. Which he knew was impossible, of course. Data was hardly ever wrong about anything. Still, this...event didn't seem possible. "That means that this pulsar will collapse in five minutes?"

"That is correct. When 'Mutt' collapses, it will almost certainly consume 'Jeff' in the process. The resulting energy output of the twin pulsars dying at the same time will be next to phenomenal."

"I think we've seen enough as far as phenomenal goes, Jean-Luc," Stryker said.

Riker joined in. "Agreed, Captain. We can't put the ship in any kind of danger, especially danger that could strike out at us from a million kilometers away."

Picard reacted. "Mr. Worf, bring shields to full power at once. Mr. Crusher, make ready to warp us out of here as soon as possible."

"Sir." It was Wesley this time. "Why don't we launch a Class V probe to trace the effects of the nova? We could enhance the probe's guidance system energy output so that it can act as a low power navigational deflector. The shielding won't be all that effective, but it may give us an extra three to five seconds of scanning time to record information that we wouldn't have had otherwise." Wesley left off with a little more than a hopeful look. He wanted to see what this thing might leave behind, high energy output or not.

Picard nodded approval, as did Riker and Stryker. "Agreed," said Picard. "Make the necessary adjustments, Mr. Crusher. Mr. Data, feed launch trajectory headings to Mr. Worf's station when ready." Then, to Worf, "Stand ready to launch the moment modifications are complete. Feed coordinates of launch trajectory when established."

"Aye, sir," Worf replied as he started to check his instruments for firing the Class V probe, a powerful, warp-capable probe mounted inside a photon torpedo casing.

"Reprogramming probe sensor frequency specifications and amplifying," Wesley called out, his feelings detached from the rest of the ship. This was his baby about to be launched from the forward torpedo tube. Whenever he tackled something like this, he always preferred to do it on his own terms. These were definitely his terms, dictated to the computer like a finely written speech, each command built with care. "Now tuning energy output, establishing field harmonics and matching with standard deflector shield nutonals." The torpedo would have about three percent total power compared to the Enterprise's own shields, but they would hold for a little while, giving the science department a little more valued information that might not have had the chance to be recorded otherwise. Not a lot, but enough to get the job done without destroying the probe in a circuit overload from its own power output.

"The probe is ready, Captain," Data said.

"Ready to launch, sir." Worf added.

Wesley spoke this time. "Ready for course change at any time, sir."

"Very well. Mr. Worf, launch the probe. Mr. Crusher, set course 335, mark 1, warp four. Engage."

The Enterprise fired off her probe and swung herself around as if she realized the danger of what was soon to come, punching her speed up to warp four as quickly as she could.

As the probe raced in to its preset coordinates, its monitoring sensors started taking in information on the pulsars as they seemed to race eagerly toward their own destruction. What was to come, however, was wholly unexpected.

Data was tracking information being transmitted from the probe when the pulsars collapsed. There was a blinding light across the void of space, but not yet reaching the Enterprise as she continued racing away from certain death at almost one hundred times the speed of light. "The pulsars have died," Data said. He next expected to see that the probe was destroyed along with a final reading that would tell how much radiation and gas were blasted across space. This did not happen. "Captain, I am still receiving readings from the probe," Data said, puzzled. "All systems are still on line, modified shields are holding with no energy drain."

"Maybe they're stronger than you thought," Riker said, hopefully.

"No, sir," Data said. "At this time, the probe should have ceased to function. I...fascinating..." Data trailed off in wonder.

"What is it, Data?" Riker demanded.

"I am reading energy after-effects produced by the nova. It is a type of energy I have never seen before, sir. However, there is no pulsar- specific radiation, no harmful gases." Data paused and turned around. "Almost as if they were never there, sir." Data ended off as dramatically as he knew how. There was no need; everyone on the bridge was shocked. If nothing else, there should have been lots of residual gases expanding from the now dead pulsars.

Picard looked from Data to Riker to LaForge to Stryker and back to the screen. "Reverse course, slow to warp three. We're expecting to see things that aren't there. Let's take a look at what is there, shall we?"

As the Enterprise turned herself around again at three quarter her original speed, sensor eminations from the lateral sensor arrays increased drastically, trying to find whatever it was that was there. When they arrived back in the area of where the pulsars had once been, they saw nothing for almost three minutes. After that period was over, however, things started happening. Readings from the probe were still coming in, registering another energy flux. "Captain," Data said. "I am now reading another unknown energy source which seems to be growing at a rapid rate."

"Almost as fast as the pulsars died, I'll bet," Riker put in to Picard and Stryker, who were all standing in the command circle.

"Correct, sir," Data said, hearing him. "Based on current formations and fluctuations in the space-time continuum, and compared to past records, this energy source would suggest that it will grow into a temporal rift."

Guinan noticed the rift from Ten Forward, as she did the last time when they encountered their predecessor, the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-C, although no one but her would ever really know it. Their next encounter with a rift showed them to be destroyed by collision with the USS Bozeman numerous times. This was a phenomenon that had a dubious reputation with Guinan to be popping up out of nowhere whenever she was around. These things were not a good omen with her...the first time she had seen one had sent her planet a Borg ship, causing her race to scatter among the stars. She could feel that bad feeling in her bones. This rift would prove to be no different.

"We've definitely had more than our fair share of those things," Geordi called out. Which was true enough. "And I'd rather not come across one again. Data, are you sure this isn't some kind of residual after-effect from the radiation? It could be similar to a sensor ghost."

"I am certain, Geordi," Data began. "The radiation dynamics--"

"Captain," Worf called out. "I'm reading a solid mass coming through the rift."

And for all LaForge's reasonings, this rift would prove to be no different. As Worf finished his report, a starship slowly emerged from the rift, seemingly dead. The shape was vaguely familiar to most of the bridge crew, except for Data, who had seen this class of ship only once before, but which was forever stored in his memory. Still, he was a state of surprise. He never expected to see one ever again. He started scanning the ship as soon as it had crossed the rift.

Guinan stared intently on the new ship, trying to sense if there again was a change, as with the Enterprise-C. There wasn't. She was relieved that nothing had changed as before, but there still remained the fact that this strange ship was here. She hoped that Picard would keep an eye on it and make careful decisions, as he had in the other war-filled, twisted timeline.

Wesley also stared at the ship, fascinated by its features, trying to remember the shapes from which he swore he saw only a few months ago in an Academy history class. It dawned on him about the same time Worf made his announcement. "Captain, I have a positive identification match in vessel configuration. Sensors show this vessel to be an Enterprise class starship."

All the bridge crew again were astonished. "How?" Stryker asked. "The Enterprise class was phased out of service a little more than a few years ago."

"Approximately sixty-four years ago, Admiral," Data corrected.

"Distance?" Riker asked.

"Five hundred thousand kilometers, sir," Wesley replied. "She's drifting, sir, no evident power emissions, no engine activity. She's dead, sir, just lying there."

"Life signs, Mr. Worf?" Picard asked.

"No life aboard, sir," Worf said after a few seconds. "Life support is functioning, however, her computer is down."

"Mr. Crusher, bring us alongside that ship. Mr. Data, magnify screen to show us her bow. I want to know what ship that is."

Wesley brought the ship close to and over the bow of the mystery ship. Closer examination revealed the starship was in completely healthy shape, which made Picard more suspicious about why this ship was here and raised more questions as to exactly how it got here. However, the question of how was rapidly becoming moot.

