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Story Notes:
Originally published in RICHIE FOREVER 1 from Agent With Style, still available. Check out their fine line of Highlander zines. For more information or to order, visit her website.

Also, there's a hidden third fandom (very obscure) inside this as well. Think Dale Midkiff.
Chapter Notes:
This story occurs after A DISH SERVED COLD, even though it was written a year before. The epilogue in "DISH" takes place during this story.


"Medical Journal, Dr. Addie Mattheson, August 25th, 2012.

"Gil and Dickie are three hours overdue. This usually wouldn't worry me, but they were out near Mare Orientale doing some exploratory mining. The crews have to go farther and farther from Plymouth to find minerals and....They should have enough air for another ten hours, and if they can manage to make it halfway home, they can use their communications unit and call for help. So why am I worried that they are only a few hours late?

"Because anything can happen here, on the Moon."

Gil stood frozen on the edge of the cliff, not daring to move, afraid one blink and the sight before him would disappear like a puff of smoke. He knew time hadn't stopped; his labored breathing still echoed heavily in his helmet. His partner was behind him, unmoving. Not a word had been exchanged since Dickie's earlier exclamation of shock. What could someone say? What words would do when humanity came face to face with something definitely inhuman?

Below, on the other side of the crater, carved directly into the cliff wall, was a doorway. It looked tall, almost twice the size of a normal man. But it was...wrong. The corners weren't square, the dimensions too bizarre. And barely visible from this distance...good Lord, was that writing?

The...gate?...was flush with the crater floor, meaning it had been built after whatever cosmic bowling ball had slammed into the lunar crust. That could have been five centuries or five eons ago. The aperture was protected by a rock ledge above it, hiding it from the sunlight and prying eyes from Earth. But if you stood here, right here, it stood out like a beacon in the dark.

"G...Gil?" Dick managed to stutter over their communications channel. The young voice sounded scared, and cautious, though not out of control. Gil was glad for that. Panic was the surest way to die on the Moon. And the young ones died so quickly, Gil thought. But not Dickie.

That was one of the reasons Gil had brought him along, Dickie's control. Anytime you strayed from Plymouth, you'd better make sure you could trust your partners. Gil had a hunch about this one. The drive was there, the energy. Just like Gil had been, once. A hotshot. Someone who could lead the next generation of townspeople living here on the Moon. Though not for several more years.

Right now Gil prayed he'd live another several years. Or another day. There was no way he was passing this up. They had oxygen, they had water. And a mystery in front of them that was going to be examined.

"I'm going down," he exclaimed, looking at the crater wall, searching for an easy path down. Finding none, he toyed with the idea of just jumping. With one-sixth the gravity of Earth, even with pressure suits on, a person could fall enormous distances without getting hurt. But his practiced eye told him this was just too high.

Apparently his partner thought the same. "I'll get the rope from the rover," Dickie informed him over the radio. Gil turned in time to see the young man spring across the lunar sand, bouncing toward the ugly metal vehicle. A moment later, he was on his way back, the neon yellow cord flying behind him.

They found a rock outcropping sturdy enough to hold their reduced weight and smooth enough not to cut through the rope. With a dramatic flair, Gil tossed the coil over the crater lip, watching the rope unfurl as it lazily floated to the floor below. "I'll go first," he ordered, not wanting to give up his seniority. Dickie gave him a smile and thumbs up.

Once below, they glided across the crater floor, the first humans ever to walk this patch of airless sand. It was easier to gauge the height of the construct now. Immense. With each bounding jump, they came closer, details becoming clearer and more distinctive. It was writing, or some type of symbols, that surrounded the depression in the center. It was wider at the bottom than at the top. And it definitely was a doorway.

"Do you have any idea what these markings are?" Gil's question was punctuated by heavy breaths, amplified by the microphone. He was sweating as well, and not entirely from the exertion. The markings carved into the rock were as fresh as the day they had been made. No wind blew across to erode them, no plants thrived and crumbled the stone. The edifice was perfectly preserved in the Moon's sterile environment. "I am touching the face of Time," Gil murmured to himself.

The radio crackled, followed by Dickie's excited voice, shattering the mood. "Look, there's an opening. Maybe we can fit through!" By the time Gil turned around, his partner was already squeezing between the two halves, fitting into a narrow space of black darkness. Excitement overrode his gnawing fear as he pushed his suit between the doors of rock, into the unknown.

Dickie was looking around when Gil made it through, the young miner's helmet beams illuminating only a fraction of the cavernous area. Dust motes floated outward in the faint glow, disturbed by the pair, the first disturbance in who knew how long. Far away, only one exit was discernible, opposite the massive doors. God, it was big enough to fly the lander into.

It seemed the thought was mutual. Dickie's hesitant voice broke through the silence. "Do you think they had ships?" Gil wasn't sure what to think. If he let his mind work, he knew he'd be high-tailing it back to Plymouth, screaming his head off, not returning without a shitload of people. But right now, a cursory examination needed to be done. He reached out, snagging his partner's suit arm, pulling the youngster around to face him.

"Two hours, Dickie. Then we turn back. No matter what."

Dickie blinked in the light from Gil's helmet. "Sure, boss. T minus 120. Got it." On one of the tiny video screens in the suit, '119.895' appeared, counting backward. Gil let the young man take the lead, hoping to try and find something Dickie missed in his excitement. The corridor was featureless, extending on and on. Down and down. Deep into the Moon's crust.

With forty minutes left of the two hours, the floor leveled out, opening into another huge room. This one was so large, their lights couldn't reach the ceiling or far side. "Split up," Gil ordered, motioning Dickie to take the left. The pair separated, following the walls. Every now and then, Gil looked over, seeing the faint glow from his partner's lights. He desperately wanted to talk, anything to drive away the oppressive silence, but nothing came to mind that didn't sound utterly foolish.

Gil was lost in thought when he came across the opening. He stopped after he passed it, waiting for Dickie to complete the circuit. "Nothing," the young miner coughed, out of breath from jogging the last few hundred meters. His voice sounded disappointed, and a little confused.

"Not quite," Gil answered, turning his helmet to illuminate the doorway. Dickie gasped, taking a step toward it until Gil put a hand out. "It's normal sized," he pointed out, not sure what to make of that fact. Cautiously, he went first, prepared for trouble.

It was only a small room, maybe fifteen meters square. Its only feature was a pedestal or console in the middle, completely covered in dust. With a white glove, Gil swept part of it clear, absently watching Dickie examining the walls. He looked back down, momentarily blinded when his lights were reflected back into his face. "Damn!" he cried in shock, as his helmet belatedly darkened.

Dickie was beside him in a second. "What?" They looked down at the pedestal, finding a layer of shiny crystal just under the dust. Carefully, they cleared the rest. It looked like a console of some type, built into the very rock. Nothing could be seen in the depths, no sign of power or activity. "What is it?"

Gil shook his head, a useless gesture inside a pressure suit. "I have no idea," he replied. There was a feeling of...incompleteness. They were missing something. Something important. "Wait. Stand in the doorway while I run across the corridor. There may have been something in the center of the room we didn't see."

Dickie gave him another thumbs up. "Right," the youngster answered, following Gil to the door. It only took five minutes for Gil to bounce to the other side, using the sloping corridor to slow his forward momentum.

"Dickie, I'm coming..."

Static overrode the radio frequency, the howl of noise deafening Gil. In pain, he groped for the volume control, relieved when the agonizing hiss faded into silence. "Dickie? Dickie!" No answer could be heard over the static. Taking a deep breath, Gil began leaping back across the expanse, relieved to see the diffused glow of his partner's lights in the distance.

As Gil bounced closer, he noticed the light was getting brighter and brighter, brilliant white like a cutting torch. It filled the doorway into the small room, now a miniature furnace. His helmet darkened as he approached, filtering out almost all of the light. The console stood out in black relief, the fire or whatever on the other side. And no sign of Dickie.

With one last spurt, Gil's radio shorted out, leaving the man in deathly silence. Cautiously, he entered the room, scanning the walls for any sign of his partner. Blazing like a pillar of fire, the white mass waited at the far end. Gil moved around the console, his helmet clearing when he looked away from the blinding mass. The console was active, lighted shapes flickering fitfully on and off. He reached out toward one, losing his nerve before he actually touched it.

Now that Gil was on the other side of the console, he could make out Dickie's tether line, attached to the pedestal. The other end was pulled into the fiery mass, stretched taut. His partner had...

The floor buckled, almost throwing Gil to his feet. Instinctively, he reached for the tether to steady himself, rewarded as the line gave way. Moonquake, Gil thought, yanking harder on the line. No answering tug came as the shaking got worse. Looking outside at the larger room, he saw dust and rocks falling, bouncing around the cavern floor. Desperate, he pulled on the line, one hand grasping the console for support.

The white fire regurgitated a suit before sputtering and disappearing into nothingness. Blinded by the sudden absence of the bright light, Gil struggled to feel if Dickie was inside. As his eyes adjusted to the lesser brilliance of the helmet lights, the room's roof collapsed, sending rock and debris plunging onto the pair. The console was the only thing that saved them. Two large chunks formed a pocket supported by the pedestal, barely wider than the two men.

Gil blinked, his eyes watering as Dickie's panicked face came into focus. The young man's mouth was moving jerkily, eyes glazed. Gil leaned over, touching his helmet to his partner's. "Abu dista, nogwa. Jak-to lena. Lena...Abu!" Great, thought Gil. I'm kilometers underground during a moonquake, my partner is babbling, and I'm stuck in.... He couldn't finish the thought.

Training took over, keeping his mind off of how deep in trouble they were. Gil had six more hours of air. Food and water were still available. They were over five hours past their check-in time, and someone from Plymouth would be out searching even now. EarthCom could locate the rover, and unless the outer doors were now buried, or the tunnel collapsed....

Stop that! No broken bones, and the quake seems to have stopped. Now for Dickie. No apparent injuries. Still babbling, but suit pressure seems to be fine. Air for...one hour?

Gil tapped the external gauge again, praying the needle was stuck. To his dismay, it jerked even lower. This can't be right, he thought. Quickly, he checked the fitting of Dickie's helmet. They were solidly attached. So were the hoses to the backpack. Struggling to turn Dickie over in the confined space, he ripped open the emergency panel on the life support unit, stunned when he saw the large hole in the oxygen tank. Too big for any of the patches they carried to seal it.

It didn't take long for all the air to escape, leaving the inside of Dickie's suit as empty as the Moon's surface. Luckily, the young man never stopped babbling, blessedly lost in a murky haze where he felt no pain. Gil sat there in the darkness, helmets pressed together, listening to the drivel until it slowly faded into silence, no oxygen to feed the brain.

For the longest time, Gil wept. Weighing the choices of the last few hours with a man's life. Regretting his decisions that led to this moment. Praying he wouldn't die like his partner. Maybe he slept, but time passed, carrying him through anger, tears, and recriminations.

Five hours, forty minutes later, a small rock moved, letting the light from a helmet peek into the small space. A metal lever peeled back one of the two supporting rocks, sending dust cascading down on Gil. Hands grasped at his suit, pulling him out of the hole, into the larger cavern. He was carried up the rock-strewn corridor to the surface. As he surrendered to unconsciousness, he was left with a last glimpse, the line of alien markings surrounding the massive outer doors. And a thought.

Was it worth it?


A Highlander/Star Trek Universe Crossover
by Kevin H. Robnett

"Captain's Log, Stardate 48318.1. We have been successful in retrieving our errant pilot, Lieutenant Ryan, even though Voyager has since disappeared in the Badlands. The Intrepid has been ordered to Spacedock for a thorough going over, in light of the circumstances. I find it peculiar to be going to Earth, since so many other suitable facilities are closer to us here on the Cardassian border. I also find it peculiar that an Admiral would send a privately coded message to a member of my senior staff. But where Mr. Ryan is concerned, peculiar is the norm."

Stars flew by the windows in the darkened room. Their light trails, elongated and multicolored by the warp field, cast fluttering, dancing shadows along the inner wall. The hypnotizing display was lost on the man sitting alone at the table. His eyes were looking in different directions.

Most people, on seeing the lieutenant, would hardly believe he was an Academy graduate, let alone a member of any ship's senior staff. Not a day over twenty, they would say when they found he was fully human. Sandy haired, a far cry from six feet tall, his whole countenance exuded boyish charm. Only his eyes gave him away. Eyes that penetrated whatever he looked at, focusing three hundred and ninety-six years of living and learning.

Richie Ryan sighed, sudden thoughts of his impending four hundredth birthday driving him deeper into his melancholy. He had taken the day off, still shaken about the news of the Voyager, spending time alone and in the dark.

It seemed every time he turned around, more and more friends were dying. And it was harder to make new ones. God, four hundred years, and what to show for it? A common question this last century. A growing agitation. For the past decade and a half, the excitement of the new scout ships, the Intrepid and her sisters, had driven off his growing discontent. Finally, something new. He had pulled all the numerous strings he had to get assigned as the chief pilot for the project. He hadn't noticed all the people gladly helping, thankful of his renewed interest in anything.

For twelve years, first in holodeck simulations, then in a prototype, Richie terrorized the solar system, putting the new design through rigorous testing. His blood sang as he dove through the Jovian clouds, laughing as he purposefully sheared off both nacelles and then crashed the saucer section into a large asteroid. A battering was what they wanted, and a battering is what they got.

The end result was a starship that could stand the pressures of years without an overhaul, weather whatever the universe could throw at it and laugh, survive alone in the night forever. A true, long-range scout ship. Just like an Immortal, he grudgingly added.

That's what Richie found an interest in. He was ready to explore places no probes had ever visited yet. See the sights now viewed only with dubious computer enhancement. No one stood in his way of gaining the first ship's chief pilot position. And with that, the promise of the stars whose light hadn't reached the Alpha Quadrant yet.

But those promises had been made over two years ago. USS Intrepid, the first and namesake of the class, was on patrol on the Cardassian border. The second, USS Geronimo, was shuttling diplomats between the Federation and Khitomer. USS Voyager, newest of the class, had just been ferried to DS9, for a search and rescue. The bold promises to him, which Richie had believed in good faith, had yet to be kept.

That's not fair, Richie reminded himself. Kathryn had been deeply worried for her security chief. Every ship in the fleet handles such concerns, no matter what their purpose was. Even the Enterprise gets sidetracked for things like missing officers. We wouldn't be Starfleet if we didn't take care of our own. You're upset because if you had stayed on board, this might not have happened. Stadi's skill notwithstanding, you could have saved....

You failed, a voice inside him said. You let a problem in the design slip through. You killed her.

"No," Richie whispered in the dark. An old picture of Kathryn Janeway as a cadet sat on the table, reflecting the sparse light from the windows. He reached toward it,...

...his hand acknowledging the hail from Deep Space Nine. The sudden noise had interrupted Richie's comment, pulling his attention back to the console at the front of the bridge. Lieutenant Commander Cavit, Voyager's First Officer, waited in silence as he stood behind Richie's chair. "DS9 has cleared us for Upper Pylon Three. ETA is...two minutes," Richie announced to the sparse bridge crew. Not very many people were needed to ferry the latest starship to this outback station, where the full crew was already assembling.

With deft fingers, the Immortal piloted the ship around several other vehicles coming and going. Since the discovery of the stable wormhole, this place had tripled its daily activity, hosting all manner of beings. That included serving as a rallying point for Starfleet's best and brightest, as every captain had a right to call her crew. With a gentleness he only used with ships and women, Richie maneuvered into the docking clamps, rewarded with a soft bump and hiss of gasses being purged as the docking seals engaged. Just like a woman, he thought.

"Well done," Cavit commented, turning and walking back to the command chairs. Richie locked down his station, and pivoted his seat to face the other man. The First Officer briefly announced their arrival at the station to the crew, and noted the event in the ship's log. Waiting for him to finish, Richie cast another furtive glance at the door to the Captain's ready room. "She's not in there," Cavit gently said, drawing the pilot back to the interrupted conversation.

"Like I was saying," Richie continued. "I couldn't. I know she's got a lover on Earth." Cavit didn't look convinced. "Oh, hell. What does it matter?" With a snort, he stood, brushing out the wrinkles in his maroon jumpsuit. "I have a ship to get back to, and you have a mission to go on. Not a time for...complicated involvements." He quickly jumped up the steps to the main level.

Cavit stood as he approached. The First Officer smiled, holding out his hand. "It's been a pleasure to serve with you again..." Richie accepted the firm grip, hearing the unspoken 'sir' at the end of the compliment. A memory of a brief assignment between teaching at the Academy and snagging the Intrepid-class design project brought a smile to the Immortal's lips. What had it been? The Berryman.

"Ensign Cavit seems a long time ago," Richie admitted, not wishing to start another conversion with an acquaintance on how old he really felt. "Good luck on your mission." With those final words of parting, Richie escaped to his temporary quarters, quickly loading the depressingly small amount of personal items into a lone duffel bag. It sat on his bed, painfully unfilled. He mentally compared it to the crates he knew Duncan MacLeod had stashed across the galaxy, the whole asteroid of books Methos had spirited away.

The door chimed, breaking into his downward spiral of regrets. "Come," was all he said, all that the computer needed to open the doors. With a 'whoosh' light entered from the hallway, as well as the sight of her. God, twenty-odd years later, and she still looked amazingly beautiful. Not that he hadn't spent every moment looking at her since coming aboard. "Kathryn."

Captain Janeway smiled, the warm and inviting kind that she used with old friends, and old lovers. "Richard. I had hoped you wouldn't try and sneak out on me." Richie shrugged, not having much to say in his defense. "Well, at least have dinner with me. For old times' sake."

The idea both excited and frightened him. He was ready to pull her to him, ravish her with kisses and love, but he knew full well that time had passed for her. Too much time. So it was dinner instead, and the dull warmth of old memories. "On the station, though," he said, agreeing. "I'm a little sick of replicator food." Better than nothing.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," she huskily replied, taking a moment to pull her bun loose, letting her hair cascade down her back the way she knew he liked. "Duty can wait till tomorrow." She smiled as he reached over and grabbed the strap on the bag, slipping her arm comfortably into his as they walked into the corridor. "I'm sorry I haven't had any spare time...a new command is always busy."

Richie paused just before the main airlock, a small mischievous grin on his lips. He turned to face her, doing his best imitation of a military attention. "Permission to disembark, Captain?" God, how he loved to tease her.

Janeway frowned, her voice chilling and dropping an octave. "Permission granted, you old goat!" But the scene had just the right touch of sarcasm, and they both had a good laugh as they stepped over the airlock seals, once again walking arm in arm.

They made it as far as the Promenade elevator before they were accosted by someone. A nondescript man in a colorless brown outfit, holding a data padd. Richie involuntarily shivered at the man's nearly featureless face, almost as if it were wax that had been briefly warmed. "Yes?" inquired Janeway.

