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William Riker, first officer of the Starship Enterprise, bolted out of his seat, his eyes wide. Across the table sat Deanna Troi, the ship's counselor. Her deep brown eyes normally showed great empathy for the plight of others, but now they just looked tired.
Riker's hand rubbed his chin, stroking the freshly grown beard that had been the subject of much debate between them. A few short years ago, he agreed to shave it as he and Troi renewed their romance. However, after the last few months, he felt the need to change something, and growing the beard back was the easiest solution. She had playfully refused to kiss him since then, and had held out a surprisingly long time. But at the moment neither one of them felt particularly playful about anything.
With a shake of his head, he looked at the padd she had pushed his way. He already knew what it said, but still, to see three more requests for transfer rankled. Crain from engineering, Nybakken from environmental sciences, and Kawasaki from the technology group -- all solid career officers, and certainly not the type Riker ever expected to see request a transfer off the Enterprise.
"They want to be on the best starship in the fleet..." Troi began, her voice soft and understanding.
"Which we are," he said emphatically.
"Which we are, yes," she echoed. "But the Enterprise's prestige has been damaged, its crew's reputation tarnished. These three want to avoid having their own careers derailed."
"Kawasaki was up for promotion, too," Riker said, sounding deflated. He was past being angry, but the hurt was still there, and he allowed it to creep into his voice. Around Troi he could be himself, slipping off the professional mask he wore among the crew.
"How many is that now?"
Troi shook her head sadly. "Seventeen in the last three months." The transfer requests had begun trickling in right after the encounter with the "demon ship."
The entire crew of the Enterprise was aware that the ship Picard had ordered to be destroyed was not a Federation vessel, but a "demon ship" masquerading as one.
What galled Riker the most was the notion that despite everything Picard had done for Starfleet, Command tallied up only the black marks, never bothering to weigh them against the successful missions.
To the admirals, Picard was increasingly a liability -- an inconvenient reminder of the ideals they too had sworn to uphold. When the Borg invaded Sector 001, the admirals sent the Enterprise to the Romulan Neutral Zone rather than let the flagship defend the Federation's birthplace. But Riker saw the expression on Picard's face when the audio reports came through, of how a single Borg cube was decimating the fleet. The Enterprise, in violation of orders, arrived on the scene, took command of the remaining ships, and destroyed the Borg cube.
Picard continued to embarrass the admirals by cherishing their principles while another one of their own -- Admiral Dougherty -- seemed to lose sight of them, almost causing the annihilation of the Bak'u.
And now this. Banishment to the hinterlands was Picard's only reward for steadfast courage and integrity. No wonder people wanted off the ship. Riker had privately hoped that the crew would remain intact, thumbing their collective noses at the faulty reasoning of their superiors, but with hundreds of people aboard the starship, unanimity was virtually impossible. He had to take comfort in the knowledge that those closest to Picard remained unfailing in their loyalty.
"How quickly do they want off? Is it worth my time talking to them?" Riker asked.
"You might have a chance with Kawasaki, since this will delay her chances at promotion. You just need to assess which is more important to her: advancement on a tainted ship or a fresh start."
"We're not tainted," he said with some heat.
"To us that's true," she agreed. "But not to everyone."
Riker held the padd, his thumb rubbing against the smooth metallic side. He pondered the choice, trying to imagine the thoughts in the younger woman's head. It occurred to him he didn't know Kawasaki all that well, just that she was petite and had an outsized laugh. Of course, he couldn't possibly know each crewman equally well, but he was having trouble coming up with details on this crewman, only that she was due for promotion within the year.
He quickly accessed her service record. Scanning her accomplishments, he was reminded why she had been placed on the recommendation list. She had helped write new programming for enhanced long-range sensors in addition to coming up with new safety systems to protect the core during red alert situations. Her initiative and wide-ranging talents had caught everyone's eye. The reviews were quite good, which Riker had come to expect from the entire crew under his watch.
"She's worth a shot," he mused.
"Oh?" Riker immediately detected the playful tone in Troi's voice. He grinned at her, stroking his beard once more.
"Well, she is single and kind of cute," he continued, rising to her challenge.