"The rift is closing on itself, Captain," Data reported. After several seconds, in came the second report. "The rift has completely closed itself off, sir. No further radiation patterns exist from the general area of the rift."

"Very well," Picard said.

"There goes one avenue of investigation," Riker commented.

"I've never seen anything like that," Strkyer added. "What the hell was it?"

"A time portal, Admiral, so to speak." Picard shifted his gaze from Stryker back to the viewscreen, which now revealed a close up of the forward primary hull. He said in a surprised voice, "Leaving behind a small piece of history."

The USS Emperador, NCC-1774.

"Mr. Data, what do you know about that ship?" Riker asked.

"The Emperador was a vessel assigned as a training vessel on loan to the Vulcan Science Academy, sir. She was lost on a scientific training mission and presumed destroyed on stardate 24912, cause and reason unknown."

"Any more data on the rift?" Picard asked.

"No further information is available, Captain," Data replied. "Readings match exactly to the rift we encountered en route to Artra IV."

"Well," Troi said, "there's the proof that she wasn't destroyed."

"But she's here now, obviously," Stryker said with a little contempt.

"And whatever the reason for her disappearance," Picard reasoned, "that ship is still a part of Starfleet, which means she should be recovered as such." He turned to Geordi. "Mr. LaForge, prepare damage control and recovery teams to bring that ship back to life. We'll need her to be up and running to properly turn her over to Starfleet Command."

"Aye, sir."

As LaForge walked off the bridge, Picard found himself looking intently on the Emperador as she drifted. Why are you here, he thought. And how did another rift form to lead you here?

As soon as his own mental voice was finished asking its questions, another familiar, more annoying voice popped in, making his face contort faster than any warp engine could engage.

Just another boring mystery for the great Dixon Hill to solve, Jean-Luc.

It was the crystal clear, pain in the neck voice of the entity known as Q.

"Captain's Log, supplemental. For a reason currently unknown, the Kolrami pulsars have transformed themselves into a temporal rift, bringing forth the USS Emperador, lost in space until now. Further precautions on the ship have been effected and an Away Team is now in place."

Riker took a team consisting of Worf, Beverly, LaForge and the four cadets, all of them armed. As they beamed aboard the Emperador's bridge, they were all but astonished.

Power was still flowing throughout the ship, but the bridge was useless, looking more like a battleground than a well organized control center of a starship. Black energy burns were apparent in every bulkhead.

"What the hell happened here?" Riker asked, rhetorically.

"A party gone out of control?" Nikita said.

Worf pulled out his tricorder to examine the bulkheads. "These burns were caused by several types of weapons fire, Commander," Worf said. "Including, possibly...disruptor fire.

Riker's head snapped at that thought. If the Romulans had captured this ship at the same time she was reported missing, he thought...

"Riisara, check the internal sensors and their logs. Are or were there Romulans aboard this ship?"

She tried the sensors to no avail. "Sensors are inoperative, sir."

LaForge moved to the engineering console, surprised at what he saw.

"Commander, someone's activated the self- destruct function, but it's in pause mode."

Riker moved over to him. "Can you deactivate it?"

"I think so..." LaForge let his words drift off as he started tinkering with what was left of the computer. Five minutes passed before the computer announced that the destruct sequence had been aborted.

"Very good. Cadet Petrovsky, see if you can't raise the Enterprise for me. Worf, take the doctor and the rest of the cadets. Do a thorough search. I want to know if anyone is still aboard. Geordi, check out engineering. See what kind of shape power transfer systems are in."

"Right away, Commander."

"Hailing frequency open, sir," Petrovsky called.

"Already?" Riker asked in surprise.

"Of course, sir. I am Nikita Petrovsky, am I not?"

He smiled. "I have no doubt that you are." He turned to the screen. "Riker to Enterprise."

"Picard here. Report, Number One."

Riker told their situation. "I suspect Romulan involvement, sir."

"Yes, but Romulan involvement in an incident that may have happened thirty years ago is even touchier than present day. See what you can do to restore some of her systems and report back here with your team after repairs are completed. We'll take Emperador in tow afterwards. Picard out."

After several hours of hard work, Petrovsky had the communications systems and sensors fully operational again. LaForge had forty percent total power and Worf reported no one else aboard. The ship was functional again. Twenty hours after they first arrived, the Away Team was transported back. The experience was one the cadets were proud of...well, all but Riisara. As they were taken back to the Enterprise, she felt dizzy for a moment. The transporter is different, she reasoned, and dismissed it by continuing her assessment of the situation, while the other cadets seemed overjoyed by the simple experience. That was, after all in her experiences, a typical human reaction to an unknown.

Chris Stryker slipped into her sleeping apparel and fell asleep. Her clash with her son felt like battling a monster that had the ability to drain one's energy. She looked forward to getting to sleep, which shouldn't be too hard to do...

Troi started to sense another real, strongly emotional dream. She couldn't offhand tell whose, but if she had to guess, the admiral would be it. She sat back in her quarters, trying to sort out this crazy form of radio reception.

Chris Stryker found herself in a royal blue formal dinner dress. Her fingernails were long and painted, face covered with cosmetics, hair newly permed. She noticed she was in the most romantic restaurant in the Federation; Typ Hyperti on Risa. She'd been there once, but had almost forgetten what it looked like. Wondering exactly what was going on here, she took in her surroundings. The table had no light, save for two incense candles burning, the whole booth fully enclosed for the privacy of lovers both young and old. The only entrance/exit was a swinging door three feet to her right.

The music playing was of old twentieth century stock. Slow music; love songs. The Starfleet Academy emblem was on one wall facing her, and behind her was the emblem of her high school. In the background of the music were the soft sounds of the ocean tide rolling in on the beaches. A very familiar sound from her old beach home in Florida where she grew up; a sound she hadn't heard in a very long time. She also noticed a large photo taken about eleven years ago. A photo of herself and Alex after they had just made fools of themselves at a get-together at the Academy. But it had turned out to be one hell of a good time. As she recalled, Alex had met a new man, and Chris was singing while they danced. She had insisted on doing it, and reluctantly Alex agreed. That was at the end of the night. She still couldn't believe what they did about three hours before. And the man of Alex Peterson's dreams had still come along, taken her in his arms, swept her off her feet...

This is great, she thought. Having all these memories come to life.

Then he walked in.

He was wearing a very expensive-looking tux, carrying a bottle of very old champange. He walked in singing the last part of a stanza of the song that was playing. Something having to do with her eyes.

She smiled, a little embarrassed. "Oh, Frenchy- -"

"Please, madam, call me by my given name. Francois Deveroux at your service."

She smiled even more now, letting her feelings for him show through. "Oui, Francois," she said, trying to put as much French accent on her words as she possibly could. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, he smiled heavily back at her.

"Very good, my sweet. I've taught you something, at least. Now, let's see if we can open this thing..." He struggled a little with the corkscrew, tugging and pulling at the cork. He took a break for a second, looking at her with a wide-eyed "I don't believe this" look. She chuckled softly. He started up again, this time the cork came off easily. Fortunately for their clothes, the champange didn't foam up and come spurting out of the bottle. With a satisfied look on his face, he started pouring the bottles' content into their glasses, putting a single red rose into her hair while doing so.

She realized that she was being romanced like she had never been romanced before.

As a matter of fact, she never had been romanced before. But this was as good a place as any, just as good a time.

"Francois, why are we here? I mean, you've never even said anything about meeting in a place like this. You said you wanted to go to dinner, but in a place like this..." She insinuated basic curiousity. "I didn't even get the message from you that we were coming here, just some anonymous caller."