"Captain Janeway?" Her nod was answer enough for the man. "I'd like to welcome you to the station." As he was speaking, two females joined him, one a Bajoran by the elaborate cuff on her ear, the other a Federation Lieutenant in a blue uniform. "My name is Odo, chief of security here on DS9. May I present...." He turned back and indicated the new arrivals. "Major Kira, First Officer and Lieutenant Dax, Science Officer."

Richie noticed the markings on Dax as Odo stood aside. He quickly identified her as a Trill, another of the handful of 'Immortal' races found in the galaxy. As everyone shook hands, Janeway spoke. "Kathryn Janeway, Captain of the Voyager, and this is..."

"Richie Ryan," the Trill finished, smiling as she grasped his hand. Startled, Richie quickly reviewed any contacts he'd had with Trills. No Dax sprang to mind. The young lieutenant let him think a moment before continuing. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you. I've heard Duncan speak about you often."

Richie blushed, unsure of how he felt. It was rare he was reminded of his early years, before he migrated off of Earth. And this Trill must be a good friend of Duncan's to identify him on sight. "How did...?"

Jadzia Dax smiled, looking around the group. "One time, he pulled out a data cube of you racing motorcycles. France, I believe?" Everyone appeared keenly interested. "He also told several amusing stories about you."

Richie silently groaned. That had been a very long time ago. He was spared the need to reply by the Bajoran, Kira. "Captain, would it be possible for Dax and me to take a look at your ship? We've heard a lot of rumors about the new design."

"Anytime," Kathryn replied, picking up on Richie's uneasiness. "My First Officer, Mr. Cavit, can show you around." Unnoticed by the others, she gently squeezed his arm, trying to keep the conversation diverted. "Would anyone care to recommend someplace to eat? We're famished."

Odo twisted his face into an approximation of a smile. "I would suggest giving 'Quark's' a wide berth. It's not known for it's...culinary creations. Other than that, there are several establishments...." His comm badge chirped, a security officer requesting his presence in another part of the station. "If you'll excuse me." With a parting nod, he withdrew, moving quickly through the crowded Promenade.

The foursome quickly broke apart, with directions to a Klingon establishment, and a promise by Richie to spend some time with Dax. One he was not planning to keep.

Dinner was...interesting. Kathryn was taken aback by Richie's extensive knowledge of Klingon opera, as was the Klingon owner. After the Immortal partook in a particularly grating duet from a more obscure composer, the two Federation officers were treated to a full seven course meal, compliments of the staff. This led to a telling of Richie's comical experiences with the composer's sister to everyone in earshot. His dinner partner waited, casually stating she'd like to hear the rest of the story. And so he told her what it had been like as a military attache on the Klingon homeworld, over two decades ago.

Kathryn sat quietly, drawing out more and more from the Immortal. It felt good to talk to her again, almost like old times. But the night grew late, and the wine ran out, and with no more than a kiss on the cheek, the two parted. Richie went to find a place to bunk down, and Kathryn returned to her ship.

And now, she was gone. It was always a possibility when he left someone, either mortal or Immortal. There would never be another chance to say the words he invariably held back.

The door chime intruded on the silence, an unwelcome disturbance in Richie's black mood. He ignored it, scowling in the dark at whoever was outside. Go away, he thought, turning back to gaze on the unappreciated starscape outside his cabin.

The door chimed again.

If it was an emergency, they would have ordered him to the bridge, paging him on his communicator. Anybody on the ship would ring once, but only someone important would ring twice. Of the two people on the ship he thought of as important, both would keep pushing the damn button until he opened the door.


The computer obediently unlocked the doors and opened them. A figure stood silhouetted by the corridor light, a man by the silhouette. And I bet he didn't bring any real alcohol, either, Richie dryly thought.

"I know you had...friends on Voyager," the man solemnly began. "I thought you might want to talk." Captain Lorrict stepped into the cabin, letting the doors shut and returning the room to its shadowy state. Richie's eyes adjusted. He saw his commanding officer's face, illuminated by the colored stars streaking past. Dark, black hair, cut short, framed a soft oval of a face. Beautiful, he admitted, with just a hint of the exotic.

Richie turned away before he had a chance to glimpse the eyes. "No. I don't." Usually, he wasn't this short with the Captain, but this was a deep depression he was spiraling into, and all bets were off.

"You do," Lorrict replied. "Just not to me."

God, I hate Betazoids, Richie mentally cursed, not bothering to hide the grimace he knew the Captain would pick up. But that was one of the first things they had done away with, the pretenses. The two had known when they first met, as part of the Intrepid project, that any friendship between them would be all or nothing. Neither had regretted the decision in the last ten years.

"And I'm not about to start," Richie softly added, turning his chair to face Pretar Lorrict, already seated across the table. His friend nodded in understanding, patiently waiting, those deep brown eyes sucking Richie in. That's what frightened him. Letting go, and not being able to stop. A breath. "I'm feeling old."

Pretar waited, trying to see if Richie would say more. The Immortal looked away first, stopping the rest of his programmed spiel on the matter. He wouldn't do it to Pretar. The Betazoid cleared his throat, venturing a comment. "Old, as in what a long life I've had, or old, as in my death is just around the corner?"

Richie chuckled, thankful that the universe had paired him with a former ship's counselor as a friend. "Death is something I've lived with all my life. Heck, we've walked side by side since I became Immortal. No, I look back on everything I've done, everyone I've known, and...."

"There's so many," Pretar finished for him, not needing an ounce of telepathy. The Captain nodded, remembering the class they had taught at Starfleet Medical on the 'long-lived' species. It had definitely come in handy since he had learned of his pilot's...unusual gift.

Richie looked off at a shadowy corner, his brow furrowed as he tried to put into words what he felt. "Sometimes I forget. Then something happens, or I run into somebody, and memories come back." He looked down at his hands, glad they weren't shaking. "It's been happening more and more, lately. And now..." He shrugged, unable to mouth the words.

Pretar leaned back in the chair, risking a cursory 'read' of Richie. It looked bad. "Maybe the problem is not tied up with the fact that you'll live forever," he said. The Immortal looked up, cautious. "Maybe it has to do with the race you came from."

How could it not be part of my Immortality, Richie wondered. "What does my being human have to..." The thought was so jarring, even his hands had stopped fidgeting.

"You're not human, Richie," interrupted Pretar. The Betazoid didn't need to see the hurt look. The sudden emotions radiated out like a beacon, slamming into him, momentarily overwhelming the telepath. "Please, Richie," he continued, "you aren't human. You'll live much longer, you heal almost instantly. I won't even start on the Quickening..."

Richie jumped up, unable to stand it any longer, flinging his chair backwards. "I AM human. God damn it..." Angry, he began to pace, finally giving up and retreating to the sleeping area.

Pretar calmly followed. Richie was already curled up at the head of the bed. Gently, the Betazoid sat near the foot, waiting until Richie had settled down. "I don't know what you are, Richie. You're a good friend, and a hell of a pilot, but you aren't a human being. At least a normal one. You have to admit that."


The word was so quiet, so hesitant. But a start. Pretar forged on. "You were raised a human. Everything you learned was from a human viewpoint. You only have a century or so to live, and the latter part of that as helpless invalid. Being hurt meant recovery time. In days, or even years."

Richie couldn't disagree with anything being said. That's the way it was. That's what he had planned on, so many years ago. "But I'm human. I'm human."

Pretar could help a small laugh. "Even if you are, you don't have to play by their rules." Now was the hard part. "Vulcans live several centuries, and store a lot more memories and knowledge that you do. But it's normal for them. They've grown up expecting it. Who knows how long the Ramatasians live? Or the Illerians? In every case, they are taught by others like them, and their long lifespan, their memories, are nothing to be ashamed about. Or worried. If you had been raised by Immortals..." Richie opened his mouth, a rebuttal on his lips. "I know," Pretar continued, holding up a hand in the gloom for silence. "I know you were around Immortals. But did they teach you about life, or just about being Immortal?"

Richie stopped and thought, realizing how valid Pretar's words were, and how much of his mood was other than Kathryn's fate. The Betazoid stood, aware that now thinking and soul-searching were needed. "You're right, I guess," the Immortal admitted, vocalizing his emotions. "Thank you, Petey...." His voice trailed off.

Pretar looked down at the data cube he was still holding. "What about Voyager? Do you want to talk about that?"

"No," Richie replied. "That's another can of worms." And one he had a grip on. The grief and pain he still had to work through, but it was something he was used to doing. Pretar's words had crystallized some vague things for him, and that would help in its own way. "I'll be fi...better," he said. "I'll see you at duty call tomorrow."

The Captain nodded. "We can get along without you for another day, Lieutenant. Take it. That's why I came by," he said, turning the data cube over in his hands. "We've been recalled to Earth. Warp 9.95. Officially, it's for a good going over, but they seem too desperate for that to be the real reason."

Even in his grief, Richie's anger latched on the implied criticism. "They do think..."

"No!" interrupted Captain Lorrict. "You don't send a ship into the Badlands and blame the design when it disappears. Disappears, Richie. They haven't come up with any debris." There's hope, the Betazoid tried to project. "No, something else is crawling up the Admiralty's butt, and we just happen to be handy." He tossed the cube onto the bed, watching it land close to Richie's leg. "A personal message for you. Day after tomorrow, Lieutenant."

"Good night, Captain," Richie replied, watching him leave. This was an 'official' visit, Richie noted. He's dying to know what's on the cube, but he's warning me not to tell him. Tell anyone. And it's probably the reason we're going to Earth.

Much later, with a replicated bowl of chicken soup before him, Richie slid the cube into the reader, keying up the lone message. The black and blue Starfleet logo appeared, and the word 'CONFIDENTIAL' snaked across the bottom. He hit the play key, wondering...

"Hello, Richie." The lilting tones of her voice surrounded him as Fleet Admiral Allynna Nachayev appeared on the screen. Her blond hair was in the bun she wore while on duty, a brief glimpse of her uniform was visible behind her desk. She was one of those special people who didn't show her age, who always looked as beautiful each time Richie saw them. "I'm sorry time constraints force me to record this, but...I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am, about Kathryn. I know how you two...cared for one another. I wanted you to know that now, and that I'll see you as soon as you get to Earth." She graced him with one of her smiles, a rare thing from her lately. As she rose in rank, there was less and less warmth she was willing to show. Richie wondered how much this had cost her, personally.

"Hmmm," he absently murmured. With a deft touch of his finger, the display froze, pausing the message so he could think. "She'll see me when I get to Earth," he announced to the empty room. He wondered briefly if this whole diversion was to get him to Earth as soon as possible. "Computer, what is the projected arrival time to Earth orbit?"

*Projected arrival time is two weeks, four days, present speed.*

Good, thought Richie. The Captain did what he felt was necessary, and he'll probably leave me alone unless I ask for help. With orders like that, we won't be stopping unless it's a job for Superman, and a ship like the Enterprise handles those. Can't do anything about Allynna for two weeks. All I have left is my shitty life, and worrying about Kathryn's disappearance.

You know, it's time to get roaring drunk. "Computer. Find Lieutenant Gomez. Tell her I want that bottle of Romulan Ale she owes me."

"Captain's log, supplemental. We'll reach Earth orbit in a few hours. After four consecutive Level One diagnostics, I can safely say Intrepid will not vanish into thin air for any mechanical reasons. Privately, Captain Leghorn of Geronimo concurs, even as his ship is getting looked over with a fine-tooth comb at Starbase 74.

"On a personal note, I still worry about Lieutenant Ryan, but outwardly he remains stable. I would have thought he would drop by for another chat, but as of this morning, he hasn't broached the subject with anyone. From what I know of him, I have a right to be worried."

Intrepid flew. That simple sentence was the only way Richie could describe the mix of heady power and delicate subtlety that were combined in the sleek starship. For over two weeks, the little vessel had surpassed all expectations, breaking speed and distance records as it cruised at maximum warp with nary a whimper.

It was almost insulting to Richie each time Captain Lorrict ordered another diagnostic, keeping the crew occupied trying to ferret out any bobble. So far, none had been found. Well, except for a minor problem with the new gel packs, which Engineering was working on right now. Not enough to blame the disappearance on.

Richie's console beeped for attention, diverting the lieutenant from the diagnostics. "Captain," he called, "I'm reading a gravimetric disturbance ahead, altering course." He heard the quiet footfalls as the Captain came up behind him and looked over his shoulder.

"Cause of the disturbance, Mr. Ryan?" Since the Captain's visit to his quarters, they had only spoken on duty, about ship's business. Richie was grateful for the breathing space.

Richie frowned, checking the sensor readings again, not trusting his eyes. "It's coming from...." When it reached a predetermined point in space, the ship automatically dropped out of warp. The long star trails condensed into their normal pinpricks of light. "Earth," Richie announced, looking up at the viewscreen as it framed the solar system.

Captain Lorrict paused, mulling over the news in his mind. "Danny, contact Starfleet command. Find out what's going on." The lieutenant at Ops nodded. Deft hands flew over the console. The Captain spoke softly to Richie. "Take us in. Slowly."

"Aye, aye, Captain," Richie replied. He signaled Engineering for full impulse. Traffic in the Sol system had always been strictly monitored by Starfleet; no warp engines were to be engaged inside the Jovian orbit. "Earth in ten minutes," he announced to no one in particular, already hailing Spacedock for an approach vector.

It wasn't hard to pick out the blue gem against the black velvet of space. Earth grew rapidly as they approached. The Moon was currently on the near side, a stark counterpoint to the living planet. Richie neatly guided the small ship into orbit, gently catching up with her target, Spacedock.

The ship automatically went to Red Alert as the gravimetric anomaly came out from behind Earth's shadow, a ball of white lightning at this distance. Sensors abruptly peaked as they scanned the disturbance, riding along on a matching orbit with the planet about three million kilometers away. Starfleet refused to answer any questions, giving only curt evasions to the Captain's queries.

Proximity alarms drew Richie's attention from the anomaly. Unworried, he scanned the area for what his sensors said was McKinley Station. "Hey, guys, look at this," he called, augmenting that section of the screen.

Captain Lorrict leaned forward, resting his hands on the horseshoe-shaped conn. "What is it?"

"The new Enterprise," Richie replied, leaning back in his chair. Already, the massive keel and major support struts were in position, the backbone of every ship. "She's gonna be a beauty," the Immortal whispered under his breath as he mentally picturing the completed framework lattice.

Releasing the breath he was holding, Captain Lorrict nodded his agreement. He straightened and returned to the Captain's chair. "Mr. Bird, tell us about the anomaly," he ordered. Richie never took his eyes of the viewscreen as he listened to the report.

"It's a gravimetric disturbance..." Daniel began. Richie was unable to stifle a small chuckle. "Oh, shut up! There's a high concentration of stellar radiation being produced, much more so than would be expected. It's disrupting the sensors."

Lorrict stroked his chin with his hand, his dark eyes lost in thought. "I'm sure anything we could come up with, Starfleet has already tried." He dismissed it as Starfleet's problem. His ship was still his major worry.

"Spacedock, ho!" Richie cried, rolling the ship to line up the Intrepid with the gigantic doors. They slowly opened as the ship approached, ready to swallow the small scout in their mammoth maw.

Daniel Bird called out from Ops. "We're being hailed."

*Welcome, USS Intrepid. You are cleared for holding area 29.*

The Captain mentally pictured a schematic of the inside of the orbiting station. They'd been assigned to a spot as far from the main doors as possible. He glanced at the viewscreen and frowned. Already, numerous ships were converging. It seemed that word was quickly spreading about what ship was entering, and more importantly, who was piloting her. Richie had made several vain boasts to the Spacedock crew not long ago. It looked like he would suddenly have to back them up. Captain Lorrict sighed, aware that Intrepid's reputation was now on the line. "Just don't hit anything important, Mr. Ryan."

To Richie, such an order implied tacit approval. Taking a brief moment to pop his knuckles--a horrible habit he had never gotten rid of--he called up full displays of the crowded interior. Some ships were backing off, mindful of what could happen in such a small space. A few remained neutral, holding their positions. No, it was the ones actively blocking his way that Richie was worried about. Anything that stood still he could fly around blindfolded. Guessing correctly what moving imbeciles would do--that was the hard part.

It also didn't help that the tactical officer, an Andorian Richie had never warmed up to, announced to the crew at large to brace for impact. Captain Lorrict, well aware of Richie's growing irritation, barely restrained a laugh. That didn't stop him from grabbing the chair arms.

With skill and grace, Richie fended off the opening threat. Small tugs, limited to a snail's pace, were easy to move around and between. The larger shuttles and small transports were harder to get around. The Immortal often veered off on tangents to stay clear. The heavy guns, like the Melbourne, silently waited--for what, Richie couldn't guess. Spacedock Control was no help, conveniently 'ignoring' his hails.

"Fine," Richie muttered, easily turning the lithe ship sideways to scoot through two Oberth-class science vessels. It didn't hurt that he had insisted all thruster packages be rated the same. Intrepid could move in any direction with the same power from maneuvering thrusters--a freedom none of the other ships had.

On Deck Two, sitting alone at a table in the forward dining room directly under the helm, Chief Engineer Lieutenant Sonya Gomez bravely ignored the warnings and sat eating her lunch. She'd rarely had a chance to leave Engineering these last few days, and she was making the most of it. With a fork poised at her mouth, she glanced outside, shocked to find a Spacedock lounge only a few yards away, rotating slightly as Intrepid pivoted on its nose. Her surprise was mirrored by a young technician sitting at a table, his fork frozen near his mouth as he slowly watched the ship pass by. She blinked, and the view was gone. The ship spun off in another direction. She slowly set the eating utensil down, made a grab for the sides of her chair, and wrapped her legs around the table supports. "Lunch can wait," she told no one in particular.

It was getting hairy. Captain Lorrict didn't like the fine beads of sweating breaking out on Richie's neck, a sure sign of the pilot's nervous concentration. Nor did he like the growing number of obstructions appearing around them. As Intrepid weaved deeper into the mess, it seemed more and more ships were joining the fight to stop them.

Lorrict felt Richie panic. There was an almost impenetrable wall of ships, two hundred meters thick, between him and #29. He winced when he heard the damage reports from the last two vessels they passed. They'd been unable to keep from plowing into each other. This was the kind of thing Starfleet Command just loved to jump on. He was ready to give it up when the hail to Control was finally answered.

*Having problems, Mr. Ryan?*

Not quite the thing to say to a very pissed off Immortal. "Engineering," he called, activating an internal channel. "Prepare for a one second warp burst." Richie was going to try the famous Picard maneuver. Theoretically, this would jump the ship about half a kilometer forward, through subspace. Even though the ship would be seen in two places, and visibly jump between them, it wouldn't physically travel in normal space. Theoretically. Captain Lorrict didn't know if it had been tried with ships in that space.

There wasn't much time to ask. With a press of a button, the two side nacelles drew up into warp configuration, announcing that they were about to form a subspace bubble. Ships began to desperately peel off, but they were too crowded together, and only succeeded in knocking against each other's shields, causing a fantastic light display. Spacedock Control realized too late what was happening. A brief warning came over the channel before Richie shut it off.

