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            The bright, shimmering light of the transporter beam enveloped Data and Geordie, becoming for an instant a curtain that shut out the rest of the universe.   Just as quickly the silvery envelope faded away, revealing the major's cottage.   Geordie liked to think he'd gone nowhere; musing once the curtain of light had been drawn, a frantic crew rushed from the wings and completely reset the same stage.

            Turning his attention to his surroundings, Geordie's first impression was the stage crew had been in a frightful hurry.   Major Matthews' two story cottage had been either brutally ravaged by a large wild animal, or he and Data had missed one hell of a party.  Data already had his tricorder up and running, scanning for a long list of potential clues.

            Seconds after beaming down, Lieutenant Commander Data began to report his findings.   "This cottage has been rather haphazardly searched, although no set pattern was employed.   Thermographic readings indicate one, perhaps two intruders."

            Scanning the wrecked living room by the gloomy, predawn light, Geordie LaForge commented, "They trashed the place, that's for sure."   He stared out the curtain-less, but unbroken windows at the forest beyond the major's front porch.

            "That is an accurate description," Data agreed, then paused to consider the term 'trashed'.   After several microseconds of digital cross reference, he responded, "This may have been nothing more than an uncoordinated act of retribution; or the place could have been, trashed, in an attempt to destroy evidence.   Such action has made determination of theft difficult, at best."

            LaForge quipped, "I see what you mean."  Treading carefully to avoid broken mementos and maneuvering around overturned furniture, Lieutenant Commander LaForge picked his way across the front room.   Further into the house, the living room branched into a large kitchen on the right, and a small enclosed study to the left.  A staircase faced the front door, then turned to run along the back wall at an angle.  Geordie left the first level to Data, as he slowly ascended the staircase.

            A few steps up, the stairs made a ninety-degree turn to the left.   As he paused on the landing, it occurred to Geordie the intruders could still be on the premises.  Although his tricorder had detected no human life in the area, LaForge drew his phaser.   It may have been irrational, but holding the weapon made the engineer a little less nervous.  Geordie chalked it up to one too many boyhood haunted house stories, and continued up the stairs.

            At the top of the stairs Geordie found two bedrooms, divided by a narrow passage.  He stepped around the railing that protected the stair well, and started back across the length of the house.  Edging into the left bedroom, he found the bed overturned, drawers pulled from the dresser, an overturned vanity with a broken mirror and an open, empty closet.  The bed's mattress had been ripped open, its durofill spread around the room.

            Geordie put his phaser away and went back to reading his tricorder.  He didn't recognize the style, but the furniture was crafted of solid wood, made locally from indigenous material.  Dropping a palm on a hand carved, hand polished bedpost, Geordie thought it shameful to vandalize such beautiful furniture.

            The wanton destruction rankled him.   Geordie considered himself more than a starship engineer; he was a builder, a creator.   He examined the delicate detail of the woodcarver's design, and empathized with a fellow craftsman.   LaForge was accustomed to a tidy, well ordered environment aboard ship, and couldn't see why anyone had to resort to this level of vandalism.

            Geordie wanted desperately to find some sort of clue; anything that might lead him to those responsible for this senseless act would do.   Sadly, in spite of his best efforts with the tricorder and his visor, he couldn't turn up so much as a fingerprint.   He scanned what remained of the mattress, and found nothing a but a little durofill.   No trail to follow, he thought to himself, then silently reviewed a few four-letter words.

            He peered into the bedroom's adjoining bathroom; and found open, empty drawers and bare shelves.   Seeing the rooms had once been clean but unused, Geordie guessed the major kept these as guest quarters for his granddaughter.   However his visor provided no more information than his tricorder, which told him precious little.

            He moved across the hall, and found another whirlwind had cut through the major's room.   Once again the furniture had been overturned and the mattress slashed, but clothing had been strewn about the room as well.   Sheets, pillows and their cases, had been shredded by some kind of wild animal.  Several damaged, empty storage cartons were clustered near the open closet.  Geordie poked into a few of the boxes; tried to guess what they might have contained and felt more blind than usual.

