Close Encounters

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FOREWORD

All three books present in this novel deal with the theme of the Federation’s Prime Directive. For those of you not terribly familiar with the Star Trek universe (all rights owned by Paramount) or its Prime Directive, allow me to provide a brief background.

The United Federation of Planets (abbreviated as UFP and commonly referred to as the Federation) was an interstellar federal republic, composed of planetary governments that agreed to exist semi-autonomously under a single central government based on the principles of universal liberty, rights, and equality, and to share their knowledge and resources in peaceful cooperation and space exploration. One of the most powerful interstellar states in known space, it encompassed 8,000 light years and at least a thousand planets. The total number of formal members worlds was over one hundred and fifty.

Unlike its imperial rivals, who derived power from a single species subjugating other races, the Federation’s various member worlds joined willingly and were equals in the Federation’s democratic society. The Federation Starfleet was incorporated to maintain exploratory, scientific, diplomatic, and defense functions.” (Source: https://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/United_Federation_of_Planets)

One of their foundational ethical principles was a directive of non-interference known as The Prime Directive. “The Prime Directive had 47 sub-orders by the latter part of the 24th century. However, a high-level summary was “no identification of self or mission; no interference with the social development of said planet; no references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.” The directive provided guidance on what constituted prohibited “interference” with a society, covering such matters as:

  • Providing knowledge of other inhabited worlds (even if individuals or governments in the society were already aware of such)
  • Providing knowledge of technologies or science
  • Taking actions to generally affect a society’s overall development
  • Taking actions which support one faction within a society over another
  • Helping a society escape the negative consequences of its own actions
  • Helping a society escape a natural disaster known to the society, even if inaction would result in a society’s extinction.
  • Subverting or avoiding the application of a society’s laws
  • Interfering in the internal affairs of a society “

(Source: https://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Prime_Directive)

For clarity, units and numbers are converted to more human-friendly terms. Dosadi use base-8 numbering and most space-faring nations base distance calculations on the wavelength of the hydrogen absorption line – a universal constant – rather than Earth-centric light-years or parsecs.

This novel is a sequel to The Dosadi Suite, but can be read as a stand-alone as well.

Book 1: Prime

This story follows the career of Corin’s adopted daughter Rileeta (See The Dosadi Suite: Cycle 5 – Finale) as she is brought into conflict with the Federation’s Prime Directive and Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise.

Book 2: Shard

This story deals with the life of Sharden, a Dosadi male who has been an outcast his entire life, but who believes he has found a home in Starfleet. However, he also must struggle with the Prime Directive when the choice is to obey the code and allow over a billion sentient beings to die, or to commit a heinous crime in the Federation’s eyes.

Book 3: Divergence

An early information-age planet is struck by a near ELE asteroid that devastates their civilization. The Prime Directive forbids the provision of aid to the desperate remnants of a once-proud people. As surviving factions battle it out, one young Starfleet Commander decides that he will act and accept the personal consequences.

STAR TREK: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

BOOK 1: PRIME

CHAPTER 1

History is a symphony of echoes heard and unheard. It is a poem with events as verses.”

-Charles Angoff

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Captain Jean-Luc Picard was sitting in his ready room aboard the Enterprise, reviewing the prior shift’s logs. He thought to himself, “I’ll be glad when Will is back aboard and back at his post. I’ve never liked all the paperwork that goes along with the First Officer position.” A few moments later his work was interrupted by the bosun’s pipe, followed by Data’s voice:

“Captain Picard to the Bridge.”

Standing up and straightening his uniform shirt, he quickly walked onto the adjacent Bridge. “Ah, Data. Is Commander Riker ready to beam up?”

Data stood up from the Captain’s chair and made his report. “No sir. Commander Riker is missing.”

“Missing? What happened?”

“We have few details, Captain. We are attempting to ascertain his whereabouts with the ship’s scanners, but it appears that his comm-badge has been destroyed.”

Taking his seat, Picard looked at the image of Malcor III turning slowly beneath the Enterprise. “Who’s in command down there, Data? Of the First Contact Team?”

“A Captain Rileeta, sir. I am puzzled though, sir. The mission records indicate that she is a serving member of the Dosadi Imperial Marines, yet her service records show that she has been part of Starfleet for many years…Sir?”

Deanna Troi blinked at the sudden wash of emotion from Picard and watched him carefully.

Picard had sat back heavily in his chair, surprise evident on his face. After a few moments under Data’s puzzled scrutiny he finally answered, “Rileeta. Now there’s a name I have not heard in some time.”

“I noted that she apparently served aboard several different vessels at the same time that…”

“Yes, yes, Data. Ancient history. Let’s focus on finding Commander Riker.”

Mentally shifting gears Data continued, “Yes, sir. Apparently, Commander Riker was caught in a riot in the capital city. The team was separated from him when the police moved in to break up the rioters and he never returned to the safe house. They are making inquiries through local channels but have so far been unable to discover anything useful.”

Picard studied the main viewer, lost in thought. Data waited patiently. “Data, I have little confidence in the ability of the First Contact Team to locate Commander Riker. We may need to take steps. Copy the records from the team into my Ready Room.” He stood up and turned towards his ready room. “And Data? Request Captain Rileeta beam aboard. I want a real briefing on just how badly this has been mishandled.”

“Yes, sir.” Data answered as Picard left the bridge.

Counselor Troi looked at Data and said, “This should be interesting.” There was definitely some history here – a mix of emotions both positive and negative, but very strong. With any luck, it would help distract her from worrying about Will’s safety.

Sitting down at his desk, Picard held his hand over his face for a few moments. Finally, he sighed, and said, “Computer, display service record and personal history for Captain Rileeta, Dosadi Imperial Marines, currently assigned Starfleet, First Contact Division, Malcor III.” A few seconds later, he began to review the information streaming across his console.

 

* * *

T’ELESH DISTRICT, DOSAD

MAY 2319

The narak, a large male, raised his head and sniffed the wind again. The light breeze was ruffling his fur as he stood atop the ridge line. There was snow only a little higher up; he was hoping to find lunch down here. There was the hint of something, but he was having a difficult time locking it down. He opened his mouth, tasting the air, his ears swiveling as he looked around.

Rileeta froze. The narak was only a few feet away; another step or two and she could make her jump. If he saw her, this was not going to work out well at all. She was starting to wish she had made a spear after all. She said a silent prayer to the gods that the tores-plant juice she had smeared all over was really masking her scent and that the damn thing didn’t look over his shoulder. Her father, a Raider, had taught her everything there was to know about stealth and close-combat and today she would put those skills to the test. Barely fifteen, she hadn’t even taken the ritual tests for adulthood, but she was having a go for her Warrior’s Pendant anyway.

The narak turned his head further away and she took another graceful, silent step forward. Gauging the distance, she crouched down onto all fours, carefully placing her hands so that there would be no sound. The twisted length of vines she had made was gripped tightly in her left hand – it was now or never.

Sensing danger, the big male turned his head just as Rileeta leapt. When she landed on his back, her hands going around the thick neck, he went absolutely berserk. The sabertooth-like narak jumped into the air with a scream of rage while she groped for the flailing end of her garrote. He landed, rolled, and his hind legs began to kick at the air, trying to get at whatever was on his back. She finally got the garrote around her right hand and pulled back hard. Spitting in fury, the narak rolled on his back, his legs occasionally raking claws across her arms.

The cat weighed in at over a thousand pounds – his weight was crushing the life out of her and his claws were tearing big bloody gouges across her arms. She pulled harder on the garrote, desperate to finish this before he finished her. He finally made a last frantic attempt to run away from whatever was choking him but collapsed onto his front instead.

Gasping in pain, she held the garrote in place for a few more seconds, making sure that she had a good air and blood choke so that the damn thing wouldn’t wake up as soon as she got off his back. When she was satisfied, she released her weapon from around his neck and got shakily to her feet. With an exaggerated swagger, she leaned down and kissed the unconscious predator on the nose and ruffled the fur between his ears. In Standard she said, “Good kitty.”

With a big smile, she looked at where Lorac was hiding with his PADD and said, “I think that should be enough, don’t you?” and hurried away from the narak before it regained consciousness. Wearing camouflaged fatigues, Lorac was nearly invisible. She was looking forward to getting her own clothes back when they finally got down to where she had left her gear. It was cold up here!

While they were making their way down the ridge, Lorac shook his head, “You are completely insane, Ri. But if they turn you down for a pendant after that, they’re crazier than you are.”

Staunching the bleeding gashes on her arms with puffballs harvested as they walked she answered him, “Well, you’re supposed to do it alone, but I couldn’t record myself. And it’s not like you had any weapons – we showed that at the start. And you swore not to help me at all! They’ve got to take that into account.”

“Yeah, but Ri, you’re not even an adult. That’s what’s got me worried. Old Paral’s gonna growl and say ‘We don’t give Warrior Pendants to children!’” he finished, imitating the elder’s voice.

She giggled. “He’s not the only vote. Who cares if I’ve taken that silly test anyway? I could pass anything they want me to do any time.”

“Your dad’s not gonna be happy with you, you know. And your mom is going to skin you alive and put it up on the door as a warning to your brother.”

She shrugged. “Dad didn’t exactly always follow all the rules either you know. He’s always said you have to know when to break the rules. And Mom says you should always listen to your own counsel about what is right…hey, you can stop recording everything now you know.”

“No, I want to make sure that they know I didn’t do anything to help. Besides, everyone’s going to want to see this.”

She leaned into her friend and rubbed her black-furred shoulder against his fatigue-covered arm, giving him a big smile. “Thank you for helping me, Lorac. Relan’s going to be mad at you too.”

He smiled back, “You know I can talk my way out of anything.”

She giggled, “And thank the gods for it. You’ve gotten us out of trouble more times than I can count.”

“Well, that seems to be my lot in life, Ri; keeping you from getting in trouble. Guess we’ll just have to stick together, huh? Even if you do have dirty fur.”

Another big smile and she said, “That sounds about right. And your ears still look funny.” She nuzzled his arm.

Two days later, the pair of them were standing in front the council of elders for T’Elesh. As Lorac’s PADD was replaying her fight with the narak, Rileeta was watching the elders. Her grandmother Sooth was shaking hear head but seemed more amused than angry. Paral, the eldest, had an even more sour expression on his face than usual, his ears backwards and his whiskers forward. The rest looked somewhere between surprised and irritated. When the playback had finished, Paral looked at her and asked, “And why do you bother us with this nonsense, Rileeta? We do not give Warrior Pendants to children.”

She managed to stifle a giggle. Lorac opened his mouth to speak and Paral continued, “And you. You have no business before this council. Either take a seat with the assembly or leave, but you have no place to speak here.”

Lorac bowed his head, but as he turned to leave the ring, he brushed his tail along her calves. She was grateful for the unspoken support. She took a deep breath and addressed the council. “What has my status to do with my courage? I have fulfilled the conditions to be judged a Warrior.”

Paral glowered. “No, you have not. You have brought back no trophy. Even if you did, you still have no status here. The only reason you should appear before us is to go through your ritual testing. After that, if you wish to go out and prove your courage, we’ll be happy to hear your tale.”

Sooth spoke, “Paral, I’d call that PADD recording trophy enough. It is certainly proof that she did what she claims.”

“That’s another thing!” he said. “She was not alone. The conditions require that she be alone. And you have no vote on this matter, Sooth. She is your grand-daughter.”

“That does not prevent me from speaking, Paral.”

Another elder spoke, “And while not physically alone, the other child was there only as chronicler. He had no weapons and swore an oath to lend no aid under any conditions.”

Paral spat out, “That’s not the point. She didn’t follow the rules.”

The other man continued, “Are honor and courage about rules, Paral? It appears as though you are seeking a reason to deny her rather than judging her tale on its merits.”

A woman spoke this time, “I agree with Paral. This child has no status here and while her story certainly demonstrates courage, why didn’t she bring back a true trophy?”

Rileeta dared to interrupt. “Elder, I chose not to kill the narak as a sign of strength and courage. Surely you admit that I could have killed him. The fact that I chose not to means that I will have the chance to face that animal again – and next time it will be more wary and more dangerous because of our encounter.”

Glaring her into silence, Paral said, “In any case, were we to grant her status to be judged it would set a dangerous precedent. Rules exist for a reason and that is evidently a lesson this child has not yet learned.”

Ri interrupted again. “Then Eldest, I choose to undergo testing for adulthood now.”

There was silence around the ring. Now, Sooth was concerned. Very few Dosadi underwent the testing before they were 16 and Rileeta had barely turned 15. Paral scowled. “You’re too young.”

There was some murmuring from the audience. Rileeta scowled back. “Eldest, there is no age limit, young or old. I will pass any test you give me.”

Paral smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “You think it’s that easy, do you? Very well. Your testing begins now. If you fail, you will have to wait half a year before you try again. Clear the children from the assembly.”

Rileeta stood silent, and confident, waiting for the other youngsters to leave the ring.

“I think we’ll begin with the combat test. M’aal. You’ll do nicely, I think.” There were more murmurs from the crowd. Traditionally, someone from the same age group was chosen. M’aal was 10 years older than Rileeta, half a foot taller and 30 kilos heavier. He stood up from the assembly and walked into the ring, stripping his clothes off as he went.

The two of them faced off. Rileeta took her stance, watching the bigger man close in on her.

It took less than twenty seconds. Rileeta unwrapped her legs from around M’aal’s waist and her arms from around his throat. She shook herself and said, “I’m thinking that’s a pass.”

Paral scowled again. “No, it is not. I will tell you when you have passed each phase. That was not a realistic assessment of your skills.” More murmurs. “Shree, T’ango, please give the youngster a true test.”

Tradition allowed the eldest to set the conditions of the test, but Paral was pushing the limits. The combat test was supposed to be about how you fought, not about whether you won or lost. The two warriors moved to opposite sides of Rileeta, but she didn’t wait. She dove at Shree’s ankles, knocking the man flat, but both he and his mate T’ango were experienced fighters and used to matching as a team.

However, they didn’t have the array of dirty tricks Corin had taught Rileeta over the years. Finally, Ri stood alone; Shree was unconscious and T’ango’s leg was broken. Panting for breath, bleeding from several deep cuts from Shree’s claws and with her own right forearm broken she said, “What’s next, Eldest? Four?”

There were some chuckles from the assembly. “Don’t be impertinent, youngster.” He glared at the other elders, several of whom were trying to conceal grins. “Very well, while we await your teacher’s report on your academics, we’ll move on to the next phase. Every adult must be a disciplined member of our society, able to control themselves and most importantly, follow the rules. That seems to be something you struggle with, so I’ll give you just one rule. You will stand there, silent and immobile, until I release you.”

That settled the crowd down a bit. Paral had been taking liberties; now he was back to what was expected. Normally, the youngster would be made to stand still for an hour or so while their teacher provided their assessment. This was the phase that most youngsters who tried for adulthood early failed.

Today, Lorac and Rileeta’s teacher gave a glowing assessment of her academic prowess while she stood there, blood dripping slowly off her fingertips. Her combat test had re-opened several of the wounds she had suffered fighting the narak two days ago. When their teacher finished, Paral said, “Very well. It sounds as though she is academically ready for adulthood. We’ll move on to other business while we see if she possesses the discipline that is needed.”

Four hours later, the murmurs from the crowd were starting again. Rileeta was still standing motionless as the evening shadows were crawling across the ring, but she was starting to sway slightly and her legs were trembling with exhaustion. By now Corin and Yun had arrived and Corin finally yelled out, “This is shit! How long are you going to make her stand there?”

Paral yelled back, “SILENCE! It is not your place to determine the conditions of the test!”

Sooth argued with him, “Paral, you can set anyone up to fail. She’s gone beyond proving she’s ready for adulthood. I think she’s too young too, but she’s proven herself here today.”

Paral glared left and right, but was finding no supporters on the council. “Very well. But, there is one more test that she must pass.”

Another elder began to speak, “Paral, that’s not…”

“Silence!” he interrupted, getting ear and whisker twitches from pretty much everyone in the assembly. “As eldest, I will determine what is and is not a condition of this test.” He glared around the other elders, getting more than a few glares back. “Rileeta, follow me for the last phase of your testing.” He stood and walked down a ramp at the rear of the ring.

Rileeta took a deep breath, thankful for all the hours Corin had made her practice meditation and Tai Chi. Her legs were still shaky but it felt so good to move after so long being still. She followed the old grump into the basement of the assembly ring.

Finally he opened a very narrow little door and said, “Wait in here. In fact, wait right there. If you move, for any reason whatsoever, I don’t care if you are on fire, you will fail your test and you will wait another half-year – or more if you have any sense. I will be right back and we will begin the last phase. Do you understand?”

Rileeta glanced up and saw that he had led her to the far side of the basement – this was a ramp that lead up and out behind the structure. It was very dim. ‘What the hell was old cranky-pants up to?’ she wondered. Aloud, she only said, “Yes.”

“Good.” He was about to turn and leave when another elder came rushing up. “Paral, a narak is in the city. We need to go help track it down.”

With an evil grin he said, “Perfect. Rileeta, you can wait right there. Do not move. You are being recorded.” He shut the door behind him.

‘What a teeg.‘ she thought. Oh well. Standing still was something she could do, tired or not. Corin had taught her that her mind controlled her body, not the other way around. She had been standing there for no more than ten minutes when a small child came running down the ramp, clearly terrified.

Ri fought with the impulse to ask what was wrong, to pick him up and soothe his fears, but if she did that she would fail. That was probably what Paral wanted her to do. Pluck at the old heartstr…Ice ran down her spine. Not five seconds behind the child was the narak the other elder had said was in the city. They did that sometimes, but usually they’d get caught and killed before they hurt anyone.

There was no way the kit could make it to the door before the narak was on him. Rileeta could escape easily, however. Or if she just stood still, it almost certainly wouldn’t even see her with her black fur.

It took less than a tenth of a second for Rileeta to throw away her hopes at adulthood or a Warrior’s Pendant. She whipped the door open – the child could fit through but the narak probably couldn’t. An instant later, she charged the narak, screaming a curse to distract it and launching herself at the beast, trying to get her fingers in its eyes…

With a loud *OOF* she crashed to the floor, partway up the ramp. Confused, she rolled back to her feet, wondering what had happened – the ramp was empty. What the hell?!

Paral stepped through the door. He sighed. “Knowing your father, I thought that would be your choice.”

Angry, she realized that she had been suckered. It had been a hologram. Dejected, furious, and nearly in tears, she remained silent. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

“Follow me.”

Squaring her shoulders, but with ears, whiskers and tail all drooping she followed him back to the ring, thinking dark thoughts the entire miserable way.

“Return to the center of the ring, Rileeta.”

She did as she was told, struggling to remain defiant, to keep her head up in the face of her failure. Lorac would yell at her for falling for that. It was so obvious. If only she hadn’t been so damn tired…but Paral was speaking again.

“The testing is complete. What is the council’s decision?”

All of the elders (except Sooth, who was not allowed to vote), including Paral, stood up. Ri was confused. “Decision? She had failed! What was there to decide?!”

Paral glanced left and right and sighed. “Then I present to the assembly, our newest adult, Rileeta. Congratulations, Rileeta – may you live your life with honor, love, and pride.”

Stunned she asked, “But…you said if I moved, I failed. You tricked me into…”

He smiled at her. “The final phase is not a pass or fail test, Rileeta. And it is one reason why we do not allow adults to discuss the testing with children. Your actions were displayed for all the assembly to see. It is a test of character, to see how you will react. Will you flee through the door? Will you stand still in the hopes of salvaging your test? Or will you attempt to save the child somehow? There are many ways to try to save the child, if you think it through. But you elected to attack a narak, bare-handed.

“How you react to that test tells us much about what sort of an adult you will be in our community. I still think you are too young and too inexperienced, but it is your right and as much as I would like to deny you, you have proven yourself.”

“And my Warrior’s test?”

He lowered his head, shaking it back and forth. “You are your father’s child, blood or no.” He sat down again, the rest of the council following his lead. “I suppose we should consider the question or the next time you’re likely to bring a live one back to the assembly.”

Even Sooth snorted at that one.

He spoke again. “My position is that she did not follow the rules. She was not yet an adult and she was not alone. I say no.” The discussion began among the elders…

“But the chronicler had no weapons and swore not to help her.”

“But he provides moral support just be being there! He’s her close-friend!”

“That means nothing – she didn’t even have a weapon, she snuck up on it and took it out with her bare hands. That is impressive!”

“She had a weapon – the garrote!”

“That doesn’t count.”

“And she chose not to kill – I’m impressed by that choice. Honor, courage and compassion. I say yes!”

“Tradition says she is supposed to bring back a trophy, she has nothing, I say no!”

“A Warrior should follow the rules – she didn’t!”

“A true Warrior knows when to break the rules! Is the test about honor and courage or a petty devotion to rules?”

Some time later, Paral finally said, “Enough. What is the council’s decision?”

Paral remained seated, as did nearly half the council of elders. It took a moment for Rileeta to realize what that meant. Her heart began to beat faster. She had done it!

Paral shook his head again. He stood again, reaching into a small box next to him. Rileeta’s heart was racing as he approached. He looked down at her and began to fasten the pendant around her throat, adjusting the fit so that it was snug. He whispered so that only she could hear, “You are moving too quickly, little one. Don’t burn out, take your time and enjoy your life instead of rushing from one phase to the next.”

She looked up at him. “Yes, Paral.”

He stepped back and addressed her more formally. “What will you do now, Rileeta? What role will you fill in our society?”

Her head held high she said, “I will join the Imperial Marines, sir. I will be a Raider.”

Corin and Yun were both horrified.

CHAPTER 2

Maybe it was a storybook beginning.”

Daniel Nayeri

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Picard looked up from his review of Rileeta’s records. He knew her story anyway, but it didn’t hurt to review it while he was waiting for her to beam up and give him a briefing of the situation down there. She had always been too impetuous, too fast and loose with regulations and rules.

He looked down at the display again, continuing his review of her career. There was the caninoid species they had brought into the Imperium, stealing them right out from under the Federation’s noses in clear violation of the Prime Directive…

 

* * *

DOSADI IMPERIAL MARINE ACADEMY, T’CROM’VEER, DOSAD

JUNE 2321

Rileeta was standing at attention, her jet-black fur a stark contrast to the white linen of her shirt, her eyes locked forward. Her cloak had the single broken silver stripe of an Ensign across the shoulder. The next lowest officer rank in her graduating class of 12 was two grades above her. Corin limped down the line of graduates with Yun at his side.

Corin, his own uniform carrying the three solid silver stripes of a Captain, stood to attention in front of her. The missing ear and black eye-patch over his vacant right eye making him look even more like a pirate than most Raiders. He looked down at his seventeen year-old daughter and smiled. “Ri.” He swallowed and blinked hard a couple times. “I have never been so proud in my life.” He reached onto his own uniform and removed the starburst-and-dagger Raider insignia and placed it on the right breast of her uniform.

Yun wiped her eyes. “Ri, you have to promise me…” She looked at her mate and her eldest child and changed her mind. “Honor above all, Ensign Rileeta.” She held her chin up, her eyes shining.

Corin stepped back one pace and his daughter saluted him, crossing her arms on her chest, palms flat to her body. He returned the salute, pivoted on his heels and marched back to the assembly, his mate at his side. He did his best to pay attention to the other graduates’ pinnings, but he had a hard time not just staring at the young woman who had become so much the focus of his life these last 10 years and more.

He and Yun had a blood-son, T’errel, who was now 9 and he was an absolute joy to them both. But Ri had stolen his heart away from the moment he had first looked into her bright green eyes back on Eletha. And now she would be going out into the stars, facing the same dangers he had once saved her from.

A few hours later, Corin was sitting in the Academy Master’s office, waiting for his daughter to report.

“She has never done anything that was expected, Master G’Aarth. Well, unless you consider constantly surprising everyone around her to be expected.”

The taller woman laughed. “Captain, that would be a very good description of her entire Marine career to date. Has she explained to you what she has in mind?”

“Yes.” He shook his head. “Her mother has always viewed Soldiers as…contributing to the problem of violence rather than solving it.”

“Really? That’s a little…unusual.”

Smiling broadly he continued, “I think that’s one of the things that really attracted me to her. Everything about her is a little unusual. She’s amazing.” Lost in thought for a moment he apologized, “Sorry. Lost my train of thought. Anyway, Ri’s told me that her intent is to create a new sort of unit, one designed to specialize in first contacts. She feels that such a unit would need both Raider-style training in order to be able to go in, assess the contact, and then determine what action to take as well as the xenological training to try to bring them into the Imperium as allies instead of risking conflict.”

“That’s pretty much what she had proposed to me two years ago as a brand new recruit. I think that is the first time in my entire career a recruit has come to me asking to design her own training regimen.” he laughed. “She was stunned that I refused.”

“How long did it take?”

G’Aarth laughed. “I was ordered to add to her class load during her Raider training and to begin assembling a team from unassigned Raiders a week after she began that phase of her training. They worked on the academics as a team, in fact.”

“Lorac.”

“Who?”

Corin shook his head. “They’re th’mew. (ED: Close-friends). If they don’t end up mated, I’ll be absolutely astonished. By themselves, they’re bad enough. Together the two of them qualify as a natural disaster. He’s absolutely brilliant. At everything. Well, he’s not much of a fighter, and he can’t hold his whiskey very well, but anything else? Scary. I have my suspicions about where a lot of his training is coming from.”

“What do you mean? Has he taken his ritual tests yet?”

“He’s a year older than Ri and he just took them a month ago. He could have passed them any time he wanted to, but he waited. The stories I could tell you about those two.” He shook his head again. “Can I guess where the orders came from?”

G’Aarth’s ears flicked back slightly and Corin continued. “The Korat, right?”

Her ears flicked forward again. “Yes. They appear to have followed her career rather closely.”

Corin nodded. “I think Lorac has been working with them since he was about 10. And since they follow each other everywhere, I’m betting she has been too.”

Their discussion was interrupted by the arrival of Ensign Rileeta. She knocked and upon being admitted stood to attention and said loudly, “Ensign Rileeta, reporting as ordered!”

G’Aarth spoke quietly, “Relax, Ensign. As of this afternoon, you’re officially a Fleet Marine. I have your assignment here, but after speaking with your father, I have a feeling you know what it is already.”

Her eyes flicked quickly down to Corin and then back forward. “Ma’am?”

G’Aarth said, a trifle disgustedly, “Ensign, don’t be too impressed with your own cleverness. Or that of your friends. And never, ever think your opponents are stupid. So tell me. What did you and your friend put together?”

She started to protest, then thought the better of it. “I and my team are to be posted to the ISS Delos-B, ma’am.” There was a long pause and she continued. “We’re to undertake her maiden voyage to Anoria, Conduct an initial study and then make contact with them, liaise with the Royal Family and convince them to join the Imperium. This will be a test of the new Supercarrier concept as well as of the First Contact Team.”

Corin spoke, “How is this a First Contact if you already know so much about them?”

Rileeta turned to her father, “Sir, they haven’t even completed their first warp-jump yet. The Korat have been monitoring their communications for several years. Anoria is very rich in a number of strategic materials and their people are fierce and proud warriors. But the Imperium has yet to make any contact with them. Our goal is to do so before the Federation or any other regional power does so.”

“We’re sending the Supercarrier to a race that hasn’t even figured out how to break the warp barrier? Isn’t that a bit of overkill?”

“No sir. The Anorians respect strength. This allows us to give the Delos a shakedown cruise and show the rest of the galaxy they were wrong about her, impress the Anorians, and use her as a tool to encourage the Anorians to join the Imperium. This will also prove the First Contact Team concept.”

Corin asked “So how long has Lorac been putting this mission together?”

“Dad! He…” she straightened up. “Sir. I don’t believe he was even aware of the Anorians until a year ago.”

“So a year.” He held his hand up. “Ri, don’t even try to deny it. That boy is way too plugged in to things to not be what I think he is.” She glared at him. “Let me guess, he’ll be aboard?”

Stiffly, she said, “Sir. He will be assisting in the analysis of both the Delos’ maiden voyage and the trial run of the First Contact Team.”

G’Aarth asked her, “And how do you think the Federation will react? They will claim we’re violating their Prime Directive.”

“Ma’am, we are not part of the United Federation of Planets. We usually respect their Prime Directive but no treaty nor Imperial Law requires us to do so.”

“And how do you think this will affect relations with the Federation? Is it worth throwing away our most important alliance for the gain of a single pre-warp species?”

“Ma’am, Lorac’s analysis is that since this species is close to breaking the warp barrier that it is only a minor violation of the Prime Directive. He feels that the Federation will not make a major incident out of it and in fact is likely to do no more than lodge a formal protest.”

“And what is the Korat’s analysis of the Federation response?”

Rileeta hesitated for just a moment too long. “Their analysis mirrors his, ma’am.”

 

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Captain Picard leaned back in his chair, stroking his chin. He glanced down at Captain Rileeta’s history again. The ISS Delos-B. The Supercarrier. That damn thing had caused a major destabilization in galactic military balance. The standard heavy cruisers that made up the various fleets became obsolete in a stroke. Nothing out there could handle 120 fighters plus the damn thing’s own firepower, especially when coupled with her escorts. All of a sudden, the major powers of the galaxy began crash ship-building programs to try to counter what they feared everyone else was building.

He sipped at his Earl Gray tea and returned to his reading.

 

* * *

DOSADI IMPERIAL HEAVY CARRIER ISS DELOS-B, UNDER WAY, ALPHA-QUADRANT

JULY 2321

Rileeta yawned and stretched. She snuggled back down into the comfortable pillow of Lorac’s arm for a few moments. She felt him lick the back of her neck and then lay his chin on her shoulder.

“Hey, dirty fur. You need to get up.”

“mmurph Don’ wanna.” She curled more tightly into a ball.

He nipped at her shoulder. “Ensign Rileeta. Duty calls. We’re almost there. You need to be on the bridge when we arrive and you know it. Captain De’Vax is expecting you.” He pushed her forward, away from his warmth.

“Meanie.” She stood up from their sleeping spot in the Delos’ Northeastern Living Pod and looked down at him and then stuck her tongue out.

He laughed, “I need to get up too. I’m supposed to be down in Flight Ops for an eval this morning. They’re doing a full strike package evolution at the same time you’re team is inserting.”

She was pulling her active camouflage uniform on. “Do you think it’ll work?”

Lorac stretched and sat up. “It better. Hell, she wasn’t even supposed to be able to fly, remember? Every other power out there thought we were crazy to try to build something this size. The structural integrity fields will never hold! You can’t maintain a hull form that big in warp! Yada yada.”

Sitting down and pulling her boots on over her long, feline-type feet, she said, “I don’t know who’s idea it was to include the space dock in the hull but that was incredibly brilliant. Multiple auxiliary power reactors, heavy structural strength…Then plating over it for a double-hull?” She laughed “Well, she at least flies. Now we just have to prove she can operate.”

Lorac started pulling on his own clothes. “What better place for testing than an isolated system with no space flight? And you have to prove that you can operate undetected, and then make contact peacefully, AND bring them into the Imperium.”

“That’s going to take us both. Not just my team.”

He stood up and grabbed her shoulder, pulling her around and into him. “Be safe, Rileeta. Come back to me.”

She nuzzled his chest. “Always. I need you to keep me out of trouble.”

 

* * *

A few minutes later, Rileeta was standing on the bridge of the Delos, looking at the main view screen, showing the curve of an alien planet. The planet was mostly the reddish-brown and tans of open desert, but there were two green caps on either pole, descending to about 50 degrees of longitude north and south. She was starting to get nervous, watching as their orbit took them around to the night side of the planet and their landing zone.

Captain De’Vax was sitting in the center chair. The Delos‘ bridge was considerably larger than the old Assault Carrier that had borne the same name, but had a similar design. There were more stations and more staff, of course. He scanned around him, noting that the three men staffing the Engineering stations seemed to be a little stressed. He would wait to see if it was something that they brought to his attention or not. He preferred to take a hands-off approach to command and let his staff deal with issues themselves.

He looked out the corner of his eye at the young Ensign in her battle dress. The active-camo was de-energized so the cloth was a uniform dusty-grey. De’Vax thought that for someone with her rank, she was entirely too well known and she and her young friend seemed to wield entirely too much influence. They had managed to arrange it so that most of his ship’s testing would be done within this star system, outside of the Imperium’s actual borders instead of on a test range where she belonged. He remembered the fate of the first Assault Carrier, the ISS Thorin, destroyed in a Romulan ambush the day she left the docks. “Ensign.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Your team is ready?”

“Yes, sir. Would you care to inspect the team?”

“I believe I would, Ensign. Are you still planning on inserting at your primary site?”

“Yes, sir. The desert location is close enough to the outlying settlements of the Northern Kingdom that we can easily conduct surveillance and have an isolated hide to return to; Risk of detection should be quite low. And if we decide to go ahead with first contact, we’re not that far from the capital.”

He stood up and turned to his first officer, “You have the bridge, Commander.” Walking towards Ri he continued, “Lead on, Ensign. Let’s go see how the rest of your team looks.” He thought to himself, “As if there’s any chance you won’t go ahead with first-contact. The entire existence of your concept depends upon it.”

An hour later, he had to admit to himself they did look ready. He had never worked with a Raider team before, but he had spoken with captains who had. They looked supremely confident and their equipment was flawless. He studied the three men and three women lined up in the transporter room for a few moments longer. It really made little difference to him personally if they succeed or failed in their mission, but it was important that the Delos as a whole succeed. “All right Ensign. You may go when ready. Your insertion point should be in range any moment. Remember, we will be moving off to the far side of the system for our testing until you are ready for us – but that means in an emergency, we’re at least a half an hour away. Be cautious, and honor above all.”

“Yes, sir!” She turned to her team, her tail and ears twitching with a mix of excitement and nervousness. “On the pads. Energize your battle dress and verify all communications are on discriminator.” She followed them up, gave them a quick once-over, and turned to face the transporter operator and her captain. “Contact Team One is ready to transport.”

The female crewman at the controls was watching her instruments. “Energizing in 10. Good luck, everyone. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Energizing.” A moment later, the room was empty except for her and the Captain. He glanced at his watch and puffed air out of his cheeks. Nodding to the young woman he left the room and returned to his bridge.

 

* * *

PLANET ANORIA, NORTHERN DESERT OUTSIDE OF TOWN OF BADAR

AUGUST 2321

Force Leader Storch slowly opened his eyes. The stars were crisp in the fathomless black of Anoria’s sky and shone through the netting covering their hide. It was mid-winter here and still warm, even at night. His ears swiveled slowly, listening to the desert sounds around him. Young Rileeta was curled up in between himself and Group Leader Ralex. Somehow their team leader always wormed her way into the warmest spot while she was asleep.

Satisfied that all was well, he turned his head and looked out of their hide towards where the team NCO, Strike Leader K’Reen was keeping watch with Group Leader T’Inau. K’Reen was the old man of their team and at 35 had already spent 5 years with a Raider Team before getting his chance at a Team NCO slot. Their monitoring equipment was purring quietly along, tucked against the dug-out wall.

Watching K’Reen talking quietly with T’Inau, Storch was starting to think those two might end up as more than th’mew’t despite the pretty Group Leader being ten years K’Reen’s junior. He poked Rileeta with his nose. “Ri.” he whispered.

“Meh” She tried to burrow deeper in between Storch and Ralex.

He poked her again. “I do not know how that spy puts up with sleeping with you. Get up!”

She turned over and faced him. “He’s _not_ a spy, Storch.”

“Ri, everyone knows you both work with the Korat. You can call it whatever you will, but when you get right down to it, you’re spies.” He winked at her. “Wasn’t your grandfather a spy too?”

“He was _NOT!_” She bit him.

K’Reen turned his head. “Well, I’m thinking you can’t be spies because you’re too damn’d noisy.” he hissed.

Rileeta sat up and stuck her tongue out at Storch. Standing up she stepped away from her comrades and shook out her battle dress. After a month in the hide they were all getting a bit frowsty. Leaning on the parapet with K’Reen and T’Inau she asked, “Anything new?”

T’Inau answered “Nope. Usual entertainments, news, and sports. Normal traffic in town. Some increased military traffic though, particularly on their air defense networks. I think they’ve picked up some of the Delos‘ test flights somehow, but we haven’t cracked their military encryption yet. We’re still a go, Ensign.”

“You can access his comm system? You’re sure?”

“Yup. Whenever you’re ready. UT Implants are completely online, right down to reading any font we’ve seen them use. Give the word and you can wake the ‘Pharaoh’ of the Twin Kingdoms.” she grinned.

Rileeta watched the sky and the distant lights of Badar for a little while. “Wake ’em up, Force. We’re not exactly dressed for meeting royalty, but I guess it’ll have to do. Strike, once everyone’s up and awake, let’s make the call.”

 

* * *

PLANET ANORIA, TICON, PALACE OF THE KINGS, ROYAL BEDCHAMBER

AUGUST 2321

Pharaoh Wallon, 7th of his line pawed at the bedside table, reaching for his communications handset. Very few of his subjects had the ability to reach him via that device so when it signaled, it was important. Holding the device up he squinted his eyes in the dark. The contact information was displaying nearly random garbage. Stupid thing was malfunctioning. He opened the connection. “Yes? Who is this?”

“You do not know me, sir. My name is Rileeta.”

He scrunched his ears up. It sounded very strange. The accent was… flat. The name nonsensical. He interrupted, “If I do not know you, you should not be contacting me. If you play your little game again, I will have you executed.” And he closed the connection again.

Moments later, the thing signaled again. With even more nearly random garbage displaying on the screen. Tomorrow he would have the thing wiped and repaired. He clicked it on. “You are a fool and your life is forfeit.”

“I don’t think so, sir. And that would be unwise in any case – Your species would benefit greatly from meeting mine.”

He opened his eyes wider. “My species?? Who are you? What game are you playing?”

“Sir, I think we should meet.”

“You are telling me that you are a space alien? Who is this really? I am not amused.”

“Sir, if you meet me, I think it will become very apparent that this is not a joke. I would like to propose that we meet each other tonight. Just you and I. No guards, no publicity, no leaks to frighten your people.”

“Whoever you are, you are insane.”

“Are you afraid?” There was a barking laugh from the Pharaoh. “Then come to the fountain in the Badar Royal Park in three hours. I know your transport can make that time.”

“The middle of the night? Are you an assassin? Is that your game? That park is off limits to all but the Royal Family. If you are trying to get me there, you are up to something.”

Rileeta laughed. She thought to herself “they respect strength and courage.” “Sir, if my people wanted you, or your entire species dead, we could do it with ease. We aren’t here to make threats or to harm anyone. We are here because we think you’ll make worthy allies.” Whoever it was was speaking crudely, almost gutter-speak.

There was a pause of a few moments. “Allies?”

“Yes, sir. If you doubt me, send a drone to fly over the park in thirty minutes and you will see I am not Anorian or anything even close. And then we can meet in person and see about more formal relations between our peoples. Are you afraid of a simple meeting?”

There was a loud snort. “I am far from afraid. But I am no fool either. Even the bravest can be slain by a well-laid trap. Why are you contacting me in this fashion and in the middle of the night?”

“Sir, were we to just drop out of the skies it would cause a panic and your military would see it as an attack. You are followed by media wherever you go during the daytime – by meeting at night you will likely avoid them and avoid having to cause questions by ordering them away. Send a drone sir so you can see I speak the truth. Then come and meet me. Doing it like this keeps the press and your subjects from noticing anything amiss.”

He sighed. “Very well. I will send a drone. If you are playing some sort of game, your execution will be a public event and very drawn out.” He snapped the connection closed and began bellowing for his aides.

 

* * *

PLANET ANORIA, NORTHERN DESERT OUTSIDE OF TOWN OF BADAR

AUGUST 2321

Rileeta looked at T’Inau.

Storch laughed from behind them. “That could have gone better.” he said.

Rileeta turned her head and said, “GODS he’s pig-headed!”

The other five members of her team all looked at each other for a long second and then burst out laughing.

Her ears flicked back, she twitched her tail derisively and she sniffed loudly. “I am not pig-headed. I’m determined.” She turned to K’Reen, ignoring the guffaws. “Come on, let’s get me to the fountain before the drone flies over.”

