Star Trek: The Next Generation series
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 074343434X
Publisher: Pocket Books
Pub. Date: April 2002

"Vaughn to Troi."

Deanna sighed and stopped in midstride down the corridor leading to the counsoler's office, knowing Vaughn's call meant the next phase of unpleasantness was about to begin. She steeled herself and tapped her combadge. "Troi here."

"Please meet me in holodeck two in half an hour for combat drills," Vaughn phrased his words as a request, but the underlying hardness in his deep voice made his request seem more like an order.

"Commander, is this necessary?" Troi asked. "I have a great deal of paperwork—"

"Table it," Vaughn said. "We have little time until the mission, and a great deal of ground to cover beforehand. I want you ready."

"Ready for what?"

"For anything."

Deanna hesitated. She had continued to sharpen her combat skills when she had the chance, but she suspected Vaughn wouldn't consider her abilities up to the needs of the mission. On the other hand, a physical workout would probably do her some good. No doubt Vaughn knew that.

She couldn't help recalling, however, that her least favorite courses at Starfleet Academy had been those in hand-to-hand combat, where close contact made tuning out her opponent's emotions impossible. In her subsequent Starfleet assignments, she'd had to kill on occasion, both in self-defense and to protect the lives of others, but those deaths haunted her. With her empathic abilities, she had felt her enemies' pain, had sensed their fear, and their spirits draining away until only soulless void remained. Each time she'd been compelled to take a life, something of her had died with the victim. And it didn't end with enemies, either.

"How long since your last refresher course in hand-to-hand combat?" Vaughn's voice demanded over her comm link.

"Too long," Deanna admitted. "And I should warn you, Commander, I've never had much of a killing instinct. Most Betazoids don't."

"But you have a survival instinct. That's a start. Thirty minutes, Commander. S.O.B.s only. Vaughn out."

Deanna sighed again and would have laughed at Vaughn's little joke, if the situation weren't so deadly serious. In recent years, Starfleet had designed a uniform variant specifically for ground based combat operations. Characterized by their padded black fabric—unbroken except for the division-specific stripe of color that cut across the chest, shoulders, and back—the uniforms were supposed to be referred to as "surface operations blacks." Of course, it wasn't long before somebody shortened the name to "S.O.B.," a designation that was quickly extended to anyone who put on the uniform. Deanna had never expected to be involved in a mission that required her to don the garment, and wondered how much of the nickname was self-fulfilling.

After detouring back to her quarters and quickly replicating the uniform, she put it on and stood in front of the mirror for a few minutes, feeling ridiculous and trying not the think about how dark all of Starfleet's uniforms had become in the last few years. It was, she believed, symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the Federation's cultural psychology, a response to the growing number of threats in an increasingly hostile universe. Her days of wearing flowing azure dresses on the bridge were long gone.

Now Vaughn required her to wear this. She thought again about Betazed, about the effect she feared Tevren's knowledge might have upon it. And part of her wondered if Vaughn was now doing the same thing to her: turning her into a stranger that the Deanna Troi of ten years ago would have reviled.

Vaughn. When she had met him earlier that morning, Deanna had still been coping with the news of the defeat at Starbase 19, and so had spared little thought for the man himself. Now, as she thought back to this morning's meeting, she reviewed the unconscious impressions she been to preoccupied to consider at the time, and compared them to what she recalled of his infrequent visits to the Troi household decades ago.

Deanna's earliest memories of Vaughn went back to childhood, years before her empathic abilities had developed. He'd been a friend and colleague of her father's and, she recalled, a source of tension for her mother. Even back then he'd seemed old, and Deanna remembered wondering, in the way children sometimes do, what had carved such deep lines into the man's face, especially around his eyes. Those lines had cut even deeper in the years since.

To Will and probably to most humans, Deanna realized, Vaughn seemed curt, somehwat harsh, perhaps even a little condescending. But to her empathic sense, this was an incomplete picture. There was a kind of "mist" around Vaughn, indicating he'd had his guard up emotionally—a fairly standard technique for officers involved with advanced tactics and intelligence work, but only partially effective most of the time. The mist meant should couldn't read him as clearly as, say, Captain Picard, but nor could it keep certain intense emotional states from getting through. Even so, she found she'd only picked up two clear emotions from Vaughn during the morning meeting: a self-directed bitterness and, she now realized, a sincere concern for Deanna's well-being. Everything else was white noise.

Accustomed to forming a generally accurate profile of someone after only a first encounter, Troi was frustrated by her inability to see clearly past a veneer that Vaughn had obviously spent years fortifying, precisely in order to discourage what she was attempting. She wondered if her father had developed similar skills.