            LaForge climbed over empty dresser drawers on his way to the bath.  Soaps, toiletries and towels were cast about in a sort of obscene redecoration---at least they hadn't ripped out the plumbing.   Geordie shook his head, closed his tricorder and turned to leave the bathroom.   He couldn't help but wonder if the apes that ransacked this cottage found what they were looking for.   As he stumbled over the debris, Geordie happened to glance into the closet.

            As he stared into the closet, LaForge tapped his communicator and asked, "Data, have you found anything?"

            Data's response was almost intuitive.  "No, but your tone suggests you have.  I will join you in a moment."  Data found his friend kneeling by the major's closet, grinning at the storage area's back wall.

            "My tricorder missed it completely," Geordie said, "but I noticed it on my way out."  The engineer ran a finger along the corner where wall met floor, then up along the closet's back panel.  "This is a very professional job, Data.  I don't think even the best thief in the quadrant would've found it and if there had been a little more light in here, I might not have picked it up."  Geordie finished tracing a square in the wall's fine layer of dust before inquiring, "Do you think we can open this vault?"

            Data was deeply impressed with the safe's workmanship.  "I cannot discern a door, let alone a locking mechanism.    My tricorder does not even register a cavity behind this wall."

            "Oh it's there, all right," LaForge observed, "but neither of us is burglar enough to figure it out."

            Data seemed constrained to point out, "We are not burglars at all…but we are engineers, are we not?"

            Geordie shifted into a seated position, kicked some of the debris aside and folded his legs.  Turning his attention to his shipmate, the chief engineer answered, "True enough.  So our problem is a wall safe that I can see with my visor, otherwise it's undetectable."

            Data continued, "If it is solid, we should be able to determine the dimensions, lock onto it with the transporter and beam the entire safe aboard the Enterprise for analysis."

            Geordie shot down the idea.  "Yeah, but if it doesn't register on our tricorders, how does the transporter lock onto it?"

            Data mulled it over for a nanosecond, paused for effect then offered, "We must discover why it does not register, and devise a means to make the safe detectable."

            Geordie scratched a slight itch of frustration by suggesting, "Well we could always beam out the whole wall."

            The android even looked puzzled as he asked his best friend, "Geordie, is that a serious suggestion?"

            LaForge breathed a heavy sigh.  "No, it's not," he reassured Data, although his tone suggested he wished it could have been.  "Maybe we could just phaser it out of the wall."

            Data was thinking ahead, as usual.  "Using phasers could entail considerable risk.  A safe design this elaborate may not depend entirely on concealment."

            "Y'mean it might be boobytrapped," Geordie grumbled.

            "It is a high probability," Data confirmed, "and I would not want either of us to be trapped as boobies."

            LaForge had a good chuckle over that one.   Data may not understand humor but now and then, he really did get off a good one.   "Well put, Data.   Have any other bright ideas?"

            Data examined the faint outline on the wall and concluded, "I believe we are sat an impasse.  However, it is possible Captain Matthews may know what we are up against."

 

 

            The morning sun was chasing away shadows quickly, but shed no light on the mystery Matthews had come to solve.   The clearing appeared to be nothing more than a blast hole in the planet's thick, green forest.

            Angela took a deep breath and let it go slowly, enjoying the flavor of fresh, unfiltered air.   She could tell by the air's rich scent, there must have been some recent precipitation.   While it would hamper her investigation, the rainfall had given the clean, natural atmosphere a distinctly sweet taste.

            Angela's tricorder registered an oxygen content slightly higher than Earth norm, which she attributed to the carbon exchanging forest.   There were no pollutants in the planet's water table, which held a remarkably constant pH-level.  Taking another deep breath, Angela turned her attention to the brightening sky.    Soon it would shift from pale green to brilliant blue, full of golden sunlight.    Just standing near the edge of the tall, old growth forest made her skin tingle.