Ten minutes later, the team had made it through the outskirts of Badar, their battle dress making them essentially invisible. Rileeta looked up at the high wall surrounding the Royal Garden while Storch and Group Leader P’Asch crouched down and made a stirrup of their hands. Moments later she landed gracefully and was perched on the top of the wall. She leaned down and whispered “Okay, back to the hide – I’ll keep the comms on. We’ll establish some trust and then I’ll bring the rest of you in, just like we planned.”

Five minutes after that, Rileeta de-energized the active camouflage and sat down on the edge of the ornate fountain that was splashing merrily in the darkness. She took her floppy bush-hat off and set it down beside her and looked up in the sky. She let her eyepiece scan for the drone she knew had to be up there somewhere. She wanted to be sure it got a good look at her. “Hmph” she thought. “wonder where it is? Down on the horizon maybe?” She gave up looking after ten minutes or so and let her fingers trail through the water in the fountain.

If the Pharaoh were coming, his security forces would continue to monitor her and the garden. So she waited, patiently; watching the stars, dabbling her hands in the water, listening to the night. She sang softly to help pass the time.

Two hours later she was listening to the increasing whine of a transport with the throttles absolutely fire-walled. She looked up as the green and gold ship came screaming over the wall at low altitude, the four ducted fans rotating down and forward as it came slamming in to a combat landing. The transport settled onto its landing gear, hissing jets of steam and looking like a giant, sleek insect.

Rileeta sat patiently. She whispered “Everyone just relax. I know you guys are stressed.” Back in the hide, K’Reen wondered if she were talking to them, or more to herself. He had considerable field experience with Team 12 before his promotion to Strike Leader; Rileeta was on her first real mission.

The ramp smoothly dropped to the ground and four Anorians in full combat gear came down. They quickly spread out and established a security perimeter. Rileeta watched them without giving any sign that she was concerned at all. These were definitely elite Soldiers; They were bigger, stronger, and smoother-moving than the Anorians she and her team had observed in Badar. She thought they looked like some of the stars from their action entertainments.

Finally, one of the palace guards came striding down the ramp, his glittering ceremonial gear a sharp contrast to the dull utilitarian equipment of the first four, then stood at attention. Rileeta smiled; Out of the corners of her eyes she could seeing the combat troops endlessly scanning for danger. Pharaoh Wallon came down the ramp and stopped, looking at her in the darkness, studying her.

She looked back. She was familiar with his image, of course. It was ubiquitous in Anorian culture. A hominid-type body with an almost canine head. Upright, large and mobile ears on top of the head with an elongated snout-like nose. Teeth not unlike her own and expressive violet-colored eyes that seemed more hominid than canine. The body was free of hair or fur, which was present only on the top of the head and was a lustrous honey-blond. Bare down to his waist, he wore a sort of pale green kilt with a weapons harness around his hips and sandals that looked positively Greek. His skin was a deep, dusty red.

He walked towards her, stopping a meter or two away, showing he had no fear of whatever she was. Rileeta stood and said “Good morning, Great One. I had hoped you would come alone.”

Wallon looked her up and down, his face a mixture of puzzlement and fascination. “What are you? How is it that you speak Anorian?”

She smiled, “I am a Dosadi, we are from a star quite some distance from yours. I do not know your language; There is a translating device implanted in my body that can change how my brain interprets language and changes how my mouth works when I speak. It feels rather strange, actually.” she laughed.

“Why are you here? Has our space-curving program become a threat to you? You said something about an alliance? If you have such technology, what can we possibly offer you?”

Rileeta looked up at the much taller Pharaoh, “No, you are, despite all of your advancements, no threat to us. You are where my people were a few centuries ago, when another space-faring race met us. If you look up there, you can see where my…”she raised her left arm and pointed to the low horizon, where Dosad would be rising if the star were bright enough to be visible. But she got no further in her explanation.

One of the combat troops yelled “GUN!”, there was a coughing-bark of a sound and Rileeta felt something slam into her left side just under her armpit. She staggered and sank quickly to the ground, her face frozen in shock as the troopers came sprinting in. A second round came blazing in and shot through her left ear, taking her ear-piece with it.

In moments, two of them were slamming onto her and two others were covering the Pharaoh as they dragged him back towards the ship. She rolled free of one of the two troopers and attempted to get a wrist-lock on the other, blood coming from her mouth and side.

Wallon shouted “STOP! I ORDER YOU TO STOP!” Everyone froze at the commanding voice. The two on Rileeta didn’t release their holds, however. He shook off the two who were trying to drag him into his ship and walked quickly to Rileeta. “Release it! Immediately!”

They quickly obeyed, and got back to their feet, keeping her covered with their weapons.

She sat back on her legs and said, “Fuck. Why does everyone always shoot me in the left side?” and sagged onto her right arm, coughing up blood. She was getting dizzy and her vision was going hazy much faster than it should have from such a wound. She focused blearily on the Pharaoh. “Poison?” She knew that the Anorian’s weapons fired a sort of broad-headed dart and that they were often coated with toxins. She was hoping it wasn’t as effective on Dosadi as it was on Anorians.

He squatted down. “Yes, of course. I am sorry. I did not mean for this to happen.” He pointed at his guards “Get it in my ship immediately. We will take it to Badar Hospital. Waste no time!”

She coughed blood again and fumbled for her IFAK. It was getting very hard to talk “S..s…seeealler” she tried to get him to understand that the wound sealer in her kit would fix the bleeders in her lungs but she could no longer make her mind work well enough for the Universal Translator implant to function and all the Anorians heard was gibberish. The world started spinning. There was an endless loud whining sound and a lot of pain and she struggled to breathe. She was drowning.

 

* * *

Back in the Team’s hide, K’Reen already had the team running towards the Royal Garden. “Chak! Chak! Chak! I knew we shouldn’t have left her there!” They had heard the cry of ‘GUN!’, the first shot and the thudding impact in their team leader, but lost contact at the second shot.

By the time they reached the Garden and had crossed the wall, the Pharaoh’s ship was long gone. There was a patch of blood on the grass and some fragments of Rileeta’s ear-piece. P’Asch walked over to the fountain and picked up her hat. “She’s going to want this back.” he said.

K’Reen was grim. “Let’s go. She’s still indicating on the tracker. Overlay puts her at the medical center. Time for some pay-back. I knew these bastards were treacherous.”

Storch cocked his head. “Strike, she’s not going to want us causing casualties. If it was an accident we’re going to need to be able to recover from this.”

“An accident? She was alone and unarmed and they shot her. He was supposed to come alone!”

“He never agreed to that. She suggested it. He didn’t say he would. And think about it – the guards are supposed to keep him safe and they’re looking at some weird alien. Who knows what they’d consider a threat? You’ve seen some of their entertainments. All about aliens sucking out their brains or using mental powers to make them do horrible things.”

K’Reen’s jaw was clenching, as were his fists. “Fine. Phasers then, on stun. Heavy stun. She’d better be OK or I’m going to re-evaluate that order. Clear?”

“Clear.”

 

* * *

PLANET ANORIA, BADAR HOSPITAL, SURGICAL SECTION

AUGUST 2321

Surgeon Heran was sweating. He had no idea even what it was that he was working on. There were two of the Pharaoh’s Elite Guard in the surgical space with him, keeping the thing covered. He felt that was a bit silly as at the moment it was more likely they’d be burying whatever it was than they were to be attacked.

The dart had lost a lot of energy getting between the thorax-struts but had still penetrated deep into the left respiratory sponge. Thank the ancestors, it hadn’t damaged the primary – the only he corrected his thought – pump or the main-branch duct-work. The internal arrangement was quite different from Anorians, but most of the organs seemed similar, at least. But he couldn’t chance giving it metabolic fluids or drugs; Who knew how it would react to those?

But his very life was on the line too. If he failed to save this…thing, Pharaoh was very likely to have him put to death.

He deftly removed the dart – as a surgeon, they horrified him. They weren’t designed to come out at all, their bladed heads deforming as they entered a body and causing even worse damage. Fortunately, he had plenty of experience from his days as a combat surgeon. Closing leaking duct-work was also easy. But what to do about the toran poison now ravaging it? If it had been Anorian, the toxin so close to the primary pump would have shut it down. He thought that the cyclic-rate was too low though – barely 30 cycles a minute. But what could he do? He knew nothing about how it worked!

So he fell back on the ABC’s – Keep the airway open. Keep it breathing. And keep the metabolic fluids circulating inside it. And pray to the ancestors for aid.

His assistant was doing her usual excellent job. The suction tube was keeping the metabolic fluid out of its airway and it seemed to respond well to the pure oxygen. Although it’s vital signs were nothing that he would consider good for an Anorian, they were not changing much. That, at least, he took as a good sign. If it were Anorian, it would be considered young, and supremely fit; That should help.

Only twenty minutes after he began, he finished stitching up the hole in the thorax and began running his hands further over it’s body, feeling the stiff, odd-smelling dusty grey fabric it was wearing. They had cut an opening in the shoulder, but were afraid to do much to the clothing – it had sparked when they cut it. He felt a thickening in the garment along the upper thorax near the neck and manipulated it to see what it might be. He suddenly let go of it and cried out as the creature nearly vanished except for the bloodstained portions now seeming to hover above the table.

After a moment he realized it was still there, but it appeared to be nearly transparent. He also noticed both of the Guardsmen had dropped into a crouch and had their weapons trained on it – and him! “Fools! Pharaoh has said to save this thing at all costs! How do you think he will react if you shoot it again?! We will be watching your deaths for a month!”

Their weapons wavered slightly, but they didn’t seem inclined to treat it with any less suspicion. There was a coughing sound from the table and a deep breath. He leaned close, ignoring the two Guardsmen for the moment. From under the oxygen cup covering it’s mouth and nose, there was a muffled “Oh shit that hurts.” in a very flat accent.

“You can speak?” It had regained consciousness much more rapidly than he expected.

A hollow laugh. “Yes.” her eyes took in the weapons pointed at her. “I am no threat to you. I have a medical kit on my left side. Please open it and take out the blue tube.”

“What is it? A weapon?”

“No. I am no threat. We seek friends, not conquest. It is an injector. Medicine.”

He reached over the creature, finding the pouch more by feel than anything else. He fumbled it open and saw several colored tubes and other devices. He pulled out the blue tube, the guards hackles going up. Studying it, he thought he could see how it worked – it appeared to be just what the thing said it was. Holding it up before its eyes he asked “This?”

“Yes. There’s a small round capsule that will fit on the end. It’s red and has a green triangle on it. Please put that on the end that doesn’t have the flanges on it and press it against my shoulder. That will administer the medicine.”

He quickly found the item and easily attached it. Hesitating he asked, “What is it?”

“It is called Tri-Ox compound. Another space-faring race gave it to us. It will make my blood carry more oxygen. It will help make up for the blood I lost and speed healing. It will fight the effects of shock.”

His eyes opened. Such a drug would be a miracle for trauma surgeons. He pressed the device against the fur on her left shoulder. There was a quiet hissing sound and her breathing slowed down some.

“Thank you.”

“What are you?”

Another choking laugh. “I am a Dosadi. Our planet is about 250 light-years from yours. Your people are close to being able to travel the stars. Rather than meeting by accident in space, we wanted to meet you here, at your home.”

“Aliens! You are real!”

Her eyes rolled. If she were an Anorian, he would take that to mean she was amused. “Yes. There are hundreds of species in the galaxy we…” She stopped as the doors opened and Pharaoh Wallon came in.

“Surgeon. Is it…Ah.” He exhaled loudly. “Thank the ancestors.” He dipped his head slightly and pushed his open palms away from himself. “Bring it to the room we have prepared. Make it comfortable. You and your staff are forbidden to leave this floor or to communicate with anyone about what you have seen here.”

Rileeta was getting annoyed. The Tri-Ox and the pure oxygen she was breathing was working wonders. “I’m a girl. I’m not an it.”
The Pharaoh’s ears flicked forward and his eyebrows went up. He turned and left, clearly expecting the medical staff to be moving right along behind him. And they didn’t disappoint. Heran and his assistant rapidly unlocked the surgical table and pushed it quickly out of the space.

Rileeta shook her head slowly. This was not going according to plan. She wondered how long she had been out and raised her arm to check her chrono. Her eyepiece was missing. K’Reen and the rest of the team were probably racing here right now; she had to stop them before they made this worse. She felt at her throat and ear – the mic was still there, but the earpiece was gone and her ear hurt like hell.

When they centered the table in the room with the Pharaoh, she tried to tell them time was short – “Great One, I need to be able to…”

He waved his arms at the staff. “Leave us. All of you.” The guards were not happy about that. “Especially you trigger-happy fools.” They bowed their heads deeply and backed out of the room. He turned to Rileeta. “I am sorry they shot you, but I am impressed. That would have killed an Anorian.” He was squinting at her. Her face and left shoulder and chest were visible, but the rest of her seemed translucent.

“I’ve been shot before.” she smiled “I don’t like it much. The Tri-Ox will help. Once my team gets here, they can finish fixing me with our medical kit. But we need to reach them before they get here or they will attack and there is not a thing your guards can do to stop them.” She reached up and deactivated her battle dress.

“How does the cloth do that?”

“It is a meta-material that can bend light around and through it rather than absorbing or reflecting it. Do you have the piece of equipment that was in my left ear? I urgently need to contact my team.”

“Your team? How many of you are on my world? What are they doing?”

She sighed heavily. “We were studying you before we met you. The idea was to get to know you so that stupid shit like this wouldn’t happen. What they are doing right now is responding to your guards shooting me and it is very possible that they will kill an awful lot of Anorians to rescue me. I need to tell them not to do that.”

“How long have you been here? How many? What weapons?”

 

* * *

Outside the medical center, Contact Team One had already made it to just below the roof. Ralex was using her tricorder and whispered “Strike, two guards, one near side, one far.”

“Take them both.” he ordered. Moments later, T’Inau and P’Asch climbed side-by-side up the access ladder and poked their hooded heads over the edge of the roof. There was the familiar whine of phaser fire and a faint sound of two sacks falling onto a floor. The team swarmed onto the roof of the medical center.

K’Reen looked around, his eyes checking for any dangers. One guard was slumped over the far parapet, the other was sprawled out on her back. Without aid, they would remain unconscious for at least an hour. “Storch, Ralex, P’Asch, drop the lines over the side by her window. Four floors down, right Ralex?”

“Right, Strike. Far side, two in from that corner.” The commandos pulled fast-ropes from their rucks and down the side of the building. They quickly dumped their excess equipment by the parapet and got ready to rappel down with P’Asch and T’Inau waiting to go down after them.

K’Reen hooked in and leaned back. “I’ve got the first shot to take out the window. I go through, then Storch, then Ralex. Everyone else, heavy stun. You see anything that looks even remotely hostile, take it out instantly. On three.” He flexed his knees and kicked off the building, dropping like a spider down silk.

 

* * *

Rileeta was getting frantic. “You do not understand – we can go over all that later but I have got…” The window to her room exploded into a rain of crystalline shards followed a moment later by a blurry object on a dark-grey rope and a heavy thud. She tried to shout an order, but had difficulty getting her lungs to produce much volume “No!”

There were two more lines and two more thuds, the Pharaoh turning in surprise. The lines, suddenly free, snaked back out of the window. She heard K’Reen yell “DON’T MOVE!” and the crunching sounds of boots on glass as two other Dosadi moved for better positions, their blurry forms making them indistinct even in the brightly lit room.

“NO! Stop!” she tried again, but the door was opening and two of the Elite Guards were charging through in response to the sounds of the window breaking. They had no chance at all. Storch and Ralex fired without hesitation, dropping both men before they had gone even a pace into the room. Ralex charged forward and slammed the door closed, bracing it with a table while T’Inau and P’Asch came sailing through the broken window frame.

K’Reen switched his phaser back to heavy stun. Aiming it at Wallon he ordered “You. Put your hands on top of your head you treacherous bastard.”

Rileeta, coughing, said, “Strike, put it down. This is just a fuck-up. An accident. Don’t make it worse.”

Pharaoh Wallon looked at the blurry thing in front of him. Proud and defiant he said, “I will do no such thing, worm. I would rather die than submit to cowards like you.”

Rileeta again ordered with as much volume as she could muster, “God damn it, all of you! Shut the fuck up and put the phasers down.” There was a thumping sound as the guards outside attempted to force the door. “Great One, please! Tell your men to stand down as I do mine. Strike, damn it that’s an order. NOW! And turn off your camo.”

For a second, no one moved. Finally, hesitatingly, K’Reen reached up and deactivated his camo followed moments later by the rest of the team. Looking at his officer for another moment, he holstered his phaser.

Wallon turned his head and bellowed at the door “Guards! Stop that this INSTANT or I will have you all flayed! All is well. I am not to be disturbed. I so command it!” There was silence outside, then the sound of men sorting themselves out beyond the door. There were horns in the distance.

Coughing, Rileeta asked “Ralex, I need you – my lung’s a mess and there’s some kind of poison that is making me feel like I’m on fire.” The medic, with suspicious glances at Wallon, moved to her side and opened her medic’s kit and began working, the various devices whining as she checked Rileeta over.

While she worked, Rileeta tried again. “This has totally gone according to plan.” she said sarcastically.

Both K’Reen and Wallon laughed, then cut it off and stared at each other. Wallon cocked his head to one side. “Perhaps we have something in common after all.” he admitted grudgingly.

“I wanted to do this with minimal personnel involved to protect your people. And to prevent misunderstandings like this.” Rileeta explained. “Your entertainments are full of stories of hostile aliens. Almost all of them portray aliens as conquerors or predators or evil. Ow!” she looked down at where Ralex was sliding a wire-thin probe into her upper left chest, following the path of the dart.

The medic said, “You’re going to have a heck of a scar here. And the ear too.”

“Fine. I can try to match Dad’s collection.” She looked back at Wallon. “Great One, there are races in the galaxy that match those portrayals. Many. But there are many more who are honorable, courageous and free. Respectful of differences. My people comprise an Imperium of three different intelligent species. Our greatest friends in the galaxy are a Federation of over 100. We are here to begin your introduction to these peoples.”

Wallon looked at the six aliens facing him. Then he looked down at his two fallen guards. “How many have you killed to facilitate this introduction?”

K’Reen spoke first. “They’re not dead. They’re stunned. The weapon used can be set to kill, knock unconscious, or stun for a few seconds. Ralex can wake them immediately, or they’ll wake up in about an hour on their own, more or less.”

The Pharaoh squinted at him and ordered “Wake them.”

K’Reen looked at Rileeta. “Ma’am?”

“As soon as you’re done, Ralex.”

Wallon asked, “You are in command? And you are female?”

Flinching as Ralex began withdrawing the probe, “Yes to both. Most of the species we have contact with have two genders, much like yours. The differences are not always as obvious as they are in yours. We are mammals, much like you. It is one of the oddities of the galaxy that there are so many similarities in how life has developed in so many places.”

“What are you called?”

“My name is Rileeta. My rank is Ensign. It is the lowest rank in the upper levels.”

His eyebrows went up. “Lowest rank?” He considered this for a moment then turned to K’Reen. “You, at least, are not a low rank and you are male. Why do you not command?”

He didn’t answer, letting his Team Leader speak instead. “He’s the second highest of our lower level ranks. His name is K’Reen. In our system, the lower level ranks are the ones responsible for getting things done where the upper level ranks do the planning. His position is one that carries great respect. Even though I outrank him and my position is that of Leader, I will almost always listen to his counsel and advice. His skill, experience and wisdom are the foundation of our team.”

She paused for a moment. “Great One, your people must be getting worried for your safety, despite your command. They do not know. Perhaps we should allow them to see you are safe? If it can be done without everyone starting to shoot again?” Ralex was starting to revive the two guardsmen, sliding their guns away. “Ralex, leave their weapons.”

The woman looked at Rileeta and shrugged. “Yes, ma’am.” She returned them to their holsters.

As they came awake, the first thing they heard was their Pharaoh commanding them: “You are not to touch your weapons under any circumstance, on pain of death. Is that clear?” Groggily, both men indicated their understanding and got back to their feet.

He yelled out the doorway. “Guards! Cancel any alerts now. You may open the door but the first man who touches his weapons will have his hands removed immediately thereafter! I so command it!”

Rileeta’s team shifted their weight nervously. The room was cluttered with people and the situation was very tense. Finally the door opened slowly, two more troopers looking in and sucking their breath in loudly in surprise.

Wallon said, “You see? All is well as I said. Close your mouths and stop staring.” The two men clamped their jaws closed and stiffened to attention. “Which one of you was it that shot this…woman?”

The first man that Ralex had revived snapped his spine even more erect and answered, “It was I, Great One!”

“Your life is…”

Rileeta interrupted. “Please, Pharaoh. As a favor, and as the one wronged, I ask that you take no action against this man. He was doing his duty to protect you.”

Wallon looked at her. People did not interrupt him. But if this alien’s people were as dangerous as he suspected…“Am I correct in thinking that your people possess many warships that can travel the stars?”

“Yes.”

“Am I correct in thinking that these warships could obliterate my planet in nuclear fire?”

“Or many other weapons systems, yes.”

“Am I also correct in thinking that at least one of these warships is now near my world?”

“Yes.”

“And had you died, that your people would wreak such vengeance upon us that stories would be told of our fate for centuries to come?”

“No. We knew there was great risk in this sort of mission. Terrible interstellar wars have started over these sorts of contacts that have gone wrong. My primary mission is to try to work out ways that we can prevent exactly what just happened.” She looked at the alien leader wryly. “Sometimes we learn much more from our failures than from our successes. Had I died, K’Reen would have continued my mission. Isn’t that right?”

The Strike Leader cleared his throat. “There was…some…discussion as to how to proceed.”

Wallon looked at him. “Your preference was?”

K’Reen sighed. “I wanted to come and make you all pay. She is very young by our people’s standards and your shooting her made me furious. Force Leader Storch corrected me.”

“He is of higher rank than you?”

“No, one grade lower. But among our people, such discussions are how we prevent mistakes. Many minds are better than one. The final decision was mine, however. And that decision was to recover my Team Leader with no casualties, if possible.” He decided not to mention what he would likely have done had Rileeta died…Besides, Storch would’ve talked him down.

Wallon turned back to Rileeta. He indicated the Guardsman who had shot her. “This man’s actions could have led to the end of my people.” He held his hand up to forestall her interruption “If there was discussion, it was far from certain what would have happened. Why should I spare him?”

Rileeta looked at the man. He was standing at rigid attention, showing not the slightest sign of fear as his fate was discussed. “Because I don’t want anyone else to pay a price for my mistakes. Because, like me, he can learn from this and become better for it. And because I hate waste.”

Wallon looked around the room. It was very cramped now. Four fully armed and armored Elite Guardsmen with the alien surgeon standing among them. Rileeta in the bed, himself, and four other aliens on the other side of the bed. He turned back to K’Reen. “And you. What would you have me do with this fool? You are a Soldier with experience. I can see it in your eyes, if aliens are at all like my people.”

K’Reen’s ear twitched back. “You are a good judge of people. I have a lot of combat experience fighting on many worlds.” He studied the troop who had shot Rileeta. He looked fairly young. Brave. And with all the confidence of youth. K’Reen thought that the man’s fate depended upon his answer. If he were his troop, how would he react? “Will you take my advice?”

Rileeta said, “K’Reen!”

The Pharoah answered, “Yes. Your leader is young and idealistic. You are not.” He smiled; a not very nice smile at all. “His fate is yours to decide.”

The young trooper’s eyes quickly flicked over to the alien facing him and then back forward again. There was a bead of sweat running down his temple now.

K’Reen walked slowly over to the man, the other Guardsmen subtly shifting to a more alert posture. Wallon ordered “None of you so much as move. This man acts with my arm.”

Looking up at the taller, broader Anorian, K’Reen got almost chest to chest and put his hand on his combat knife. “What the hell is wrong with you, troop?”

Swallowing the man answered, “Nothing!”

“You will address me as Strike Leader.”

His eyes glanced at his Pharaoh. “Strike Leader, nothing is wrong with me.”

“Then why are you so god-damn stupid as to shoot an unarmed girl?!”

“I…” he caught himself as K’Reen started to swell up “Strike Leader, I thought that…”

Think?! You didn’t think at all you idiot. You reacted to your fear. “ K’Reen smiled. Military was military, no matter what species you were. He briefly thought that basic training was probably the same for every intelligent species – the mammals at least – they needed to accomplish the same thing. “And now you are mine.

The young Anorian said nothing. What could he say?

“Do you know what I am going to do to you, boy?”

“Strike Leader, no.”

“I am going to PT you until the snot runs out your nose. I am going to work you until you are so tired that you will wish I had killed you. So that you, and everyone around you, will never, ever react without thinking again. Do pushups. Now.” He hoped that the UT implant could convey the concepts. Fortunately, as he suspected, the training to create a Soldier was broadly similar from one species to the next.

The Dosadi all chuckled as the Anorian dropped to the floor and, in full equipment, began going up and down. K’Reen turned back to Pharaoh. “I have spent some time training my people’s Soldiers.” he paused, “Great One.” and he smiled.

The Pharaoh looked down at the Guardsman grunting out pushups. “He is yours until you release him back to my service. I will trust that you can train him to be useful again.”

With a smug grin, K’Reen responded, “Oh, yes, I can promise that. This will be a significant emotional experience for him. And a good chance for me to see how much your people can do before they drop from exhaustion.”

Wallon sat back down on the edge of Rileeta’s bed. “Your people show mercy as well. But earlier, you spoke of an alliance? And you have spoken of many other groups in the galaxy. What could we offer you, or any of these groups? And why are your people the ones contacting mine?” He paused. “But I have many questions and this hardly seems like the place for discussing matters of state. Will you and your men be my guests at the Royal Palace at Ticon?”

“Yes, thank you. But, after this mess, word will be getting out, Great One. My plan to meet with you quietly is pretty much wrecked.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “That can be dealt with.”

CHAPTER 3

The only difference between man and man all the world over is one of degree, and not of kind, even as there is between trees of the same species. Where in is the cause for anger, envy or discrimination?”

Mahatma Ghandi

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Captain Picard glanced at the chronometer on his wall. Data was certainly taking his time getting Captain Rileeta aboard. Or perhaps she was unavailable for some reason. Or, more likely, she was simply trying to irritate him. He shook his head and resumed his review.

 

* * *

MALCOR III – CAPITAL CITY

JANUARY 2367

Commander William Riker struggled to remain conscious. He had been returning to the Federation safe-house with three of the First Contact team when the riot had broken out. The team had been making good progress out of the mess when he had seen a young woman being set upon by several thugs.

His escort had grabbed his arm, trying to keep him with them, but there was no way he was going to walk – or run – away and leave her to her fate. So, he had waded into the fight. He remembered seeing her break free and run and then someone had clocked him across the back of the head.

He had vague memories of the team trying to reach him, but another group of rioters had run into them and he lost sight of them in the fight. He wrapped his arm around his chest and groaned. It felt like he got slugged with a bat. Was that when the police had showed up? Someone had kicked him a few times while he was on the ground and he was still tasting blood.

He reached up for his comm-badge and felt torn cloth. “Great. I need to find my way back to the safe house. At least out of this alley.” he thought. He struggled back to his feet, leaning heavily against the wall and started making his way towards the main street.

Raising his head he saw three young men blocking his exit and laughing.

 

* * *

PLANET ANORIA, TICON, PALACE OF THE KINGS

AUGUST 2321

The six Dosadi in their somewhat musty battle dress were following a palace functionary through the echoing hallways of the Royal Palace in the capital city of Ticon. The young guardsman jogged past, his kit rattling and his breath loud. K’Reen commented as he ran past, “Keep going, troop. I’m a long way from tired yet.”

Rileeta looked around as they walked, taking it in, her left arm in a sling of stiff canvas-like material. The images in the broadcasts didn’t do the place justice. It was immense. Primarily low to the ground and constructed of some sort of cool jade-green stone, the building was accented with a number of soaring towers and sky-bridges. Panels and trim of a blonde wood were inlaid throughout the interior walls and there were many hangings of a silky fabric in many colors. As they walked, their soft boots made only a faint whispering sound on the oddly-soft floors. It looked like dark stone, but there was a slight give to the material.

The man they were following stopped in front of four other people. Two men, two women. All four were dressed in the traditional sandals and kilt, except in a dark blue color. The women’s chests were covered with a loop of the white silky fabric draped across their neck and crossing mid-chest and then wrapping around their waists. All four had a black metal bands around their upper arms as well.

Their guide spoke to them. “I am called Jarol. I am the Steward for this building. It is my task to prepare you for breakfast.”

All six pairs of feline ears flicked backwards and their eyes dilated. Rileeta said, “Uh, I’m hoping our translation devices made a mistake.” The team was making subtle shifting movements to gain some space between each other and hands were slowly adjusting on their weapons. The Anorians were definitely carnivorous.

Jarol caught the increase in tension, even with the differences in species. “I do not understand? You are to be honored!”

Rileeta thought that she knew of species where being served up as a banquet was considered an honor. She smiled, “There are many definitions of honor. Our devices took your wording to mean that you were going to cook us.”

Jarol was horrified. “No! No! I mean to make you more presentable! To relax you and bathe you in sweet waters and provide you with soothing dress! The Pharaoh has been most emphatic in his demand that you be afforded every comfort.”

Rileeta thought wryly that ‘presentable’ was probably the man’s first goal. They had been living in a hole in the desert for a month. Dosadi are normally fastidious about their hygiene but there is only so much one can do on a mission. She smiled. “That sounds truly wonderful, Jarol. Lead on.” She needed to set the example for her team. This was not a combat mission. This was a mission to avoid combat.

Every one of them was dedicated to that ideal; they had studied together, they had designed protocols together, they had worked together for a year. But all of them except Rileeta were experienced combat soldiers and their reactions and instincts were those of battle-hardened warriors, not diplomats. She needed to lead by example, to set the tone with her every action, her every mood.

Jarol paused, looking uncomfortable, his scent, body posture, and the expression on his dog-like face indicating that he was struggling with some thought. He finally looked at Rileeta and said, “Forgive me for the rudeness of my question, but I understand that you are a woman?”

Rileeta forced herself not to sigh. “I am. Our people’s bodies are not as…emphatic about the difference in gender as yours.” She eyed the two young women standing in front of them. Both of them were, to her eyes, equipped like cows on her uncle’s farm on Earth, with very pronounced hips. The English word for it was ‘curvaceous’ she remembered.

Jarol looked over her five teammates. His red skin darkened even more. This was totally outside his experience. He had served the House of Wallon, the greatest of the Great Houses, for his entire life. He knew every nuance of protocol for dealing with any difference in social standing from minute to minute. But these…creatures totally confounded him. He thought that two of the five others might be female, but how could one be sure without being insulting? “If the ladies in your party would follow Seren and Halane, they will see to your needs, and if the gentlemen will go with Xander and Roka?”

No one moved. Rileeta asked, “Why are we being separated?”

She realized she had shocked the poor man. “You are to be bathed!”

Another stifled sigh. “Your people have a nudity taboo?” That wasn’t very apparent from their entertainment broadcasts!

“Of course. Don’t yours?”

Smiling she answered, “Nope. A lot of the cultures across the galaxy have none. A lot have strong ones. Every culture has different taboos – meeting new peoples is always an exercise in tolerance and patience and having a belief that the other people are not trying to offend you.”

Jarol bowed his head slightly and pushed his hands away from himself. Rileeta thought that was some sort of obeisance; She’d have to ask sometime soon. Instead she said, “Lead on then, please.”

K’Reen was looking unhappy about them splitting up. “Ensign…”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Whenever he used her rank he was irritated with her. “I know, it’s tactically unsound. Strike, we’re here to take risks. To earn trust, you have to show trust. Right?”

He scowled, but nodded curtly and the two groups followed their respective guides. After seeing them off, Jarol turned and hurried off on some other errand.

When she walked into the bathing room, Rileeta tried not to look around like a tourist. The place was…opulent. Richly colored tiles, bronze fixtures and everything gleamed. A huge pool set in the center of the floor dominated the room. There was steam curling off the smooth surface of the water and several young girls with towels, bottles, and other objects in their hands, looking at the three Raiders with obvious curiosity. The air was heavy with sweet scents and all three Dosadi were trying not to wrinkle their noses at the intensity of the smells.

The young attendants hesitatingly approached them, two to a person. Seren, the taller of their two escorts, with a very long braided pony-tail of white-blonde hair stated, “These girls will see to your every need.“ She paused for a half-second, looking at the weapons festooning the aliens. “You are safe here. We are responsible for your safety. Any harm that comes to you will be visited upon us all three-fold.”

Following Rileeta’s lead, T’Inau, and Ralex started to remove their plasma rifles and the girls quickly reached to help them. T’Inau said, “Wait, these are very dangerous. We need to keep these by us.”

Seren tried again, “You have no need of weapons here. They will be kept safe and returned to you upon request, though I caution you; asking for weapons while a guest is a great insult to your host. It implies you do not trust him.”

Rileeta nodded and let the youngster take her plasma rifle. She started getting uncomfortable as the girls began removing her harness and gear, and then started on her battle dress. “Ah, um, I don’t think anyone’s undressed me like this since I was about two…” the other Dosadi women were similarly uncomfortable. Especially as they were very aware now that they, and their gear, were rather ripe.

They were also aware that as their clothing was removed, their hosts were studying them with more and more curiosity. Dosadi are not terribly body-conscious, but being stared at will make anyone twitchy. Halane noticed and spoke sharply to her comrades, “Girls! You insult our guests with your stares!”

Ralex, usually one of the most taciturn of Rileeta’s team answered her, surprising both her friends. “No, it’s no insult. We are strange to you – We understand. I remember the first time I saw an alien, I ran and hid behind my mother. And I’ll admit, the first time I bathed with a human, I stared too.”

The girl who was undressing her asked, “What is a human?”

“They are a very powerful people who make up the core races of our greatest allies. Their bodies look much like yours, but their heads and faces are very different than yours or ours. Your body style is called, in their language, ‘hominid’ and is very common throughout the galaxy.” The other women in the chamber quickly removed their own garments and led their guests into the water.

T’Inau sighed happily “Oh that feels so nice.” She closed her eyes and leaned back only to sit straight up again a moment later as one of the girls began to wash her. “Hey! What are you…” she cut herself off at the girl’s shocked expression, a sort of soft sponge in one hand.

Seren laughed, “I am thinking that your people are very different than ours. Do honored guests on your world not enjoy being cared for?”

T’Inau said, “Not like this. Grooming someone else is a sign of a close friendship. Bathing someone else would be done between very close-friends or mates.” She glanced at her team leader. “I didn’t mean to reject your hospitality or the honor you offer. I was surprised is all.” She leaned back again and tried to relax while letting the two girls do their job.

Rileeta laughed and then said, “Oh gods. K’Reen.”

Ralex covered her mouth and T’Inau said, “If they…I hope he doesn’t start a war!”

 

* * *

Indeed at that moment, the naked, dripping wet Team NCO was standing against the back wall, his ears flat back on his head, the attendants in the men’s bathing chamber staring at him as though he had gone insane. P’Asch had backed to the far side of the pool with a very similar expression. Storch laughed after a few moments and said, “Relax guys. Different cultures is all. They are offering us honor. Come on, we knew parts of this wouldn’t be easy.”

K’Reen growled back at him, “I can bloody well wash my own damn self! I don’t…” seeing Storch just looking at him with an amused expression he cut himself off.

Storch chuckled, “Strike, you want to tell Ri that we blew the mission because you got all sensitive about getting a bath?” He kicked back and stretched his arms over his head. “It’s kinda nice! I was tired of smelling like you guys. Especially you, P’Asch.” He winked at the younger Soldier.

K’Reen glared. Xander said, “We meant no offense high born. It is our duty to see to your every comfort…”

K’Reen finally lowered his head. “Duty. Yes. We all have our duties. And I’m not ‘high born’ – I’m the same as everyone else. If you want to give me a title, call me Strike Leader.” Stiffly, he walked back down into the pool and glowered at P’Asch. “If I’m getting a bath, you are too. Have a seat.”

 

* * *

Rileeta shook her head. “He’ll be OK. He’s got more experience than any of us. I trust him…” she trailed off as another Anorian woman walked in. This one was wearing the same pale-green type of kilt that Wallon had worn, although she was stripping it off as she came in. Tall, with several earrings, jeweled, golden arm bands and a long braid of red hair down her back, she moved with the confidence of one used to being in charge.

The newcomer commanded Seren, “I will bathe now.”

All of the Anorians bowed their heads deeply and pushed their open palms away. Seren spoke “Forgive me Princess, but your father has set aside this chamber for these…guests’ comfort. He does not wish them to be disturbed.”

The woman stared at the Dosadi. A quick glance around the room took in three piles of weapons and obvious combat equipment, but not like any she had seen before. Looking back at the aliens she demanded “What are you? Where did you come from? Why are you in the womens’ bathing chambers?” Rileeta thought she was putting on a poor act of being surprised by their presence.

Seren tried to explain, “They are your father’s guests, Princess, they are women from another world.”

She looked Rileeta up and down, her black fur a sharp contrast to her teammates. “They are no more than girls. Why do you have weapons here? Why are you in my bathing chamber?”

Halane spoke, “Princess, we have not yet put their weapons in the armory. We wanted them to feel at their ease first. The fault is ours.”

Rileeta tried not to grit her teeth. This one was obviously spoiled rotten. If the Anorians judged female attractiveness like other hominids she would be considered ‘stacked’ and just as clearly knew it. “We are adult women and highly trained combat Soldiers. Our species is not so…obvious about our gender differences.”

Her ears flicked back. “You are insolent. Address me as Princess or Princess Nefer. How can you be Soldiers if you are women? Are you so uncultured then?” She settled into the bath next to Ralex where she could watch Rileeta. Halene gave up and began bathing the Princess.

Rileeta counted to 8. Then again in Standard. She took a deep breath. “I am not one of your subjects. I could as well demand that you address me as Ensign.” The Anorian attendants were stunned. “I am a guest of the Pharaoh and you appear to be going against his wishes by being here.” She decided some diplomacy was in order and added “Princess.”

“Are all aliens as insolent as you are?” She leaned her head back for one of the girls to begin washing her hair. T’Inau noticed that she was watching them out of the corner of her eye while pretending to take no notice of them.

“Often much more so. A Klingon woman would have attacked you by now. A Romulan woman would be planning your assassination and an Orion woman would insult you with such skill that you would wish for the Klingon.”

Nefer sat up. “Are there truly so many aliens? I have always dreamed that there were other peoples, I see all the fictions about them.”

Rileeta smiled, “There are hundreds, even thousands of intelligent races in the galaxy, Princess. Hundreds of them have the ability to sail the stars. My people are called Dosadi and we are renowned warriors.”

She looked at them. “You have come to conquer us then! Just like the fictions say!” she looked fierce, “We will beat you.”

T’Inau tried not to giggle. She failed. Nefer turned her head. “You think that is funny? You think we have no chance? You think…”

T’Inau interrupted, causing Nefer’s mouth to fall open. “No, no – what I found funny was that you think we are here to conquer. It seems like everyone we’ve met here so far thinks we’re here to invade. We’re here to make friends, not war.”

“You…interrupted me!”

T’Inau cocked her head to one side. The attendants were very carefully focusing on their jobs. “So?”

“I am a Princess of the Great House of Wallon! No one interrupts me! Ever!”

“I guess you can’t say that any more, Princess.”

Rileeta thought that perhaps a change of subject was in order. “You seemed surprised that we are Soldiers. Aren’t women Soldiers on your world?”

After a moment, Nefer looked back at her. “Very rarely. Usually only those who are…unsuited to being women…” she glared at T’Inau, “are allowed to do such things.”

T’Inau said, “One of the guards we shot on the medical center roof was a woman.”

“You…shot? You said you were here to make friends! Have you lied?!”

Rileeta jumped in again, “No. Princess, the weapon used knocks the target unconscious, it did not kill. Your father’s Guardsmen shot me and my team came to rescue me. It was a misunderstanding, long since resolved. No one died and I was the worst injured of all.”

There was a quiet giggle and a little girl of perhaps six came running into the bathing chamber. She yelled “Nefer!” as she came through the door and then she skidded to a halt, her eyes wide, looking at the three alien women in the pool. Her mouth opened and she said, softly, “monsters!”

