Gulliver’s Travels (by Rona)

Synopsis:  A different view of their journeys.

Category:  Star Trek, The Next Generation
Genre:  SciFi
Rating:  T
Word Count:  12, 640


First Officer’s log, Stardate 56285.1.

I have been down on planet Jair 2 for three days now, overseeing the transfer of supplies from the USS Enterprise to the new colony. The supplies are mostly medical and agricultural, and the last anti-grav vehicle is being beamed down within the next half an hour. After that, we have 72 hours of shore leave on Jair before heading on to our next mission, mapping a new star cluster 3 light years away. I am looking forward to helping the colonists settle in.

*****

On board the Enterprise, transporter Chief O’Brien tapped his communicator. “O’Brien to Riker,” he said. “Energising now.” He touched the control pad, and the familiar shimmer surrounded the anti-grav unit, and it dematerialised. Cargo bay 2 was now empty, and O’Brien could return to his normal duties.

“Anti-grav unit down,” Riker’s voice said. “Thanks, O’Brien. Riker out.”

O’Brien touched his comm badge again. “O’Brien to Picard.”

“Go ahead, Mr O’Brien,” Picard said. He was sitting in his ready room, reading the previous days’ reports. He was not sorry to be interrupted.

“Transports complete, Captain. Returning to normal duties, Sir.”

“Acknowledged, Chief. Picard out.” Captain Jean-Luc Picard stretched slightly in his seat. The reports showed that everything was running smoothly, both on the ship and on the planet. That was the way it should be, but it made for rather boring reading. He tapped his communicator. “Picard to Riker.”

“Riker here,” he acknowledged instantly.

“Ah, Number One. All the supplies are down safely. I suggest you stay down and take your shore leave now.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Riker said, sounding pleased. “Riker out.”

Picard got to his feet and went onto the bridge. The android, Lt. Commander Data, immediately relinquished the command chair and went to his post at Ops, relieving an ensign. The bridge was, as always, a hive of activity, low murmuring voices coming from the various stations. Picard looked thoughtfully at the empty command chair on his left, and debated telling Counsellor Troi to take shore leave immediately. There was a rota of crew members who were due 24 hours of shore leave, and he supposed he’d better get it underway.

He opened his mouth and Worf said “Captain, I’m receiving a distress signal.”

Picard sat up a little straighter. “Put it through, Mr Worf.”

For a moment there was silence, then a voice said, “This is Captain Smith of the USS Gulliver. We have lost all warp and impulse engines. We are drifting. Any Federation vessel, please respond.”

Picard got to his feet, unconsciously tugging down the top of his uniform. “Open a channel, Mr Worf. This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. We are in orbit around Jair 2; we can be with you in a few hours. What happened? Were you attacked?”

“Picard!” The word was said with relief. “No, we were not attacked. Our engines just failed, and we can’t seem to find a reason for it.”

Picard frowned. “We’ll be there as soon as we can. Picard out.” He swung back to Worf. “Cancel all shore leave. Have you located their position?”

“Yes, Sir,” Worf rumbled, sounding faintly offended. “Co-ordinates transferred to helm.”

“Very good. Picard to Riker.”

After a pause Riker responded. “Riker here. What’s happened, Captain?”

“A distress call from the Gulliver. I need you back on board at once, Number One.”

“Yes, Sir. Riker out.”

Picard looked around. “Data, what can you tell me about the Gulliver?”

Data turned from his position. “The USS Gulliver has a crew of only fifty. It is a small, older type of science ship, studying star formation. It is due to be decommissioned in six months. Captain Reginald Smith has been in command for three years now. He is greatly respected among the scientific world for his work on black holes. All the crew of the Gulliverare scientists first and Starfleet officers second. This means that they were recruited by Starfleet only for scientific missions, and have not gone through the usual Starfleet training.”

“Thank you, Mr Data,” Picard said, as Data drew breath to continue. The turbolift door hissed open, and Commander Riker stepped onto the bridge. “Commander Riker, reporting for duty,” he said.

Picard nodded. “Helm, take us out of here. Engage.” He and Riker resumed their seats as the Enterprise swung out into space. “Mr Data, what can you tell us about the area of space where the Gulliver is?”

Data pressed several pads on his console. “It is an area little known, Captain. There are several planets there, but none M class. There does seem to be one with a strong magnetic pull, but sensors cannot tell me more at this range.”

“Thank you.” Picard turned to Riker. “I want you to beam across with an away team, and see what you can do to help. Make the team as small as possible, until we know what is happening over there. Yourself, Mr LaForge and a security man, but not Mr Worf. Once the situation is evaluated, Data can join you if necessary. There’s something a little fishy about this.”

“I agree,” Riker said, his handsome face serious. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Should we go armed?”

Picard sighed slightly as he thought it over. “Yes, just to be on the safe side. We don’t know what you’ll find over there.”

Three hours later, they came within transport distance of the stricken Gulliver. Picard, who had been in his ready room, came out and stared at the vessel on the viewscreen. “Life signs, Mr Data?”

Data pressed his console. “I am picking up 50 life signs,” he reported. “There also seems to be some kind of radiation in this area. It is not familiar to me. I am running a check through the data banks.”

Picard turned to Riker. “After we beam you over, I want reports every 15 minutes, until things are under control.”

“Understood,” Riker said, heading for the turbolifts. The door hissed shut behind him, and Picard returned to gazing at the Gulliver. “Keep me up-dated on that radiation, Mr Data. We don’t want any nasty surprises.”

*****

Riker glanced at Geordi LaForge and Ensign Wade, then nodded to Chief O’Brien. “Engage.” The familiar feel of the transporter shimmer engulfed him, and then moments later he was standing on the bridge of the Gulliver.

Riker sought Captain Smith and introduced himself. “Commander William Riker,” he said. “This is our chief engineer, Geordi LaForge, and Ensign Wade.”

“Commander,” Smith said. He gestured to the other crewmembers standing round. “My bridge crew. We’re grateful for your help.”

Riker nodded, but something in Smith’s tone seemed wrong to him. Smith did not sound grateful. He sounded as though he were repeating a phrase in a foreign language without really knowing what it meant. Geordi also caught the oddness of it. “Your engineering station?” he questioned, glancing round the bridge. He unconsciously began scanning the Gulliver’s crew with his VISOR.

Smith pointed to a station, and Geordi crossed to it and began pressing pads. Riker watched him for a moment, then turned back to the captain. “How long have you been drifting?” he asked.

“About 3 days, I think,” Smith replied, in the same detached tone. “The engines just stopped, and we couldn’t get them to restart.”

Riker felt exasperated. It seemed as though Smith did not care how long they’d been drifting. The distress call had been genuine, but it no longer appeared that Smith cared if, or when, they were to be rescued. “Computer, how long since the engines stopped?”

“The engines stopped 36 hours ago,” the computer voice replied.

Riker looked at Smith. “Just 36 hours ago? I thought you said 3 days.”

Smith shrugged. “It feels like three days. I suppose the computer is right.” He gave Riker a hard look. Riker assumed that it was because Riker himself was a Starfleet man, and Smith was really a scientist. There was often slight animosity between crews with different capabilities.

Riker moved away from the captain slightly and pressed his communicator. “Riker to Enterprise.”

“Go ahead, Number One.”

“Captain, there is definitely something going on here. Captain Smith seemed to think they’d been adrift for three days, but the computer says only 36 hours. And Smith seems….detached, somehow. Almost as though he didn’t care. The whole crew seem odd. Nobody’s talking unless spoken to.”

Riker looked uneasily over his shoulder.

“Acknowledged. Play it by ear until we have more idea what’s happening. Picard out.” Picard sounded puzzled, too. Riker crossed to Geordi’s side. Wade followed a few steps behind.

Geordi glanced at Riker. “This is a weird one, Commander. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the engines; they’re just not working. Almost as though there’s a dampening field at work. Yet the sensors don’t register a damper, or at least, not one we recognise. We may have to tow the Gulliver to the nearest Starbase and keeping trying to restart the engines.”