            Sendatius Minor's atmosphere was unencumbered by industrial pollutants, as the colony's purpose was purely agricultural.  The planet took exactly sixty-two, eight-day weeks to complete its annual perfect circle around its star.   The result was a planet wide, unaltered climate; a world with but one season.

            By night the temperature never went below sixteen degrees centigrade, nor did it exceed twenty-seven by day.   Small wonder Grandfather had vehemently opposed any industry but chakka harvesting.  This world was an unspoiled, nearly primordial paradise.

            Staring at the arboreal splendor, Angela flashed on several pleasant childhood memories.  It was like coming home, as most of Sendatius Minor was remarkably similar to the northeastern forest parks of Earth's North American continent.   Matthews found herself planning a little retirement home of her own here when Doctor Sterling intruded on her daydream.

            Angela mentally put her spots back on her collar, and turned to her old friend.  "Yes Doctor, you have something?"   If Kate was experiencing the same déja vu, it certainly didn't show.

            "Well, sort of," Dr. Sterling hedged.  "I've discovered some blood spatters on several of these larger rocks."

            Sterling led the captain across the open, slightly muddy field to the find.   A number of large, flat sections of rock defined the clearing's perimeter.   Angela assumed these had been pulled from the ground in the blast area, and placed around the clearing to prevent the forest from reclaiming the open soil.   Some of the slabs on the perimeter were nearly a half-meter thick and big as shuttlecraft, and made an excellent barricade.  The two officers stopped at one of these, not far from the mouth of the cave.

            Indicating various points of interest on the rock face with her tricorder, Sterling began her narration.  "See here, here, and here.  Either it rained recently, or they have really thick dew here but there are still a few traces of blood and skin.  Not only that, but there are several different blood types involved, along with traces of clothing fibers embedded in the stone."   Kate turned to her friend and emphasized, "Embedded, Angela."    Sterling was worried, and looked it.

            "Someone was flung on it with a great deal of force," Matthews surmised.

            Sterling shifted uncomfortably.    "Several someones, Captain, and damned hard."

            The two women turned to face Commander Riker as he threw his two cents in.   "It gets worse.   A couple of meters from here is a blast area.   Someone kicked dirt around to hide it, most likely figuring the weather would do the rest.   From the depth of the crater and the radius of burnt soil, I'd say it was a fairly heavy charge.   Too big to be a grenade; my best guess would be a cluster of commercially produced explosive packs."

            "Like the charges used to make this clearing," Matthew’s guessed.   She scanned the treeline of the roughly hundred square meters of clearing, trying to figure in her mind how much explosive it would take to make such an opening.

            "That would be a good guess if there were any chemical residue," Riker observed.  The blast crater lines up with the doctor's blood spatters, but I can't determine what type of explosive was used."

            "Care to guess how old it is?" asked the captain.

            Riker already had an answer, and didn't like it.  "I'm no expert, but I'd say this blast occurred about three or four days ago."   He steeled himself, and asked an unpleasant question.   "Would the major use a bomb to---"

            Angela cut him off with, "He might, but he'd certainly follow up with phaser bursts.  The major is nothing if not thorough."   She didn't volunteer one choice tidbit of information; to kill seven people at once, the major would almost certainly use a grenade/phaser combination.   Angela didn't like where this investigation was going, but kept her discomfort to herself as well.

            Captain Matthews set her jaw and suggested, "Well, I think we've learned everything we can here.   Let's take a quick look in the cave."   They had avoided the mouth of the cave since their landing, deciding to first go over the artificial clearing with the proverbial fine tooth comb.

            Doctor Sterling wasn't sold on the idea.   "Shouldn't we have a lot of very big, very strong, heavily armed security people with us first?"

            "Nervous, Doctor?" was Riker's question.