Before she could scream, Nefer quickly got to her feet, speaking soothingly, “No, no, Dorea, they’re just funny looking people.” She walked to the little girl and picked her up. “See? We’re all having a bath is all!” She walked back towards the giant tub, slowly settling herself and the child down next to Ralex again.

Dorea was trying to look at all three Dosadi at once. “What are you? Did something happen to you?”

Nefer spoke first, “No, no – they’re people. They’re real space aliens! But friendly ones! Not like in the fictions.” her look at Rileeta said they damned well better be friendly.

The girl gasped in shock, turning her head and burying her face in her big sister’s shoulder.

Rileeta, remembering a time not so very distant, when she had been a terrified child facing un-friendly aliens couldn’t stand seeing the girl so frightened. “Hey there, little one.” she spoke softly.

When Dorea peeked one violet eye out from her hiding place, Rileeta leaned very slowly forward and began to sing a soft lullaby.

Naow ja’mewr

Ul th la r’inaw

Ka r’fan gaal wesh het junt

Barl pitt la blasen”

When Dorea cocked her head at her with a very puzzled expression, Rileeta realized that her UT implant hadn’t quite picked up on her singing as language and that her words were coming out in Dosadi. She mentally kicked it a couple of times and started again. At least the sense of music didn’t need translation:

 

Curl up little kitten

Cuddle close and be warm

You’re safe here from all harm

The breeze fresh and blowin’

 

Sleep deep now and grow strong

Your friends are all napping

In your dreams they do sing

For you to come along

 

The longships are sailing

Racing the wind and the kaal

The moon’s face is passing

She watches over all.

 

Sleep deep now and grow strong

Your friends are all napping

In your dreams they do sing

For you to come along.”

 

While she sang, she slowly brought her tail around so that the child could reach it. The little girl cautiously put her hand out and stroked the black fur, and as her confidence grew, finally smiled. When Ri finished her song, Dorea asked “Why is there blood all over you?”

“There was a misunderstanding when your…” she shot a questioning look at Nefer “father’s?” getting a quick nod she continued, “guards were frightened of me and shot me. Then they found out we were friends and took me to the medical center and made me better.”

Nefer leaned forward, reached out and lifted Rileeta’s left arm, causing her to wince. There was an angry red mark, bare of fur where Ralex had sealed up the wound. Then Nefer moved her hand up to her ear and examined the hole there. There was still blood in the fur on the left side of Rileeta’s head, face, and neck that the girls had yet to scrub away.

“Why aren’t you dead?” Nefer asked as she and her baby sister examined the alien.

Patiently enduring their inspection Rileeta said, “Our medical technology is far advanced from yours and the poison used has much less effect on my biology than yours. And fortunately for me, your medic at the medical center who worked on me was very, very skilled.”

Nefer lifted up a pair of oblong hexagonal discs on a fine, braided necklace. “What are these?”

“Identity discs. All Soldiers across the Imperium wear these. They’re imprinted with my name, rank, ID number, and branch of service. If you scan them, all my medical records are inside it so any medic treating me knows what they need to know.”

“How old are you?” She continued poking, prodding, and touching Rileeta much to the barely-concealed amusement of her friends.

“I’m 17 of our years old. That makes me about 16 of your years. I am an adult in our society.”

Nefer smiled brightly, “We are the same age!” And you two?

“25.” said T’Inau.

“I’m 23.” Ralex offered.

“And your fathers and husbands have allowed you to…to…go out on this adventure?”

Rileeta grinned, “My father wasn’t very happy about it, no, but in our culture, once you’re an adult, no one has any say over what you do unless you join the military, as we have. Then your superior officers have quite a bit of say over what you do and where you go. But we volunteered for this mission.”

“Have you done many…missions?”

Rileeta said, “Well, this is my first real one. The rest of my team has rather more experience. Strike has been on many missions for about 15 years, 5 of them with our Raider teams.”

Dorea asked “There are more of you? Where are they? Are they girls too?”

“No, there are three more on my team. Men. They are being taken care of somewhere else.”

Nefer concluded, “So you fight a lot of wars. My people do as well; there is often conflict between the Great Houses, especially between those of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.”

Rileeta shook her head, “Not so many wars. But the galaxy is a big place with many thousands of planets and hundreds of races so there is always some sort of conflict going on. Usually minor fights or small battles, squabbles over resources or planets.”

“Planets. Like my planet?” Nefer asked.

Rileeta thought quickly. One reason the Imperium wanted to move fast was that Anoria was in an area of space claimed by the Imperium, the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and even occasionally, the Romulan Star Empire. An Imperial Survey Team had identified a number of highly valuable strategic materials in their system – were they to join the Imperium, it would be quite a coup. “Well, yes.”

Nefer let go of Rileeta’s hand. “You are here for conquest. Have you brought one of the great star killers to force us to do what you wish?”

Rileeta had seen the fiction she was referring to – improbably giant space cruisers that went around blowing up stars and enslaving whole races – “No. Definitely no. My mission is to ask if you wish to join with my people in alliance. If you refuse, we leave and my mission is a failure. But you are free to choose as you wish. I only ask that you listen to what we have to say before you choose.”

“What sort of ship brought you here?”

Oh shit. Rileeta thought. “Her name is the Imperial Star Ship Delos. She is our newest vessel and unique in the galaxy. We are very proud of her.”

“She?”

“In our faith, every ship has a guiding spirit. The spirit of the Delos is female. Other ships have male spirits.”

“Is she a warship? What sort? She is a star killer, isn’t she?”

Rileeta sighed. “Yes, she is a warship. She is called a Heavy Carrier because she carries many smaller fighter craft. No, she is not a star killer. There are two other ships with her, smaller escorts called corvettes.”

“You will show me your ship.” she stated flatly.

“I hope to show your father and his counselors, yes.”

“Then I will go with them.” She picked up Rileeta’s tail and examined it while the bath girls continued their ministrations. “You truly get to go where you wish? You travel the stars having adventures?”

“Well, when we’re not on duty, yes, we can go wherever we please. And I don’t know if I’d call them adventures. If you listen to Strike talk, it’s a lot of miserable hiding in swamps and hiding in holes and then being constantly terrified.”

T’Inau chimed in, “It’s a lot of sitting around, then going where other people tell you to go and sitting around more. Then you first make contact with the enemy and…” her eyes had a faraway look, almost haunted. “There’s a lot of noise and shouting and running. It’s terrifying and exciting. It’s even fun a lot of the time. And then your friend dies and it’s horrible and…” She shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s not like what you see in your fictions here.”

Nefer picked up Rileeta’s foot, looking at the very different structure she had from Nefer’s own; Dosadi were digitigrade while Anorians, like humans, were plantigrade. “Who is the leader?”

Rileeta, beginning to feel like a lab animal said, “I lead our team of six. My commander is Captain De’Vax, who leads all the crew on the Delos.”

You lead? But you said you were only 17! Ah! You are of a Great House?”

Grinning, Rileeta answered, “No, we don’t structure our society like yours. Anyone can rise to leadership positions based upon merit. I chose a path that leads to making decisions and leading while my teammates chose a path that leads to more doing things and executing those decisions.”

“You can choose your own path?” She looked at Ralex and T’Inau “Are your husbands the other team members?”

Since one of the girls was gently sponging the dried blood off of Rileeta’s face, T’Inau offered, “Rileeta and I don’t have mates yet. Two of the men do, but their mates are not in the military. “

Ralex spoke again, “My mate is a shipwright on Dosad. He builds sea-going ships. But he doesn’t command me like you think. We decide things as a team.”

“We have very few large bodies of water on our world. But our sandships are perhaps similar.”

“Dosad is over half water. His ships are beautiful; People on other planets value them highly. I think the sandships of your people will prove popular as well. There are many desert worlds and your people’s designs are unique and clever.”

T’Inau watched as three more young girls came in and began gathering up their equipment. “Ri?” she asked.

Glancing over her shoulder she answered, “It’s OK. Um, Princess, can you order that our equipment only be stored? If someone tries to clean it, they may very well injure themselves or many others or damage our gear through accident. We’ll also need those small pins and Ralex will need that large pouch there. It is medical equipment.”

Nefer stood up, water dripping off of her and walked over to the new girls. She began examining the gear; Looking at vests, clothing, weapons, and commo gear. Rileeta looked at her teammates and shrugged.

Drawing T’Inau’s boot knife the Princess said, “This, at least, is not much different than ours. But this other equipment is, I think, better than ours.” She sounded both interested and unhappy about it. “You, girl. Place their equipment in bins. No one is to touch it without my permission.”

Rileeta said, “Thank you, Princess.”

When Nefer turned, she was holding each of their boot knives. “It is normal for women of certain rank in our culture to carry a knife.” She laid them down on a shelf. “Dress us, or we will be late for breakfast.”

 

* * *

Breakfast was considerably more substantial than the Dosadi were used to. Normally browsers throughout the day with a single large-meal in the evening, they were faced with a table positively groaning with food; none of which they truly recognized. Rileeta and the other Dosadi women were wearing the same kilt and draping top they were used to seeing while the men on her team had only the kilt. The men’s clothing was dark red, while the women wore pale pink with their boot knives slung from slim, golden belts. Unable to make the Anorian sandals fit Dosadi feet, they were all bare-foot, which bothered the Dosadi not at all. Rileeta suspected their lack of footwear horrified Joral, however.

Ralex discreetly scanned the foods before pronouncing them safe for Dosadi digestion, much to the interest of several of the guests, although they tried to conceal it.

As Rileeta looked around the other guests, she started seeing the variations in style that she had expected. Materials, cut, color, and decoration varied wildly on the same basic theme. She decided that what they had on was a sort of normal daily attire and that the Pharaoh was trying to make them comfortable. All of her team were much happier to be clean, although the scent the bath had left on them was slightly cloying to their highly sensitive noses. The women smelled like a desert-blooming flower they had found early on, while the men were giving off a strong odor of spice.

All six of the Dosadi were trying to duplicate their hosts’ actions – fortunately, silverware is silverware for pretty much any mammalian species. All of the Anorians but Wallon and Nefer were showing varying degrees of shock, fear, confusion, and wonder. Little Dorea, the only child present, was about to explode with the need to tell someone all about the space aliens, but her sister was keeping her restrained.

A few minutes after everyone had started to tuck into their meals, the Pharaoh spoke to Rileeta. “It is customary for our people to conduct business over meals.” he smiled at the other Anorians I will admit to enjoying my advocates’ shock and confusion over my little surprise, but it is time to begin the work for the day. Not quite what we thought it would be yesterday, is it, my friends?”

There were a number of noises of agreement and many open stares at the visitors.

“As I am sure you have guessed by now, there is other life in the universe. And that life has come to us – in friendship they say. Though they have chosen to send us Soldiers in a warship as emissaries of that friendship…”

Little Dorea finally couldn’t stand it any longer, “And those are girls and they sing and…” Nefer quickly hushed her sister.

There were indulgent chuckles around the table and Wallon continued with a smile, “I think that choice bespeaks of a respect for our strength. And their words were put to a severe test. Their leader, “ he indicated Rileeta, “meeting me alone and unarmed, was shot by one of my guards who mistook a gesture of friendship as an attack. Yet her Soldiers did not kill in revenge.” He cast a wry smile at K’Reen, “Although there was some discussion on that point, of course.”

There were some nervous glances around the table and Wallon kept talking, “But again, I see that as evidence that these people are strong, and understand strength – well enough to know when to apply it and how. I ask you to note that their weapons – far superior to our own – are in the House Armory, out of respect and trust.” There were some murmurs at that.

“Let me first ask my advocates to introduce themselves, and then our guests. To avoid confusion, I will ask you to state your name, your gender, your age, and your position.” He indicated himself, “I am Wallon, male, 52, and I am Pharaoh of the Twin Kingdoms of Anoria.”

Nefer spoke next, “I am Nefer, female, 17, Princess of Anoria.”

“Dorea, I am a girl, I am 6 and I am a Princess!!”

A scarred man, eying them suspiciously said, “Baldon, male, 46, I am the advocate for all matters relating to war.” He was followed by the advocates for Medicine, Finances, Education, Housing, Transportation, Energy, Science, and Industry.

As the Anorians finished, Rileeta stood and said, “Rileeta, female, 17, I am ranked Ensign and I command First Contact Team One for the Dosadi Imperium.” and then her team followed her lead.

Wallon spoke again, “I had not intended my daughters to be present – Rileeta had thought to minimize our people’s exposure to hers, but as you all are no doubt aware, trying to keep a secret from the Princesses is as futile as carrying ice to Tandoon in summer. And lasts about as long.” More chuckles.

As he was about to continue, the young troop that K’Reen had been ‘training’ for the last four hours came double-timing back in, panting heavily. Wallon raised his hand at the surprised looks on the Anorian’s faces, “Our new friends have taken over training this young Soldier. He is the one who shot the ali…Rileeta and I have given him to her chief advocate to train so that he will not make such a mistake again.”

K’Reen grinned at Wallon then turned to the young man. “Ready to quit yet, troop?”

Panting, “No.” hesitating a moment he said, “Strike Leader, No.”

“You’re tougher than I thought. Good! I’m sure having fun. Tell you what. You go get cleaned up, get some chow and catch some sleep, and then come back for more training after lunch. I will find your breaking point. Understood?”

Defiant, he said, “Strike Leader, I understand and will obey.” He walked out of the room, exhausted but unbowed, and K’Reen spoke to Wallon, “He’s tough. I like that. I hope the interruption was not rude? It would be normal among our people.”

Wallon shook his head, “Not rude at all.” He turned to his advisors, “The Strike Leader is not as young or as idealistic as his commander, a contrast I find valuable as I learn whether or not these people can be trusted, and how far.”

Baldon decided this was his chance. “How many ships did you bring? How many Soldiers? Where are they?”

Rileeta sighed. Everything they knew about these people indicated that they respected strength – and that honesty would be the only sensible path here. “We brought our newest vessel – we call her a Heavy Carrier because she carries many small fighter craft. She also carries a full battleforce – about a thousand – of Imperial Marines. She is escorted by two small ships called corvettes who’s job is to help defend her from attacks.”

“A thousand troops to conquer a world? Are your weapons truly that powerful?”

She shook her head, “Not to conquer no. But yes, our weapons are that powerful. We are…”

Pentar, the Science Advocate jumped in, “How do you have enough energy to travel the stars? Is that the source of your weapons’ power? Can you…” the old man was interrupted in turn by Junga, an only slightly younger man advocating for Education.

“Are there many other people’s in the galaxy? Is that why you need such weapons? How…”

The next to interrupt was the middle-aged woman representing Medicine, “What about diseases? How do we know that you will not infect us…”

Wallon banged his knife on the table. “I insist that you conduct yourselves with more restraint. Rileeta, perhaps if you speak for a few moments you can answer many questions at once.”

Grinning she said, “I’ll try. I doubt we’ll hit everything at one meal.” She thought for a moment. All of the times she had imagined this mission, it had been nothing like this. “There are hundreds of space-faring races in the galaxy. In this part of space, there are a few powerful alliances of peoples that are sometimes in conflict. Usually low-intensity, but sometimes the wars are awful beyond imagining with titanic forces destroying whole worlds.

“The most powerful – but only slightly – is the United Federation of Planets, a free association of over a hundred space faring peoples and many thousands of stars. These people are our people’s greatest friends and the ones who contacted us about two centuries ago when we first broke the light-speed barrier. They value organization and structure and celebrate people’s individuality within a greater society. They are a massive bureaucracy that produces thousands of regulations a year.

“In contrast, my people are a small Imperium with three sentient species and a dozen planets. We value courage, valor, and freedom and are a fairly loose association of peoples.

“The next most powerful is the Klingon Empire. They are a fierce people who enjoy combat above all else and live by a warrior ethos. They are nearly as large as the Federation but rule their peoples with an iron fist and seek to expand their space aggressively.” She smiled at Wallon. “My people and theirs get along well, actually. We enjoy testing each other in combat – more as a matter of sport than true warfare. There is great honor and respect between us despite our conflicts. They, however, often fight our friends in the Federation and those two do not get along very well.

“Then there is the Romulan Star Empire. These are a proud folk who are ruled by a Praetor and a Senate of statesmen and live their lives by a strict code of laws and rules. Basically a political oligarchy. They’re fairly isolationist, but do maintain relationships with other species. They guard their territory very fiercely and they often fight with both the Federation and the Klingons – and our people as well. They can be extremely devious and they are highly intelligent and clever and very long-lived. If you become part of their Empire, you will essentially be subjects, rather than citizens.”

She looked down at her team and then back up the table. “Your planet is in space claimed by all four of our peoples. My mission is to ask you to join with us in alliance – to join the Dosadi Imperium as a free people.”

Baldon spoke again, “Why wouldn’t we join this Federation if they are the most powerful?”

Rileeta smiled, “Because they have a rule called the Prime Directive. They are not allowed to share their technology – or to interfere in a more primitive society’s normal development – in any way. Once you achieve warp flight, they will begin to slowly share that technology with you, but it is glacially slow and always bound by endless meetings, treaties, negotiations, and rules. My people were fortunate – we met them before they had quite so many rules and benefited greatly from such sharing.”

Pentar chimed in, “And you would share all that knowledge with us?”

“Not all at once, no. No society can survive such a rapid transition. Histories of many worlds are replete with what happens to a primitive society when it meets an advanced one. It’s never pretty for the more primitive society unless both are very cautious. What we will do is work with you to determine what to share and how so that we accelerate your advancement at a pace that works for you. Our Imperium is much smaller than the Federation and decisions are faster and less constrained and since we are smaller, the stronger each of our members is, the stronger we all are.

“For example Pentar, the scholar who leads your warp program, uh, the space-bending program; The term used throughout the galaxy is warp. I will have the Chief Engineer of the Delos – the Heavy Carrier ship – meet with him so that he can make sure that your test is successful, that your project races to completion and advance your people’s understanding of the true nature of the universe.”

The old man’s jaw just sagged open.

Lotya, the woman who was the Medical Advocate asked, “And will you do the same for my surgeons?”

“I will have the Chief Healer aboard the Delos share with you a medicine that was among the first things that the Federation gave my people. It is called Tri-Ox compound. It rapidly oxygenates tissues and speeds healing. For trauma cases it is a miracle drug. It is, in fact, partially responsible for saving my life this morning.” At the woman’s questioning glance she raised her left arm as much as she could from it’s sling. “Go ahead.”

The doctor stood up and began examining Rileeta’s chest wound, and then her ear. When Storch nodded his assent, she compared his uninjured chest and ear to hers. “This should have killed you. But it is as closed as though it had been stitched two weeks ago!”

“Your healers are very skilled and Pharaoh was very fast getting me to them. There are other technologies as well that help to seal wounds.” The doctor continued to prod, running her hands along Rileeta, feeling muscles and bones. “I can have some of our Marines of both genders volunteer for you to examine, if you wish?”

She brightened up, “Yes! That would be marvelous!”

Baldon spoke again, “How do we know your weapons are as powerful as you say? And we have yet to see this ship, or its weapons. How easy a thing would it be to visit a planet and simply talk them into doing what you wish?”

Rileeta turned to face him. “As our peoples come to know each other you will see that we value honesty greatly. Honor to us, is more important than our lives. A saying in my family is that honor means always doing what is right, even if it costs you everything you had, or ever dreamed of having. My people live that code. But I believe the Pharaoh himself can tell you of our weapons. And with his permission, after the meal, I will have us all taken on a tour of the Delos.”

Wallon verified her story. “Baldon, they blew through my Elite Guards without a second thought and without injuring a one. They are nearly invisible when they fight and their weapons can destroy, or merely incapacitate at the flick of a switch. I believe the six of them could probably kill an entire legion of our best troops without much difficulty.”

Rileeta was a little surprised – but pleased – at the praise. Baldon was evidently horrified. “I still wish to see these ships she claims to have here. Why haven’t we detected them?”

She said, “They are on the far side of your sun to avoid detection while they test their systems. We did not wish to cause alarm.”

Pentar coughed. “That would explain a number of anomalous observations we have recorded.”

“What?” she asked, surprised, “What did you record?”

“Lights where there should be none. And our radio-telescopes have picked up strange readings that we have been unable to localize. But the direction is always opposite to Anoria in orbit. There has been quite a lively discussion about what has been seen for this last month, but nothing conclusive.” He glanced at Wallon, “I have a draft report I’ve been preparing, Great One, but was not yet ready to bring it to your attention.”

Wallon looked at his science advocate. “It would appear that you waited too long.” The man looked down at the table in shame.

Dorea had worked her way over to Storch and tugged on his kilt. He looked down at the girl, just slightly younger than his own kit. “Yes? What’s up, small one?”

She held up a doll. Storch glanced at the people yakking away at the table. He turned his chair and got down on one knee. “Who’s this?” He studied the doll. Pretty much every intelligent species had a similar sort of toy for their children. This one was slightly the worse for wear, showing stains on it’s dress and the white hair had turned grey.

“Her name is Ganda.”

Storch reached up and gripped the doll’s shoulder. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Ganda. My name is Storch. My little girl has a friend just like you named Olyn.”

Rileeta was listening to Junga explaining some of what she hoped to gain and noticed Storch was sitting on the floor playing with Dorea and a doll. She thought that she should probably get his attention back to the job at hand. Then she decided that this was the job at hand. Building relationships with these people. Turning her attention back to Junga, she saw that Wallon had been watching her; and Storch. He raised one eyebrow and smiled at her.

Breakfast definitely ran long. But Wallon finally indicated that it was time for the dishes and foods to be removed. “Rileeta. You had said that we would be able to see these warships. When can that be done?”

“I can signal my Captain and make the arrangements right now, if you wish? They are about half an hour from orbit where they are conducting their drills on the far side of your solar system.”

“Arrange it for this afternoon then. I would like my Advocates to attend as well.”

“Certainly. One moment, please.” She tapped her Raider insignia and it chirped. “Ensign Rileeta to Delos.”

“Delos, Lieutenant Careen.”

Pentar gasped, “No delay!”

Rileeta smiled at him and nodded. “Good morning Lieutenant. Would you please ask the Captain if he can accept a dozen visitors this afternoon? The leader of Anoria and his advisors would like to see our ship.”

“Wait one.”

Speaking softly to Pentar Rileeta explained “We aren’t using radio. It’s a form of communication that takes place in something called sub-space…”

“Rileeta, Captain says guests would be very welcome. We’ll send a pair of shuttlecraft at 1800 hrs your time. How do we coordinate with their air defenses?”

Baldon frowned. “Can you use radio?”

“Yes.”

“Have them contact our aerospace forces on a frequency of 8.2 Ghz. Use frequency modulation.”

Rileeta relayed that information and closed the communications off. Smiling, she said, “Just that easy, sir.”

“Why wait so long then?” the old Soldier asked.

“My Captain is conducting a large number of tests and drills. This is a new vessel – a new type of vessel for the galaxy, in fact. No doubt that is the first time in their schedule that they can return to orbit.”

He nodded. He understood better than most at this table how difficult it was to juggle schedules involving military units.

As servants began to clear the table, Rileeta, moving close to Wallon asked, “If we can get our uniforms and access to cleaning facilities, we’d be much more presentable for the next meal.”

Wallon looked at her. “You…ah, of course you wouldn’t understand. You honor me by wearing the livery of my house.” He smiled. “Hmmm.” He considered his next statement for a few moments. “I am being selfish. At lunch, the heads of other Great Houses will be here; if you visitors are in my livery, it will be seen as a de facto alliance and it will make my position even stronger.” Seeing her puzzled look he continued, “You have been honest and open with me about your intentions. I am returning the favor, although that is not normally the way of our people. We love all the hidden maneuvering of politics.”

Nefer spoke up, “Daddy, I will take her shopping! We can make it obvious that she’s the leader and I can show her Ticon and people can see them and they can see how the people live!”

Rileeta tried to speak, “That’s probably not a goo…”

Wallon raised his hand, “I am about to address my people on this issue. Rumors will be spreading after what happened at the medical center, no matter what orders I issued. I would like you to appear with me. If you are dressed as you are, in familiar clothing, you will seem less frightening.

“However, afterwards, I think my daughter has the right idea. I will provide you with an escort.”

Rileeta was more than a little shocked, “You want us all to…go…shopping?”

Nefer begged, “Pleassse? It will be fun! And you will be doing something normal!”

Wallon continued, “I think just you. A single alien would be much less frightening than six. There will be media, of course, but your escort will keep them at a respectful distance.”

Her teammates were trying to keep their mirth under control. And failing. K’Reen finally chipped in with “Seems like a good idea to me, Rileeta. Building relationships and showing the people here that we’re just people like them, right? And what’s more normal than shopping?”

She shot him a look that would freeze mercury solid.

CHAPTER 4

It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.”
― William Blake

MALCOR III – CAPITAL CITY

JANUARY 2367

Riker rolled onto his back and managed to get his eyes open. There were rainbow halos around everything and he was fairly certain that this planet didn’t have doubles of everything in sight. He tried to run his hands over his body for a self-assessment but didn’t get far. It hurt too much. His phaser made an uncomfortable lump in the small of his back. At least those last three punks hadn’t found that.

Maybe if he crawled back to the street he could find help. It sounded like the riots were breaking up.

 

* * *

PLANET ANORIA, TICON, PALACE OF THE KINGS

AUGUST 2321

Rileeta was distinctly nervous. She had known that at some point, any species they made contact with would spread the news about that contact: There was life in the galaxy other than their own. They had talked about it often, excited. They spent hours discussing what should be said during their introduction. What would be just the right tone to strike? What facial expression for what sort of species? Knowing that the Anorians would be their first test, they had gamed out everything relating to their mission.

However, so far, nothing had gone to plan; and this broadcast was no different. Despite her training, her high intelligence, and her excitement, Rileeta was still a seventeen year-old girl and there were broadcast cameras pointing at her, sending her image out to literally millions of people who were staring solely at her. Every single thing she had gone over with her team, every one of a hundred practice runs fled from her mind like a rabbit from a hound. The more she realized that she had forgotten everything, the more desperately she tried to recall something and the more panicked she became when her mind returned with nothing.

Wallon was talking. As long as he was talking, she was fine – all she had to do was stand there and look impressive. The highly-advanced alien species making first contact! Except, she wasn’t in her uniform like she had imagined. Instead, she was wearing some ridiculous kilt and top. Did she look silly? She swallowed again in a dry throat. ‘Gods, please don’t let me screw this up!’ she prayed silently.

And then, Wallon was stepping aside from the center spot. All she could see were bright lights, and lenses. Pointing at her. After a long moment, she stepped forward to where Wallon had been standing and forced herself to smile. Taking a deep breath she said the first thing that came to mind: “People of Anoria, greetings! My people, called Dosadi, have come to you in friendship and in hopes of joining your strength with our own.” She swallowed again, trying to get some moisture in her mouth. “There are many peoples in the galaxy, and we have come to begin your introduction to a wider universe, to help you find your rightful place among the sentient beings of the galaxy.” She half-turned and pointed her arm at her team. “We are explorers, and we are Soldiers both. In the coming days, we hope to meet many of you.” She introduced her teammates. Then she brought T’Inau and Ralex a pace forward and she paused a moment.

“As you can see my people are quite different than yours on the outside. T’Inau, Ralex, and myself are women, though to your eyes we may look alike despite our distinct clothing. To our people the difference is obvious.”

K’Reen mumbled “Damn straight.” Unfortunately for him, the directional microphones picked up his comment quite clearly. ‘Viva la difference’ translates easily into almost any culture and there were laughs throughout the gathered media personnel. Despite his embarrassment, it was just the right tone to take for these people. Every Anorian male watching the broadcast could identify with his sentiment.

Rileeta grinned and winked at the discomforted senior NCO. “We will find many things in common, and many differences. I ask that you please remember our ignorance of your culture when we meet. We will not deliberately offend anyone, but we may do so by accident through that ignorance. Be patient with us.

“We are not the evil beings so often portrayed in your entertainments, nor are we here for conquest, nor are we super-beings. Our technology is just more advanced than yours.” She smiled. “At the moment. But like you, we love each other, we love our children, we fight, we have good days and bad, and we make mistakes, just like you.”

Turning back to Wallon, she tried to come up with some intelligent way to wrap up her address. “I hope that our peoples will become friends. The choice is yours. We respect you, we respect your right to be unique, and we will respect whatever choice you make. Thank you.” As she stepped back for Wallon to return to the center spot, she thought ‘Oh gods, that was pathetic! The entire planet has to be laughing at me!

The Pharaoh gestured and the lights finally clicked off. Rileeta hung her head, appalled at her failure. P’Ash chimed in with “That wasn’t any of the speeches we ran through!”

Storch said, “Nice job though, Ri. I think that was better. Nice dramatic pauses there at the intro!”

K’Reen apologized, “I’m sorry, Ensign. I didn’t think they’d pick that up!”

Wallon finally took pity on them. “I’m guessing you do not do a lot of speaking before crowds.”

Rileeta answered, “No. We had practiced many times, but I froze! My mind went blank!”

He smiled. “That was not a bad speech. It was not polished, but I think that is a good thing.”

“Huh? Why would that be a good thing?”

“Because now you are seen as a person. Among my people, speaking before a crowd is considered more frightening than combat. It takes much practice to become good at it. My people saw someone they can identify with. Not terrifying creatures from outer space, but people; Nervous at being on-camera and with a sense of humor that seems to match our own.

He smiled again, “And from a strictly personal point of view, that I was not out-shone by powerful aliens adds to my prestige and my people’s confidence in my leadership.”

The group of them began walking towards the Pharaoh’s personal quarters. He continued, “Will you indulge my daughter’s request?”

Rileeta resisted the urge to grind her teeth. “To go shopping? I just don’t see it as a good idea.”

“Why not? As your advocate put it, what is more normal than shopping?” He sighed. “I spoil my daughters, I realize this. Their exposure to people outside the Great Houses is, by necessity, limited. I am unlike my predecessors in that I favor a more open social structure. I am called a reformer and other things not quite so nice.

“My wife died giving birth to Dorea. My daughters are the most important thing in my world and one day, Nefer will be Pharaoh in my place. I would like her to see those around her as something more than tools or objects. Sadly, I have failed to accomplish this.”

They walked a few more paces, the Dosadis’ bare feet making absolutely no sound at all. “I am hoping that you will open her eyes and also to show her that following one’s duty is not a bad thing. She dreams of adventures and feels suffocated.” He chuckled. “The ignorance of youth.”

Rileeta cocked an ear at him and he smiled, “No offense intended. But you are close in age, and you are quite a bit more…focused than she is.”

She sighed. “Okay. After all, how bad can a little shopping be?”

 

* * *

Two hours later, Rileeta was starting to regret that statement. They had gone through three clothing stores already, with Nefer trying on a variety of garments and trying to get Rileeta to do so. Throughout the entire ordeal, cameras had followed them endlessly. True to his word, Wallon had provided them with half a dozen Palace Guards in their bright uniforms who had done a good job of keeping curious on-lookers at a distance. That was something, at least, Rileeta decided.

But wherever they went, people clustered rapidly, hoping to get a glimpse of the space alien.

In this latest shop, there were people staring in the windows, but the Guard had prevented anyone else from entering once Rileeta and Nefer had gone in. The staff were doing their very best to pretend to be uninterested – and failing spectacularly.

Nefer was wheedling. “Come on, just try on one outfit. Father is going to expect you to look great at lunch! To really make an impact! To stand out as the leader of your…your…Soldiers.”

“My team.”

“Yes, whatever. Please? Just this one? Everyone’s watching us – they want to see you being normal!”

“Fine. I’ll try one on.” And so it began. The first outfit was some sort of sporting clothing and quite snug – had she been built more like an Anorian it would have been quite revealing for all that it covered. That led to -after more whining- some sort of gown with an enhanced bosom. After Rileeta’s emphatic refusal to wear that anywhere, Nefer brought out a short skirt and banded top that she assured her was perfect for dancing.

Finally settling on a deep forest-green wrap-around kilt with a loose, white, filmy blouse, Nefer began accessorizing. The House symbol was quickly affixed to the kilt, arm bands went on and off, earrings, necklaces, waist-chains, anklets and more…

Rileeta, loaded with bits and pieces and her ears drooping, looked at Nefer who had spritzed her with perfume and was putting yet more jewelry on her and said, sadly, “I think I hate you.”

Holding Rileeta’s shoulders and leaning back to examine her handiwork, Nefer said, “No you don’t. Everybody loves me.”

“I am not wearing all this crap.”

Nefer looked sad. “But, Daddy wants you to stand out!”

“I’ll stand out, Nefer. I’m a space alien, remember?”

She laughed, “I meant from your friends.” She interrupted before Rileeta could correct her, “Your team. I know.”

Rileeta looked past Nefer and saw the many cameras pointed through the windows of the shop. There was no way she was ever going to live this down. This had never, ever, entered any of their minds when they imagined their first, first-contact. “Look, Nefer…”

Princess Nefer.”

She continued firmly, “Nefer. I’ll wear the clothes. But my people don’t wear all this jewelry and perfume and…we just don’t.”

“But you have that necklace and the tattoo, and the earring, and the little pin and…”

“The necklace is a Warrior’s Pendant – it’s very hard to earn. The pin is a badge that indicates I am a trained Raider and is also a communications device. The earring is a symbol that shows I am an expert Soldier. The tattoo is something awarded for doing things that earn you high honor. They’re not just for decoration.”

She pouted. “Can I pick one piece? Please?”

Ri’s head sagged down onto her chest. “Fine. One.”

Nefer clapped. “The waist chain! It’s just so perfect and the silver goes with the earring and your eyes!”

 

* * *

They returned to the Palace shortly before lunch. Rileeta was trying not to stalk, her hand resting on her boot knife that was hung from her waist chain, her tail lashing. Nefer looked positively smug. When she pushed open the door to the Royal Family’s quarters, Rileeta’s team burst out in applause and cheers.

Nefer took a bow and with a sweep of her arm indicated her masterwork.

Rileeta glared at the Dosadi, “What?”

K’Reen was nearly in tears. “I wanted the one with the … um…chest!”

“Oh, very funny.”

Laughing, P’Asch chimed in with “No, no – the skin tight job was the best! I hope the Delos was monitoring!”

Rileeta’s teeth were grinding. “Get it out of your systems.” There was more laughter.

Nefer, annoyed, asked, “What is the matter with you all? This is a gorgeous outfit!”

Ralex surprised her friends again, “Nefer, we’re not laughing at the outfit – it’s how out of place Rileeta looked. Our people wear clothing for it’s utility. We often don’t bother with it when we’re at home or we have no need. We know many species who look at fashion the way that you do – humans especially spend an amazing amount of time on clothing – but for us, it’s just so different and it’s so very out of character for Ensign Rileeta. She looked so uncomfortable we found it funny.

“But that is a very pretty outfit. She really does look good. And despite everyone’s teasing, I think that it worked out very much like your father hoped. Anoria saw two young people out doing what young folks here do.”

Mollified, Nefer said, “Well, she really wasn’t very cooperative at all.”

Storch, with a twinkle in his eye supplied, “Pig-headed?” hoping the concept translated.

Nefer agreed wholeheartedly, “Yes! Exactly!”

Rileeta just said, “I’ll get you for that, Storch.”

They were interrupted by the arrival of the Advocates for Industry, Atker, and Finances, Banto. Banto smiled at the six Dosadi and said, “Ah, good I was hoping to find you all here. I have a question for you – perhaps you can clarify something I still don’t really understand.”

Rileeta answered him, “Sure. We can try.”

“You have yet to mention how finances work among all these different peoples.”

“Oh, money. Most cultures don’t bother with that any more.” Seeing their shocked expressions she tried to explain, “There is a technology called ‘replicators’ that allows us to convert matter from one form to another, even building fairly complicated structures. Many cultures in the galaxy use systems of barter. My people use energy credits when needed to trade between cultures, since with replicators, the energy can be turned into most anything you need. We tend to share anything larger than personal items anyway.”

Banto was stunned. “No…money?”

“Not in the Federation. The Klingons use it. So do the Ferengi – they use a material called gold-pressed latinum. It’s something that can’t be replicated. See, energy is really the only thing in the universe that can’t be created or destroyed, so it makes sense to use that as the primary medium of exchange.”

Atker asked, “What about power? Usually wealth translates to personal power. Surely there are still great houses and great men?”

Rileeta thought for a moment but it was K’Reen who answered, “I guess it depends upon what you mean by power. Leaders of the great cultures command a tremendous amount of power. Individuals who have strong reputations do so as well. For the Klingons, great Warriors are able to command many followers. Is that what you mean?”

The two advocates looked at each other. Atker said, “Well yes. Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “You will all be joining us for our lunch today?”

“I believe so.” Rileeta answered.

“Good! I’m hoping we can conduct some real business then.” Atker looked eager to do just that. Glancing at his watch he said “Excuse us, please.” He continued on to the inner apartments where Wallon was working. The six Dosadi watched them go and returned to teasing Rileeta and Nefer.

 

* * *

At lunch, less than half an hour later, Rileeta was trying to work up some sort of an appetite, which was challenging as they’d just had a huge meal only a few hours earlier. And here was another table filled to overflowing with rich foods. She hoped that she could get by with just a few nibbles here and there without offending anyone. Sneaking looks at her teammates she thought they all felt exactly the same way.

The Anorians, on the other hand, seemed to relish the chance to tuck into another large meal. “How in the hell did a desert people evolve to need so damn much food?!” she thought to herself. There were the various advocates and another ten leaders of assorted Great Houses crowding the table.

Dorea again got bored with her meal and with all the talking and took her doll and started around the table for Storch. Rileeta watched her quick little steps with a smile. Despite the difference in species, there was something about the Anorian child that reminded her of herself at that age.

P’Asch was bored. That was not an emotion he had ever expected to feel on a first-contact mission, but there you had it. At the moment, the conversation was all about Anorian politics, manufacturing, and public opinion. Evidently it wasn’t anything that Banto and Atker cared for either as they both smelled…Different. He subtly sniffed the air a few more times. An odd mix of excitement and fear he thought.

The back entrance to the room opened up and K’Reen’s young trainee came jogging in, his equipment jingling. K’Reen smiled and said, “All right. Ready for some more corrective training, are we troop?”

P’Asch’s whiskers twitched forward and he shifted his eyes across the table towards Banto and Atker. When the young Guardsman had come in, their scent shifted heavily to one of near terror. “What the hell?” He thought to himself.

Atker was fumbling at the front of his tunic for something. Wallon had turned his head to the far side of the table, scolding Nefer about something and Atker’s hand finally came free.

P’Asch saw the little pistol come clear as the pudgy little man was leaning back in his chair. P’Asch, adrenaline surging, threw himself across the table, stretched fully upon it and scattering the many dishes and glasses. Atker’s eyes flew wide, and he jerked the trigger as 180 pounds of screaming Dosadi skidded across the table into him.

Wallon ducked as the dart whined past and ricocheted off the wall behind him. Momentarily confused, he tried to sort out what was happening as P’Asch had slid into both Atker and Banto, driving them to the floor. Another shot went off, and then there was an explosion in the hallway.

The moment Atker fired, all five Dosadi were out of their chairs and moving. The Guardsman, shocked, hesitated and tried to evaluate what was happening. One of the aliens was tangled up with two of the Advocates – it looked like they both had guns! The other aliens were moving fast while the other Advocates were sitting still, frozen in surprise. Something blew up in the hallway and he finally understood there was a coordinated assassination attempt going on – and that Atker and Banto were part of it. They should not have weapons in here.

He brought his rifle up and kept the door covered as he sprinted towards Wallon and Nefer. He was trying to keep an eye on the space aliens as well.

K’Reen yelled at him “Cover Wallon!! Ri! Table!” And he and Rileeta grabbed the big banquet table and flipped it on it’s side, then leaning into it like rugby forwards and sliding it towards Wallon as fast as they could push it. Dishes, glasses and food scattered everywhere, the heavy table slamming into Nefer and knocking her over while the other Advocates began screaming and running for cover.

P’Ash finished pounding the two Advocates into unconsciousness and picked up their small pistols. Of all the team, he was by far the best pistol shot. “Strike! Catch!” He threw him the one that Atker had fired and noticed that he had apparently taken a dart through his own right arm.