Riker nodded. “Well, we’d better get things in motion, then.” He straightened up and turned towards Smith. His communicator chirped. “Picard to Riker.” Picard’s voice sounded urgent, worried.

“Riker here,” he replied.

“Commander, we’ve traced the radiation, and its nasty. We’re extending shields round the Gulliver. We’re establishing a tractor beam to tow you out of there.” There was a slight jolt as the tractor beam took hold. “That planet directly ahead of you is emitting the radiation and a very strong magnetic pull. The Gulliver was being pulled ever closer. Take all precautions.”

“Acknowledged. Riker out.” He looked at the crew of the Gulliver. None of them had reacted at all to Picard’s warning. What’s the matter with them? Riker thought, striding towards the tactical station. The tactical officer, a small, slim young woman looked blankly at Riker.

“Red Alert!” he ordered. No-one moved, except Geordi and Wade. “Dammit, check the shields are up!” he snapped, and reached past the woman to do it himself.

He never discovered if the shields worked, because the woman snarled suddenly, and threw herself on Riker. She grasped his wrist and effortlessly lifted his hand away from the console. Riker gaped in amazement at his imprisoned arm and then tried to tug free. His arm moved not one centimetre.

Riker tugged harder, and suddenly the woman twisted her arm and Riker was on the floor, his wrist aching from the steadily increasing pressure. As she squeezed, Riker felt, and heard, his wrist break. He yelled, and suddenly Wade was there, wrestling with the woman. She simply shoved him away. Wade fell heavily.

But Geordi was there, too. He snatched up his phaser and fired. There was no time to worry about the phaser’s effect on Riker. He had to get Riker free from the woman’s grasp. Riker was already injured. The phaser shot would make little difference now. The first shot had no effect, so he fired again. Riker was free. “Enterprise, beam us over, quick!” he yelled, keeping the woman covered She seemed none the worse for the blast of heavy stun that Geordi had just given her, and was looking down on Riker with intense hatred, the most emotion that anyone had shown since they arrived. The other crewmembers were beginning to look angry, too.

Wade climbed to his feet and unshipped his phaser, standing protectively over Commander Riker, who still knelt on the floor, cradling his injured arm, and looking dazed. Geordi was relieved that he looked no worse. A moment later, the transporter shimmer formed around them, and they were, blessedly, back on the Enterprise.

Geordi went to Riker’s side, even as O’Brien summoned Doctor Crusher. Wade was already helping Riker to his feet. “Are you all right, Commander?” Geordi asked.

“Thanks to you, Geordi,” Riker replied. “That woman….She couldn’t be as strong as that naturally. Could she?”

“No way,” Wade replied, with feeling. “She was a human, and almost a foot smaller than either of us, Commander. That push she gave me felt like something Worf might use during a really hard training session. Harder than that, really.”

Beverly Crusher, the red-haired chief medical officer, came into the transporter room. She crossed to Riker’s side and scanned him, then ran the tricorder over the other two as well. “I want all three of you in Sickbay. You’ve all had too much exposure to the radiation.” She indicated to Wade to help Riker, and they left the transporter room behind.

*****

The Enterprise was steadily towing the Gulliver away, and Data was trying to figure out why its engines wouldn’t restart. Beverly was treating the away team for the radiation exposure they had suffered, and Commander Riker’s wrist was already well on the mend. There had been no more contact with the Gulliver. They did not answer any hails and Picard refused to send another away team over until they had more idea what was going on. Having covered as many options as he could, Picard felt it was safe to leave the bridge for a few minutes, and left Worf in command.

On the way to sickbay, the turbolift stopped, and Deanna Troi got on. She smiled at the Captain. “I’d guess you’re going to sickbay, too, Captain?”

“Quite right, Counsellor. I must see how the away team is, and get a full report. I don’t understand any of this. Reg Smith is one of the steadiest men I know. He’s no great shakes in a fight, but he would never sanction an attack upon another Starfleet officer.”

“Perhaps he isn’t Reg Smith,” Deanna suggested. “Perhaps none of the crew are really who they seem to be. Perhaps this radiation has caused personality changes.”

Picard grunted. “Yes, I thought of that, too. What do you sense from the Gulliver?”

Deanna’s eyes became unfocused. “Great hatred. And yet…..fear, too. Almost as though the hatred wasn’t their feeling, but the feeling of someone sharing their minds or bodies. Like a symbiont. And yet, I don’t feel another presence. It could be shielded from me. Something as powerful as that could easily shield its mind from me.”

Picard sighed. “Well, we’ll just have to see what the away team has to report. I need Riker and LaForge back on the bridge where they can do some good.”

The turbolift stopped and they walked along the corridor to Sickbay. The door hissed open before them and they walked in, heading directly for Doctor Crusher, who was working on Riker. Geordi and Ensign Wade lay on beds. “Doctor,” Picard said, both greeting and questioning her.

She glanced at him, then back to her task. “They all got a large dose of radiation, and are currently feeling lousy while my drugs clear it out of their systems. No harm seems to have been done. Commander Riker’s wrist is taking longer than I’d anticipated, but the breakage was severe.”

Picard shifted his gaze to Riker. “Number One,” he said. “What happened?”

Riker gave a full account of what had happened. “There is definitely something weird going on. That tactical officer should not have been able to do that to me.” He sensed, as much as saw, Deanna start to object. “No, I don’t mean that in a macho way. She was small, slim and young. Okay, maybe she is strong for her size, but not that strong. The only other person I know who could have done what she did was Data. She broke my wrist without effort. One little squeeze, and pow, it was gone.”

Beverly nodded. “It certainly wasn’t human strength that did it, Captain. Let me show you.” She crossed to a display panel. “This was Will’s wrist at his medical a month or so ago. This is what it looked like when he beamed back aboard.” Even to untrained eyes, the x-ray type picture clearly showed the bones in several hundred small pieces. “Will is right,” Beverly continued. “Data could do this to a person.”

Picard frowned. “This is even trickier than I thought,” he murmured. “Doctor, how long before they can return to duty?”

“Well..” Beverly began.

“I think we ought to have our brain waves checked,” Riker interrupted. “If they had been exposed to that radiation for 36 or more hours, perhaps that is what has changed them.”

“I have checked you out,” Beverly said “Everything was fine. I don’t know why you’re worrying, Will.”

Deanna shivered at the bleakness of Will’s thoughts. From his supine position on the examination table, Will Riker gave them a look that made them all shudder. “You weren’t over there.”

Geordi was sitting up, his VISOR lying beside him. “The Commander is right,” Geordi said. “It was terrifying, and if the radiation does cause this as an after effect, then you could be in trouble.”

Beverly frowned. Picard was scowling, too. Will and Geordi both looked exhausted, but he knew they would be fine in a few hours. Unless… unless what Will was suggesting was likely, in which case, he could have two rogue officers on the loose, both in positions to do them harm. Trouble-shooting was part of the First Officer’s job, and Riker was to be commended for still thinking of that while injured.

“Suggestions,” Picard said, curtly. He looked chiefly at Deanna and Beverly, but Will made the recommendation.

“I think we should be monitored at all times, and have security officers posted close by, just in case. Wade should stay here, where Beverly can keep a close eye on him, and if there is the slightest problem, Geordi and I should be brought back, too. That way, we can work on the problem, but not destroy any of your efforts.” Will was grey and obviously in pain, but his gaze was as direct and unwavering as always.

Picard glanced at Beverly, who nodded. “Yes, I could monitor them constantly from here.”

Picard nodded. “Make it so.” He crossed to Riker and touched his shoulder briefly. “See you on the bridge, Number One.”

*****

Captains log, supplemental. Commander Riker should be back on the bridge soon, following his injury on the Gulliver. I am following his suggestions to monitor the away team carefully, in case the madness should spread from the Gulliver via my officers. I hardly know what to make of the whole situation. We have too many questions and not enough answers.