            "Quite frankly, yes."   Sterling was quick to add, "Considering what happened to the last tour group, I'd feel a lot better if Mister Worf tagged along."

            "LaForge to Captain Matthews."

            Angela stowed her tricorder and tapped her comm badge.  "Matthews here Commander, go ahead."

            "Data and I are in the major's bedroom.   We think we've found some kind of security vault, but we can't figure out how to open it."

Angela was intrigued.    "What kind of safe is it?"

            "That's just it, Captain," LaForge responded, "I've never seen anything like it, and Data still hasn't.   To me it appears as a slight variance in the extreme upper end of the EM band, which conforms to a perfect square in the back wall of the closet.  Aside from that it's invisible, and doesn't register on the tricorders.   I suggested phasering it out of the wall, but Data was concerned with possible boobytraps."

            Commander Riker folded up his tricorder, and wandered near the cave entrance.  There was just enough light to see a few meters into the cavern, and he was just curious enough to take a quick look.   Angela had watched him wander away as she listened to Mister LaForge, but now turned to Sterling with a conspiratorial grin.

            "I might've known," Angela began.   "Mr. Data's right, Commander, it's almost certainly rigged.   My grandfather had one just like it in his bedroom back home.   The lock sequence is most likely voice activated and if I know the major, that sentimental old goat keyed it to something only he or I would know."

            Geordie sounded pleased.   "Would you mind taking a crack at it for us, Captain?"

            Angela's response was immediate.   "Hold your position.   It can't be opened with artificially reproduced voice patterns, so I'll have the ship beam me---"   Angela caught a glint of metal in the treeline, and reacted to it instinctively.

            "Riker get down!" Matthews shouted as the first energy beam shot through the clearing.   Angela lost sight of her team as she fired a phaser burst into the treeline, and ducked behind the nearest big rock.   More bolts of lightning sliced into the clearing, and chiseled away chips of stone.

           Matthews edged around the boulder and returned fire with a heavy stun beam---then saw Commander Riker near the cave entrance, flat on his back and motionless.  Captain Matthews slid back behind the boulder and turned to see Sterling crouching behind another boulder, gripping her phaser tightly.

            Matthews spoke in an ice cold, oddly calm tone.    "Riker's down."

            Sterling slapped her communicator and barked, "Enterprise emergency.   Beam Riker to sickbay now!"

            Hidaka's response wasn't helpful.   "There's no transponder code to lock on to and too much interference.   You'll have to hold fire or pull him out of there."

            Matthews returned fire again, then hugged the stone as she slipped back into cover.    "Hey Kate, remember Plan B?"

            Sterling's expression turned sour, as she flashed back to water blaster battles she and Angela had waged in their youth.   "Oh great."   The doctor crawled to the edge of her slab and growled, "Okay, get moving."

            Matthews slid along the boulders, circling the clearing clockwise while Sterling took potshots at their unseen assailant.   After moving a hundred meters or so along the clearing's edge, Matthews peered around a thick stone slab.   Kate was still drawing the sniper's fire and more importantly, helping Angela acquire the target.

            The sniper had moved, some ten meters from his original position.  Captain Matthews zeroed in on the flashes from what she believed to be a beam weapon, raised a rock steady phaser hand and fired in short bursts.   After a precious few pulses of phaser fire, Matthews was driven into cover when she drew the sniper's undivided attention.

            At that instant, Doctor Sterling holstered her phaser, explosively exhaled and slapped her communicator.  "Enterprise lock in.  On my order beam two directly to sickbay."

"Ready, Doctor," was the transporter tech's tense reply.

            Kate muttered, "This is a crummy way to start the day," then bolted into the clearing.   Ducking under Matthews' covering fire she ran to the commander, slid into the dark gray mud and rolled onto him.   "Now Hidaka, now!"

