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Stardate 55713.3
Cardassia Prime
Culat Province
Temporary Office of Minister of Security


Gul Cacet read the tablet in his hands then stretched his broad neck from side to side as he sneered. “Are you sure the guarantees are in place?”

“Yes Gul,” replied his assistant, Prethet. “They have assured us that this will not fail.” He grimaced. “Although I must admit I am still uncomfortable with the arrangements.”

Cacet’s scowl deepened across his scaled face and nodded in agreement. “Yes Prethet. I too am unhappy that this has gone so far. Yet the risk has been worth it. We have been able to stabilize much with what we’ve received from them, and they will be able to obtain those precious to them as well.” He shifted in his chair and handed the tablet back to his assistant. “Be that as it may, I agree with your recommendations and I’m pleased that you don’t trust the situation either. Assure that two battle cruisers watch for activity along the border.”

Prethet allowed a satisfied smile from his scaled face and nodded. “Yes Gul!”

Gul Cacet’s sneer deepened across his face. “We cannot allow undue influence by the Federation now. Not when we’re so close to controlling the rebellion once and for all. If this fails, so will everything we have worked for since the end of the Dominion’s control over us.”

Prethet nodded once more, turned sharply and left his superior’s office.



Stardate 55722.2
U.S.S. Enterprise – NCC-1701-E
En route to Nyx Creation Nebula, Alpha Quadrant
Captain’s Ready Room



He stood in his usual spot by the windows of his ready room and allowed his eyes to gaze upon the enormity of the nebula in the far-off distance. The Enterprise moved slowly towards its amalgam of colors. Reds seeped into purples which blended back into pinks. Hot blue-white gems sparkled through the veil of dark dust lanes and creation spires before him. Picard smiled unconsciously, for it was the first time since the end of the Dominion War he felt like he was making his way back towards home – to the unknown.

Anij and her kind were now a dark, secret burden of the Federation. He would miss Ba’ku. He would miss Anij, but her affection and wisdom helped him realize that he had other things to do, other tasks to accomplish.

His eyes lit once more in awe of the expansive nebula outside his window. It’s time to move on. It’s time to see what else is out there.

The door to the room slid open and Riker moved forward not surprised to see his captain staring out the window. He caught him often enough in the past, that to see him there made him smile. “Beautiful, isn’t it sir?”

Picard turned his head briefly and displayed his grin to his XO. “Incredible, Number One. Just look at it…full of potential...” He turned his head back toward his view. “...full of new journeys.”

“Aye sir,” Riker replied gently. “I’m looking forward to them.”

“As am I, Number One…as am I,” admitted Picard and he turned to address him. “Now what can I do for…”

“Captain, we have detected a ship on long-range sensors.” Picard’s comm interrupted with Data's clear voice, “It is on an intercept course.”

“On my way Data.” Picard’s eyes bolted to Riker’s and his joy immediately dissipated. “What ship would be out here?”

“You got me, sir.” Riker shrugged as he followed Picard out to the main bridge. Troi was sitting at her post watching the viewscreen as a tiny white speck began to appear in its center. Picard and Riker moved forward to sit at their respective posts.

“Report,” Picard ordered.

Worf’s deep voice resonated through the bridge and Picard was happy to hear it. To have Worf back on the bridge of the Enterprise felt like the family was whole again. “It appears to be a heavily armed ship, Captain,” he grunted.

Data’s hand moved with blinding speed across his panel. “Sensors indicate amounts of tritanium typically used in Federation ships Captain, but the identity signature has not yet been picked up by long-range scans.”

“Magnify,” Picard ordered and the viewscreen moved in closer on the tiny white speck but to Picard’s frustration, he couldn’t recognize the silhouette of the silvery vessel.

“It appears to have close to twice the firepower of the Enterprise sir, but she’s just over half the size!” Worf said with reserved excitement and Picard almost shivered with the thought that Worf had actually been impressed by its firepower.

Data’s cool voice cut in once more, “Sir, the identification signal been received. It is Federation registry number NX-90261 – the U.S.S. Panther sir and it remains on an intercept course.”

Picard contorted his face with confusion. What’s that ship doing way out here?

