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Stardate 55728.2
Starbase 214
Conference Room 127A

Picard lifted his eyes to see a tall, dark-skinned and roguish human man in a Starfleet captain’s uniform enter the room. He was thin yet muscularly built. His dark brown hair was cut short. He bore a serious scowl as he scanned the conference room. When his gaze fell upon Picard and Steele he let loose a relieved smile.

“Nate...” Steele stepped forward, extending her hand and he pushed it aside to take her fully into his arms to hug her. Picard couldn’t help but smile faintly. Steele just seemed to have that effect on people.

“Toni...” He looked into her eyes directly. “What the hell is going on, do you know?”

She shook her head softly then stepped back, allowing him to step forward towards Picard. “Captain Nathaniel Hunter, this is Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of…”

“Toni, I know who he is,” he admonished her with a smile. Hunter immediately moved forward to extend his hand to Picard. “Captain Picard, may I say it’s an honor to finally meet you.”

“Captain Hunter,” Picard responded and shook his hand. “A pleasure as well.”

Hunter walked around the room, looking out toward his new ship, moored alongside the ships of his counterparts. “I received a hand-delivered message to meet you here. It took us well over two weeks to get here. What’s this about?”

“We don’t know Captain,” responded Picard. “Captain Steele and I have gone over many possibilities…” He sighed. “…but no probabilities.”

“We also received hand delivered orders,” Steele clarified, taking a seat at the table in the large conference room. She watched her friend pace the room briskly. She smiled and turned to Picard, “Don’t worry Jean-Luc, Nate’s a pacer. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a wear pattern’s already emerging in the carpet in Jag’s ready room.”

Hunter lifted his head to shoot her an unappreciative smirk and she smiled in return. “Well Nathaniel? Am I wrong?” she asked.

“Maybe not,” he surrendered.

Picard nodded with a soft smile as he took a seat at the conference table in the room they were ordered to appear. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the chair.

He hated this.

He hated not knowing what was going on. He hated the secrecy – secrets always, always led to danger. He breathed in through his nose and drew his hands across his head. He just wanted to go see the birth of a new star. Was that too much to ask after everything he and the crew had been through? After the nightmare the Ba’ku trip had turned into; after the Breen bloodied the Federation’s nose by hitting its heart; after the super-battle at Cardassia Prime that ended the Dominion War…he just wanted a little peace. Really. Just a little. He sighed heavily once more and with it, he realized just how tired he had become. He was tired of all of it.

Suddenly retirement sounded pleasing. The thought was strange enough, but what frightened him was the fact that he found himself taken, however briefly, by the idea. Hang it all and move back to Ba’ku. Live a slow and peaceful life. Allow myself the joy of becoming a master at the flute? Visions of that potential life skimmed over the here and now and he surprised himself once more by realizing that life on Ba’ku was everything he didn’t want. He allowed himself the ironic smile and opened his eyes.

He peered out the window and was struck immediately by the sight of a spearhead-shaped frigate as it moored at an empty berth on the opposite side of the crescent-shaped station. His heart began to beat heavily in his chest.

Picard stood and moved to the windows to get a closer look. “Tholians…” he whispered uncontrollably and with deep-seeded concern, “What are they doing here?”

Hunter spun in his spot and joined Picard at the windows as Steele stood slowly to see for herself. “I have a bad feeling about this Picard,” said Hunter. “Look…over there…in the distance.” He pointed to an area just beyond the frigate.

Picard and Steele both gazed beyond the mooring point where the frigate was arriving. In the distance they could see two enormous, burnt-red and silver Tholian battle cruisers waiting in obvious defensive positions. Steele swallowed hard and looked to Picard. “I feel like I should be on the bridge,” she murmured.

“Enterprise to Picard…” Picard’s combadge chirped.

“Jaguar to Hunter…

“Panther to Steele…

The three Captains all smiled briefly to one another, knowing their respective crews had appropriately gone on alert. All three answered their calls and had their crews stand by.

Picard looked to his counterparts once more. “They’re delivering our package, don’t you think?” His face was beginning to demonstrate the tension and annoyance he was feeling. “What could we possibly want from the Tholian Assembly?”

“A very valuable asset Jean-Luc,” said a baritone male voice from behind them.