            The transporter beam sparkled around Riker and Sterling, as it pulled them to safety.   Matthews watched the beam fade, then continued moving around the edge of the clearing.  She didn't see Kate take a hit, but setting up the diversion may have taken too long for the commander.   He might have already been dead, but she had to get him to the ship---couldn't, wouldn't leave anyone behind…not this time.

           The starship captain pushed everything from her mind, save what the major had taught her.    She would learn the fate of her team later; right now the sniper was more important.  Angela Matthews' heart pounded furiously as her finely honed instincts took complete control.

            Time to go hunting.

 

 

            The transporter beam deposited Sterling and Riker on the sickbay deck.   Before the beam completely faded, Sterling rolled off her patient and came up with her tricorder scanning.   Doctor Sterling was so upset by the readings she got from the device she didn't notice Doctor Crusher kneel next to Will opposite her.

            In her mind Doctor Kate the pediatrician was swearing like an outraged Marine drill instructor, but she shouted only, "I need five cee-cees of Norep, an immobilizer and a burn tray, NOW!"

            Crusher had come to the same conclusion, but Sterling growled it first.  "He's going into shock."   Someone handed her an immobilizer unit, while Doctor Crusher received the hypospray.   Doctor Sterling counted seconds in her mind, as she positioned the portable force field restraint unit to hold Riker's traumatized head and neck in position.  With the immobilizer in place, Sterling ordered, "Okay, let's get him on the biobed."

            Sterling and Crusher lifted the unconscious first officer onto the primary exam biobed, while a nurse held the immobilizer unit steady.  Doctor Crusher then began cutting away Riker's uniform shirt with a sonic separator, trying to get at the third degree burns on his left arm and shoulder.

            Doctor Sterling went to the main bio-readout display, in the wall across from the bed.  She quickly analyzed the information provided and called out, "Vitals have stabilized, but he's got level four cranial trauma."    She returned to her patient's side, picked up a sterilizer and began cleaning the gash across Riker's forehead.  "No skull fracture though, thank the maker."  Sterling shut down the portable immobilizer, preferring to use the biobed's full restraint system.

            Standing by her patient, Crusher studied the readout across the room.  "Neck muscles have been badly strained, but there doesn't appear to be any damage to the vertebrae."

            Sterling ran through the possible treatments.   "Cortadone would relax the muscles but might play against the Norep.    Y'can't do a proper vibromassage with the restraint field in place---how about a good old fashioned cold pack?"

            Crusher considered it, and showed a faint smile.   "Very good, Doctor."   The chief medical officer sent a nurse for the cold pack as she set a neural pad on Riker's forehead.  It would keep him unconscious without chemicals, at least for a while.   As she removed the last few bits of crisped uniform from the commander's burns, Crusher asked the big question. "What exactly happened down there?"

            Standing near sickbay's reception area, the Captain agreed, "A very good question."

            Sterling turned to face a stone-faced Captain Picard.    At his side was one visibly distraught Counselor Troi, who had a much better question.   Her voice faltered as Deanna pleaded, "Will he be all right?"

            Kate deferred to the chief medical officer.   Crusher looked the counselor in the eye, and put the answer in the best possible light.   "Concussion's not too bad, the burns can be treated easily enough, and his neck will be stiff for a while but yes, Will can return to duty in a few days."

            Sterling added dryly, "That's if we leave the restraint field on, of course."   Her little wisecrack went right by Picard and Troi.  "Tough room," Kate muttered, then began her report.

            Sterling explained their findings, then finished with, "Just as Angela was about to lead us down the hole, Commander LaForge called and asked if we could help him with something.    A few seconds later all hell broke loose.    My guess is when we were fired on, Commander Riker suffered burns from a near miss or light hit.   The concussion and neck injury are probably the result of a flying rock chip.   I have no idea who was shooting at us, Captain, but I'm glad he didn't have a phaser."