There was more gunfire outside the room, Anorians screaming and running in circles, and K’Reen yelled at the Guardsman again, “Troop, what the hell is your name?!” K’Reen and Ralex were covering Wallon along with the man, and the other three Dosadi were moving quickly to positions by the doorway.

“Guardsman Gareen!”

“Toss your pistol to T’Inau. Keep covering…” The man threw his pistol to T’Inau just as the door blew inwards. Rileeta ducked from the shower of splinters blowing past her. T’Inau was just far enough past the frame to avoid them all while she frantically grabbed for the weapon Gareen had thrown. Storch was knocked backwards, skidding across the floor and shaking his head.

Four Soldiers in combat gear came charging through the opening. One of them saw little Dorea running for Storch – the only shelter she could see. The lead man shouted “Royal!” and brought his weapon around.

Storch screamed “NO!!” and tried to get back to his feet – too late. As he sprang at the man the alien’s rifle barked twice and Storch saw the rounds tear through the little girl; that was the last thing he knew for some time.

Four more invaders came charging through the doorway. Rileeta jumped on one’s back, her claws sinking deeply into the arteries on the sides of his neck while T’Inau calmly began shooting them in the backs of their heads at point-blank range. P’Asch was kneeling in the middle of the floor, looking like an illustration from a training manual. Banto’s pistol was resting on his off-hand, his elbows making a perfect triangle of stability on his raised knee, the weapon spitting fire again and again. Darts were sparking off the floor near him and ricocheting around the room in a screaming whine.

Ralex had vaulted the table and slid across the slick floor towards Dorea, tearing open the medical pack she had been left. Ignoring the combat raging around her, she began desperately working on the broken child, the blood spreading around them.

Rileeta rolled free of the man she had killed, blood soaking her hands and forearms and saw Storch. The Intel specialist was coated in blood – He still had a loop of intestines belonging to the Soldier who had shot Dorea clutched in one hand while he was gleefully tearing a second man to bits, the armor torn open and his body cavity gaping wide. Two of the man’s comrades tried to switch targets from the other Dosadi and the Guardsman who were raining unexpected volumes of fire upon them, and Storch giggled and leapt onto the first one, his fangs sinking deeply into his neck as the man fired a round into Storch’s side. There was a gurgling scream as Storch ripped his throat out, and then all was quiet, except for Storch’s purring and the sounds of him ripping tissues with his teeth.

Rileeta ordered “Keep the door covered and dammit Strike, keep him DOWN!” Wallon had his head poked up again. She walked over to Storch, “Storch?”

He snarled at her and backed quickly towards his first victim, crouching on him and giggling again. The poor man was somehow still alive and conscious, blood pooling out of him as he weakly struggled to pull his internal organs back. Storch ripped something out of him with a gleeful laugh when the man screamed in agony. Then he began shoving the organ into the dying man’s mouth with a snarl, smearing his blood across his own face and licking it off.

“Ralex?” She asked, quietly.

“Priority, Ri.” She tapped on her Raider insignia, “Ralex to Delos, medical emergency, one litter urgent, direct transport expedite!”

Rileeta tapped her comm badge as well, “Rileeta to Delos, we urgently need Marine support and another medic.”

Both their badges chirped a moment later, “Delos here, we’re at least 30 minutes out.”

Rileeta said, “We don’t have 30 minutes. There’s been an attempted coup de etat, unknown enemy forces, we have wounded and one of the Royal Family is wounded as well.”

“Wait one.”

 

* * *

Aboard the Delos, Captain De’Vax looked at his crew. “Suggestions?” There was no way he was going to try to take his untried Supercarrier into an emergency in-system warp jump. Fortunately, he was saved from that choice.

His communications officer, Lieutenant Careen said, “Sir, incoming from the Sekar.”

“On screen.”

A moment later, the forward view screen filled with the image of Lieutenant Commander Jon’Kell. She was younger than most Captains and her fur was an unusual silvery color brought about by an accident when she was a kit: She was a risk-taker. “Good morning, Captain! We monitored that last communication. With your permission, the Sekar can get there in about two minutes.”

“You’re ready for that?”

“De’fran is already working the calculations.”

De’Vax nodded. “Good luck, Sekar.” Jon’Kell grinned back at him and gave a snappy salute and vanished.

 

* * *

Rileeta kneeled in front of Storch. She knew what was wrong – Dosadi were vulnerable to a mental illness called mr’aww (blood lust). A sort of mental fugue where the enjoyment of killing grew and fed upon itself until the sufferer preferred to literally bathe in blood. It was one reason that Raiders usually rotated out of the field; in order to prevent the disorder from beginning.

The dead man he was perched on still had something stuffed into his mouth, and Storch was playing with something in his chest cavity and purring. “Storch?” she asked again.

He looked at her and snarled again, his ears flat on his skull. He had multiple wounds, but seemed to not notice them at all.

Wallon was completely stunned. Kneeling on one side of K’Reen while Nefer crouched on the other, they Peered over the edge of the table. Nefer was too shocked to speak, but Wallon asked, “What…what is he doing?” His own people used slow torture as a form of execution for the most severe crimes but he had come to think of Storch as an easy-going man with a quick sense of humor. What he was seeing was an animal.

K’Reen tried to explain, “It’s not his fault.” His eyes continued to scan the room for threats or likely avenues for new threats to appear. “He’s seen a lot of combat. More than any of the rest of us even though I’ve had more missions. Some of it was very, very bloody.” He sighed. “I had hoped this mission wouldn’t involve any. I didn’t think he was that close to the edge. It’s treatable. Maybe if it hadn’t been the kit…”

Wallon asked, “Kit?” And then he saw Ralex working on the bloody body of his youngest daughter. “DOREA!” He screamed and tried to jump up. K’Reen drove his shoulder into him and body-slammed him back onto the floor, snagging Nefer with his free hand as well.

“Stay DOWN you fools! We’re not secure!”

“Get OFF me!” The Pharaoh struggled to get free. “NOW! I will have you FLAYED! MY DAUGHTER!!!”

K’Reen elbowed him across the side of the head, momentarily stunning him. “Ralex is working on her you jackass! If she’s got any chance at all, she’ll save her. You need to stay in cover.”

There was the humming sound of a transporter, and K’Reen poked his head back over the table edge. Ralex and Dorea were gone, but there were six new people in various stages of putting on battle armor.

Rileeta reached for Storch but he bared his teeth at her. Getting an inspiration, she kept her eyes on her teammate and reached for Dorea’s little doll, finally grasping the toy and bringing it up like a talisman. “Storch? C’mon, it’ll be OK.”

His eyes focused on the doll. She held it still. After a moment, he stopped purring and his ears started to come up.

“Storch? She’s going to want this back, right?”

His eyes flicked up and looked into hers and his expression grew slightly puzzled. His mouth opened, and a terrified, horrified look of realization came into his eyes and he wailed, “Ri!!”

She reached for him, handing him the doll, “It’ll be OK, Storch.” She gathered him into a sort of hug, watching the room for danger as best she could.

K’Reen glared at Gareen and reminded him, “I haven’t released you back to his service yet. Keep him down, and keep us covered.” He stood up and stepped over the table towards the six new Dosadi who were gearing up. “Please tell me at least one of you is a Marine?” The sounds of combat in the palace hallways was coming closer.

The four men and two women looked at each other. Finally one of the women said, “ We’re from the Sekar, we don’t have any Marines, but I did six weeks duty with Security last year.”

K’Reen almost laughed. “Well, beggars can’t be choosy I guess. Any medics?” More stares. He shook his head. “Get your gear on, fast and take positions covering the doorway. You, and you, once you’re armored up, your sole responsibility is to protect that man until we can get transported out.”

He stepped over to P’Asch, and T’Inau who was using a couple cloth napkins as makeshift bandages for the four new holes in P’Asch’s hide. K’Reen asked, “You gonna make it, P’Asch?”

“This fucking burns like fire, Strike, but I’m still in the fight.”

K’Reen clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man. Get some cover and watch the back door and the roof. He tapped his own comm-badge. “K’Reen to Sekar.”

Sekar.

“When we getting beamed up? What’s the hold up?”

“We’re on the far side of the sun, K’Reen. Headed for the Delos‘ medbay. We’ve got a medic, not a full medbay.”

“Wonderful.” He thought to himself, “Great. They’re not going to risk another jump like that, so figure at least half an hour to an hour before we can exfil.” He looked over at Storch. The man looked like something out of a horror movie. Rileeta was holding him and he was clutching the little kit’s bloody doll like a life preserver.

One of the new people yelled “INCOMING!” And there was the ripping sound of a plasma rifle. K’Reen saw the bolt slice completely through two more invaders, their body armor barely even slowing it down and dove for cover.

Rileeta grabbed Storch and she half-dragged him out of the line of fire while P’Asch and T’Inau vaulted for the table leaving the six armored Dosadi holding a ragged line facing the door.

K’Reen was keeping Nefer pinned behind the heavy table while Gareen was practically sitting on top of Wallon and he was astonished. There were nearly thirty skilled Soldiers charging down the hallway. The contest wasn’t even close. A pair of grenades went off in the banquet hall, wounding some of the Advocates who had failed to find good cover. But the six alien warriors weren’t even mussed. They knelt on the floor, their horrible weapons making a sound like wood being torn apart – the Anorian weapons didn’t even bounce off their strangely patterned armor. The darts simply smashed into them and fell to the floor. But each shot the aliens fired blew at least one Anorian to pieces as they spat brightly colored gouts of lightning.

Twenty minutes later, it was quiet again. The invaders had tried to breach the room from the back. From the front. Even from the roof through a skylight. It didn’t matter. The sensors in the aliens’ helmets alerted them to the Anorians long before they came into range and they were obliterated to a man.

“I think we’re all clear, Strike Leader.”

K’Reen, stretched out on his back behind the cover of the table and relaxed asked, “You think?

“We are all clear, Strike Leader.”

He sat up. “That’s better.” He scanned the carnage. The hallway was an appalling mess. There were Anorian bodies dangling halfway through the skylight and what looked like the remains of a squad that had tried to come in the back way. There were piles of flattened darts around the six newcomers. Many of them were designed to pierce the armor that the Anorians wore. Even those did little more than nick the outer skin of the Dosadi armor.

Gareen finally let Wallon sit up. The Pharaoh looked around the carnage and swore softly. “These are even more fearsome Soldiers than you?”

K’Reen laughed, “Um, no. Sing out, what are your normal posts?”

“Engineering.”

“Disruptor targeting.”

“I’m a cook.”

“Maintenance.”

“Sensory.”

“Communications.”

“These people….they are cooks?!”

“Only one of them.” K’Reen smiled smugly. “Don’t be so shocked. Our technology is better than yours is all. They knew that from our studies of your broadcasts – there was simply no way your weapons were going to penetrate our battle armor. Our primary infantry weapon, however, is capable of penetrating the armor you have on your armored vehicles. So what these poor bastards were wearing wasn’t even going to slow it down.”

K’Reen turned back to Wallon, “What happened? Why did they try to kill you? I thought these two were your advocates?” He walked over to Banto and Atker. Banto had stopped several darts during the firefight and was long since dead, but Atker was still mostly in one piece after P’Asch’s tender mercies.

Shaking his head slowly Wallon answered K’Reen’s question. “An attempt to replace me. I will find out which of the Great Houses were behind this. And I will have my vengeance. Take me to my daughter. Now.”

K’Reen frowned, “I can’t yet. She’ll be aboard the Delos by now. The Sekar had to do something very risky to come and pick her up and then take her back. It will be a little bit before they can get here again. What needs to happen to get your own security in place again?”

Baldon, holding his wounded arm somewhat awkwardly, commented dryly, “I think I now believe you about the effectiveness of their weapons, Great One.”

The other Dosadi were trying to treat the Advocates and House Leaders who had been wounded. Meanwhile Wallon thought about his security forces, struggling some to shift his thinking away from his daughter’s welfare. He answered K’Reen, “At the moment, I have one…” he glanced at Gareen, then back at K’Reen. I would have one Guardsman I know I can trust. I’m sure you saw that a number of the attackers were wearing my livery.”

K’Reen got the hint. “Gareen!”

“Yes, Strike Leader?”

“You did good. I release you back to him.” He smiled at the young troop. “You really did. I was afraid you’d think we were the ones attacking your Pharaoh…”

Gareen looked down for a moment. “I almost did, Strike Leader.”

K’Reen grinned, “Yeah, I thought so. But you didn’t react, did you? You took that extra fraction of a second and thought it through. That’s the sort of maturity I was after.”

Wallon indicated the six Dosadi in armor. “May I use your troops for a few hours?”

K’Reen smiled again. “Seems only fair. You gave me one of yours.” He addressed the six newcomers. “Who’s the ranking man here?”

The woman from maintenance, who had security experience spoke, “I am, Strike Leader. Crew Leader Bans’eeth.”

“Crew leader, you and your team are to report to…” He turned, “Guardsman Gareen for the next six hours, unless he releases you earlier. Understood?”

“Yes, Strike Leader.”

Gareen looked more than a little surprised. K’Reen looked him up and down again. “These people are your responsibility, Gareen. I expect them back in the same condition that I’m handing them off to you in.”
“Yes, Strike Leader.”

 

CHAPTER 5

Be genuinely interested in everyone you meet and everyone you meet will be genuinely interested in you.
Rasheed Ogunlaru

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Captain Picard looked up and called out, “Come!”

Counselor Troi glided into his ready room. He had often been impressed with the grace of the Betazoid’s movements.

“Yes, Counselor? Is Captain Rileeta aboard yet?”

She crossed her hands in front of herself. “No, sir. Data is having some difficulty getting in contact with her. According to the communications specialist at the safe house, she is leading a team into the city to try to locate Will.”

He sat back in his chair and looked unhappy. “She looks nothing like a Malcorian. She has no business being anywhere outside of the safe house.”

“You seem to know the Captain fairly well, sir.”

He sighed. It was Troi’s job to monitor his mental balance, but her…digging…was often trying. “I suppose I used to, Counselor.”

Without being invited to, she sat in the chair opposite his desk. “While we wait, perhaps you could tell me a little bit about her – it may help when you meet with her and it will certainly help me if I am to advise you.”

He thought about that for a few moments. “Yes, I suppose so. How much do you know about the Dosadi, or for that matter, the history of the First Contact teams?”

 

* * *

DOSADI IMPERIAL HEAVY CARRIER ISS DELOS-B, UNDER WAY, ANORIA

AUGUST 2321

In the Delos’ medbay, Ralex was assisting the Chief Healer. There was the soft, rapid beeping of the bio bed and a faint hiss as an oxygen condenser was blowing pure oxygen into Dorea’s nostrils. All of the indicators on the charting panel above her head were towards the bottoms of their scales.

Commander T’Lang switched instruments, “BP is dropping. Someone get me some replicated blood for this species!!”

A tech called back “Working on it!”

She yelled “Work faster! Ralex, what’s the status on that second heart?”

“It’s stopped – that toxin is interfering with the electrical propagation and seems to be slowing down something in the nerves.”

“Yes, the neutotransmitter uptake is blocked.” A hypo-spray hissed. “Put the cardio-stimulator on the primary heart and then finish closing up those two holes. I’ve got the darts out.” The tech came in and began feeding blood into the girl’s veins.

Over the next several minutes, the pointers on the scales began creeping upwards as the two worked on the little girl. Finally T’Lang blew air through her teeth and decided, “I think she’s gonna make it.”

Ralex leaned forward, her hands spread wide on the edge of the bio-bed. “Thank all the gods.”

“Keep that cardio-stimulator on her primary heart though, just in case it decides to be ornery. Let’s let her sleep for a while.”

Ralex suggested, “Her people are very body-private – we should pull a curtain around this area. And her father is going to be going insane.”

T’Lang dialed the lighting down and drew a blast-curtain around that section of beds. As they walked away she commented, “Well, let’s go talk to Captain De’Vax and see how long it’ll take to get her back to him. There were still four squadrons out when you showed up.”

Immediately after they walked away, there was the faint sound of two spring-clip fasteners being rotated free. A few moments later, the fresh-air vent on the wall between two of the beds was pushed up and two bright gold eyes peered into the dim light. These were quickly followed by a pair of ears and a remarkably long set of whiskers.

After assuring himself that no adults were around, seven year-old Ar’dox’t let himself silently down to the floor; He had been watching the entire surgery. Carefully leaning forward, he sniffed at the strange looking being on the bed. It didn’t look like any alien he had seen yet. It sort of looked like a human, but the head was wrong. He squirmed his face around to get a better look at the alien’s face and his whiskers brushed the skin.

Dorea opened her eyes and saw a Dosadi face inches away from her own and almost screamed. Fortunately, she had been close to Storch so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. Instead, she started to cry.

Ar’dox’t whispered, “Shhh! They’ll hear you! What’s wrong?”

She sniffled, “It hurts all over.” She was a little puzzled. He wasn’t speaking Anorian like Storch or the rest did. When he talked, she could hear a bunch of nonsense words and then she’d hear Anorian come out of the little pin on his chest.

“Yeah, I watched them heal you. They had to pull a couple metal things out of you and they put this machine on you. They only do that when someone’s really messed up.”

“Am I going to die?”

“Nah. They wouldn’t leave you if you were still in danger. The healer’s really, really good. That’s one reason I like to watch her when I can.” He sniffed again. “You smell like flowers.”

“Thank you.” she said primly. “Are you sure I am not going to die? I feel like I am burning up.”

“You’ll be OK.” He reached up and touched the skin on her shoulder. “You’re really smooth. Are you a boy or a girl?”

“I am a princess.” she announced.

“A real one? I’ve read about them. I didn’t think I’d ever meet one. Is it hard to be a princess?”

“Sometimes. You have to sit around a lot and listen to people talk and pretend to like them even when they are smelly or stupid. What are you?”

“I’m a boy. I’m a duct cleaner. Well, that’s my job this trip. I didn’t go on the last one, I stayed home with my dad. The one before that was on a different ship and I took care of the plants.”

“Where is your mom?”

“She works in the torpedo bay, she’s a loader.”

“What is that?”

“It means shes one of the people that loads photon torpedoes so that the ship can shoot them at anyone we’re fighting.”

“Oh. What does a duct cleaner do?”

“I go through all the life-support ducts and clean all the gunk out so that the air stays fresh for everyone.”

“That sounds nasty.” She realized that didn’t sound very nice and quickly added, “But really important.”

“It’s a lot better than taking care of all the plants. Plus I get to go everywhere in the ship. I even get to watch the fighters.”

“That does sound fun.” She had seen Anorian fighter planes do fly-overs at various events.

“When you feel better I’ll show you if you want.” He thought for a second. “Do you want to be friends?”

“Yes, please!” One of the down-sides to being a princess was that she didn’t really have a lot of friends. She had servants, and people from other Great Houses who were sort of near her age but a lot of the time they weren’t very nice. Even at her age she had social duties to perform and expected behavior.

He brought his very-long whiskers forward and thought for a second. Then he flipped open the sealed flap on a pocket and fished in it for a second and his hand came out closed. He uncurled his fingers and in a fairly grubby palm glimmered a little pearl-sized gem that swirled and glowed with red-orange lights as though it contained a fireball.

Dorea raised her head a little to get a better look at it. “That is pretty! What is it?”

She heard “Inau’bat’ar” and then ‘torch-stone’. They’re really hard to find and I found the nest all by myself and I found this one and hardly got stung at all getting it out and I hardly messed their nest up at all! It’s the first one I ever found.”

She didn’t know quite what to make of all that. “I have never seen anything like it. It looks like it is on fire.”

“I know! If you set it down it turns grey. It only glows when it gets warm from your body.” He thought hard again while she watched the swirling patterns in the stone. “We give them to friends when we leave. Then when we see them again, they give it back. It means you’re friends and that you’re going to come back.” With more than a little hesitation, he offered the little girl his treasure. “Do you want to hang on to it for me?”

Dorea glanced up at his eyes. This was the first time someone had ever offered her something that was actually precious to them, and despite her young age, she was astute enough to realize it. There were some advantages to being exposed to palace politics since birth. This was something genuine. He was looking down at the little stone. She asked, “And I give it back to you when you come back, right?”

“Yeah. I mean, if you want to be friends and all.”

She put her hand on top of his. His fingers and palm seemed stretched compared to hers. She picked the little stone up. “Okay.” She brought the gem up so she could see it better, watching the colors swirl. “I’m Dorea. I’m six.”

He was starting to wonder about giving her the torch-stone, but she was the first friend he had outside the ship since he’d found it just before they left. “I’m Ar’dox’t. I’m seven. I’d better go before they come back. I’ll sneak back later and I’ll show you the fighters if you want.”

She looked up and over her shoulder as he quickly and quietly hauled himself back into the open duct and then re-sealed the vent. Then she looked back down at the torch-stone.

Half an hour later, she was still holding it up and turning it between her fingers when T’Lang came back to check on her. It was impossible to miss the glowing gem in the dim light, but the healer decided not to mention it immediately.

“Hello there. I’m Commander T’Lang.”

“I am Dorea.” She had quickly put her hand back down at her side as soon as she caught sight of the older woman.

“Are you feeling any better?”

“Yes. I do not feel like I am burning up so much now.”

“It’ll go away more and more soon, Dorea.” She glanced up at the charting panel over the little girl’s head. “Everything looks much better.” She took out an instrument from her belt kit and scanned the girl. “Ahh, yes, lots better. Your second heart is beating again.”

“Am I going to be OK?”

“Oh my yes. You’ll be fine. We should have you back to your father in an hour or two.” She looked down and pointed to Dorea’s closed fist. “What do you have there?”

“Nothing.”

“Can I see it?”

Dorea didn’t particularly want to show the doctor the stone. Ar’dox’t had been very secretive and she didn’t want him to get in trouble. She knew all about secrets. “Can I go home sooner?”

T’Lang wasn’t fooled at all; She had two kits of her own. “Dorea, may I please see what you have in your hand?”

She thought about it for a few moments. The language might have been different, but the firmness came through the translation. She held her hand up and opened her fingers, the little gem glowing brightly.

“Oooo! A torch-stone!” T’Lang twitched her ears backwards. “How did you get a torch-stone?”

Dorea shrugged – the gesture was exactly the same from human to Dosadi to Anorian. Something about mammalian architecture lent itself well to that motion.

The healer cocked one ear backwards and her whiskers twitched. “Did someone come visit you? How? You certainly didn’t go anywhere.”

She shrugged again.

T’Lang decided that there was no point to trying to solve this particular mystery. It surely wasn’t hurting the kit and if she was feeling well enough to keep a secret, that was a good sign. “Well, fine, don’t tell me then. But you don’t want to lose that. They’re very special. Did you know that?”

She nodded.

“We give them to really good friends, people that we trust and want to see again. They’re hard to find and harder to get away from the little insects that make them. They sting a lot!” Dorea was just looking at the stone, even though it was clear she was listening.

“I’ve got an idea to help make sure you don’t lose it. Hang on a second.” The woman took a few steps over to the replicator panel for this bay and tapped a few controls. Then she came back with a hair-thin, silver chain. “This is called tritanium. It’s very, very strong. Can I see your torch-stone for a moment? I promise I’ll give it right back. I’m going to put a tiny hole through it so that the chain will go through. I promise whoever gave it to you won’t mind. A lot of people do this sort of thing with them.”

Dorea thought about it for a little while, then offered the stone up. T’Lang set the little rock on the cardio-stimulator arch and brought out a micro-beam cutter. With a surgeon’s careful aim, she bored a hole directly through the center and then easily threaded the chain through it. She reached down and gently pulled the ends of the chain around the girl’s neck and twisted the clasp together.

“There. Now it will always glow and everyone can see it and know you’ve got a special friend.” She reached into a drawer under the bio-bed and brought out a small mirror. “See?”

Dorea looked at her reflection and smiled. The silver glittered nicely against her red skin and the torch-stone was an eye-catching living swirl of flame at her throat. “Thank you.”

Ralex walked in while Dorea was still looking at it. “Hey, Commander, how’s our…what the hell? Where’d she get a torch-stone?!”

T’Lang just said, “It’s her secret.”

The Raider medic screwed her face up in irritated confusion. “Your call, Commander. But that’s a little weird. She hasn’t been aboard for more than an hour, she hasn’t left the medbay and she’s somehow got a torch-stone?” Ralex shook her head.

Dorea asked plaintively, “Can I go home please?”

T’Lang smiled, “Oh yes, honey, we have to recover another squadron of fighters or two and then we’ll take you right home.” More to Ralex than to the girl, she continued, “The Captain’s doing an underway recovery, so he’s already got us heading back towards Anoria, but we’re going the long way around to simulate combat maneuvering. It should only be another couple of hours. He knows where you are and he knows you’re OK.”

“What happened?”

Ralex glanced at the Commander before answering. “Some bad people wanted to hurt your family.” She grinned wolfishly, “But we didn’t let them.” T’Lang began removing the cardio-stimulator arch from across the child’s body.

“Did you kill them all?” Anorian politics were often violent and she was well aware of the fate of those who committed treason. Death in battle was entirely preferable to what would happen to those who were captured.

A little surprised, Ralex said, “Well, yes. They weren’t really expecting us to have weapons but one of your father’s Guardsmen came in at just the right moment.”

“Good.”

Ralex flicked an ear at T’Lang. “Ah, yes. You sound like you’re feeling a lot better.” She was interrupted by the intercom’s signal.

“Commander T’Lang and Group Leader Ralex to the Bridge.”

T’Lang said to Dorea, “You just stay here and relax. We’ll come and get you when your father arrives.”

“Okay.” She pulled the coverlet on the bio bed up to her chin and watched the two Dosadi leave, pulling the curtain back around her bed as they left. She was just starting to get sleepy when she heard the faint sounds of the vent opening again and looked up to see Ar’dox’t slide out of the duct.

“Hello again!” he whispered. He had a folded packet of grey cloth with him. “Did you want to go see the fighters?”

“Yes!”

“Okay. Here, I brought you a coverall so you won’t get all gunky.” He handed her the packet.

“Thank you.” She held it over her chest.

After a few moments he asked, “Well? Aren’t you going to put it on?”

“Are you going to leave now?”

“Huh? What for?”

“So I can put it on!”

“Why can’t you do that now?”

“You would see me!”

“So?”

Her jaw fell open. “I am a girl!”

Ar’dox’t was totally confused. “So what?”

Frustrated, she ordered him, “Just turn around or something. And do not peek!”

Puzzled, he did as she demanded, staring at the blast-curtain around the bio beds. He wondered why the way she talked sounded so funny and he finally realized that they didn’t use contractions. Every word was always in its place – it sounded…stilted and formal to him. Finally she said, “Okay. You can turn around now.”

He looked at her and said, “If it doesn’t fit I had to guess at your size and I said for a human ’cause you kinda look like a human in the body. You wouldn’t fit in ours ’cause your legs are all different.”

“Thank you.” She looked at herself. It was very different than the kilts, dresses, gowns, skirts and the like that she was used to wearing, but it fit fairly well. It was the exact sort of thing he was wearing and looked like something a lower servant in her own house would wear.

“I got it in my team’s color, too. We’re Light Grey team.” He looked at the duct and then back at her. “I’ll lift you up. If you go down it about 10 meters it’ll get bigger and I can go past you, okay?”

She put her hand to the torch-stone. “Do I give this back now?”

He thought for a second. “Nah. You’re going back to the planet so you might as well keep it until the next time, okay?”

“Okay.” She was a little hesitant to go in the duct, but she moved over in front of it. Then Ar’dox’t wrapped his hands around her waist and lifted her up to the vent. She giggled and said, “Do not tickle!!” and squirmed her way into the duct. He was right behind her, and turned around practically in his own skin and re-closed the vent.

The two of them slid down the duct until he could get past her. As he was crawling past, he put his mouth very close to her ear and whispered “Be really quiet – sound carries a really long way in the ducts.” She giggled again as his whiskers tickled her ear. But he was off and moving quickly so she hurried to stay close to him.

There were colored markers on the intersections they passed and once they had climbed up a level into a much larger duct. Every now and again there would be automatically closing bulkheads, but they were all open. But she banged her knee on a couple of them; She decided it was a good thing that the knees of her coverall had pads in them. Finally they came to a large, vertical shaft. She looked down – it went down a long way. Then she looked up. It went up a long way too!

Ar’dox’t leaned close again, “We need to go through our secret den to get to the flight deck. Just stay close.” And he leaned backwards into the duct and began climbing up the rungs built into the wall.

Gritting her teeth and plucking up her courage, she followed him, keeping her eyes on the wall in front of her instead of up or down. They had gone up perhaps three decks when she felt his tail brush against the side of her face a couple times and she made the mistake of looking up. His feet and then his tail vanished down a horizontal duct and she was looking straight up, maybe a hundred feet or even more! She swallowed hard and hauled herself after him.

She was beginning to wonder just how far they had to go when he stopped and whispered “Just be quiet and we’ll go right through, OK?” He tapped on a glowing circle cut into 8 pie-pieces and a hatch slid open. She quickly followed him inside and her eyes widened. There were almost a dozen Dosadi kits in the space, curled up on the floor, draped on pipes, or sitting up – and all of them were staring at her. There were several different colored coveralls, but they were all a bit dusty.

The biggest one said, “Hold it, Dox’t. What’s that?” Dorea’s ears flicked at the ‘what’.

“She’s an alien from that planet. She’s my friend, Entar. We’re just going to the flight deck so she can see the fighters.”

He crossed his arms – on a Dosadi, the gesture left their wrists crossed and about at their throat – and shook his head. “You know the rules.” He noticed the glowing gem hanging at her throat, “You gave her your torch-stone? Wow.”

“She’s not gonna be a duct-rat, Entar, we’re just going through.”

“Anyone going through my ducts has to take the test. Especially if you gave her that.”

“Come on!”

Dorea, bursting with curiosity asked, “What test?”

He looked at her. “You gotta go to the main vertical shaft, climb all the way to the top and then come back and tell us what you see. And there’s a hatch you have to go through at the very top. Dox’t, give her your code.”

She was unhappy and in a small voice asked, “All the way?” She remembered looking up … and up … and up.

He nodded. “All the way. And no one will be watching you. So if you fall, no one will know.”

“Oh.”

Ar’dox’t asked her, “We can go back and find another way if you don’t want to. I won’t let them make you.” He glared at Entar, who was two years older than he was and quite a bit larger. He had two solid black lines across each shoulder as well. Ar’dox’t only had one broken one on his.

She thought about it for a few moments. All the kits in the space were watching her, the big one looking relaxed and very much in charge. She was used to that look. She really didn’t want to climb up that huge big ladder. But she also didn’t want to let her new friend down. Nefer always talked about going on adventures – she never mentioned that adventures were scary!

Suddenly she decided that it was up to her to show these space aliens that she wasn’t a ‘fraidy-cat. That anything they could do, she could do too. “I will do it.”

Ar’dox’t looked surprised. Entar smiled at her and said, “Good! You just go back out the way you came in and climb all the way up the big ladder, and when you get to the very top you enter his code and go through. Once you get to the very end you can come back and tell us what you saw.”

She looked at her friend, he drew four symbols in the dust along the wall. “Just press those buttons on the little round thing by the hatch. Four, one, three, six, then press the the center piece.”

“Those don’t look like numbers.”

“They do too! Oh, sorry, yeah, they’re Dosadi numbers. I don’t know what yours look like.” She drew her numbers beside his. “Weird!’ Anyway the buttons will have these symbols on them. Just press them and the hatches will open.”

She studied them. A square, a single horizontal line, a little triangle pointing left, and a part of a triangle pointing up. She could remember that. “I will go now.”

Entar just said, “Don’t fall.” and chuckled.

That made her angry. She glared at him and hurried out the hatch and back into the ducts. It didn’t take her long at all to get back to the main vertical shaft that led through the center of the Delos‘ hull. 30 decks thick, with a double-hull, it extended over a hundred meters from end to end and she was just about in the middle. She willed herself not to look down.

Remembering how her friend had leaned into the shaft to pull himself up, she did the same thing, feeling for the rung and then sliding backwards and pulling herself up, then stepping out to the rung on the side of the duct she was in. And she began to climb, keeping her eyes focused only on the rung above her.

When her hand bumped into the hatch-cover, she was actually surprised – She had made it! And faster than she thought possible. Looking up, she saw the round, glowing plate with the little symbols on it. It looked like a pie cut into eight pieces and she figured out very quickly that each piece was a button. It was obvious that 0 was at the top and her first button was at the bottom. “This is easy!” she thought as she pressed the little pie-pieces. The circular button in the center just had an X on it, and she pressed it firmly. The hatch slid back quickly and she saw a few meters above her a clear dome and through it more stars than she ever thought possible.

More curious now than afraid, she reached through the hatch – but her arm felt strange. When she pulled herself through, she screamed and clung tightly to the rungs – she was falling!!

Except she wasn’t. She was falling – but she was still holding to the rungs of the ladder. She opened her eyes again. The rungs weren’t moving, but she was falling! Was the ship crashing? She risked a look up and saw the stars looked just the same. After a few moments, she figured it out – she was really in space!! She had seen the broadcasts of Anorian astronauts floating in space – she was doing the same thing!

Carefully pulling herself up to the clear dome, making very sure she had a firm hold with both hands and feet at every rung, she forced herself to look outside. She gasped in wonder. Her head was actually above the hull of the Delos and she was looking aft at the moment. The absolutely black sky was full of so many stars it seemed almost bright. Just passing behind them was a planet – red, yellow, and orange – she recognized it from pictures. It was the next planet closest to the sun from Anoria, and she was seeing it! She turned her head, looking at everything at once. The un-dimmed light from the sun was making the blue and grey mottled hull of the Delos glow brightly.

A moving streak of light caught her eye and she noticed a tiny ship was racing towards the back of the hull and then she knew she was seeing a space fighter! Now she really wanted to go watch them up close. Tearing herself away from the spectacular view, she carefully climbed back through the hatch, feeling gravity take hold of her once more.

While she was climbing down, she heard a ‘whoosh’ sound and glanced up to see the hatch had closed itself. Her mind full of what she had just seen, the climb back down was easy – she barely even noticed when she got to the entrance to the duct leading to the others.

She again keyed Ar’dox’t’s code into the pad and the hatch-cover slid aside. She crawled through to find them all staring at her again.

Entar asked, “And? What did you see?”

“It is so beautiful!! There are so many stars and I saw Velox and a fighter and I thought I was falling and I could see the whole ship and…” She was interrupted by the whispery-cheers of the other kits.

Entar smiled, “You really did it!! Great! That’s the test – to see if you’ll lie about it since no one is watching you, and to see if you’re brave enough to really climb up there and go through free-fall.” He reached forward and gripped her shoulder, and suddenly she was surrounded by Dosadi kits all grabbing her shoulders.

After everyone had settled down he said, “You’re a duct-rat now! What’s your name?”

She was smiling. This was probably the first thing in her entire life that she had earned entirely on her own and it felt good. “Dorea.”

“Okay, among us you’re…” he looked at her necklace, “…N’Inau. But only among us duct-rats, okay? It’s a secret name.”

“What does it mean?”

“New Fire. I’m Ja – it means small, and your friend Dox’t here is Thevet. That means mouse.” He continued to introduce the rest of the kits.

Ar’dox’t finally managed to say “We have to go if we want to watch the fighters land.”

With a smile of pride on her face she said, “Okay. I am ready!” and the two of them scurried off through the far side of the compartment they had been in and back into the duct-work. It seemed to take far less time than it had to get from the Medbay to the duct-rat’s den – but that wasn’t possible, she knew. But soon enough she found herself squeezed next to Ar’dox’t – Thevet! She corrected herself – looking through a vent cover at a long, open space full of little ships painted in blotchy blue and grey. They looked deadly even sitting still. There was smoke or steam coming off of their hulls and fins and as she watched, another one came screaming in the black rectangular opening at the back of the space.

The fighter touched down on the deck and there was a loud groaning noise from a number of odd glowing bumps on the walls. Jets of something came out of the front and it slowed rapidly. Frost quickly formed on the wings, fins, and nose and just as quickly began to sublimate to steam. She saw the next one coming in and the bright golden light by the opening to the hangar bay suddenly sparked off, the fighter shot through and it sparked on again – she could see what looked like fireflies escape out the back of the ship when the light went off.

There were groups of Dosadi in different colored coveralls running around, doing unfathomable things to the fighters – Red, Green, White, Blue and more! It was one of the most amazing things she had ever seen. The little ships were moving towards sheltered bays off to the side of the long space. Other bays were already occupied by several different types of fighters and there were so many of them!

 

* * *

In the Delos‘ transporter room, Captain De’Vax welcomed the leader of Anoria aboard. They materialized and standing next to him were Princess Nefer and the remaining five members of the First Contact team. Wallon had decided to get Nefer out of the palace – and away from any other potentially treasonous advocates. “Good morning, Pharaoh Wallon. I am Captain De’Vax of the ISS Delos. I would like to welcome you aboard!”

A little puzzled by ‘good morning’, Wallon said, “Thank you, Captain. And thank you for your very timely assistance a short while ago. May I see my daughter now?”

“Of course, sir. If you will follow me?” He began to lead the way out of the room with Rileeta and her team following along behind, helping Storch and P’Asch. Their wounds were stabilized, but they still hurt. “Ordinarily we would have sent a shuttlecraft for you, but with the…questionable security situation we felt that it was safer to minimize your exposure.”

The doors swooshed open and the group stepped into the dimly lit corridors. De’Vax picked up on Wallon’s time-confusion “Our time aboard ship is synchronized to our home-world – at the moment it is not yet dawn here.”

Wallon, trying not to be overwhelmed by being suddenly teleported from his palace to what was evidently a might warship simply said, “Ah. Of course.” Nefer was constantly looking around in wide-eyed wonder. The hallways weren’t terribly busy, but there was a consistent amount of traffic and to her, every Dosadi crewman, crew-woman, or kit was a novelty.

Passing several kits and even a pair of nursing mothers, Wallon asked, “Is this not a warship?”

“Yes, it is. All of our ships have multiple capabilities, though we focus on combat, of course.” Guessing what was puzzling the Anorian, he continued, “We Dosadi are a little unusual in the galaxy. We carry our families with us wherever we go; How can one bear to be apart from one’s mate and kits? The interstellar deeps are dark, and cold and the warmth of family is a welcome touch of home.”

De’Vax began describing the Delos with a Captain’s pride as they continued towards the turbo-lift “…and we carry over 120 fighters and shuttlecraft as well as a full battleforce of Marines with an assault-lander. It gives us more firepower than most battle groups that other galactic powers field. And that doesn’t include the two corvettes. It was one of those, the ISS Sekar that transported your daughter to our healer.”

“I would like to…” he rocked a bit as the turbo-lift stopped “…uh…personally thank that ship’s captain.”

“I will see to it, sir”

When they entered the MedBay, they found Ralex talking with T’Lang, both of whom stopped speaking as they entered and then stood to attention.

The Captain provided the introductions, “Commander T’Lang is our Chief Healer, Group Leader Ralex, you already know.”

“Ralex.” He made the Anorian gesture of obeisance, “You saved my daughter. I will forever be in your debt. And you, Surgeon, is she all right? Is she well? I find myself in many people’s debt this day.”

T’Lang said, “She’s fine, sir. She’s resting right now. I’ll take you to her.”

They walked back to the closed curtain around her bed and she pulled it back, “Look who’s…oh shit.”

The coverlet on the bio-bed was still pulled back but that was the only evidence that Dorea had ever been there.

Wallon asked, “I do not understand. Where is my daughter?”

De’Vax said sternly, “What is the meaning of this Commander?”

Ralex snorted and quickly tried to make out that she was stifling a sneeze while she helped P’Asch and Storch into bio-beds. She saw Dorea’s little doll tucked into the waist-strap of Storch’s kilt but didn’t say anything about it. The man was covered in blood and still had bits of … things … stuck to him.

T’Lang, stunned, tried to answer. “I…She was here. I left her resting! We’ve been right outside! She couldn’t have gone anywhere!”

Wallon, starting to get angry demanded, “You have lost my daughter?”

Captain De’Vax tried to calm him, “No, sir, I’m sure she has gone to the bathroom or…”

Ralex suddenly had an inspiration and looked up from Storch, “The torch-stone!” she interrupted.