The thought completed a circuit in Deanna's mind, and she suddenly recalled the last time she'd seen Vaughn, when she was only seven years old. He was there, in their home on Betazed, speaking quietly to her mother just before a grief-stricken Lwaxana had told young Deanna that Ian Andrew Troi was dead.

* * *

"Beverly?" Deanna reached the holodeck entrance just as the doctor staggered out. Normally groomed immaculately, Beverly sagged against the corridor wall, sweat dripping off her forehead, her hair a ratty tangle. Like Deanna, she too wore her surface ops blacks. She patted her face with a towel and fought to draw air into her lungs.

The doctor held up a hand to forestall Deanna's questions of concern. "I'm all right."

"When did Commander Vaughn recruit you for the mission?" Deanna asked.

"Right after he recruited Data," Beverly panted. She took a moment to regain her breath. "I haven't had a workout like that since running through the Celtris III scenarios with Jean-Luc and Worf."

Deanna scrutinized her friend with concern. The Federation wounded were pouring into the sector, and every doctor at Starbase 133 had been working round the clock. Not only did Beverly's face reveal exhaustion from her session with Vaughn, the lines around her eyes had deepened, and the circles beneath them had darkened since yesterday.

Deanna understood more than most that treating the injured brought its own tolls. Beverly would know firsthand the horrors, the sacrifices, the losses of friends and families and homes. And no matter how strong the physician's psyche, continuously dealing with bad news and dying patients wore down even the most resilient souls. Small wonder Beverly had accepted the assignment to Darona.

"He's waiting for you," the doctor said, straightening her shoulders.

"What do you think of him?"

Beverly shrugged. "He's not the first hundred-year-old I've met who could go up against holographic opponents, or even real ones. Most people don't give it much thought, but there are actually a lot more active centenarian humans in Starfleet than is generally known. One of the benefits of an ever-lengthening lifespan." She smiled wryly. "Just the same, I'm glad Vaughn's on our side."

"You almost sound optimistic," Deanna said. "I wish I could be."

Beverly put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Deanna, Jean-Luc told me a little about the issues you're struggling with. I can really only try to imagine what you're going through right now. But let me ask you something. Do you think you have faith in your friends on the Enterprise to do everything we can to help win back Betazed?"

"Of course I do."

"Then you you need to have that same faith in your people back home. Trust them to get through this without forgetting who they are."

"Easier said than done," Deanna said. "Tevren--"

"I know," Beverly said. "But I also know you. And if even half the Betazoids are anything like you or your mother, I think Betazed will endure whatever Tevren brings to it."

Deanna mustered a grateful smile and squeezed her friend's hand. "Thanks, Beverly." And with an encouraging nod, the doctor set off for her quarters, leaving Deanna staring at the holodeck doors.

Letting out a deep breath, she stepped forward. The doors parted at her approach. Inside, she saw to her surprise that the holodeck walls were bare but for the diode grid. No holographic environment. She'd expected a Darona simulation--a city street, maybe the prison interior, with a squad of holographic Jem'Hadar waiting to ambush her.

Instead, she saw only Vaughn standing in the middle of the room, the red stripe of his S.O.B. standing out against the otherwise black uniform. In contrast to Beverly, he hadn't broken a sweat. And his breathing appeared to be perfectly even.

"Try to kill me," he instructed.

"I beg your pardon?"

He gestured her closer. "Make your best move."

She didn't advance but dropped into a widespread stance, left foot forward, left fist up and ready for a jab. Keeping her weight on the balls of her feet, she bounced lightly, slowly circling, sizing up her opponent for weakness.

She couldn't find any.

She feinted, moving in and out, testing his reaction but keeping her distance. He didn't so much as blink.

"Come on, Deanna," he taunted softly. "Come get me. Take me down."

She ignored his gibe and watched his blue eyes for a hint of movement. Just because Vaughn had asked her to attack didn't mean he wouldn't do the same. And while her offensive strikes weren't particularly powerful, she'd practiced her defensive maneuvers more. She preferred him to attack her, so she could turn his superior strength against him.

Not that she thought she had a chance against a combat veteran like Vaughn, but she didn't want to embarrass herself completely either. He had more strength, more stamina and decades more experience. She already knew how this exercise would end. The question was simply how long she lasted.

