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CHAPTER NINE


USS Enterprise
Bridge


Picard couldn’t believe it. He soaked in glances from everyone around him on the bridge and knew immediately that they all understood exactly what had happened. “All stop! Can you identify the occupants?!” He barked, standing habitually from his command chair and viewing the small shuttle on the viewscreen ahead of him.

“A Bajoran and a Human,” replied Worf sharply from his station.

The ship disappeared in a quick flash of light. “Where is it heading?” asked Admiral Noyes calmly from the counselor’s chair.

“Directly into the Argolis Cluster sir,” Worf retorted.

Picard spun back around to lock eyes with Riker and then over to Noyes. “Admiral,” he sighed. “I don’t see where we have much choice. We need to talk to them.”

Noyes nodded weakly. “Agreed. But I don’t want to talk about anything classified Captain. We must assume the Cardassians are listening in.”

Picard pressed his lips together and directed Worf, “Hail the Jaguar and the Panther…together.”

“Aye sir,” said Worf. “They’ve responded sir.”

Picard turned to face his viewscreen, standing upright and stoically. “Onscreen.”

The faces of Captain Hunter and Commander Malek both appeared in front of them. “Commander?” Picard looked to the Andorian curiously. “Where is Captain Steele?”

“Sickbay,” Malek uttered, his antennae curved forward with what appeared to be anger. “She’s unable to assume command at this time.”

“What?!” Riker shot out of his chair with deep-set concern and Picard waved him back and turned to Noyes.

Noyes moved forward. “And Jellico?” he asked Hunter.

“He’s due to return momentarily Admiral.” Hunter replied.

Noyes grimaced. “Can I assume certain things about the shuttle Captain?”

Hunter stewed. “Yes sir.”

“Pursue.” Noyes ordered.

“Claussen is already on it Admiral.”

“Beam over,” Noyes growled. “Both of you. Now. Prepare a shuttle for pursuit Commander. I will join you.”

Picard scowled. “You Admiral?”

“Yes Picard. Me. Grayson and I have worked too hard to see this fall apart now.” Noyes pointed to Riker who nodded sullenly and the two left the bridge.



USS Panther
Sickbay


“Is she asleep?” Malek questioned the physician quietly on the other side of the ward from where Steele lay.

H’rim shook his head slightly and folded his charcoal-tinted ears flat back against his rounded skull and sighed heavily. “She is resting. The seizures have subsided.”

“Do you know what’s causing them?”

“No.” H’rim bared his teeth in a sign of anger that Malek was just now becoming used to. “She’s never been the most cooperative patient Commander and she is refusing to tell me what’s bothering her.” He reconnected his eyes to Malek’s. “Did he escape?”

Malek nodded. “It appears that way Doctor. He and a Bajoran male left by shuttle and are heading into the Cluster. Commanders Riker and Claussen are in pursuit. I’ve been summoned to the Enterprise. Kiley has the conn until I return, but if anything happens with her…” his eyes drifted back over to Steele.

“Of course, I’ll contact you immediately,” H’rim confirmed and as Malek turned to walk away, he called to him once more. “Commander…see if you can determine what might have happened to our good Captain while she was aboard their vessel. She’s taken the pain of others before, but she’s never suffered effects such as this. Find out what was different this time, will you?”

“I’ll try H’rim.”

“Thanks. I’d like to be able to treat her if possible and the more I know about the cause of her symptoms…”

“Okay Doc. I promise, I’ll find out more.” Malek nodded. He peered sullenly over to the biobed then turned and departed sickbay for the transporter room.

H’rim shook his fur-covered head and walked gracefully over to Steele’s resting body. He smiled gently when he saw her open eyes. “Captain,” he said softly.

“Did I hear Malek say that Riker escaped?” She asked tiredly.

“Captain, you shouldn’t worry yourself with the…”

“Don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t worry about Doctor.” She growled. “I asked…did Riker escape from the Jag?”

H’rim sighed in frustration. “Yes Captain. He was in a shuttle with a Bajoran and they’re heading into the Cluster. Commanders Riker and Claussen are already following them.”

Steele’s eyes started to jerk from side to side. “He knows,” she whispered to herself. “That means he knows…”

“Who knows what Captain?” asked H’rim cautiously.

“He knows where she is. He knows…” she hissed and sat up on her biobed. “He’s going to kill her.”

“Captain, please lay back down.”