            The Captain listened carefully as the doctor nervously rambled through her report, avoiding interruption.  However, her final observation piqued Picard's curiosity.   As Sterling paused to draw a ragged breath, the Captain interjected, "How do you know it wasn't a phaser, Doctor?"

            Sterling shifted back a bit, mentally reviewing her statements.   After a second she apologized, "I'm sorry, I thought I mentioned it before.    I could tell by the damage it did.  The first few shots blasted chunks of shrapnel out of the boulders, but then the sniper started drilling neat little holes through the rock.   It seemed to be the best he could do."

            Drawing her phaser and waving it for effect, Sterling noted, "You can do a lotta damage with one of these."  As the doctor holstered her weapon, she added, "The sniper was on us so fast, neither Commander Riker or I had a chance to get a shot off.   Angela saved both of us."   Glancing about, Sterling wondered, "Say, where is Angela?"

 

 

            Hearing the battle near the cave entrance over his communicator, LaForge did what any good officer would do--­he signaled the ship.   On doing so, he received and acknowledged an order to simply stay put.  At least he had Data to keep him company.

            A few moments later the Enterprise signaled him.   The Captain explained what happened in the clearing, Riker's condition, Matthews' disappearance, and the importance of safeguarding the security vault he and Data had found.   Once again he and Data were ordered to sit tight, making them perhaps the most highly trained and broadly experienced security detail in the fleet.

            For a few seconds Geordie resented being stuck, but decided to put their time to good use.  Data and LaForge began clearing up some of the wreckage that used to be the major's possessions.   However when they attempted to repair the residence's lighting and other systems, the Starfleet officers discovered there had indeed been at least one item removed from the house: the generator.

            So far as the two Enterprise officers could tell, the small combination fusion reactor and generator was the only item taken.    In size the unit was only about a meter cubed, but it weighed in at several hundred kilos.   Thus the generator was not exactly portable, yet it had been neatly severed from the cottage power grid and removed without a trace.

            It was neither a rare or highly valuable item, but it had been stolen and was reported as such.  However the theft of the generator, didn't seem particularly odd to Geordie.  He expected to learn more equipment had been stolen, once they restored order to the ransacked home.

            Their report complete, on Geordie's suggestion the engineers began cleaning up without the aid of modern power cleaning tools.   Lt. Commander LaForge wound up pushing a broom around the bedrooms, while Enterprise's second officer single-handedly set the solid hardwood furniture upright.

            Not that it took much to convince Data, but Geordie had enlisted the second officer's aid with a little simple logic.   His reasoning was, having learned all they could; there was no point to leaving the place in such a shambles.   Geordie preferred to spare Captain Matthews from seeing the worst of the damage.   When Data inevitable asked why, Geordie tried his best to explain as they cleaned.

            "It's human nature to at least try to protect one's friends, whether they want you to or not."   Geordie paused to dump some mattress filling into a storage carton, regretting his choice of words.   He knew from past experience he'd just inadvertently triggered another series of tough questions.

            In appearance Data was a full-grown humanoid, but he could 'why' a person to near insanity faster than some preschoolers.   Through years of practice, Geordie had learned to let most of the questions go past, track their theme and come up with one answer that would, hopefully, cover the series.   On the other hand, Geordie knew Data recognized his human friends could not keep pace with his interrogative stream, and would usually allow them a moment to catch up.

            Data's pause in the current line of questioning followed, "Why would anyone not wish their friends to assist them?"   He found the question insufficient, and augmented it with, "Is that not what friends are for?"

            On the surface, it seemed an easy enough question to Geordie.  "Some people see accepting any assistance from their friends as taking advantage of them, and no one wants to outright use their friends.  For example, Captain Matthews would never have asked us to keep this place up.  Most likely she would've told us not to, and done it herself."

            Data analyzed the response, and posed a more difficult question.  "Then why did you seek my assistance, Geordie?"

            LaForge chuckled again.   "Because some of this furniture is too heavy for me to move alone."