*Intrepid. What the hell...*

The Betazoid captain could feel the fear from the other ships as the energy built up in the nacelles, channeled by the warp core. So quickly it was almost over before you saw it, the engines flared, ripping a hole through normal space and depositing the scout vessel neatly in its place near the inner wall. Lorrict had barely been able to draw in a breath to hold before everything was over and done. Richie was already shutting down his station and finally getting Control to take over.

"I'll be in my quarters," Richie announced, moving toward the back of the bridge as his replacement sat down at the conn. Lorrict sat, watching him go, experiencing the anger Richie felt at allowing himself to get sucked into the foolish, stupid game. A game of pride where lives could have been lost. The Captain smiled, knowing no one else could punish the lieutenant as much as he was doing himself.

Pretar Lorrict stood, giving Daniel a glance. "If anyone decides they want to complain, I'll be in my Ready Room." With measured steps, he left the Bridge, nodding in passing at the Andorian at Tactical. Only behind locked doors did he allow the terror, both his own and everyone else's in range, to pour through him.

"Of all the stupid, unthinking...." Fleet Admiral Nachayev's voice rang out in her office as she paced around the outside walls. "...putting valuable resources and personnel at risk...." Richie knew better than to move from his frozen stance in front of her desk. Relaxing now would only make her worse. "...just to prove what a hot-shot pilot you are...." She was right. Richie's face blushed, matching the maroon of his uniform. He had never found a way to control that reaction. "...and Captain Lorrict...."

Richie jerked. "Now, wait a minute," he said, turning around. Admiral Nachayev stopped, glaring at him as he continued. "Do not drag Pretar into this. Blame me if you have to, Allynna, but leave him alone."

Taking a breath, Allynna slowly walked to her chair, sitting in it before looking up at Richie. "Sit down, Lieutenant" she ordered, motioning to a chair. She waited until he was seated before continuing. "I'm sure there will be disciplinary actions all around before the day is over, starting with those imbeciles in Spacedock Control...." She looked him straight in the eye as she finished. "...and including some of Intrepid's crew."

Richie nodded, aware his actions could not go unpunished. A charge of favoritism was something neither person present wanted breathing down their neck. "I understand," he conceded, risking a glance at her. Allynna turned slightly in her chair, changing positions as she changed the conversation.

"How much did you discover about the anomaly? Before you turned your attentions...elsewhere."

Pursing his lips, Richie slumped slightly in his chair, relaxing a little. "Not much. It's putting out a lot of radiation. And it's keeping pace with Earth." Intrepid's thrusters had barely begun station-keeping before Security was beaming over, taking him into custody. Since then, he hadn't risked contacting the ship. "Not that my ship has any better equipment than Starfleet or the Academy."

"You're right," Allynna replied, arranging the small monitor on her desk so both could look at it. "It appeared over a month ago. We immediately launched a series of probes." The screen showed playback of the first. A Class Two probe approached the phenomenon, actually passing into it. A burst of white light, and the probe was through, but the familiar solar system didn't greet it. Somehow, it was orbiting a planet, a brown and green ball. Static filled the screen, then suddenly it went black. Seconds later, the data screens disappeared as well. "The stellar radiation was so bad, it fried the sensors and communications in less than a minute."

Richie leaned forward, folding his arms on the desk. "It's a gate?" he ventured, looking at Allynna for confirmation. She nodded, activating the miniature viewscreen again.

"We then launched a modified Class Four probe, with extra shielding. As you can see, it severely cut into the sensors' scans, but at least we had visual for a little longer." The playback showed the same brown/green planet, spinning silently under the probe. Brief charts plotted the radiation, severe, and location, Grammis V, before this probe also went black. "No life signs were detected," she continued, "but we don't know if that was because of the shielding or because there is no life."

A wormhole, practically on Earth's doorstep, Richie thought, frowning. "I don't see how anything could live more than a few hours on the surface." Without asking, he reached over, replaying the last probe. "Barely a Class M atmosphere, no visible signs of civilization. Lifeless. When was the system charted?"

Admiral Nachayev smiled. "Grammis Prime has been going nova for the last five decades. The only charting expedition through there got as close as 400 AUs away. Most of the data is from enhanced long-range visuals. No sign of indigenous life. Most of that sector's races avoid the system entirely. Even the Romulans steer clear."

Richie saw the way Allynna's eyes were faintly glinting, as if daring him to make the next move. "You sent in another probe. Probably a planetary reconnaissance. Shielded to the max, with only visual making it back." Her eyes flashed, confirming his guess. His voice dropped an octave as he leaned forward. "What did you find?"

Allynna pressed a button. The monitor lit up again. A static-filled shot appeared, the planet slowly rotating on the bottom of the screen. It grew, finally filling the screen, until a small, dark shape whizzed by. Richie softly yelped, anxious for the probe to complete another orbit. The shape flew by again. The square object became more visible as the probe continued to fall to the planet's surface.

One last flyby, and it was ready to land. Small thrusters slowed the probe, letting it crash mere yards away from the edifice. It was a stone building, thrusting up from the landscape like a sore thumb. The static increased. Vague shapes or carvings on the building's walls took on life as Richie's eyes tried to focus on them. But the static won, completely filling the screen until it faded to black. "Damn," he quietly cussed.

Allynna wryly smiled. "We've decided not to send in any more probes. There's nothing we can do to get a better picture of what's going on using mechanical instruments. Especially when they're limited to visual only." She paused, waiting for him to speak.

It was almost like....Richie got a faint sense of deja vu, looking at the Admiral. But things were different. He was on the other side of the desk, and Allynna was...

"I didn't hear you, Cadet. Could you repeat that?" Richie's voice boomed through the lecture hall, cutting to the core of the poor, helpless human female sitting in the front row. He was upset that everyone in the room was as slow as molasses, angry that he'd ever even agreed to teach the Ethics course at the Academy for the year, and furious with the diplomatic corps for holding up his credentials.

The cadet stuttered, "uh...because it says so in the Guarantees? They prevent it?"

The class was hopeless, Richie thought, consciously keeping his hand from rubbing his forehead as the headache began. Distraught, he looked over the room full of the Academy's brightest, wondering if he could do anything to make them think. Cadet Janeway caught his eye, but immediately dove for her text.

"Just because I write in my notes that Cadet Haden shouldn't fall asleep in class...doesn't mean that I won't be graced with the sight of his balding spot again before the semester is over." He raked the group one last time, a petite blond with a sparkle of amusement in her eye drawing his gaze. With all of his three hundred years of experience, he focused on the woman, moving closer to the crowd. "Does it?"

It was a challenge, thrown with the full force of a glove in medieval times. He steeled himself to wait this out, until Cadet Nachayev figured out the answer. She blinked once, sitting up in her chair, not bothering to look at her notes. "Because if they so much as breathe in that direction, the Federation will blow right over them so fast their antenna will snap off...." She took a breath before adding,"...Sir!"

"Power," Professor Ryan replied. "Words are nice, but without the power to back them up, it's garbage. Write an essay for next week, outlining the acceptable uses of power by Starfleet." The class groaned, a few sadly shaking their heads. Richie couldn't help but smile as he dismissed class with a wave of his hand. The young cadets scampered off, relieved to be free from the dreaded Professor Ryan. That's what it took, he thought, watching them leave. Out there is the dark of space. Putting two and two together and getting...

...the answer. "You need to send someone in to look around. But that's a death sentence. You need...someone that the high radiation won't kill. An Immortal." Richie sat back, smug at figuring out the solution. "That's why you wanted Intrepid here so fast."

Allynna nodded, moving the monitor out of the way. "We do want to examine the ship for any problems. But..." The way she sat forward meant serious business. "It has been determined that one person, going in alone, would be suicide. Even if the radiation wasn't a big problem. And I've been told that an...an Immortal won't have lasting damage from it, so..."

Uh-oh, Richie thought. I smell trouble. The answer was on the tip of his tongue when the feeling hit him. Another Immortal had walked into range, here at Starfleet headquarters. "A team," he said, hearing the door open behind him. He quickly searched his memory for any other Immortals in Starfleet, confused when he drew a blank. He cast a glance at the Admiral, shocked by the sadness in her eyes. Something about this was bad, he decided as he started to turn. Who was the other...?

"Hello, Richie."

That was enough to stop his turn. It couldn't be. The new voice was definitely masculine, rich in accents from lots of different places. Not him, Richie prayed. I've spent several hundred years trying not to follow him. Not to be like him. And here he is. With everything that had happened lately, this was too much to deal with.

Allynna's voice intruded, soft and consoling. "Commander MacLeod graciously let us reactivate his commission. He'll be heading up the team..." As Richie stood, her voice trailed off into silence. He looked at Duncan, then back to the Admiral.

"Great," he said, his voice uncertain and soft. "Call me with the briefing time." He gave the Highlander another glance, then started walking toward the door. He stopped before he reached it, as if remembering Duncan had said something to him. "It's good to see you, Mac." No one in the room believed it.

"We could do it now," Duncan suggested, looking at the Admiral for confirmation.

Richie appeared to think about it, but shook his head. "I've...got a lot to do. But I'll be on the Intrepid later." Then he was out the door.

Starfleet Headquarters boasted a cavernous rotunda, a tourist sight as well as a reminder for those who wore the uniform. Along the walls, almost one mile's worth, were displays of the history of the Federation. Holos, pictures, sometimes original documents and items served as a visual lesson of the who, how and when. Reading between the lines, you might even figure out why.

Two steps left, off the door to the east stairwell, was a section of wall devoted to early Federation history. Millions of people passed this spot in any given month, but only one in a year might stop and actually look. Richie spent a lot of time here, staring at this part of the wall. Behind invisible security fields, preserved forever, were copies of the founding documents of the Federation, the Constitution and Guarantees. Whenever Richie doubted himself, or wondered what he should do, he would come here and stand, staring at the words.

He had stopped reading, content to just stare, letting the rectangular shapes fade in and out of focus. Most of them he knew by rote. His mind was working furiously, trying to find something to latch onto, to stop the tumble of thoughts and feelings. Duncan meant fighting, and fighting meant wasted energy, and why did he show up now when I need him the most, but I can't go back. I have so much to do. Another feeling intruded, until he could feel the hot breath on his neck.

"The uniform suits you," Duncan MacLeod, long of the Clan MacLeod, observed. "Of course, I though the same thing about the maroon jackets." The voice was practically the same. Nothing ever changed about Immortals. Nothing except the superficial.

Richie absently smoothed the cloth over his stomach, a habit that had developed because of the previous uniforms. The new gray and black showed off his eyes nicely, and the maroon brought out the hint of red in his hair. Or so he had been told; looking at himself hadn't been a habit for a long time. "Still can't get over the pockets being missing," he replied. Keep it light, Ryan.

Duncan moved around, beside Richie. "I want to make this work, if it's possible," he said, low and careful. His eyes felt as if they were drilling holes, making Richie's short hairs stand on end. "Like...the old days."

Whatever happened to keeping it light, Richie wondered. Never letting his eyes leave the parchment, he nodded at the wall. "The good old days. That's what I'm trying to stay away from."

He felt Duncan's hand on his shoulder, the warmth draining into his skin under the uniform. It took all of Richie's composure not to lose control. "Do you want to go into that now?" Duncan asked, his tones soft and concerned. "No matter how we feel, we have a job to do. I'll set aside my concerns for this. Will you?"

Richie didn't need to consider. "We can't start rehashing things. Right now, you are the last thing I want to deal with." He finally turned to face Duncan. Their eyes met. The Highlander was still taller, still looked older. Long hair at the moment, his face hidden behind a jet black beard, but what did that matter? Nothing made him always right, always honest. That revelation had been the hardest for Richie to learn. "Those are the terms. Agreed?"

Duncan nodded, their eyes never straying from each other. "Agreed," the Scotsman said, a ghost of a smile gracing his face. The hand, still on Richie's shoulder, clenched. "We will talk, though. After we save the universe."

Richie folded his arms across his chest, turning his attention back to the document behind the forcefield. The hand at his shoulder suddenly vanished, the conflicting emotions it caused withdrawing. But Richie still felt Duncan standing there, close by his side.

"The Constitution," Duncan commented, trying to draw Richie out. "It's always about Starfleet and the Federation. Like it's your little baby." Richie couldn't help chuckling, cocking his head to the side as he wearily shook it. "What?"

"You always were a little dense," Richie commented, pointing at the last page, full of signatures. "Column two, fifth one down." Duncan stepped forward for a better look at the faded scrawl. Richie moved back, taking a glance at Duncan before turning around. The Highlander was dressed as a smuggler or trader. The white shirt, vest, and pants tucked into boots; the fashion so popular amongst the civilian rogues. I wasn't the only vain one around, Richie thought. He was already walking away, not looking back.

"It's your name," Duncan said. The Highlander turned back, confused, as the internal sense of another Immortal faded, leaving him empty. He looked around the rotunda, but Richie was lost in the crowd. Another uniform in a sea of uniforms. "You aren't like them, Richie," he softly pointed out to no one in particular. "You still don't see that. And maybe you never will."

"You just walked out on him?" The feminine voice was muffled as it traveled through the bedspread. The two bumps twisted around each other, jockeying for position. "He is your commanding officer, Richard."

A bump suddenly rose. "WHAT?" Richie quickly pulled the blanket off of him, looking around the bed. "You didn't!"" His hair was rumpled, his eyes furious. Anger flushed his face, making its way slowly down his naked chest. "Tell me you didn't."

Allynna Nachayev surfaced from under the covers, hugging the cloth to her breast. Her face was flushed as well, and not from anger. She looked at the Immortal carefully, judging his reaction. "You've been transferred from the Intrepid..."

"God damn it! You can't do that!" Richie cried, storming off the bed, automatically pulling the sheet around his waist and holding the ends with one hand. "I won't let you," he threatened, stomping to the living area.

"Lieutenant...," she began.

Richie whirled, losing control. "DON'T YOU DARE!" he yelled, pointing a finger at her. He was so furious he was shaking. "You pull that, and I am out of here. For good." One of the few cardinal rules they still had was that rank was left at the door. "The only reason I stayed in Starfleet was Intrepid."

Allynna realized her mistake. She quickly crossed to the angry man. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Richard." She spoke softly and gently stroked his chest with her hand. "It's been a long time, and I'm just used..."

"Used to ordering your lovers around," Richie finished, stopping her protests with a gleam in his eye and a smile. "I understand. And I shouldn't have yelled at you. It's just...so frustrating." He sighed, a vocal response to her ministrations. "You can stop that, oh, about a year from now."

Her hand was joined by her other one, both running up and down his firm torso. She chuckled, looking at him fondly. "I remember a time when you were the professor, and I was the wide-eyed cadet. I was so in love with you. I thought you had the sexiest body. Now, I feel like your grandmother, getting her kicks from a young..."

"Hush," he ordered, stopping her mouth with a kiss. "You still have the sexiest body in my book," he added a moment later. Proving it, he ran his hands over her skin, smiling as she wiggled. "You always were a handful. You and Katie..."

The name was like a bucket of ice water, dampening their emotions. Allynna sighed. The pair grasped each other as if their lives depended on it. Richie squeezed his eyes shut, wrapping her in his powerful arms, her hair brushing his lips. The need for sex was overpowered by the need for friendship, and whatever the pair thought of themselves, 'friends' was at the top of the list.

Later, she brought a cup of hot chocolate to him as he sat silently on her sofa. He had put on a wrap-around, its green silk matching the robe she'd picked up from one of her many tours. "Here," she said, handing it to him. She watched him carefully drink the steaming liquid.

He 'ahh'ed after the sip, smiling. "You always did know what would hit the spot." He settled back into the sofa, letting her cuddle next to him, resting her head on his bare shoulder. Her golden hair spilled down his chest as she kissed his skin. Just once.

"It's always hard to lose a friend, Richard." Her voice held a mechanical quality, as if this was a speech she said often. A sniff betrayed her true feelings. "But there's not one of us who hasn't, at some point," she added, snuggling closer. "That's part of the risk we take, when we commit to Starfleet."

Richie turned slightly, fidgeting. "Doesn't mean I have to like it," he sourly replied. It only made Allynna hug him closer. "Doesn't mean I have to like any of it."

"I knew you'd be upset about MacLeod," she said. Brushing her hair from her face, she raised her head and looked at him, drawing his attention with her hand. "There wasn't any other way," she added, running her finger down his cheek before kissing him on the lips.

The Immortal pulled back, holding her by the shoulders. "Let me go alone," he asked. He was serious, and urgent. "We don't need him."

Allynna shook her head sadly. "I can't risk it. Risk you. Sending you in alone? What if something happened before you could get back?" Her voice turned desperate, her eyes frightened. "What if the shuttle was damaged, and you couldn't fly her by yourself? What if the radiation does affect you. Too many 'ifs', Richard." Looking him straight in the eyes, she added, "I couldn't do that."

Sighing, Richie leaned forward, holding his head in his hands. "I know. I can't blame you, he's a great guy to have at your back. It's just that I've gotten used to not dealing with him..." Her hands rubbed soothingly across his bare back, until he jumped when she touched a sore spot. "Ohh!"

"I didn't know you were so...tense," she teased, adding her other hand, causing Richie to issue more sounds of pain. "Here." She turned him so his full back was to her. She rose up on her knees behind him, getting a good grip with downward pressure on his shoulders. She was rewarded by an aching scream of pain mixed with pleasure.

"Ohh, man," he hissed, his eyes shut as his head lolled forward. Her nails raked his skin, her sharp fingers digging into his back muscles. He shifted, moving away from the agony, but always returning and begging for more. She kneaded the flesh down his spine, a final dig making him gasp as he stuck out his chest, not wanting the torture to stop.

After a good ten minutes, Allynna slowed. Richie gratefully leaned back as she finished working on his shoulders. "How long has it been? Since you've relaxed like this." He mumbled something as she worked her way up his neck, pushing his head forward to reach the top of his spine. "Say that again?"

"Ohh. Two years,...or so." He was getting sleepy, the adrenaline fading slowly as all the problems lessened under the massage. He felt her hands on his chest, smoothing his chest hair. He reached up and grabbed them with his, leaning back into the warm embrace. "They always talk about what a hot shot lady-killer I'm suppose to be, but truthfully, I've...wanted to be alone."

Allynna nodded, listening to Richie's breathing grow fainter. "For me too," she whispered, feeling his body totally relax. With a final kiss just behind his ear, she rested her head on the back of the sofa, letting sleep claim her as well.

0900 hours arrived at one of the shuttlebays scattered around the complex. With it, Richie walked into the room, taking stock of the situation. A bulky runabout took up the center of the area, its long, rectangular main section balanced by the two small warp nacelles on either side. He looked around, wondering if his new commander was late. The only other person in the hanger was an officer with his back to the door. Richie walked up, intent on asking the short-haired fellow if anyone else was around. The point became moot when they both noticeably stiffened at the same time.