Picard spun in place to see Admiral Edward Jellico standing stoically in the doorway. His eyes appeared tired and drawn. His already gray hair had thinned significantly since Picard had last seen him, and he thought Jellico looked old. Picard was relieved that he never took promotion to Admiral. The stress obviously made those in the position more than a little worse for wear. Jellico walked in to allow the door to close once more and he greeted Steele and Hunter with his eyes.

“An asset Admiral? From the Tholians?” Picard asked in hushed and angry voice. “What is going on here?!”

“Captain,” he responded to him in with no urgency in his voice, he merely sounded annoyed by Picard’s vehemence. “Admiral Grayson and Ambassador Riva have worked tirelessly on a prisoner exchange with the Tholian Assembly. It is being carried out in mooring bay twelve as we speak.”

“Prisoner exchange?” Picard gasped. “How many?”

“Twelve Tholians for one former Federation citizen.” Jellico replied. He moved closer and joined them at the windows and peered over to the strange vessel at mooring bay twelve.

“Former?” inquired Hunter.

“Yes,” he stated bluntly. “However, we believe he may be the one person to provide a key in assuring a new and stable government for Cardassia.”

“What?” asked Steele, “Since the end of the Dominion War there’s been anything but stability on Cardassia! It’s practically a civil war! The old regime still pulls weight and the war criminals roam freely!”

"We believe this prisoner can help. His testimony in the multi-government tribunals can finally help put the last remaining Dominion and Cardassian war criminals behind force-fields forever.”

Picard’s face contorted with his concern. “How?” he asked in a hushed voice. “To our knowledge there were no surviving witnesses to the massacres of Maquis or Cardassian rebels at Hutet on Cardassia IV. The only surviving Cardassian rebellion members were on Cardassia Prime and Lazon II.”

Jellico’s eyes closed and his head nod was almost imperceptive. “This man survived Jean-Luc…he is the last surviving witness to the Cardassian and Dominion war-crimes.” He sighed. “Now the trick will be to get him to agree to testify at all. It is a job I’m hoping you can help with.”

“Why wouldn’t he testify if it meant putting those responsible for the atrocities away?” Picard asked urgently.

“As you can imagine Jean-Luc, being at the mercy of the Cardassians, he’ll have little fondness for any Cardassian, rebel or not. Testifying to help any of them would be distasteful to him. But let me assure you this man has no love lost for the Federation either. Eliciting his cooperation will be difficult at best.” Jellico responded.

The door to the room opened and two armed guards walked in. They both looked very uncomfortable and those in the room were immediately struck by a strong, offensive odor and instantly understood the guards’ disgust.

Each guard held the upper arm of a very tall yet slumped, shabby and soiled human male. Binders held his hands behind his back and electronic leg-bands were wrapped around his calves and thighs. Picard knew that if he ran, they would be triggered and the motor function in his legs would fail he would fall to the ground. Yet Picard was struck by his weakened state and believed even if he did run, his lack of strength wouldn’t allow him to get very far. His thinning dark hair was fraying, dirty and matted. His face was covered in a long, scruffy and filthy beard. Any portions of his face that were free from hair were covered with jagged and ruddy scars. He was clad in soiled, shredded and tattered clothing which revealed large portions of his grimy chest and arms beneath. Picard could tell he was covered in a freeform jumble of thick scars, burn marks and deep wounds.

Picard was unable to control the deepening of his frown of revulsion when he recognized the lump of an implanted Cardassian pain control device under the man’s skin near his clavicle. Picard noticed that many of the wounds were very fresh and he turned his eyes away from the sight only to let them rest on the man’s gaunt face. The man’s bright blue eyes glared absently back at him.

Picard drew in a deep breath of shock. He heard Steele do the same.

The man’s blue eyes dropped away from Picard’s and fell upon Steele. His vacant and empty stare slowly surrendered to softened bewilderment, confusion and awe. His voice could only allow a whisper filled with disbelief, “Tone?”

Steele’s brows furrowed, her face filled with uncertainty and puzzlement and she turned quickly to question Picard. “Will?”

Picard moved his hand slowly and reached to touch Steele’s hand. He shook his head gently. “No Antoinette...” he dropped his voice with concern, shock and anger, “…it’s Thomas…it’s Thomas Riker.”

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