            "I see.   So if you could have performed the resetting of the larger furnishings, you would not have asked for my help?"

            "Probably not," Geordie admitted.

            Data added, "But I would have assisted you anyway."

            "Exactly," Geordie said, seizing on the android's response.   "Do you know why?"

            Even to Data it was obvious.   "You are my friend, Geordie."

            "Right.  So you would've helped me out, even without being asked."

            "Affirmative."

            "Like we're helping Angela Matthews right now?"

            "Right now we are discussing why---"

            "What were we doing before the discussion, Data?"

            "Housecleaning."

            Geordie prodded, "Even though no one asked us to?"

            "Affirmative."

            Geordie had to admit these exchanges were better than playing any word game.   They kept his mind razor sharp and were of some benefit, he hoped, to Data's understanding.   If they ever kept score, the chief engineer would've moved ahead on points with a one-word question.   "Why?"

            LaForge's victory was short lived.   "Friends help friends even if it is not required, but especially if help is needed, even if assistance is initially rejected," Data postulated.  "Is this why people commonly respond to a gift by insisting it was not necessary?"

            "Exactly."   Geordie figured he was in too far to let go now, so he went on with the other side of the coin.  "But sometimes you have to withhold assistance, even if a friend asks for it."

            "Then sometimes being a friend means not interfering."   Geordie supposed Data's understanding of the Prime Directive helped him with that one.

            "Right," Geordie agreed.  "A person can rely on their friends too much, and become helpless."

            "But if---"

            "No Data," Geordie reassured his friend, "I mean people could become incapable of helping themselves."

            "Ah, so if there is such a thing as offering too much help, it must be possible to offer too little."

            "The trick is knowing the difference," Geordie confirmed, "and that's why most people don't like to put their friends in such a position."

            "Creating the impression assistance is not required is helping a friend?"

            Geordie smiled, satisfied.  "Along with knowing when to help and when not to."

            Data analyzed all his friend had shared with him, and wanted to feel grateful.   LaForge knew many of Data's acquaintances showed far less patience with his elaborately programmed curiosity.

            Having set right all the heavy, solid wood furniture, Data announced, "Once again you have been of great assistance, Geordie."   He turned and left LaForge to finish the light housekeeping duties that remained.

            Once it dawned on him he'd just talked himself out of an extra hand, LaForge leaned against his broom and grumbled, "Don't mention it."

 

 

            Angela Matthews scraped along the rock slabs, edging her way around the clearing.  Casting about for her opponent, she kept her shoulders pinned to the thick stone tiles and divided her attention between the cave entrance and the treeline.

            Halfway around the muddy field's edge, Matthews caught a glimpse of her opponent.  He was a biped, about two meters tall, dressed in skintight black material and desperate to get into the cave.   Matthews had fired a quick burst at him as he tried to cross the clearing, but narrowly missed.   The sniper had somehow sensed her presence, and shot at Matthews almost as she fired at him.   Her effort drove him out of the clearing itself, but the apparent human or humanoid male stayed near the field.

            To Captain Matthews, remaining near an objective in the face of stiff opposition seemed foolish.    Surly such a well-trained soldier would be aware of the inherent danger of hanging about.    She could not fathom what could be in the cave he would risk dying for.

            Which in itself brought up a number of unpleasant questions.   Judging by the effect of his weapon, the sniper was using deadly force to eliminate her.   It was logical to assume her enemy believed himself to be in a kill or be killed situation.  Angela had thought of attempting communication with her adversary, but decided to stun and disarm him first.    He would have no reason to hear her out otherwise.

            The possibility of her opponent's bodysuit being some kind of phaser resistant armor, also occurred to her; especially since he didn't register on her tricorder.  Angela had a natural bias against indiscriminately taking life, as well as a damned good reason to take this soldier alive. Although she had not readjusted her phaser's heavy stun setting, there was also a chance this person might not survive even a stun beam.