"Who did you think left that message?" he asked in return.

"You, obviously. But I didn't know that it was you at the time. It would have been nice to know that it was you rather than not know at all."

"Ah, but that's part of the surprise, my darling."

"Maybe. But it still would have been nice to hear direct from you."

Deveroux nodded. "I see your point." Then he smiled. "But now, to my point. Christina, as you know, I've loved you with all my mind, all my heart, and all my soul for ten years, whether you acknowledged me or not. But now you have, and, in doing so, you have made me the happiest man ever alive. I know many men have said that to their lovers over centuries time, but I truly mean it. More so than anyone who has ever uttered the phrase. It's more than just a phrase to me, though. I've always hoped that I would be able to earn your love, and now I have. Therefore, I see no choice but to offer you this." He pulled a small box from the pocket of his coat pocket and offered it to her. She looked at him in disbelief as she watched it hover in his hand in front of her. He opened it. She knew what was in it, but its contents still surprised her for some unexplained reason. What was in is was the most breathtaking experience she'd ever known.

In it was the most beautiful engagement ring she'd ever laid eyes on.

Francois took the ring gingerly from the box and placed it on her left ring finger. "Christina, I beg you, I ask you: Will you marry me?"

She was in a daze. It seemed so far away, yet so near. Here it was, the offer of a lifetime. The offer to spend the rest of your life with the one you so dearly love and adore. And she did love him, she knew. The feeling just got stronger with each passing second. She wanted to let the feeling get stronger and stronger, but she was also afraid that the longer she waited, the longer it would appear to him that she was just considering, almost hesitant. She didn't want him to feel like that, and she definitely didn't want to feel like that herself.

"Yes." She told him with so much a smile that she needed only show him the pleasant expression on her face. The verbal response was nice, too.

Voices started materializing, softly at first, getting gradually louder. "What the hell?" She looked around to see where they were coming from, but there seemed to be no source. Realizing that, she tried to recognize them. She reeled in horror and shock when she did finally recognize them.

Each phrase uttered out of nowhere were thoughts. Her thoughts.

Thoughts that she'd had before.

The voices were all hers.

"Hold on there, darlin'," one said. "You can't have a career and a husband, too. You have to decide which one is more important: You or Him."

"Please don't make me choose," she said, softly, still dazed.

"You still have studying to do, young lady," said another. "You don't want to get any less than a 98 on your final, do you? Now, get back in that room and get at it! GO, GO, GO!!!"

"Just friends," said a third. "You always just wanted to be friends. You never needed to be tied up with everybody. All you ever wanted is friends. Nothing more. You've got a science department to think about."

"It's all my fault."

"No problem. Have fun."

"Only for you, big boy."

"It's all my fault."

"It's all my fault."

Out of nowhere, two crowds, one side dressed in employee garb, the other in Starfleet dress uniforms, started chanting.

"Him," the employees chanted.

"Us," the fleet crowd chanted.





Suddenly, the fleet crowd's faces changed to resemble Stryker, the employee crowd's faces changed to look like Deveroux.

Just as suddenly, in perfect unison, the Starfleet crowd pulled phasers out from some unseen place. And again, in perfect unison, all the Strykers fired with full killing force...

At the group of Deveroux's.

Screaming, the victims disappeared in a flare of red-colored energy.

"Us." The Stryker-fleet crowd said, lowering their phasers.

Deveroux looked at her sadly as the prized ring on her finger turned to flame, melted, and disappeared. Her finger remained undamaged, like it had never been there. In actual reality, it never had been.

After watching the ring disappear, she looked up helplessly at Francois. He just shook his head, and uttered his last phrase. The last phrase he would ever say. It was also the one that she would never hear. "Au revoir, Christina. I love you."

With that, Deveroux seemed to shrink and merge into the engineering section of a growing shape which became the ENTERPRISE. Just as abruptly, the ship exploded right in front of her, the explosion coming right from the engineering section.

"No," she whispered.

"It's all my fault," she heard her voice say all around her.

"It sure as hell is," came Anastas' voice like the sudden stab of a knife...

Stryker jolted awake, screaming, her sheets soaked with sweat. Her heart was pounding like it never had before. Just the sheer horror of watching Frenchy die on board "the assignment so hard to pull, you'd kill for it" was too much to take. As she tried to recover, she realized that she didn't actually watch it.

But it was real enough.

Troi could only catch bits and pieces of the dream, but Stryker's final jolting reaction told her the dream was horrifying.

Her next step took her to Ten Forward, finding Stephanie. She introduced herself and, at Stephanie's invitation, sat down across from her.

"I have a few question about your mother, if you don't mind."

"Oh, not at all," she replied. "I'm just proud as punch about her. What do you want to know?"

"This may come as a disturbing surprise to you. I've been sensing some very hard, painful emotions coming from your mother, mostly manifesting in dreams. Is there anything that might make her dream like this that you'd know of?"

Stephanie delayed for a moment. "Well, she's been having a bad time trying to get back in contact with my brother. He doesn't like her very well."

Troi's eyebrows knitted together. "Why?"

"He's resentful to her for a lot of reasons. Mostly for not taking us with her on the Alaska, and for her supposedly screwing up a relationship before marrying my dad. He died a few years ago."

"I'm sorry." She paused before continuing. "Who was this relationship with?"

"I don't know," Stephanie replied. "But I do know that she dodged him for ten years while holding feelings for him. Go figure."

"Why does your brother take resentment to that?"

She paused again, trying to get the words out. Words to a reason that made no sense to her. "He feels that she would have been better served if she'd married that guy and had only one But it doesn't make sense. I wouldn't even be here...looking like I do, anyway. But none of us can change that, and I can't stand when he beats himself up for it, dragging my mother down with him."

Troi paused for a moment, letting her regain any composure she might have lost. "Do you know the name of this man?"

She shook her head. "No. All I know is that whoever he was, mom's taken lengthy steps to carry the memory of him with her."

Thanking Stephanie for her help, Troi left Ten Forward, leaving an order for a hot fudge sundae with an attendant for her. She figured she could use it.

All hell broke loose about five minutes after Troi placed her order.

Wesley and Stephanie met soon after Deanna had left and were walking through a corridor when they got jumped. Before Wesley was struck deep in the stomach with a dull knife, he noted the person was wearing a black hooded robe, unable to see a face. Stephanie, having nothing to defend herself with, tried to run down the corridor to get help. She was stopped immediately by a phaser set to its highest shipboard setting, charring a fair amount of skin on her back which immediately sent her into shock. The force of the blast threw her against a nearby bulkhead, rendering her unconscious. The assailant knew exactly what to do with weapons. To go any higher with the phaser would risk automatic shutdown by the computer. But no matter how low the phaser was set, the computer alerted Worf to the presence of phaser fire on setting 5.

A security team was dispatched, finding the bleeding Crusher and severely burned Stryker, both on the deck and unconscious. Sick bay was contacted, causing Beverly to rush out with full medical gear and four other medical officers.

She examined both of them. Wesley's wound was serious enough, but seeing Stephanie's burns were enough reason to send a call to O'Brien, transporting them all to Sick Bay to begin work immediately.

Worf was out on deck 10 now, angry that his usually airtight security onboard had been violated. No intruder alert had gone off, yet two people were in critical condition. Positioning a total of fifteen security personnel on three different decks and clearing most of the others off the corridors, Worf and two of his ensigns moved down cautiously toward Ten Forward.