"Good morning," Duncan MacLeod said in greeting, turning to the new arrival. Richie nodded, shocked at how well his old teacher had cleaned up. The beard was gone, as well as most of the hair. He was wearing a neatly pressed black and maroon jumpsuit with three pips on the gray undershirt. And looking like he came straight out of a recruiting poster. "You're right. I hate not having pockets."

"You look...great," Richie stuttered, his mind not coming up with anything else to say. Duncan smiled, and Richie realized how much he had missed that. "I just didn't think..."

Duncan finished the sentence for him. "...I'd wear something like this? I did serve in Starfleet, you remember." Richie blushed under Duncan's chiding and changed the subject.

"This is it?" He walked the rest of the way to the runabout as he asked the question, stopping and examining the ship with a critical eye. They had added about a foot of extra shielding, and the side sensor pods had been removed. In fact, the only breaks in the duranium alloy were the door and the front window.

Duncan knocked on the hull. "The Orinoco," he announced, introducing the two. With a wave, he motioned for Richie to precede him into the ship. From inside it looked normal--door to the front, engines in the middle, and a door to the living compartment in back. "Get her warmed up, Richie. We take off in fifteen minutes."

With ease, Richie slid into the pilot's seat, powering up the runabout's systems. He quickly sped through the preflight checklist, then signaled Ground Control of their status. "Commander," he called to the air, "Ready to lift."

*Acknowledged. I'll be there in a second.*

Busying himself with the controls, Richie didn't notice the Highlander until he was seated in the other front seat. "We should be clear all the way to the anomaly, Richie. Hold out your arm." Richie took a quick glimpse over, at the emergency transponder Duncan held. Using one hand on the controls, the lieutenant held out his arm, feeling the tight armband wrap around his bicep. "This will help the sensors keep track of us in the radiation, and act as an emergency beacon if something goes wrong."

"Got it," Richie replied. He finished plotting a course, then turned to Duncan. "Ready?" Duncan nodded, activating his own console. With a smile, the pilot powered up the thrusters, feeling the runabout lift from the ground. Keying the shuttlebay doors, he gently pushed forward. The Orinoco drifted out into the sun. Once free of the building, Richie engaged the impulse engines, sending the ship rising to the sky.

Duncan busied himself with the few remaining sensors. "Two minutes to the anomaly," he called out as they cleared the upper atmosphere. "Radiation increased by two percent."

"Raising shields," Richie added, diverting power to the modified deflectors. The white anomaly stood out against the black as the runabout sped toward it. He slowly rolled the ship to take advantage of the widest area of the hole. With a flash and a bump, they were through, suddenly a long way from Earth.

Duncan frowned. "Radiation increased by seventy-two percent. And rising." He rechecked his figures just to be sure. "This isn't good, Richie. Eighty-five percent and still climbing."

The lieutenant had his own problems to worry about. Navigational sensors failed, his console going blank until emergency powered could be activated. "Five minutes to planetfall," he said, worried that he would only have to land on visual. If they didn't just plow into the ground. Luckily, there wasn't much of a chance of hitting something. "Going in, now." With a jolt, the runabout encountered atmosphere, jostling the small ship.

"Radiation is at one hundred twenty-two percent and still rising," Duncan called, briefly holding on to the console as the ship bucked. "Sensors locked on..." With a pop, Duncan's console went dark. "Sensors gone."

Richie shook his head, sending the runabout in a thirty degree turn as it sped two kilometers above the dying surface. "I know where I'm going," he called, waiting for the last second to start slowing down. "Building ahead, one klick."

Duncan held on as the runabout appeared to go into a controlled crash. Nothing blew up, and it didn't slide, but the Highlander would swear they left gouge marks. "Little rough, huh, Richie?"

The lieutenant didn't reply. Instead, he turned his chair and sprang out of it, already heading for the supply cabinet that held tricorders and search lights. "Here," he called, tossing a set to Duncan.

The Highlander caught them, then turned back to his console. He tried to calculate the outside radiation, but none of the projections looked good. "Activate transponder," he ordered, checking to see that they registered each other. So far, so good. "We may have as little as thirty minutes out there..."

"Then let's not waste it," Richie replied, already moving toward the airlock. He waited by the door for Duncan to arrive, keying it open the second the Highlander stood in front of it. The air whirled in their faces, a stiff wind blowing small bits of dust and debris by them. Richie took a breath, almost gagging on it. "God, it's...dead. Hot. Dirty." And everything looked strange, mainly from the harsh orange light of the collapsing sun.

Duncan nodded, coming up with a few other choice words. He didn't try to talk, just motioned to the building and the doorway facing them. Opening his tricorder, he tried to scan it, but there was too much interference. With a jerk of his head, he took off toward it at a run, knowing Richie was right behind him.

They arrived at the stone construction. Duncan took only a moment to scan the markings on the door frame. The universal translator couldn't readily identify them, only giving a half-dozen vague linguistic similarities, all from a sector lightyears from Grammis. "Help me with the door," Richie called out over the wind. Duncan closed the tricorder and replaced it, freeing both hands to help open the door.

The pair grunted, finally moving the stone door aside far enough for them to squeeze through. The air inside was calmer, though still as dead. The inner room, once they had a chance to turn on their wrist lights, was not very big, only wide enough for the two intersecting corridors going right and left. "Your choice," Richie said, after looking both ways.

Duncan took a moment deciding. "We don't know how big this place is, and since we have a very limited time, we should split up." The Highlander looked to the left, before looking at Richie. "I'll take left. And stay in contact."

Lieutenant Ryan almost saluted, but instead, flipped open his tricorder and shined his light down the right corridor. "Yes, sir, Mac, sir," he cracked before taking a cautious step down the corridor. Duncan sighed, opening his own tricorder.

It felt like hours to Duncan, but according to the chronometer, it had only been twenty minutes. He had found several rooms, ranging from totally empty to crammed with numerous unidentified items. Nothing that looked like a control room. Nothing that even looked like complex machinery at all. Richie had moved out of range a while back, making the place seem even spookier. But the transponder still chirped every minute, a welcome friend in the silence.

Once they had moved deeper into the building, the radiation slacked off enough to allow limited sensor readings. So far, no life signs or power readings had show up on Duncan's scans. Not that he was expecting any. Whatever this place had been, it was certainly dead now. Dead and buried. A very uncomfortable thought to an Immortal.

Nervous, he raised his arm, pushing back the sleeve to reveal his bare flesh. Still no outward sign of radiation poisoning, but already the damage had been done to his internal organs. If he were human, he'd die in the next couple of years, slowly wasting away as the cancer ate through his body. What a horrible way to go, he sadly thought.

A faint scream was heard in the distance, the same time his transponder went hyperactive. With a start, he turned around, ignoring the room he was about to enter. Switching the tricorder to home in on Richie's position, he heard the second scream, longer this time. Two hundred meters to the right.

It took longer than Duncan expected to wind his way through the twisting passages. He turned a corner, his eyes blinded as he looked down the hall, the far end filled with white, writhing fire. He stopped, hurriedly raising an arm to shield his face. Then the fire suddenly disappeared, plunging the hallway into the darkness Duncan was accustomed to. Cautiously, the Highlander made his way down the hall, stopping in front of the last door.

A small table of some kind dominated the room, a circular area a good twenty yards across. Legs stuck out from behind the table or console, the black jumpsuit seared off in some places. Duncan's tricorder sounded an alarm. The room's radiation level was four times normal. Gritting his teeth, he moved around the table, shocked when he saw all of the twitching mass of flesh that used to be Lieutenant Ryan.

He resisted the urge to immediately go to Richie, instead setting his tricorder to record. Duncan waved it over the active console, trying to get as complete a set of readings in the shortest amount of time. Desperate, he finally stuffed the tricorder back in its holder, reaching down and lifting Richie into a fireman's carry. He grimaced as the injured Immortal whimpered.

Knowing time was critical, and feeling his own skin start to itch and burn, Duncan ran back down the hall, trying to retrace his own steps in the dark maze. It seemed an eternity before he heard the whistling of the outside wind and saw the thin sliver of light from the opened main door. Then he plunged into the dust storm, running to the Orinoco.

Duncan silently begged forgiveness as he dumped Richie into the first available seat. The burned body sagged, not even a labored breath giving notice the man was alive. Hurriedly, the Highlander activated all systems, his eyes burning as the radiation ate away at his coronas. Not enough time, Duncan thought.

The runabout cleared the atmosphere of the dying planet, circling the globe until coming within range of the anomaly. Distracted, Duncan thought the sensors were showing two anomalies, but any attempt at investigating the readings was set aside as he plunged through the hole at full impulse. His last conscious moment was filled with pain as he quietly passed out. Spacedock automatically took control of the runabout, guiding it home.

"Where is he?" The first words out of Duncan's newly rejuvenated throat were harsh, raspy. That's exactly what he felt like: harsh and raspy. He tried to sit up in the bed, but failed, falling back down. He tried again, putting all his energy into it. He made it to his elbows. The nurse stood next to him, hands frozen on the computer access panel beside the bed, her eyes wide in shock.

Patients near death from radiation poisoning do not suddenly rise up and ask questions. "I...I...uh..." Her hands shook as she stuttered, her legs finally obeying the orders from her mind. She fled the room, a blur of medical blue. Duncan watched her leave, his arms failing. With an explosive breath of air, he collapsed back on the bed.

Footsteps sounded outside, the door flying open as Admiral Nachayev entered. "Where is he?" Duncan repeated, still struggling to rise. Her hands on his chest pressed him back down.

"He's just down the hall," she softly told him. "You shouldn't be exerting yourself, Commander. Not with radiation poisoning. Would you like something to drink?" Outwardly she was projecting calm, but even Duncan could tell she was barely hanging in. Her hands momentarily trembled as she filled a glass with water, handing it to him. "The doctors say he's stabilized, for now..."

Duncan could already feel his body growing stronger, his cells regenerating faster than they died. It took no effort to sit up this time, his face full of shock and worry. "You're keeping him alive?" His voice was the usual strong baritone, echoing in the sterile room.

Admiral Nachayev looked shocked. "The doctors are doing everything they can," she hastily added, trying to calm the agitated Immortal. She still held the glass of water, trying to find a spot to set it down. "The radiation did a terrible amount of damage to his body...and he's not healing fast enough..."

Again, the Highlander didn't let her complete her sentence. He jumped out of bed and headed for the door. Several people stared at him as he ran down the hall, stopping briefly to look in each door. The Admiral ran after him, calling his name to no avail. He stopped at the end of the hall, the last room, with doctors and nurses crammed together around a bed as they worked.

"The hydrazene is having no effect, Doctor," a nurse called out from a computer console. Hushed dialog followed as Duncan elbowed his way to the bed. On the bed, still badly burnt, was what was left of Lieutenant Ryan. Machines forced breath into his lungs, pumped blood through his veins, and shocked his brain to produce alpha waves. The Immortal was on the brink of death, held to that very thin line by the doctors and machinery.

Duncan screamed. "GET OUT!", he yelled, pushing the doctors back from the bed. Several complained, calling for Security, when the Highlander reached for a hypospray. Admiral Nachayev arrived as Duncan held the device above his head, driving it straight into Richie's chest. With a snarl, he punched his fist through the brain stimulator, sending sparks flying into the air.

Everyone in the room froze, the monotonous hum of the heart monitor silenced as Richie died. The doctors just stood there in shock, as the security men stormed into the room. Nobody moved, except Admiral Nachayev. She quietly ordered each individual out, one at a time. They slowly left, a few taking one last glimpse back at Duncan, still standing over Richie's body. Finally, only Allynna and the Highlander were left. The Admiral slowly helped Duncan to a chair. He still grasped the hypospray in a death grip.

"How could you?" she asked, her eyes full of tears. Richie had told her stories of this man, how good and honest he was. Allynna had even looked up his records when she decided to contact him for this mission, reading all the fine comments and commendations he had received in his brief career. "We could have saved him."

Duncan looked lost, his eyes unfocused. They finally settled on her. "He had to die," he confided. He was puzzled by her reaction. How could she know about Richie and not know? "It was the only way." He looked down at the hypospray still in his hand. Richie's blood was dripping off it onto his hospital gown.

He focused on his friend's body, already shedding the dead skin. Without the strain of keeping himself alive, Richie began growing new skin at a much faster rate, discarding the cancerous growths like bullets. New pink skin was left behind, even that slowly changing to the normal shade of tan. He felt Allynna's head in his lap as she cried, still not understanding. Gently, he tried to raise her up, beginning to stand when he knew Richie was about to revive.

"Oh, god!" Richie cried, suddenly sitting up in the bed, his chest heaving as it sucked in air. His eyes were wide, his head bobbing as he took in his surroundings. Allynna was at his side instantly, her tears turning into joy as she wrapped her arms around his neck. "Wow," was all he said, watching Duncan come over. "I gotta die more often."

The conference room was packed. Built for not more than forty, at least twice that was crammed together, only a prestigious few actually sitting. Richie sat next to Duncan, looking lost at the crowd. Admiral Nachayev was about a third of the way around. Not only was it full, but several distinguished people were there. Duncan picked out four admirals, two scientists, and the illustrious Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Richie just tried to dig himself deeper under the table.

Duncan leaned over. "It's not like you're an ensign or anything, Richie. Heck, I'm sure you taught a few of them at the Academy. Why are you hiding?" His voice was pitched low, and sarcastic. "You can always use the 'I look like my father' routine."

Richie looked up as he slid deeper into the chair. "I'm more worried about a poker game that happened a decade ago. I owe some of these people money." To accent the point, Admiral Haden looked straight at the Lieutenant, rubbing thumb and index fingers together in the universal sign of moolah.

"I see," Duncan replied as Admiral Nachayev pounded on the table for order.

"Let's begin," she said, turning to a scientist on the right. "Doctor Alexis? Can you tell us about the markings recorded by Commander MacLeod's tricorder?" The room hushed, waiting for the scientist's reply.

For some perverse reason, the good doctor chose that moment to clean his glasses. As he rubbed them with a handkerchief, he answered. "From what we've analyzed, and in consultation with Commander Data at Starbase 87, we believe the installation on Grammis V to be Iconian in origin." The room erupted into loud talking. Admiral Nachayev struggled vainly to quiet the crowd.

Giving up, she caught Richie, Duncan, Picard, and Dr. Alexis with her eye, nodding back toward her office. It was difficult, but finally everyone freed themselves from the room, meeting outside her office door ten minutes later.

Captain Picard and Richie both moved to the replicator, getting drinks, while Duncan pulled up a chair near the sofa for the doctor. When he sat down, Admiral Nachayev spoke up. "Doctor, if you'd be so kind as to continue?"

"Well," the scientist said, clearing his throat. "We compared the markings to several related languages from the Dimari Sector." Richie handed him a cup of steaming liquid before sitting next to Captain Picard on the sofa. "Thank you. It was at this point we were alerted to Commander Data's work in theorizing a root language, Iconian."

"Yes," Captain Picard interjected, setting down his own cup of Earl Grey. "We had previously beamed down to what we now believe was an Iconian outpost in that sector. Data was trying to decipher the writing on the machinery when he discovered a commonality to the different languages of the sector."

Duncan cut it from a chair across the small table. "Was it anything like the console Richie found? Did those markings match what you had encountered?"

Picard nodded. "I believe so. Unfortunately, we had to destroy all records of the event, for security reasons. But your tricorder scans did look familiar, although the room I was in was certainly more technologically advanced that the one on Grammis."

"So there's a security factor involved?" Doctor Alexis asked, leaning forward. "Why is that?"

Shifting on the sofa, Picard turned to face the scientist. "We had discovered the Iconians had developed gateways, able to span long distances in a instant. The Dimari Sector is alarmingly close to the Romulan border. If they got their hands on that level of technology..." He shrugged, not completing the sentence. "And now, they may have a second chance."

"It's a moot point," Admiral Nachayev said, drawing everyone's attention. "In eight days, the Grammis sun will go nova, and until then, it's pretty difficult to get close, unless you use our shortcut."

"So you think the anomaly is an Iconian gateway?" Duncan asked, finishing his scotch. "Earth is pretty far out of the way, if you're comparing the Grammis system and those in the Neutral Zone."

Picard nodded. "We believe the Iconians were much more traveled than we had first thought." He started to say more, then stopped, looking the Admiral Nachayev for...something.

"Go ahead," she said, sipping her coffee. "I cleared them the minute I saw the tricorder scans." She turned to Richie and Duncan, turning even more serious. "But what you are about to hear does not leave this room. Or I will lock you up and throw away the key."

The group materialized in a pressure dome, a covered crater on the Moon's surface. Spotlights highlighted the far end, a stone doorway carved into the cliff. "It was discovered back in the early part of the twenty-first century," Captain Picard continued as the group made its way over. "Two miners from a nearby colony discovered it quite by accident. It wasn't until three years ago that the connection was made to the Iconians, bringing renewed interest."

"In fact, the site had been long abandoned until the paper Mr. Data presented at a symposium," Doctor Alexis added. "The good captain was kind enough to take over the site last year."

Duncan paused at the doorframe, examining the markings. "So you think the Iconians visited Earth," he said, trying to match the carvings with the records in his tricorder. Close enough for government work, he mentally noted. "Hey, Rich," he began, turning around, but the lieutenant was staring at the door, his eyes trying to take it all it. That's when Duncan realized how big the whole thing was.

"We believe they were studying the planet, at least," Picard answered, leading the way between the two monstrous doors. "The only other chamber at this site, besides the control room, looks to be a landing site." The five made their way down the sloping corridor, Admiral Nachayev making sure Richie kept up. "It's possible they actually opened a gate below, then moved up the corridor to the Moon's surface."

Duncan wondered at that. "Why not use the gate in orbit? That would be a lot less trouble." Doctor Alexis chuckled next to him, startling the Highlander.

"Because it could be seen from Earth," the scientist lectured. "That would defeat the purpose of observation." The doctor grabbed Duncan by the elbow, stopping him. They had reached the lower chamber, an immense open area with only a single lit doorway on the other side. "We tend to do the very same thing in our own cultural observations."

It took more than a minute to walk across. The smooth floor had been cleared of debris long ago. "There was a seismic disturbance soon after the place was discovered," Picard noted, leading the way across the expanse. "One of the miners died. It left the control room heavily damaged."

They arrived at the small room, Duncan surprised at the sparseness. The main console was almost a part of the stone floor, only the smallest area on top available for controls. "This seems to be a outhouse, compared to the building on Grammis V. How far apart do you think the dates are?"

Captain Picard gave the Highlander another look, this one more than cursory. "That's a very astute question, Commander. The Iconians have been dated as early as two hundred millennium ago. At that range, centuries seem trivial. Are you a student of archeology?" The Frenchman seemed genuinely impressed and intrigued.

"Sorry, no," Duncan replied, examining the console. "Antiquities are more my style." With a smile to the Captain, he looked around the outer walls, noting the newly added bookcase, the only furniture in the room. "Have you had any luck with the console?"