“I have to help H’rim!” Steele turned her face to him in panicked fury. “He knows!”

Steele bolted from the biobed, pushing H’rim back with such force he fell back onto the floor. Steele tore out the door and ran for the shuttle bay.


__________



“H’rim to Malek!” Chirped Malek’s communicator as he stepped briskly up to the transporter pad.

He looked to the Chief with concern and spun, stepping off the platform once more. “Doc? What’s wrong?”

“Captain Steele has just left sickbay sir. I believe she’s heading for the shuttles!”

Malek groaned aloud and sped back through the transporter room doors. “Doctor, is she fit to pilot that shuttle?!”

“I’d rather she not!” He replied. “I don’t know what’s causing her seizures if she has another while negotiating her way through the Cluster…”

“Yeah. I was afraid of that.” Malek muttered. “Malek to bridge! Lock a tractor beam on any shuttle that leaves this ship is that clear!”

“Too late Commander.” Kiley’s terse voice responded. “She’s already jumped to warp.”

"Follow her!” he shouted. “That’s an order Kiley!”

“What about the Enterprise sir?”

“Don’t lose her Kiley!”

“Sir, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“What? Why not?!” He roared as he entered the turbolift. “Bridge!”

“Because there are three Cardassian battle cruisers hanging off our port bow.”



USS Enterprise
Bridge


“Red alert!” Picard glared at the viewscreen. He had a hard time controlling his venom when he saw the outline of the three Cardassian vessels now staring down upon his ship.

“We’re being hailed Captain,” said Worf.

“Make them wait Picard,” muttered Jellico as he shot out of the turbolift.

Picard knew better than to question Jellico on matters surrounding Cardassian meetings. “Hunter?”

“He has remained on the Jaguar.”

Picard nodded with satisfaction.

Worf addressed them once more. “They are continuing to hail Admiral.”

“I’m sure they are Mister Worf. We have nothing to say to them. We have just as much right to be in this space as they do.”

“Yes Admiral.”

Jellico connected eyes with the Klingon, “But let me know if they power up their weapons.”

“Aye sir,” Worf replied.

Picard looked to Jellico with a serious stare. “Admiral, another shuttle has just departed the Panther.”

Jellico shook his head with frustration. “Malek?”

“Human.” Worf interjected.

“Steele?”

“Most likely.” Picard answered.

“And now we have a pack of Cardassians keeping us from following our own shuttles…” Jellico grunted. “Fine. Let’s see who’s knocking on the damn door. Open a channel Mister Worf.”

The face of a grey-skinned Cardassian man loomed large in front of Picard and Jellico. His hair was cut tight to the skull, revealing taut and thick neck tendons. He was wearing traditional military attire that matched his skin-tone perfectly. His eyes were dark, ash grey and appeared almost gentle as he peered to the two experienced Starfleet officers on his own screen. He smiled widely when he recognized the two men. “Why Admiral Jellico, Captain Picard…” said Gul Cacet lightly. “Can we be of assistance?”

“Well, well, well…Gul Cacet,” Jellico said with a smirk. “What could be so important at the Argolis Cluster to draw away Cardassia’s so-called Minister of Security during one of the most serious threats to military rule? Surely you can’t just be here just to offer assistance to passing Starfleet vessels.”

Cacet smiled in return. “Of course not Admiral. As a matter of fact were are here on a matter of extreme importance to Cardassia’s security.”

“Really?” Jellico said more as a statement than a question.

“We understand you have taken custody of a convicted terrorist. We would certainly like to see him returned to serve the remainder of his sentence.”

Jellico didn’t even blink an eye. “Sorry. What terrorist?”

Cacet grinned and laughed. “So we’re going to play that game.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about Cacet.”

“Of course you don’t Admiral.” Cacet bowed his head. “May I ask…Captain Picard, where is your First Officer? Commander Riker, isn’t it?” Picard stepped forward calmly but did not answer Cacet’s lilting question. “He is a duplicate of the man we are seeking to place back into our custody Admiral. I’m just offering advice. I would hate for him to be mistaken for Thomas Riker.”

“Thomas Riker?” Jellico questioned. “Commander Riker…”

“Look Admiral. We’re not idiots. We know you arranged for a transfer of Thomas Riker from the Tholian Assembly. Thomas Riker was never meant to be traded to any other party – he is a convicted criminal under Cardassian law. We have a right to retrieve him and return him to Cardassia to complete his sentence. And we will do so.”

