Now Steele understood what Deanna meant. He would be confused. She looked up to see one of the guards waving to Crusher. Appropriate protocol.
“Wait Beverly,” she said. “I want to talk to him first.”
“Just for a minute. Before everything starts. He deserves to hear a friendly voice first. He deserves to know where he is.” She turned to find his blue eyes peering from the nest of hair that covered his face. “Yes. I am real. I am Antoinette.”
“How?” he scowled. “How did she make you? How did she know where to find you in my mind?”
She smiled. “I’m real. You’re on the USS Enterprise.”
“The Enterprise?” he looked around. “I’ve been on the Enterprise. This is not the Enterprise,” he growled. “How did she do this? Is this a holodeck?”
She sighed. “No. This is the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-E. The ship you had been on almost seven years ago was the D.”
“Yes. It was. It was the Enterprise-D.” He scowled. “This is not the D. You can’t be Tone.”
“The Federation made a deal with the Tholian Assembly. You are now in Federation custody.” She stated as she cringed with pain, trying to position herself to speak to him. “You are on the Enterprise-E.”
“E. Enterprise-E?” he asked. “What happened to the D?”
“Destroyed on Veridian III.” She answered.
“Destroyed?” he looked worried. “Deanna?”
She smiled. “She’s fine. She serves aboard this ship.”
“You serve aboard this ship too?” he asked.
“No. I serve aboard a different ship. I’m just here for my health.”
“Are you really Tone?”
He looked to the two guards on either side. “They’re really Starfleet?”
“I’m not on Cardassia Prime?”
“No. Nor are you on Cardassia IV or Lazon II or Tholia.”
“Hmm. Tholia. Hot there.”
Steele laughed. “I bet.”
“How did UFP get me?” He asked.
“Prisoner exchange.” She answered bluntly.
“Ah. They plan to turn me back over to Cardassia,” he prepared himself.
“No. They need you for more important things. Like prosecuting the Dominion War criminals.”
“Prosecuting…?” He appeared utterly confused. “How can you prosecute war criminals for a war that hasn’t ended?”
This thought was shocking to her. “How long ago did Cardassia move you to Tholia?”
“I don’t know…weeks? They didn’t just move me…they sold me,” he answered. “I understand they got a pretty good price for me. Don’t know why Tholia wanted me.”
“They got twelve prisoners in exchange for you. You commanded a heavy price from the UFP.” She grimaced once more as she sat up on the biobed. “You must have been in Tholian custody longer than a few weeks. The Dominion War ended over four months ago. Cardassia is…in ruins. Over eight hundred million of them were wiped out by the Dominion.”
“By the Dominion? They are the Dominion,” he barked. “Now I know you’re just a hologram. She would love for me to think Cardassia was the victim…”
She caught his eyes. “I am Antoinette.”
“Then where’s Paul?” he sneered. “Admiral yet?”
She laid back on the biobed. “Dead. Paul died eleven years ago.”
His face fell with the recollection. “The Drake.”
“Yes. The Drake.”
“I remember now. Found out when I looked up his service record. He was offered the Drake. Found out about Paul…thought about contacting you…” he trailed off. “You sure you’re real?”
“I don’t think so. I heard screaming.” He looked to her. “She’s still working, this is just a program.”
Steele sighed. “You heard screaming for a reason. The pain devices were removed. It wasn’t easy.”
Thomas’ expression contorted and he slowly moved his hand up his chest. His eyes widened when he realized the lump at his clavicle was missing. “Where did it go?”
“Evidence.” She stated coolly.
“Evidence?” he questioned. “Evidence of what?”
“Their cruelty,” she said and whimpered harshly and she shifted on the bed.
His head turned with confusion and concern. “You’re in pain. It’s her…” he hissed. “She’s got you too doesn’t she?”
She sighed with frustration. “You have a long road. I know that. But I wanted you to hear a kind voice first. I wanted you to know that there are those who care…I just wanted you to hear a kind voice first.”
“Mmm, velvet voice.” He turned to face the ceiling. “Good program. Sounds just like Antoinette…”
Steele waved to Crusher who understood. She clicked her combadge and reported to Picard that Riker was alert.
Steele grimaced as she repositioned herself on the biobed. She wasn’t sure what she’d thought she’d accomplish by speaking to him, but after getting a taste of what he had endured she found herself fascinated by him even more. Her hope that he could be helpful had dwindled. He would need intense psychological rehabilitation. She sighed heavily and turned to see that his blue eyes were locked on to her with frightening intensity.
“I will kill her you know. Now she’s making me remember old loves. She wants to set me up to think you’re real and then she will make me watch you die too. Not this time. You missed. You really missed. Really good program, but you missed.” He closed his eyes and whispered, “I will kill you.”
Steele’s heart ripped. What did they do to you?
Deanna moved back under the covers as quietly as possible. She laid on her side and she felt him move in and encompass her. His warmth was soothing and she relaxed into him. He nuzzled his face into the crevice of her neck and his warm breath tickled her and she allowed herself the quiet laugh. She was desperate for a happy thought and he was providing it to her. She soaked it in.
“What?” he coyly whispered and then kissed her earlobe gently.