“What’s that you’re saying, Ralex?” the Captain asked.

“Sorry sir! When we left her earlier, she had somehow picked up a torch-stone. Someone snuck in to give it to her, I’d bet she snuck out with them.”

“How? Where is a kit going to snea…” All of the Dosadi looked up at the vent. “Kits.”

Even more confused and angry, Wallon said, “What do you mean kits?”

Clearing his throat, De’Vax tried to explain. “Aboard our ships our children have duties as well. The ones in your daughter’s age group are often assigned to clean the life-support ducts. I think your daughter has made friends with one of them and is no doubt even now exploring the Delos.”

“You are telling me that the Princess Dorea is…crawling around inside your air conditioning?”

Very embarrassed, the Captain said, “I’m afraid so, sir. We can get this straightened out quickly…”

“With a janitor?”

Ralex chipped in with, “Well, obviously she’s feeling a lot better, sir.”

Rileeta gave her a quick whispered “Shhh!”

De’Vax stepped slightly away from everyone and tapping his comm-badge, made a quick and quiet call to his first officer. “Commander Ar’valla. Find out who’s in charge of the duct-rats this shift and get their furry butt back to the MedBay and have them get the princess and whoever ran off with her here as well before I start cutting off tails!!”

Turning back to the group he smiled, “The princess will be here shortly, sir.” He thought to himself, “Or I will personally de-whisker the kit responsible.”

 

* * *

Ar’dox’t was explaining the different types of fighters to Dorea. Like pretty much any mammalian males of any age anywhere, he was showing off for a female. “Those are A-20 Arrows. They’re attack fighters. One of those can blow up a Klingon cruiser!” That was a gross exaggeration, but Dorea had no way of knowing that, nor did it particularly matter to either child.

His comm-badge chirped. “Entar to Ar’dox’t!”

She looked at his comm-badge. She was used to the Raider’s little pins, but this one was different. It was a stylized bent-winged bird in bronze with a silver lightning bolt across it. She asked, “How come your pin looks different than the ones everyone I already met at the Palace wore?”

“This is the Delos‘ symbol.” Then he added, “A delos is a really fast bird we have on Dosad. They hunt in flocks and they’re really pretty. They’re a pale blue on the bottom and sort of tan on top. What did the people you saw wear?

“Like a little sun with a knife over it.”

“Wow! Those are Raiders! They’re the best Soldiers in the entire universe!”

“Entar to Ar’dox’t! You’re in trouble! Answer!”

He tapped his badge, “What for?”

“You have to get her to the MedBay!! NOW! The Captain’s waiting and he’s mad.”

He was horrified. He had never even peeked into the Bridge yet – he hadn’t dared. His voice quavered, “The Captain?”

“The First Officer called me! He’s really really mad! Hurry up!! I have to get there too!”

Dorea asked, “What is wrong?”

“They must’ve found out I snuck you out.” He frowned. “C’mon, we have to get going.” He quickly turned around in the tight-space and led the way to the nearest companionway.

“What is he going to do to you? Will you be punished?” she asked.

“I don’t know what. He can do anything. He’s the captain. He might even put me in the brig. They lock you up and you can’t go anywhere and the bathroom is right in the open and it’s horrible.”

Dorea was following along next to him, but both of them were too frightened to talk any more. “Hurry!” he said as he stepped into a waiting turbo-lift. A few curious crewmen had seen them hurry past, but none of the crew had any reason to stop them.

And so, a few minutes later, the two of them hesitatingly stepped into the DelosMedBay. Ar’dox’t, his voice very quiet, said, “I’m…uh…” there were a dozen different officers and crewmen staring at them. He got even quieter. “I’m…we’re…supposed to…”

Dorea saw her father and squealed, “DADDY!” and ran to him. He dropped to his knee and gathered his daughter into his arms, squeezing her tightly.

Ar’dox’t on the other hand stood in the doorway, his eyes wide, his ears back and his tail slightly poofed-out staring at all the Raiders and the Captain and Entar.

De’Vax glowered down at the kit and motioned him to come closer. “What did you do?

Ar’dox’t was on the verge of tears. He didn’t mean to make everyone mad. Entar looked mad at him too. He thought about what he could say, desperately trying to come up with an excuse that would save him and then made his choice. His lip trembling, he stood as tall as he could and said, “I wanted to show her the fighters, sir.”

Wallon held his daughter a little away from himself and looked at her. She was wearing some sort of lower-class work clothing and was dusty from head to toe. But she was alive. There was some sort of glowing gem at her throat that he had never seen before. He lifted it up from her neck “What is this?”

Dorea said, “My friend gave it to me. And I got to meet a bunch of other kids and made friends with them and I got to see … “ she thought again of secrets and continued, “the fighters and he is really nice daddy. Please do not be mad at him. He is my friend.”

De’Vax continued, “And you just took a patient out of the MedBay without asking anyone and went sneaking through the ducts without telling anyone.”

“She wasn’t really a patient any more. They took the machines away. She was just lying there. She was scared and bored and…”

Wallon was standing by him now. “You are the boy who snuck off with my daughter?”

Ar’dox’t was wondering how long he’d be locked up in the brig. To a Dosadi, confinement is nearly intolerable. Confinement without any form of privacy is even worse. Struggling not to burst into tears – to be brave like a Warrior – he answered, “Yes, sir.”

“Do you know who I am?”

He mutely shook his head.

“I am Pharaoh Wallon, the leader of all Anoria.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I just wanted to show her the fighters. I didn’t mean to do anything bad.” His eyes were starting to well up with tears now and he was blinking them back furiously.

“It scared me when she was not there. But I’m not mad any more, boy. Why did you give her the necklace?”

“She was nice and I wanted her to be my friend.”

Wallon looked at De’Vax. “What will you do with the child for what he did?”

De’Vax thought about it. The kit had definitely broken regulations and had been inconsiderate; but he was a kit. And he hadn’t tried to lie or shift responsibility for what he had done at all. He asked the kit, “Ar’dox’t, what do you think your punishment should be?”

Struggling not to cry he asked, “Are you going to put me in the brig?”

He smiled, “I don’t think so. Let’s look at what you did. You snuck a patient out of the MedBay without permission. That’s very bad. But you also were honest about what you did – even knowing that you were in trouble, and being afraid that you would be severely punished. That’s the sort of thing I like to see in my officers.

“That tells me that Entar here is doing a good job teaching you younger kits how to behave with honor. And that’s more important to me than just about anything. Do you understand?”

Getting some sense that his life might not be at an end, Ar’dox’t said, “I think so. You’re mad at me because I broke the rules but you’re happy I did the right thing afterwards?”

“Exactly. And you did something else good. Our whole mission is to make friends. And it looks like you did just that, kit. So here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to be punished by having to clean bathrooms for two hours every day for the next week. And then you have to spend two hours every day the next week cleaning the MedBay for Commander T’Lang. Do you understand?”

Vastly relieved, he said, “Yes, sir!”

Meanwhile, satisfied that her friend wasn’t going to be locked up, Dorea had been looking around at all the different people. She saw Storch laying in a bio-bed with two Dosadi doing things to him, and then saw her doll. She quickly ran over to him and called out, “Ganda!”

Storch, his eyes still haunted, pulled the doll out of the waist-strap and said, “I thought you’d want her back so I kept her safe for you.”

One of the medics cautioned him, “Hey, stop squirming around.” Then jumped as Dorea wormed past him to get at Storch and her doll. “Hey!”

The little girl clutched her toy and wrapped her arms around Storch’s “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

The Medic shook his head and began prying her off his patient. “You can thank him later. We need to fix him up now, okay, kit?”

Nefer made her way over to the two injured Raiders and took hold of little Dorea. “Come with me, Dorea. We are going to see the whole ship now!”

As Captain De’Vax and the Anorians began to leave the MedBay, the Captain spoke, “Ensign, if you would accompany us? I’m sure the Commander will see to your team.”

She hesitated. “Yes, sir.” Moving quickly to T’Lang, she whispered in her ear, and the Healer’s face registered her surprise followed by a quick look at Storch. T’Lang nodded and put her hand on Rileeta’s shoulder before heading over to his bio-bed.

 

* * *

An hour later and the tour ended up on the Bridge. Commander Ar’valla had completed showing off the various bridge work-stations and Wallon and his children were staring at the tan and green globe of their world turning slowly below them on the view screen. Dorea thought it would look nicer through the dome she had looked through. The Captain was just about to suggest that they adjourn to his ready room – a luxury concept stolen shamelessly from Federation designs – when the sensor operator called out in alarm, “Klingon K’t’inga-class cruiser 20 degrees sub-West! 10,000 kilometers and closing!”

The alarm siren sounded and the lights dimmed. Everyone felt the crinkle-tightness across their skin as the Delos’ shields snapped on. Wallon, concerned, asked “What is happening?”

The view screen wavered for a moment then showed the greenish hull, long forward nacelle, and bulbous nose of a Klingon heavy cruiser angling for them, light building around her main weapons ports.

De’Vax snapped out, “Reinforce shields 5 and 6, come left 20 degrees. Have the…” The Delos shuddered very slightly as phasers and disruptors bracketed her. “…two CIP squadrons get behind her. Return fire with the Northwest phaser array.”

“Captain?” Wallon asked.

“Nothing to be concerned about, sir. This is a fairly normal greeting for the Klingons.” There was the high pitched whine of phasers and Wallon was able to see the Klingon’s shields glow from the impacts.

The man at the communications console called out next, “We’re being hailed, sir.”

“On screen.”

The viewscreen dissolved into a heavily built Klingon warrior, resplendent in armor and weapons harness. “De’Vax, I was sure I’d catch you cat-napping in that warp-powered space-dock!”

The Captain grinned, “Well, I was, Ka’var, but it’s hard to sleep with all the noise that junkyard you’re flying makes. Perhaps you’d care to land her on my South deck and come aboard? We can offer you repairs.”

The Klingon laughed and then did a double-take. “Rileeta?!”

“Hello Uncle Ka’var.”

Everyone on the Bridge turned and looked at the young Ensign.

CHAPTER 6

In chess one cannot control everything. Sometimes a game takes an unexpected turn, in which beauty begins to emerge. Both players are always instrumental in this.”
Vladimir Kramnik

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Deana Troi was surprised, “I had no idea that the First Contact program originated outside the Federation.”

Picard raised his fingers to his temple. “Oh yes. It had been considered a normal function of any Starship, but there had simply been too many disastrous first-contacts. After the Dosadi mission to Anoria, it was decided that the idea of having dedicated, highly-trained teams to smooth the process and help to avoid mis-steps was a good one. And to help avoid losing control of the situation to other powers.”

She asked, “But there are still accidents? Unexpected first contacts?”

“Of course. Which is why we also train for handling them without violence. But, for those developing species who seem about to pass the barrier of the Prime Directive, it is far more desirable to get boots on the ground and learn what we can long before we are ready to welcome them into the Federation.”

“But aren’t the Anorians part of the Dosadi Imperium?”

He held his palm over his face. “Yes. Rlieeta’s career caused quite a bit of heartache for Starfleet. And continues to do so, evidently.”

 

* * *

DOSADI IMPERIAL HEAVY CARRIER ISS DELOS-B, IN ORBIT OVER ANORIA

AUGUST 2321

Ka’var asked, “Does your father know you’re out here on that…that…abomination?”

“Yes, Uncle.” she chuckled, “I graduated from the Academy two months ago. This is my first mission.”

He looked at her Anorian clothing. “What is that you’re wearing? And what is a brand-new Raider doing on this sort of mission?”

Captain De’Vax did not like being surprised. Rileeta could feel the ice of his stare without even turning her head. “Perhaps you should ask the Captain, Uncle.”

“Ah, of course.” He turned his eyes back to the Captain. Waving his hand at Rileeta he asked, “De’Vax, do you have any idea what you’ve got on board there?”

“I’m beginning to have my suspicions, Ka’var. How is it that you are her uncle?”

He grinned. It wasn’t often he got to put one over on his Dosadi rival. They had often tangled when De’Vax had commanded a Dosadi Heavy Cruiser. “My father and her grandfather did a lot of business together, and over the years her father and I became blood-brothers.”

“I see. And what brings you into the Imperium, Ka’var?”

“The Imperium? I was going to ask what brought that monstrosity of a ship into the Empire! I was afraid you were lost.”

De’Vax narrowed his eyes. “We can agree to disagree over who’s territory we’re in, Ka’var.” He smiled again, “Allow me to introduce to you our friend, Pharaoh Wallon, leader of all Anoria. We have extended an invitation to them to join the Imperium.

“Pharaoh, I present to you Captain Ka’var, son of K’mpok, of the House of Konjah of the Klingon Empire.”

The Klingon saluted Wallon and offered, “I would not be so quick to jump at that offer, Wallon, with the Klingon Empire here – There is much glory to be had at our sides!”

The alert siren sounded again, and the sensor operator sang out, “Federation Excelsior-class cruiser, dead South, 25,000 kilometers and closing!” There was a spate of Klingonese on Ka’var’s bridge as well, with his own people clearly giving him the same information.

Wallon was nearly overwhelmed. Two days ago, his world was alone in the universe. Now, he was surrounded by aliens with technologies so far beyond his own as to make his people seem like infants.

“We’re being hailed again, Captain.” came the communications officer’s voice.

“Split-screen.” he commanded, and the view screen jumped. To Ka’var’s left was a craggy looking human being with thinning dark hair and gem-hard blue-eyes in the deep red double-breasted jacket of Starfleet.

De’Vax spoke first, “You and the Valley Forge are late to the party, Captain Marlow.”

“Evidently. The fact that there is a party at all is something of a surprise to the Federation as this is a clear violation of the Prime Directive.”

“You mean Starfleet’s Prime Directive, Captain?” De’Vax asked mildly. “We don’t have anything like that in the Imperial Fleet.”

Ka’var chuckled, “Nor in the Klingon Empire.”

“This planet is in Federation Space, gentlemen, so the Prime Directive holds.”

Wallon decided to take steps to get things back where he had some sort of control. “Anoria is in Anorian space. Unless one of you is here to attempt to conquer us, in which case I am sure that I can rapidly find allies to help us among the other two.”

All three Captains looked at him. Again, De’Vax spoke first, “We can guarantee that no hostile power would conquer you, Pharaoh.”

Marlow chimed in next, “The Federation doesn’t use armed conquest, that sort of barbarism went out hundreds of years ago.”

Ka’var turned his head to look at the Federation Captain, “Along with all the spirit of your people. One day, Captain, we will meet in battle and that day shall be glorious. But, in this instance, I have been directed to…” he made a face and turned back to Wallon, “negotiate your entry into the Empire.”

Wallon offered, “At my Palace, it is past time for dinner. Among my people, it is traditional to conduct business over a meal. I would be honored to be your host for such a meal. Each of you and shall we say, two of your advocates? In two hours’ time?” He turned to Rileeta, “I am in your debt, Rileeta, you and your team are always welcome in my House and I would ask that you join us.”

Both Marlow and Ka’var raised their eyebrows at that. Marlow thought, “Great. We are waay behind on this one.”

After the Delos had closed the communications channels, little Dorea was tugging on her father’s kilt. “Yes, what is it?”

She whispered up to him, “Can my friend come too? Please? Nefer gets to have her friend.”

It took Wallon a moment to realize she meant Rileeta. His eldest daughter was standing next to the black-furred Dosadi asking her something in a low voice. He turned his face back to the alien Captain. “Would it be possible for the boy to join us as well?”

De’Vax was surprised. “The kit who ran off with your daughter?”

“Yes. She has requested it.”

“I’ll have to ask his mother, but I’m fine with it.”

“Do you not command here?”

“Of course. But I am the Captain, not the slave-master. I could order his mother to attend as she is under my command, but her son’s duties are aboard ship and that is the limit of my authority over him.”

“You are a very strange people, Captain.”

De’Vax smiled, “You will meet many more even stranger peoples, Pharaoh, as your people find their place in the galaxy.”

 

* * *

PLANET ANORIA, TICON, PALACE OF THE KINGS

AUGUST 2321

Rileeta tried not to sigh as she looked down the table – again groaning with food. How the Anorians had managed to clean the carnage up in the few hours it had been since the attempted coup was beyond her. But she noticed that there were still some chunks out of the table, some scorch marks faintly visible on the walls, some chips and gouges in the wood paneling, and a slightly reddish stain where Storch had…She looked back at the table.

K’Reen was off by the door talking with a Dosadi woman in battle armor, her helmet tucked under her arm and her plasma rifle slung across her back. Guardsman Gareen was there as well, listening intently.

An odd-sounding transporter hum came clearly in the room and everyone turned to see Captain Ka’var and two other Klingons rapidly take form.

Wallon thought to himself that these new technologies were going to take a lot of getting used to. Ka’var looked at the many Dosadi in the room and frowned. “I had understood we were to each bring two Lieutenants. And yet I see what looks like Captain Da’Vax with a half-dozen Dosadi Marines, and nine others.”

Wallon explained, “The Captain has his two advocates only, Captain. Rileeta and her team are here at my invitation, though two of them are still in their medical center. The boy and his mother are here at my daughter’s invitation. “

“And the Marines?”

“There was an incident before you arrived that they assisted me with. They are on-loan to my security forces. As I understand it, they are not even Soldiers, despite their appearance.”

Ka’var gritted his teeth. “Then I’m sure you won’t mind if I bring a few of my own security troops. For my own safety, of course.”

Wallon was surprised – and somewhat insulted. “You are safe in my house, Captain. You have no need of your weapons here.”

The Klingon noted that the only Dosadi under arms were the six in armor – although the Dosadi women with Rileeta had knives. That didn’t matter much as those six were more than a match for his own two men. He knew he was coming in to this situation at a serious disadvantage – even if he hadn’t known that, it would have been plain enough the moment they materialized.

Rileeta and her teammates were wearing Anorian dress with what was evidently the House symbol. And there was Lorac! He was in regular Dosadi clothing – what was her close-friend doing here? The kit by the little Anorian was wearing the same Dosadi uniform his mother was – by Kahless, she was only a Crew Leader! – and she was sitting near the head of the table looking very uncomfortable. De’Vax and his First Officer and another woman with odd silver fur were in Dosadi uniform as well. Why was Rileeta’s team in Anorian costumes?

He had little time to puzzle it out any further as there was another humming transporter beam and Captain Marlow, his First Officer and a Tellarite materialized a few feet from the back of the room.

Marlow quickly took stock of the situation, making the same observations that Ka’var had. However, the Dosadi were staunch allies of the Federation so to his point of view, the armored troops were an advantage. “Pharaoh, thank you very much for inviting us. May I present my officers?”

Wallon nodded his assent and Marlow said, “I am Captain Abraham Marlow of the Starship Valley Forge, this is my First Officer, Commander Paul Girard, and Special Envoy Gaavrin, a representative of my government.”

Ka’var jumped in, “As you know, I am Captain Ka’var of the Klingon warship T’ing. My First Officer, Lieutenant Vetac, and my Weapons Master, Lieutenant Tamok.” He and his men strode over to the table and found seats without waiting for an invitation, looking suspiciously at the Dosadi and most especially at the Starfleet men.

Wallon said to Marlow, “Please find seats where you are comfortable, Captain. This is my Advocate for War, Baldon, and my Advocate for Science, Pentar.” He was watching the Klingons begin pouring Anorian wine into convenient goblets and sniffing it with some curiosity. Their ways were certainly not those of his people. Rileeta had been able to give him some warning as to what to expect, and for that he was quite grateful.

She had cautioned him that the Klingons were a powerful people and mighty warriors. They were quick to passions and not much given to the same sorts of courtesies that Anorians followed, but great seekers of honor and glory.

Rileeta interrupted his thoughts, “So, Uncle, I see you still have the manners of a goat.” Wallon was shocked.

Ka’var turned his head to look at her, some wine spilling down his chin. “And you are still quick to criticize your elders and your betters, girl.”

“Just older, Uncle, not better.”

Captain Marlow had taken a seat near him and leaned close, “The Klingons are famous for their tempers. She’s not terribly wise to provoke him like that. We of the Federation are a much more reasoned and…”

Ka’var roared, “You think I will not teach you a lesson?” He drew his d’k tahg, the sharpened guard springing open.

Rileeta gracefully stood up, “I think you’ll try, but I think you’re too old and fat to do more than boast!”

Wallon was completely puzzled – no one except the Federation personnel seemed even slightly alarmed as the Klingon – easily twice her size, yelled something in Klingon and charged her. She quickly drew her own blade and easily deflected the Klingon’s strike, smoothly pivoting to the side and letting the bigger man race past.

The other Klingons were cheering their Captain and Rileeta’s team were calling encouragement to their commander. De’Vax was looking at the table and shaking his head. Wallon had absolutely no idea what to do – should he stop the fight? Aid Rileeta, whom he was indebted to? But that would alienate the powerful Klingons. No one else seemed to think either party needed aid…

Ka’var spun back around, his knife and hers clashing loudly. He reversed his grip, but she tracked along with it, the two blades locking together and then flying off towards the wall while they grappled. So quickly Wallon couldn’t even follow it, Rileeta ended up on Ka’var’s back, her legs locked into his thighs and her arms around his neck, brutally choking him.

Finally he slapped his leg twice and she released him. He roared with laughter, grabbed her and pulled her into a hug, kissing her face loudly. “By Kahless, I’ve missed you, little one. I remember teaching you that move, you little brat!”

She butted her head under his chin, “I missed you too, Uncle.” She wormed free of him and went and retrieved their knives.

“How is your father? As pissy as always?”

She smiled as she returned his knife. “Only when the stumps hurt him. He doesn’t say anything, you know how he is, but you can tell. I think they’re worse now.”

“Bah. He’s a Warrior. He will find his way to Sto’vo’kor; He doesn’t want to stay home and rot like an old woman.” He looked up at Wallon. “You will excuse us, I hope. My people are warriors and fighters. We live hard and fight hard both; Renewing the bonds of family is always a priority. Unlike the Federation, we have little time or tolerance for diplomats.”

Wallon said, “I was given some warning what to expect, Captain, though I will confess this is beyond what I believed.”

Ka’var grinned at him. “Then let us continue to enjoy! A meeting such as this should be a celebration, not some morbid and endless bicker-fest – look, already the Federation seeks to tie you down with talk and papers and agreements. What glory or honor is there in treaties? What life? Rileeta, sing for us! Sing a song of battle!”

She glanced at her Captain “Uncle…now isn’t the time.”

Little Dorea chimed in, “She sings really pretty!”

Wallon was beginning to enjoy himself. He was starting to understand. The Klingon had adroitly taken charge of the entire dinner, his boisterousness neatly cutting off any chance the Federation people had to talk with him. He was not-so-subtly showing his people’s culture, attempting to make up for lost time with energy and volume. And to be honest, Wallon was finding little to like in the Federation’s representation so far. “My people love music as well, Captain, especially songs of love and glory.” He looked at Rileeta again, “I would enjoy a song, if you have one to share, Rileeta?”

“All right.” She thought for a moment. She definitely didn’t want to alienate the Federation, and she thought she was likely to need them as a counterweight to Ka’var’s drama. The Anorians were as enamored with battle and glory as the Klingons. “I have a song from Earth, the heart of the Federation, that my aunt found. I can sing that. Captain, may I borrow your PADD?”

De’Vax, trying very hard not to be annoyed simply handed over the device to his newest Ensign. His orders gave her complete control over the first contact portion of the mission; a situation he found galling at best.

Ka’var watched his niece and her Captain as she tapped briefly at the device and it began playing a soft song of guitars and violins in a minor key. Rileeta stepped back by Lorac and sang, gently stroking his ears and face while she did so, her voice clear and pure:

 

Love me one more time,
Make this night last forever,
For on the morrow, I leave for battle-

I may survive,
And I shall return to you,
But come the morrow, I leave for battle-

And if I die, just remember I love you,
And youll always be mine,
Let us warm up this cold night together,
Come the morrow, I leave for battle-

Until tomorrow,
Let me love you forever,
For come the morrow, I leave for battle-

And if I die, just remember I love you,
And you
ll always be mine,
Let us warm up this cold night together,
Come the morrow, I leave for battle-

Yes, tomorrow, I leave for battle-1

 

The Klingons roared their approval and pounded their fists on the table, making things rattle. Wallon complimented her, “You do sing well, and that song could be one of my own people.”

Ka’var waved his goblet at her, sloshing some of the pale-yellow Anorian wine. “Bah! You are still enamored of that beardless boy?” He slapped his Weapons Master on the shoulder, “I’ve a Klingon here for you, girl! A warrior!”

Tamok looked less than interested; Rileeta winked at him and stuck her tongue out at Ka’var as she returned to her seat.

 

* * *

Some hours later, Wallon was walking the grounds of his Palace with Baldon and Pentar. He paused for a moment, looking up at the stars. “Do they seem different to you, now?”

His two advocates looked at each other and Pentar asked, “The stars?” He looked up as well. Many of those pinpoints of light he now knew held intelligent life. More than he had ever imagined. “Yes, Great One, they do. Less mysterious now, but perhaps more wondrous.”

Baldon, also looking up, contributed, “More dangerous. By far.”

Pentar rolled his eyes, “You are such a stereotype, Baldon.”

The Soldier looked back down at Pentar, “You can afford to be filled with child-like glee, Pentar, I cannot. My job is to evaluate threats. What had been a theoretical is now a certainty – and one that we simply do not have the capability to defend against. And in addition, in just a few hours since their presence was made known to our people we have had three Great Houses align in a coup against us, riots and chaos in several cities from people who were afraid they were about to be enslaved, and then more chaos resulting from the coup.

“When was the last time the Pharaoh had to take to the airwaves twice in a single day with news such as this?”

Wallon said, “I think their arrival was timely, Baldon. That coup was not one that was put together in a few hours; I believe they panicked and jumped too early; To our advantage. Had the aliens not been present, I believe there would be a new Pharaoh.”

“Humph. And what are we to make of all these aliens? Our planet has become the prize in a three-way game of jam-dar. Do we pick one and anger the others? And if we do so, will that lead to war with the two not so favored? I do not think we would survive such a conflict.”

Pentar asked “Must we choose? Think of the knowledge we could gain by playing one against the others!”

“And what of this other great power, these Romulans who also lay claim to us? Why are they not here? How will they react if we declare our allegiance to one of these other three?”

The Pharaoh of the Twin Kingdoms of Anoria walked in silence for a few more paces. “Pentar, if you had to pick, which would it be?”

The scientist answered quickly, “The Federation. They are powerful, dignified, peace-loving and dedicated to the search for knowledge. You got to see the Dosadi ship – perhaps I could be taken to see the Federation vessel?”

“And Baldon? What would your choice be?”

The younger man thought for a bit. “I confess I like the Klingons. They are a people much like our own. They are strong and would be able to offer us protection from these Romulans that each of the three say are so dangerous.”

Wallon laughed. “And I find myself preferring the Dosadi. They are allied with the Federation – but willing to share more knowledge much faster, Pentar. They are also strong, even though small, and evidently have fought often with these Romulans – and the Klingons. They are friendly with the Klingons as well. I see alliance with them as the best of all possible worlds.

“We would still be able to maintain alliances with the Klingons and the Federation, we would have access to their technology faster, and we would have a much greater voice in our own fate than in either of the other two. In the Federation, we would be lost in the crowd. In the Klingon Empire, we would be a minor House at the very best. But in the Dosadi Imperium? All of their few members have a voice in council. It is not inconceivable that we could, in time, maneuver our way to leadership.

“And Baldon, they have managed to maintain their independence while existing between three great powers. That is no mean feat. And I sense this ship of theirs, this Delos, is something the others are afraid of. I do not know why a single ship is seen as such a threat, but it dwarfs the other two. I do not think the two of them combined could defeat it in combat. That is something also to consider.”

The three men walked for a while longer. “Pentar, let us see the other two ships as well. I do not need to decide this moment.”

 

* * *

Rileeta was perched on a balance beam, watching Nefer train with her defense master. The woman was impressively fit, and tall even for an Anorian, but, to Rileeta’s eyes, she was ridiculously ‘endowed’. Over the past three days, she had found that she actually enjoyed Nefer’s company. The woman was quite a bit more shrewd than she let on and had a thirst for knowledge that rivaled Rileeta’s own.

After Selo again threw Nefer half-way across the training room, Rileeta suggested, “Want to give her a try against a different opponent? You can observe and make corrections then.”

The big Anorian stood upright and looked over at Rileeta. She flicked her over-large ears backward and considered it. “Yah. That’ll work.” Rileeta still wasn’t used to Selo – her language was considered ‘gutter’ by the members of House Wallon and her placement as a Soldier marked her as a non-woman. Yet she relished the role of outcast – She was, in fact, one of their best special forces operatives.

Rileeta nimbly jumped down onto the mat and took up a position opposite Nefer. “So, I still don’t understand why you are even getting this training – your people don’t seem very keen on women fighting. I’m not sure I’m ever going to understand how you got the training you got, Selo.”

Selo laughed, “Because I’m the best. I’ve never been very girly, but I’ve always been strong, and fast. Even growing up, I beat the boys at pretty much everything.” She shrugged, “And I like girls. Our House is a House Minor, and it was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to marry up, or down for that matter, so I got sent to the armed forces early. They don’t care about your plumbing there, or who you trade pleasure with, just what you can do.”

Nefer circled Ri, who pivoted in a circle. Rileeta asked her, “So why is your father letting you train at all?”

She closed with Ri in a rush. Rileeta took a quick side-step and pivoted gracefully, letting her tail foul up Nefer’s legs and trip her. As she got up, Nefer answered, “He is always worried about our safety and has had us train to fight since birth. But because fighting is so…close,” She shifted her stance, studying Rileeta, “he didn’t want a man to teach us.”

Rileeta feinted, causing Nefer to attack before she was ready. Rileeta grabbed her extended wrist, locked it, and rolled onto her back, kicking Nefer up and away before rolling smoothly back onto her feet. “Makes sense.” she agreed. “Our culture doesn’t care about things like that. Or about what gender does what.”

Selo commented, “Nefer, stop letting her control the fight. And keep your movements precise and fine.”

Getting back to her feet again, Nefer said, “I wish I could do what you two do. I want adventures! I want to go and see all of these alien worlds! I want to make my own choices!” She then launched a series of strikes and kicks that Rileeta blocked, slowly giving ground.

“Better!” Selo complimented her. “Yah, because being a princess is sooo hard. Having everything you ever wanted handed to you.” But she was smiling as she said it and Rileeta guessed this was a frequent complaint of the princess.

Rileeta took the chance to drop down low and sweep Nefer’s legs out from under her, and then spin away and back into a guard stance. “Don’t get distracted, Nefer.” she cautioned her.

Selo looked at the little cat-person appraisingly. “So, you feel like trying someone more challenging than a student?”

Rileeta grinned, “We Dosadi love challenges. Let’s go.”

Selo waved her student off to the side and she and Rileeta began to stalk each other. They each tried a number of feints, getting a feel for their opponent. Selo attacked first with a series of bridging techniques that Rileeta avoided, keeping her distance. The Anorian had height, reach, weight, strength, and experience, but Dosadi reflexes were faster and Rileeta was utilizing that to the fullest.

She asked Selo, “How old are you, anyway?”

“Twenty five. You?” They closed with each other, trading knees and elbows in a brutal series, then breaking apart again and circling.

“Seventeen. You figure out who was behind the coup yet?” She leaped high, throwing a kick that Selo blocked easily, but she used her tail to wrap around the Anorian’s arm and used it to alter her flight so that she fell straight down Selo’s back. She quickly grabbed her calves and pulled her onto her face, but the Anorian yanked back on Ri’s tail and then kicked hard for her face causing Rileeta to have to abort her attack to block and the two split again, each regaining their feet a meter or two from the center of the mat.

“Yup. Two of the Great Houses from the Southern Kingdom and one from the Northern.” Selo smiled a very wicked smile, “I’ll be dealing with them each in turn.”

Nefer interrupted, “Selo, you can not! Father has not yet completed his investigations. He will be furious with you!”

“I’ve completed mine. He’ll be fine with it when the heads of the traitorous Houses are on his wall.” She attacked Rileeta in a savage series, causing the little Dosadi to back-pedal rapidly, blocking as she went, but finally landing a solid shot across Selo’s jaw and staggering her.

Selo fell back and shook her head to clear it. “Nice one. See Nefer, what happens when you get distracted?”

Rileeta stood up and dropped her guard. “Nice match. You’ve got a team, I take it?”

“Oh yes. Twelve men and myself. More than enough for what needs to be done.”

Nefer pleaded, “Take me with you!”

Selo laughed, “Nefer, you’re nowhere near ready for real combat and you know it. You’ve got a good basic skill set, but not what you need for a raid like this. And if I let you go, your father would gut me.”

Nefer pouted. “That is so unfair.”

Rileeta laughed as well, “Nefer, if you want adventure, you should run off and join Starfleet. That’s their recruiting slogan, ‘Make your life an adventure – Join Starfleet and explore the universe.’

Selo shook her head, “She doesn’t need any encouragement.”

Nefer asked, “Can you do that if you are not part of the Federation? I think father wants to join your Imperium.”

Rileeta confirmed, “Yes, you can apply if you’re from any allied power. But it isn’t easy to get in.” Seeing Selo frowning at her and shaking her head she continued, “But you might want to get permission from your father first. So I don’t get in trouble.”

Nefer thought about that for a moment. “Tell me something about your world.”

“Nice subject change, Nefer.” But she was smiling, “It’s beautiful. Dosad is mostly covered in forests and lakes or oceans. Um…” She thought for a moment, “Well, my house is in a forest of meritha trees. They’re a semi-deciduous hardwood with these loong corn-husk-like leaves and when the wind blows it sounds like they’re talking to each other. It’s only a few kilometers from Lake Elesh, and I love to go sailing in a longboat. If you go to the far side, it’s all kend’fee trees – they’re this really big, dense-grained tree that’s almost black and the leaves are like big fronds and they’re great for climbing. You can go up a long way and just drape on a branch and watch the world go by underneath you.

“We’ve got one moon, we call it ‘Thorin’ and when it’s full it lights up the sky, especially when the volcanoes there are erupting. That always causes meteor showers that look like fireworks that go on for days. Sometimes you can even see the eruptions and the meteors during the daylight. Someday if you come and visit, I’ll take you up in the mountains and we can watch the felar hunt – er, that’s a really fast bird that hunts at night and it loves to catch little creatures to eat. They sing when they hunt and on nights when Thorin is erupting and the meteors are coming down it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.”

She asked, “What else do you want to know?”

“How do you raise your children?”

“Well I don’t have any yet, of course, but everyone helps. We don’t have children as fast or as easily as a lot of species in the galaxy. So, when someone gives birth, there’s the n’mewr rak’kas – a birth celebration. The whole neighborhood has a sort of party where they bring food and little things for the new kitten and people will stay over for the first week even and help the father keep up. Our newborns spend most of their first month or two just nursing and sleeping and it’s pretty draining on the mom. But they are so cute. We usually don’t give them names until around the end of their second month – there’s another big feast where all the kits in that age group get their name, that’s called rikt rak’kas – the naming festival.

“What’s the most fun though is every year we have de’vax rak’kas – that means the first hunt festival.” She smiled at the memories. “We split the kits up into three age groups, the really little kittens, and 4-6 year olds, and then the youngsters 7-10. We release little thevets for the kittens and pashtols, um, they’re sort of like rabbits, for the middle kits, and k’lox for the bigger ones. Aw, um, k’lox are almost a meter tall, they’ve got big teeth, fluffy tails, beady eyes and sharp claws…Anyway, each group gets to hunt for dinner for everyone and they share their kills with the whole town in a huge feast. Watching the kittens go chasing around after these little mouse-sized thevets is so cute.

“But it gives the kits a chance to provide for everyone and work on their hunting and teamwork skills and share stories and make friends and there are so many different recipes that you can go from one side of the green to the other and eat so much you aren’t even hungry the next day.

“No matter what your father decides, you’ll have the chance to go see a lot of other worlds.” She grinned, “Of course if you join the Imperium, you can travel in the Federation, the Imperium, or the Klingon Empire. Three for one!”

Nefer thought about that for a few seconds while she stretched out some kinks in her legs. “Teach me something in Dosadi. Like good morning or something.”

“Huh. Well, we don’t usually say good morning…We might say ango’vax. That’s ‘best hunting’. Or pitt’barl’t – fresh breezes.”

“Ango’vax” Nefer tried.

“Close. The o sound is a little longer than that and the a needs to go further back in your mouth.”

“Ango’vax?”

“Better. Another really common phrase is stol t’het. That means ‘honor above all.’ We live by that.”

“Stolthet”

“Erms, no. Not ‘thet’ – there’s like a break there. T’het. And a pause between so, stol…t’het.”

“Stol t’het.”

“Be!” She smiled, “That’s ‘yes’. No would be ‘Ca.’”

Nefer smiled at Rileeta while Selo just shook her head. “So how would I say thank you?”

“Kareen – don’t get the C and the K confused. That C is shorter and harder than the K.”

“Kareen, Rileeta. Stol t’het!” Nefer said easily.

Her ears and whiskers flicking back in surprise Rileeta said, “Wow. You learn languages pretty quickly!”

“I love learning anything. There’s always something more to learn.” Nefer agreed.

“You’ll get along well with Lorac. He’s a super-genius. But I’m thinking you need to get back to training or Selo’s never going to let me watch another session…”

CHAPTER 7

One of the nicest things in life is making new friends who end up lasting a lifetime.
-Unknown

MALCOR III – CAPITAL CITY

JANUARY 2367

Riker had managed to stagger out of the alleyway, dizzy with shock. People were staring at him – that was bad. He wasn’t supposed to attract attention. He was supposed to be doing…what? He stumbled another couple of steps, leaning drunkenly on a wall for support.

None of them looked right. This wasn’t where he belonged. The ship. He had to get back to the ship.

A woman screamed. He sank to his knees and several people ran up to him, but none of them were wearing the right clothes – where was Dr. Crusher? Where was Data?

The last thing he remembered was hands grabbing at him.

 

* * *

Two men wheeled the cart through the halls of the medical center, finally getting the injured man into the trauma bay. The staff wasted no time getting him attached to the monitors.

Nilrem, examining the medic’s initial reports said “He took a severe blow…possible trauma to the telencephalon…”

While Tava was conducting her own assessment, she added “Start fifteen octares of quadroline. We’ll need a complete del-scan series…

Seconds later, Nilrem, listening with an audio-amplifier said, “Something’s wrong. I can’t find his cardial organ.”

Tava grabbed for Riker’s wrist, and after a moment she asked “What do you mean? I’m reading a steady circulation…”

Seconds later, after searching, and holding the device over his center chest. “There it is…up here…”

Perplexed, she turned and asked, “In his digestive tract??”

 

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Picard continued, “The Anorians did elect to join the Imperium, as you know.“

“So her mission was a success then.”

“For the Dosadi yes, for the Federation, it was something of a minor disaster. A promising species lost, in clear violation of the Prime Directive. And there was other political fallout as well.”

“Is that why the Federation created it’s own first contact teams?”

Picard cleared his throat. “Well, yes. Gaavrin found himself rather outmaneuvered by Ka’var, Rileeta, and her friend Lorac. But he had the last laugh in the end; rather typical for a Tellarite.”

“How?”

The Captain shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “The Valley Forge returned to Dosad while the Delos stayed at Anoria. The Federation lodged a formal protest with the Dosadi over their violation of the Prime Directive and Gaavrin then negotiated the Treaty of Va’fakt. The Dosadi would leave all First Contact missions to the Federation in exchange for certain technological considerations and trade concessions. They turned over the entire program to the Federation.”

Deanna Troi considered that for a moment, her hands in her lap. “So that is how Rileeta ended up assigned to Starfleet for so long. How did she react?”

“As you might expect, she was furious. At a stroke, the Federation had taken control of her project even after a successful mission. And she and Lorac had considerably less influence in Starfleet than they did in the Imperial fleet. Although they tried.”

“What did they do?”

“Lorac joined Starfleet. He entered the Academy. He was in my class, in fact. Along with one other from the whole sorry mess.”

“Who?”

Picard sighed. “The Princess Nefer.”

