Chapter 1: U.S.S. Enterprise-E
The blaster pulse stretched with a surreal, elastic quality as it missed Commander William Riker, who had been pushed out of harm's way at the final moment by his father, Kyle Riker. The audible sizzle of the beam striking Kyle was muffled by the older man's agonized shout. Kyle fell, leaden and limp. His creased face was slackened and blank, the defiant spark of his life robbed from him by a bloodthirsty Bader gunman. Kyle struck the floor next to Will. His age-softened body landed with an unceremonious thud, the sickly-sweet reek of his charred flesh overpowering in the frigid, subarctic air....
Commander William Riker shuddered awake from his nightmare. Hot tears of anger stung his eyes. The desperate expression of his murdered father's face haunted his sight like an afterimage.
He couldn't count how many times during his childhood his father had admonished him, "Boys don't cry, Will." For as long as he had strived to break free of his father's influence, he'd never been able to emancipate himself of the old man's damnable yoke of stoicism.
Not until now.
He turned his head and looked at Deanna Troi, his on-again, off-again, then on-again lover -- and now his fiancée. She slept next to him, her cascade of dark hair spilling wildly across a pair of broad pillows. Her face was serene in the pale glow of starlight.
He checked the chronometer. It was just after 0400 hours. Taking care not to wake Deanna, he inched his arm out from under the covers. He gently folded back the sheets and sat up. He looked back at her. Her breaths were long and deep, her slumber untroubled. A more selfish man might have envied her; Riker took comfort in her peaceful repose and half-smiled, grateful for the good fortune that had brought his sweet Imzadi into his life.
Scratching at his beard, he stood and walked out into the main room. Closing his eyes, he stopped in front of the row of sloping, narrow windows in the ceiling and gazed at the cold, sterile beauty of the stars. He took a long breath, one deep enough that he could feel it press his chest outward. He held it, savored it for a moment, then let it go. He marveled at the feeling, at how he could take for granted the very tides of his own life and death. A thousand times a day we breathe in and we're full, he thought. A thousand times a day we breathe out and we're empty.
Empty was how he'd felt every day since he'd watched his father die. Since the moment he saw a lifetime of unfinished business become an eternity of missed opportunities.
Perhaps it had been irony -- or an example of karmic balance -- but less than a week ago, upon returning from his father's appropriately terse and unsentimental funeral, Riker had been contacted by Admiral Kathryn Janeway, who'd offered him the captain's chair on the Titan.
The ship, she'd said, was still in spacedock undergoing a final series of upgrades and mandatory inspections. It would be ready for active duty in a few months. Riker had asked for time to think it over, and she'd graciously agreed. But she'd also made it clear the offer wouldn't remain open indefinitely.
For most career Starfleet officers, an offer such as this was a once-in-a-lifetime shot at command. For those lucky few who were invited to take their place in the big chair, the very rarity of the offer made the decision to say yes easy and immediate. Riker, on the other hand, held the dubious distinction of having refused more offers of command than any other active Starfleet officer. Almost fifteen years ago, he'd chosen to serve as Captain Jean-Luc Picard's first officer aboard the Enterprise-D rather than take command of the Drake. Roughly eighteen months later, he'd declined Starfleet's offer to captain the Aries.
For most officers, refusing two commands in less than two years would be the end of their career track. But Riker was offered a third bite at the apple, during the Borg crisis of 2366, when Starfleet Command all but begged him to take command of the Melbourne. He'd passed up that chance, as well, but shortly afterward received a field promotion to captain of the Enterprise-D when Picard was captured by the Borg and transformed temporarily into Locutus.
A few days later, after Riker had risked everything to save his captured commanding officer, he'd heard the whispers of the Enterprise crew, most of whom couldn't believe he'd actually requested demotion to his former rank of commander so he could continue to serve as Picard's trusted Number One.
That was more than twelve years ago, and since then Starfleet had stopped offering him command posts. Until now.