Two hours later, a pale Commander Riker entered the bridge. He was followed closely behind by Lt. Yeovil, the biggest, strongest security officer Worf had, excluding himself, of course. Worf had taken Riker’s recommendation very seriously, and had decided that if Riker went mad and attacked someone, he and Yeovil could deal with it between them. Riker’s wrist was in a bandage, something not seen very often nowadays, but Beverly had judged it better to let Riker back to the bridge quickly, and just support the last stage of healing. The ship’s replicators had provided Beverly with the bandage. She was quite proud of her technique, as she had only once used a bandage before, during her training.

“Welcome back, Number One,” Picard said, raising a smile. Riker sat carefully in his chair, telling Picard silently that he still hurt. “We can’t raise the Gulliver on any channel, but the sensors tell us that the crew are still alive. The radiation is diminishing as we move away from that planet, but towing the Gulliver means that we can’t break into warp, and its taking a little longer than we expected to break free of the magnetic pull.”

Riker nodded. “What was the Gulliver doing here anyway?” he asked. “I thought we were the only ship out this far.”

“So did I,” Picard agreed. “Data is trying to retrieve the Gulliver’s logs. And then we’ll see what Gulliver’s travels were all about.” Riker flicked a smile at his captain, as he recognised the reference to an ancient Earth story. “However, I don’t expect they’ll be as entertaining as Jonathan Swift’s book was. But I’m sure they were due to be heading back to Earth, for decommissioning. Perhaps they were heading back and got side-tracked.”

“Heading back from where, Sir?” Riker asked. “No-one really knows what’s out in this sector. We’re only just starting to explore it.”

Picard nodded. “Well, we can only wait and see what the logs say.”

Riker frowned. He got carefully to his feet, conscious that any sudden movement on his part would agitate Yeovil. He walked up the ramp to the afterbridge and crossed to the station where Data was working. As he reached it, Geordi entered the bridge. He joined Riker and Data.

“The ship’s logs are coming through very slowly,” Data informed them. “Almost as though they are trying to prevent me down loading them. I am also continuously scanning for engine activity and computer activity. So far there has been nothing to note. I cannot find any fault with either their warp or impulse engines.”

Geordi leaned in closer. “What’s that, Data?” he queried, pointing to a line on a graph.

“Computer activity, Geordi. It has just begun. Odd.”

Riker straightened and turned to look at the viewscreen. “Why would they suddenly start using the computer?” he murmured. “Is there any change in the engines?”

“No, Sir,” Data replied. “They are still inoperative.”

With swift strides, Riker headed back down the ramp. “Counsellor, what are you sensing from the ship now?” he demanded.

Deanna paused. “Still hatred and fear, but I sense… I’m not sure… triumph perhaps.” She looked up at Riker. “Yes, definitely triumph.”

“They’re putting something over on us,” he said, shaking his head. “Now what…” He suddenly began striding towards the turbolift. “O’Brien, transport those people off the Gulliver!” He paused and swung back to the Captain. “They’ve set autodestruct!” He issued another order as he entered the turbolift. “Security to transporter rooms.”

Worf followed at a run. Picard looked at Deanna, then stood up and turned towards Data. “Is he right?”

Data turned to look at the captain. “I cannot think of any other thing they would logically be doing after all this time.”

Picard looked back at the Gulliver. “But why?”

*****

Riker entered the transporter room at a run. O’Brien was waiting for him. “I’ve got a lock on 5, Commander.”

“Bring them over,” Riker ordered. “We don’t have time to wait.”

The security forces arrived as the shimmer began to form. As the people solidified, Riker recognised Captain Smith and the girl who had attacked him. They looked even angrier than they had a couple of hours previously. Smith glanced around and saw Riker. He snarled, and launched himself off the platform and hit Riker full on.

Riker had seen it coming, and was half-braced for the assault. Using Smith’s own momentum, he fell to the floor and catapulted Smith over his head. Smith crashed off the bulkhead, but it didn’t seem to affect him at all. He lunged to his feet, and charged at Riker again. Will dodged, but Smith grabbed him, and managed to pull him off balance. Riker stumbled, and ducked another wild swing. What the hell was security doing? he wondered. Risking a glance about, he saw that the security teams were having problems containing the other 4 crew members. Riker would have to continue coping on his own.

Smith rushed him again, amazingly agile for someone of his age and bulk. Will again dodged, but was not quick enough. Smith picked him up – picked him up – and hurled him against the bulkhead. Riker slid to the floor, breathless and dazed. He could see Smith coming towards him, but could not summon the energy to fight on. As Smith neared, Riker’s breath came back with a jolt, and he began to hope he would be able to stave off the older man just a little longer. But Riker hadn’t bargained on Smith simply falling on top of him. Crushed beneath the weight of the older man, Riker was helpless.

He reached up and grabbed Smith’s throat. Smith hardly seemed to notice, and simply batted Riker’s arms away. He opened his mouth to show two large fangs. He showed every intention of sinking them into Riker’s neck!

Just as Riker thought he could hold Smith off no longer, Smith faltered. Then he began to move again, and Riker despaired. Then Smith collapsed heavily on top of him and was still.

“Commander!” It was Worf. He rolled Smith off Riker and looked worriedly down at his commanding officer. “Are you all right?” He helped Riker to his feet.

Riker winced. He hurt all over, but seemed to be in one piece. “Yes, I’m fine thanks, Worf.” He gathered his wits and looked about. All the crew of the Gulliver lay unconscious around the room. “We’d better…” The Enterprise gave a slight lurch.

O’Brien touched his console. “I’m sorry, Commander, the Gulliver just exploded. They put their own shields up after we got the first group.”

Riker looked stricken. “You got no-one else?” he asked, knowing that O’Brien hadn’t. With the fighting that had been going on, there was no way the Chief could have done any transporting. “Thanks, Chief.” He leaned weakly on the edge of the console for a moment, but a twinge from his barely healed wrist reminded him not to lean too hard.

Worf shot Riker a glance as he winced. “Perhaps you should go to sickbay, Commander,” he suggested. “You seem ….fatigued.”

Riker grinned. “I’m a bit battered and bruised, but I’m not wilting, Lieutenant. But we must get this lot to sickbay and placed under restraint before they start to come round. I don’t want to have to do that again.” He flexed his shoulders, and smiled. “I’ll leave that in your capable hands, Mr Worf. I’ll head back to the bridge.” Riker headed out of the transporter room, and Yeovil followed immediately behind. If it made Riker feel uncomfortable, he had no-one to blame but himself.

*****

Picard glanced at Riker as he came back onto the bridge. “How many did we rescue?” he asked.

Riker suddenly realised that he had not reported in. His sudden flush embarrassed him even more. “Only five, Sir. Unfortunately, they were not pleased at being rescued, and by the time we had them subdued, the Gulliver put up its shields and had exploded. Captain Smith is one of those five.”

Picard frowned. “Subdued? Do you mean that they attacked you? Was anyone hurt?”

“Yes, Sir, they did attack us. No-one was hurt, beyond bumps and bruises.” Riker suddenly felt very dishevelled. He was really the only one who had bumps and bruises; the others had all had phasers to help them. Riker suddenly felt like a prize idiot.

Deanna leaned forward, round the Captain. “You are the one with all the bruises, aren’t you, Will?” She smiled. “You never can stay out of trouble, can you?”

Riker smiled back, but he really didn’t appreciate the levity. He suddenly felt enormously tired. He looked back at Picard. “What else can I do to help?”

Picard rubbed his face. “You can do your duty, Number One and go off duty. Your shift finished a few minutes ago. You’ll be of more use deciphering the Gulliver’s logs if you are rested. That’s an order. Mr Yeovil will be posted outside your quarters.” As the younger man rose, Picard glanced up at him. “Sleep well, Will,” he said, softly.

Riker nodded, and left the bridge. Deanna looked back at Picard and said, “He knows you’re right, but resents being told. Will wants to prove that he’s still perfectly fine, and so is going over the score with it.”

Picard smiled. “Yes, I know. Let’s hope he is all right.” He knew he hadn’t hidden his concerns from Deanna. He hadn’t tried to.

*****

Riker wakened, sweating, from a nightmare. He swallowed the scream he felt forming in his throat and forced himself to lie down again. He couldn’t remember the dream, but it wasn’t the only nightmare he’d had that night. “Computer, what time is it?”