“How did she manage that?”

“Wallon was a shrewd one. After the coup attempt he took steps to protect his family. Little Dorea was often sent to Dosad on ‘diplomatic’ missions or to visit her friend from the Delos. She turned out to be quite the charmer and stuck with the diplomatic mission long after it stopped being a pretense. She is still Anoria’s representative to the Dosadi Imperial Council of Governors, in fact. Nefer, he sent to us.”

“She was able to pass the exams?”

“She had embarked on a very intensive two year program to do exactly that. Guess who helped prepare her?”

“Rileeta?”

Picard sat up more comfortably, “No, actually, it was Lorac. We learned much later that he was a near-eidetic as well as being a spy.”

“Is that how you met her?”

“Yes, of course. Starfleet wanted to add to her and her team’s education before continuing the program and have her transfer her knowledge to other teams. They were actually studying at CalTech while we were at the Academy, but she visited often. Her aunt had graduated about thirty years earlier and was a very senior Captain at that time.”

Picard’s comm-badge whistled and Data’s voice came through, “Captain, we have located Captain Rileeta. She will be aboard within twenty minutes.”

“Thank you, Data. Have her…” he considered it for a moment, “Have her shown to Ten-Forward. Tell the senior staff to prepare for a briefing in one hour.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Picard stood, tugged his jacket downward and asked Troi, “Would you care to join us counselor? We can continue the history lesson.”

She smiled and stood as well, “Thank you, Captain, I would. I’m looking forward to meeting this old acquaintance of yours.”

 

* * *

STARFLEET ACADEMY, SAN FRANCISCO, EARTH

SEPTEMBER 2323

Cadet Jean-Luc Picard was running free and clean. The rain was starting to come down fairly hard, but it had little effect upon him, except to keep him cool. He was a solid 18 miles in and long past the wall, just enjoying the feel of the air pumping in and out of his lungs and the rhythmic pounding of his feet on the path.

This particular way was a winding jogging path that made its way up and down the folds in the Bay coastline near the Academy and was one of his favorite routes to run. The hills meant that in inclement weather it was less-frequently traveled than some of the other paths lower down and the views were spectacular.

It had been a very good year for him so far. He had actually won the Academy Marathon back in April, only a few months after he had passed the entrance exams – beating an upperclassman to do it. Well, it had been a good year for him socially…and athletically. It hadn’t been all that good academically. There just always seemed to be other things to do – studying could wait. And then wait some more – usually until it was too late.

He turned his head to look out over the Bay, enjoying the feel of the rain on his face and the crenelated surface of the ocean, iron-grey and flat, heading out to the horizon…and he snapped his attention back to the path just as he slammed into the back of another person on the trail, tumbling the two of them into the rain-slick grass.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry!” he said as he rolled back to his knees, attempting to help the other person as well – then noticing that the other person looked like a dripping-wet black panther in dark blue trousers and a white shirt. And a moment later, realizing that the person was a foreign military officer.

Picard quickly got back to his feet and offered a hand down to the officer, “My fault entirely…” he paused a moment as he tried to determine their gender, finally settling on one, “Ma’am.”

Rileeta took the proffered hand with a smile and sniffed. Taking in the young man’s Academy PT uniform she answered in nasally and accented Standard, “Thank you, cadet. I’m afraid I wasn’t paying much attention either. I don’t like the rain much and I’ve got a cold.”

“Cadet Jean-Luc Picard, ma’am. Starfleet Academy.” he graciously introduced himself.

“Lieutenant (J.G.) Rileeta, Dosadi Imperial Marines.” she shook his hand. “I’m meeting some friends at the shelter just around the bend, I don’t suppose we could finish the introductions there?”

“Well, if it’s OK with you ma’am, I was just going to finish my run – I’ve still got about 5 miles to go.”

She waved him on and said, “Have fun, cadet!” and took a step – or tried to. “Yow!!” She caught herself before she fell and kept the weight off her right ankle.

Picard also caught her elbow. “Are you OK?”

“I think I twisted it a little when we tumbled there…You hit like a brick wall.” she teased him.

“Sorry.” he smiled at her. “Can I offer you an arm until you get to the shelter?”

The two of them made their way the few hundred meters to a small building overlooking the ocean. Ever the gentleman, Picard helped her through the door, noting that there were several other cadets in the room as well.

“Ri?!” Another Dosadi called out and was on his feet in an instant, heading towards the door, concern all over his furry face.

“I just twisted it is all, Lorac. Don’t worry.” Rather than letting loose of Picard’s arm, she introduced him, “Everyone, this is Cadet Jean-Luc Picard.

“Picard, this is my th’mew Cadet Lorac, and this is Cadet Nefer, Princess of Anoria!”

The aforementioned princess rolled her eyes and said “Jealous!”

Ignoring her, Rileeta continued, “Cadet Jim Robbins, and Cadet Phil Howard.”

Picard said, “Pleased to meet you all.” His curiosity got the better of him, “This seems like rather an odd gathering in an odd location. May I ask what you all are doing?”

Lorac grinned, “We’re all spies!” That got a laugh from most everyone except Picard, who didn’t much enjoy being made fun of. “Sorry.” he continued with a twinkle in his golden cat’s-eyes. “We’re a study group – I’m tutoring us in astrophysics and stellar navigation and Rileeta tutors in ground tactics and first contact protocols. She’s attached to Starfleet, it’s all legitimate.”

“Astrophysics?” That was one of the subjects he was struggling in.

Robbins said, “I know you – you won the marathon! Hey, join in man, the more the merrier.”

Rileeta sniffed again and tried to shake the water out of her fur and her clothing. Cadet Howard grabbed a pair of towels from a drying rack along the back wall of the shelter and tossed them to her and to Picard. She smiled at him gratefully and began drying off.

Picard caught it easily, “Thanks. I think I shall.” He made his way over to the table, piled high with books and took a seat, drying his shaved head first.

 

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Picard and Troi made their way through the corridors of the Enterprise, continuing to talk. Troi, always glad to get more information about his past from the normally reticent Picard, asked “So you were study-buddies?”

“I don’t know that I’d use that specific term, Counselor, but that was how I met them initially. Cadet Lorac was actually quite a good tutor, and Rileeta’s presentation was always rather engaging. She tended to illustrate her discussions with real-world stories of battles from many different cultures. The Dosadi as you know seem to have a nearly genetic fascination with history.”

The doors to Ten-Forward swooshed open and they walked into the lounge, taking seats at a table near the large forward-facing windows. As always Picard found his attention drawn to the view. No matter how often he made orbit around a planet, the view of another world turning lazily below him inspired at least a brief period of reflection.

He continued while the two enjoyed the view. “From studying together, the group of us began to associate more and more. We all had a firm belief that conflict could be avoided through understanding and interaction. That intellect could defeat the brute passions. Lorac and I in particular seemed to have a very similar philosophy about different cultures. He helped me with academics and I helped him with physical fitness and athletics. Despite his very powerful intellect, he was not terribly athletic and he struggled to maintain passing scores on Academy fitness testing. My circle of friends and theirs interacted quite a bit, we found that we all socialized well together and often enjoyed a lot of the same events. Believe it or not, Counselor, a large group of us would even go bar-hopping occasionally.”

He smiled again, “I don’t know if you knew this or not, but Dosadi are very light-weight drinkers; Although they’re spectacular jumpers and their cardiovascular system is better than humans, their livers are smaller and alcohol hits them fast and hard. Lorac was a hilarious drunk and would inevitably believe that he was suddenly endowed with dancing powers and he would drag Rileeta up onto the floor at every opportunity.”

Returning her own view from the window to the Captain, Troi laughed, “It is hard to visualize you as a young, partying cadet. But,“ Troi prompted, “I sense there was a lot more to your relationship than study partners, Captain.”

“Oh yes, Counselor.” At her questioning expression he hastened to explain, “Oh, no, not like that, no, no. We were…” He was interrupted by the the double-doors sliding open again and there was a five-foot tall black-furred Dosadi with a good sized hole in her left ear just above a silver earring. The alien was wearing dusty-grey battle-dress with the 3 solid silver stripes of a captain over her shoulders, a Warrior’s pendant snug around her neck and just above it, a throat-mic. It was evident that this was a working uniform – and from the dirt and stains on it, that she had been working in some fairly unsavory locations recently.

She and Picard saw each other instantly. He stood up and she walked over to the table, arriving just as Guinan made her way to the table as well. Rileeta simply looked at him, suspicion and not a little anger evident on her face.

Picard greeted her with a simple, “Rileeta.” Her muzzle was shot with grey and there were some new scars, but otherwise she looked much the same.

She returned his greeting cooly, “Jean-Luc.”

Rather than asking for their orders, Guinan instead looked at Troi with an expression of bemused surprise. “Jean-Luc.” She looked back at Picard, pulled out a chair and sat down, “This is a story I have to hear.”

Somewhat confused, Rileeta asked, “Beg pardon?”

Trying to regain control of the situation Picard said, “Allow me to begin with some introductions. This is my ship’s counselor, Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi and this is…” Picard hesitated. Guinan’s role was considerably more than simply a bartender.

She introduced herself. “My name is Guinan. I’m the bartender here aboard the Enterprise. And I listen.”

“Yes, exactly.” he hurried on, “This is Captain Rileeta, Dosadi Imperial Marines. She is leading the First Contact team on Malcor III that Will was liaising with. Won’t you be seated?”

Rileeta pulled her own chair out and sat down, followed swiftly by Picard.

She started out straight to business, “We haven’t found him yet. We know where the team lost contact and we’ve been working from there out. He’s not at the main medical center. We’re checking the smaller clinics and…other places. The situation is still pretty fluid.”

Troi was sorting through the torrent of strong emotions coming from the two senior officers. Sadness, regret, betrayal, anger, hesitation, mistrust – with her empathic abilities, it was a bit like being hit with a hose.

Picard thought for a few moments, his mouth tightly closed. No one said anything while he decided what tack to take. Finally he said, “Thank you for coming aboard to brief me in person. If Will is injured we must making locating him our absolute top priority.”

A steward had come up to the table and Rileeta simply said, “Dosadi whiskey, neat.”

Picard raised an eyebrow but politely ordered, “Earl Grey, hot.” Both Guinan and Troi settled for water.

Guinan stepped in again, “So you’re a Jean-Luc friend?” she asked Rileeta.

Rileeta looked puzzled and Troi tried to explain, “The Captain’s just been explaining some of their history, Guinan. Evidently they were study partners at the Academy.”

Rileeta cocked an ear at that. “Study partners?” She snorted.

Guinan decided to try to tease a little to get the two captains to lighten up. “Lovers, perhaps?”

Picard’s face registered his surprise at that suggestion coming from Guinan and Rileeta actually laughed, “Oh no.” She finally smiled and said, “I don’t think either of us ever even considered it, although he was our th’mew.”

Guinan asked, “Th’mew?”

Rileeta, reached for the drink that was just arriving, “I’ll let him explain it. I once thought he understood it.” She took a solid slug of the dark green liquid.

Picard took his tea and set it on the table, then straightened his tunic. “It means literally close-friend. But it goes well beyond that. It can mean lovers, or something like blood brothers. It’s a bond of extreme trust and friendship that goes well beyond the norm. It’s about one step shy of being adopted into the family.”

“Something like imzadi, then.” Troi suggested.

“Yes, that’s really rather close, Counselor.” he said, and tried to shift the topic somewhat. “You and Lorac were th’mew – but there it meant lovers, and more. Did you ever become mates?”

Troi struggled again with the wave of conflicting emotions. Warmth, pride, love, joy, anger, betrayal, loneliness. It was difficult to keep her face impassive. “From what the Captain has told me so far, I would guess that you did. “

Rileeta swirled the whiskey in her glass. “Eventually, but it’s not that easy for Dosadi.” She took another drink.

Guinan continued to probe, “It’s not? Are there family issues?”

Smiling, Rileeta tried to explain, “No, not like that. Although my father was not Lorac’s biggest fan. For Dosadi, our biochemistry is heavily involved. We don’t even become fertile until we’ve settled on a mate and been around them for some time. Becoming mates is as much about compatible chemistry as it is about love. Usually you try out several mates until you find the one you are most compatible with and then your bodies just settle into each other’s rhythms.

“My people love quickly, but for a mate, it goes well beyond that. When you find your mate, you really lose interest in anyone else. They become pretty much another half of you. If we lose our mate, we will often just…fade away and die. There’s no interest in continuing to be.” She glared at Picard, “Being apart from them is often quite difficult.”

Trying not to show a reaction from the wave of anger coming from the Dosadi, Troi asked, “I’m surprised that you weren’t mates by the time you were at the Academy with the Captain. From what he told me you were always together since you were little children.”

Rileeta sighed, “It was a fairly unusual situation. Not by choice.” She took another swallow of her drink and looked at Picard. “Do you remember, Jean-Luc?” She actually looked a little sad at the memory. “I remember you being very uncomfortable that evening, even though you were our th’mew by then.”

He shifted in his seat and straightened his tunic again. “Among my people, that sort of conversation is not for outsiders, as you well know, Rileeta.”

“You weren’t an outsider. Not then, anyway.” Her ears had drooped a little bit and Troi again had to deal with a storm of conflicting emotions.

Curious, Guinan prodded again, “What happened?”

Seeing Rileeta focused on her drink he decided to continue the story after all. “Well, we were in Lorac’s room at the Academy one evening. I think it was raining again, in fact. I don’t recall why Rileeta was there…”

“Gave a class presentation on first contact disasters.” she spoke over the rim of her glass, her eyes still focused on the whiskey.

“Oh yes. Well, in any case, I remember the two of you were curled up on his bunk, and I think it was Varley and Nefer on the floor wasn’t it?”

“Yup.”

“I said something like ‘why don’t you two just get married already?’ which actually isn’t even allowed at the Academy, if you remember your regulations.”

Rileeta mumbled something about “you and regulations…” but Picard chose to ignore her and continued,

“And that was when she began to explain it to me…”

 

* * *

STARFLEET ACADEMY, SAN FRANCISCO, EARTH

FEBRUARY 2324

Rileeta snuggled backwards into Lorac, enjoying the feel of him spooned around her. After Jean-Luc’s question, she had tried to explain how Dosadi find their life’s partner. It seemed like every species had it’s own twist on finding your one true love.

Nefer asked, “So why aren’t you two mates? You’ve said you’ve been friends since you were what, six?”

Rileeta said, “I don’t know. Something just hasn’t clicked yet.”

Very softly, Lorac said, “It has for me.”

She turned her head over her shoulder, “What?”

“You are my mate, Ri.”

Picard was wondering if he, Nefer and Varley should make a dignified exit and head back to their own quarters. Varley’s dark face was starting to show a blush at the intimacy the two were openly displaying.

“But…How…Why not for…when?

He looked at her, his eyes, whiskers and ears projecting a sort of sad and hopeless longing. “Since I was about ten.”

Her jaw dropped open and her ears flicked backwards in surprise. “That’s not…why haven’t I…”

He shrugged and decided to explain to the three friends that had become such a close part of their lives. “It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes one person settles on a partner, but that partner doesn’t have the same reaction.”

“I do though! I want you as my mate!” she objected.

He continued, “It’s not anything you can control, really. It doesn’t really matter unless you want to have kits or if…well, if the other partner finds another mate. That simply isn’t survivable. To see your mate become someone else’s.”

Rileeta stroked his face softly, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Picard and Varley looked at each other. There simply wasn’t any way to subtly escape this conversation. Nefer, however seemed fascinated.

Lorac said, “Why would I? If you settled on me, I would tell you then. If you didn’t, well, why burden you? But Ri, I’ve never had any interest in anyone else. Do you remember S’eeth?”

Rileeta laughed, “Of course, silly. And you know it. We still write all the time.”

“I know – I meant do you remember when we were kits? I liked her. Before I met you, she was one of my best friends. But she wasn’t you. No one was. I’ve never even played at mates with anyone else. No matter what I was doing, I thought about telling you, or asking you or how you’d react. From the first time I saw that dirty fur, I could not get you out of my mind.”

She blinked back some tears, “Your ears are still funny looking.” She flipped over, not paying any attention to her other friends, “Lorac, I don’t understand it. If you knew…what’s wrong with me? I’ve never been interested in anyone else. Never wanted anyone else. I still don’t. Why haven’t I felt it?”

He shrugged again. “I don’t know, Ri. Maybe you will some day. I just figured it was time for you to know.”

She nuzzled into him, pulling herself close, the two exchanging little kisses and touches. After a few moments, she turned back over, noticing how uncomfortable Varley and Picard were. She sniffed, “Sorry. You guys don’t need to be so freaked out.”

Nefer, enthralled, gushed, “This is so romantic!

Varley said, “We didn’t mean to eavesdrop, of course, but it’s not like we had much of a choice.”

Lorac said, “You weren’t eavesdropping. You’re th’mew – you’ve as much a right to know what’s going on with us as anyone does. We trust you; with everything.”

 

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Troi took a sip of her water. “So you weren’t even a student at the Academy Captain Rileeta? But Lorac was your classmate, Captain?”

Picard said, “Yes. Rileeta was actually working on her PhDs in Xenology and Engineering at CalTech, but she would often be brought in as a guest lecturer at the Academy. Lorac and I ended up on a number of class-postings, in fact.”

Rileeta laughed, “One of which nearly got you both expelled.”

Guinan’s eyes widened “Jean-Luc! Expelled?”

He grimaced. “Actually, I thought it a rather clever solution at the time.”

Troi took a guess, ‘The Kobayashi Maru test?”

“That seems to be everyone’s first guess for everything at the Academy, doesn’t it, Counselor? But no, not actually. Well, it was somewhat related to that test.”

Rileeta finished her drink and signaled for a refill. She snorted. “Only in so far as that motivated the bet.”

Both Guinan and Troi were watching him, but neither woman was saying anything. Picard tried to look innocent. “Simply an exploration of a no-win situation that might be encountered in fleet duty.”

The pause continued. Finally, so did he. “I maintained that a cleverly captained small ship could successfully defeat a much larger one.”

Rileeta chuckled. “You make it all sound so civilized, Jean-Luc. You were bragging and you know it. You were a cocky bastard. And sneaky.”

Troi’s surprise registered on her face. “Cocky? Sneaky? What happened?”

“He bet the tactical instructor that he could beat him with a Miranda-class frigate even if the instructor had an Excelsior-class heavy cruiser.”

“That seems like an impossible mis-match.”

“It would have been too. But Jean-Luc had an ace up his sleeve Captain MacGregor wasn’t expecting.”

 

* * *

FEDERATION EXCELSIOR-CLASS STARSHIP USS BERLIN, EARTH ORBIT

APRIL 2327

Captain Ian MacGregor shook his counterpart’s hand. “Thank you, Captain Grinelli, for lending me your ship for this exercise.”

Sofia Grinelli smiled at him. “It wasn’t all that long ago that I was a student, Captain. And this particular exercise doesn’t sound like it’s going to take all that long.”

“No, it really shouldn’t. He’s an excellent tactician, but he’s overconfident, cocky, and boastful. In addition to teaching him some much-needed humility, this will provide an excellent exercise for the rest of the students. Although the Thunderbolt’s crew will remain aboard and supervising, the acting crew will be made up entirely of students.”

“You selected them?”

MacGregor laughed, his ruddy face and walrus-mustache shaking, “You’d think he’d at least have that much sense wouldn’t you? But no, he’s hand-picked his entire crew.”

 

* * *

Down in the Berlin‘s communications switch room, a Dosadi crewman walked in with a clipboard and took a seat at a console. Looking bored, he simply watched the three other people go about their business and made a few notes. After a few minutes he stood up, stretched and left the room again.

 

* * *

FEDERATION MIRANDA-CLASS FRIGATE USS THUNDERBOLT, EARTH ORBIT

APRIL 2327

Senior Cadet Jean-Luc Picard sat comfortably in the command chair of the USS Thunderbolt. Her actual captain was just behind his shoulder, but for the day, the ship was his. The bridge was humming along quite nicely. Watching his crew go about their duties with such competence was very satisfying. None of the Thunderbolt’s crew had needed to step in at all; True, they were simply holding orbit while everyone got settled before the exercise began, but it still spoke highly of their abilities that their first time as a complete crew in a real starship, they were doing well.

The bridge turbo-lift doors swooshed open and Lorac walked into the space. Picard swiveled his chair to face him, “Ah, Number One. Everything going well below decks?”

Lorac smiled, showing his fangs, “Everything is as expected, Captain.”

Captain Abasi tried not to roll his eyes. The tall Kenyan had the starved-greyhound look that all ultra-marathoners seemed to enjoy.

Cadet Marta Batanides at the communications console turned her head to look at Picard. “The Berlin is hailing us, Captain.”

“On screen please, Ms. Batanides.”

MacGregor’s smiling face filled the forward screen. “All right Picard. If you and your crew are ready, we’ll head to the flight range at Titan. Nothing to get worried about, it’ll be just like the simulations.”

Picard tugged his jacket down. “Oh yes, Captain. We’re all very nervous over here.” His mock sincerity fooled no one.

MacGregor frowned and shook his head. “Picard, I am afraid I’m really going to enjoy teaching you this lesson. Berlin out.”

As the screen went dark, Picard again spoke to Lorac, “Enough time, Number One?”

Lorac, typing away at the tactical console just nodded.

“What’s the word going to be?”

“Ava”

Picard chuckled, causing Abasi to wonder exactly what was up. The word was Dosadi for ‘thunder’. Picard turned back towards Varley at Flight Control, “Mr. Varley, take us out.”

Two hours later, both ships coasted to their positions near Saturn.

Batanides again told Picard, “Berlin is hailing us, sir.”

“On screen – and don’t cut off until I signal you. That’s vital, Marty.” She grinned back and gave him a thumbs-up.

The forward view screen filled with the view of Berlin’s bridge, her crew of experienced officers looking calm and collected. Picard could tell that his crew – while excited, were also nervous and most of them were probably expecting to be quickly defeated.

MacGregor smiled, every inch of him the confident, skilled Starfleet commander that he was. “Well, Picard, everything ready?”

“Yes, sir. And sir, we’re all looking forward to seeing just how starship combat should be conducted.”

MacGregor’s smile faded. “Picard, you are treading on very thin ice with that attitude.” His Berlin dwarfed the Thunderbolt in every respect.

“I apologize sir. I must be letting my excitement get the better of me.”

“You might want to pay more attention to preparing for this exercise than making smart-mouthed comments. Now, verify that your weapons are on ‘safe’, sensors are configured to record uplink data from the Berlin and that your library computer is tied into Range Control.”

“Yes, sir. Captain Abasi will check me on that.”

Abasi nodded and waved his hand at MacGregor.

“Are you ready, Mr. Picard?”

“Yes, sir. Thunderbolt is ready.”

“Then let’s begin. Begin Exercise.”

“Sir?” there was the briefest of pauses as MacGregor looked back at Picard. Picard smiled and said, “Ava”. And made a slashing motion with his arm to Batanides. He immediately began issuing crisp, rapid orders. “Varley, full impulse, directly over the primary hull, weapons, fire as they bear.”

The little ship leaped forward while the Berlin remained motionless. Picard continued, “Full shields, energize the defense grids. As we cross her primary hull, pivot 180 degrees and descend between her nacelles and continue firing. Weapons free to engage any target available.”

Abasi was stunned. The Berlin wasn’t moving at all. The Thunderbolt’s phasers and torpedoes were firing and clearly scoring ‘hits’ on the cruiser as she closed to point-blank range.

 

* * *

FEDERATION EXCELSIOR-CLASS STARSHIP USS BERLIN, TITAN RANGE

APRIL 2327

Picard said, “Sir?”

McGregor, in the act of cutting communications looked at Cadet Picard who simply said, “Ava.”

And throughout the Berlin, the intercom system began blaring some sort of horribly loud music at pain-inducing volumes. Everyone on the bridge clapped their hands over their ears and ducked their heads. Species with sensitive hearing were in agony, trying to block out the noise. Some sort of guitar and moaning noises and then drums began to beat…

Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! Over and over again. The music – and the pain – rapidly became more intense.

He tried to shout orders over the music, but no one could hear him. Everyone still had their hands over their ears anyway. So did he, for that matter.

I was caught in the middle of a railroad track THUNDER

Damage indicators were lighting up all over the consoles and the forward view screen showed MacGregor the Thunderbolt streaking in at them.

I looked around And I knew there was no turning back THUNDER

The weapons operator, a Caitan with very sensitive hearing, was curled up on the floor, trying to cover her ears with her hands and hide her head under the console. McGregor screamed “RAISE SHIELDS!” but no one could hear him. He jumped to his feet and ran to the defense station, his ears ringing loudly and shook the man, pointing at the viewscreen.

My mind raced and I thought what I could do THUNDER

Trying to hunch his shoulder up to cover his now-exposed ear the man typed quickly at his console, trying to raise the shields. More damage-indicators were coming on across the ship and the Thunderbolt was no longer visible on the screen.

And I knew, there was no help, no help from you THUNDER

McGregor sprinted for the communications console, pointing at the overhead and making throat slashing motions. The man at that station had been typing, feeling like his ears were bleeding, and he simply shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

Sound of the drums, beatin’ in my heart, the thunder of guns, tore me apart. You’ve been…THUNDERSTRUCK

Finally the Berlin began to maneuver – though she had already taken severe damage from the pounding the Thunderbolt was giving her. Unfortunately, having to communicate with hand signals is not conducive to starship combat. The Thunderbolt was no longer visible on the Berlin’s sensors, but from the damage ripping across their starship, it was obvious she was behind them somewhere.

Went down the highway, broke the limit, we hit the town, went through to Texas, yeah Texas, and we had some fun. We met some girls, some dancers who gave a good time. Broke all the rules, played all the fools. Yeah, yeah, they, they, they blew our minds.

He was trying to get the idea across to his helmsman that he wanted to execute a skew-flip turn, through gestures and shouts, but no one could hear much of anything but ringing and the painfully loud music at this point.

I was shakin’ at the knees. Could I come again please? Yeah the ladies were too kind. You’ve been – THUNDERSTRUCK. THUNDERSTRUCK, yeah, yeah, yeah THUNDERSTRUCK!2

Finally, mercifully, the computer decided that so much damage had been done to the Berlin that internal communications had failed and the horrible music cut off, leaving silence. Everyone aboard breathed a sigh of relief, most shaking their heads and trying to end the echoing high-pitched whining ringing sound left in their ears.

Seconds later another bracket of point-blank phasers and photon torpedoes struck the Berlin and the library computer’s voice came over the intercom at normal volumes that everyone now struggled to hear: “Exercise concluded. USS Berlin combat ineffective. Casualties 76.7%. Elapsed time, three minutes.”

Furious, MacGregor sat back down in the Captain’s chair and tried to compose himself before he beamed over there and ripped that cadet into pieces.

 

* * *

FEDERATION MIRANDA-CLASS FRIGATE USS THUNDERBOLT, EARTH ORBIT

APRIL 2327

Abasi just watched, stunned, as the Berlin sat still while the Thunderbolt swung around, sat between her warp nacelles and calmly shot her to pieces. Finally, the cruiser swung into motion, but the cadet at the helm had little difficulty matching her movements while the weapons crews were engaging relatively motionless targets at point-blank range.

He looked at Picard, who was relaxed, watching the Berlin try to maneuver away, the mock damage she had suffered making that difficult. “What did you do?

Picard looked back at him. “Do?”

“Don’t be smart, cadet. That was some sort of code word – Did it disable their computers somehow?”

“That wouldn’t be entirely fair, would it, Captain?”

Lorac laughed.

Picard continued, “Would you care to let him in on the secret, Number One?”

Lorac grinned, “Yes, Captain.” He stood and held up a small, flat piece of equipment, no more than an inch on a side. “Have you ever seen one of these, sir?”

Abasi took it from him and studied it. “Data tap?”

“Yes, sir. While we were waiting, I beamed over to the Berlin and placed one in their communications switch room. No one even questioned why I was there. While we were en route, I simply used one of their own access codes.”

“You can’t access command functions from the comm system. There are interlocks to prevent that. In fact, you can’t even inject command code for any critical system via external links.”

“Not a critical system at all, sir. Well, at least not as far as the designers considered it.”

“What non-critical system could you hack that would disable a starship’s shields, weapons, and navigation?”

“The intercom, sir.”

“How in the hell is that going to disable the ship??”

Lorac said, “Sound, at a loud enough volume, is seriously disorienting and disabling. And most of commanding a starship in combat involves verbal orders. Like ‘raise shields’ or courses, or…Well, I’m sure you get the picture sir.”

Abasi’s mouth hung open. “I don’t know if you’re going to be decorated or arrested.”

 

CHAPTER 8

The more you trust, the greater the betrayal. The more you love, the greater the harm.
-Unknown

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

With a sly smile, Guinan said, “Jean-Luc! You cheated!

Trying to explain he said, “No, no – it was actually part of our discussion that led to the bet. I had commented that a skilled commander studied his foes – learned their weaknesses, strengths, and applied them in ways that they might not expect. My argument was that such a commander, backed by a highly-skilled and motivated crew could defeat ships many times their size. I, in fact, had mentioned that communications and data links were a great vulnerability for Starfleet vessels.”

Rileeta simply said, “MacGregor and Grinelli sure didn’t agree with you on that.”

“Yes, there were accusations of espionage, security violations, assault, everything just shy of piracy. Especially for Lorac.”

Rileeta mumbled, “And you used that against him.” If anyone took any note of her comment, they didn’t show it.

Troi, smiling said, “How did you get away with it?”

“Well,” he gestured with his hand, “The Commandant decided that exposing that vulnerability in Fleet vessels was a plus, and that balanced the security violation. I did get several demerits over it, as did Lorac. MacGregor was absolutely furious with me. I don’t think he ever got over it.”

He thought for a moment while Rileeta finished her drink. “Counselor, assemble the senior staff in the briefing room. It’s time we put together a plan for finding Will. Guinan, will you attend, please?

Rileeta cocked an ear at him. When had Jean-Luc begun having his bartender attend staff meetings?

 

* * *

MALCOR III – CAPITAL CITY SIKLA MEDICAL FACILITY

JANUARY 2367

The two Malcorian trauma doctors were watching Riker from the foot of his bed. Their curiosity was obvious, Riker slowly opened his eyes and brought his hand up to his bandaged head. “What happened?”

The senior physician, Beral, spoke calmly, “You’re in the crisis room at the Sikla Medical Facility. You’ve had a severe injury, but you’re going to be all right.”

Will thought for a moment, trying to work through the pain in his skull. He slowly nodded his understanding. “I was caught in the riot when the police moved in… that’s the last thing I remember.”

“Can you tell us your name?”

Cautiously, struggling to make sure he got this right he answered, “Rivas. Rivas Jakara”

“Rivas Jakara. Where do you live?

Riker focused on the older doctor. “In the Marta community on the southern continent.”

Tava chipped in, “You’re a long way from home…Are there any members of your family we should notify?”

“No, I have no family.” Catching sight of the antiquated medical equipment around him he continued, “I can’t stay here…I have to get back…”

Beral cautioned him, “You’re in no condition to leave yet…” He clearly didn’t believe this man, but he didn’t really need to. “There are several…unusual things about your case, Mister Jakara…your cranial lobes, for example. They seem to be surgical implants…”

“I did have some cosmetic surgery…to correct a genetic birth defect…”

The Malcorian nodded and picked up Riker’s hand. The structure is very different than theirs, “And these? Another birth defect?”

Yes, isn’t that something? My father’s were the same way…”

Nilrem had had enough. He snapped out “You want us to believe that all your abnormalities are inherited genetic traits?”

Beral glared the younger doctor into silence.

“I understand your confusion. My personal physician is much more familiar with these… genetic irregularities…to be honest, I’d feel better if I were back home under her care…”

“Why don’t I talk to her about that?” Beral suggested reasonably. “What’s her name?”

Riker paused for a moment. “Crusher…but actually, I’m not sure you’ll be able to reach her.”

“Why not?”

“She’s taking… a sabbatical.”

Beral studied Riker for a few moments. “Well, we’ll do the best we can for you.” He got to his feet and then paused, “Oh, there was one other thing…Pulling Riker’s phaser out of his pocket he continued, “We found this curious looking device in your clothes… what is it?”

“Oh, it’s just a toy I was taking home… a present…”

“I thought you didn’t have any family?”

“For a neighbor’s child. Did they find anything else? I had one piece of jewelry…A metal pin.”

“No, I’m sorry, this was all we found.”

 

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Rileeta sat and watched as Jean-Luc’s senior staff assembled in the briefing room. A smile broke her face as a tall Klingon walked into the room and she called out “nuq’neH!”

Worf cocked his head at the little alien and went to his seat, closely followed by Dr. Crusher, Lieutenant Commander La Forge, and Lieutenant Commander Data. Rileeta’s nose wrinkled and her ears swiveled around to focus on Data while she tried to determine exactly what he was. None of the officers commented on the disheveled appearance of her uniform. He had certainly assembled a strange collection of officers since she had seen him last.

Picard began the briefing . “With Commander Riker missing on Malcor III, our focus must shift from that of preparing for first contact to one of recovery. To that end, I have asked the commander of the First Contact Team to come aboard and brief us on the situation on the planet. Captain Rileeta is a Dosadi Imperial Marine but has served with Starfleet for many years, developing the First Contact protocols now in use.

“Captain, will you bring us up to speed?”

She leaned forward and put her elbows on the table. “We began embedded research of the Malcorians nearly two standard years ago – which is a little over three Malcorian years. They have a twenty-nine hour day, which presents something of a challenge for those of us used to shorter days.” she smiled. Dosad had a twenty-hour day. Fortunately, Dosadi usually slept in short bursts throughout the day and night. For the human members of her team, the extra 5 hours a day was challenging. “What is most significant to recovering Commander Riker is their social order.

“The Malcorian sees herself as the supreme being and the only intelligent life in the universe. Their studies of radio-astronomy and other sciences have led them to conclude that there is no one else out there, which has only reinforced their belief that they must be the apex life-form and that their planet is uniquely favored by their deity.

“The leader of Malcor III, Chancellor Durken is a forward-thinking reformer who has been implementing many changes to their culture in the past six years. These changes have led to a lot of unrest in their society, especially in their major cities where there is significant population pressure. Resource allocation is a constant source of tension and the Chancellor has been putting many of those resources into their space program.

“Conservative elements in Malcorian society see this as a tremendous waste and want a return to a focus on home. Even many of the more reformist groups see the warp program as a dangerous and risky gamble while arch-religious groups see it as a trespass on the realm of God.”

She stood up and walked to the view screen. “Computer, display map of Capital City, Melcor III, one to twenty-five thousand scale, center on First Contact Team safe house.” The map flashed onto the screen and she pointed to a building marked in the center of the map.

“We have spent a lot of our time acting as a listening post, but we have also made use of surgically altered individuals to make contacts within Malcorian society. We have assiduously kept these agents in low-level functionary jobs but have endeavored to use them to get an insider’s view of their culture and the changes occurring there.

“There have been an increasing number of disturbances, some terrorist acts, and riots over the past several months as publicity about the warp program’s successes has become wide-spread. It was one of these riots that resulted in Commander Riker’s separation from our Team after a meeting with one of our deep-cover agents.”

She shifted her finger to an open square on the far side of the map. “Commander Riker, against the advice of the engagement team leader,” she cast a look at Picard, “elected to go to the rescue of a young woman near the edge of the square. When the team went to help him, a wave of rioters ran into them, followed by police sweeping the square with riot-control equipment.

“Two of the engagement team suffered minor injuries as well. Thus far, our inquiries into the medical center and smaller clinics have turned up nothing. We believe that he may have been arrested as the police took several dozen people into custody and have yet to identify them. If that is the case, he will be held here.” she tapped at another building near the square.

“If the worst happened and the Commander is dead, he would be taken to this facility here. However, we have a contact who is watching that building and he has not been seen there. I have personally searched a number of potential escape routes that the Commander may have used and there is no evidence that he has attempted to use them.

“At this point, my recommendation is to wait until we locate him. Then, my team will move into recovery mode and we will get him out and back to the safe house. We need to proceed with caution – we are not yet ready to initiate first contact, but anticipate reaching that point within the month. An inadvertent exposure would be a worst-case scenario.” She returned to her seat and sat down.

Picard asked, “Commander La Forge, is there any way to find his bio-signs?”

The black man with the strange visor over his eyes thought for a moment. “We’re scanning, Captain, but the differences between Malcorian and Human bio-signs are really small, especially from this distance. It requires a precise focus and that takes more time – we’ve been concentrating on likely places for him to have been taken. We completed the scan of the medical center first off and are now working on the detention facility.”

Worf growled and said, “First contact or not, if he is being held, we should go and get him. By force if necessary.”

Rileeta looked at him, “And throw away years of work, cause a massive disruption to a more primitive society, violate the Prime Directive, and probably cause the death of dozens of Malcorians. Great idea!”

He struggled to keep his temper in check and settled for simply baring his teeth at the alien Captain.

Picard held his hand up, “I doubt that will be necessary in any case. But we will retrieve my First Officer.”

Troi watched Rileeta. She had picked up another wave of mood-change from her; it was evident the whiskey was having more than a small effect.

Rileeta turned her unblinking cats-gaze back to Picard. “Loyalty, Jean-Luc? I’m a little surprised to hear that from you.”

The venomous comment shocked the entire room into silence. Even Guinan looked surprised. But it was Dr. Crusher who jumped to her Captain’s defense.

“I don’t know who you are, Captain Rileeta, but you obviously know nothing about Captain Picard. He is one of the finest and most loyal officers I’ve ever served under.”

She laughed, “Know nothing? Know nothing? I know him so well it nauseates me. Do you know that he betrayed one of his best friends?” The officers in the room looked confused. Crusher, in particular had a sudden moment of doubt wash across her – Her husband had been killed under Picard’s command. “No? Why don’t you tell the tale, Jean-Luc? Tell them what you did to my mate. Even after he saved your damn life!”

Picard had been about to interrupt when she had dropped that particular conversational bomb. “Rileeta, I did not betray Lorac. He betrayed the Federation and his oath as a Starfleet officer. He was a spy.”

She spat, “He betrayed no oath. Why don’t you tell them? Or shall I? Or will you just throw me into the brig too?”

The other officers looked increasingly uncomfortable. Picard debated simply pulling rank and telling her to sit down and mind her manners. But the issue had been raised – until he put it to rest, there would be some lingering doubt in their minds. “Very well. Since you seem to be determined to discuss this here.”

 

* * *

MT HOOD, OREGON, NORTH AMERICAN DISTRICT, EARTH

AUGUST 2328

Picard was leading the pair of them down from their summit of Mt Hood. Two hours ago, the afternoon sun had been still visible and they were on-track for getting off of the mountain before it got entirely dark and before any weather was expected. Unfortunately, Mt Hood is famous for being unpredictable.

The wind had picked up, blowing snow from off the ground and into their faces. Undeterred, they had pulled down their goggles and leaned into it. Then the clouds rolled in and the snow began. Their pace slowed as they carefully placed each crampon, testing their footing. Within fifteen minutes, they were in whiteout conditions and the temperature was dropping fast. Lorac slipped and went down, skidding a few feet past Picard before the rope connecting them snapped taut and he was brought up short, face down on the snow-covered scree. Quickly trying to self-arrest with his ice-axe, he spiked the tool into the earth. Looking up, he saw Jean-Luc, braced, his own ice-axe seated firmly, and looking down at him.

Shouting up into the howling wind and darkening skies Lorac called, “Nice catch!!” And punched his crampon-toes into the dirt, regaining his feet. “I’m not sure we’re on the path!”

“I don’t know any more. I can’t see more than about six feet!” Picard shouted back.

Lorac fluffed his fur underneath his anorak and tried to squint through the snow. Dosadi vision covered a bit more of the visible spectrum than human eyesight did, but in this mess it made no difference at all. Lorac looked at his compass – but without having any sort of visual cue as to where they were, it was as useful as saying “Go down.” He shook his head, “I’m thinking we should have brought modern equipment after all!”

“A little late now!”

Lorac called back up the slope, “Which way then?!”

Picard shrugged, “Down!”

Lorac laughed and shook his head, “Think it and it becomes reality”. He pointed at an angle and the two of them continued on, slower than before, testing and probing.