Caution paid off, for Worf would have been caught by two bursts from the assailant's phaser. A standoff ensued for two minutes, one of the ensigns being hit square in the chest, and was immediately critically wounded. The opposing phaser was aimed for the lights next, knocking most of them out, leaving the corridor only dimly lighted. Worf fired off three more bursts, his flanking ensign two, before something was thrown at them, clattering on the deck, making a whining sound. Worf could not make it out, but his ensign had better night eyes, recognizing the, "Phaser on overload!" The ensign immediately ran toward the phaser, placing his comm badge on it after calling O'Brien. The phaser disappeared in a shimmer of white light, exploding fiercely but harmlessly in space twenty kilometers off the port bow. The assailant got away.

Soon afterwards, Worf's whole security force started checking all spaces for three decks above and below deck 10. Three hours into their search, an officer checked inside Cadet Petrovsky's quarters... ...and found a black hooded robe.

Nikita Petrovsky was arrested two minutes later.

After clearing out a few mystery particles from the matter stream in Transporter Room Three, O'Brien sent them to Sick Bay's isolation chamber and went to the bridge with LaForge, trying to continue their project of recovering some of the Emperador's logs. It was all they could do to recover the ship's crew roster, but not much else. The list revealed not wholly unexpected results. Over half the crew were Vulcans. Miles had a sudden thought. Not entirely crazy, he thought, just a remote possibility. He scanned the Emperador for an empty spot and called for a beaming of pure air out of the old ship. Once again, the same particles were found in the matter stream, and those were beamed to the isolation chamber as well. LaForge took a look at the dynamics of them. "Don't those look a little like virus cells?"

"As near as I can tell," O'Brien said. They soon afterwards headed off the bridge to Sick Bay. May as well let an experienced doctor in on virus samples, they agreed.

When Troi learned of the casualties, she felt it her duty to inform the admiral of her child's condition, whether they liked each other or not. "Computer, locate Branch Admiral Stryker."

"Branch Admiral Stryker is on Holodeck Three."

She frowned slightly, noting that admirals usually didn't use holodecks. It took four minutes to get there. The doors parted, and she stepped in, surrounded by darkness.

She found herself walking into the most vivid-- and startling--simulation she had yet seen. The holodeck was completely dark, save for the small lights of the "stars" shining like small, bright pinheads. The sheer realism of this program made her gasp with wonder. Someone had gone to great lengths to provide the computer with the most detailed program ever fed into its memory. It seemed like this was the dream that Troi felt with such mixture of emotion from some member of the crew. It was relaxing, like looking up at the stars on a cloudless night... ...then it came.

A single starship, a modified Excelsior class if Troi recognized it correctly, had appeared suddenly, the blue glow of her engines slowly receding as she secured from warp speed, now heading under impulse power. She was all business. She was here for a reason.

The scene shifted suddenly, as if a camera had been mounted underneath the ship's great secondary hull, as stars streaked by more slowly now. A type of cargo ship now appeared, getting closer with each second. Fires were evident, flickering from her portholes, lapping at everything and anything inside. The cargo ship seemed to loom hugely now as the camera view came closer to it, as the starship came closer to it.

But it would grow no closer. The view switched again to the outside, the two ships getting smaller...and a third and fourth appeared, decloaking. Both fired torpedoes at the cargo ship, destroying it only moments later, a bright flash of light and a rapidly receding fireball replaced the space where the freighter had once been. The blinding light from the initial explosion flashed and disappeared quickly, dazing Troi only slightly. Now the three ships started maneuvering. And firing.

Troi was nearly overwhelmed as action started taking place, both here and now in a different corner of the holodeck. A starship bridge appeared to Troi's right, her crew suddenly jumping around and heading to battle stations, red lights flashing everywhere on the bridge, and, she didn't doubt, all over the ship. A man's voice came next, sounding almost like Picard's, but not matching it at all. He flipped a switch suddenly on the center seat after he took a quick look at his communications officer.

"CAPTAIN'S LOG, STARDATE 28202.3. We have received a Priority-One distress call from the USS Enterprise. She has reportedly been engaged in the Triangle Zone during a rescue operation, the attack on her being completely unprovoked. We should be able to provide a rescue, assuming we reach the engagement area in time. We are approximately fifteen minutes from arrival."

The call rang out to the crew of the USS Alaska. "Red alert, red alert. All hands to battle stations. All stations report when manned and ready."

As Major Tong, the ship's tactical officer, called the alert for the second time, most of the senior bridge officers were just arriving and taking their posts. Stryker, Alex Peterson, and Williams, the helmsman, were the last to arrive and immediately started taking in the first of massive amounts of information that would be pouring in within the next few minutes.

My God, Troi thought. That's Admiral Stryker almost twenty five years ago. How did she get the bridge flight recorder tapes?

"Engineering, report," Captain Walker called.

"Adams here. Engines running fully at transwarp factor 13. Warp 14 will be difficult to hold without a hell of a lot of stress on the ship. I recommend no higher that current speed, sir."

"Very well. Keep that power flowing."

"Yes, sir. Engineering out."

"What's going on, Captain?" Peterson asked.

"We're responding to a distress call from the Enterprise. She's under attack."

"Enterprise?!" Peterson asked a little more than unbelievingly. "Who's attacking her?"

"Unknown right now. We'll know in a minute when we're in sensor range. Right, Mr. Stryker?" Walker asked without looking at her.

"Affirmative, sir."

"I hope Frenchy's all right," Peterson said from her Engineering console.

Frenchy?, Troi thought. Pet name? "Peterson to Engineering. Watch that intermix temperature, make sure it doesn't go over limits. Also, stand by for power transfer to shields and weapons. Possible engagement in about thirteen minutes."

"God, I forgot Francois was out there," Stryker said, almost seeming like it took her a while to comprehend and remember that her friend was onboard that ship. She immediately turned to her sensor console, running it at extreme range, hoping to get something very soon.

But Stryker called him by his first name. Not a nickname, but a full name. Meaning...what?

"Doesn't surprise me," Peterson muttered in complete contempt. "Treat him like garbage off and on for ten years, then be concerned when--"

"What was that, Commander?" Commander Steele, the first officer, asked her.

"Nothing, sir. Just trying to figure something out."

"Me, too," Troi muttered.

"Getting them locked in now, Captain," Stryker announced, then paused a moment to figure out her readings at such extreme range. But with every second that drew nearer meant that the Alaska was that much closer, and the sensor readings became that much clearer. "I'm reading the Enterprise engaged with a Romulan Nova class battlecruiser and a Klingon Ever Victorious class battleship."

"Damn if she's not outclassed," Steele commented. "Current status of all ships?"

"Scanning...the Nova is running with shields down, damage to her superstructure is serious. Starboard warp nacelle is destroyed, port nacelle is inoperative. Impulse engines running at one- half power. All weapons show near depletion, life support seems to be on the brink of collapse. She's almost out of the fight."

As the younger Stryker said this, Troi looked over at the fight which was happening in the middle of the room, and the Nova did look pretty well damaged. This was very realistic. Almost like being there, which she was glad she wasn't. She forced herself to look back at the corner, where the "bridge" was operating.

"The Ever Victorious has partial shields. Engineering is destroyed, but the ship is running on thirty percent power. Weapons are still running at near peak efficiency, though with the power drain they're pulling, she's probably not going to last much longer either. The ship is warp-inactive, her impulse engines seem untouched; that seems to be the source of her power. Superficial structural damage, save for the engineering section."

"Guess they knew where to shoot. What's Enterprise's condition?" Walker asked.