“The Panther? Wasn’t she just launched?” Riker questioned.

“She’s a defense ship, isn’t she Captain?” asked Troi.

“Yes to both questions,” answered Picard. “Hail them, Mister Worf.”

“Aye sir,” Worf replied and his hands jumped across the panel at his tactical station. He looked up in confusion and concern. “Sir, they are not responding to our hails. I recommend we go to yellow alert.”

Picard’s brow furrowed deeply. Worf always wanted to go to alert when things weren’t perfect – which they rarely were. “Not yet Mr. Worf. I think we should allow them to approach. They’re still one of us.”

“They certainly seem to be in a rush sir," Riker stated.

“Indeed.”

The ship grew in size and clarity on the viewscreen and approached the Enterprise quickly.

“They are still ignoring our hails Captain!” Worf warned.

“Have they powered any weapon arrays Worf?” asked Riker urgently.

Worf grumbled slightly. “No sir.”

“Then maintain position, Ensign,” Picard ordered. “Let’s see what this is all about, shall we?”

The Panther moved in, slowed, and slipped into bow-to-bridge position, pointing her nose directly down upon the larger Enterprise. Although the craft was significantly smaller than the Enterprise, her hull’s aggressive design and obvious focus on weaponry made those on the bridge shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Picard stood from his chair as the ship’s hull came into view on the screen ahead of him. He instinctively sucked in his breath. “She’s remarkable,” he whispered, his eyes taking in the sleek structure of the defense ship’s lines.

Riker stood with him and whistled loudly. “Will you look at that?”

“She has twelve torpedo bays sir. Eighteen phaser arrays, four tractor arrays and four pulse cannon bays.” Worf replied. “She is…the evolution of the Defiant.” His eyes lit with fire.

“She’s a beast.” Troi whispered in distaste for the vessel’s capabilities.

“Yeah, she is.” Riker couldn’t control his wide-eyed expression when he agreed with her, and Picard smirked at his XO’s admiration of the vessel.

“We have received a data transmission, sir.” Data announced.

Picard grimaced. “What does it say?”

“The Captain and XO are requesting permission to come aboard sir,” he replied.

Picard shot a look to Riker. “Not even a greeting? Not a very friendly start I must say.”

“No indeed, sir,” agreed Riker.

Picard looked at the animal of a ship staring down upon him and breathed in through his nose. “I suspect we have no choice, Number One.” He looked to Riker once more. “Data send coordinates to transporter room four. Riker, Troi, Worf – you’re with me. Data you have the bridge.”

“Aye sir.” Data responded and moved toward the command chair as Picard and the others made for the turbolift.

__________



Upon entering the transporter room, Troi could easily sense the waves of tension projected by her counterparts. She took a breath in, knowing that none of them really knew what to expect. The aggressive nature of the defense ship’s appearance had taken the captain by surprise and he was almost confident that his hunch about their safety was correct. However, Troi could tell he was more than happy to have Worf standing in the room with them.

The Transporter Chief reported to Picard, “Two individuals have reported ready for transport sir.”

Worf nodded with satisfaction but stood ready just in case.

Picard smiled and shook his head slightly. “Energize.”

Pale, blue light shimmered as two figures materialized on the transporter pad. Within moments a stunning, raven-haired woman appeared before them and next to her stood a blue-skinned Andorian male, both wore standard red-collared Starfleet uniforms.

The woman’s light green eyes seemed to glow through the darkness of her long, black hair. Her skin was porcelain and perfect. Her teeth were brilliant white when she smiled.

Troi was suddenly struck by a strong leaping sensation of joy as it spiked through Riker. She was confused by, and found herself a little annoyed with his reaction. Well, she is very beautiful. Guess I can’t blame him for reacting to that.

She then realized that all the men seemed to have a similar reaction and she allowed herself to smile weakly. Yet she was still taken by the intensity of Riker’s reaction, it was definitely stronger than the others’.

The woman spoke and her very distinct, mellow and smooth voice filled the room, “Captain Picard. I am Captain Antoinette Steele of the U.S.S. Panther. First, I need to apologize for our rudeness. I have been under strict orders to refrain from inter-vessel transmissions. I request permission for me and my First Officer to come aboard.”

