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A Time to Die

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A Time to Die

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Author: John Vornholt
Publisher: Pocket Books, 2004
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation: A Time to…: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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On the cusp of their epic battle with Shinzon, many of Captain Jean-Luc Picard's long-time crew were heading for new assignments and new challenges. Among the changes were William Riker's promotion to captain and his new command, Riker's marriage to Counselor Deanna Troi, and Dr. Beverly Crusher's new career at Starfleet Medical. But the story of what set them on a path away from the Starship Enterprise has never been told.


It was supposed to be a mission of mercy, until the unthinkable occurred: the destruction of the U.S.S. Juno, killing all hands on board. Starfleet Command has unjustly assessed the actions of Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew during that fateful assignment to the Rashanar Battle Site -- the sector that saw one of the fiercest conflicts of the Dominion War, and which is now a hazardous interstellar graveyard filled with hundreds of devastated starships. While the court-ordered medical evaluation that relieved Picard of command is ongoing, there is growing speculation that his illustrious career may be coming to an end.

To clear his former commander, acting captain William Riker and a demoralized skeleton crew agree to conduct a covert operation, and must venture the Starship Enterprise back into Rashanar to track down a mythical menace -- one that may already be responsible for the annihilation of countless fully armed starships. Unbridled hostility and the promise of death lurk at every turn, but they could never imagine that their only chance of survival may lie in the unexpected return of a long-absent friend....


Chapter One

The pleasant twittering of the birds, the gentle rustling of the breeze through the maple trees, and the rich smell of flowers and freshly turned earth lulled Beverly Crusher into a relaxed state. As the doctor sat in the manicured gardens of Starfleet Academy, she could never remember being happier in her life. It wasn't the lovely surroundings that delighted her; it was the company. Seated on the bench beside her, holding her hand, was a tall, handsome young man who looked a great deal like his father, especially in his piercing brown eyes. After an absence of eight years, her only child had returned to her. With Wesley so close, she couldn't imagine how she had survived his absence and the uncertainty of not knowing his fate...or even if he was alive.

The mind is an amazing thing, decided the doctor, especially the way it can shut out grief, learn to cope, and go on with the obligations of life. Now it seemed so unfair to have suffered all these years without Wes at her side, when his mere presence brought such bliss. She could almost forget the dark cloud that hung over the Enterprise and her shipmates. She recalled her son's words:

"To save the Enterprise," he had declared with determination. But this time they weren't being menaced by a failing warp engine or enemy attackers -- problems they knew how to handle. They were threatened by the bureaucracy and politics of the Federation.

"Captain Picard is being held at Medical Mental Health," she said in a whisper.

"I know," answered Wes grimly. "I've been here throughout the tribunal and the verdict. You may have seen me assisting Admiral Nechayev...I called myself Ensign Brewster."

"Brewster!" she said with surprise. "But how?"

He held up his hand and smiled gently. "Do you remember what Ensign Brewster looks like?"

Beverly frowned in thought, but her stupefied mind felt like mush. "No, I don't remember...and I saw him every day at the inquiry."

"It's part of what I can do as a Traveler," explained Wes. "I can be anywhere I want -- observing, interacting -- but I blend into the background. Five minutes after you've spoken to me, you won't remember me...unless I choose to reveal my true self."

The doctor shook her head in amazement and gripped her son's hand, just grateful he was with her in any shape and form. "Then you know about the destruction of the Juno and the Ontailian ship, the Vuxhal. It wasn't our fault! They're blaming Jean-Luc, but there wasn't anything else he could do!"

"Calm down, Mom." The young man gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "I didn't see everything that happened at the Rashanar Battle Site, because I hesitated...and arrived too late to help. I won't make that mistake again."

"I was there," said Beverly with a heavy sigh, "and I don't know exactly what happened either. According to Data and Geordi, there's a shapeshifting spacecraft in the graveyard, lurking among all those wrecks. It paralyzes a ship with a directed-energy weapon; then it assumes the ship's appearance. Data was insistent that the Enterprise was in immediate danger. That's why Jean-Luc fired on the Ontailian craft...or what looked like it. He was certain it was a mimic."

"But the tribunal didn't see it that way," muttered Wesley.