Picard shook his head, walking over to join MacLeod at the shelves. "Main power seems to have failed. We have done extensive sensor readings, and have recorded the markings on the console." He reached out and grabbed a plexiglass sheet, handing it to Duncan for examination. "The symbols are remarkably similar to the ones you found, but without better luck, we still are no closer to deciphering them." Duncan looked over as Picard gave a half-laugh. "Mr. Data discovered what wasn't 'Manual Override' on the one we examined," Picard added by way of explanation. "Without a functioning device, it is impossible to decypher what each symbol does. It's all hit and guess."

"And the only functioning one is out of reach," Duncan added, taking a look at the drawings. "So the Iconians set up these stations throughout the Quadrant, like we set up subspace relays."

Picard nodded. "A good analogy. Which is why we believe that what the Enterprise discovered in the Neutral Zone was just an outpost, if you will. It was minor discoveries, like this one, in different sectors, that suddenly linked together to form a vast network."

"Unless anyone wants something," Admiral Nachayev suddenly asked, "why don't we adjourn to my office? Unless you dinosaur types want to stay and sift through the dust?"

The group made their way across the cavern, hushed talk about the Iconians bouncing between them. Duncan and Picard led, until the Highlander stopped. His sense of Richie had disappeared. He looked around, confused. "Richie?" All four looked around, unable to spot the missing Immortal. "Stay here," Duncan told the rest, then sprinted back to the control room.

He arrived at the doorway, Captain Picard hot on his heels, breathing heavily. Cautiously, Duncan entered the room. He was surprised to see Richie standing next to the console, staring blindly into its dark depth. "Richard," Picard softly said. That didn't bring the man out of his reverie. Duncan walked across the room, gently placing a hand on Richie's shoulder.

Richie looked up, confused, taking in Picard's and Duncan's worried looks. "I.... I... remember..." With that, his eyes glazed. Duncan barely grabbed him as he went limp, collapsing to the floor. "Oh, god. I remember."

Allynna's living room was warm and inviting, a roaring fire with real wood in the fireplace. Richie was lying on the sofa, his head in Allynna's lap, Allynna running her fingers lovingly though his hair. Duncan perched on a nearby chair arm. "It was working when I came in," he said. "I looked at the symbols, and I guess I pressed one. That's when the gate opened in the room. I don't know where it went."

"Someplace nearby, I'd venture," Duncan added. "The radiation in the room was suddenly twenty times higher than before. It's a wonder you didn't bake in a instant."

Richie shuddered at the memory. "It hurt. I managed to hit the console again, and the gate closed. That's when I fainted. The next thing I know, I'm in a hospital." Another memory that caused him to shudder.

"Do you think he's responsible for the new gate?" Allynna's voice was tired, her hands moving slower and slower. "And does that affect your plans?"

Duncan nodded. "It gives us a quicker way to leave than trying to fly out of the system before the sun goes nova. And who knows, we may even find signs of Iconians." The Highlander stood up and stretched, stifling his own yawn.

"Wait a minute," Richie interjected, struggling to sit up. "What have you two been plotting while I've be out? And what about this second gate?" All of a sudden he was very nervous and tense, agitated. Duncan looked surprised.

Allynna answered. "It appeared while you and MacLeod were exploring the building. I assumed something you did inside opened it. As far as plots, we're sending a team in to close the gate and destroy the controls before the Grammis star explodes and turns the Earth into a cinder. This second gate gives them an escape route." Richie looked at both of them.

"I'm going," he quietly said.

Duncan's face got a stubborn look, but another yawn won control. "We'll talk about this in the morning. Right now, if I don't get some sleep...." The other two agreed, standing and stretching as well. "I'll be going. See you in...."

"Commander, please stay," Allynna interrupted. "I have plenty of room, and any friend of Richie's is always welcome." Unfortunately, Richie didn't look like he agreed, but he capitulated at Duncan's questioning glance. "Good," she said, smiling. "Richard, if you'll show him to the guest room? I'll see you two in the morning." Richie turned and kissed her good night before she left, heading toward the master bedroom. She stopped in the doorway, posing. "Don't be too long, dear," she added to Richie, laughing as he blushed.

Richie led Duncan to a well-appointed side room, complete with its own refresher. "Towels and such are in the bathroom. You know where the kitchen is, and replicate anything else you need." He gestured at the various places as he talked, his face still red. "Good night, Mac," he finished, turning and leaving.

Duncan grabbed his arm, turning him back around, so the pair was face to face. "We're going to talk."

The shower had helped, Duncan admitted. The guest room had looked barely used. I bet the Admiral doesn't get many visitors, he thought, replicating a cup of coffee.

"Hi," Richie suddenly said from behind Duncan. He too had showered, trying to stave off the call for sleep for another hour. Everything looked so normal, remarkably similar to many nights above the dojo, all those centuries ago. It was frightening.

Duncan set the cup down, leaning against one of the kitchen counters. "I was thinking how long it's been. It almost feels like a short time ago, but..." He shrugged, not know how to finish.

Richie turned to the replicator, ordering coffee as well. "You called me right before I left for the Klingon homeworld," he said, staring off as he called up the memory. "That was...twenty-two years ago."

"I remember, it was one of the few times you took the call," Duncan replied. "I was delivering foodstuffs to Delta Rana IV when I found out you were leaving Earth. I was surprised that you had joined the diplomatic team. Even more surprised when you answered."

The coffee suddenly lost its appeal as Richie grimaced. "I was scared, going to such a different place. I needed to be reminded where I had come from. Besides, you didn't start an argument."

Duncan looked startled. "Is that why you never answer? You think that we'll argue?"

"It's old, Mac. Neither of us is going to back down, and it's so aggravating." Richie stopped, rubbing his temples. "It's just the same old arguments over and over."

MacLeod looked around the empty room, only the bare furniture remaining. "This is a mistake, Richie," he said, turning to the other Immortal. "Our kind has a destiny...."

"Maybe it's not mine, Mac. Ever think of that?" Richie was huffy and defensive. Not a surprise after several days of this conversation, going round and round. "Look. I know how you feel. You've made it more than clear. I hope you understand how I feel. Why I'm doing this."

Duncan angrily shook his head. "You can't run from the Game. I know, I've tried. They always find you." He was trying everything to keep his friend from making the biggest mistake of his life.

"How do you know? Tell me, how do you know? Even Methos isn't sure what's going on." Richie was tired of arguing. Especially with Duncan. That's all they seemed to do. The argument always stalled at this point, the Highlander unable to come up with a reply. Only this time, Richie was ready to leave, to walk out, and say goodbye to Planet Earth and the whole solar system. No more packing, no last minute 'things'. "You said a long time ago that friends don't always have to agree. So we don't. 'Nuff said."

Duncan watched him shoulder the last bag, take one last look around the apartment. Like the time he moved to the Moon. Or even the stint he spent on that orbiting station. But this was different. Vulcan was so far away. The Highlander knew what would happen. Away from the Game, and you lose your edge. You don't practice, you don't hang on to your sword. Then one day, BAM!, you're caught with your proverbial pants down. "No, that's not enough..."

Richie spared one last look at his teacher as he walked toward the door. "Watch your head," he said as he passed Duncan.

"Goodbye," was all Duncan said. Richie stopped, that one word almost making him change his mind, making him stay and not leave. But he knew what path he was to follow, had figured out where he should be. And this Game Immortals played was only in the way. He continued on, never looking back.

"When was the last time you picked up a sword?" Duncan's question broke the silence. The Highlander only had concern in his eyes when Richie looked. He sighed, dreading starting this old argument again.

"If I tell you, you'll get angry. We'll yell, and then fight. It won't do anybody any good." Duncan just waited, staring at Richie. "You better not say anything."

"Richie, please, just tell me," Duncan begged.

"OK, about two hundred years. Happy?" The Highlander just shook his head, looking back down at his cup. That made Richie angry. "That's the kind of crap I won't take. You aren't my father. You're not my teacher anymore, and you sure as hell aren't my boss. Lay off! I don't need to prove anything to you."

That comment made Duncan visibly wince, sending a pain of regret through Richie. "You're right," Duncan surprisingly admitted. "I'm sorry. I keep thinking you're..."

"Don't," Richie interrupted, holding up a hand. "You're an old, dear friend, one I don't want to lose. I've learned to trust your judgment, and I value your wisdom. But, Mac, I'm as old as you were when we met. Don't treat me like a newbie. Please."

Duncan tried to grin, only it came across as more of a grimace. "I'll try," he said, watching Richie yawn. "Stop thaaaaaghh...." His own comment turned into a yawn, the urge to close his eyes almost irresistible. "We'll continue this later, I hope?"

Richie nodded, setting his cup on the counter. "Sure, Mac. Later."

Admiral Nachayev, Duncan, and Richie crossed the shuttlebay floor, heading again to the Orinoco, and the lone woman standing beside the main airlock. It seemed Richie was the only one surprised that the newcomer was also an Immortal. Allynna made the introductions. "Commander MacLeod, Lieutenant Ryan, may I introduce Jharris."

The woman bowed, not taking either man's proffered hand. She was dressed in the gray outfit worn by Federation detainees, her ankle surrounded by the electronic homing device all of them wore. "We've met," Duncan replied, clasping his hands behind his back.

Richie spared his old teacher a questioning glance, but all the Highlander did was shake his head and mouth the word 'later'. Still not at ease, the lieutenant turned back to the new member to their group, giving her another examination. He'd seen friendlier Klingons. "Charmed, I'm sure," he dryly added.

Allynna continued, explaining. "Jharris was found smuggling a load of illegal medical drugs when she ran afoul of USS Hood. She's agreed to join this little mission in exchange for dropping the charges."

Duncan nodded, more for Jharris' benefit. "Would you mind removing the anklet, Admiral? I want to get started." Allynna bent down, activating the release mechanism. "Shall we?" he asked, motioning toward the Orinoco's door.

Jharris entered first, with Duncan behind her. "Pardon me while I replicate more...appropriate clothing," she said, turning to the back of the runabout. Duncan paused, looking back at Richie before moving to the front to begin preparations for liftoff.

Richie spared Allynna a kiss, then entered the runabout himself. They had spent several hours that morning saying their goodbyes. He turned around, keying the airlock closed, watching as the door shut between them. With a wistful exhale of breath, he headed for the front.

Stepping around the transporter, he found Duncan hard at work in the right front seat. Richie slid into the left with ease. The pair moving through the checklist as though they had worked together for many years. Within minutes, the runabout had been powered up, checked, rechecked, and readied for space flight.

"O.K.," Richie said when the situation became unbearable. "Who, what, where, when, and why. Spill it, man."

Duncan sighed, setting aside the padd he was reading. "Jharris Mohnameh, late of Turkana IV. Smuggler, con artist. Hell of a fighter. But she's protected my back once or twice." He smiled at a memory, looking off into the shuttlebay. "Great kisser."

Richie finished off the checklist. "So,...I mean,... have you two....?"

The door whooshed open, Jharris entering the forward compartment. Richie glanced back, his mind stumbling when he saw her. In gray, she had looked ordinary, nondescript. A good quality for prison life, Richie had thought. Now, once free of those constraints, she had totally changed. She was wearing a black full-body stocking, so tight the material shivered from the strain. Leather boots hugged her lower legs, their brown coloring matching her empty weapons belt. The only other article of clothing she wore was a light tan vest, reminiscent of the fishing vests L.L. Bean use to sell.

Her hair, black and full, cascaded down her shoulders, framing her suddenly devastating face. Makeup still had its uses. "Down, boy," she said, noticing Richie's attention. Duncan turned around as she slid into the back right seat, powering up the console in front of her.

The Highlander whistled. "Very appropriate," he commented, with only a hint of yearning mixed in with the admiration. Trade routes could get very lonely.

Jharris smiled, a veiled predator's grin. "As much as I like a man in uniform, MacLeod, I have this...aversion to yours. No offense."

"None taken," Duncan replied, spinning his chair around to the front. "Ready, Rich?" Richie nodded, alerting Ground Control of their plans. The bay doors split, revealing San Francisco's blue sky, the sun barely above midmorning. Once again, the Orinoco lifted, heading toward the anomaly that was now even visible during the day. "Ten minutes to gate," Duncan called to the others.

Jharris nodded, examining the sensor readings. "And what is the plan once we get there, Highlander? Or is that classified?" Richie glanced back quickly, taking in her crossed legs, and the clenching of her thigh muscles.

Duncan concentrated on the gate as he replied. "Richie and I go in, try and close the gate to Earth. Since sensors are limited because of the radiation, you'll have to alert us if anything goes wrong. If anything happens inside, you come in and pull us out." He locked his station, turning towards her. "Can you handle that?"

"I can handle anything you...want me to," she commented, giving another toothless grin. "Care for me to whip up supper while you menfolk go out and save the day?"

It was Duncan's turn to chuckle, turning forward again. "Actually, I thought I'd cook tonight. But I'll keep your offer in mind." Richie just shook his head, keeping his attention on piloting the runabout. Once again, he was the third wheel.

"We're approaching the gate," Richie called out, the light banter dropped for the moment. With a rattle, the Orinoco broke through, suddenly orbiting Grammis V and surrounded by deadly radiation. "Here we go," he added, diving the runabout into the atmosphere. Second time around, it was no problem landing with two meters of the building. The main doors were still open.

Once again, the men strapped transponders to their upper arms, grabbing both tricorders and lights. The wind seemed even uglier, getting grit under their uniforms. But a quick sprint later, they were inside, protected from the elements. "I'll give the control room a crack if you want to finish exploring," Richie suggested.

Duncan agreed. When they had compared notes about last time, Duncan found he had investigated four times the area that Richie had. And Richie always had better luck with machines. "But you be careful this time. And I'll be back in twenty minutes."

Still more searching of the abandoned building revealed nothing new, just more rooms either empty or full of useless items. He worked his way back to the control room, discovering a shortcut to the main doors in the process. Richie was hard at work, moving around the room and examining the panel. "Any luck?"

Richie nodded. "Yeah. I got the gate to Earth closed, and Jharris confirms it." Duncan smiled, pleased with the progress. "But that's not all," Richie continued. "This thing, or something, is putting out signals in the lower EM band. I was thinking about the Iconian probe the Enterprise encountered, the one that tried to rewrite their computers."

"Go on," Duncan urged, remembering the description in the logs of how the alien program had destroyed the Yamato as it tried to take over the computer systems.

"What if we loaded the alien program into an isolated console, let it rewrite everything. We could use it to access the gates without landing and searching for a control room." Duncan marveled at Richie's logic. "We could possibly even change where they go to," Richie added, looking up for Duncan's reaction.

The Highlander had to admit he was right. "Do it," was all Duncan said, watching Richie punch a few buttons on the control panel, before grabbing his closed tricorder off the console and slipping it into its holder on his uniform.

"The men, back from their afternoon of hunting-gathering. Where's the carcass, gentleman?" Jharris sarcastic voice greeted them as they entered the runabout, heading straight for the forward consoles. They pointedly ignored her. "Hey, guys, I was kidding." She pushed in next to Duncan, both staring over Richie's shoulder as he sat in his chair.

Richie's hands were busy, moving across the panels. "Severing ODN lines to auxiliary console two," he said. The panel to his left went dark. He shifted left to the next seat, Duncan and Jharris following. He activated emergency power, then restored a single contact with the power grid, one way. The panel relighted, letting Richie begin wiping the memory chips.

"Leave the translation programs," Duncan ordered, giving Richie's shoulder a squeeze. The lieutenant barely paused, protecting those memory banks as the others were erased. "That way we won't have to use a tricorder to figure out the symbols," the Highlander explained to Jharris.

"What's he doing?" she asked Duncan as Richie opened a channel on the lower EM band. The isolated console accessed the alien program, letting the strange algorithms take control of the deserted processors.

Duncan motioned her away from Richie's chair. They moved across the forward compartment and stood next to the side window, still covered with the extra radiation shielding. "We believe we can control the gates from onboard, using a part of the Iconian's program. He's downloading it into an isolated console."

Jharris nodded, her eyes lighting up. "I see. He doesn't seem as dumb as I thought." Duncan gave her the pleasure of seeing him grimace before turning back to Richie when the lieutenant yelped.

The console was alive with Iconian symbols, the universal translator struggling to convert them to Federation Standard. It succeeded somewhat, a good fifty percent unidentifiable. "Now," Richie added, "as the program is used, we'll be able to identify more and more symbols."

"So we're ready to lift," Duncan advised. Everyone took their normal seats and began preparing to lift.

*WARNING! Radiation levels rising above acceptable parameters.*

Outside the window, the landscape darkened as the sun collapsed into itself. The first stage of going nova. "Hurry, Richie," Duncan called, skipping the rest of the list and manually authorizing liftoff. The Orinoco rose. Richie went to impulse the instant the nacelles cleared the ground. They couldn't hear the explosion, or see it yet, but subspace sensors blew off the scale as the first particles from the star sped by them faster than light. "One minute to shock wave," Duncan warned, worried that they might not make it. Gravity compensators had a hard time adjusting as Richie threw the runabout into a powered climb, pressing them into the seats.

But there was the second gate, a clear rectangle of light instead of the white swirling energy the group was used to. Through it, more stars could be seen. The window growing bigger and bigger as the Orinoco raced toward it. "Hold on", Richie yelled as they passed the barrier. Not even a bump showed they were through. The gate closed behind them.

Subspace sensors dropped to normal, radiation levels evaporated. They were cruising in deep space, the computer trying to pinpoint their location. Behind them, no trace of a gateway could be seen, only a relatively small gravimetric disturbance showing up on the sensors to identify it was even there.

*Warning. Unidentified objects on collision course.*

Before the computer could finish the sentence the runabout plowed through a formation of six small craft, the group dispersing as they tried to keep from ramming the Orinoco. Within seconds they had turned and come up behind the runabout, a short warning burst across their bow.

*Attention, unidentified Federation craft. Stand down and prepare to be boarded.*

"Talarian," Jharris whispered to Duncan. Not slowing the runabout, Richie began evasive maneuvers, dodging the sudden spray of enemy fire. "Sensors say we're deep into their territory, so don't count on getting across a border. Or running into help."

"Richie, find another gate," Duncan yelled as he raised shields. The Orinoco suddenly lurched as a hit penetrated their defenses, sending the runabout spinning off in a different direction before Richie could regain control. "And don't return fire."

Richie slid over to the Iconian console, yelling for Jharris to take the helm. She slid in, managing to dodge a pincer attack from two of the Talarian fighters. The ship shook again, but not because of phasers. "Starboard power conduit is gone," Jharris called, manually trying to reroute the systems. Still, the runabout lost speed, giving the Talarians a bigger advantage. "You have to let me return fire," she told Duncan, sending the Orinoco into a spinning dive roll.

"Gate at two seven one, mark five," Richie suddenly informed them, activating the portal. "Twenty klicks."

Jharris engaged braking thrusters, sending the fighter on the Orinoco's tail shooting ahead of them. She pulled the nose of the runabout up, kicking in impulse. All but one of the Talarian craft were out of position, unable to give chase. The lone fighter closed in, hungry for the kill.