Deanna turned into him and Will brought her into his fold once more, allowing her to rest her head on his chest. He could feel her exhaustion and her worry. He thought about speaking, but then thought against it. He brought his arm up around her and held her against him, knowing it would take awhile for her to find the avenue to sleep. He would be patient.
His patience paid off after a long while when he could finally feel her body begin to relax into his and her breathing deepened and quieted.
It was only then he allowed himself to fall asleep as well.
He felt his stomach tie in knots as he sat down at the desk. It felt like his office. No. It was his office. He knew that. He could feel that.
He looked out the windows to see star trails streaking past and was saddened that they didn’t seem to provide the comfort he usually found them.
He swallowed hard and looked to the comm screen in front of him. It bore a Starfleet logo and the words 'Incoming Transmission – USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D.'
He didn’t want to press the button. He tried to suppress the rising fear and his hand trembled as it reached for the base of the comm. Surprisingly, his hand was delicate and feminine; his ring finger bore a simple gold wedding band. His index finger hovered over the button for an additional moment as he tried to find a way not to have to take this call.
His fear began to explode and he tightened his abdominal muscles and pressed the channel button.
Incredibly, his own face appeared on the screen. Young, clean shaven and handsome, he bore a serious expression as he looked into his own eyes. He felt the fear and the anger starting to percolate out and his hands began to tremble weakly. He swallowed once more but there was no moisture left in his mouth. The image of himself spoke to him. “Toni.”
He started to shake uncontrollably and he fought the rising of the tears and the now brewing anger and denial. “Will.” His voice responded but it was not his own. It was soft and trembling…and velvet toned. “Will, tell me you found them,” he begged with urgency. “Tell me he’s all right.”
He looked to his own face with desperation but the face never lost the serious stare - the professional stoicism, but then…
…there it was…
The broken glance – the surrender – the defeated break of the eye-contact.
He felt himself blurt a soft cry and he shook his head.
“Antoinette,” his face said as he reconnected his eye-contact. “I couldn’t let anyone else do this…it wouldn’t be right.” He watched the face on the comm buckle with grief and saw the man cover his eyes with his hands.
“No.” His velvet voice said back to the face. “No. No Will.”
The face on the comm looked away in anguish, then back to him. “Antoinette, I’m so…so sorry.” He leaned forward towards the comm, “The Drake was destroyed. All hands…” his voice cracked once more, “…they’re all gone Antoinette…all of them.”
The shock of adrenaline pumped through his veins and sparked the tips of his fingers. He shook his head violently. He couldn’t breathe. He felt the blood drain from his face. He tightened his jaw and looked to his own blue eyes on the screen, “No.”
“Toni…” his own young face said once more, “Paul’s dead. The ship was destroyed by a Minosian weapon. They’re all gone.” He broke his eye contact again and lifted his hand to his eyes, trying to hide what looked like a tear falling from his own face. “I’m so sorry Antoinette.”
He shook his head vigorously, feeling long, dark hair tickle at his heated cheeks, not wanting to believe, not knowing how he could live another moment if his friend’s words were true; not knowing how life would be worth living without Paul. Not ever having him touch his face again, or kissing his lips. Not ever laughing with him or wrestling or just sitting with him again. Never being able to look into his soft brown eyes…
The anger found its way out before the sadness. He raged with hatred. He filled with fear. His hands clenched themselves into tight fists and he looked to the blue eyes that were telling him that his love would never be coming home.
Then he found it…he saw the reason why. He found the reason why Paul had died and the reason’s intense blue eyes were staring back at him sadly.
His lips curled into a snarl and he felt heat emanate from his face and his rage found its escape. He made eye contact with the blue eyes once more and placed all of his denial, hatred, anger and rage into his only solace…his words of blame. “It should have been you,” his velvet voice moaned, “It should have been you Will. You should be the dead one, not Paul.” His anger found new strength as the blue eyes softened with guilt and torment, “It should have BEEN YOU!”
He saw the pain in his young, blue eyes but he ignored it and slammed his womanly yet strong fist on the comm, abruptly ending his transmission.
He sat there in his chair for a moment, terrified. His hands now shook more than they ever had before and he looked away from the black screen of the comm, but once more the logo appeared with the words 'Incoming Transmission – USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-D.'
His hatred swelled and he hit the rejection button – then the rage found its home and the adrenaline found its avenue of escape and he stood, placed his hands on either side of the comm and pulled with every ounce of strength he had. The comm tore from the desk, sending momentary sparks across the room and he flung the piece away from himself.
It sailed like a strange-shaped boomerang. Silently and with grace it flew until it hit and pierced the canvas of a large painting of an arid landscape. It tore clean through – creating a vicious ripping noise; a noise that he knew was the ripping of his own heart.
He found that he was unable to control it anymore. He fell to his knees and screamed in unabashed agony. “PAUL!!!!”
His screams continued, but went unheard.
Thomas began to shake uncontrollably. His eyes opened wide and he didn’t understand where he was, he only knew that he needed to vomit. He turned over on his side and let his head hang off the side of whatever bed he was now laying upon and threw up forcefully.
A guard, shaken by Thomas’ sudden illness, clicked his combadge. “Security to Doctor Crusher. Please report to the morgue immediately.”