Beverly scowled and said, "No, they had to appease the Ontailians, who threatened to pull out of the Federation. They say we can't lose any more members...or lose our access to the Rashanar Battle Site. I can't get over the feeling that Admiral Nechayev sold Jean-Luc up the river."

"I disagree," said Wes, letting go of her hand and rising to his feet. He paced thoughtfully along a flower-lined sidewalk. "I've been with Nechayev through this whole thing, and she took what she was given. Nobody really thinks Captain Picard is unfit for duty. The admiral couldn't let him go to a full court-martial. She didn't have any other choice."

He frowned, looking away from his mother. "But I did. I should have come forward sooner and done more to help. As usual, I just observed...I didn't want to give up being a Traveler."

"Oh, Wes!" With a look of motherly concern etched on her face, Beverly jumped to her feet and grabbed her son's arm. "Are you sure you have to give it up? Can't you...can't you exist in both worlds?"

He suddenly looked much older than she remembered. "I don't think so, Mom. I'm on a kind of probation. When you're a Traveler, you don't exist in one world -- you exist in every world. The abilities I have are for a purpose. I've seen enough suffering and joy to last a thousand lifetimes, but to fulfill my mission, I must be like a shadow -- never intervening, only watching."

"But you helped Admiral Nechayev," countered Beverly, "so haven't you already broken that barrier?"

"Not really. As long as I don't change the outcome." Wes balled his hands into fists and stopped pacing. "However, I'm about to break that rule. Please tell no one that you've seen me."

Beverly reached for him in desperation as she felt her baby leaving her again. "Wes! How can I keep it a secret? Don't go away again...please!"

"Mom," he said with a quiet smile, "I'm not going to leave you again, not like that. But I can do more and gather information better if I can hang on to my secret a while longer. There is one other I have to tell. I don't know how long I can stay a Traveler, because all of us are sharing this experience even as we speak, but I'm not going to see the Enterprise die."

"How long will you have your abilities?" she asked.

He shook his head, collecting his scattered thoughts. "I don't know. All of our minds must be focused -- as if through a lens -- to allow each individual Traveler to move through space and dimensions. It's like multiprocessing. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure anymore if I'm a Traveler or a human...or both."

Unable to speak, she hugged him fiercely. Her boy was clearly an adult who had to decide for himself how to now use this extraordinary gift...and when to give it up.

Of course, Wesley was always gifted -- a prodigy -- and we both know the highs and the lows of that status. Was Wes ever really accepted just for himself? Probably not, she decided.

More than anything, her son must have longed to be a real Ensign Brewster. Another face in the crowd, instead of the focus of envy and expectations.

He finally ended the embrace and moved her gently away, but his hands lingered on her trembling fingers. "Mom, you'll be seeing me...more likely as this."

Before her loving eyes and bedazzled senses, Wesley turned into the nondescript Ensign Brewster. As the doctor tried to focus on this new face, it disappeared, and she was left standing alone in the tranquil gardens of Starfleet Academy.

Was it just a dream? she wondered. A hallucination? Beverly prayed not, because she'd had those delusions before. She felt something in her hand, and opened her palm to reveal Wesley's flight-suit patch from Nova Squadron, the one that had nearly sunk his career in Starfleet.

He really was here, she thought, clutching the tattered strip of cloth to her heart.

The Traveler, in the guise of Ensign Brewster, stood on the porch of an elegant Victorian town house in the Russian Hill district. He rang the chime and waited patiently until it opened. Commander Emery appeared -- the telepathic aide to the Medusan Commodore Korgan, who had led the prosecution of Captain Picard.

Wesley squared his shoulders and stood at attention while the tall, gaunt human regarded his visitor. "Yes?" asked Emery. "What do you want, Ensign?"

"Don't you remember me, sir? I'm Ensign Brewster."

A small spark of recognition flashed behind the hooded eyes. "Ah, yes. I thought our business with you and Admiral Nechayev was concluded."

"It is," answered the Traveler. "Don't you recall -- Commodore Korgan invited me to tea? I had to decline until the inquiry was over. Now I'm ready to take the commodore up on his invitation."