"She's not so good herself, sir. Partial superstructure damage in the primary hull. Secondary hull seems untouched."

Walker noted the sheer relief her voice showed in that comment.

"Power levels are at forty percent, shields are getting about fifteen percent of that power. The rest is going to weapons, and only bare-minimum power to life support. She doesn't have power for warp flight, impulse engines are untouched, but she's only doing one-half impulse. She's firing pretty heavily."

"Strange," Walker noted. "She should be using impulse at full to dodge incoming fire. The Klingons've probably got her every move covered. So why the hell isn't she moving that fast?"

Out of nowhere, another corner of the holodeck came to life with another bridge crew. This bridge was smoking, showing stains of the battle all over this nerve center of the ship, with most of the bridge crew dead or wounded.

If Walker had been there, (as Troi felt she was), he would have understood in an instant. Captain Samuel Robinson of the Enterprise was saving most of his engine power for a moment of full impulse or better to counter a move or to make a move of his own. Right now, though, it was clear that an evasive move was more appropriate as three Romulan plasma bolts came streaking in at them. "Evasive!"

She evaded all but a part of the third bolt, taking only minor damage, most of which was absorbed by the shields.

"Come about to course 003 mark 2, one quarter impulse," Robinson said. "Stand by for torpedo spread on the Romulan. He's not showing any signs of letting up."

"Aye, sir. Coming hard about...there he is, sir," Mary Anastas exclaimed.

The Romulan ship came into view. Anastas righted the ship's course straight toward the Nova, the one that had first attacked her. Anastas turned on a determined look on her face as she stood ready to dodge any more fire that might come from that monster which now loomed dead ahead.

"Lock on and fire!" Robinson's words hung in the air only a second when four photon torpedoes came careening out of her two forward tubes, almost like two consecutive one-two punches. As the torpedoes struck, Robinson knew they would be enough to finish her. All four went into the forward area of the Nova. The Enterprise changed to intercept the Klingon ship, the Romulan exploding into a thousand pieces, some still flaring with antimatter energy from the torpedo impacts.

"The Nova has been destroyed," Stryker said excitedly. "The Klingon ship is now firing on Enterprise, she's heeling over to evade the fire. Power levels dropped slightly when she launched her torpedoes."

"At least she'll be able to hold them for a little while longer," Walker said. "Williams, how long until we reach maximum firing range?"

"At current speed," Williams replied, "we will secure from warp speed and reach the engagement area in nine minutes."

"Very well," Walker replied. He just hoped they'd be able to keep that Klingon ship off their backs for another nine minutes. Otherwise, a rescue mission would be moot.

Peterson was carefully monitoring her engineering readouts when Stryker reported the power level drop. "Come on, Frenchy," she whispered.

Troi was again surprised when yet another corner of the room was filled. It was an engineering section, teeming with tension and busy people.

Acting Chief Engineer Deveroux definitely had his hands full. It was bad enough just trying to draw power from everywhere he could think of to keep the ship in at least partially operational condition. It didn't help matters when he noticed a trail of highly pressurized white smoke coming from one of the coolant pipes. He may have not been all that experienced on the job in the Engineering section, but he knew alot more about a starship and her workings than one would think. What he was seeing now was a part of the workings he hoped he'd never see. "Computer, activate forcefield over engineering tube one-twelve and hold pressurization. Coolant leak in progress."

French accent, Troi noted. This had to be "Frenchy".

"Unable to comply," the computer said to his complete disbelief. "Code Three power restrictions apply."

"There won't be any power restrictions if we're all dead! Computer, emergency override to all current power restrictions, access code one-three- seven delta, sequence seven-seven-zero. Codeword Pixie."

"Acknowledged. Power restriction lifted."

"Thank you. Engineering to bridge, Deveroux here, Captain. We have a coolant leak in progress. I've just placed a forcefield over the leak to stop it. It should only take five percent power from the ships systems to hold coolant pressurization."

"Well done, Deveroux. Let me know if you need to patch anything else together at a moment's notice. We're moving in on the Klingon ship now, and I don't need any surprises. Just keep the juice flowing."

"I'll take the last spark out of the batteries to accommodate you, Captain."

"Hope it won't come to that. Robinson out."

On the bridge, Robinson was trying to get this little battle over with. "Get a lock on him and fire when you can. Short bursts on phasers, standby on torpedoes."

"Engineering to bridge," Deveroux called.

"Captain!" the communications officer called about the same time.

"Standby, Deveroux. Ensign?"

"Sir, I have a general call from the USS Alaska on the hailing frequency!"

Robinson turned toward the viewscreen. "On screen."

Upon hearing that, Deveroux activated his own viewscreen on his console. On both screens, the entire bridge crew of the Alaska appeared. As Deveroux saw his friends, he smiled heavily. "Ah, Christina, Alex, you've come to rescue me."

Good friends, Troi noted with some satisfaction as to her progress. Very good friends. His smile, much less his words and tone of voice, said that much.

"This is Captain J. R. Walker of the Federation starship Alaska. Klingon ship, attention! We are five minutes time from your engagement area. If you do not disengage the Enterprise, I will order my ship to engage and destroy you. You have one minute to reply, or disengage, or we will assume that you have no intention to disengage and your hostile actions will continue. I will then have no choice but to fire once in range. Respond!"

"Tactical," Robinson called, "any change in the Klingon ship's readings?"

"Negative, sir, he's making an attack run on us!"

"Anastas, evasive to starboard! Now!"

Too late, she pulled the ship into a hard starboard turn. The Klingon battleship fired two torpedoes and three disruptor bursts. The disruptors hit hard on the already strained shields on the primary hull, and the torpedoes hit all around the engineering section, giving Deveroux and his team of engineers one hell of a scare. Enterprise lost her aft shields, emergency lighting came on line. The Klingon completed his run with aft torpedoes blazing. Three more came screaming toward the battered Enterprise, this time completely ripping off her starboard nacelle and damaging the port nacelle completely beyond repair. Enterprise answered with two torpedoes of her own from her aft section. Ignoring their engines, the torpedoes were extremely well-placed for a snapshot, heading for the aft torpedo launcher. One near missed, tearing down the aft shields, the other screamed straight into the torpedo tube. A fantastic explosion resulted as the three armed photon torpedoes already inside the tube also detonated, blowing off most of the central aft section of the Klingon ship and creating fires all over the ship. Power levels dropped to near-dead, but the Klingon captain would not give up. He used his maneuvering thrusters, the only motive power he had left, to complete a hard turn, and once again charged toward the wounded Enterprise.

"I don't believe it," Robinson said. "Three- quarter impulse, hard to port!"

The order came out about when the torpedoes came screaming in again. This time three impacted against the primary hull. One hit about ten meters aft of the bridge, one hit the portside of the saucer, and another hit portside just six meters from the bridge. Explosions rocked the ship as all shields failed and direct damage to the ship began being taken.

As Alaska came within visual range, they were just in time to see Enterprise cut up by those torpedoes. The Klingon ship did a flyby, as Enterprise seemed dead in the water from that point on.

"Power levels?" Walker asked anxiously.

"No power readings on the ship, Captain," Stryker said. "She's completely dead. The only power on the ship is being used by the emergency lighting systems and partial life support."

"Estimated time to intercept?" Steele asked, also anxious.

"Three minutes," Williams answered.

"Too damned late," Walker said. "She's history," he said aloud about the Enterprise in despair.