The screen darkened.

Jellico turned to Picard whose face reflected his growing anger. “We were set up all along.” He whispered. “Thomas was wearing Starfleet attire when he left the Jag.”

Picard nodded. “It appears they now have both Rikers heading straight for them.”

Jellico shut his eyes in fury. “Just to make sure we didn’t switch them.”

“Yes.”

“They’ll never fire on us in neutral territory.” Jellico smiled.

“Nor will we.” Picard concurred.

Jellico lifted an eyebrow keenly. “That’s what they think.”


Argolis Cluster
USS Jaguar Shuttle Hadrian
En route - Planet of Nisiam


Thomas could smell Kaest’s fear. It smelled just like Nekrit and he knew Kaest was leading him into what was most likely some sort of trap. He’d be counting on it. He was sure that Kaest had been truthful about his reasons for wanting to kill Nekrit – she had told him she had members of his family held in her still-active interrogation cells; but Thomas knew better.

He knew Nekrit.

He knew everything about her.

Kaest was a fool but Thomas didn’t have the heart to tell the poor bastard that Nekrit was lying to him. He couldn’t tell him of course. He couldn’t take the chance of telling Kaest and having him change his mind about meeting her. No, he needed to get as close as possible to her if he was going to have any chance of finishing his task.

Kaest had barely spoken a word to Thomas since they entered the Cluster. Thomas found it rather calming actually. He had told Kaest that he preferred to pilot the shuttle himself. Kaest acted as navigator and the two were focused solely on the flight. Gravimetric distortions kept his mind busy and he relished being at the helm again. Someone once told him that piloting was like riding a bike; that one never forgets the basics. It was true. He could feel his own innate talent for anticipating the next distortion wave before it came close to striking. He’d arc the shuttle as if it were riding on cushions of…

“Thomas…” Kaest’s voice calmly interrupted his thoughts.

Thomas. Shit! I hate that name! My name is Will! It always has been. Starfleet took me away from me and then Nekrit took everything else. What’s left? He sighed with agitation. “What?”

“There.” Kaest pointed. “Northern continent. There’s a mountain range on the eastern edge. Head for these coordinates,” Kaest ordered as he punched in the information into the panel in front of him.

Thomas nodded and directed the shuttle through the green-hued planet’s atmosphere and allowed it to soar toward the valley where Kaest had directed him. The shuttle landed gently among a crevice between two granite-appearing monoliths.

“She’ll be in there,” Kaest pointed to a grotto nestled in among the spires and the surrounding forest. “There is no exit on the other side,” he warned.

Thomas sighed, “Fine. I don’t want her to be able to escape.”

Kaest turned to him, puzzled, “That’s not what I…”

“I know what you meant Doctor,” he chastised as he turned in his seat to be faced with Kaest holding a phase pistol directly at him. He wasn’t surprised. It was what he was expecting all along. “And I knew this was too good to be true. You do realize that your family’s dead Kaest, don’t you?”

Kaest growled at him. “They are not,” he hissed, “She promised me.”

Thomas allowed a sarcastic laugh to emit from his gut. “You’re an idiot Kaest. I’m sorry for what she’s done to you and your family, but don’t you get it? Give me the phaser and I can give her what she deserves and make sure she doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

Kaest shook his head and urged Thomas forward with the phaser. “No. I won’t. We had a deal and she promised me that she would let them go if I helped direct her ships toward you. The fact that you actually ended up on the Jaguar was just a sign from the prophets that I’m doing the right thing.”

Thomas gritted his teeth. “Prophets.” He spit on the ground. “I’m sick to death of hearing about your damn prophets! They don’t exist, and if they do they’re nothing but a bunch of spiteful, hateful deities who love nothing more than torturing Bajorans for their amusement.”

Kaest frowned hard. “They forgive you for your blasphemy. You once loved a Bajoran, how you could say such…”

Thomas lunged forward but backed off when Kaest’s formidable reaction held him at bay. “You leave her out of this!”

“Get out of the shuttle!” Kaest’s eyes flared along with his voice which matched his scattered mess of hair and trembling earring.

Seeing the whole crazed package, Thomas realized he was dealing with someone who, like him, was living on their last nerve. Begrudgingly, he slipped out of the pilot’s chair and moved towards the shuttle door as it blossomed open. “I should pity you Kaest, but I can’t feel sorry for someone as idiotic as you.”