Emery narrowed his eyes at the low-ranking officer. "I hardly believe this is the time. The commodore is preparing for a new case that starts tomorrow. What's your unit? I'll send a messenger by when the commodore has more time."

"Please ask him," requested the ensign firmly. "I think he'll want to see me as soon as possible."

"One moment," grumbled Emery. He shut the door. The Traveler could see him move a few steps inside the foyer, where he stood perfectly still, communing telepathically with his Medusan superior. After several moments, he opened the door and looked at the visitor with increased respect.

"You were right," said Emery. "Commodore Korgan wants to see you right away. He suggests that I take a stroll while you have tea." He stepped back and motioned the ensign inside.

Trying to look humble, "Brewster" stepped into the foyer. "Thank you for all your help, Commander."

"Will you be able to communicate with him?" Emery asked.

"I think so. It's a nice afternoon for a walk."

Emery sniffed. "I suppose so. The commodore is in the last room down the hall on the left. There's a food slot in the room...have whatever you want. Of course, don't open Commodore Korgan's enclosure and look directly at him, or you'll be joining Captain Picard in the mental-health facility."

The ensign bit his tongue at that gibe; however, he knew the warning was well-intentioned and necessary, even for a Traveler. "Thank you, Commander."

"Try not to tire him," said Emery softly on his way out the door.

The Traveler took a deep breath and walked down the hallway. As he neared the last door on the left, he could feel a powerful force probing his mind, but it didn't feel invasive. It felt more like a frank stare from someone who didn't understand what you had just said.

He opened the door and stepped into a brightly lit room with sparse furnishings -- a small dining table and two chairs. Built into the wall was a food replicator. The Medusan's protective container rested on the table, along with a few padds and documents. The noncorporeal being occupied an oblong electromagnetic box with four tentacle-like manipulator arms, although the appendages were motionless for the moment.

Welcome, Ensign Brewster. Please take refreshment with me.

"Thank you," he replied, although speaking aloud wasn't really necessary. The Medusan's thought waves were as clear as those of any fellow Traveler. "I am sorry to keep you waiting."

What kind of creature are you? came the impatient query. You are not human...or not entirely human.

"Not only human. I am a Traveler. Have you heard of us?"

Lights on the container blinked excitedly. Oh, yes, came the reply. You have learned to manipulate space, time, thought, and dimension. Most humanoids cannot detect your true nature.

"We are observers," answered the visitor as he crossed to the food replicator. "Computer, a cola carbonated beverage, chilled."

"Cola, chilled," replied the efficient computer voice as a frosty mug of bubbling soda appeared in the food slot.

The young man grabbed the glass and took a sip, relishing the tingle of the bubbly liquid on his throat. "That tastes good," he remarked. "I've spent too long on dying worlds without any food or drink."

I can sense much sadness in you, replied the Medusan. You have seen the universe the way it really is. Why did you choose to observe the inquiry into the Rashanar incident?

"Because I used to serve with Captain Picard on the Enterprise, when my name was Wesley Crusher. Dr. Beverly Crusher is my mother." He walked back to the table and sat down across from his host.

You are human, but a Traveler, observed the Medusan. You are a truly unique individual, yet you wish to remain anonymous.

"For now," agreed Wesley. "Since you saw through my disguise in the courtroom, I've come to tell you that Captain Picard is innocent. What Data said was true -- some terrible entity does haunt the Rashanar Battle Site and was responsible for the destruction of the Juno, the Vuxhal, and the Calypso. It might be responsible for the carnage that originally occurred during the Dominion War."

Am I supposed to say I'm sorry for prosecuting an innocent man? The law is not about absolute innocence or guilt, but what can be proven in court.

"I know that," replied Wesley. He took another sip of his soft drink. "That's why I said nothing until the inquiry ran its course. I could have done much more to change the outcome, but I didn't. The letter of the law has been met, and the Ontailians and Starfleet are both satisfied. Now it's time to satisfy the spirit of the discover the truth."

How do you propose we do that, Traveler?

"You and I have perceptions that others don't have," Wesley answered. "They just see, but we observe. We won't be confused by the chaotic nature of Rashanar. We both have the ability to always know where we are in space. Someone must go back there and confront this threat...either to destroy it or to bring back proof of its existence."