She wasn't. Just seconds passed before the next phase began. The Klingon ship came head to head with the Enterprise, obviously wanting a fully glorious final pass at her. But before the Klingon could let loose with his final disruptor volley, the Enterprise suddenly came to life. Captain Robinson used the oldest trick in the book: playing dead. Her impulse engines sprang into full reverse power, all her forward torpedo and phaser banks firing at full strength. She gave everything she had to defend herself. It was more than enough. The dual weapons impact brought the final blow to the unprovoked attacker. The Klingon ship exploded in a dazzling display of light and energy. As the ship exploded, Anastas put Enterprise into an evasive downward slope to avoid debris and any incoming fire that might have returned. There was none. When the screen cleared, the Alaska bridge crew saw only the badly beaten but victorious Enterprise. All on the bridge cheered in pure delight.

Walker smiled a tight but joyous smile. "Hot damn! He pulled a Kirk. Stand ready to assist in repairs and to beam anyone aboard who needs medical attention. I'm sure their sick bay is loaded about now."

Steele smiled at him. "With pleasure, sir."

"Mr. Williams, slow to warp 9," Walker said. "Mr. Tong, hailing frequencies, if you please."

"Yes, sir. Open."

"We've still got trouble, sir," Deveroux told his captain. "The forcefield around the coolant leak is starting to lose power and deteriorate. In another few minutes or so, it's going down. We have to start getting people off the ship, sir."

"There's no way you can patch it?" Robinson asked, dazed and wounded severely.

"No, sir. The coolant is slowly making its way out of the crack again, and at 2,000 degrees in the immediate area of the leak, I'm not sending anyone to their death. I've set up a containment field in the area to keep the heat and radiation out of the rest of main engineering, but that won't hold for long. Warp core ejection is impossible due to damage to the jettison system. I estimate five minutes time before we have a warp core breach on our hands."

"No response to our hail, sir," Tong responded.

"Maybe their communications are--"

Stryker interuppted, sounding extremely worried. "Sir, I'm reading a coolant leak in engineering. Estimating five minutes to a warp core breach."

Both Walker and Peterson snapped their heads up at that.

Walker thumbed a button. "Walker to Engineering. Adams,---"

"I heard, sir," came the immediate reply. "That's a pretty good estimation, Captain. If they don't start getting people out of there..."

"Increase speed to warp 14, helm," Steele ordered.

"Belay that order. Ty, you know we'd never be able to reach them, get survivors, and get out without risking ourselves in the process. We're still four minutes out of the area. A warp core breach is too serious to start playing hero." Walker looked at him with a deadpan expression. "I want to rescue them, too. But I can't risk it. It's just too close of a cut."

"Go! I've got to secure a few things here. Give me a respirator and get the hell out of here. And shut that hatch behind you so no gas escapes!" Deveroux was taking every precaution to make the effect of the explosion as minimal as possible with as little time as possible. ...Three minutes.

As soon as the last person was out, he was already halfway done with his list. ...Two minutes.

He finished his checklist and started his way out the door. If abandon ship doctrine held true, the last of the warpshuttles would not leave until there was thirty seconds left on the clock before departing the hangar bay. He ran for the only hatch out of engineering and reached it.

It wouldn't open.

As the last of the shuttles departed, Robinson pulled the Enterprise out at one-half impulse to create more distance between the inevitable explosion and other starships and his shuttles. As he set his course, he called up an internal scan of the ship. He found that there were still thirty crewmembers on board who did not make the shuttles, but were heading for the escape pods. Another eight weren't moving anywhere, either too wounded to move, or trapped in their compartments. He found the life sign of Deveroux, barely concious, still in Engineering. "Deveroux, why the hell aren't you off this ship?" No answer. "Deveroux, answer me!" It was no use. Either he was nearly dead, or his comm line was out. Either way, in twenty seconds, it wouldn't matter.

"Captain," Stryker called out, "I have six warpshuttles and four escape pods outside of the explosion perimeter." A pause. "Enterprise is moving away from ourselves and the shuttles. She still has people aboard."

"Time to explosion?" Walker asked.

"Twenty seconds, sir."

"Mr. Williams, set course for those shuttles, slow to warp one. Move screen display to lock on the shuttles. Mr. Tong, contact the shuttlecraft and tell them to hold their present positions for rescue."

Francois Deveroux looked at his small Engineering viewscreen, which was still set on the Alaska. He struggled to get up on his feet, the heat and noxious gases that made up the coolant system began to overcome him. The overload counter was down to ten seconds now, but he had the determination to think of one last thing. Or, rather, one last person. That person being the love of his life, whether she acknowledged him or not. He always would. "Au revuoir, Christina. I love you."

Deanna's eyes popped wide open at that revelation. It was so crystal clear now! All the pain that poured from Stryker when she associated french names and a ship named Enterprise. That was where her...would be lover?...died.

"Captain, I have a roster of personnel who are in the escape vehicles. Final count is one hundred twenty nine." Tong made his report with maddening coolness.

"Is there a Lieutenant Commander Deveroux on that list?" Stryker asked hopefully.

Tong made a quick search of his newly received roster. "Negative."

"My God," Peterson said desperately. "Frenchy..."

"Warp core breach in progress," Tong said softly. An instant later, the light reached the viewscreen, indicating that the Excelsior-class starship USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-B, had been destroyed.

"NO!" The crying scream had come from Stryker, and echoed more softly by Peterson.

Other than that, all on the bridge were silent.

"Program complete," the computer called out. "Lighting returning to normal specifications."

The lights came up slowly, revealing Troi and Stryker to each other. Troi looked a flurry of emotions. Stryker was clearly and wholeheartedly saddened. That sadness turned to absolute rage when Troi was showered with revealing light.

" hell are you doing here??!!" She started slowly, getting faster and growing more angry by the second. "I told you what I'd do, Troi! You didn't want to listen, did you? I swear you're going to pay!"

Undaunted, Troi started in with cool logic. "Admiral, you're experiencing extreme emotional trauma which has stayed with you over the course of twenty five years. You need help."

"Tell you what, Deanna. How about I help you. Help you out of sick bay in ten weeks!" With pure rage, Stryker took a full force swing at Troi, connecting with her head with force totally unheard of from a fifty nine year old woman, knocking Troi down hard to the deck. She then went to a wall panel and ejected a storage disk from a drive unit. "Computer, delete program Stryker Three-Five." Her emotions in a haze, Stryker started crying. "You know, we could have been friends, but you just wouldn't respect my privacy. You just had to..." She broke off crying a storm and tearing out the holodeck.

Troi wiped blood from her mouth and tried to follow, but was to dazed to do so. She walked out of the holodeck, turning toward sickbay, and along the way, found Stryker's communicator pin on the deck. She'd obviously torn it off while running out, not wanting anyone to find her via computer.

Walking into sickbay, Troi was greeted by Nurse Alyssa Ogawa with surprise. It wasn't every day that a ship's counselor that everyone liked came into sickbay with a busted lip.

"Look at this," Beverly said with astonishment. She was tired from the sudden operations she endured to save her son and his friend, but that tiredness vanished with what she saw. LaForge and O'Brien turned toward her screen and away from theirs to witness her discovery. A type of twisted, single cell virus sat in the computer enhanced screen. "I've never seen anything like it. Computer, scan subject DNA and list probable matches to known viruses."

It took only a few seconds to register an answer. "There are three possible known DNA matches."

"List matches."

"Virus possibilities match DNA samples of Rigillean fever, Bendii Syndrome and Deltan elevation disease."