He sighed and stroked his graying beard for a moment. Why now? he wondered to himself. Why did it have to be now?
He stepped over to the replicator. "Water, cold."
The singsong whine of the replicator crested, then faded. A faintly glowing swirl of atoms coalesced into a squat, square-sided drinking glass three-quarters filled with pure, cool water. Riker picked it up and drank half of it in a few gulps. He let out a satisfied breath, then downed the rest of it. He put the empty glass back in the replicator and pressed the matter-reclamation key. He turned and walked back to the windows as the replicator dematerialized the empty glass.
The timing of Janeway's offer couldn't have been more awkward, in Riker's opinion. The last few months had been unkind to the Enterprise-E in general, and to Captain Picard in particular. The Rashanar incident had led to a politically motivated tarnishing of the captain's reputation -- and, by extension, a blemish on the prestige of the ship and its crew. Consequently, several dozen crew members and officers had made formal requests for transfer off the ship.
At the same time, the personnel sent recently to the Enterprise by Starfleet Command seemed to be individuals whose records were checkered with disciplinary problems, poor work evaluations, or borderline psychiatric profiles.
Riker and Troi had done everything they could to convince their shipmates not to leave, but, with only a few notable exceptions, they'd been unable to prevent the exodus of many of the ship's best department chiefs and noncommissioned officers. Every high-profile departure had been another blow to the esteem of the Enterprise and her captain, and Riker knew full well that rumors were spreading through Starfleet that the Enterprise had become a ship where failing careers were sent to die.
And now Starfleet was inviting its first officer to join the growing ranks of the Enterprise's recently departed, accompanied by his wife-to-be, who was also the ship's senior counselor. If the two most vocal defenders of Picard's integrity left the ship for greener pastures, the damage to the crew's morale might prove irreparable. Picard's credibility as a commanding officer would be all but ruined by gossip and innuendo. Riker had to wonder if the timing of this offer from Starfleet had been intended to serve exactly that purpose.
Riker didn't want to abandon Picard at a time such as this; the captain had been more than a commanding officer to him, more than a comrade. He'd been a true friend, and, in many ways, like the father Riker had always wished Kyle could have been. But at the same time, this was the first offer of promotion Riker had received in more than a decade -- and he had every reason to believe that if he refused it, it would also be the last.
He heard Troi's gentle footfalls on the carpet behind him a moment before she snaked her arms around him and embraced him. "Nightmares again?" she said, pressing against his back.
He nodded. "The same one."
She pressed her cheek against his shoulder blade. "I felt it. It's getting more vivid, isn't it?" He didn't answer her, but they both knew she was right. "Are you sure you don't -- "
"No," he said. "I'll be all right. I'll work it out." He felt slightly guilty about the effects his nightmares had been having on her, even though he knew there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Her half-Betazoid ancestry had gifted her with empathic skills that, when she was awake, she could control or choose to ignore. But when she was asleep, some of her psychic control became dormant. As a result, when they slept in the same bed, she would often sense the emotional tenor of his dreams.
He turned to face her and held her close. Her hair was soft, and it had a sweet fragrance. It made him think of jasmine and honey.
She looked up at him. "Come back to bed," she whispered.
"I will." He kissed her forehead. "You go. I'll be there in a little while." She gave his hand a small squeeze, then smiled as she reached up and stroked his cheek with her fingertips. She turned and padded softly back into the bedroom.
He looked back out at the stars. For the last fourteen years he'd had a number of things he'd wanted to say to his father -- most of them words of spite. It wasn't as if he couldn't have tracked him down; Kyle had rarely kept a low profile. Riker now realized, to his shame, that the only thing that had prevented him from settling things with his father had been his own stubborn refusal to let it happen.
He looked toward the bedroom and considered going back to sleep. He closed his eyes. The memory of his father's face still lingered like a shroud in front of his thoughts. He opened his eyes, drew a deep breath, then let it ebb. He focused on the feeling of emptiness that was left behind, and he longed for a day when it wouldn't feel quite so familiar.
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