I believe you seek revenge, not truth, came the reply.

Wesley sighed. He couldn't entirely deny that. "The damage has been done to the Enterprise and her crew," he answered, "not to mention the Juno. I only want to prevent it from happening again. Will you go to Rashanar with me, Commodore? Your testimony could make the difference."

After a short painful silence, the Medusan replied, Do you know, only twelve of my species serve in Starfleet? All but myself are navigators on long-range ships. You once wondered why this was so.

"That's true," admitted the Traveler with a smile. "I have a feeling you're going to tell me."

The enclosure hummed softly. Its lights twinkled before Korgan gave his answer: Traveling at warp speeds makes me ill. I nearly died on my first Starfleet training mission. Since then, I looked for and eventually found a more sedentary profession. I travel vicariously through others. So you see, we Medusans are not all alike, just as you are not a typical Traveler or a typical human.

Feeling defeated, Wesley slapped his palms on his knees and rose to his feet. "I'm sorry to have troubled you, Commodore. Thank you for your hospitality."

But I will do one favor for you, said the voice in Wesley's head. The young man stopped in the doorway to look back at the mysterious container, which blinked cheerfully. I will file an affidavit saying that the Ontailians were lying. This may be enough to quietly throw out the findings of the inquiry and have Captain Picard released.

"You knew they were lying?"

So did you, Traveler, yet you said nothing.

Wesley lowered his head and listened. I found out later that they did recover wreckage from the Vuxhal, which they chose not to present at the inquiry. I understand that trace elements of neptunium were embedded in the molecular coating, indicating possible proximity to the anomalies found in the center of the site. At any rate, this lack of evidence made them amenable to the resolution offered by Admiral Nechayev. I'm afraid that's the nature of a settlement -- someone must shoulder the blame, even if it is lessened.

Wesley Crusher nodded; sometimes discretion was the better part of valor. "Good-bye, Commodore Korgan," he said. "Thank you for your honesty."

Go with speed, Traveler. Please take this parting gift.

The Medusan filled Wesley's brain with the most sublime, blissful thoughts he could ever imagine -- birthday parties, puppies, vacations, lullabies -- and he was suddenly transported to his past and overwhelmed with happiness. I'm home! This is home! Wes began to whistle, leaping down the stairs like a ten-year-old. With a joyous laugh, he found himself skipping up the hill in his beautiful San Francisco.

Jean-Luc Picard sat on bare red stone, gazing out the archway carved in the side of a sheer, deeply striated cliff. His dwelling was about a hundred meters from the top of the bluff. Beneath him floated sulfurous mists which hid a murky river that ran with potable water only a few weeks a year. Above him was a hot, desolate plain. The heat of the day would reach him when the sun struck his level. This humble abode, hollowed from the red rock itself, was no more than a hovel; he had a few clay bowls and utensils and a pile of linen upon which to lie. In the corner sat a large clay pitcher shaped like a brujgar horn in which to catch water from the spring just above him. Vulcan tribes had inhabited such cliff dwellings for millennia, dating back to when they had been violent savages. The warrens in the cliff were easy to defend and stayed relatively cool for a village in the Vulcan high desert.

The captain's only nod to modernity was a stack of dog-eared Dixon Hill novels in the corner. He had pens and a journal in which he had yet to write a word. There was nothing in his present circumstances he wished to record for posterity; he wished only to wake up from this horrible nightmare and get on with his life.

As befitting his hermitic lifestyle, Picard had let his beard grow. He wore Starfleet exercise garments, which were more comfortable than the thick Vulcan robes everyone around him wore. Humans tended to sweat much more than Vulcans, and a shower was not available to him, unless he switched to a different holodeck program.

Jean-Luc heard footsteps on the stone walkway just beyond his open door. He wondered if it was a visitor come to see him. A moment later, he was disappointed to see it was just another holodeck character -- a wise-looking Vulcan who often stopped to dispense pedestrian platitudes and try to engage him in conversation.

The old Vulcan cleared his throat and said, "Only Nixon could go to China."

"I've heard that already," muttered Picard. "Go on your way."