That got them all thinking. "Bendii Syndrome," O'Brien said first. "Over half the crew on the Emperador were Vulcans. Do you think--"

"Yeah," Geordi interrupted. "Yeah, that'd sum it all up. The bulkhead scorch marks, the self- destruct program in place, all the damaged systems..."

"Computer," Beverly said, "percent possibility that match number two is a mutated strain of Bendii Syndrome."

"Ninety five point four percent probability."

"And this came from the Emperador?" Beverly asked Geordi.

"Yeah," replied Geordi. "We'd better have another look over there; this time in full environmental gear. If this thing can mutate into something else, who knows what else it can effect. It might start eating holes in human brains after a long enough exposure."

Beverly nodded in agreement. "Probably more than a day for humans, since even mutated strains take time to adapt to a new host. Even then, for Bendii Syndrome, it takes continuous exposure. Maybe if we can--"

Crusher was stopped dead in her tracks by a security guard making rounds...with a special stop as a favor to Troi. He found more than he expected. "Medical emergency, deck ten! Admiral Stryker is hurt and hurt bad!"

Alexander Stryker walked into Sickbay feeling nothing. That changed, however, when he saw his mother in critical condition, lying in the emergency biobed that her sister had been deemed safe to move out of only thirty minutes ago. Her life signs were stable at the moment.

"Is she going to be okay?" he asked Ogawa.

"We don't know right now. She's in pretty bad shape. It's one thing to work around dilithium crystals; it's another to get stabbed by one."

"Stabbed by a..." Alex couldn't believe it. Where in the hell did someone get access to dilithium, conceal it, then use it as a weapon? "How?"

"Counselor Troi found her running a holodeck scenario. When your mother found out she was there, she ran wild with...well, let's put it this way. Counselors don't usually get socked in the mouth. Lieutenant Worf seems to think she tried to commit suicide."

Alex's eyes popped wide open when Alyssa said that. "My mother is not unstable, and certainly not capable of suicide! She's too high on life!"

Alyssa smiled slightly and rested a friendly hand on his shoulder. "Don't you worry. We'll pull her through. You have my word on that."

He nodded. "What about my sister?"

"She's resting right now. Pretty badly burned by that phaser blast, but otherwise she's fine. She may be tender to the touch for a little while, at least until the skin grafts completely regenerate. It should only be a couple of days."

"But you don't know about mom?"

She shook her head reluctantly. "No. Not yet."

He looked at Christina, looked at Alyssa, and back to her again. His face twitched, his eyes narrowed...

And for the first time in his life, Alex Stryker cried for his mother.

"Commander, we have a problem."

Riker turned to face LaForge at Science II where he had been scanning Emperador's engineering section to check its material condition. The display flashed red in the engineering section.

"What is it?"

"Engineering scans of the Emperador are showing a breakdown of all engineering components and safeguards, sir."

"What's causing it?"

"Unknown, sir, but it looks like the plasma stream created from the meeting of matter and antimatter is coming unfocused from the generation point. The dilithium crystals are probably misshapen somehow, causing the stream to go anywhere except to the power converters where it's supposed to. If it keeps going like this, it'll go critical into a warp core breach in thirty minutes, but if we don't shut it down in the next, say, five to ten, there's no stopping it."

"All right. Go down and get your tools and a few people, Geordi. I'll inform the Captain." Riker turned to Worf as LaForge already started into the turbolift. "Mr. Worf, scan Emperador and give the transporter room clear coordinates to a clear site in engineering."

On the bridge of the Emperador, a single person activated the viewscreen and locked it on the Enterprise. She looked at her with utter hatred. "You will not hold me again, jailing humans!" With that, she moved to the helm where she had everything arranged. Power levels were good, rising. She diverted power to impulse engines, weapons and shields and began to get a manual lock on Enterprise.

Worf started to scan engineering, but was interrupted when his board beeped at him with warning tones. "Commander, Emperador is raising shields and diverting power to weapons!"

The tractor beam did not last for very much longer.

With a good amount of cunning and skill, Riisara manually targeted the phasers on the tractor beam emitter, powered up and fired with full force. The shot completely destroyed the emitter and damaged some sections of the lower decks, also effecting Engineering. She sent the ship barreling forward at full impulse, moving underneath and in front of the Enterprise, firing as she went. Damaging the undersides of both primary and secondary hulls, she sped out and moved ahead of her prey, turning the Emperador around and bringing her face to face with her "jailers".

"Warning," the computer warned. "Outer hull breach."

Riker's reaction was instantaneous. "Red alert, shields up! Captain Picard, to the bridge!"

Just as the shields were set in place, three photon torpedoes streaked directly toward the Enterprise, hitting her directly on the bow. Her shields flared, becoming visible with their protective bubble of energy.

"Evasive action, Ensign Calhoun!" Riker shouted out. "Worf, damage report!"

"Forward shields are at 63 percent, but regenerating. Several forward decks, including Ten Forward were hit, but not severely. Severe damage to secondary and primary hulls, lower decks."

"LaForge to bridge. I've got a lot of wounded down here and some serious damage to the warp core. I'm initiating emergency shutdown. I can give you secondary power from the impulse engines, but if you decide to move, Commander, we'll have only two-thirds impulse."

"How much total power, Geordi?"

"Sixty percent, sir."

"Understood. As soon as you shutdown, evacuate main engineering. Riker out."

"Aye, sir," LaForge said, cutting off his comm link with the bridge, shutting down the reactor core in a hurry. "Computer," he said next, "evacuation sequence!"

The computer reacted by sounding a deathly alarm, then by speaking. "Sealing doors to core chamber. Warning: decompression danger, Deck 26, Section 3. Sealing Main Engineering."

The only other time I've had to do this, LaForge thought, was when we faced the Borg for the second time. Did they find us again, just like that?

Back on the bridge, Riker turned to Data. "Who the hell's on that ship? And if there's an engineering safeguard breakdown in the warp engines, how's she getting power?"

"Unknown for certain, sir," Data replied. "It is likely that the Emperador is running on her impulse power plant alone, but hard facts are unattainable. Their shields are completely blocking out our sensor scans."

"And we helped put them in place. Damn!"

The Emperador fired two phaser blasts and two more torpedoes. The first shots hit close to the Engineering section, but with an inexperienced (not to mention frightened) ensign at the Conn, the Enterprise wildly maneuvered and dodged the torpedoes, each of which missed the bridge by a scant two meters.

"Worf, set phasers to half power. Selective, nonlethal shots to her primary hull. Fire when ready."

Worf did not like Riker's order at first, but as his anger quickly faded, he began to see the logic in that decision. If there was someone aboard, he'd rather find out who it was rather than not find out by destroying the ship. He selected the phaser shots to hit in relatively minor parts of the ship, such as the airlocks, which were well protected against exposure to space, and the botanical gardens, which would be empty if the non-existant crew were actually at battle stations. "Firing phasers." Powering down to one half power, Worf let the phasers fly from both the primary and secondary hull phaser arrays, impacting the Emperador's shields in an impressive display of firepower...with more bark than bite. The Emperador's shields briefly flared and showed their solidness, seeming to say, "I don't think so, Enterprise. You'll have to do better than that." In retaliation, more phasers flew across the void, striking the Enterprise with jolting full power force as Emperador started to move at one quarter impulse power, pulling off to starboard.

"Damn it!" Riker exclaimed. "Worf, up phasers to three quarter power, target warp nacelles, shield generators and saucer latching system. Coordinate with Mr. Data for targeting. Fire when ready."