“Oh seven thirty hours,” the computer replied.

Riker leaped as if stung. “Lights,” he commanded, and reached for his clothing. He was due on duty in half an hour, and had obviously forgotten to set a wake up call. “Coffee, black, hot,” he ordered the replicator. He took a large gulp of the coffee, and nearly scalded his mouth. His communicator chirped.

“Crusher to Riker.”

“Riker here.” He cursed silently. Now what?

“Report to sickbay immediately. Crusher out.”

Dumping his coffee, Riker left his quarters. Yeovil was once again on duty outside, but had presumably had some sleep, as he looked as fresh as ever. “Good morning, Commander,” he said, cheerfully.

“Morning,” Riker replied. “I have to go to sickbay first.” Perplexed, and slightly worried, Riker headed for the nearest turbolift. Perhaps Beverly had found something in the brain waves of the Gulliver’s crew. Perhaps she had found something in his brain pattern, or Geordi’s or Wade’s. There was really no point in speculating, but he couldn’t help himself.

The door to sickbay hissed open, and Riker entered, looking curiously at the unconscious forms of the other crew, and at Wade, who was sitting up, looking bored. They exchanged nods, and Will looked round at Beverly, who came out of her office.

She smiled at Will and patted the examination table. Will resisted her suggestion warily. “What’s this about?” he asked.

“Part of your suggestion, Will,” she replied. “Now hop up here, and let me look at you. I know from the monitoring that you had a bad night. What were your dreams about?”

Will lay back on the table. “I don’t remember,” he replied. “I’m due on duty..” he began.

“Relax, Will. The captain knows where you are. You aren’t derelict in your duty.” She continued to run her tricorder over him.

Will looked over to the crew of the Gulliver. “What have you found out about them?” he asked.

“There is definitely a change in their brain patterns. But I’m fairly sure it wasn’t caused by the radiation. I still have some more tests to run, then I’ll be sure. We have to look else where for the cause of this. You’re probably off the hook.” She smiled at him, then glanced up as Geordi entered sickbay. “Sit down, Lieutenant, I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Geordi sat down on the other table. “How did you sleep, Commander?” he asked. He glanced round at Wade, who had come across to join them.

“Probably much the same as you,” Riker replied. “I wakened, screaming, from a nightmare this morning. I don’t recall it, but it was vile.” He glanced back at Beverly, who was still fussing over her tricorder. “Are you done, doctor?” he asked, impatience in his voice.

“You’ll know when I’ve finished,” Beverly returned serenely. “I’ll tell you.” She frowned slightly, and scanned Riker’s wrist again. “Odd.”

“What is?” Riker frowned, too, and Geordi moved to look at the tricorder. Beverly shielded it from him.

“This wrist is no better than it was yesterday,” she said, perplexed. “All the muscles ought to be healed by now, and no signs left on the bone. But it still seems weak.” She paused, then snapped the tricorder closed. She crossed to the instrument panel and selected an instrument and returned. She played the laser over the area of the injury, her lips compressed in concentration. Geordi and Wade exchanged a glance. “There,” Beverly said, switching off the laser. “That should help. Just be careful with that wrist.”

“Sound advice,” Riker commented, swinging upright. “Can I go now?”

Beverly looked at him critically for a moment, then nodded. “Sure,” she smiled. “Don’t forget your bodyguard.”

Riker smiled mirthlessly at her and started for the door. Suddenly one of the nurses said, “Doctor, look at this!”

Riker paused, and turned back. Beverly crossed to Captain Smith’s side and gazed at the panel. “Well,” she said, finally. “Well, well, well!”

“What does that mean?” Riker demanded, going over to her and gazing at the panel. He knew it was life-signs, but the rest of the information was double-Dutch to him.

“Come over here and I’ll show you,” she offered. En route, she touched her comm. “Crusher to Picard.”

“Yes, Doctor?” came Picard’s voice.

“I think you should come to sickbay immediately. I think we may have found something.”

“On my way. Picard out.” On the bridge, Picard got to his feet. “Mr Data, you have the bridge.” He glanced down at Deanna. “I hope its nothing serious.”

“I hope so, too,” she replied. “Perhaps I’d better come, too.”

They exited the bridge together.

*****

“What have you found, Doctor?” Picard asked as he entered sickbay. He nodded to his senior staff, both of whom looked strained.

“I examined Commander Riker this morning, and found that his wrist injury wasn’t quite healed. But that was all, and it isn’t usually too hard to correct. Then Alyssa found this in Captain Smith, and also all the other Gulliver crew members.” She illuminated the panel. “This is Will’s wrist. See the crack? Look at Smith’s wrist.” She illuminated another panel, and it could have been the same picture all over again.

“The same pattern of crack, and the same breakage exactly. They all have it, in one wrist or the other.” Flicking her finger over a pad, she brought up the other pictures.

Picard looked at them closely. “So what does it mean?” he inquired. “Do you think this is the link with the ..” he hesitated. “..the madness?”

Beverly sighed. “I certainly can’t discard it. It seems unlikely to be simply coincidence. Ensign Maryatt could have done this to all the others, as she did it to Will, but who did it to her?” Beverly ran a hand through her hair. “There might be a virus or bacterium that enters through an injury like this, and the only sign is an unhealed break. Then it goes to work on their brain.”

Picard was frowning furiously. “Can you cure it?”

“I don’t know if it exists, yet,” she protested. “I’ll need to run more tests. Blood tests, bone density, well, a variety of things. But I need more information. I need to know where the Gulliver had been. That might help me.”

“We’ll get on it right away,” Picard promised.

“What about Will, Geordi and Ensign Wade?” Deanna questioned. “Do you need them to stay here?”

Beverly swung about and looked at them. “No,” she said, softly. “Geordi and Wade, you are fine. I don’t think there is any further need to monitor you. As for Will,” she smiled at him. “I’m afraid that you may be still at risk. There’s no need to confine you to sickbay, as long as our precautions remain intact. You’ll be better off doing things, than sitting here brooding. I may want you for blood tests later. I just don’t know right now.”

Will was sitting casually on the edge of the examination table, but only Deanna knew for sure how much effort that pose cost him. “Have I your permission to report to the bridge, Captain?” he asked, formally.

Picard nodded. “Of course, Number One. Carry on.” He watched as Riker strode out of sickbay, Yeovil obediently following behind. When the doors had hissed shut behind his first officer, Picard swung back to Beverly. “How long do you think Will has before he succumbs?”

“I don’t know, Captain,” Beverly replied, frustrated. “I simply don’t know.”

*****

The Enterprise eased into standard orbit round planet Ariston Alpha. Data looked up from the station where he was working. “An away team beamed down to this planet from theGulliver. It was collecting soil and plant samples. This was to aid the colonists in their agricultural efforts.”

Riker nodded. “What were their results?”

Data pressed some pads, and another graph lit the screen. “They were able to provide the colonists with a fertiliser that would aid their crop production and increase the yield. A simple, straight forward mission.”

“How long ago were they here, and how long did they stay?” Riker asked.

“They left 62 hours ago. They had been here for 10 hours, 26 minutes. Of course, the Enterprise travelled here much faster than the Gulliver could.” Data touched a few pads and the soil and planet analysis results were displayed.

Riker scanned through them. “Well, that tells us precisely nothing.” He straightened and turned to Picard. “Do you want to send an away team down?”

“No, Number One. Beverly is contacting the colonists to discover if they have encountered anything like this. But from what we have here, I would say that we need to look further afield.” Picard peered again at the screen, then shook his head. “We must be looking for an anomaly of some kind. Mr Data, please list the places where the Gulliver has been in the last week.”

Data swiftly brought the information to the screen. He and Riker scanned through it together. “Can you plot this on the star map? Sometimes names just aren’t enough.” Picard nodded approvingly at Riker’s suggestion. He touched Riker’s shoulder and left to deal with another task. Data obliged. Riker leaned in closer, frowning.

“What the hell were they doing there?” Riker exclaimed, pointing to a star far out of their expected course. “That isn’t on a direct route to anywhere they were headed. What do the logs say?”