"And that's enough for you?" Troi teased. "That laugh of hers is a bit much, isn't it?"
"Well, it might get annoying in a closed space," Riker admitted, leaning closer to her. She leaned back against him, and her touch warmed him a bit.
"Annoying? Deafening is more like it," she said.
"You could sway me away from her," he offered, his hand reaching out for hers. She took it, and their fingers intertwined.
"I thought we were past the beginning," she said, the flirtatious tone suddenly gone. Her eyes glittered bright.
"Oh we are, Imzadi," he said softly. "We haven't been at the beginning since I first met you on Betazed."
"And where are we now?"
"Day twelve," he said, the twinkle back in his eye. "I think you're holding out just to vex me. You're determined and ready to make a point." Riker sat down and added, "I will speak with Kawasaki and try to convince her to stay. But for the sake of my ears, I'll talk to her in Ten-Forward."
Troi gave his hand a sympathetic squeeze. Riker returned his attention to the padd and frowned as he scrolled down to the next set of names. He studied them intently, his eyes narrowing.
Finally, Troi asked what else was wrong.
"We've been assigned more crew," he said in a flat, disapproving tone.
"They do that, you know," she said.
"When has Starfleet ever had to assign us crew? In all these years, people used to compete for assignments. And now we're getting castoffs. Look at the first officer's note on Nafir's file."
He pushed the padd toward her, and she quickly thumbed to the transporter technician's file. She read a few lines, and her frown began to match Riker's. The padd fell to the tabletop with a loud clatter, and she looked across to her friend. "Two disciplinary reports in a year, and all they can say is he has a difficult time following protocol. There's more to it than that."
"And we get him."
"I'd like to say they sent him here because they knew we could turn him around, and maybe a year ago that would have been true."
"But today," Riker continued, annoyed, "we get him because Captain Chen'farth doesn't want the headache."
"We can still work to make him better than he is. We can still do good work," Troi said emphatically.
"Sure, we can work with him. Geordi and Chief T'Bonz won't put up with Nafir's attitude, so he'll either do it our way or he won't be on any starship in the future. The point is, we can't afford to become the prime dumping ground for Starfleet's entire population of malcontents."
"And we haven't," Troi insisted. "Most of them will still go to the Excalibur." She rose and moved to the replicator for a fresh cup of tea. After all her years on the Enterprise, she had finally developed a taste for certain blends. "Anyway, not everyone coming to us is a troublemaker. Some have genuine problems. The Dominion War's effects have been deeper than first suspected, Will. People no longer seem as interested in facing the unknown or being out near the borders. Some planets have turned positively xenophobic."
"Fighting a vicious army led by shape changers will do that to some people," Riker noted, concerned but unsurprised by the summation.
She returned to her seat, blowing across the top of the steaming mug.
"We're all stretched so thin in terms of personnel, materiel...well, everything."
"Someone in particular you're concerned about?" he asked, hearing genuine curiosity in his own voice.
"There is one new member of Geordi's team that seems to have some issues. I don't think you've met her yet. Anh Hoang, a plasma specialist. She transferred here about two months ago, right before we went to Dokaal. She lost her husband and daughter when the Breen attacked San Francisco."
He thought about the attack almost four years earlier and how many lives it altered. Earth had been struck by enemy forces in the past, the first being the Borg in the early twenty-first century, although the Enterprise thwarted that effort. Hoang's story was just one of millions, he knew, and immediately he felt sympathy for the woman.
"What's the issue?" he asked softly.
"We met only once," Troi admitted. "But my impression is that she took this posting to run away from the memories. She does her job well, from all indications, but she isn't making connections with the rest of the crew."
"And you're worried."
"And I'm worried. I intend to spend some time with her while we're not going anywhere." Immediately she regretted the words, he could see from the expression that flitted across her face. He hadn't become a successful cardplayer without learning how to read others. Still, he winced at the notion that he was serving aboard a technological marvel that was merely updating stellar cartography charts.
"We'll finish this tomorrow," he said shortly.
He strode out of Troi's office and immediately quickened his pace to keep up with the hustle caused by the approaching shift change. The first officer never ceased to marvel at how busy the Enterprise... --This text refers to the Paperback edition.