The gateway blossomed, a welcoming sight for the runabout crew. Two more evasive maneuvers failed to shake the Talarian. It followed them as they plunged into the hole. "Close it," Duncan ordered. Richie quickly tried to comply.

This gateway was different. Instead of opening into another place, it was a tunnel of sorts. The two craft plowed down the corridor at full impulse. The walls sped by. Jharris felt a little claustrophobic as she piloted the runabout. It didn't help that the ship jerked every time a phaser hit penetrated their shields. "Shields at forty percent," Duncan called.

"The tunnel is collapsing behind us," Richie hurriedly informed the other two. Already the sensors were showing the Talarian craft being hounded by the tunnel's end. Duncan's hands flew across his console as Richie's sensors showed the fighter behind them suddenly lose power. "It's going," he called, watching as the tunnel swallowed the craft, sending the debris and explosion on their heels.

"I see the end of the tunnel," Jharris called, trying to squeeze one more ounce of speed from the redlining impulse engines. Behind them, the whine of a Federation transporter echoed in the room.

"You better get out of the way when we're out," Richie told her, risking a glance back at the runabout transporter pad. "We've got a mess on our tail." The Talarian was standing, but it didn't look Talarian. It looked like a blond human male, about Richie's apparent age. His eyes were wide in shock as his body rose from the crouch he had been in when his ship exploded. "And we've got company," Richie added, turning back to his console.

Then they were clear of the tunnel. Jharris sent the craft into a sharp dive, the debris and remains of the Talarian fighter safely passing above them. The internal gravity failed, sending the blond newcomer crashing into the floor. Impulse engines also failed, dropping their speed to virtually nothing. But they were alive. Somewhere.

"We've got life support and thrusters," Richie told Duncan, turning from the remaining auxiliary console to face the Highlander in front of him. "Any more repairs will have to be done outside, and that involves a planet. I prefer Class M for personal reasons." Duncan chuckled, already searching for one.

"Let me go," the Talarian was screaming, trying to get around Jharris. He rattled his manacled hands in her face, trying to outflank her in the close confines of the runabout. He was dressed in the slinky black uniform of the Talarian military, but the medical sensors confirmed he was fully human. And the computer could only identify one human living with the Talarians.

Duncan shook his head. "Admiral Roso's grandson, Jeremiah," he announced. The blond stopped struggling, his eyes darkening. "He was adopted at age seven by a Talarian captain when they destroyed the colony where he and his family were living. He's been with the Talarians ever since."

"My name is Jono," he announced in perfect Federation Standard. "You will return me to my squadron. Release me," he ordered Jharris, shoving the manacles in her face.

Not the thing to do. Jharris grabbed his chin in her hand, lifting him off his feet. "Tight black outfit and all hormones. I like that in a guy. But you're beginning to annoy me." She threw him into the free chair by the Iconian program, planting a booted foot into Jono's stomach as he tried to get up. "Stay there and you won't get hurt."

That seemed to make an impression on Jono. He quieted down, reverting to sulking. "Unfortunately," Richie told him, " we're a ways from Talarian space at the moment." He turned to Duncan. "We're about four hundred lightyears into the Gamma Quadrant."

"You are lying," Jono yelled. "My grandmother ordered you to kidnap me."

Jharris kicked him in the stomach again, adding a "shut up!" Jono complied, holding his stomach but keeping his face a mask of neutrality. Richie turned back to the auxiliary console, watching helplessly as it exploded, sending sparks flying into his face. "Well, what now, happy campers?" Jharris sarcastically asked, sitting in the pilot's chair.

"Sensors spotted a habitable planet nearby. I guess we'll have to set down there for repairs." Duncan nodded to Richie and added, "Head 'em up." The lieutenant finished putting out the sparks, switching chairs with Jharris.

"Move em' out," Richie replied, activating thrusters. "At this speed, we should reach it in... eighteen hours. Looks like a long, slow night." He leaned back, lacing his hands behind his head as he settled back.

Jharris turned her attention away from Jono. "Then let's sleep in shifts. Why don't..." Jono took that opportunity to launch himself across the cabin, punching at the woman with his manacled fists. Duncan spun around, getting a grip on the young man, trying to pull him off. Jharris kneed him in the groin, but that didn't even faze the Talarian. The Highlander managed to roll the pair over, pinning Jono on the bottom. But the blond's hands were wrapped around Jharris' throat, and even her punches weren't making him let go.

Suddenly, a hiss from a hypospray sounded. The device in Richie's hand injected liquid into Jono's bloodstream. In seconds, the blond was out cold, letting go of the death grip on Jharris. In anger, she stood, kicking him one last time in the stomach. Duncan grabbed her and dragged her away from the Talarian.

"Come on, Blondie," Richie said, picking up the limp fighter and tossing him over his shoulders. He carried him back to the living compartment. When they were gone, Jharris calmed down, and Duncan finally released her.

Jharris sat in Duncan's seat with a huff. "I'll take first watch," she informed him. "Go watch the bastard before I kill him. Or you." With a shrug, Duncan left, leaving the smuggler to guide the ship to the planet.

"MacLeod, it's been eight hours," Jharris called out, entering the back compartment. The door opened, but no lights were on. "Lights," she told the computer, but nothing happened. Only the dim starlight from the back windows gave any light, giving her glimpses of dark shapes. "Highlander," she yelled, pulling back the curtain to one of the lower sleeping bunks, activating the faint reading lamp. Duncan was there with an ugly knife sticking up from his chest. Blood was everywhere, soaking into the bedding as well as his uniform.

With a start, she reached up to the top bunk. The light came on, revealing Richie with his throat cut. More blood spilled everywhere. "Now you die," Jono said from somewhere in the room. Jharris turned, spotting his lumpy shape hiding near a window. With a yell, she dove toward it, tackling him, but her hands only closed around bed stuffing. A decoy.

The real Jono screamed, running at her with another knife poised over his head. She managed to kick him in the knee, diverting him enough that the knife missed its mark, slamming into the bulkhead wall. She dived to the side. Jono kicked her with his good leg. She groaned as pain shot up from a twisted ankle. The pain gave Jono an opening. The Talarian raised the knife...

...until he felt a tap on the shoulder. He instinctively turned. His face came in contact with Richie's strong right hook, the blond man's jaw shattering before the pain overrode his mental defenses. Eyes glazing, he crumpled to the floor. Richie shook out his hurt hand. "So stupid," he said, reaching out to give Jharris a hand up.

"Now do we get to kill him?" she asked, licking her lips.

"Finally," Jharris added as she walked into the back compartment once the Orinoco had safely landed. She stopped when she saw Duncan drawing on his shirt, his hands reaching for the buttons. "Sorry," was all she said, but it didn't stop her from staring.

Duncan had changed from his uniform, replicating instead the attire he usually wore on his small trader ship. Comfortable pants and boots, white billowing shirt. The last was an unnecessary addition. But it reminded him of times long past, and friends long gone. Besides, he'd always loved the fashions from when he was younger.

"Nice," Jharris commented aloud. "I didn't think Starfleet guys wore stuff like that." She mentally calculated the steps it would take to remove the items he was wearing, smiling at the low number. "I approve."

Duncan smiled back. "I never said I had been in Starfleet long," he replied. "I'm just doing a job for them. For an old friend." He bent over, pulling on the last of his boots. Just for spite, he clenched his rear, rewarded by the subtle gasp behind him. "So what's going on?"

"Your...old friend?...already has the panels off, and is trying to get to the plasma conduits. He doesn't think little old me can help." Jharris snorted at the thought. "So I came back here. How's our little pookie?" she asked looking around the compartment.

"Pookie...." Duncan's tongue stumbled over the unfamiliar word. "...is resting comfortably in bed." He gestured to the lower bunk, curtain closed.

Jharris looked shocked, crossing her arms across her chest. It highlighted her attributes. "Richie gave him enough knockout juice for two weeks, and that didn't hold him eight hours. What did you give him this time?"

Duncan chuckled. "Nothing." With a flourish, he drew back the curtain, revealing Jono lying on the bed. Strong carbonate rope surrounded his chest, arms and waist, knees and ankles, while a sticky cloth covered his mouth. He was flopping around on the bed until Duncan looked at him. Then the proud Talarian actually cringed.

"Oh, bondage," Jharris cooed, standing next to Duncan and running her hands over his shoulders. "I'm starting to like you a lot, MacLeod." She ran her hands across his chest, grabbing the halves of his shirt. "But I'd like this much better," she said, ripping the outfit apart, sending the buttons flying about the compartment.

The door whooshed open. Richie entered with a spanner in his hand. His uniform was covered in patches of sweat and grease, and his curly hair was plastered to his face. "Uh, sorry," he said when he saw the pair. "I just need a calibration module." He moved to the replicator. Unconsciously, Duncan moved away from Jharris.

"Can we help?" the Highlander asked, closing the curtain on Jono and trying to close his gaping shirt.

Richie briefly turned away from the replicator. "I've been thinking about that since Jharris asked," he said, nodding to the woman. "It would be a big help if you take off that extra shielding. It's only dragging us down."

Duncan nodded, motioning Jharris to join him outside. It was hot on the nameless planet, but occasionally a cool breeze blew by as they started working. Richie soon moved outside, burying himself under the runabout, occasionally calling out for a tool or part. Between running errands and checking on Jono, Duncan and Jharris managed to remove the shielding. They threw it in a pile by the Orinoco.

At lunchtime, Duncan lived up to his word, creating a small feast with the replicator. Richie stopped working briefly, his uniform soaked to the skin. He made a sandwich from Duncan's dishes. "About another two hours," he told Duncan, gulping his food before returning to the engines.

But two hours turned into four, then five. Duncan entered the runabout in time to see Richie kicking the wall around the replicator, cursing in several languages. "What's the problem?" Duncan asked, standing clear.

"I've had the warp drive shut down all afternoon, and the auxiliary power just ran out. I can't replicate the parts I need." With a huff, Richie kicked again, his foot not making a scratch on the bulkhead. Duncan was shocked at the state his friend was in.

Richie was angry, frustrated, and sunburned. His uniform was torn in several places, covered in grease and dirt, and soaking wet with his sweat. His hands were cut and bleeding, the dried blood mixed with caked lubricant. He was totally wrung out. "Hey," Duncan said, grabbing Richie from behind and dragging him away from the replicator. "Sit down."

The lieutenant collapsed in chair. "We have no food except emergency rations, water, and minimal life support, Mac." All he did was look at his hands. Heat exhaustion, Duncan guessed.

"Richie," Duncan said softly, trying to calm him down. "There's nothing you can do at the moment. Why don't you sit here, and I'll go try and find something edible..."

"We've got to place the solar panels on the roof...." Richie just wasn't going to stop. Duncan thought about grabbing a tricorder and scanning him, but put that on hold when Richie tried to stand up. Duncan had no problem pushing him back down as Richie's legs giving way.

"You're not going anywhere," Duncan ordered. "I'll get Jharris to put up the panels while I scrounge supper." He walked over to the lower sleeping berth, pulling open the curtain. He jerked the cloth off of Jono's mouth and proceeded to untie him. "You try anything, and I'll let Jharris take care of you. Understand?"

Jono nodded, rubbing his wrists. "Yes." The answer was simple, straightforward, and didn't carry any emotional baggage. A better start, Duncan thought.

"Go get Jharris and put the solar panels up. She'll show you how." He nodded his head to the door, watching the Talarian leave before turning back to Richie. "You, my friend, are going down to the river," he said, helping Richie to his feet, "and taking as long a time to soak as you want."

Richie swayed on his feet until Duncan got under his arm. "There's a river?"

"Just a quarter of a mile away," Duncan answered, grabbing a blanket off one of the bunks. "It's crystal clear and cool. Exactly what you need."

"It's not full of hydrochloric acid or anything, is it?" Richie asked as the pair exited the Orinoco.

It was just what the doctor ordered, Richie thought. Duncan had left him at the bank with the blanket folded under a tree nearby. Gingerly, he peeled back the uniform, trying to salvage it, but when two seams came apart completely, he gave up. Even the undershirt wasn't worth saving.

He sighed when he lowered himself in the cool water, a major temperature change from the hot afternoon air. For a while, he just floated, lazily drifting. He then scrubbed the dirt and grime off and finally swam two laps across the river.

Feeling much better, he walked to shore. He was surprised to hear a far away humming. It was pretty much constant, and a monotone, and would be grating if it was any louder. There were brief pauses, like someone was taking a breath. Richie wondered why anyone would want to do that as he wrapped the blanket around himself. Especially if they had to listen to themselves.

The sound grew louder as he walked back the clearing the runabout had landed in. No one was in the Orinoco when he arrived. The panels were in place on the roof, and a small pile of plants was on the table, but there were no signs of life. He was searching around for something to wear when Jharris walked in, stopping just inside the door.

"Gift wrapped, even," she commented, laughing when Richie whirled around, clutching the blanket tighter. "So MacLeod was your teacher?" She didn't give him a chance to reply before she continued. "Did he teach you everything he knows?" She stopped an inch away from him, giving him a perfect view of the scenery.

"I'm a quick learner," Richie replied before he could stop himself.

She looked him over. "I know why the Highlander is doing this. What's in it for you?" The flirting from seconds ago was gone, the questions turning serious.

Richie shrugged. "I was ordered to." Her eyes narrowed as he went on. "And I wanted to. Duncan put the uniform back on for this. I've never taken it off."

"Pity," she commented, her eyes clearing as she made a decision. "I usually don't like Starfleet, but I'll make an exception for you." She pressed her mouth to his as she grabbed the blanket, keeping him from escaping. Her tongue forced its way between his lips, exploring his mouth. He was about to pass out from lack of air when she bit his lip, hard.

Richie pushed her away, choking down a scream. She stepped out of reach, a mocking expression on her face. He carefully wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, feeling the blood drip down his chin. He never took his eyes off of her in the fading light.

"Can't take a little excitement?" she chided.

Richie almost snarled. "Honey, I've been bitten by the best of them. And one of the Dumas sisters, you ain't!" That cracked her defenses. Her muscles tensed, ready to spring.

"Am I interrupting something?" Duncan asked, standing in the door with a handful of roots. "I could come back later." Jharris instantly relaxed, plastering on a smile as she turned her back to Richie.

She laughed at the joke, for Duncan's benefit. "Your friend and I were talking about his career choices," she said, wiggling her hips as she moved across the room to Duncan. The Highlander looked between her and Richie, meeting her at the table. "He says he's as good as you," Richie heard her whisper. "Should I find out for myself?" She bent down, starting to kiss Duncan's neck, completely missing him raise an eyebrow in Richie's direction. Richie shrugged, pulling the blanket tighter around him.

Jono walked in on this silent tableau, giving each of them a measured look before walking to the table, grabbing a few of the plants, and leaving the runabout again. It was the crowning moment of the evening. Duncan and Richie were no longer able to hold back their laughter. Jharris looked at them, angry, then huffed out of the room, going forward.

It was late, Richie guessed. All his muscles were finally relaxed. A plaintive wish that Allynna was here crossed his mind. He was a little worried at how focused he had been all day. He hadn't even been aware how the sun had been cooking his skin. It was too similar to the radiation burns for his comfort.

Occasionally, little snatches of sound came from the forward compartment. Duncan and Jharris sounded like they were having a rollicking good time on the floor. Richie had just turned over in the upper bunk when he heard someone enter the room.

It was Jono, back from wherever he had been. The Talarian walked to the bunk he had been using, across the room from Richie's, stopped a moment and looked around the compartment. In the dim light from the windows, Richie thought he might have started to say something, but a frown creased his face. A shake of his head, and Jono crawled into the bunk.

Richie wondered if he was going to sleep in his uniform. Wouldn't be a surprise. "What was that humming you were making?"

The question caught the Talarian by surprise, his flinch apparent even in the dim light. He must have assumed I was asleep, Richie thought. "I was making the benar," Jono said, silence descending.

Fine, Richie thought. I can play that game. "What is the benar? Doesn't it hurt your throat?"

"I make the benar because I am in mourning," Jono curtly replied. Richie waited. "Yes. It does hurt. But that is part of being Talarian." He shifted on the bed, the sound of soft rustling filling the cabin.

"I'll bite," Richie said, sitting up in the bunk. "Why are you mourning?"

"You have taken me from my territory. You have taken me from my squadron. You will let the female eat my heart for her pleasure." Jono's voice rose in volume with each sentence as he got angrier and angrier. His fists clenched the bedding, his knuckles turning white.

Richie chuckled. "Sorry, pal. You followed us into the gate. And I believe we saved your hide when your ship fell apart." This day is really something, he thought. "And as for Jharris, every man for himself." With a yawn, he turned his back to Jono, digging himself under the covers even more.

"Are you not afraid I will kill you in your sleep, human? I will not fail a second time." Jono's voice came from next to Richie's bunk. The Talarian had made no sound as he walked across the compartment. "I will kill you and your friends and take this ship!"

Too tired to even react, Richie mumbled into his pillow as sleep dragging him under. "That'd be nice. Try to get it right this time...and holler when you get the ship fixed."

Sunlight penetrated Richie's eyelids, sending a sharp stab of pain into his head. It was barely noticed over the other sharp, stabbing pains currently pounding on his head. With a groan, he turned over, letting his bare back take the brunt of the light.

"Get up, sleepy head," Duncan called out from the table, his feet propped up on it as he leaned back in one of the chairs. "Rise and shine. I can't let you sleep such a wonderful day away."

Richie threw the blanket over his head. "I hope you have coffee," he mumbled, the sound barely able to penetrate the covers. "Or a danish. I like danish." Oh, breakfast, Richie thought. "Waffles. Pancakes. Omelets. Chocolate-covered donuts." In his delirium, he rose up to his elbows on the bed, his smile widening at each item he pictured.

"Better," Duncan replied, throwing a wadded article of clothing at him, hitting his face. "I replicated you some sweatpants." Richie pulled the dark blue material off his face and glared at the Highlander. "Have some fruit," Duncan added, tossing a large, round fruit onto Richie's bunk.

Wondering if last night had been a dream, he glanced over at Jono's bunk. Empty, and it looked like no one had slept in it. He was about to ask Jono's whereabouts when the annoying whine of the benar started up outside, answering the question. "What is it?" he asked, his attention returning to the fruit and his rumbling stomach.

"Citrus, sort of," Duncan replied. He walked over, standing beside Richie's bunk. "It'll be noon before the replicator will be up to complex engine parts, so eat your breakfast and go do a kata or something. Take your mind off the runabout. Jharris is at the river, taking a bath, and I thought I might do a little exploring before lunch."

With a pat on the shoulder, Duncan was gone, grabbing a tricorder on his way out. Still shaking off sleep, Richie stared at the fruit and pants, wondering what cosmic turn of events had taken him from a petty street thief to this. He really wasn't expecting an answer.

He stood, pulling on the sweatpants, then stretched, tense muscles protesting. With a frown, he bit into the fruit, surprised at how good it tasted. Taking another bite, he let the juice dribble down his chin before wiping it away. Pretty tasty. With a quick glance at the depressingly low power levels, he headed for the door....