Data tapped the pads again. “Odd,” he commented, frowning. He turned his golden eyes to Riker. “The log simply says ‘Going to Guarda Prime.’ It says nothing else. They do not state their business there, when they arrived, or when they left. Curious.”

“Damned curious, I’d say. As soon as we get clearance from Doctor Crusher, I’d suggest we head for Guarda Prime. The answer may be there.” Riker stood up and headed down the ramp to the main section of the bridge. Yeovil was only a pace behind him. Riker was finding the attention seriously annoying, but curbed his temper. It was all his own idea after all, and Yeovil was only following orders.

Picard was in his ready room, having a cup of tea. He put the cup aside as Riker entered, and he brought the captain up to date. “Have you heard from Doctor Crusher yet?”

“No,” Picard replied. He took a sip of tea. “Good work, Number One.” His communicator chirped, interrupting him. It was Crusher.

“I’ve spoken to the medics here, and they have had no signs of this disease. There have been no broken bones recently, and if I’m right about that connection, I don’t see any need to stay any longer.”

“Have you made any progress? Doctor?” Picard asked, knowing that Riker wanted to know but was too proud to ask.

“No. We’ve ruled out some more obvious things, but are no nearer finding out what it is.”

Picard signed off, and looked at Riker. “Very well, Number One. Set course for Guarda Prime, warp 6. When we get there, I want you to lead an away team. We must get to the bottom of this, and since you know all the signs intimately, I can think of no-one more suitable.”

“Aye, Sir,” Riker replied, and exited. Picard heard him start to issue the order to move just before the doors hissed shut. Riker had intimate knowledge of this disease, but could it have taken hold before they reached Guarda Prime. Picard sincerely hoped not. He hoped it would not take hold ever.

*****

First Officer’s log, personal. We are approaching Guarda Prime, and I hope that we will find the answers we need. I still feel fine, but everyone is watching me, waiting for me to go mad. It is quite discouraging.

Guarda Prime was a horrible planet. The atmosphere was breathable, but not over prolonged exposure. The planet was wracked by periodic storms, so fierce that there was little animal or plant life there. The temperature could drop forty degrees in as many seconds, or could rise to uncomfortable heights equally quickly. The little animal life consisted mostly of hardy rabbit-sized creatures that were very ferocious and usually venomous. The furry, cute creatures were also cannibalistic.

By the time the Enterprise reached Guarda Prime, Ensign Maryatt had died, and Smith looked likely to follow her any minute. Beverly did an autopsy and found several long, thick fibres growing in Maryatt’s brain. The fibres were organic in nature, and impossible to remove intact. Beverly had to content herself with a small piece that she broke off. She kept it isolated, and analysed it. It showed unusual quantities of blood vessels and something that strongly suggested neural pathways. A further look at Maryatt’s brain showed that the fibre was tapped into all major brain functions, especially emotional and personality aspects.

Having found something concrete to work on, Beverly then adjusted the Enterprise med.-scanners to recognise the fibre, and began scanning her other remaining patients. They were all affected to various degrees. Smith was the most severe by far. Faced with this unpalatable news, Beverly began trying to find something that would kill this organism, yet leave the patient alive and unharmed. She also double checked the broken bones the crew had suffered, and found traces of the organism in the breaks, and then in the nervous system. Whatever this thing was, it knew exactly what it was doing.

Beverly took a deep breath, and tapped her comm. “Crusher to bridge.” At the reply she went on “Captain, I need you and Commander Riker in sickbay at once.” She heard the acknowledgement, then turned to one of the other doctors. “Take a modified tricorder and go and scan Lt LaForge and Ensign Wade. Any signs in them, and bring them back here at once!” She ran her hand through her hair. She wished she didn’t have to do this.

Picard and Riker entered together, both looking grim. They joined Beverly in her office, and knew from her face that the news was not good. “Tell me,” Riker said, not waiting for either Beverly or Picard to speak.

“I’ve found an organism,” Beverly began. She quickly outlined her findings. “I need to scan you, Will. I also need your permission, Captain, to operate on Captain Smith to extract a piece of living tissue from his brain, to see if that gives me any clues. Its not normally something I would do, but Captain Smith has, at best, only a few hours left. His brain is almost swallowed up with this…thing.”

“Of course, Doctor,” Picard said, instantly. “Do whatever you feel is necessary.”

Beverly nodded wearily. “Thank you.” She smiled gently at Will. “Come with me.”

Exchanging glances with Picard, Riker followed Beverly. He lay quietly as Beverly scanned his brain once more. From her silence, Riker knew that Beverly had found what he had dreaded. “Its there, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes,” Beverly said, reluctantly. “Its slightly more wide-spread than I had thought. I want to give you a neural suppresser, Will. It’ll slow down your thought process slightly, but it should also help to slow down the spread of this thing.”

“No,” Riker said, quietly.

Beverly started. “But, Will,” she protested, looking to Picard for support.

“Why not?” Picard asked, coming closer.

“You need me to lead this away team,” he explained, sitting up. “It is too dangerous for you to beam down. Suppose the life force, which has caused this to happen, managed to get to you? The captain of a starship is not expendable, but the first officer is. Surely there is little more this thing can do to me, except send me mad quicker.” He glanced at Beverly, who nodded. “I know there are no humanoid life signs on the planet, but there must be something down there that doesn’t register as a life form on our sensors. This organism didn’t register at first, did it? Perhaps we can rig up some kind of warning sensor for me to carry. Something that would recognise another organism.”

Beverly was nodding. “We could rig a sensor to your broken wrist, because it might draw more of the organism to it.” She was scanning his wrist again as she spoke. “The crack has increased again.” She shut off the tricorder, and turned to rummage in her instruments. She turned back, holding a small device. “I can plant this sensor device into the break in your wrist. It’ll hurt more, but I can give you something for that. If any of the organism tries to get into your body this will sound an alert, and seal off this part of your nervous system.” She paused, thoughtfully. “This is going to be very painful for you, Will. I’ll modify the biosensor and a tricorder to detect any alarm. I’ll have it ready as soon as possible.” She looked at Picard, who nodded, reluctantly.

“Thank you, Doctor,” Picard said, and left the sickbay, with Riker following behind.

*****

An hour later, the senior staff met in the observation lounge. Picard started the meeting. “As you know, Ensign Maryatt died earlier. Unfortunately, Captain Smith died a few minutes ago. The other three crewmembers are still ill, and getting worse. We hope to find out what is at the back of this disease, and possibly find a cure, down on Guarda Prime. As you are probably aware, the atmosphere is not breathable for long periods, so the away team will have to work quickly. Commander Riker will lead the away team. Mr Data, Mr LaForge, Lt. Worf and Ensign Yeovil will make up the team. Dr Crusher will show you what you are looking for.”

Beverly sat forward, and pressed a pad in front of her. Immediately, a holographic, three dimensional, image of the fibre appeared, floating over the table. Everyone leaned forward for a better look. Geordi made a shocked sound, and swung his head to look at Riker.

“What is it?” Riker asked, seeing the expression on Geordi’s face.

“So that’s what I can see,” he replied. “I wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but I could see it in the crew of the Gulliver. Now that I look, I can see it in you, too, Commander.”

“That should prove useful,” Riker said, dryly. “At least we won’t have to rely entirely on the bio- sensor.”

“Bio-sensor?” Geordie asked.

Beverly nodded. “I’m going to implant a bio-sensor in Commander Riker’s injured arm. It will sound an alarm if the organism tries to enter his system again. It should also protect his nervous system.” She projected another holographic display, showing where she intended to put the sensor.

“Won’t that cause Will a lot of pain?” Deanna asked.

“At least it will not affect your ability to handle a phaser.” Worf rumbled.

“I won’t be carrying a phaser,” Riker stated. As they gaped at him in shock, Riker said, “Suppose I go mad when we reach the surface? If I had a phaser, then I could kill most of the senior staff in one fell swoop. Too risky.”

“But, Commander,” Worf protested. “How will you defend yourself?”

“I’ll have to rely on you, Mr Worf,” Riker returned, hiding his own misgivings. He refused to meet Deanna’s eyes.