            Matthews had never seen a uniform like the one her quarry wore.  The sniper might be an alien, scared and alone, trying to get back to some mode of travel hidden in the cave.   Of course he could just as easily be a fearless conqueror, but there was no telling either way.  She wasn't even certain the soldier was a male.  She'd already tried to scan him once, and succeeded only in giving away her position.

            All of which left Angela leaning against a boulder, breathless and terrified.  Her fresh, crisp looking uniform had now been smeared with dirt and stained with sweat. Angela repeatedly wished the major were with her, then discovered he was.  Not physically, but Angela could hear his deep, gravelly voice in her head, telling her what to do next.  Second best to being here, Angela's mental voice whispered.

            Right then the voice of experience was admonishing her for holding one position for so long.  Matthews knew what her quarry apparently wanted, and definitely knew he'd kill to get it.  She had to find a way to stop him, if not from doing both, then at least from achieving the latter.

            Angela Matthews pushed away from the boulder and moved beyond the treeline.  She whipped out her tricorder, snapped it open and started a scan.   She glanced over the readings as she locked the device into a continuous sensor sweep; nothing.   Angela shrugged, then set the device on a stump and skulked away from it.

            Captain Matthews could still hear the major's voice, this time telling her to keep her eyes, ears, and nose open.   Watch the treeline, look into the upper branches, scan the ground.  There could be more of them, so watch your back.   Angela heard his instruction clearly, as though her grandfather was standing right next to her.   Back when she was eight, he helped her sneak up on a deer.  Angela reminded herself it was the same principle, and asked Grampa what she should do next.

            She could hear him grousing about not calling for support or better still, requesting beam-out.   A thick forest was a bad playing field to be caught alone in, especially with your life at stake.    Matthews could not, would not let this soldier escape, so beaming to safety was out of the question.   Calling for extra people to join the hunt was ruled out as well.    She would not bring down more officers to be sent back in Riker's condition, or worse.

            No, this was her party until one of several things happened.  Either she apprehended her quarry and questioned him, or Captain Picard beamed her up kicking and screaming, or the soldier killed her.   Angela hoped the major's training would keep the last from happening.

            Matthews was a good twenty meters from her tricorder when it took a direct hit.   She zeroed in on the blast's origin, dropped to her belly and crawled toward where she thought the soldier might be headed.    The enemy had drifted deeper into the rich, blue-green rainforest.   Angela has assumed he was trying to lose her in the thick undergrowth.     Now he'd apparently decided to remove his opposition before returning to the cave.

            Judging by his hit and run tactics, Angela assumed she was still tracking the same lone soldier.  However she began to feel the sniper was working from a plan.  It was foolish of him to reveal his position just to kill a tricorder, and even worse to---

            Angela felt a chill go up her spine, and rolled onto her back.  She sat up just in time to see the soldier pass by her position, a mere eight meters away and looking in the wrong direction.  Say good night, Angela thought, as she trained her phaser on him.   The black-clad soldier pivoted and fired three bolts at her.    Matthews didn't get her shot off, as she preferred to roll behind a large tree.

            Another burst of three bolts burned through the tree above her.   Angela heard the sniper run away, as she put her shoulders to wood and slid up the trunk.   She followed the soldier's footfalls away from the clearing, phaser in hand.   Searching for her quarry, Angela began thinking this guy was good---almost too good.   A little while ago she had begun hunting him; now he seemed to be stalking her.

            Captain Matthews skidded to a halt, as the trail she'd followed came to an end.  She backed up to another big, wild chakka tree, looking all around for the sniper.  Seconds ticked away, with no sign of her adversary.   As Angela slid around the trunk, she realized she'd jogged right into a trap.

            She was shocked to see him stand up a few meters away, literally popping out of the brush she'd just scanned past.   The sniper brought a heavy, deadly looking rifle to bear as Matthews raised her phaser.

            Angela could swear she saw his finger close around the trigger as she fired.