The Vulcan stood for several seconds, as if the hermit might change his mind and talk, and Picard considered yelling at him to go. No, that would look very bad on his next evaluation, and that one was crucial, whenever it would be. Now it was time to take the kettle off the fire and let the boiling water come to a rest. And I'm the kettle, thought Jean-Luc.

"Conditions are favorable for rain this afternoon," remarked the old Vulcan, studying the golden sky.

In response, Picard rolled onto his blankets and stared at the rugged wall at the back of his cavern. He presumed that Counselor Colleen Cabot and her assistants were watching him through the fake wall, if they even bothered to pay attention to him anymore. He supposed that some of this neglect was his own fault, because he had let it be known that he didn't want to see many of his shipmates under these circumstances. They were respecting his wishes...thus turning him into a recluse.

He had avoided further proceedings on the Rashanar matter, but now he was beginning to miss the day-to-day interaction with others. The incident was over, as far as everyone else was concerned; for him, it had only prolonged the embarrassment and started an open-ended incarceration.

I have to find some way to cope, he decided, or I will go mad.

"Good morning, Jean-Luc," said a friendly voice from the doorway. He turned to see that the Vulcan had finally departed and was replaced by a fair-skinned woman who looked rather youthful, her blond hair blowing gently in the warm breezes of the cliff. As usual, Counselor Cabot wore flattering civilian clothes. He had only seen her in a Starfleet uniform twice, during his inquiry and at the memorial service for the Juno's crew. She made a few notes on her padd. He felt like a zoo animal being visited by the zookeeper. According to Nechayev, Colleen Cabot had done him a considerable favor by allowing more psychological evaluation, but it didn't feel that way to him.

The counselor motioned toward his dingy, austere surroundings. "You know, Jean-Luc, I always figured you would pick the Vulcan room, if left to your own devices long enough."

"It's the most like a cell," he remarked.

"If you say so." She gave him a bemused smile, then ducked her head to step inside his hovel. "People keep making requests to visit you, but you have a very short list of those you approve. You really don't have to be alone, as long as the Enterprise is at home port."

Picard sat up cross-legged and looked at his "jailer." "They have repairs and test flights to make, followed by a new mission. Let them get used to Captain Riker without being overly concerned about me."

"That's very selfless of you," said Cabot, sitting down across from him.

"The welfare of the Enterprise and her crew is my first concern," he answered. "Always has been."

The counselor nodded. "That's right. If you hadn't been sure the ship was in danger, you wouldn't have fired on the Ontailians."

"They weren't Ontailians," said the captain, his jaw clenched tightly. With considerable self-control, he managed to relax and muster a smile for his keeper. "But you haven't come here to rehash the inquiry, have you? I hope not, because I hate to keep fighting battles I've already lost."

"Isn't that what Rashanar is all about?" she asked. "Fighting that never stops."

"Yes, that's one theory. This doppelg„nger ship -- or more than one -- could explain why the Dominion and Federation vessels fought to the death at Rashanar. They didn't know who or what they were really fighting. They died at their posts, with surrender never an option."

Colleen Cabot frowned, then asked, "But isn't that how Jem'Hadar and Dominion ships always fought -- to the death?"

"No," answered Picard. "If a Jem'Hadar ship becomes too crippled to be effective, they look to board an enemy ship as soon as possible. The Cardassians were never ones to die needlessly -- if there was a way to escape to fight another day, they would take it. But not if the whole crew is blacked out with the ship paralyzed. Think about it, Counselor, how can you have a battle with no survivors? You're a psychologist -- you know the will to survive is one of the strongest instincts."

Cabot sat forward. "Yes, Jean-Luc, and you went to Rashanar wanting to solve this mystery, didn't you? And you solved it -- you were successful."

Picard narrowed his eyes warily at his keeper. He could see where this line of questioning was going. He had to hand it to Colleen Cabot -- she was always working one angle or another.

"I didn't make up the replicant ship just to fit the facts," he said firmly. "Data and La Forge didn't expect to see what they saw -- two identical ships -- but they did."

"You take me the wrong way, Jean-Luc," said Cabot with disappointment. "This replicated ship is not only at the basis of your defense; it's the basis of your mental state and confidence. As long as you are unshakable in your belief in the mimic ship, your case makes sense to me and everyone else."