The wind was howling and the visibility was, if anything worse as the light failed. There was a nearly sub-sonic rumble and Picard jerked on the rope; Human hearing was slightly superior at lower frequencies. He shouted “AVALANCHE!”

Lorac looked up the slope, and then the sound reached him. Both men immediately began running across the slope, trying to find the side of the avalanche before it reached them. When it became obvious that they were not going to escape it, they both dropped their packs and as the wave of snow hit them, desperately tried to ‘swim’ through the massive force of the avalanche.

Finally, they stopped tumbling. Picard tried to move his arm and found it wouldn’t work. He slowly blew out the chest-full of air he had held for the last few seconds, letting the warmth of his breath melt an air pocket. He had no way of knowing how far down he was, but he couldn’t reach up with his working arm. That wasn’t a good sign.

Then he heard scratching sounds. Finally a few minutes after that, the crunching sound of a snow-crust breaking and a tug on the rope. Forcing himself to remain calm, he slowed his breathing and closed his eyes. There was again the sound of digging and ten minutes later, a wash of fresh, cold air over his face.

“Thank the gods Jean-Luc! Hang on – I was almost at the surface, I’ll get you out!” Lorac had ditched his gloves and had his claws out and digging rapidly. After a few more minutes, he kicked off his boots and began working at the snow-pack with all four limbs, the claws raking the snow loose and his legs kicking it away. Ten more minutes and Picard was able to worm his way free. His shoulder was dislocated and his ankle was broken, however. He could tell that even without getting off his back.

“Jean-Luc, we can’t keep trying to find our way down in this! We need to make a shelter!”

Picard thought about that for a few moments. His gloves were gone, both of their gear was gone, and the storm was still blowing gale-force and creating a white-out. “Might as well use this!” He pointed down into the hole he had just been dug out of.

Lorac just ducked back down and continued digging until they had a hole in the pack that would hold the two of them – barely.

The storm just wouldn’t let up. Picard shivered – even in a snow cave and curled up around Lorac’s higher-than-human body heat, it was freezing cold. The surprise storm had been one thing. The avalanche along the West Crater Rim had been another. The situation was not good, but was manageable as long as they kept their heads.

Lorac looked at his friend. “Jean-Luc, you’re not doing well.”

“I’ll make it, Lorac.” He shivered harder, his face a waxy white, and buried his frozen fingers under the Dosadi’s armpits.

“Yowl!” Lorac squirmed at the icy feel of Picard’s fingers. “We need to get you out of here before you turn into an iceetreat.” Lorac considered giving his friend his gloves but figured they were doing better soaking up his body-heat.

“We can’t.” He closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on anything other than how cold he was. “The storm’s still going. It’ll be warmer in here than if we try to go down the mountain.

Lorac shook his head. “All right, we’ll wait, but I think you’re crazy.”

Three hours later, the howling winds seem to have settled. “Jean-Luc?” Lorac asked. He shook his friend’s arm and asked again, “Jean-Luc? You still with me?”

Mumbling and slurring, Picard answered, “Yeah. Wish I had fur too.”

“I’m gonna dig us out – we need to get you out of here. You’re hypothermic.” The Dosadi stripped off his boots and gloves and began to dig at the wall of the snow-cave, using his claws to speed the digging. Minutes later, he broke through and bright moonlight splashed across their shelter.

Lorac ducked back inside and put his gear back on. He dragged the sluggish Picard through the opening and onto the smooth slope of snow, sparkling in the black night of the mountain.

Picard struggled back onto one foot, “Let’s go then.”

Shaking his head Lorac said, “You are one stubborn SOB, Jean-Luc. You’re not going to be able to walk, I’m going to have to carry you.”

“I’ll walk.”

“Don’t be stupid. You’ll slow us both down. Get on my back and I’ll carry you.”

Picard shook his head, “You’ll sink.”

Lorac laughed, “No, I don’t think so. Watch.” He dropped onto all fours and looked back at his friend, “We Dosadi can be quads, too.” and grinned. “No saddle I’m afraid, and I swear, if you say Hiyo-Silver, I’m going to throw you into the first crevasse we go by.”

Shivering still, Picard managed a grin and climbed onto his friend’s back, clinging with his good arm. Still slurring from hypothermia he managed a joke, “Does this make you a snow-cat?”

Working hard in the deep snow, Lorac laughed, “Okay, cat puns go in the crevasse category from here on out monkey-boy.”

Five hours later, the two of them struggled into a shelter where they were able to call for an emergency beam-out to a hospital, both suffering from hypothermia in addition to Picard’s other injuries.

 

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Troi looked puzzled, “So he saved your life. Although that sounds very much like you did your part too during a climbing accident. But how does that…”

Picard continued, “Yes, I’m getting to that. Since she raised both issues, I wanted to explain what she was referring to. What happened later was…difficult. Extremely difficult, but I had no choice in the matter.”

Rileeta snorted again. “You had every choice.”

Troi could sense that despite his statement, Picard was deeply conflicted. There were strong waves of guilt, sorrow, and anger along with a feeling of correctness. “Then what happened?”

Picard sighed. “All three of us had been posted to the USS Reliant, Rileeta, Lorac, and myself. We were mostly doing routine patrols, but Rileeta’s team were gearing up for a first contact mission in that sector that would take place a year after this particular event. So in addition to monitoring her target planet, the Reliant was doing the usual stellar cartography, survey missions, patrol duties and the like.

 

* * *

FEDERATION MIRANDA-CLASS STARSHIP USS RELIANT, UNDER WAY

JANUARY 2330

Lieutenant (J.G.) Picard was excited. He’d passed his final test to stand duty shifts as a flight controller for the Reliant and that was a critical milestone for a Command candidate. The next step was to pass the Bridge Officer’s Test – once he passed that, he’d be fully qualified to command a duty shift.

He hurried down to Lorac’s quarters, planning on telling him and Rileeta of his success. Not thinking, he walked through the automatic door and into the room. The Dosadi looked up from his bunk, shocked, and quickly flipped over a PADD and several papers.

Picard caught a quick glimpse of both – they were covered with computer schematics and lines of 3 digit numbers. “Oh. I’m sorry – I should have knocked. I was just excited to tell you…Rileeta’s not here?” That was a surprise. The two might not have been mates, but they were basically joined at the hip.

Smiling, Lorac said, “No worries, you just surprised, me. I was studying a bit. So what’s got you so excited, Jean-Luc?”

Something about those papers was nagging at Picard. “I passed! I’ve got my first shift at flight control tomorrow at 0400!”

“Hey! That’s great news, Jean-Luc! I’m not even qualified to hold down Engineering yet. I hope I do as well as you just did.”

Picard smiled back, “When have you ever had trouble with a test, Lorac? Your memory is phenomenal.”

“It’s just a weird trick is all. But I’m sure glad I have it – I don’t have your or Rileeta’s flair.”

“Speaking of, where’s she tonight?”

Lorac stretched, “Down in the sensory, reading intercepts from Landon IV, where else?”

“That mission’s not even slated to start for 6 months!”

“She’s a little excited and figures she’ll get the ground work going. Aren’t you looking forward to it? You spent all that time going through commando training in the Brecon Beacons, aren’t you ready for it to pay off?”

“Oh, of course, but that wasn’t my idea. That was Rileeta’s. Her point of view is that if I’m to spend time observing and reporting for the Captain that I need to be able to keep up. But, I’m much more interested in command than I am in all that mucking about.”

“You collect skills like other people collect art, Jean-Luc.”

“Well, a starship Captain needs to have as broad a base of skills as he can – you never know what you’ll run into.” He thought for a moment. “How is she taking to the new team assignments?”

Lorac’s ears drooped a little bit. “Well, she wasn’t too happy with everyone else returning to the Imperium, but it wasn’t unexpected. None of them want to be away from their mates as long as they’d have to be to run missions for Starfleet and Storch was…well, past the limit. And K’Reen wasn’t going to be anywhere far from T’Inau once she had her kit.”

Picard nodded, still troubled by those documents. “I was rather surprised they stayed with her so long at CalTech. They really weren’t doing what they signed on for at all.”

“They are her th’purra (close-battle-friends), Jean-Luc. They weren’t going to leave her just because it was hard.”

“But they did?”

Lorac laughed. “No, she cut them loose. Once the assignment to the Reliant came through and it became obvious that their mates would have to go back to Dosad and T’Inau was pregnant, she couldn’t, in honor, ask them to keep following her on another lengthy mission. They had all done more than their share teaching and training the Starfleet teams.”

“Ah, I wondered – I didn’t want to ask why they all left at once though, I was afraid that it was something painful. She seemed disinclined to talk about it much.”

“It was painful. But it was also what was needed. And she knew it.”

“So why didn’t you try for a First Contact berth? Why Engineering?”

“I’m not as…physically capable as you are, Jean-Luc, or as they are. If it hadn’t been for your help I probably would’ve been a PT failure at the Academy. I could never have completed the extra training you went through.”

“Well it was only fair; I would likely have failed out academically if it hadn’t been for you.”

“Well, you nearly did what with that whole semester with A…”

“Ancient history.” Picard interrupted.

Cocking his head and ears at Picard he said, “I thought you liked ancient history, Jean-Luc?”

He laughed. “Well, I’m sorry to have interrupted you and to have been so rude as to just walk in. I just wanted to share my news.”

“Any time, Jean-Luc. But if you don’t want to see me jump onto the ceiling in surprise, knock first!” he laughed and waved as Picard headed back into the hallway.

The doors closed behind him with their familiar swoosh and he stood there for a few moments. He turned his head and looked at the door while his memory recalled what Lorac had been looking at, and he frowned. A few moments later he heard the faint chirp of the door locking. Frowning more deeply, he began to walk back to his own quarters. Once there, he continued to fret.

Those were schematics of weapons systems. He recognized them. Those weren’t anything Lorac should have been studying. In fact, they weren’t anything he should even have access to yet. What was he doing with them? And what were those blocks of numbers? They looked like some sort of cipher.

He was a Dosadi, not a Federation citizen. But he was a Starfleet officer. Why would he be studying those systems as an engineer? Picard sat at his desk and stared at nothing. No matter how he came at it, there was no way Lorac should have had what it looked like he had. Maybe they were something else.

Except he recognized the phase-control circuitry for the Reliant’s main phaser banks; the phase crystal made a very distinctive pattern in the circuit geometry. That was a critical piece of the targeting system and some of the Federation’s most secret technology. He had only been exposed to it a week ago as part of his command track training. Lorac was a warp engineer.

Dammit, why would he have that? And what were all those numbers? And why on paper? No one used paper any more. The only reason you’d use paper was to keep it out of the ship’s computer. And the only reason to keep things out of the computer was to keep a secret. And if he was keeping something secret – like those schematics, that was not a good thing.

He put his face in his hand. He was seriously considering that one of his closest friends might be a spy.

 

* * *

Three nights later, Picard found himself wishing that he were anywhere other than where he was. Deep in the bowels of the Reliant’s computer core, he was staring at a small, flat, black object that was hidden alongside one of the duotronic pathway routers. It was the third one he’d found in three nights searching various critical systems. It was a smaller, more advanced version of the same gadget Lorac had used on the Berlin.

The devices had been skillfully hidden – but Picard knew what he was looking for, and had a good idea where to start to look. He leaned his head forward onto his arms, staring at the data tap. It was possible that someone else had placed them. It was very unlikely to be anyone else – but it was possible. He needed to be sure, before he went to the Captain. And he needed to know if anyone else was involved as well.

He carefully reached in and loosened the tap’s adhesive from it’s perch and flipped it down onto the router housing. The device would still work, but would transmit garbage when queried – it was too far from the pathways to get good data. And when whoever it was came to replace it, he would be watching. He placed a sensor of his own on the maintenance hatchway. It would be easy enough to find out if whoever opened it was supposed to be there, and if not, he could get there quickly.

 

* * *

Picard didn’t have long to wait. Two nights later, his PADD pinged – and he knew no maintenance was scheduled for that time. He quickly ran down to the computer core, keyed in his command override code and the door slid open.

Lorac lifted his head from the housing and looked into Picard’s eyes. They looked at each other for a few moments and Lorac’s ears and whiskers drooped. “Jean-Luc.” he said, sadly.

“Why?! Dammit Lorac, why?”

The Dosadi rolled onto his rump and dusted his hands off. “It’s my job, Jean-Luc. My duty. It always has been.”

Picard was stunned. “You’re not going to deny it? You’re just going to sit there and admit to being a spy?”

Lorac looked puzzled. “You’re th’mew, Jean-Luc, I wouldn’t lie to you. And it would be pretty stupid to sit here and claim I wasn’t when you caught me red-handed, wouldn’t it?”

Picard was furious. “Get up. You’re under arrest, Lorac.”

Lorac stood up. “I’m sorry, Jean-Luc.”

“For what? For being a spy? For lying to me? For breaking your oath?”

Surprised, he said, “I never lied to you Jean-Luc. And I didn’t break my oath, to either Starfleet or the Imperium. Nothing in that oath said I wouldn’t send information back home.”

“Shut up! Just walk.”

“Sure, Jean-Luc. Where to?”

“The brig! Where else?!”

“My quarters, maybe? Or yours?”

Picard looked disgusted, “You’re a spy, Lorac. You’re going to the brig.”

He smiled at him, “Well, I figured I could ask. But I knew you had too much honor to pretend you didn’t see this. It’s one reason I’ve always liked you.” He started walking towards the Reliant’s security post. When they got there, Lorac said, “This doesn’t change anything, Jean-Luc. It’s your duty.”

Furious, Picard shouted, “Shut up! Get in there.”

 

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Picard sighed heavily, “The trial was classified. Lorac, in fact, exercised his right not to testify at all. But the data breach was considered the most serious in Federation history. Lorac had been able to tap the computers at Starfleet Academy, Starfleet Command, and several starships. There was a frantic search of just about every system in Starfleet; We discovered a number of problems in addition to his taps. So it wasn’t all bad.

“But the sheer volume of data he had sent back to the Imperium in seven years was mind boggling. In addition to his data taps, with his nearly eidetic memory, anything he read, he remembered and was able to duplicate. For the Korat it had been an incredible intelligence coup and it allowed them to leapfrog a lot of their technology by decades. Behind the scenes there was a lot of diplomatic fallout that it took the Dosadi several years to recover from.”

Rileeta glared at him, “And they locked him up. You left that part out. You left him locked up in the brig until we got back to Earth and then they locked him up in Ceres. Remember that? Life in prison, wasn’t it?”

“That’s not what happened.”

“I was there Jean-Luc. The court-martial sentenced him to life.”

“And he was released two years later in a diplomatic deal for a Federation agent.”

“You know Dosadi don’t survive long like that. Starfleet seems to have a thing for locking my family up in that rock. And I could hardly ever get leave to go see him! Do you know how messed up he was when he was released?” Angry, she stood up and stormed out of the briefing room.

Picard said, “Perhaps it’s time for a brief recess. We seem to have wandered from our original purpose in any case.” He looked at the map still showing on the wall. Thirty minutes and then I want options from each of you on what our next move is in order to get Will back safely.” He stood and walked over to the windows, watching Malcor III, turning peacefully below the Enterprise while his senior staff found their way out.

CHAPTER 9

Those who expect moments of change to be comfortable and free of conflict have not learned their history.”

Joan Wallach Scott

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Guinan found Rileeta laying her head on her arms on a table by one of the windows in Ten Forward. She pulled out the chair opposite the other woman and sat down, joining her in looking out the window. After a short while, Rileeta turned her head on her arms and asked, “What are you?”

“I told you. I’m the bartender. And I listen.”

“Bartenders do not attend senior staff briefings.”

“This one does.”

She sniffed. “What for? You didn’t even say a word.”

“Neither did Worf, or Data.”

“They’re officers. They’re supposed to be there.”

Guinan shrugged and turned her eyes back out the window.

After another lengthy silence Rileeta asked, “So what do you want? Why did you come over here?”

The El Aurian looked down again, “You look like someone who needs someone to listen.”

“To what?”

She shrugged again. “Maybe to this huge grudge you have against Jean-Luc.”

It’s not a grudge. He betrayed my mate.”

“Didn’t sound like it to me.”

“He arrested him. He testified against him in court, he put him in prison without a second thought and walked away like it hadn’t mattered.”

Which part of that was a betrayal?”

Rileeta glared at Guinan. “All of it?”

“So, because they were friends you expected Jean-Luc to just ignore a spy aboard his ship?”

“He didn’t have to turn him in. He could have made him just go back to the Imperium. He would have. Do you know he’s not even allowed in the Federation any more? He can’t visit our family’s farm in Yorkshire. He can’t visit me. I’m gone so often on these missions and I don’t get to have him with me. I only get to see him and our kits when I’m back on Dosad.”

What does he think about what happened?”

Rileeta looked out the window again.

After a few moments Guinan prompted, “What Jean-Luc said is right, isn’t it? He doesn’t hold it against him. He knows he was only doing his duty.”

Rileeta sniffed. “He spent too long in prison. It messed him up. He used to talk to people who weren’t there. It took us about a year to get him mostly back to normal.”

Guinan nodded, but said nothing.

It was another three years after his release before I really got to spend a lot of time with him. That’s when we became mates.” She smiled at that memory.

So, all those years you were always together and you were his mate but it never clicked for you. And then, he’s taken away from you for a while and all of a sudden it clicks for you. Sounds to me like Jean-Luc did you two a favor.”

What? No. That’s not how it works. And that wasn’t why he had him arrested!”

Reasonably, Guinan said, “No, he had him arrested because he was a spy. But the effect was that it kick-started you into no longer seeing Lorac as something you could always count on. It pushed you into making a choice, even if it wasn’t anywhere near the conscious level. And you hate him for that? Seems to me that you’re the one who betrayed him.

Rileeta’s jaw dropped open, “That’s not true. He did! He tore us apart!”

“And Lorac being a spy had nothing to do with it? Did you continue aboard the Reliant with Jean-Luc after the trial?”

Her ears and whiskers drooped. “I had to. They wouldn’t release me. I was always under suspicion though after that. But we still had a major mission to run.”

That had to be hard.”

“It was. Lorac was in prisonbecause of him and I still had to work with him. We tried to avoid each other when we could.”

The two women fell silent for a few minutes, looking out the window.

Guinan spoke again, You know, in all the many years I’ve known Jean-Luc, he’s never mentioned you.”

Rileeta snorted, and continued to look out the window.

“I don’t think it was easy for him. I think he did his duty. Aren’t you Dosadi supposed to be all about honor, even if it’s painful and costly?”

She twitched her ear and tail dismissively.

“Do you want to know what I think?”

“Not particularly.”

“I think you’ve known for what, almost forty years? That he did the right thing. The only thing he could, in honor do. And I think you’ve trapped yourself. You want to be loyal to your mate so you’re angry at a dear friend for hurting him, even though he didn’t have a choice because of what your mate did. But you can’t be angry at your mate, so you’ve shifted that to Jean-Luc. And you absolutely refuse to admit that you were, and are, wrong.

“And I think you’ve been so spitting-angry and unpleasant to everyone who’s ever called you on it that people just stopped calling you on it. You’re wrong.”

Rileeta’s ears were back. She said, very quietly, “Do you want to know what I think?”

“I can guess.”

“You’re a bitch who doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Guinan inclined her head, “I’ve been called worse by better. You Dosadi like history and philosophy right?”

Rileeta shrugged and went back to looking out the window.

“Here’s something to take with you when you head back into that briefing – which you’re due back in after so unprofessionally walking out of in about 10 minutes. Many centuries ago, in China on Earth, two monks were walking along a dusty path. These monks were sworn to the study of the mind and philosophy and so wouldn’t have anything to do with women. They didn’t want to be distracted or confused, so they wouldn’t talk with them or touch them; nothing!

“But as they were walking, they came to a river. It was only about thigh-deep, so it could be forded easily. But there was a beautiful woman standing on the bank, dressed in expensive and delicate clothing. If she were to wade across, her fine clothes would be ruined.

“The elder of the two monks smiled at the woman, and invited her to climb on his back; He would carry her across the river. Which is exactly what he did.

“The two monks continued their journey for another few kilometers before the younger monk finally couldn’t stand it any more. He berated his brother for what he had done. ‘Brother! How could you do that? We are sworn to purity! You touched a woman! A beautiful woman! Her arms and legs were wrapped around you!’

“The elder monk smiled at his younger brother and said, “Brother, I set her down there upon the bank. Why are you still carrying her?”

Rileeta snorted again.

Guinan pushed her chair back and stood up. “I think it’s time you put that grudge down. Everyone else has long since left it.” After a few moments of being ignored, she left and went back to her bar.

* * *

Rileeta was the last person to re-enter the briefing room and all eyes were upon her as she walked through the doors. She went to the chair she had been in and sat down. Troi watched her walk past and focused on riding out the storm of emotions radiating off her.

Picard said, “Now then. What are our options?”

La Forge said, “We can wait until I finish the scan, but that will take time. And we should probably run it a second time in case he was moved from one place to back to one after I completed scanning it.”

There were no other suggestions. “I wanted options from each of you. Doctor?”

“I’m sorry, Captain. Until we locate Will, there’s nothing I can do. I’ve been working with Geordi to help him refine the differences between the two species though.”

“Worf?”

“My suggestion would be a violation of the Prime Directive, according to the First Contact protocols.”

“I’m afraid we may be to that point, Lieutenant.”

Rileeta said, “No! Jean-Luc, we’ve spent years on this mission. We are close to success – there is no reason for an armed raid, especially when you don’t even know where you want to assault!”

“I wasn’t talking about an armed raid, Captain.”

She looked puzzled. “What are you talking about then?”

He thought for a moment. “I think it’s time that we went ahead and made first contact, Rileeta.”

“You’re not talking about a public display are you?”

“No, I’m talking about making direct contact with someone in their government who can help us locate Commander Riker.”

She frowned. “That would be jumping us ahead by almost a month, Captain, but I think I can have my team ready to…”

“No. Just myself and…Counselor Troi.”

Her jaw sagged open. “What?”

“I don’t want to alter your plans. The work you have done is too valuable to throw away – What I want to do is a very small, very personal contact with one individual. Someone open to the idea, someone who can help us. Leave your original plan in place. This will be a contact for just this purpose alone.”

“So a secret contact then?”

“Yes.”

“Marasta Yale.” Rileeta said without hesitation.

“Who is that?”

“She is the head of their warp research project. She’s very forward thinking, well-connected, and knows many like-minded people. I can think of no one else better suited for you to ask for help. But I would strongly caution you against contacting anyone else. A secret may be kept between two people, but not three.”

Picard smiled. “That seems like good advice, Captain.”

* * *

SPACE RESEARCH FACILITY, CAPITAL CITY, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

The doors to the operations center swung open and Marasta Yale walked in and sat down at the main console. She began to type commands in order to view the status of the various probes and rovers that were exploring their solar system. There was a strange sound from behind her and she swiveled her chair around to see two very strange looking beings standing in her lab.

In as mild a tone as possible, Captain Picard said, “Excuse me, Mirasta Yale?”

Trying to determine just what was going on she asked, “Yes?” Slightly alarmed, she got to her feet.

“My name is Jean Luc-Picard. This is my associate Deanna Troi. May we come in?”

“Who are you?”

Deanna, sensing the stress and alarm in the Malcorian, tried to calm her. “Please don’t be alarmed by our appearance… We’ve come with some… important information.”

“About what?”

Picard said, “About space. About the universe you are preparing to enter.”

Troi continued, “We are from a federation of planets, Mirasta. Captain Picard is from a planet called Earth more than two thousand light years from here. I am from another planet called Betazed.”

Suspicious, Mirasta could only grunt, “Uh huh.”

Picard, projecting confidence and friendship said, “We have been monitoring your progress toward warp drive capability. When a society reaches your level of technology and is clearly about to initiate warp travel, we believe it is time to make first contact. We prefer meeting like this rather than a random confrontation in deep space.

Deana added “We’ve come to you first because you are a leader in the scientific community. And scientists can generally accept our arrival more easily than others.”

The Captain again continued, “We almost always encounter fear and shock on this sort of mission. We hope you will be able to help facilitate our introduction.”

Mirasta had had enough. “Is this a joke? Did Lupo and the others at the lab put you up to this?”

Smiling, Picard held up his hands “I assure you this is no joke. You can see we are quite physically different than Malcorians. And with your permission, I am prepared to prove what I am saying.”

Hesitating, but beginning to suspect that this was indeed no joke, she allowed, “All right.”

Picard tapped his comm-badge, “Picard to Enterprise. Three to beam up.” and moments later, the transporter beam dissolved them in a shimmer of colors.

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Rileeta sat in a back table of Ten-Forward, waiting. They had decided that she would remain in the background, as she preferred, leaving the actual contact for this species to others. It was far easier for her to maintain a professional detachment if she were not personally involved. That lesson had been learned the hard way.

Finally, Picard, Troi, and Yale walked into the lounge.

Mirasta was still looking around with child-like wonder. “It’s beyond words…everything I’ve ever dreamed about… When I was a child, my parents would take me to the planetarium and we would sit in the dark and it was as if I was on a spaceship on my way to another world… to meet people from other planets.”

Troi guided her towards one of the tables by the windows, “Now that you’re about to travel beyond your own solar system, you will meet a great many more people from other planets, Mirasta.”

Captain Picard again let her know, “The Federation prefers to make first contact like this, rather than a random confrontation in deep space.”

Still looking out the windows in wonder, the Malcorian said, “A part of me still expects the lights to come up as the program ends.” She paused. “How did you know about me?”

Troi smiled, “One of the things we do is monitor broadcast signals. We listen to your journalism, your music, your humor. We try to better understand you as a people.”

Mirasta laughed, “I hate to think how you would judge us based upon our popular music and entertainment.”

Picard leaned forward slightly. “To be sure, we get an incomplete picture from long distance. That’s why we also do… on-surface reconnaissance.”

She studied him for a few moments. It made sense. “You’ve had people on our planet?”

Troi confirmed it, “For several years.”

Picard moved to re-assure her, “We’ve found that the most hazardous aspect of this kind of mission is a lack of sufficient information.”

Yale snorted, “You don’t have to explain. I understand. But not everyone on my planet would. They would think you were trying to infiltrate our security.”

Captain Picard steeled himself and opened the issue, “We do have a complication here, Mirasta. One of our people is missing. My first officer, Commander William Riker. He was on the surface to coordinate the final details with our observation team when he disappeared. Our people have made inquiries, but we have not been able to locate him. If there’s any way you can help.”

“Of course. Where was Riker’s last known location?”

Troi supplied, “The capital city. He was there under the name of Rivas Jakara, a tourist from the Marta community.”

Worried, Mirasta warned them, “We’ve got to find him before someone realizes what he really is. If this gets out prematurely, it will seriously complicate matters.” She thought for a few moments. “Introducing you to this world will not be an easy matter.”

Deanna nodded, “It never is.”

“You must already know that my people are in a transitory stage. An old staid culture has been pulled into the future by Chancellor Durken…but it is not easy to discard deep-rooted beliefs. Our entire ideology is based on the assumption that the Malrorian is the surpreme lifeform and that our world is the center of the universe. Your arrival will change our entire understanding of life…Some will not want it to change.”

Picard asked, “What about Durken?”

Rileeta sat up straight, her ears focused on the trio at the table. She thought to herself, “No! Jean-Luc not again!”

“Durken will be open-minded. But cautious. I strongly suggest that you do not discuss your surveillance teams with him…not right away at least.”

“But, with the disappearance of Commander Riker, wouldn’t it be prudent…”

Interrupting him, Mirasta continued, “Captain Picard, you must trust me on this. If you tell the Chancellor about Commander Riker, it would undermine everything you hope to accomplish here.”

Both Troi and Picard sat back, unhappy. She kept the pressure on, “Durken would assign Krola, the Minister of Security, to find him. Krola has his own political agenda. He will perceive you as the greatest threat my people have ever known. And he will not hesitate to use Riker to prove he is correct.”

* * *

A short while later Guinan brought Rileeta yet another Dosadi whiskey. “I think that’s going to have to be your last one.” Seeing that the Dosadi looked completely miserable, she sat down opposite her, again saying nothing.

Rileeta finally picked up the glass and swallowed another long drink of the dark green whiskey. Not looking at Guinan she whispered, “It’s going to happen again.”

Puzzled, Guinan asked “What is?” She couldn’t think how anything that had been going on related to anything Rileeta had talked about so far.

“You still don’t really know him.”

“Our relationship is beyond anything you can imagine.”

“Has he told you about Landon IV yet?”

“No. Should he?”

Rileeta snorted. “Considering he ignored my advice, again, and took over my mission, again, and is about to destroy another entire planet full of people, again; yeah, I think maybe he should.”

Guinan frowned. “Maybe you should. Though your point of view on events involving Jean-Luc appears to be pretty biased.”

She laughed; a hollow, haunted sound. “I’ll tell you. Then you can look it up and see if I’m being biased.”

* * *

CITY OF VOGA, SOUTH-EASTERN CONTINENT, NATION OF PARLANG, LANDON IV

NOVEMBER 2331

Rileeta changed the program on the view-screen. The team was sitting in the inner chamber of their safe-house and bringing Picard up to speed. LT Picard watched the latest images – an action-adventure fiction full of patriotic themes and clever dialog. He shook his head. “So much nationalism.”

Rileeta commented, “That’s not always a bad thing, Jean-Luc.” It was challenging for her to interact civilly with him, although she was trying. She would never forgive him for betraying Lorac – for arresting him, for testifying against him, for seeing to it that he was rotting in Ceres even now. She closed off that line of thought quickly. ‘Mission first’, she reminded herself. “Pride in one’s self and people can be a drive to greatness – here, let me find one on their space program.”

She quickly flicked through a few more broadcasts until she came to one focusing on science. “Look – this one is talking about the benefits to everyone from the ability to go faster than light – the ability to find new resources, new lands, new challenges! There is a lot of conflict on this planet, but they are moving towards unity. It’s just not an easy process.”

They watched the show, Picard commenting, “These people seem to be driven to explore.”

“Many of the nations here are. There are some that want to conquer, driven by lust for power or theology, but the vast majority just want to live in peace. Their architecture is beautiful – let me take you for a ride through the city and I’ll show you!”

“A ride? Rileeta, you’re the only one on this team who looks anything like a Landoner. You took a huge risk getting this safe-house. Speaking of which, how did you even do that?”

She grinned. “I replicated enough money to buy it outright.” Seeing his look of concern she sighed and said, “I’ve got a good cover story. I’m the daughter of a rich land-owner from the Maenali. There is a lot of corruption in that nation and a few rich land-owners control giant swaths of farmland. They keep most of the population in poverty and force them to work the land – No one even blinked at the story.”

“And you think these people are ready for first contact?”

“Yes. They’re not perfect, Jean-Luc, no one is. But their technology is growing rapidly – faster than their society can adapt. Once they see what awaits them, they will come together. That nationalistic drive you are so worried about, that ‘us-vs-them’ attitude will show them that they are all Landoners; These silly differences will evaporate.

“Ride with me – you’ll wear a full cloak and be inside a lifter, no one will know you’re an alien. We’ve done this before, there’s no risk.”

Half an hour later as they wound their way through the lower traffic-levels in Voga, Picard had to admit she had a point about the beauty of the city. Central planning had resulted in a city of elegance with soaring towers in complementary colors and design. Bridges joined building to building with delicate strands and the flow of lifter traffic winding it’s way around the buildings completed a vibrant tapestry of life. Even the poor here would be considered well-off anywhere else on this planet.

The streets were clean, the buildings sparkling and showing a wide variety of artwork, and the people were well-organized as they went about their daily life. It seemed incongruous with what he knew of the chaos across most of the planet. He needed to see more.

* * *

NEAR VILLAGE OF BALRAST, EQUATORIAL CONTINENT, NATION OF MAENALI, LANDON IV

DECEMBER 2331

The team was laying prone on a small ridge overlooking a rustic village a few hundred meters away. The houses were little more than huts, but the dense forest around them was lush and the people who lived there looked healthy and happy as they went about the bustle of daily life.

Lieutenant Picard, his active camouflage battle dress making him essentially invisible, put down his binoculars and looked at Lieutenant Rileeta. “They really do look an awful lot like you, Rileeta.”

She smiled and lowered her own binoculars. Day by day she still struggled to even be civil to this man, much less work with him in the field. But, she continued to remind herself that the mission came first – honor demanded it. “I know. I’ve actually been in the village talking with some of them. They’re a lot closer to Dosadi markings and build than the Parlangs in the South-Eastern continent. I’m pretty sure the higher tech and better nutrition there have a lot to do with them being so much larger and stronger.”

“You’ve taken a lot of risks on this mission.”

“Not really. The UT implant makes it easy to communicate. And the information has been invaluable. This planet is in a tremendous amount of flux. Only the Parlangs are so close to breaking the warp barrier. There are a few other higher tech nations with space flight capability, but not many.”

“How many total nations?”

“175.”

Picard looked stunned. “That many? How are these people at all ready for first contact? Especially with such a gulf between their technological and societal developments? ”

“The Parlangs are about to launch a warp-powered probe. That trips the protocols and you know it.”

“But we’ve never had a planet that’s so…fractured.” He focused the binoculars on the village again. “These people live like primitives while the Parlang’s are a modern and developed society. The gulf continues to worry me. And the conflicts that are a constant on this world…So many wars.”

She countered with “All of the active conflicts at the moment are low-level and usually internal. A fair number of terrorist groups of any sort you can imagine, governments enslaving citizens, failed-states that are in chaos, that sort of thing. Much of it senseless. A lot of blood feuds and tribal hatreds.”

She sighed. “The Parlangs have some primitive energy weapons. There are several major nations with nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems, and a few others with the weapons, but lacking the delivery systems. A lot of nations still utilize biological and chemical weapons as well. It’s a mess.”

“Then why are we even here? Why didn’t you abort the mission?”

“Jean-Luc, they’re good people. And they’re still about to break the warp barrier.”

One group is, Rileeta.”

“And with the right guidance and assistance from the Federation, we can unify the rest, bring them into the Federation and help them find their way.”

Picard shook his head and looked back at the rest of the Starfleet team hidden in the brush behind them. “I think that’s past what anyone could do. Or should do. The Federation is not in the business of altering other peoples’ societies.”

“Well it’s better than just ignoring them.”

“I’m not so sure about that. They’re in a fairly isolated region of space. I’m thinking it would be better to pull the plug on this and see what happens over the next decade or two.”

“Jean-Luc, that’s not a good idea. They’re always on the verge of a major conflict – it’s one of the big stressors they all have. There are resource issues, environmental issues, energy issues, religious issues, health issues – all things that we could help with. If the Federation is able to show them how to fix those and live together, it’s quite natural that they’d unite in order to take their place at the table.”

He studied the village for a while longer. “Or the fact that we contacted the Parlangs would cause that final war due to fear and jealousy. Or they’d explode into the galaxy with their biological and chemical weapons and bring their wars there.”

“Jean-Luc, trust me like you used to. I’ve spent almost a year studying these people. They’re not that different then the Dosadi. Or your Earth only a few centuries ago. There’s a little girl in that village who’s the cutest thing you will ever see. She’s smart, and funny, and you’d like her. We can’t just leave and let them try to settle all their problems on their own. These less developed regions are chaotic. Warlords and armed gangs roaming everywhere like locusts, killing anyone who gets in their way. There is no reason not to help them.”

He again put his binoculars down and looked at her. “Lieutenant, that sort of interference in a culture’s natural development is exactly the sort of thing the Prime Directive was created to prevent. We cannot go about deciding how a people should settle their differences.”

She was shaking her head and continuing to study the village. Picard was beginning to get a very bad feeling. “How much time have you spent with the villagers over there, Lieutenant?”

She shrugged. She might as well tell him, the team would be able to fill him in anyway. “A week or two. Not that long. Long enough to get to know them and their people.”

He noted several damaged huts and some burn marks. “Lieutenant. These wandering gangs you mentioned. Did one attack here?”

She sighed. “Yes. And yes, it was while I was here. And no, I did not do nothing. Jean-Luc, they’ve got nothing. No weapons, nothing. These gangs, they rape and murder and steal children to fight for them. They brainwash them. There is nothing right or honorable or dignified or philosophical about sitting back and watching innocent and helpless people be slaughtered.”

He was horrified. “What did you do?”

She looked at him. “What I had to. Don’t look so annoyed. No one saw me and I only used stun when I couldn’t use their own weapons. Jean-Luc, this planet is full of good people. People with potential. Yes, there are a lot of vicious, murdering, insane people too, but we shouldn’t let that push us to throw out the good ones.”

“Lieutenant, you violated the Prime Directive. Badly.”

“I did not, Jean-Luc. We’re in the process of initiating first contact now. I’m not altering anything and no one was exposed to any advanced technology. I stopped a crime, that’s all.”

Picard was wrestling with his own instincts. She had something of a point, but technically she had committed a gross violation. He would be within his rights to arrest her. Like he had Lorac. Damn the woman and her putting him in this position. With the suspicion she was still under, the Captain had, in fact, placed him over Rileeta. “We need to move on to the next people you want to show me.”

She was disgusted. “You didn’t used to be so married to every regulation and rule. You used to understand that there were times that you had to take action that wasn’t covered by the rule book. You…”

She was interrupted by one of her team, “Sirs! You need to see what’s going on down there.”

Both officers raised their binoculars again. They could see villagers running and other people wearing dark and light striped clothing and carrying weapons, running towards the village. Rileeta dropped her binoculars onto their strap and stood up, drawing her sidearm. “Split left and right, we’ll…”

Picard interrupted her, “Belay that. Lieutenant, put your phaser down.”

“What? Jean-Luc, we don’t have time for this, we have to…”

“We have to do nothing. We are not here to play god, or to play cavalry riding to the rescue and favor one group over another. Regulations are very specific on this point, first contact or no.”

Her team had also stood up, but were hesitating. Picard was the ranking officer, per the Captain’s order, but they’d been training with Rileeta and then in the field with her for quite some time. The Prime Directive was nearly a religion for Starfleet personnel – it was something you just didn’t mess with.

Picard stood up next to her and spoke again, firmly. “Put it down, Lieutenant.” The sound of screams and gunfire was beginning to reach them.

She glared at him. “Screw you, Jean-Luc.” She started to run but he grabbed her arm, her own momentum swinging her around.

“Stop!” he called out to her team, still struggling with Rileeta. “Restrain the Lieutenant.” Seeing their hesitation he commanded them, “That is a direct order.

She managed to rip her arm free of him, but two of her team grabbed her and the more she struggled, the more of them grabbed her.

“Let me loose damn you all! They’ll kill them!”

She begged. She cursed. She pleaded. Her team was anguished, but had no choice. Picard tapped his comm-badge. “Picard to Reliant. Seven to beam up.”

Reliant here. Sorry Lieutenant, transporters are down for the next hour plus – emergency maintenance on the pattern buffers.”

“Understood. Picard out.”

Eventually, there was silence from below the team’s vantage point. Picard looked down and could see smoke rising, even flames from some of the buildings. But there was no motion. He brought his binoculars up again and scanned. There was nothing moving anywhere.

“Let her up.” He waved at the men holding Rileeta down. “I’m sorry Lieutenant. We must not allow our personal preferences to interfere with our du…”

FUCK you!” she screamed, breaking free and sprinting for the village, phaser in hand.

* * *

Ten minutes later, Picard and the rest of the team caught up with her, working their way through the few buildings in the village. The marauders had been very thorough. Those they didn’t take away, they murdered. What they didn’t steal, they set fire to. When they found Rileeta, she was sitting a short way away from a burning hut, cradling the body of a little girl in her lap, singing softly and rocking back and forth.

Picard slowly walked towards her. The child looked very much like a young Dosadi, but with tufts on her ears, and instead of a uniform tan on her back and sides, there were darker horizontal stripes. Her throat had been slit and blood matted the white fur on her neck and chest. He swallowed hard.

Before he could say anything, Rileeta spoke. She was stroking the fur on the child’s head. “This is Karalin. She’s five. And she wants to go to school so she can be a teacher and her favorite color is green.” She sniffed.