Troi had heard the name before and she could sense Picard’s immediate relief with his recognition as well. “Captain Steele! This is a most unexpected surprise! By all means, welcome aboard! I must say it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said as he stepped forward to greet his guest.

Steele smiled brightly as she shook his hand and stepped down from the transporter pad. “Thank you Captain Picard. I’d like you to meet my First Officer, Commander Malek.”

Malek stepped down and shook Picard’s hand. “Captain.”

“Commander, a pleasure as well.” Picard turned to Steele once more, “Captain Steele, this is my First Officer…”

“Commander William T. Riker,” Steele interrupted and Troi watched as Steele approached Riker and stood directly in front of him.

Riker smiled gently and shook his head slightly. “Captain Steele. I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am to see that you’re back,” he said respectfully.

“Will!” Steele barked and to Troi’s utter surprise, threw herself wholly into his arms. His smile broke wider and he lifted her from the ground in a great hug.

Troi thought that her look of astonishment was superseded only by that of the captain’s.

Riker let Steele down from their moment of shared friendliness and she turned to Picard. “I’m sorry Captain Picard but it’s been far too long since I’ve laid eyes on Mister Riker here.” She smiled and patted his arm. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

Picard’s eyebrow lifted slightly. “Indeed.” He peered over to Riker whose face still reflected the happy surprise of Steele’s appearance. “Captain,” Picard continued, “this is Commander Deanna Troi, Ship’s Counselor and Lieutenant Commander Worf, our Security and Tactical Chief.”

Steele smiled and extended her hand which Deanna took in return. “Counselor, it’s a pleasure,” she said warmly then moved her hand to Worf’s. “Commander, I am readily familiar with you and your career. If it weren’t for you and the proof of the Defiant’s usefulness, I wouldn’t have the Panther now.” She grinned brightly.

Troi was confused by Steele. She didn’t know why exactly, something just didn’t feel right about her.

Steele turned swiftly back to Picard and her expression turned serious. “Captain, we need to talk privately. Your First Officer is welcome, but that’s all.” Steele shot a brief and apologetic look to Troi and Worf. “Sorry Counselor, sorry Mister Worf, no offense.”

Troi shook her head, still trying to discern the strong waves of emotions spilling out from Riker. “None taken, Captain,” she answered professionally.

Picard nodded. “This way Captain.” He moved forward out of the transporter room quickly followed by Steele and Malek.

Riker, still smiling, ushered Troi out before him. She turned to look at him but his eyes were solely affixed to Captain Steele who walked ahead of them.

“I must say we’re extremely surprised by your presence Captain,” Picard clarified as they entered the turbolift and the door closed behind them. “Bridge.”

“I can imagine,” Steele responded but then remained silent.

Troi could tell that she was waiting to address the matters further once they were alone. What’s wrong with her? Troi asked herself. Why is Will so happy to see her? How does he know her? How does she know him? Why is he so thrilled?

Riker addressed Steele with genuine excitement. “That’s one hell of a ship you have there, Captain. We had heard about the Panthera launches but I don’t think any of us were truly aware of their firepower until our scans went over her.”

Steele’s face beamed with pride. “Jealous, Commander?” She lifted her eyebrow with a playful prod. “I’m surprised you’re not commanding one of them yourself.”

“No thank you. I like to think of myself more as an explorer, Captain.” He smiled back.

Steele nodded slightly. “That’s what you think Riker. I seem to recall you being more of a fighter pilot myself.”

Troi shot Riker a glance and was surprised to see his face flushing with color. “That was a long time ago, Captain,” he conceded with a wry smile.

The group exited the turbolift as it opened out onto the bridge. Steele and Malek followed Picard. Riker moved in behind and watched as Troi and Worf made their way back towards their posts.

Troi’s eyes caught Riker’s briefly and he smiled sweetly to her. She was still having trouble making out his emotions. They were all over the charts. He was thrilled, happy, nervous, shocked and excited, all rolled into one.

Captain Steele however, was an enigma.

That’s it! I can’t read her! I can’t read her at all! It put Deanna on edge immediately. She watched the ready room door close behind Will as he entered. Who is she? Why can’t I sense her?

__________


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