He snorted a laugh. "You mean, I'm either right or delusional, therefore it doesn't really matter to you."

"It matters to me a lot," said Cabot somberly. "And it should matter to you, too, if you want to get out of here."

"But how do you prove me right or delusional," asked the captain, "except to go to Rashanar and see for yourself? To me and my crew, Data's word is proof enough. But it wasn't enough for the tribunal, and I can't offer you anything else."

The young blond woman shrugged and rose slowly to her feet, brushing the fake red dust off her pants. "If Data were a humanoid, we could use hypnosis, a mind-meld, or some other process to verify his story. But he's not, and no one else saw the transformation. You're convinced, but you didn't see it firsthand either. I guess you're right, Jean-Luc...Starfleet has to go back to Rashanar."

Picard noted darkly, "If we don't stop this threat, more ships will be destroyed."

The counselor sighed on her way out the door. "You attribute too much power to me. What do you want for dinner, Jean-Luc? Something other than healthy Vulcan gruel?"

"I'll stick with the gruel," muttered Picard, lying upon his dusty linens. "It suits my mood."

Strolling down the corridor of the holosuite wing of Medical Mental Health, Counselor Cabot was troubled. She couldn't fulfill the charge given her, because there was no more information to be gleaned from Captain Picard, or any of the others connected with this incident. He was as sane as anyone in Starfleet. Keeping him here was unnecessary. Rather than hold him here, they should just give him a medical discharge and be done with it. The Ontailians had all left Earth to return to their own space, so dragging this out seemed pointless...unless there was something to be gained.

The young counselor was still deep in thought when she opened the door to her office and walked toward her cluttered desk. A hulking figure whirled around in the chair, startling her. He was a formidable presence indeed.

"Admiral Nakamura," she said, catching her breath. "What are you doing here?"

"I thought it was time to talk," the distinguished officer answered crossly. "We don't have much of it before we have to decide what to do."

Colleen tossed her padd onto her desk. "I've reached a dead end. He doesn't know any more about the mimic ship than he's already told us. If you send Picard to Rashanar, he'll only try to destroy it."

"You must have ways to influence him," pressed Nakamura. "Drugs, posthypnotic suggestion -- there must be a way to get him to capture this weapon, so we can study it."

Cabot felt resentful toward Nakamura's patronizing attitude. She no longer cared about the promised fast-track promotion. "Why not send a fact-finding mission?" she asked. "A whole task force to study it or capture it...or whatever you want to do."

"No. The Ontailians are too touchy now. Remember, they control Rashanar. It has to be a covert mission. My department has been collecting and studying Dominion technology, and a shapeshifting spacecraft -- what a coup that would be!"

Cabot seethed at the unfairness of the whole situation; however, she still had one big card to play in this game -- Jean-Luc Picard. He was her property until she chose to let him go, but now the captain wasn't foremost in her thoughts.

"I've heard something," she asked, trying to hide her worry, "that Beverly Crusher might end up in charge of Starfleet Medical?"

The admiral shrugged his brocaded and bedecked shoulders. "Oh, that's just a rumor. Whenever Dr. Crusher is in town for a few days, you always hear that."

"She holds no love for me, not after the way I've treated Picard. If that should happen, I'll have no future in Starfleet, no matter what you do to help me."

Nakamura straightened his tunic and stared pointedly at her. "Forget Crusher and concentrate on the task at hand." He stopped as an idea hit him. "Data! He would be more pliable than Picard. At least there are ways to program the android. He's malfunctioned twice in recent memory -- at Rashanar and at the Ba'ku planet, so he is due for reprogramming."

The imposing admiral rose from Cabot's desk and strode toward her, headed for the door. "Just make the captain comfortable, but not too comfortable, so he'll be happy to get out of here when the time is right. I know you can do that without any problem."

She cringed as Nakamura passed her. Colleen had begun to dislike her chief benefactor intensely. Colleen had known his backing wouldn't come cheap, but this was not how the young counselor wanted to succeed in Starfleet. However, like Beverly Crusher, Nakamura would be a bad one to cross.

Either way, I'm screwed, she mused.

Copyright © 2004 by John Vornholt


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