Picard blinked back tears. “I’m sorry. Our orders are clear. We can’t let our personal…”

“I promised her that I’d keep her safe. I told her that there were good people who were going to make all the bad ones go away.” She looked up at Picard. “She isn’t some order, Jean-Luc. She’s not some theoretical in the Academy. She’s a little girl. She’s just a little girl.” She put her head down onto the child’s and cried.

Picard’s comm-badge chirped. “Reliant to Picard. We’re ready when you are.”

He bent down and put his hand on Rileeta’s shoulder. “We need to go.”

She gently set the dead child on the ground by her mother’s body and stood up. She took a deep breath and punched Picard in the face, knocking him to the ground and then stalked off towards the rest of the team, who were staring at her in shocked surprise. Two of them came over to help Picard up, his eye already starting to blacken. The Team NCO asked, a little hesitatingly, “Uh, sir, do you want us to arrest the Lieutenant?”

Picard dusted himself off and straightened his battle dress. “For what? I tripped, Chief.”

The man looked at Picard with new respect. “Yes, sir. That’s what we all saw too, sir.”

* * *

FEDERATION STARSHIP RELIANT, IN SOLAR ORBIT NEAR LANDON IV

DECEMBER 2331

Commander Kyle finished going through the pile of reports on his PADDs. The two officers in front of him were both very thorough, very passionate, and very logical. He had decided not to mention the giant black eye Lieutenant Picard was sporting. It looked like it was about 3 days old, but no one else on the landing party had seen fit to say anything about it.

He sighed and slid the two devices further onto the desk in his ready room. From the way the Dosadi was scowling at him, he was sure that his scent had given him away. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant Rileeta. I agree with Picard. They’re not ready.”

“So we’re just going to ignore them? What are we going to do when that first warp probe comes out of their system? Pretend that it didn’t?”

Kyle was trying to be patient with her. This was a lot of work and effort for her team, gone to waste, and Picard’s report on the events while surveying the village made it plain she had become emotionally involved with these people. “No. But you know as well as I do that they can spend about five years at early warp-levels exploring the stars in this area and find nothing. We’ll post monitors and beacons to warn other vessels away until they are ready, or until they are on the verge of making it out of this region.

Both of your reports make it plain that they may not ever make it out. The pastoral-life movement is quite strong and seeks to end all technological progress. Religious groups demanding supremacy and control. Government slavery. The sheer number of armed terrorist groups boggles the mind and all the various nations are armed to the teeth and looking for an excuse. Any large-scale war has the potential to reduce them all to pre-space flight levels. Even their own orbital space is cluttered with junk and disasters ready to happen. Were we to make first contact now, we would only exacerbate the issue. The Prime Directive makes it very clear that we are not to play big brother to less advanced cultures; The White Man’s Burden went out centuries ago, Lieutenant.

“You’ll continue to monitor the situation and lead the first contact mission during this period. If and when you think they’ve got things together enough to warrant another look, we can pick up where you left off. You did good work here, Lieutenant. There will be other first contacts.”

Rileeta sagged in her chair and just stared at Picard as he stood up.

Kyle looked at her. “Was there something else, Lieutenant?”

“No, sir.” She bit her tongue and followed Picard out, getting away from him at the first opportunity.

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Guinan slowly nodded her head as Rileeta paused for another swallow of whiskey. “He was right again. And he didn’t have you arrested when he could have, for a couple of things. I understand that you were angry that your friend died, but…”

Rileeta interrupted. “Oh no. Not just my friend. There’s more. Let me finish. It’s not just her blood he has on his hands.”

* * *

FEDERATION STARSHIP RELIANT, UNDER WAY, LANDON SECTOR

MARCH 2332

Rileeta sat down at her usual console in the sensory and pulled up the day’s monitor logs from Landon IV. The Parlang’s first warp probe had gone off without a hitch and had made it to their closest stellar neighbor, conducted several days of science experiments and returned safely to home. And, because of Picard’s unfavorable report, the Federation had done nothing.

She sat up with a start, now completely focused on the display. “Oh, shit, no.” she said, reading quickly.

“What’s up, Lieutenant?” Ensign Rousch, the duty officer, asked her.

“Someone blew up Saru yesterday.”

“That’s the big port city on Landon IV, isn’t it?”

“Not any more. They’re saying it was a 50 kt atomic bomb. Casualties are in the hundreds of thousands already.” She continued to scan rapidly. “They’re going berserk. No group has said they did it. The Parlangs are blaming several other nations.”

“What’s going to happen?”

“We need to go back. The Captain’s got to go back. We can stop it.” She quickly routed the report to her PADD and ran out of the sensory.

* * *

Commander Kyle swiveled his command chair around as the turbo-lift doors swooshed open. Rileeta almost jumped the few paces to his side and said, urgently, “Captain, we need to get back to Landon IV. Right away. Look.” She handed him the PADD.

He began to read through the logs and she continued, “Sir, please, they’re about to blow themselves up. We can stop it.”

Lieutenant Picard, on-duty at Flight Control also stood up and walked back to Kyle. “Sir, while I appreciate the Lieutenant’s compassion and desire to help, this is explicitly prohibited by the Prime Directive.”

Kyle looked up at Picard. “Are you presuming to educate me about the Prime Directive, Lieutenant?”

Picard stiffened. “No, sir! The Lieutenant’s energy is infectious, I intended only to advise.”

“When I need advice, Picard, I’ll ask for it. Return to your station.”

“Yes, sir.” Abashed, he turned and went back to his console.

Kyle finished reading the intercepts. “Lieutenant, from the looks of this, there’s nothing we could do even if regulations allowed it. Look, they’re issuing ultimatums. And…” he tapped at the device, bringing up different sensor platform’s monitor logs. “All five major powers are getting ready for war. There, look.” He handed her PADD back.

On it was a picture of a missile field in Lungor, Parlang’s historic adversary. The silo doors were all open.

“That photo is only a few hours old. These are not the actions of peoples who are wanting someone to help them resolve their differences. What do you want us to do, drop out of warp and conquer them? Take them under our wing and guide them to the future we see for them?”

Bitter, but knowing nothing would be done she said, “Wouldn’t that be better than no future at all?”

“Who’s to say, Lieutenant? I understand that the Dosadi do not have a Prime Directive. The Federation does. As long as you are attached to my command, we will follow that Directive no matter how difficult a choice that it is. If it is this species’ destiny to commit suicide in such an idiotic fashion, we will not take that destiny from them.”

The bosun’s pipes sounded and Ensign Rousch’s voice sounded, “Sensory to Bridge.”

Kyle pressed the button on his chair arm. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, Ensign Rousch. I brought the monitors for Landon IV live, I think you should hear this.”

“Route it to the bridge intercom, then, Ensign.”

What they heard next was a descent into Hell. Rousch rather skillfully shifted between different monitoring devices, routing them through the universal translator, which didn’t even begin to remove the desperation they heard. Civilian broadcasts sounding the alarm and urging people to seek shelter. Reports of cities blasted or poisoned and frantic pleas for help. Crisp, coded military orders obviously sending missiles, aircraft, spacecraft, and naval vessels into the attack.

Fragmentary reports of military disasters. Formations of troops being exterminated in an instant, entire squadrons of ships vaporizing, or air battles across the planet. Even the smaller nations seemed drawn into the blood lust as ancient tribal hatreds flared anew.

Everyone on the bridge was listening in horror as the war wound down. Finally, after just twenty minutes, there were no more communications being monitored and Rausch’s voice came again: “We’re just getting a lot of interference on all bands, Captain; Way too much noise. I can bring up a visual if you want.”

“Do it.”

The main view screen wavered into life, the image showing the effects of many light-years of travel through sub-space. But the image was clear enough; what had been a beautiful blue-green ball with swirls of white frosting across it was now showing widespread visible fires and smoke plumes across the entire globe. Glowing craters were visible on the night side.

“Sir, radiation levels are spiking across the entire planet. A lot of areas are already well into multiple Seiverts.”

Kyle shook his head. “Turn it off, Rausch.” The viewscreen clicked back to the stars around the Reliant.

Rileeta was nearly in tears. “There were nearly four billion of them. We could have saved them. We were ready to contact them. If you had only let me…”

Looking at the young Dosadi with compassion, Kyle ordered, “Lieutenant, you are relieved. Take the next two days completely off, then come see me in my ready room. All right?”

She took a shuddering breath and looked at her Captain. They locked eyes for a few moments and then she lowered her eyes, turned around and slowly slunk off the Bridge and back to her quarters.

* * *

Two days later, she had her PADD in hand when she knocked on his Ready Room door. “Come!” he shouted.

She walked in and set the PADD on his desk. “Sir, please. I am begging you. By anything you hold dear, if there is any compassion in your heart, please, there are people alive. Look.”

He sighed heavily and picked up the device and read the intercepts she had extracted from the static.

“Please! If there is anyone out there, we are in the third sub-basement of the Tawi research station. We’re sealed in but we only have a few days water. Help us!”

“To any station receiving, we are trapped at…”

“…we have children, please help!”

“…seven of us at the polar station is there anyone there?”

“…desperately need medical help, many injured…”

“…children, someone, anyone, help us!”

Kyle put the PADD down and turned it off, then passed his hand over his face. “You know I cannot.”

Her left eye and ear twitched. “Sir, there aren’t that many survivors. Maybe a hundred all told. There is no culture left to influence. Nothing that needs the protection of the Prime Directive. Just frightened, injured, desperate people. Children…Sir, please. We can take them to the Imperium. You can say I forced you and lock me up forever, I don’t care, but please, don’t just let them die.”

“If you think this is easy for me, you are an idiot. And I know you aren’t. You know I can’t do a god-damn thing, no matter how much I want to. Do you think I’m some heartless monster to let these people die with the planet they blew up? Do you think I don’t have any compassion? FUCK you, Lieutenant!” He took a deep breath and composed himself.

“I apologize for that remark, Lieutenant.” He paused again. “I swore an oath to uphold my orders and especially the Prime Directive. There’s a reason it’s the PRIME Directive. Wiser heads than mine have analyzed what happens when we attempt to interfere, with the best of intentions and it is always a disaster. We cannot know what would happen to these few refugees from a dead world and an extinct culture, or how they would affect any society they were placed in. We cannot even imagine the horrors they would endure every day, if they did survive. Quite possibly they would long for death. We cannot know.

“What we can know is that it is forbidden to us to interfere. And we can follow our orders and live up to our oaths. “ He sat back in his chair and studied her. She was clearly furious and heartbroken. “The Federation knew that horribly difficult situations like this would arise. They made an absolute rule of non-interference so that there would never be a question. So that even when confronted with what looks like a hideous and cruel choice, we would know what to do. This is exactly the situation that the Prime Directive was created to cover.

“Lieutenant, I am ordering you to report to sick bay for counseling. And when we complete this cruise, I want your request for transfer on my desk. Understood?”

She stood straight. “Yes, sir.”

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Guinan studied Rileeta. “And you blame Jean-Luc for that?”

“Yes. It was his report that Commander Kyle used to terminate the first contact protocols. In all the years I’ve done this, I’ve safely brought ten species through first contact and into the Federation. I’ve lost one. The Landoners.”

“It seems to me that they were pretty clearly not ready. Again, I think he was right.”

“His report, his advice, doomed four billion people to death.”

Guinan looked at her more closely. “You don’t look stupid.”

Suprised, Rileeta asked, “What?”

“Everything you have blamed him for, he was right to do. Legally, ethically, and morally right. The consequences were horrific – to him and others – but he was right. And you know it.”

“How were they right? He betr…”

“I’ve listened to you, will you please listen to me?”

Rileeta gritted her teeth, but nodded.

“You’re angry because he caught your mate being a spy. And did his duty by turning one of his best friends in to the authorities. You’re angry because he followed his orders and the highest orders of the Federation and did his duty by not letting you interfere with a more primitive culture. You’re angry because he gave an honest report about a fractured, sick culture that simply wasn’t ready and because you wanted to play mamma to the whole planet and save them from themselves.

“Are you starting to see a pattern here? Everything you’ve built up into this hatred is because he did the right thing despite the personal cost and because you wanted to do the wrong thing.” She shook her head. “You said you knew him so well it nauseated you. You are the one who knows nothing about Jean-Luc Picard. You don’t know anything about the costs he has born or the trillions of lives his actions have saved.

“Here’s my advice to you, Captain Rileeta. Sit down someplace quiet and go through everything you just told me and this time instead of looking for reasons to nurse your hate, ask yourself who was doing what they had to. It’s entirely possible you both were, even though that put you in conflict. Your mate seems to have understood that.

“If you’re as stupid as I think you aren’t, you’ll just keep on hating a cardboard cut-out that you’ve created and ignore the real, complex, person. Why don’t you ask yourself what you owe someone you claimed as th’mew and go from there.”

Guinan stood up. “If you’re as smart as you’re supposed to be, you’d talk with Counselor Troi. Learn something about Captain Picard – learn something about what has happened in the last thirty years and more. Learn something about what happened all those years ago beyond what you’ve convinced yourself of.” Rileeta didn’t even look up, so Guinan turned and walked back to the bar, leaving the black-furred Dosadi woman looking out the window and alone with her thoughts.

Rileeta laid her head back down upon her arms, looking out the big windows in Ten Forward at Malcor III as the Enterprise orbited above. She stayed there, alone, for a very long time.

CHAPTER 10

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.

Confucius

MALCOR III – CAPITAL CITY SIKLA MEDICAL FACILITY

JANUARY 2367

Commander Riker struggled back to his feet, fighting through the pain in his head and the dizziness. Finding his clothes, he began to dress.

“There are guards out there. You’ll never escape that way.”

Surprised, Riker studied her, trying to decide what to do.

“I’m not afraid of you.” the young woman said.

“Good. Because there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Nurse Lanel looked up into his eyes, “We shouldn’t fear the unknown. We should embrace it.”

After a brief moment he asked her, “Can you help me get out of here?”

“Are you really an alien? It’s all right to tell me.”

“No, I’m not an alien.”

“I don’t believe you. You are an alien.”

Frustrated, Riker continued, “Listen, I really have to leave.”

She suggested, “I could divert the guard’s attention. You might have a chance if you took the service exit down the hall to the left.”

Nodding he said, “To the left. All right, let’s do it.”

“Why should I?”

Riker took a deep breath, then moved close to her, looking down and argued, “You know why. Because I don’t belong here. Because I have to get back to my ship…in space.”

Wide-eyed, she whispered, “I believe you.”

“Now. Will you help me?”

“If you make love to me.”

Stunned, Riker asked, “What?”

“I’ve always wanted to make love with an alien.”

“Listen, Miss…”

“Lanel.”

“…I really have to get going…all the other aliens are expecting me.”

She put her hands on his arms. “It’s not so much to ask. And then I’ll help you escape.”

Looking for a way out of this mess he tried to explain, “It’s not that easy. There are…differences…in the way my people make love.”

“I can’t wait to learn.”

“But…”

She had made her decision. “It’s your only way out of here…my alien.”

 

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

“Come!” Counselor Troi shouted, seated at her desk. She was surprised to see Captain Rileeta come through the door. “Yes?”

Rileeta hesitated. “Are you busy Counselor?”

“I only just got to my office this morning so I’m not busy at all yet. What did you have in mind?”

She looked around curiously. “I wondered if I could talk with you about a few things.”

Troi could sense that the alien officer was frustrated, confused, angry, sad – the torrent of emotions was once again like a blast. “About Captain Picard?”

“That obvious?”

Troi smiled, “Your emotional state is always…conflicted when you’re mind is on that subject.”

“My mind?” a wave of concern.

She hurried to put Rileeta at ease, “I’m part Betazoid, I’m…” she stopped. The Dosadi had backed into the wall, her ears flat against her skull and the strength of the fear, horror, and loathing coming off of her made Troi put her hand to her head.

“Mirru’shaard!” Rileeta spat.

“Uh!” She had encountered peole who were afraid of telepaths before, but this was unusual. “I’m not a telepath. I can only sense emotions.” Holding her hand to her temple she tried to continue, “Please, respect for the sanctity of another’s mind is paramount…I’m only half-Betazoid. I can’t read minds!”

Rileeta’s ears came up slightly, “You can’t?”

“No! But even if I could, I wouldn’t without an invitation – but your emotions are so strong, anyone, empath or not could read them. All I can do is to sense emotions – not thoughts.”

She was still wary. “Oh. Perhaps I should come back another time.” she was edging towards the door.

“Captain, if you want my help, you and I will need to trust each other. Before you leave, can I ask what that word meant?”

“Mirru’shaard?” at Troi’s nod she flicked an ear. “It’s Dosadi for telepath; it means mind-thief.” She paused again. “To us, having someone invade our mind is like…well…like being raped.”

“That explains your reaction.” Troi said wryly. “Again, before you leave, why did you decide to come to me?”

Rileeta fidgeted. Troi continued, “Well, if I could read your mind, I wouldn’t need to ask, would I?”

Rileeta grinned. “Guinan.”

“Ah. She suggested…what exactly?”

“Well. She and I were talking about some of my…history, with Jean-Luc. And she gave me some things to think about. I. Well, I spent a lot of time thinking. She thought you might have some insight.”

“I see. Do you want to sit down?”

Rileeta hesitated for a few moments, then found the chair the furthest from Troi that was available.

Troi waited patiently. Finally, Rileeta asked, “Have you ever talked with Jean-Luc about Landon IV?”

Deanna considered it for a few moments, “No, I don’t believe I have. Why?”

Rileeta’s ears drooped. “This is more than I’ve talked about any of these events for decades. It’s not easy.”

Troi nodded, but said nothing.

Rileeta again told the story of what had happened so many years ago. When she had finished, Troi thought abut what to say. “And you blame the Captain for all of this.”

“Yes.”

“What do you think Commander Kyle would have done if Captain Picard had matched your recommendation?”

“We would have been able to guide them through that phase. They wouldn’t have blown everything up like that.”

“You didn’t answer my question, exactly.”

Rileeta thought. “With both of us saying to continue on, he would have taken our recommendation.”

“Even though he could see how fractured and unstable their society was? Even though you mentioned it as well? You think he would have ignored all of that and just taken your advice?”

She closed her eyes. “Yes.”

Troi could sense a lot of confliction in that statement. “I see. Do you think Captain Picard didn’t care about those people?”

“I don’t see how he could have.”

“He did. I know he did. I’ve seen him make the hard decisions before and I’ve felt how it affected him. Have you heard of Drema IV?”

“No. Should I have?”

Agreeably, Troi said, “No, probably not. It wasn’t anything of consequence to the Federation. But it was something of a similar situation – but with a different ending. Perhaps because of what happened at Landon IV.”

“What happened?”

The planet was pre-space flight. And it was literally tearing itself apart due to an unusual amount of dilithium in the crust. Lieutenant Commander Data had been communicating by radio with a little girl who lived there – technically violating the Prime Directive although he never exposed the child to any advanced technology. Much like you did with your friend on Landon IV.

“We kept trying to find some way to help them that wouldn’t violate the Prime Directive. Most of us, including the Captain, felt that there was nothing that we could do – that the Prime Directive was absolutely clear on this point; We are not allowed to interfere in primitive cultures. But then, Data’s friend called him, desperate for help.”

“Like the survivors on Landon IV?”

“Yes. The Captain decided that could not be ignored; That a cry for help allowed us to find a way to act.”

“He ignored them on Landon IV.” She closed her eyes, the long-ago sounds of hopeless, pleading voices in the dark tearing her heart out anew.

“No, from what you said, Commander Kyle chose to follow the Prime Directive as he was required to do and didn’t respond to their calls for help. Captain Picard didn’t even have any input into that decision.”

Rileeta ignored that comment. “You said the outcome was different?”

“Yes. Our science team was able to find a way to break up the dilithium matrix that was tearing their planet apart. And in a manner that wouldn’t expose their people to our advanced culture.”

Rileeta thought about that. Troi could sense the resistance in her. The Dosadi stood up and asked, “Can I come see you again later?”

“Would you like to make an appointment?”

* * *

MALCOR III – CAPITAL CITY, CAPITOL BUILDING

JANUARY 2367

Chancelor Durken heard the now recognizable sound of the transporter beam.

Captain Picard greeted him, “Chancellor.”

Durken complimented him, “You are punctual, Captain.”

“I know how busy you are.”

“Do you?” Picard looked at the Chancellor, puzzlement showing on his face. The Malcorian leader sat down behind his desk and Picard sat opposite him. “I think you know a great deal more about me than I know about you.”

“In what respect?”

“I can’t know what motivates you, how you make decisions, what value you place on life…You speak of trust and peace and working together to enter a new era. At the same time, you conduct secret surveillance posing as Malcorians.”

Picard sat up straighter. “Commander Riker.”

“Commander Riker.”

“Mirasta felt it would be a mistake to discuss…”

Durken interrupted him, “Yes, she’s tried to accept the responsibility.”

Picard took a quick moment to collect his thoughts. “You’re right. It was my error, not hers.” He got to his feet and tried to explain. “Chancellor, no starship mission is more dangerous than first contact. We never know what we face when we open the door to a new world. How will we be greeted? What are the dangers? Centuries ago, a disastrous first contact with the Klingon Empire led to decades of war. It was decided then that we must do surveillance before making contact. It was a controversial decision. But I believe it prevents more problems than it creates.”

“I appreciate the logic of your position, Captain. But it would seema full disclosure after contact would have been in order.”

Picard nodded. “In time, there would have been full disclosure. I know I can only ask you to believe that. On some worlds, it is not even an issue. But here, everything our observers reported suggested the people of this world would almost certainly react negatively to our arrival. We could see our surveillance might even be interpreted as an act of aggression.” He paused. “I was hoping that we would find Commander Riker before you did…so the matter would not complicate our introduction. And it was a mistake.”

Durken smiled a little. “A mistake I might have made in your place.” He paused. “I rather like it actually.”

Confused, Picard asked, “Like it?”

“That you make mistakes like any man.”

Smiling, Picard agreed, “Oh, I’ve made some fine ones in my time.” The two men studied each other for a few moments. “Will you release my officer?”

Durken’s expression remained the same. “We’ll talk again later, Captain.”

* * *

FEDERATION GALAXY-CLASS STARSHIP USS ENTERPRISE, IN ORBIT, MALCOR III

JANUARY 2367

Rileeta faded further back into Sick Bay as Captain Picard, Mirasta Yale, and Chancellor Durken came through the doors. Dr Crusher turned away from Commander Riker’s bedside and said, “They’re both going to be OK. We were able to stabilize Will…if we’d been any later…”

Chancellor Durken, concerned, asked, “Krola?”

“He was never in any real danger. The phaser was on stun.”

Minister Yale, puzzled, asked “Stun?”

Captain Picard hastened to explain. “It is a defensive weapon. We do not use it to kill.” He turned to Dr. Crusher, “Have you been able to ascertain what happened?”

“I have a good idea. Based on the angle of impact, it suggests that Krola had his right hand on the phaser when it went off.”

Durken understood. “They were struggling for the weapon?”

“Commander Riker was in no position to offer any kind of struggle, Chancellor.”

Mirasta offered, “Krola was trying to be a martyr?”

Durken shook his head and moved to Krola’s side. The wounded man slowly opened his eyes and took in where he was, trying to understand. “Where is this?”

Speaking gently, Durken said, “You are aboard the starship, my foolish old friend.”

“No. Chancellor. You must not…you must not pursue relations with them. You must not.”

Patting his hand, Durken agreed, “I know. I know.”

* * *

A short while later, in Picard’s ready room, the discussion continued. Durken argued, “Mirasta, it goes against every instinct in my being.” He turned to Picard, “But my people are not ready to accept what you represent. Everything that has happened at the hospital proves it. Krola is the best evidence of all. We must slow down and allow all those like him to join us in the present before we move into the future.

Yale disagreed, “But when we encounter other beings in space, our people must be ready!”

“The warp program will have to be delayed. We will divert more resources into education and social development to prepare for the day when we are ready.”

“Chancellor, I strongly disagree.”

He nodded. “I know. Captain Picard, you once said that if I ask you to leave, you would without hesitation. I’m afraid I must ask you to do just that.”

Picard sighed. “It is your decision, Chancellor. But I must say I regret that we won’t have the opportunity of knowing your people better.”

“We are a good people, Captain. A society with much potential. Once we cross this threshold of space, we will have to give up the self-importance, the conceit that we are the center of the universe. But this is not the time. For now it is better that we continue to enjoy that sweet innocence.

The Captain asked, “But how can you keep us a secret…when so many have seen and heard so much?”

“The stories will be told for many years, I have no doubt. Of the ship that made contact. Of an alien who was held prisoner in a medical facility. There will be charges of a government cover-up. Some of the witnesses will tell their tales and most people will laugh at them and go back and watch more interesting fiction on the daily broadcasts. It will pass.

Mirasta agreed. “I’m sorry to say, he’s probably right.

Picard got to his feet and Mirasta continued. “Captain, I have one last request. Take me with you.”

Surprised, he looked to the Chancellor who agreed, “She will be unhappy with the restrictions I must place on her at home, Captain.”

Turning back to Mirasta, he said, “We may not be back in your lifetime. And I have to believe that you are not fully prepared for the risks of space, Mirasta.”

“I have been prepared for the risks of space since I was nine years old sitting in a planetarium.”

Picard tapped his comm-badge. “Mister Worf, to my ready room.” A few moments later, Worf entered. “Escort Chancellor Durken to the transporter room, Lieutenant. And then assign quarters to Minister Yale. She’ll be staying on board.”

“Aye, sir.”

Picard nodded at Durken. “Until we return then.”

Durken looked back at him and said, “With luck, we will both still be around to renew our friendship, Captain.”

* * *

When Worf took the Chancellor to the transporter room, they found Rileeta waiting for them.

Worf looked unhappy. “Captain.” he acknowledge her.

Durken looked at the fur-covered alien in her very different uniform with some curiosity. She was clearly waiting to speak with him. “Yes?”

“What was your decision, Chancellor?”

Puzzled he said, “I have instructed Captain Picard to leave. My people are not yet ready for space travel.”

“I was afraid of that. In that case, Chancellor. I have something for you.” She handed him what looked like a briefcase.

Durken took it and looked at it for a moment. “What is it?”

“A beacon, Chancellor. If you open it, it will turn on. It has two buttons. This red one, you can press if you have an urgent need of Federation assistance. You are in something of a grey area for the Prime Directive. If something terrible happens, or is about to happen – use this. We may be able to help; asking for assistance can give us a loophole in that Directive. The green one is for when you are ready to re-initiate first-contact – to pick up where we left off.”

“Thank you. Who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter, Chancellor. Good luck with moving your people forward.” She turned and moved to the transporter console. “Ready?”

Worf looked at her with displeasure. She had clearly relieved Chief O’Brien, who should have been operating the transporter; since this was still dealing with a first contact situation, she had that right, but… The Chancellor looked at her in puzzlement for a moment more, then stepped up onto the platform and a moment later dissolved in a scintillating beam of light.

Finally deigning to notice Worf’s glare, Rileeta matched the Klingon look for look.

Being as courteous as he could, but firmly expressing his unhappiness with her behavior he stated, “Captain. You were most…unprofessional to Captain Picard.”

Rileeta smiled up at him with a squint, the tip of her tail twitching and one ear flicked backwards, “You’re not much of a Klingon, are you?”

Insulted, Worf hissed, “I could kill you right now.” The Klingon was nearly half a meter taller than the Dosadi’s meter and a half.

She laughed. “No, I don’t think so. But I’ll tell you what. Come find me another day and we’ll see who can kill who, all right?”

I look forward to that…Captain.” Worf was unpleasantly reminded of Commander Data’s cat, Spot.


* * *

Two weeks later the Enterprise was en route to Starbase 375. Rileeta was sitting on a deserted beach, the lights of T’Elesh visible in the near-distance down the coastline to her right, the moon large and low on the horizon over the big lake, washing out all but the brightest stars. The waves were lapping softly and a light breeze was ruffling her fur. The quiet buzzing-chirps of whirks rose and fell in a counterpoint to the breaking waves.

Picard stepped through the arch of the holo-deck and looked around, curiously. The arch vanished behind him and he walked down the grassy slope onto the sandy beach. Her dress uniform was on the sand beside her and her fur was still damp. Her left ear swiveled around, tracking him as he walked up next to her, but she didn’t turn her head. “Where is this?” he asked quietly.

“Home.” she said with obvious longing in her voice. She was looking across the lake at the distant horizon, the river-reflection of the moon rippling with the waves.

He nodded. “It’s beautiful.”

“It is. But the holo-decks don‘t produce the scents accurately so it’s not quite right.”

Finally, he sat down next to her and in silence, they watched the moon and the waves for a few minutes.

Without turning her head, she asked, “Do you hate me?”

He hurried to answer. “No, Rileeta. Not once in all these years have I hated you.”

“I hated you.”

He sighed and looked up at the stars. “I know. He told me.”

Her ears swiveled again, “Who did?”

“Lorac.”

Stunned silence followed his answer. “When? How?”

“About a year after he was released. Shortly after you had returned home from the Reliant. He wrote me.”

“He never told me he wrote to you.”

“I know.”

The waves continued to lap at the sand and a felar stooped on some poor creature in the dunes. “What did he say?”

Would you like to read it?”

She finally turned her head to look at him. “You still have it? You’d let me?”

Instead of answering, he pulled his PADD out of it’s pouch and tapped on the screen a few times, then handed the device to her. With some hesitation, she took it and began to read.

 

Dear Jean-Luc,

I have been released from prison! I would have written you sooner, but I’m afraid that I was suffering from a number of mental imbalances brought about by my confinement. As I’m sure you know, we Dosadi find that sort of thing to be intolerable – it is, to us, a form of torture.

I wanted to again stress to you that I understand what you did, and why, and I do not hold it against you. As I told you at the time, I knew you were an honorable man and that was one of many reasons you are my th’mew. I hope that you likewise understand that I was also doing my duty. I truly did not violate my oath, nor any orders. I didn’t bring this up in the trial as it would have done more harm than good, but if you examine the security agreements I signed, you’ll find that the signature on each does not read ‘Lorac’ as the clerks assumed, but instead reads ‘Urac’p’ which means “I do not agree”. I will admit to using poor penmanship, however.

Knowing that I am persona non gratis in the Federation, this will be my only letter to you as I have no wish to mar your obviously promising career path. I am, however, very sorry that I will not be there with you. Losing your companionship is the greatest part of the price I pay for having done my duty to my Emperor.

I must also ask that you not write back. Firstly as such a communication would bring you under suspicion, and that, I will not have. Secondly, and this pains me to say, it would hurt Rileeta. She is entirely irrational when it comes to you, and I cannot begin to tell you how much that saddens me. I have tried to talk to her, but she discounts it as a side-effect of my illness. Her father, mother, brother – everyone has tried to talk to her, but she simply refuses to see any other possibility than what she has decided.

I don’t fully understand it myself, but she seems to enjoy causing herself pain on this subject. She feels that you have somehow betrayed me – and her – by your actions and no amount of argument will sway her. The hate she feels is poisonous and wrong, but she refuses to listen. We have all decided that the more we push the issue, the more determined she is to refuse to change her mind and have abandoned any attempts.

Perhaps one day the gods will bring her to a place where she will open her eyes and see that nothing has really changed between us all except physical distance. That day, with any luck, we can again renew our friendship and share the stories of all that has gone by while we were apart, and you can return my inau’bat’ar. At least until you resume your duties any way.

 

Your th’mew,

MAJ Lorac

Dosadi Imperial Intelligence Service

 

She read the letter a second time before wordlessly handing the PADD back to Picard.

They sat in silence for a while longer, listening to the sounds of the waves and the breeze. She asked, “Do you still have them?”

He undid the flap on his tunic and opened an internal pocket, drawing out two small glowing balls of fire, holding them in his hand.

She reached out and took one from his palm, watching the colors swirl in the blue-grey light of the Dosadi night.

At the sound of footsteps behind them, they both turned to see Lieutenant Worf, carrying a bat’leth. “Am I interrupting?”

Rileeta set the stone back in Picard’s palm, causing him to look at her in surprise. “No, Lieutenant. I lost track of time. We have something to settle, don’t we?”

Picard looked at her curiously. “Is there an issue with my officer, Captain?”

A minor difference in viewpoint is all, Jean-Luc.” She smiled. You’re welcome to stay and watch if you wish.”

Somewhat concerned but also curious, he said, “Very well.”

Rileeta started putting her uniform back on, cloak and all. “Well, Lieutenant, let’s see if there’s any Klingon in you after all. You pick terrain, not that it’ll matter.”

He laughed. “Computer, Klingon calisthenics program, setting only.” Picard tried not to jump as the lovely beach setting dissolved and reformed into a group of ruins set in a jungle. He was used to the holo-deck, but the rapid and drastic changes of setting that it was capable of going through was always a bit of a shock.

Finishing dressing, Rileeta chucked her longsword onto a platform and picked up a bat’leth of her own. She muttered sotto voce, “Might as well stick with something you’re familiar with.”

Picard tried to hide a grin and found a spot out of the way where he could watch.

Worf barked out, “Begin!” He advanced quickly, his bat’leth suddenly swinging in a lethal arc. Just as quickly, Rileeta ripped her cloak from her shoulders, snarling Worf’s weapon in the cloth and letting it swirl over his face. She quickly stepped to the side and put her boot on his rump and shoved him face first into the dirt.

“One for me, boy.”

He got back to his feet. “You cheated!

“Cheated? Did someone make a rule book for a fight?” she asked with an innocent smile.

“I thought we were using tournament rules. I did not wish to cause you seriousinjury.”

She laughed again. “Don’t be silly, boy. How can you settle a difference of opinion with rules? But if you want tournament rules, we can do that. However, just in case you really are a Klingon, computer, remove the safeties.”

“Belay that.” Picard countermanded.

Rileeta lowered her bat’leth. “Oh come on Jean-Luc. Fine. Computer, lethal-protections only.” She held her hands out imploringly to Picard. He waved his hand in acquiescence and the two began to circle each other again.

Worf swung his weapon again, this time making a loud clang as the two curved blades struck each other. The two combatants hacked and parried several times before Rileeta ducked under a savage neck-level swing, hooked Worf’s left leg with her bat’leth and overbore, flipping him on his back again. Smoothly moving past him, she tapped the edge of the outer point on his belly.

“Two for me, boy. Gotta adjust for height.”

Angry now, Worf jumped back to his feet and again launched a flurry of blows. The two backed away and circled each other. Worf, with a redonda twirling technique, was using his size and power against her to drive her back. Pressed hard, she stumbled on a piece of ruined masonry and he brought his bat’leth crashing down on hers, driving into her shoulder, cutting her deeply. Struggling to keep Worf’s blade from slicing further into her, she swept her leg out and again knocked Worf onto his back and then jumped back to her feet as he rolled clear of her counter-blow and regained his own footing.

Gasping in pain she said, “Almost one for you, boy. I’ll give you a half. Gotta be quicker than that.” They circled for distance again and she called out to Picard, “Don’t you dare stop this, Jean-Luc.” Her white uniform shirt was soaking up the blood flowing from the cut on her shoulderand her tail was lashing.

He had been about to order them to stop but decided to wait after all, though it was against his better judgment.

“Want to see how you do without the toy?” she asked amiably. Seeing his confused look she waggled her bat’leth at him. “Or aren’t you very good with bare hands?”

He laughed at her. He was expert in several different forms of unarmed combat. He tossed his bat’leth into the greenery and she did the same.

Things went much the same – Worf closed in with size and power and Rileeta countered with agility, speed and technique. His first attempt to close got a slapping backhand across his throat and a “One for me, boy.” as she rolled under his grapple and away. A spinning series of kicks and hammer-fists only resulted in her leaping over him kicking him right in the bridge of the nose as she went past, stunning him. Picard tried to stifle a smile – Dosadi had a tremendous jumping ability and his Security Chief was seriously over-matched.

“Two, I think, boy.” She taunted. His next series was met block for blow, but he smoothly stepped in and threw a powerful elbow into her ribs. Picard could hear the bones break from where he was and the little cat flew several feet across the ruins, sliding away in a cloud of dirt.

She got back to her feet and spat some blood. “That’s better, Worf. I guess maybe there’s Klingon in you after all.” They closed again and blows were being exchanged so quickly he couldn’t even follow – he heard several loud snaps, but didn’t know who was breaking what.

Finally the two broke apart, panting and bloody. Worf’s right leg was obviously broken, as was Rileeta’s left wrist. There was blood pouring out of the Klingon’s nose and mouth and he was favoring his left side.

“All right.” she had her arm wrapped across her body, putting pressure on her broken ribs. “Good enough, Warrior?”

He stood up straight, and coughed out a chunk of something. After a few moments his expression relaxed. He nodded and said, Good enough. You fight with skill and honor, though I could have done without the insults.”

She grinned. “You’ve been around humans too much. I needed to get you mad so you wouldn’t hold back.”

“That can be…dangerous.” he offered.

She smiled more broadly. “First of all, I’ve spent over forty years in the Dosadi special forces. I’m impressed you were able to do anywhere near as well as you did – you should be in competition. Second, I’ve grown up fighting Klingons, Worf. My uncle is Klingon.” She ducked under his arm. “Shall we help each other to Sick Bay?” She cast a smile at Picard. He thought that was possibly the first true smile he’d seen her send his way in many years. “Otherwise Jean-Luc’s going to be mad at me for breaking his officer.”

Picard watched them both and just shook his head. “Computer, end program.” he called out and the room returned to the glowing grid-lines and black surfaces of its natural state. Rileeta and Worf hobbled out the arch and into the hallway.

Jean-Luc, will you get our blades?” she called over her shoulder. Shaking his head again, he picked up their discarded weapons from the floor of the holo-deck. Instead of following them, he decided he did not want to be there for Dr. Crusher’s inevitable lecture and headed back to the bridge. Let the duty crew wonder why he had a bat’leth and a longsword

 

* * *

When the two officers limped into Sick Bay, Dr. Crusher was surprised. “What on Earth happened to you both?!” She quickly got to her feet and picked up her personal kit, calling out to her staff. “Nurse!”

She then helped the two of them to bio-beds and began running her micro-scanner over Worf while her nurse began doing the same for Rileeta. “Well?” she demanded.

Worf and Rileeta looked at each other. Rileeta shrugged and after a moment Worf offered, “We were having a discussion.”

Crusher was disbelieving as her readings began tallying the list of injuries to her two patients. “A discussion?

Worf stated with some feeling, “It was most…stimulating.”

 

* * *

Captain Jean-Luc Picard had just settled into his bunk, watching the stars race by in the windows set into the Enterprise’s outer hullbehind him and arching over his head.Naturally, the annunciator chime for his door went off just as he was getting comfortable. Sighing, he sat up, pulled on his short robe and called out, “Come!”

The door slid open and he saw Rileeta standing in the corridor. She looked at him and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, did I wake you? I didn’t even think about the time…”

“No, no, I was just laying there. Please, come in.”

Hesitatingly, she walked a couple of paces through the door until it swooshed closed.

Seeing how uncomfortable she was, he asked, “Won’t you please sit down?” When she finally did he continued, “May I offer you something to drink?”

He thought she was going to ask for whiskey again, but instead she said, “Hot chocolate, please. Extra-sweet?” And he remembered that Dosadi taste-buds, while extra-sensitive to salty flavors, were weak on sweets.

He gave the order to his replicator and followed with his usual “Earl Grey, hot.” He returned with the drinks and sat opposite her. He took a sip from his cup and waited for her to begin.

Finally, looking directly into her hot chocolate, she said, “Your Counselor Troi is really quite good.”

He smiled. “Yes, I’ve found her advice to be invaluable and her skills have helped many of my crew.”

A few moments later and still looking down at her mug she took a deep breath and offered quietly, “We’ve got two kits. Did you know?”

‘That took a lot of effort’ he thought to himself, “No, I haven’t pried into your life, Rileeta. I’ve wondered frequently, but…”

“Karalin, she’s 30 now. She’s a teacher.” She finally looked at him. “Ar’ande, he’s 29. He’s a sailor, but on a clipper ship, not a starship.”

That’s fine!” he smiled.

“I’ve even got grandkits. Can you believe it?”

He shook his head, “You as a grandmother? That’s really not something I ever imagined.”

She paused. “Would you like to see some pictures?”

Oh yes, Rileeta. I’d like that very much.”

* * *

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