“Shut up and move toward the grotto. You’re lucky you’re alive now. The order was to bring you to her, dead or alive. I just figured that if you were alive when I brought you to her I would have a better chance at obtaining my family’s release.”

“I told you, they’re dead.”

“Shut up I said!”

Thomas huffed and moved out of the shuttle and began to move towards the grotto in the far off distance. He would make his move as soon as they passed into the forested entrance. He just needed to be patient.


USS Jaguar Shuttle Sun Tzu
In pursuit of Shuttle Hadrian


Commander Bridget Claussen looked over to the yellow-skinned man in the pilot’s chair of the small shuttle. She had heard about Lt. Commander Data for years, but never believed she would ever meet him, let alone command an away team with him as a member.

Admiral Jellico had requested that Counselor Troi remain on board the Jaguar in case a confrontation with the Cardassians arose. She was disappointed as she had hoped to utilize Troi’s empathic skills to assist them in finding their quarry. Yet, she was glad to see that Data’s skills reading the trace signatures from the Hadrian were much more effective. They had only taken a nudge from one small distortion wave which had not done any damage to the armor. She was grateful for Data’s precise navigation skills as was not at all willing to concede piloting the small craft to the android.

She wanted to glace behind her to check on her team, but her full concentration on the helm was necessary. She knew that her two best security officers were sitting patiently behind them. Lt. Commander Egel, a Xindi Arboreal male and her Chief of Security and Lt. Ismat, a Vulcan male sat quietly in their seats, allowing her and Data to track the shuttle.

“I have picked up the signature once more Commander,” said Data succinctly. “Entering coordinates.”

Claussen followed the prescribed route, making alterations for the ever-changing gravimetric waves as they danced in front of her. “They certainly aren’t making this easy.”

“Indeed Commander. Thomas Riker is one of the best pilots to be seen.”

“How would you know that?” Claussen asked as her hands flew over the interface causing the shuttle to roll and dip, missing the shear as it swept by their underside.

“Because Commander Riker is.”

Claussen shook her head with confusion. “I don’t think I’ll ever comprehend that.”

“Change course, new speed and heading.” Data retorted.

“I see it.” She replied.

“Comprehend what Commander?” Data queried.

“That they’re the same person.”

“Only to a singular point in time Commander.”

“Still, it’s bizarre,” she stated and the shuttle lifted up and over a blur as it bubbled underneath them. “Oh that was close.”

“It was Commander, and there are several more directly ahead. May I suggest we slow our speed?”

“We can’t afford to lose that signature.”

“I do not believe we will Commander. It ends at that Class-M planet ahead. The data bank refers to it as Nisiam.”

Claussen slowed the shuttle and maneuvered it through the final set of shear-waves and sighed with relief as they dissipated the closer they moved towards the jade-tinged planet. “Sure is a pretty one. Can you get a fix on the Hadrian?”

“Affirmative,” replied Data. “Northern hemisphere. Coordinates have been entered.”

“May I suggest that we set our shuttle down some distance from the Hadrian Commander? I don’t want to waltz right into a trap. We must assume there is a contingent of Cardassian troops waiting for us,” said Egel from his chair directly behind Claussen.

“Agreed.” She said, “But I don’t want to be so far away as to make any hike too time consuming.”

“Then may I suggest we land here Commander Egel?” Data pointed to a small plain just south of the coordinates of the Hadrian’s position on the map on his interface. “It will provide us with an open area where a sneak attack will be difficult to achieve.”

Egel leaned forward to scan the map in front of Data. He perused it quickly and nodded. “Very good Commander. It shouldn’t take us but a few minutes to hike to the Hadrian and will provide us with an ample tactical advantage.”

Claussen nodded when the coordinates were provided and within minutes she directed the shuttle into the planet’s atmosphere. “Well, they’ll know we’re coming now.”

“So does the shuttle behind us,” said Data.

Claussen’s eyes shot to her panel, “Who!?”

“The shuttle is from the Enterprise Commander. It is the Captain’s skiff, the Calypso.”

“Good, more back-up,” barked Egel.

“Yes Commander.” Data agreed.