"I'm only an old man," he taunted again. "Nothing in comparison to the Jem'Hadar on Betazed." She circled lightly as Vaughn spoke. "Did you know that before battle the Jem'Hadar perform a ritual ceremony? 'I am dead,' they chant. 'As of this moment we are all dead. We go into battle to reclaim our lives. This we do gladly because we are Jem'Hadar. Victory is life.'"

He stared at her with a penetrating gaze and repeated the chilling incantation. "'Victory is life.' Come get me, Deanna."

"Is that an order, sir?" She kept her guard up, her eyes alert.

"Very good." He nodded approval. "You can't be taunted into attacking. But then I never doubted your common sense." He shifted his stance slightly. Mentally, she sensed his mind quickening to a higher state of vigilance. If she hadn't been focused, she would have missed the tiny sign. Still she was barely prepared for the force and swiftness of his attack.

Vaughn lunged with the speed and grace of a Bajoran hara cat. In comparison, she deliberately slowed her reaction and feigned clumsiness, dropping to her buttocks and back on the mat, planting the soles of her feet into his stomach, catapulting him over her head, using the momentum of his attack against him.

In anticipation of a head-first dive, Vaughn lifted his arms over his head. His palms hit the mat, and he rotated smoothly forward. She rolled backwards with his momentum and somersaulted until she straddled his chest. Summoning a kiai, a shout from deep within, she simultaneously aimed a knifehand blow to his neck. He blocked her strike with an ease that suggested he'd envisioned her attack before she'd even thought of it.

"A stiffwristed palm to the base of the nose should have been your choice of a killing blow," he said. "You have the strength to crunch the nose bones into the brain. Try again."

She started to stand, assuming he meant for them to begin on their feet. Instead, he pulled her back down with firm gentleness. At his touch, she sensed a mental weariness that told her he'd taught this exercise more times than he would have liked. "Hit me. Use the base of your palm."

"I won't—"

"Do as I say," he demanded.

Beneath his exterior sternness, she sensed his sympathy for her dislike of fighting. "I can't just—"

"You can. Hit me." He tapped his nose. "Here."

She knew she possessed enough power to drive the tiny bones into his brain. And she knew he would stop her before she succeeded. Still she hesitated.

Intellectually comprehending that her strike wouldn't succeed was one thing. Using all her force and skill to attempt to kill a Starfleet officer during a training exercise was another matter entirely.

Deanna tensed. "I can't."

"Show me the move in slow motion," he ordered.

She did as he asked, stiffening her hand and cocking her wrist at the required angle.

"That's fine. At least you know the drill."

She rolled off him and sat on the deck, breathing heavily more from stress than exercise. "Taking a life has never been easy for me."

"When the time comes, you'll react with the necessary amount of force," he assured her.

"How can you know that?" She hated the taking of life, and she wondered if she could perform adequately and efficiently to protect herself and her crewmates in dangerous situations. "I might hesitate at a critical moment."

"You won't."

"How can you say that with such assurance?" In addition to his words, she felt his complete faith in her.

In the space of a few short minutes, Vaughn had proved that, even though he was a hardened soldier, he was also a man who didn't use more force than required to do the job. Neither did he exhibit any joy in fighting. Clearly he understood her dislike of killing. But the question, she knew, wasn't whether or not she could trust Vaughn. It was whether she could go through with her decision to join him on the mission.

She reached out empathically, sensed in him complex emotions, feelings that he reined in tightly, and she'd assessed his deep weariness, at odds with his tough and energetic exterior. Unable to pinpoint whether he was tired of special operations, the war, some other aspect of his life, or a combination of the three, she'd come to believe he had a good heart. Sparring with him suggested he wasn't the type to hurt anyone he didn't feel compelled to. He valued life. He wasn't a career soldier because he relished the thrill of battle; in fact, as far as she could tell, he truly hated it. He was doing a job he didn't want to do, simply because he believed in the objective.

"I know you won't fail when the time comes," he said finally, "because you have good genes."

Deanna frowned. "You mean from my father."

"Don't sell your mother short, either. Lwaxana is as formidable an individual as I've ever met. She and Ian—" He stopped and looked at her, then, smiling wistfully. "You probably don't remember the first time we met. You were just a baby."

"No," Deanna admitted. "But I do remember the last time we met."

Vaughn's smile faded, and he looked away. "I'm sorry, Deanna," he said quietly. "Your father was a good friend to me. He saved my life once, and I'd have have given anything to do the same for him. I know that doesn't change the fact that I went home from that last mission, and he didn't."

Deanna didn't know what surprised her more, the fact that her father had saved Vaughn's life, or the revelation that Vaughn had been there when he died.