Worf selected three quarter phaser power, targeting Emperador's starboard warp nacelle as she started moving. Enterprise's own red colored phasers were released toward the friend turned foe. With startling accuracy, Worf hit her starboard warp nacelle dead center, sending shock waves through the shields.

"Good shot, Worf," Riker said. He saw the nacelle was slightly damaged as minute parts of the exterior engine frame came free and started bouncing off the inside of Emperador's shields with endless momentum. Then he had another idea.

Data noticed the ship's movements first. "Commander, Emperador is now on our starboard side, passing aft, heading is two seven one, mark three."

"Parallel course, good. Mr. Data, are there any gunnery blind spots on that class starship?"

Data thought for a moment, then inspected the ship's plans with the computer through his board. "Yes, sir. The Enterprise class had a major design flaw in that respect. She had...has a gunnery blind spot which covered her entire aft section."

Riker was surprised by that. "She has no aft weapons whatsoever?"

Data shook his head slightly. "None, sir."

Riker took on a look of determination. "Ensign Calhoun, increase to two-thirds impulse power. Take up position behind her. Stay on her tail, mister."

That order surprised the young ensign. This would be a new challenge to the him; trying to keep behind a starship which was one third the size and much more maneuverable. Impossible, he thought. Even so, he relished the idea. Well, he'd always heard that the Enterprise was the ship to go to if you wanted a little adventure. "Aye, sir. Executing maneuvers. Hold tight, sir, this may get a little bumpy."

At this juncture, Picard exited the turbolift to the bridge. Report, Number One."

"We've been engaged by the Emperador, sir. We're trying to get into her blind spot."

"We're behind her now, Commander," Calhoun announced. "Slowing to one half impulse."

"Emperador?" Picard said in amazement. "Who's aboard her?" Picard asked as he took the center seat.

"Unknown, sir," Riker responded.

"Torpedoes now on line, sir," Worf announced.

"Very well," Picard said as Emperador stopped her impulse engines. As she drifted, she spun quickly on maneuvering thrusters to completely turn herself around, taking up a position a few degrees ahead and below that of her prey. Her torpedo tubes began to glare red, signaling the arming sequence. It struck Picard for an instant that he was looking into the depths of hell, the gates opening up to strike his ship. He reacted quickly, partially to his imagination, partially to this renewed and sudden offensive action. "Worf, torpedo disbursal pattern Sierra, two part sequence. Fire!"

Seconds after the order cleared Picard's lips, Worf sent five torpedoes out in a close order burst straight ahead, another five in a short order spread. The first set fired as one large torpedo, breaking into five separate torpedoes in a very small spread. The second burst was set in a small pentagon pattern that covered all possible maneuvering positions the Emperador could take for evasive action. A total of seven torpedoes hit their marks.

"Forward shield generators and primary impulse power feeds have been destroyed, Captain," Data reported. "Moderate damage to her primary hull and forward phaser power couplings."

"Mr. Data, scan that ship. Who's aboard her?" Picard was more angry than anything else now. Whoever those people were, they certainly faced his wrath. Picard was, of many things, an avid archeologist and he was forced to severely damage a piece of history in defense of his own ship.

"Captain..." Data left off for a moment, astounded. "There is only one life sign aboard the Emperador, sir. That of Cadet Riisara."

That caught at least half of the bridge crew off guard. How the hell would a cadet know how to automate a starship toward one-person operation?

"Number One," Picard said after a moment, "prepare a boarding party. Secure the ship, especially the bridge. And bring Cadet Riisara back here. I want to know just what exactly possessed her to attack the Enterprise with a forty year old starship."

Fifteen minutes later, Picard heard from Worf that Riisara had been stunned and was being transported back, with Beverly taking her directly to sick bay.

Beverly reported ten minutes later that Riisara had been infected with the Bendii Syndrome virus aboard the Emperador. It was just as well that the ship was destroying itself, stopping the possible spread of that deadly virus.

"Captain's Log, Stardate 45955.2. We have docked at Starbase 58 to effect repairs to the Enterprise. I sorrowly report that the Emperador was destroyed, and Cadet Riisara, infected with a never before seen strain of Bendii Syndrome, died on the way to starbase. The rest of the Emperador away team has been fully excised of any trace of the virus. Meanwhile, all other cadets are departing the ship, heading back to Earth. Branch Admiral Stryker has made a full physical recovery, and, hopefully, will soon be reaching another breakthrough."

At the connecting walkway, the visitors all said their goodbyes to the ship and, like the captain had said, to an experience they'd never forget.

"Well, kid," Beverly said to her son, "be good."

Wesley smiled. "Thanks. I'll try." He looked at her with gentle eyes. "Thanks for my life, mom. For having and saving me."

She smiled back at him. "What kind of mother would I be if I didn't do any of those things?"

Nikita raised an eyebrow. "You'd be a JAG officer."

"I'm sorry you had to spend time in the brig," Wesley said to Nikita.

"Oh, that's all right, I didn't mind it. It reminds me of a cozier version of old twentieth century Siberia. I just consider it a history lesson."

Wesley shook his head. "Why didn't you become a historian instead?"

"Because space exploration sounds so much more interesting," she said. "And I wouldn't have as much of a chance to keep you in line."

At that point, the Stryker twins came down the ramp, talking and laughing. Wesley took on a questioning look. "Are you all right, Alex? You're laughing."

Alex took a look at his sister, then to Wesley. "A lot better, Wes."

Stephanie smiled. "Mom and Alex have finally come to terms." She looked up at him. "Welcome back, my sibling."

"Well, I've got Counselor Troi to thank for a lot of this, too. She helped straighten a lot of things out."

"Where is your mom, anyway?" Wesley asked.

Alex looked at him deadpan. "Making a reconciliation of her own."

"Computer, load program Stryker One-Five and run when setup is complete." Troi turned toward Chris. "Are you really ready for this?"

She nodded. "I've carried this with me for way too long. It's time to let go."

Five seconds later, the holographic likeness of Deveroux came to life five feet in front of them.

He made a face of recognition and smiled at her. "Hello, Christina. Fancy meeting you here."

She smiled back at him. "Surprised to see me?"

"Well, not really. Considering that in reality, I'm dead."

She nodded. "True enough. Which is why I've finally come to say goodbye."

His expression dropped slightly. "Goodbye?"

"Yes. I've...held on to you for too long, Frenchy. It's been twenty five years since your death. I...I think I've waited long enough. It's time to let go."

He nodded with a sense of pain, but also understanding. "Knowing at least most of the things that my namesake did, I think he'd be happy you're finally moving on. Being a computer generation, I'm aware of your other programs on your disk. There's too many revolving around me. You're do need to let go."

She dropped her head down for a moment, then faced him again. A single tear formed, but she smiled ever so slightly and kissed him gently on the cheek. Moving back beside Troi, she held her smile, mouth twitching some. "Goodbye, Frenchy."

He smiled in return, knowing this active memory would finally be laid to rest. "Au revouir, Christina."

Her eyes never left his gaze until she uttered her final command, though it took a few seconds for her to get the words out. "Computer, end program and destroy all files on optical disk."

The image of Deveroux disappeared, the computer chirping in compliance after her instructions were carried out.

Deanna put a light, comforting hand on Stryker's right shoulder, reassuring her that she'd finally completed the healthy journey that had taken much too long to start. After all, she had better things to worry taking the trip back to Earth with her children, and seeing them commissioned as Starfleet ensigns in less than a year.