“Beverly?” Deanna persisted, tearing her eyes away from Will’s resolute face. “How much pain will he be in?”

“At best,” Beverly said, looking round the table, “Will will have 50% use of his arm.”

“But probably less than that,” Riker said, matter-of-factly. He met everyone’s eyes, slowly and calmly.

Picard frowned, not happy with that. “Number one, I don’t know if..” he began.

“With all due respect, Sir,” Riker interrupted, “we discussed this earlier.” He smiled at Picard. “We can only be down there for half an hour, that’s all.”

Picard ruminated for several minutes, then nodded, unhappily. “Make it so,” he ordered.

*****

Captain’s log, personal. The away team are beaming down, but I am not happy about it. Commander Riker is showing exemplary behaviour and extraordinary courage, but I still fear what could happen to him. Our only hope is that they away team find something down there that can help us.

As the shimmer of the transporter died away, Data had his tricorder out and working. “I am registering some small life forms, Commander,” he stated. “They are currently heading away from this position.”

“Good,” Riker replied, peering round. “Lets spread out a little bit. We want to cover ground, but we don’t want to get separated. Data, are you picking up the signal from the bio-sensor?” If for some reason Data wasn’t picking it up, Riker thought, he would murder Beverly Crusher. His arm was useless, the pain very bad.

“Yes, Sir,” Data replied, mercifully brief for once.

“Right, let’s go,” Riker ordered. He stepped out, leading the group forward in a standard search pattern. They were all armed with tricorders which had been adapted to register the organism the same way as Geordi’s VISOR did. Worf stayed close to Riker’s back, all his warrior’s senses alert for trouble.

There was a sudden scuffling under a nearby bush. Worf swung his phaser towards it, but nothing appeared. Riker checked the tricorder readings, and gave a relieved sigh. “Relax, Worf,” he said. “Its only one of those animals.” Slowly, trying not to frighten off the beast, Riker lifted a branch. There the little creature sat, looking very innocent, but feasting on one of its fellows. Riker shuddered involuntarily, and let the branch drop. “Nasty little critters, aren’t they?” he commented

“Indeed,” Worf rumbled. “I understand they are venomous, too. I am glad they are not common throughout the galaxy.”

They moved on. Time was ticking away from them too swiftly. After half an hour, the transporters would automatically beam them back to the ship. If they had found nothing, they would have to wait until after the next set of storms, before they could begin searching another sector. By then, Riker thought, he could be raving mad. His temper was already on a knife-edge, and he was struggling to keep it.

“Commander!” Geordi shouted. “Over here!”

Riker and Worf exchanged glances, and raced over to Geordi’s side. “What is it?” Riker asked, looking about him.

“This tree has a similar structure to the organism. Should I take a sample?” Geordi was looking warily at the tree.

“Yes, but perhaps we should get Data to do it.” Riker beckoned to the android, who came over to take a sample. As soon as the ‘bark’ was cut, a long, sinuous loop of fibre fell out of the tree. Riker recoiled. Data carefully cut through the fibre and put a piece into a special container. He held it up for a closer look, and they all crowded around him.

“It does look very similar to the organism,” he said. “I hope it will be of some use to Doctor Crusher.”

“You and me both,” Riker said. They straightened up and moved apart slightly. Riker eased his arm, trying to gain some respite from the pain. He was sweating, now. Then there was a sudden, intense burst of pain, and the alarm on Data’s tricorder shrieked a warning. The bit of remaining fibre in the tree had suddenly come to life, and had arched towards Riker. It had touched the injured arm and Riker fell to the ground, clutching his upper arm.

Worf fired his phaser, even though there was some danger to Commander Riker. It took several moments for the phaser to have an effect, and then the piece attached to Riker’s arm was severed from the tree. Worf tapped his communicator. ”Worf to Enterprise. Transport directly to sickbay.”

There was an answering shimmer immediately.

*****

Sickbay again, Riker thought, coming back to himself. He seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time there just lately. Beverly had removed the sensor, and the living fibre, and had had difficulty with both. Riker had been unconscious for the procedure, and now found himself feeling unusually languid. Thinking was almost too much effort.

Beverly and Picard came out of her office, and crossed to his bed. “I’ve given you a neural suppresser,” she explained, gently. “We’re working on the fibre, and we should get a result soon.”

“Good,” Riker replied. “Do you know how to kill it?”

Beverly smiled. “Yes, but at the moment, I don’t know how to keep you alive while I do it.”

Picard smiled at his first officer. “I want you to stay here, Number One. You have done more than your share this mission. I doubt there will be any need for you to return to the surface again. You need the rest. Then, when Doctor Crusher finds an antidote, you’ll be on hand to receive it.”

“Yes, Sir,” Riker replied. He looked sleepy to Picard’s eyes, and the lines of strain were beginning to show around his mouth. “Thank you, Sir.” As Picard and Crusher moved away, Riker closed his eyes, and fell immediately into a nightmare-ridden sleep.

Something large, dark and shapeless was before him, and whichever way he turned, this … thing… was there. There was a whispering in his mind; too faint at first for him to hear, and intensely irritating because of that. Riker strained to hear. The whispering became louder, until he could understand the sounds. The sounds (not words in any language he recognised) spoke to him of hatred and unending captivity. Pictures flashed through his mind of his crewmates, and things that he normally took for granted; but they now seemed to him to be oppressive ways of keeping him enslaved. Picard’s face loomed over him, and seemed unutterably evil and depraved

Suddenly, Riker knew what he must do. He must get off this slave vessel, and get back to the planet where he had been free. If he wanted to help his fellow slaves, he had to hurt them, to make them understand. But the most important thing was to escape!

Riker’s eyes popped open, and he glanced about .He had no idea how long he’d been asleep, but it didn’t matter. He eased off the bed, and headed silently towards the door. Yeovil had been stood down, as Riker was considered less vulnerable after the suppresser was administered, so he had a clear path.

He walked swiftly along the corridor, careful to keep a lookout for anyone he could help. But all the crew he encountered were in pairs, and the inner sense told him not to take any risks. Consequently, Riker arrived at transporter room 3 without having ‘saved ‘ anyone else.

Transporter room 3 was empty, as Riker had known it would be. He swiftly set co-ordinates and the timer, then climbed onto the platform. Moments later, he beamed down to the planet.

*****

“Captain,” Worf said, sounding surprised, “the transporter has just been activated.”

“What?” Picard exclaimed, coming out of a reverie with a jerk. “Chief, who just used the transporter?”

“No-one from here, Captain,” O’Brien replied. “Hold on while I check the others.” After a brief pause he said, “Transporter room 3 was used, sir. There was no-one on duty there, as it was being serviced. The work was complete, and the technician had gone for a suitable test object. The pattern buffers tell me that it was Commander Riker who beamed down.”

O’Brien was interrupted by Beverly Crusher. “Captain, Commander Riker has disappeared!”

“Acknowledged, Doctor. It seems your patient has transported himself down to the surface. Mr Data, what are the conditions down there?”

Data worked his console for a few seconds. “Storms are covering 90% of the surface of the planet. I estimate that the whole surface will be covered in 10 minutes 3 seconds.”

Picard frowned. “O’Brien, do you have the co-ordinates Commander Riker used.?”

“Yes, Sir,” O’Brien replied.

Picard thought for a moment, then said, “Mr Data, Mr Worf, thermal gear, and find Commander Riker. If you haven’t got him by the time the storm hits that sector, I’ll beam you out.”

Worf and Data left the bridge at a run.

Picard sat down heavily, and sighed. Beside him, Deanna Troi was looking fixedly at the planet’s surface

“Captain,” she said, hesitantly. “I can sense something down there. It wasn’t there before, but the feeling of it has been becoming stronger over the past while. It is something.. malignant… evil and twisted. I can feel its power reaching out, searching for something.”

Picard watched his counsellor with interest as she probed towards the planet with her mind. She suddenly gasped and shuddered. “It is horrible. It lives on the pleasure of luring people to their deaths, and on driving people mad. It has affected whole ships and possibly planets.”

“What is it? Can you tell?”