Seeming to guess her thoughts, Vaughn shook his head. "The details aren't important. What matters is that when things were at their worst, Ian Troi always did what needed doing. Your mother is the same way. And, I suspect, you are too. Believe me when I tell you that if there was anyone else I could go to so I could spare you all this, I would."

Deanna felt ashamed then, knowing she would never wish the dilemma she was faced with on anyone else, but knowing also that to turn her back on it was never really an option. Where this path she was now on would take her, she didn't know. But her course, at least, was finally clear.

Deanna got to her feet, offering Vaughn her hand. "Show me more."

Vaughn looked up at her. A look of sorrow came briefly to his eyes, then quickly hardened into determination. After a moment, he took her hand and pulled himself up.

* * *

Tilting her head back, Deanna closed her eyes as the spray of hot water warmed her skin, soothed her aches, relaxed her mind. After four grueling hours sparring with Vaughn—followed by two more hours of combat with holographic Jem'Hadar after Vaughn had excused himself for another meeting with the captain—Deanna went back to her quarters, stripped off her uniform, stepped into the shower stall and simply let the heat and steam envelop her. Setting the temperature as hot as she could stand it, the water massaged her flesh in ways the sonic setting couldn't compare.

Deanna collected water into one cupped hand and then released it, letting it dribble through her fingers. Plans were proceeding apace now. After weeks of inactivity, the Enterprise had come alive as repair teams scurried throughout the ship, battle drills got under way, and new crewmembers rotated aboard from the starbase. One way or another, it seemed, the assault on Sentok Nor was going forward, though what would follow was still anyone's guess—just as it was still uncertain how her team were going to make it to the surface of Darona undetected.

Something stirred suddenly in her mind. As always, she sensed Will's presence at the door of her quarters before he signaled. "Come in, Will," she called.

Through the sound of the cascading water, she followed the trail of Will's emotions as he entered her quarters: his surprise at seeing the combat uniform tossed carelessly on the floor of her living area; his boyish thrill of realizing she was in the shower; his gentlemanly hesitation as he realized he'd come at an awkward time. "You want me to come to come back later?" he called.

Deanna said nothing, her eyes still closed against the water, soaking in Will's reassuring presence in her mind as she soaked up the heat.


"Deanna? Did you saying something?"

"Just a second, Will," she said finally, her eyes opening. She couldn't see past the steam.

"I can come back—"

"No, it's all right," she said, turning off the shower. "Hand me my robe, would you?"

Hesitation again. He was wondering if she was sending him a signal. And part of her, she realized, was wondering the same thing. Her history with Will was long and passionate on numerous levels, and always seemed just on the verge of re-igniting, especially during times of personal crisis.

You really should know better, Deanna, she admonished herself. Try to remember you're a counselor.

She heard him fumbling for the robe near the entrance to the bathroom. "That's quite a head of steam you have going in there," he commented.

"Helped me to relax," she said, reaching through the steam. "You should try it sometime." She could see him now, a silhouette in the mist, which of course meant that he, in turn, could see her.

He handed her the robe."It seems to be having the opposite effect on me," he admitted. "But I think you knew that."

She froze. Of course, she thought. Will wasn't empathic, but he also wasn't likely to forget that she was, and he knew perfectly well that she could read him like a book, emotionally.

Nudity wasn't an issue to most Betazoids. But realizing that Will had seen through her, Deanna suddenly felt naked. She quickly wrapped her robe around herself. "I'm sorry, Will. That was...that was unfair of me. And stupid."

The fog was lifting. She could see his face now. He was smiling at her. Not mischieviously, but affectionately. "Why? Because you feel that if we gave in to our impulses, it would be for the wrong reasons, and at the worst possible time?"

"Isn't that how you feel?"

"That's a rhetorical question, Deanna. You know how I feel."

"Then why do we do this to ourselves?"

"Honestly? Because I think when you get past our suppressed mutual lust, we actually care about each other too much to risk making this choice just because we're suddenly afraid it may be our last chance. But either way, it's not something either of us should feel sorry about."

Deanna smiled crookedly and looked up at him. "Are you after my job?"

"God, no. Who would want it?"

Will let out a satisfying Oof! as Deanna punched him in the stomach, after which she reached for a towel and wrapped it around her head as she walked past him into the living area. "So what does bring you to my quarters at this late hour, Commander?"

Will made a show of holding his abdomen as he staggered after her. "Some news that I thought might brighten your evening," he gasped dramatically, then sobered, grinning in that way he had that came more from his eyes than any other part of his face. "I just found out how Vaughn expects to get to Darona."