USS Enterprise Captain’s Yacht Calypso
In pursuit of Shuttle Sun Tzu


Riker and Noyes had barely spoken a word to each other the entire trip. Riker appreciated that Noyes allowed himself to focus on the task at hand – and that was avoiding the gravimetric shear that permeated the entire route. They were lucky that the Jaguar’s shuttle was only a few minutes ahead of them. They had been unable to locate the signature of the first shuttle at all, but keeping track of the Sun Tzu had been relatively easy. Riker was impressed by Claussen’s piloting skills as it had become abundantly clear she could maneuver the smaller craft through much tighter spaces. Noyes had wanted to use the Calypso as the ablative armor could withstand greater impacts, but Riker would have preferred to use one of the smaller, lighter craft. Doing so would have erased the need for the ablative armor because he could have avoided the shearing-waves altogether.

“They’re heading towards that planet,” said Noyes. “Go ahead and follow Commander.”

“Aye sir.”

A few long moments of silence passed by the two and Riker swerved the yacht hard to avoid a lifting distortion wave. As soon as they reached the clearing that led to the planet, Noyes turned to look at Riker curiously.

Riker could feel the stare burin into the side of his stubbly face. “Admiral?”

Noyes shook his head with embarrassment. “Sorry Commander,” he said quietly. “I’ve been working with Thomas Riker’s file so much that at times I forgot you were his duplicate. It’s hard not to look…”

Riker huffed a quiet laugh. “Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror the very same way Admiral. No offense taken.”

Noyes turned back to focus on his panel and cleared his throat. “Does it ever affect you?”

Riker grimaced, “What sir?”

“Having a duplicate of you?”

“Of course it does sir. It’s very disconcerting. But it’s more disconcerting for my father.”

Noyes’ eyes widened. “I can only imagine.”

Riker broke a small grin and let the subject drop but his eyes shot forward when a small chirp alerted him from the panel. Noyes had noticed it as well. “Another shuttle?” he asked.

“I can’t tell Commander. The readings are inconclusive. If it is, I can’t even tell if it’s a Starfleet vessel.”

“The Sun Tzu has entered the atmosphere Admiral do you want to continue? If that’s a Cardassian shuttle they’ve seen the Sun Tzu.”

Noyes jutted his chin out and pursed his lips. “Follow them Commander. When we reach the landing site, hopefully we can find cover in case the shuttle behind us is not Starfleet.”

“Aye sir.” Riker drifted the yacht effortlessly behind the Sun Tzu and minutes afterwards pierced the atmosphere and down to the surface. Riker set the craft down perfectly alongside the shuttle from the defense ship and he and Noyes moved out quickly, arming themselves with phase pistols.

They were greeted hastily by the team from the Sun Tzu. Claussen moved in first. “Admiral Noyes.” She greeted him with obvious surprise.

“Commander Claussen. I’ll be leading this away team.”

“Of course sir.” She conceded immediately and connected her confused gaze to Riker who shrugged slightly.

“We’ve detected another vessel behind us but we were unable to identify it before landing. It could be one of theirs or one of ours.” Noyes stated.

Egel moved forward. “Then may I suggest we find cover?”

Noyes nodded, “Got any ideas where?”

Egel pointed in the direction of two large granite-appearing spires. “Towards that forested area sir. That’s where the other shuttle is resting.”

“Lead on Commander.” Noyes ordered. The small group moved in haste towards the area where the Hadrian had come to rest. “Remind me Commander…” Noyes addressed Riker, “…to remind Starfleet to change the dress code for Admiralty. These shoes were not constructed for comfort on away missions.”

“Yes sir.” Riker smiled and took up the rear of the team, only to look down to see that the shiny patent shoes the Admiral was wearing did indeed look to be entirely too formal for grunting around in the soft, moist soil of the planet’s surface.


USS Panther Shuttle Xerxes
In pursuit of Yacht Calypso


Captain Steele’s hands were barely able to enter the commands fast enough to avoid the distortion waves as she entered the Cluster. She had thought there were more than a few times her tremors had actually been the lucky, life-saving factors when her hands struck the interface.

She had come close to blacking out on a few occasions as well, but once again luck seemed to be on her side and when she was able to coax herself back to awareness it had been in wide open areas where the shear was almost nonexistent.

She knew she wouldn’t stay that lucky and had shaken her head in order to clear her mind once more, but within seconds her fatigue caught up with her again and she found herself fogged.

The shuttle took a soft blow to her port side and Steele yelped. Her adrenaline shot through and her eyes shot wide, refocusing her on her mission.

He’s found her. I have to help. She must pay for what she’s done.


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