...running headfirst into Jharris. "Alone at last," she teased, once they had calmed down. "Care for an early morning workout, handsome?" Her hand brushed his chest as she spoke, her grin full of lust.

Even if Richie had considered it a possibility, the sudden pounding in his head drove all thoughts of sex out. "Not right now, I have a headache," he explained, moving around her and leaving the runabout. Jharris' eyes followed him, a spark of anger igniting as she watched him leave.

"I'm not used to being turned down, Ryan," she called, trying to catch up to him as he walked toward the river. "For anything."

Richie sensed her approach, dropping at the last instant as the sword cut through the air where his head had been. Landing on his hands, he swept the ground with his leg. She avoided it, but the effort put her off balance.

Steadily, he rose, hands in a defensive position, watching her ready her sword. "Come on, Ryan. Get your sword. Let's see who ends up on top." With a grunt, she thrust. Richie dodged without moving a step.

He countered with a punch, catching her on the shoulder. "I'm not into that stuff," he said, kicking another of her swings out of the way. "Besides, you'll have Mac to deal with."

"Nice try," she said, catching him in the side when he sidestepped too slowly. "MacLeod is a pussycat. I'll give him your goodbyes." With a feral grin, she stopped toying with Richie and prepared another attack.

Instead of dodging, he turned into the blow, letting the sword cut into his near arm. With his far hand, he grabbed her wrist, spinning and ramming his other elbow into her head. As she reeled, he drove her wrist into his raised knee until she dropped her sword. "The problem with us," he instructed, kicking the weapon out of the way, "is that swords are overrated."

She landed two solid kicks before he could throw her on the ground. Rolling to break her fall, she regained her feet, eyes flittering toward where the sword lay. Richie moved into her path, guessing her hand-to-hand skills were not equal to her swordplay. Too bad.

They stood frozen, each gaining a little strength from the respite. Jharris exhaled, jumping for the sword. Richie blocked her, grabbing her by the waist. He ignored her fists, managing to lift her and bring her down hard over his knee. Focusing, he lifted her again, bending her neck backwards, ramming her into his knee and cleanly snapping her lower back.

With a grunt, he pushed her limp body to the ground, breathing hard. "Thanks for the workout," he said, walking down to the river to clean up.

Richie was sitting on a small rise, about half a mile from the runabout, feeling helpless. He threw rocks at a plant, not keeping track of hits or misses. The replicator was slowly building power, but it would still be several hours before it was up to replicating parts.

The pounding in his head kept coming and going in fits, sometimes almost crippling, suddenly it was just a gentle throb. It was driving him nuts. Like Jharris' angry voice from below, cussing aloud as she installed the runabout's side sensors. "You fight like a Klingon," Jono said. Richie abruptly noticed the Talarian standing only a few feet away. "I did not take you for a warrior."

It sounded like the funniest statement Richie had heard in a long while. He couldn't help laughing. "That's not the half of it," he said between chuckles. He was so tickled, he missed the plant by a mile with his last rock.

"How did you..." Jono began to ask, stopping until Richie looked at him. With a grimace the Talarian motioned back and forth at his neck. "I do not know why you lived." That set off another round of fits for Richie.

Jono stood through it all, his face never dropping its mask of neutrality. Richie hunted around, finding a small rock with a sharp edge. "You asked," he said, slitting his arm from wrist to elbow. Blood dripped down his skin, landing on the ground. With a spark, the wound sealed itself even before the blood had dried.

Richie looked up, surprised at the look of awe on Jono's face. "You are gythtala," the Talarian softly said. All the color drained from the blond's face. His eyes hastily fell to the ground.

"What's a gythtala?" Richie finally asked.

"Legends say they are spirit warriors, with whom even death does not trifle. Theirs is the eternal struggle for the paktora, the Power. I did not believe there were any left, even in the Federation." The words tumbled from Jono's mouth, his body trembling in fear. "I have dishonored my Captain, and myself," he added, falling at his knees next to Richie. "I await your punishment, gythtala."

Wondering what to do, Richie closed his eyes, slowly feeling an Immortal approach the camp. With a start, he looked back as the Highlander walk into the runabout. Tired of the inactivity, he stood, beginning a simple kata and ignoring the Talarian for now. From below, the sounds of an argument floated over the still morning air.

"You are all gythtala? Even the...woman?" Jono asked. Richie didn't reply, hearing the voices more clearly as the argument moved outdoors. He started through the forms a second time when he heard Jono behind him. "What are you doing, gythtala?"

"It's called a kata," Richie informed him, not stopping. "It is an exercise of the body and it helps focus the mind."

Jono sounded unconvinced. "You are not straining, or struggling against anything. How can this be beneficial? This is not exercise." A small hint of superiority was added to his tone.

Richie sighed. "It's a drill of control, of form. And stretching. Don't you have anything like that? Mind, body, spirit; that sort of thing?"

"We have no need for that. There is running, for stamina. There is kamor, for strength. What have the mind and spirit to do with fighting?" The voice was starting to sound angry.

"It must be tough being a Talarian," Richie said, starting his third repetition. Silence was his reply. He stopped and looked, seeing Jono struggle to keep his face calm.

"There are many things that are...uncomfortable," Jono admitted.

Beginning the kata again, Richie let his mind drift. "I'll bet you're faster than most Talarians. Quicker."

"I win all the games," Jono replied. There was a faint sound of movement, but Richie didn't look behind to see what he was doing.

Why was this starting to sound familiar, Richie wondered. "What else seems different?" he asked aloud.

"Our fighter craft seem slow, and unresponsive," Jono said after some thought. Richie finished the fourth repetition and slid right into a cycle of Klingon katas. "No one else thinks so. I find others have difficulties doing things I can do. The benar will rob me of my voice if I mourn long enough. But I do not complain of these things. It is part of being Talarian."

Richie felt he was on the right track. "Do those things hurt other Talarians?" he asked, turning to look at Jono. The blond froze, his body mirroring the position Richie's had just been in. Busted, the Immortal thought. He quickly turned back, resuming the kata. "Does it?" he asked again after a moment of silence.

"Talarians do not complain of pain."

The absolute certainty of the statement brought a chuckle. "They don't complain because it doesn't hurt them, Jono," Richie pointed out. Satisfied that the kinks were all worked out, he moved into the more difficult forms. A grunt of exertion from Jono signaled that he was still following along. "Despite everything else, you're body isn't the same as a Talarian. It has different abilities and problems."

He dropped out of the last form, turning back to Jono. The blond quit as well, possibly embarrassed, until Richie motioned for him to continue. Jono complied, starting the last kata at the beginning. "I do not understand...," he began, stopping at the first sound of the clashing swords from the runabout.

"You like to run?" Richie suddenly asked. Jono nodded. With a grunt, Richie took off, away from the campsite and the sword fight, motioning Jono to follow. Yelping with emotion for the first time Richie could remember, the blond quickly caught up, pushing the pace faster as they raced in the late morning sun.

"You aren't Talarian," Richie said, the memory of an earlier conversation with Pretar finally surfacing. "No matter how much you try, your body will never be the same as theirs. Quicker reflexes, better agility, a higher range of movement." Jono didn't seem comfortable with the idea, but he wasn't arguing either. "But you aren't full human, either," he added trying to cut off that track. It was cooler under the shade from a patch of trees, but not much.

Jono was unconvinced. "What am I, gythtala? If not Talarian or human?"

"You're Jono," Richie replied. "Even if you were born a Talarian, or raised all your life as a human, you'd still be you. In this case, there just happens to be a strange mix of different things."

That was a concept Jono would not accept readily. "I must be Talarian, or be fully human. Everyone agrees that those are my choices. And I have made it."

Richie sighed, shifting around on the rock were he sat until he was comfortable. "Never let anyone hand you that kind of crap. You don't have to be anything. Or you can be as many things as you want. And it doesn't have to be the same as anyone else."

"What are you trying to tell me?" Jono asked, sweat forming from the noontime heat. "That I can somehow be both?"

The Immortal shrugged. "Why not? Your body is human, and you come from a human family. Your father is a Talarian, and you've been raised as a Talarian. Can't the two work together somehow?"

"I do not know," Jono admitted. Just then, Richie started looking frantically around for the Immortal he felt.

Duncan stepped into the shade. "Sorry. Lunch is ready."

No one commented on the fresh grave by the Orinoco, nor Richie's kick at the replicator when he found out it would be another hour before there would be enough power. Lunch was two of the emergency ration packs each, and a quart jug of water from the river. Duncan sat at the end of the table, not in a very talkative mood. Jono ate heartily, but wouldn't let himself be drawn into conversation. He'd look at Duncan nervously every time Richie tried. Until lunch was over.

"Will you show me the rest of the...kata?... you were doing?" he asked. Startled, Richie agreed. The pair moved back to the small rise. They started in the middle of the cycle, repeating each kata seven times before moving on.

About forty minutes later, Richie stopped, concerned at the Jono's labored breathing. He turned and took in the blond's sweat-covered face. The black uniform was soaked, probably sucking heat from the very air and trapping it next to the skin. "It would be cooler if you took that off," Richie offered.

Jono reacted instantly, negatively. But his mind, still working over the comments of the morning, thought it through. "You are right," he finally admitted, cautiously taking off the jacket and shirt. He paused, looking at his gloves, before removing them also. Richie nodded, turning around and resuming the kata. The rest of the hour went better.

Duncan paused at the runabout's door, surprised to see the two shapes on the hill. For a minute, Duncan couldn't tell the guys apart. The same size, same build. From a half mile away, they looked identical, even the hair plastered to their heads. "Hey," he finally called, resorting to a sharp whistle to get their attention. "You've got power."

"Personal log, Duncan MacLeod. It's been three weeks since the Grammis star went nova. We've been hopping around the galaxy, jumping through about seventy gates by now. None have brought us closer to Federation space. Projections show us instead moving slowly up one of the galactic arms. Richie says things will get better, but for some reason I don't trust him. Can you imagine that?

"His headaches still occur off and on. The medical programs can't determine what's causing them. In any case, he keeps withdrawing into himself, more so each day. The only one he talks to is Jono, and even that's getting rare. They do still work out every morning, but lately it's been in total silence.

"Then there's our guest. With reluctance, I've made him a crewman de facto. He's taking a third shift so Richie and I don't have to spend twelve hours at a time on duty. Jono's picked up the runabout controls fairly quickly, and by now all three of us can use the Iconian program to open gates. Why do I get the feeling it can do so much more, and Richie knows it?

"Anyway, in an effort to make this trip as productive as possible, we are taking time to do a quick survey of the systems we pass through. This is adding time between gates, but if we ever return to Federation space, it will be invaluable."

Jono was occupying the pilot's chair, and Richie was sitting in the other forward seat. "So what would you suggest?" The lieutenant had returned to wearing a uniform, but Jono had imitated Duncan's outfit, thoroughly enjoying his first experience with silk. His only open acknowledgement of being Talarian was his military insignia pinned to his shirt.

Richie leaned back, setting his booted feet on the inactive console. It was amazing how much Jono had opened up, and how accepting of the new ideas Richie had put forth. Not that the Talarian agreed with everything, but he sure did think about it, and made his own decisions. "What about Starfleet?"

That was a question the Immortal had been working toward for days. "You're joking," was Jono's reply. Much better than last week. Last week involved shouting.

"Think about it. It would solve most of your concerns, not to mention help cement relations between the Federation and the Talarians." Richie waited a moment before continuing. "Once your identity as Jeremiah Roso is confirmed, you're a Federation citizen." Jono started to protest, but Richie stopped him. "Hold on. I'm sure it could be worked out to dual citizenship, or something."

"It better," was all Jono had to say.

"That will let you apply for Starfleet Academy. Four years on Earth, close enough to visit your grandparents often, and then you graduate. Starfleet learns more about Talarians, and you show your friends that the Federation isn't so mean and horrible. What could be better?"

"And after I graduate?" Jono asked.

Richie grinned. "You learn all you want about starships while seeing the galaxy." Taking a look outside the windows, he hastily added, "Not that you aren't already doing that." He leaned over. "Look. Going to the Academy, even if you don't decide to finish, will make your grandmother happy. And think about your father. From what you've told me, he should be ecstatic. Not to mention proud at having his son be the first Talarian in Starfleet."

"But I would not see my father again," Jono said.

"Pshaw," Richie replied. "There's a big break between second and third year, and with your grandmother's connections, I'm sure you could get a ride to the border and back. Then you could invite your father for a visit, have him meet your grandmother, and I'd be surprised if they didn't hit it right off. Why, you could..." Richie stopped, clutching his head in agony.

Jono called back to the living compartment. Richie's screams carried over the communications channel as well. "Commander, something's happening." Within moments, the Highlander was next to Richie, scanning with his tricorder. Nothing was registering as the lieutenant twisted in pain. A hole in space suddenly rippled in existence in front of the runabout. Jono managed to yell out "Gate!" as the runabout passed through, suddenly losing power.

The ship shuddered as it abruptly found itself in atmosphere. Artificial gravity fluctuated, almost knocking Duncan to the floor. The high-pitched whine of a stalled dive invaded the compartment as the Highlander threw Richie's body on the floor, sitting in the now unoccupied chair and activating the console. "Pull it up," he yelled at Jono over the squeal.

"I'm trying. Thrusters are inactive." It was hard to work with the shaking, his fingers slipped off the console so easily. "Impulse is down. I have no control."

Duncan shook his head, rerouting power. "Try manual override," he suggested, his words drowned out as they fell closer to the planet's surface.

Jono frantically searched the console, unable to read any of the Federation or modified Talarian symbols. He punched at where he thought it would be, but nothing happened. "I cannot find it," he finally called.

Keeping his hand on the port coupling control, Duncan reached his other hand out, blindly punching for the override. Suddenly, emergency power was restored. Jono was able to wrestle the runabout to a somewhat horizontal flight. It was then the coupling Duncan was manhandling blew, sending the Orinoco swerving to the right.

Richie moaned as he slid across the carpet and rammed into a bulkhead. "Land us as fast as you can," Duncan called out, moving unsteadily to a side compartment. He pulled the cover off and worked the emergency controls with his bare hands.

The Orinoco dropped below cloud cover, a metropolitan area all around them. Jono yelped as a tower passed too close, forcing him to turn the ship on its side. The runabout continued to lose altitude, and the buildings growing closer together. During one sharp turn, the port nacelle impacted with a building corner, jarring the passengers. Duncan managed to hold on to the panel opening, but Richie slid the other way, landing in an unconscious heap near the back door.

"This is not working," Jono called out, almost losing his seat when he spun the runabout around another corner. "I have no room to maneuver."

Duncan cursed. "Find a street of some kind. That should be open and straight." The controls beeped near his hand, the deep 'whomp' of the constrictors opening a welcome relief. With a sigh, he sat back in the chair. "What is this?"

"A river of sorts," Jono replied, never taking his eyes off the land below him. "It is open, though not as straight as I would like." With a yell, he pointed at a flat area, perfect for landing the runabout. Without warning, he threw the runabout in a perfect three-sixty backward loop, coming around for another pass. This time, he used what was left of the thrusters to stop their forward momentum, setting down roughly on what looked like a plaza.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Duncan examined Richie. Nothing that wouldn't heal, he decided, turning from the unconscious Immortal to Jono. "Any damage?"

Jono shook his head. "I do not understand all your readouts. The starboard...."

"No," Duncan cut in. "Are you injured?"

The Talarian took a moment, testing each limb. "No. I am uninjured." He looked Duncan with an expectant look. "What shall I do?"

The Highlander thought, mentally reviewing his options. "Scan the area. I'll go back and see how much damage the nacelles took. Then we can try and revive Richie." Jono nodded, turning to the console to begin working. Duncan carefully stepped over Richie and went to the back.

Ten minutes later, he came forward. He stopped when he noticed Jono slumped over the piloting console. Richie was nowhere to be found. He quickly moved to the Talarian, noticing the phaser burn on his shirt as he reached for a tricorder. Shaking Jono till he moaned, Duncan asked, "what happened?"

"He was standing when I turned around. He fired a phaser..." Jono's breaths were short and uneven, but the tricorder scans said he would be fine. Duncan took off for the airlock, dashing outside as soon as it opened.

The air was breathable, and it was light enough to see. The Highlander let his tricorder get a lock on the one lifeform nearby before setting off at a stiff run. Turning a corner, he tapped his communicator. "MacLeod to runabout. Jono. See if you can maneuver enough to follow. I may need you...." Duncan stopped when he saw Richie disappear around a statue of some kind down the street.

*Acknowledged, Commander.*

The faint sound of thrusters came from behind Duncan, confirming the Orinoco was mobile. Taking a breath, he trudged off down the street, turning once he passed the statue. The street continued on, branching about five hundred yards down. From there, Duncan saw movement to his right, in an opening of a large building.

By the time he reached the doorway, he was out of breath. Pausing briefly, he looked around. Numerous streets converged on the structure, possibly signifying its importance. "Jono. I'm going inside."

*I have you on sensors.*

Inside, it was dimly lit, enough to see by. The light seemed to come from the very walls, but without any type of heat. Duncan's footsteps echoed up and down the corridors as he walked, a very unnerving sound. It was also difficult getting an accurate sensor reading. The walls were radiating some type of interference. It took a bit to find the energy surge, somewhere deeper in the building. No lifesigns, but Duncan guessed that was where Richie would be.

The tricorder beeped. The indicators pointed to a lone door in a long hallway. If anything was making sounds, Duncan wasn't able to hear it. Slowly, he slipped up to the opening, careful to not make any noise. He pulled out his phaser, setting it for stun.

With a jerk, he stepped into the doorway, phaser pointed in front of him. "Don't," he ordered. Richie looked up from the console, the gate already formed behind him. "Step away from it."

Richie drew his own phaser, pointing it at the Highlander. "So this is how it ends. Not swords, but phasers. Who will wake up first, Duncan? You or me?"

"You never call me that," Duncan pointed out, resetting his phaser to disintegrate. "Who are you?" The whine was noticeably different, identifiable to Richie. He set his higher too. The pair were now at a deadly standoff.

"You'd be surprised. But I did say I'd never fight you. And I won't." With a shrug, Richie powered down his phaser, throwing it in the corner. "But you can't stop me." Duncan approached as his hands went back to the console, speeding across the surface.

The Highlander stopped and looked at the console, the strange Iconian symbols winking at him. "Explain it to me." Richie paused, looking briefly at him, then at the phaser. Duncan, suddenly feeling foolish, pocketed the weapon. "Better?"

Richie moved around the console, stopping beside Duncan, his hands still working on the panels. "You won't understand," he said, stopping and leaning on the console. "You never have."

"Try again," the Highlander suggested, his hand unconsciously resting on the phaser.

Silently, Richie sat down on the floor and crossed his legs, motioning for Duncan to do the same. "You remember I went to the Moon for awhile?" he asked. The Highlander nodded. "I was one of the miners that found the Iconian observatory."