Deanna got to her feet and moved forward a few paces. Picard followed. She looked at Picard, her eyes dark, the pupils dilated. “Its the planet itself!”

*****

Worf and Data rematerialised into the start of a snowstorm. Visibility was already poor, and the temperature was starting to fall slowly. Data swung his tricorder around. “I have located the Commander. He is approximately 15 meters ahead of us, and appears to be stationary.”

Worf nodded, and they set off into the stiffening wind. Worf was ever at the ready, and Data continually scanned the area. “It is getting colder,” he noted, clinically. “I estimate that the storm will hit in 4 minutes 35 seconds.”

“We’d better hurry then,” Worf commented. “The Commander could not survive one of these storms.”

“Agreed,” Data replied, and increased the speed of his strides until Worf had difficulty keeping up. A minute or two later, they came upon Riker’s huddled figure, and Worf bent over him in concern.

The apparent lifelessness of Commander Riker was only a pose, as he leaped at Worf with unusual vigour. For a moment, the Klingon was staggered, then recovered enough to fight back. But if it had not been for Data, Worf might have lost the fight in the long run. Data stepped in and picked up Riker, and deposited him a few feet away. Riker snarled, and came swiftly to his feet, again rushing the Klingon.

They grappled, Riker trying desperately to pin down Worf, with the clear intent of injuring him. Worf was only barely holding his own. Data again stepped in, and grabbed Riker, and thrust him against some low shrubs.

Riker snarled at Data, writhing helplessly against the unbreakable grip of the android. Then suddenly, his eyes widened, and he let out an animal shriek of pain. He collapsed and went totally limp.

Panting, still, Worf tapped his communicator. “Worf to Enterprise. Three to beam up.”

“Four, actually,” Data corrected, holding one of the small, furry animals by the tail. Its teeth were firmly planted in Riker’s thigh. The transporter shimmered, and the creature was transported up to the Enterprise with them.

*****

Beverly Crusher gaped at them as they entered sickbay, Riker still slumped between them, and the creature still fixed onto Riker’s leg. Data began explaining before Beverly could say anything, and she guessed that they must have encountered a lot of comments for the android to appear so self-conscious. “The creature attacked Commander Riker, and we did not have time to remove it before we transported. I deemed it dangerous to remove the creature without your assistance, Doctor.” Data looked more closely at the beast. “It appears traumatised by the transportation.”

“I thought we should kill it,” Worf rumbled darkly, casting Data a menacing look.

“I over-ruled Lieutenant Worf,” Data went on, oblivious to the Klingon’s annoyance. “We did not know what result the removal of the creature would have on the Commander.”

“Thank you,” Beverly said, neutrally, amused by the different, but typical, approaches of the two officers. “What kind of animal is this, Data?” she asked, examining the little beast carefully.

“It does not have a name, Doctor,” Data replied. “But they are cannibalistic and venomous. Shall I remove it from the Commander for you?”

“Yes,” Beverly replied, drawing back. “Put it in that cage over there.” She pointed to the clear containment box which had, until recently, held the fibre.

Data prised the jaws of the creature apart, and carefully removed them from Riker’s leg. As everyone stood back and watched, he calmly carried the beast over to the containment box and closed the lid. Immediately, a forcefield hummed into life, preventing anything from getting out of the box. There was a collective sigh of relief.

Beverly got her scanner out, and began checking over Riker. “Alyssa, get a sample of the venom, and see if we have an antidote, please,” she requested of her head nurse. “This is quite a bite,” she commented. “A venom like this can be fast acting.” She paused in her comments, and ran the scanner over Riker again.

With a swift movement, Beverly brushed past Worf and over to the wall scanner, and pressed the pads rapidly. As Picard entered the sickbay, she looked at him, her colour high, mouth slightly open, and her eyes sparkling. “I don’t believe this,” she gasped, and hurried back to Riker’s side. “I don’t believe it,” she repeated, sounding delighted and surprised.

“What don’t you believe?” Picard questioned, looking down at his first officer. Riker looked much the same to his eyes; pale, sweating, ill.

“Look,” Beverly said, directing him to the scanner. “This is what Will’s system looked like before he went to the surface. This is how it looks now.” She pointed. “This is all fibre, growing, and killing Will. This is the fibre now. Its dying!”

“What’s causing that?” Picard asked. Even as he watched the scanner, he could see particles of the fibre shrivelling and vanishing.

Before Beverly could answer, Alyssa appeared at her side, carrying a hypospray. “The antidote, Doctor,” she said.

“Hold on,” Beverly replied. “I think its the venom killing it off. Alyssa, get me more venom, I must try it out on the others. If I’m right, and I’m sure I am, I may still be able to save them.”

Riker suddenly let out a fearful groan. His face was flushed now, and he was sweating profusely. He twisted and writhed as though in pain. His eyes flew open for a moment, but there was no recognition in the fevered depths. As if on cue, the door opened and Deanna Troi entered. Without a word, she went to Riker and took his hand, which was flailing the air. He calmed almost at once.

“How dangerous is this to Commander Riker?” Picard asked, frowning.

“Not good, but the only hope we have,” Beverly said, frankly. “We must keep the antidote right beside him, and give it to him the moment the last of the fibre is gone. Will is strong. He’ll be all right.”

Picard nodded. “And the others?” he asked, gesturing towards the Gulliver’s crew. “Are they strong enough to take this?”

Beverly shrugged, finally. “I don’t know, but we have no other choice. Nothing else I’ve tried works. These people will die if I don’t try this. And they may die if I do. But what other choice do we have?”

Deanna lifted her gaze from Will’s troubled face. “You’re right, Beverly,” she offered. “I can feel the planet’s frustration. You have found its secret.”

“Make it so,” Picard said. He motioned to Data and Worf to join him. “We must put out warnings about this place and some beacons. I’ll notify Starfleet at once.”

*****

Some time later, Picard was never sure how long, Beverly finally entered the bridge. She looked tired, but triumphant. “Commander Riker is well on the road to recovery. Two other members of the Gulliver’s crew have died, but the other is going to be all right!”

“Congratulations, Doctor,” Picard said, warmly. “That’s excellent news. Mr Data, are the warning beacons ready?”

“Yes, Captain,” Data replied. “Launching on your mark.”

“Launch now,” Picard responded. They saw the probes shoot out of the Enterprise, and speed off to their appointed places. Moments later, the comm. chirped. “Troi to bridge. Captain, put up the shields, please.”

Picard nodded to Worf, even as he responded. “What’s wrong, Counsellor?”

“I’m not sure,” Deanna answered. “I just feel something bad coming from the planet.”

The next moment, there were several hundred thousand explosions on the planet surface. They were small enough that they did not even rock the Enterprise in orbit, but it was better to be safe than sorry. “What was that?” Beverly exclaimed.

“Mr Data?” Picard queried.

Data swung his seat round to look at Picard. “It would appear that all the creatures on the planet surface just exploded,” he replied, as though this were quite normal. But then, nothing surprised Data.

“Exploded? All of them?”

“Yes, Sir. I detect no life-forms on the planet.” Data waited for a second to see if there were more questions, then turned back to Ops. Simultaneously, the turbolift doors hissed open, and Deanna entered. “This planet is evil,” she stated. “It knew what you were doing, Beverly, and decided to prevent you from getting more of the creatures, so that you only have a limited amount of venom to use.”

Beverly gave a grim smile. “Too bad,” she said. “The creature is a pregnant female.”

“Take us out of here, helm. Set course to Ariston Alpha. We must check that they are still all right. Engage.”

*****

Captain’s log Stardate 5626.3. Now that we have discovered a cure for the madness, we are returning to Ariston Alpha to check on the settlers there. We still have not discovered why the Gulliver went to Guarda Prime, but we now feel that the planet lured the ship there, working, perhaps, on the mind of one or all of the crew. Although we only have one surviving crewmember from the Gulliver, I feel we are lucky to have any. Fortunately, Commander Riker is fully recovered.