Duncan nodded, making the connection. "You were the one who died."

Richie laughed, leaning back on his hands. "Gil died. Brain damage due to lack of oxygen. We both ran out of oxygen. Once back at Plymouth, though...." He shrugged. "I had to leave in a hurry."

"So what happened?" Duncan asked.

"The console still had some power. I was standing next to it, and all of a sudden a gate formed. It wasn't very stable, but I didn't know that at the time." Richie shuddered, remembering the incident. His eyes got the introspective look Duncan also experienced. "I walked through. And met an Iconian." The Highlander sat stunned, waiting for Richie to continue. "He...did something. To me. Like the Iconian probes do. Part of me was..redone. I started speaking Iconian."

That made sense to Duncan. He nodded. "I heard you talking in your sleep one night, but couldn't make sense of the words. You've been doing it for the last couple of weeks."

"Ever since Grammis, that part of me has been working overtime," Richie explained. "That's what's causing the headaches. But what made you think I wasn't myself?"

Duncan laughed. "I've been noticing things. Your tricorder was always closed when you were using the consoles, then there was the speed at which you 'picked up' the Iconian program. You've been reading the Iconian symbols since this started."

"Yes," Richie acknowledge.

[[Prata duma. Letra ona.]]

The sound was utterly alien to Duncan. And it reverberated on a subconscious level as well. Richie looked at the ceiling. "Letra prudah." Looking at Duncan, he explained. "Jono just stepped into the building. I've sent a guide globe to bring him here."

Duncan shifted uncomfortably. "How much do you know about...all this?"

The very normal sound of Richie's chuckle echoed in the chamber. "A lot. Take this place for example. It's the last gate in the chain, the last gate they used. From here, they sort of changed dimensions, or something. This is how I...."

"What?" Duncan asked. The crux of the matter.

Richie looked straight into Duncan's eyes. "I join them, Mac. This is my way home." Silence descended in the room, the sparkling window of the gate still waiting across the way. "They...changed me...into what they were trying to become. I'm one of them. They kept all the gates open so I could join them, so I wouldn't be left behind."

"This is why you didn't play the Game," Duncan said, realization dawning. "But why Starfleet? Couldn't you just go back to the Moon?"

"That gate was dead," Richie softly explained. "I had to find another one. A working gate. If Picard hadn't blown up the one in the Dimari Sector...." He paused, shrugging his shoulders. "As it was, I tried to come alone, but you wouldn't stay away."

Duncan's mouth twitched. "This is goodbye, then."

"One thing I've learned," Richie said, standing, brushing the dust off his uniform. "Who can say what will happen?" A small glowing ball entered the room at that moment, followed closely by Jono. He relaxed as soon as he saw Richie and Duncan. He joined them at the console. "Jono, this man is my teacher and friend. He will help you if you ask. He can also help you with your decision, because he's certainly been harping me about mine for long enough. Good luck, in whatever you do."

Jono bowed, bring his forehead into contact with Richie's for a moment. "Thank you for your wisdom, gythtala. I will remember your words. Fight well."

Richie turned to Duncan holding out his hand. "I really don't know what to say, Mac."

"Neither do I," the Highlander replied, pulling him into a hug. "Luck."

"Watch your head," Richie replied, turning for the gate. A step, and he was gone, the gate winking out as the console went dark. Then the room went dark, the walls fading to black.

Duncan cursed, reaching for his tricorder. "You didn't bring a light, did you?" he asked Jono. Opening the device, he pointed it away, less than pleased at the sparse glow it produced. "Well. I guess we get to feel our way out. Was it a left or right turn from the door..." The lights came on again. Richie was suddenly standing where the gate had been. "Rich...?"

"No time," Richie gasped, shaking with pain. "I cannot hold this form for much longer. The gate system is being destroyed. The technology...." He stopped, clutching his stomach. Duncan saw miniature energy skimming over his skin. It looked like it was feeding on the flesh, eating him alive.

"Understood," Duncan interjected. "How do we get home?"

Richie shook. "Prudict locha," he said, a ball of glowing energy appearing near the door. "I can't get you back to Federation space, but I think I can get you a lift using...." Another stab of pain raked his body. His flesh was almost consumed. "You must go. The planetary power supply is set to blow in gertra...thirty minutes. GO!" Duncan had already grabbed Jono, rushing to the door, when Richie's final scream cut through the air. "Maaac!"

It cut off with a whimper, fading to silence. It was the most horrible sound the Highlander had ever heard, and one he knew would haunt him the rest of his life. The whole building was shaking by the time they followed the globe around the first corner. Bits and pieces of material began falling from the ceiling. The ground was becoming too unstable to run on.

Duncan suddenly saw a large piece break off in front of them. Pushing Jono out of the way, he let it land on him, pinning one of his legs to the floor. Jono rushed back, trying to lift it. "Go on," Duncan ordered as the ground shook again.

"No," Jono replied, grunting as he used every bit of strength he had to lift. It was enough to get the leg free, the bone sticking out of the flesh. With painful quickness, the Talarian wrenched the bone into place as Duncan howled in agony. Then the skin began healing, growing back together as Jono helped Duncan to his feet. They struggled down several corridors until the leg was stable enough to carry Duncan's weight.

They arrived at the main entrance. The guide globe disappeared in a flash of light. "Where's the runabout?" Duncan yelled. The quake was still increasing in intensity. Dust tumbled out behind them, a loud crash coming from deep within the building.

"There," Jono shouted, pointing across to a side street. There the Orinoco sat, a broken spire crumbled on the ground only feet away from it. Other constructions shook as the ground heaved and cracks appearing in the stonework surrounding them. Duncan's stomach heaved as the floor dropped out below them.

"Hold on," he yelled, wrapping his arms around the Talarian after tapping his communicator. "Computer. Emergency beam out." The ground disappeared, the pair falling into a dark hole as the familiar whine of a transporter surrounded them.

They landed on the transporter pad heavily, Jono exhaling as Duncan landed on him. The Highlander quickly stood, roughly jerking him up and shoving him toward the pilot's seat. "You drive."

The runabout's engines whined as it lifted off the ground, another tremor shaking the earth. A piece of building landed where the Orinoco had been sitting a second ago. The shuttle sped toward the sky. All around, the strange and alien city came tumbling down. The lofty spires and towers crumbled to rubble as the planet died.

Inside the runabout, Duncan was doing his best to keep power flowing to the engines. Jono kept climbing steeper each second. He added impulse engines as soon as they cleared the megalopolis, pushing them deeper into their seats. Minor explosions occurred in the aft part of the compartment. Sparks rained down on them.

"There," Duncan cried, pointing at the gate shimmering in orbit. Jono piloted the Orinoco toward it, piling on the speed. Beneath them, the planet gave its dying gasp. The mantle buckled as the core expanded rapidly. Huge chunks of crust shot into space, heading toward them.

With one final push, the runabout entered the gate. They suddenly found themselves in a twisting, turning corridor. Behind Jono, the Iconian panel exploded, throwing him into the console. He jerked upright, struggling to keep the ship from crashing into the walls. They were red and swirly, with white tendrils running through them.

"We're losing..." Duncan managed to say before the port nacelle ruptured, ripping out a small part of the back bulkhead. He managed to reroute life support to the forcefields, keeping their atmosphere from blowing into space.

The corridor was worse than a roller coaster ride. Sometimes it was large enough to hold a Galaxy class starship, other times, barely wider than the Orinoco. Jono hardly blinked, turning the runabout this way and that as he squeezed through the constrictions. The loss of half their engines hadn't affected their speed. Nothing affected their speed.

*Warning. Hull breech, Aft section.*

Tell me something new, Duncan thought, hastily sealing off the forward compartment. He diverted weapons and transporter power to navigation and shields, hoping to forestall anything serious until this wild ride was over.

"Hold on," Jono yelled, flinging the Orinoco on its side. The tunnel was too small, a serious grating sound coming from above. A large rip appeared in the ceiling as light panels ruptured, sending flaming fragments to the carpet. With a jerk, the runabout pulled free, continuing to speed down the corridor.

Duncan was running out of power to divert as the forcefields struggled to contain the new breach. There wasn't much more that could happen and still be left with a ship. He vented all the extra plasma they had stored, getting rid of one more thing that could ignite. Now as long as they didn't hit another wall....

*Warning. Warp Core breach in progress. Warning. Warp Core breach in....*

"Captain," Dax called, turning to face Captain Benjamin Sisko at the center table. "I'm reading a buildup of neutrinos from the wormhole." She shook her head, scanning the nearby area again.

The black man turned to his science officer and raised one eyebrow. "Is something coming through?" he asked, his sharp intonation cutting through the room. He casually strolled over to Jadzia's station. They were joined by Major Kira.

"I don't know," Dax began. "If it is, it's the slowest buildup I've ever seen." She looked at the two, helplessly shrugging her shoulders.

"Red alert," Sisko called out, not wanting to take chances. The Cardassian version of a warning siren blared out. Personnel ran to their stations. "Raise the shields, Chief." Miles O'Brien complied, then spun his chair to watch the main viewscreen.

The wormhole began forming, but as slowly as the neutrino buildup Dax had pointed out. A large portion of space shimmered and wrinkled, finally turning hazy in a vague circular region. Ripples moved out from the center, the gray haze turning red and angry. "It's never done that before," Major Kira commented, as if the wormhole was just trying to annoy her.

"Something's wrong," Dax called out, drawing everyone's attention. All her readings from the wormhole were haywire, not just the color. "It's aperture has increased fifty-seven percent."

Sisko became even more nervous. "Will it affect the station?" he asked, tapping on a stair railing. When the wormhole started acting strange, anything was possible.

The wormhole finally opened, expanding its maw as white particles shot out. The edges continued forward, elongating into a tube as a badly damaged ship surrounded by its own debris was spit out. Following on its heels were two large and several smaller chunks of rock, still red hot.

"I read two lifesigns, Captain," Dax called out. "It's a Federa....Warp Core breach!"

Sisko spun to O'Brien. "Get them out!"

"On it," Miles called, trying to get a lock. It felt like an eternity until he called out "got one." Then the windows brightened, several of the crew blocking their eyes with their arms. Sisko slowly turned to watch O'Brien. "Got two," he finally said. "But it's a mess. I'm trying to filter out debris."

The station shook as the shock wave passed, stabilizers coming online to control the gyrations. The wormhole collapsed, as if expelling the offending elements had somehow sated its anger. Space returned to normal as small bits of the Orinoco sped out in all directions.

The grating whine of the Cardassian transport increased as twin oblong shapes of orange energy began to form on the green transporter alcove, slowly coalescing into two men caught in the death throes of their ship. They slowly straightened as they looked around the room, all eyes on them. "Welcome to DS9, gentlemen," Captain Sisko cheerfully announced, with just the tiniest hint of madness.


"An interesting story, Commander MacLeod," Captain Sisko said when Duncan had finished. He looked between the Highlander and Jono, absently playing with a baseball on his desk as he thought. "I've already alerted Starfleet and the Talarian government to your presence here, but I'm sure they can wait for the full report." All three stood. Sisko moved around the desk to the door. "Why don't we let you freshen up? Major Kira can arrange some quarters for you. I'll call you if I hear anything." He smiled as the door opened, and Duncan and Jono left.

Jadzia stopped them by the elevator. "Well. If I'd known you would be dropping in, I'd have put on my party dress." She held her hand out. Duncan automatically bending to kiss it. He was so engrossed he didn't notice Jono moving back to the Captain's office.

"I'm sorry," Duncan replied. "I'm not in the habit of forgetting beautiful women."

Jadzia smiled as she blushed, a hint of merriment sparkling in her eye. "You used to call me 'Gorgeous', Highlander."

Duncan's brow furrowed as he thought. A memory stirred, but that woman could hardly compare to this vision in front of him. Besides that had been almost a century ago. Only an Immortal or such could.... "Dax?" he asked, his jaw dropping in astonishment. Jadzia giggled, grabbing his arm and dragging him to the elevator.

"Is there something I can help you with?" Sisko asked as Jono entered again.

Jono stiffened, almost standing at attention, as he found the courage. "Could you contact my grandmother for me, and tell her I wish to speak to her? She is Admiral Connaught Roso."

Sisko's brow went even higher when he heard the name. He thought the rest of her family was dead, except--wasn't there a rumor a while back about a survivor? "I would be happy to assist such a distinguished officer."

Jono bowed, hiding his surprise at the unexpected compliment. "I did not know you could read our insignia."

"I read a lot of things, Mr. Roso," Captain Sisko replied, turning back to his work.

Jadzia finished describing Tongo as the two walked hand in hand down the Promenade. "This is so strange. I finally get to meet the illustrious Richie only a month ago, and then you show up out of nowhere." She stopped when she felt Duncan stiffen at the name. "What?"

Duncan smiled, happy at finding a good friend when he needed one. "I'll tell you later. With the Orinoco destroyed, I'm without transportation for a bit."

"Well," Jadzia exclaimed. "I guess you want to lay around all day, sponging off my giving nature."

"I've never done that," Duncan replied. She fixed him with a cold stare. "Well, not to Jadzia Dax."

"Captain," O'Brien called out as soon as Sisko entered the room. "Something just came through the wormhole. An energy pulse of some kind. It's heading for the station."

"Shields," Sisko called out, watching the pulse push its way through them. "Brace for impact," he called out when he realized there was no way to stop it in time.

"It's heading for the Promenade," Kira called out, already running for the elevator.

It passed through the hull as if it wasn't there. Two people on the upper level screamed when they saw it, a writhing mass of energy. It flew through the open area of the Promenade, heading straight for Duncan. Jadzia saw it just in time to jump out of the way. The ball shoved the Highlander to the floor, surrounding him.

The energy coursed over his body, jumping from him to all the nearby power sources. The lights above Quark's exploded, showering sparks on the rampaging crowd. Duncan twitched. A scream of pain was torn from his lungs as the energy tormented him. A wall panel burst, sending a cloud of steam into the area. The lithe form of the station's doctor, Julian Bashir, plunged through the cloud, pushing his way through the screaming crowd.

"What's going on?" he asked Jadzia, finally seeing the energy and the man. With a look of surprise, he opened his tricorder, trying to get as many readings as possible. "This is amazing."

Jadzia kept herself from running to Duncan's side, worried about her friend. "What is this?" she yelled in Julian's ear.

"A Quickening," he replied.

It was almost a memory. It had that feel of reality that intrudes on the current reality, a window into the mind of an Immortal. But this was hazy, out of focus. He could hear the sound of Tessa's machines, cutting or sanding away at her work, but the workshop was empty.

"Hi, Mac," Richie said. The Highlander looked up at the overhead walkway. He was suddenly in the antique store. "I see you made it back alive." Duncan tried to remember when this happened, what Immortal he had just faced. Nothing came to mind. He didn't remember this.

The scene shifted. He was standing at the end of the barge, Richie by his side. They were staring at Notre Dame, dressed warmly in the chill weather. Still, their breaths were visible in the cold, shooting out of their mouths every time they spoke. He remembered that.

Once again it changed, the empty dojo coming into focus. The front door slammed. Richie quickly walked into the room. "Better?"

Duncan frowned. "This isn't a memory, is it?"

Richie shook his head. "But it's the only way I could talk to you. I wanted to say thank you. I know I never said it enough, for all the things you've done for me."

"I guess you found what you were searching for," Duncan replied, chucking. "It is what you want."

The memory of Richie nodded. "Yes. It's...wonderful. I'm just sorry I caused you grief. Forgive me, old friend?"

The dojo began fading, slowly turning brighter. The light started to hurt. "We hurt each other, Richie." Actually, Duncan noticed, Richie was the one glowing. "Forgive me?"

"Always," Richie said, smiling. "I've got to go. No regrets."


Duncan sat up, grasping for the last fading image of Richie. He opened his eyes when his hands clutched at nothing, finding himself in a medical facility. A Bajoran was off to the side, staring at him. "Major...Kira," he said, trying to remember her name.

Her eyes were wide, full of hope. "Are you....? Did the Prophets send you?"

"Not quite the same phenomenon, Major," interrupted a man as he entered the alcove. He was medium height and thin, with a dark European face. "And how is my patient?" he asked, smiling down at the Highlander.

This must be a doctor, Duncan thought. I wonder how I'm going to explain this to anyone. "I'm feeling better."

"Cautious," Julian commented, taking a quick scan of Duncan. "After a Quickening like that, I would be, too," he whispered, leaning over. Duncan shot him a look of pure wonder. "Let's just say it's a fraternal interest of mine," he added, briefly flashing a small medallion on a gold bracelet.

Duncan watched him leave, cringing at the Watcher symbol he had just seen. "Great," he muttered, wondering what else was going to happen. He didn't have long to wait; Jadzia Dax arrived.

"The Captain wants to see you," she told Kira. The Bajoran whispered something, glancing back at Duncan. "I'll tell you later, after he's gone." That seemed to satisfy the Major, who left. Dax came closer, gently clasping Duncan's hand. "That was interesting," she said, rubbing his arm. "But you can tell me later," she added, bending down for a kiss.

"Uh, Dax. You really shouldn't excite such a...critical patient," Julian said from the doorway, trying not to laugh.

"I'll come back in a bit," she whispered to Duncan. She turned and walked by the doctor. "I'll get even, Julian," she added, walking out.

Duncan rose to his elbows, looking to see if anyone else was around. "Well, Doc. How long are you going to keep me here?"

Julian feigned thought. "Well, personally I have about a thousand tests I want to perform now that I have you in my clutches." Duncan shivered on cue. "But," the doctor continued, "with your rate of regeneration, I'd say about ten minutes or so. Unless you want to hide?" Duncan laughed, shaking his head no. Julian started to leave, turning back for a question. "That was a Quickening, wasn't it?"

Duncan thought a bit. "Yes." Julian nodded, turning away again. "But very special," the Highlander added under his breath.

If anyone happened to be scanning the far corner of the medical facility, they would have registered an energy mass, chuckling. Or trying to chuckle. With a sigh, it passed effortlessly through the hull, seeking open space.

Without thought, it sped away, watching the station and the neighboring wormhole, shining like a beacon to the otherworldly senses the energy now possessed. It passed by two Federation ships on patrol near the Cardassian border, and then it was at the edge of the Alpha Quadrant, unhindered by the limitations of even warp fields.

The galaxy shrank behind it, the unmistakable swirling configuration of stars, dancing their eternal dance of gravity and motion. The mass left behind many such galaxies as it sped faster, even thought unable to catch it. With one last push, and a laugh, it left behind the universe, and finally, even time.

Space, the final frontier.

These are the voyages of our imagination,

whose ongoing mission:

To explore strange, new worlds.

To seek out new life, and new civilizations.

To boldly go where, one day, we shall be.

End Notes:
Dedicated to Marla, Stephan, Bob, and Richondra, for giving me the courage to boldly go on my own journey.

The End.
Kevin is the author of 32 other stories.

This story is part of the series, Richie in Starfleet. The next story in the series is A Dish Served Cold.

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