*****

“Assume standard orbit,” Riker commanded, gazing out at Ariston Alpha. He watched as Ensign B’Laine set the correct co-ordinates, and the ship eased into orbit. Riker was taking his first watch on the bridge since his recovery, and some 72 hours after receiving the antidote, he felt fine. The other crewmember from the Gulliver, Chief Jennings, was also well again, although he was suffering from amnesia. Riker privately thought that Jennings was lucky. He could remember, all too clearly, what it had been like when he was mad. Shuddering, Riker pushed the thought from him.

“The Prime Minister of Ariston Alpha is hailing, Commander,” Worf reported.

“Open hailing frequencies,” Riker responded, standing up and performing the ‘Picard’ manoeuvre, the pulling down of his uniform top. “This is Commander William Riker of the Starship Enterprise.”

The Prime Minister’s face appeared on the viewscreen. “Commander, I’m pleased to see you again, but I’m surprised that you’ve returned so soon. Is there something wrong?”

“We have some further developments, with regard to the crew of the USS Gulliver.” Riker smiled reassuringly, and went on to outline all the things that had happened. By the time he was finished, the Prime Minister’s face was grave.

“We have had nothing like that here,” he responded. “Although the crew of the Gulliver landed here, I haven’t heard of anything like this. But the area they were in is quite isolated.”

“Pass us the co-ordinates, and we’ll send an away team to check it out. Until we do, I suggest that you set up a curfew to protect the other citizens.”

“Agreed, Commander. Here are the co-ordinates.” Riker could see them arriving at the conn. He acknowledged, and signed off.

“Riker to Picard. We have the co-ordinates where the away team beamed. “

“Roger, Number One.” Picard came out of his ready room, and nodded at Riker. “I have the bridge. Assemble an away team, Number One, and beam down when ready.”

“Aye, Sir,” Riker responded. “Data, Worf, with me.” They left the bridge together.

Beverly met them in transporter room three. She carried a supply of venom, and of antidote. They were all armed, and the phasers were set to heavy stun. As they assembled on the platform, Riker said, “We’d better stick together down there. If they have gone mad, they’ll only attack if we get separated.” The others nodded. “And there is a fair chance that they may have died,” he added.

*****

The surface of Ariston was lovely. The temperature was that of a balmly summer’s day, and Riker knew that it was like that all year round, except at the poles. The fields were already showing signs of the crops to come, and Riker could see that the colonists were superb farmers. The away team assumed a standard formation, and began to look for the colonists they were seeking.

The first home they came to had three dead bodies in it. Beverly quickly scanned them and nodded. “It’s the fibre,” she confirmed. “They haven’t been dead that long – 12 hours, maybe.”

Riker nodded. “Keep looking,” he ordered. None of them were sorry to leave the bodies behind.

It was quite a large area to search. Time ticked by steadily, and they found several more bodies, some only children. Then Data stopped, turning round to follow a signal with his tricorder. “I have found a life-sign,” he reported. “Humanoid. I believe that it is following us.”

“We’d better lure them in. Beverly, you stand by with the venom. Data, you go with Doctor Crusher. They wouldn’t find you very tasty.” Riker looked at Worf. “I want you ready to come to my rescue, Worf.”

Worf frowned, but before he could object, Beverly was leading them away, saying aloud “Lets look over here. No need to come with us, Will.” They disappeared behind a large farm building.

Riker was uneasy, but affected a stretch and yawn, before ambling a few paces into the open. It was a fairly obvious trap, but Riker gambled that the person would not be coherent enough to recognise it as such. He was careful to stay within sight of the others. It seemed to be taking a long time for the trap to be sprung, but even as he thought that, a body hurled itself across the open space, and tackled him about the legs.

Riker hit the ground hard, and fought back furiously. He knew he couldn’t hold his own against the manic strength of this woman, who seemed intent on beating his brains out. Then Worf was there, and Beverly injected the venom. The woman collapsed on top of Riker, and Worf hauled her off and helped the Commander to his feet. “Thanks,” he panted, looking down on the unconscious girl. She was about 19 years old, he guessed. “How bad is she?”

“Pretty bad,” Beverly answered. “I need to get her to sickbay. But there seems to be one more person unaccounted for.”

“Give me the venom and antidote,” Riker suggested. “You beam up with her, and we’ll look on. Hopefully we’ll find the… man or woman?”

“Man. All right, Will. But be careful!”

“Sound medical advice,” Will grinned, accepting the small pouch she carried. He, Data and Worf moved away a few steps and watched as Beverly was transported up. Then they set out on their search again. They quartered the area, using standard patterns, checking out even the most unlikely hiding places. It seemed as though the man they sought had vanished into thin air. After a short break for water, they headed out to search a new area. They were drawing nearer to the town, and Riker was becoming increasingly concerned that the man had already reached the town, and they were facing a more widespread problem.

“Commander, life signs,” Data exclaimed. “Twenty metres to our right.”

“Lets go,” Riker ordered, picking up the pace.

They realised that they were headed towards the hills. Riker studied Data’s readings over the android’s shoulder. “That place is riddled with caves,” he commented. “That should make things interesting!”

Worf grunted. “We must just be careful that he does not manage to throw us down the hillside.”

Riker nodded. “I’ve spent enough time in sickbay just lately,” he agreed. “Come on.”

They scrambled up the slope, and Data ruled out the first of the caves. They climbed further. Data was the first to reach the small terrace outside the cave. He casually leaned down and helped Riker up the last foot or so. “It appears that the person has moved around the edge of the cave, Commander,” he said. “His trail is easy to follow. Shall I go first?”

Riker gestured, not wanting to admit how winded he felt after the climb. When he glanced at Worf, he was pleased to note that the Klingon seemed breathless, too. Taking a deep breath, Riker began to follow Data. The android glanced back and remarked, “This planet has a thinner atmosphere than Earth.”

“Now you tell us,” Riker muttered. Data gave Riker a puzzled look, but said nothing.

There was a piercing cry from above, and a hail of rocks and stones showered down from above. They dodged automatically, and so the man missed when he launched himself at Worf. But the movement caused the edge of the hillside to crumble, and all four of them began to slip down.

Data jumped onto firmer ground, and grabbed their quarry with one hand and made a swipe for Riker with the other. Worf caught hold of a sapling a few feet below the edge, and began to climb back up. Data’s hand caught Riker’s just as the Commander lost his balance. The jerk nearly ripped Riker’s shoulder out, but he didn’t fall. “Thanks, Data,” he gasped, fumbling for the venom.

He pushed the hypospray towards their prisoner, but he punched it from Riker’s grasp. Worf scrambled to retrieve it, and Data took a firmer hold of the man. As the venom entered his system, he collapsed. Worf touched his communicator. “Worf to Enterprise. Four to beam up.”

*****

The Enterprise headed out into deep space, back on their original course. They were scheduled for three weeks of star mapping. It would be a relaxing change from all the rushing about they had done. After leaving Ariston Alpha, Beverly had managed to make replicated venom, and had beamed notices to all Federation planets, so that if this madness were to be come across again, the medics would have a way to deal with it. Jennings had been left on Ariston, to await transportation home to Earth.

Riker was on the holodeck, playing jazz in a nightclub, one of his favourite ways to relax. The door hissed open, and Deanna came in. She smiled softly at Riker and sat down quietly at a table, listening to her imzadi play the trombone. He was really quite good.

His set finished, Riker set down his instrument and joined her “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a holo-generated jazz club like this?”

Deanna smiled. “I came to hear you play. It seems a long time since I last did this. I thought it would be nice. How do you feel?”

“Fine,” Riker replied. “Completely recovered. Relaxed. What more do you want?”

“Nothing, except your company. Ensign Wade is celebrating his engagement to Ensign B’Laine. I wondered if you’d like to join us in Ten Forward?”

Riker’s smile told Deanna the answer, even before he said “Computer, end programme.” He got to his feet. “Am I presentable enough to go like this?”

“Of course,” Deanna replied, taking his proffered arm. “You look very handsome.”

“Maybe we ought to talk about how handsome I look,” he suggested, his grin reflecting the devilment he felt, and his pleasure in her company.

“Oh yes?” Deanna parried “Maybe.” Her smile answered his as they left the holodeck.

*****End*****

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