Star Trek: Genesis (Part 1)

ANOTHER EARTH

Catalog Star System HB22147
USS Constellation NCC-1017
Stardate 2258.81

Beginning Day Forty One of our survey mission in this star system. Science Officer Masada has reported the conclusion of the outer planet survey [see attachment for complete report]. Crew morale is exceptionally low, partly because of the recent loss of Lieutenant Onayemi, but more distant because of what the EBC is already calling “The Vulcan Incident.” Though I’m not sure “incident” is the word I’d use. Maybe “Massacre” or “Holocaust” would be appropriate. In any case, our expanded mandate feels more like a mercy mission than any colonization survey, though I suspect the Vulcans would be too proud to see it that way.

We’re still having trouble plotting a survey route because of this system’s weird composition. Most of the large luminous objects in the outer orbits are remarkably low density, mainly composed of molecular hydrogen and noble gases. The denser inner planets are indicated on gravitic sensors, but thanks to the distortion from the innermost world-an L-Class giant, what astronomers used to call a “Hot Jupiter”-we’re unable to get a precise fix on their orbits and positions. Three of the seven largest objects have been pinpointed within the star’s estimated habitable zone, and one has a spectral pattern suggesting a possible oxygen atmosphere. Since that seems to be a good starting point, I’ve ordered Ensign Gambrelli to move us into a standard orbit around the candidate planet to begin our first ground survey. My expectations for this system aren’t very high, but I’m always willing to be surprised.

USS Constellation Mission Log, Captain Matthew Decker

“Entering standard orbit, Sir,” Ensign Gambrelli reported, only seconds after the ship dropped out of warp. Without the distortion field from the warp drive, the Constellation was just another free-falling object hurtling through space under the tyranny of Newton’s Third Law. An array of dozens of magnetic nozzles extruded a thin spray of supercharged hydrogen blasted from Constellation’s main fusion reactors at thirteen thousand kilometers per second. Senior Navigator Horowitz had programmed their insertion maneuver to drop the ship into the gravity well as close as controllably possible to the planet’s orbital velocity; the impulse engines made up the difference in the space of about half a minute, and Constellation eased into a circular orbit several thousand kilometers above the surface.

A small fleet of automated probes immediately ejected from the launch tubes in the engineering section: four atmospheric probes and four orbitals, each programmed with a slightly different mission and designed to detect slightly different features of the planet. Constellation had arrived on the night side of the planet, so there was nothing to see through the viewscreen window. Masada’s station, however, had a more detailed image from the infrared telescopes and the first lidar spectrographs of the atmosphere and surface features. The radar survey would take more time, a few minutes at most to map the surface and oceanic features, but for now early analysis was already underway. “It reads as Class-M, Captain,” Masada said, “Sensors are picking up radio transmissions in the S- and L-bands, sounds like frequency-modulated and amplitude modulated radio signals. Recording to library computer for analysis. First probes will enter their search orbits in eight minutes, twenty seconds.”

Captain Matt Decker watched the large circular screen in front of his science officer flash into a blank wireframe graphic. Over the next twelve to sixteen hours that screen would become a detailed 3-D image of the entire planet and all notable features thereof, but only the most general information would be available in the short term.

All eight of Constellation’s probes maneuvered automatically on preprogrammed trajectories, instructed to adjust their orbits with a handful of navigational milestones that would make them most effective overall. The orbital probes, which had the loosest parameters, skimmed the edge of the atmosphere just to gage the edge of its effective surface and then hoisted themselves back into higher orbits, stabilizing at an altitude of a few hundred kilometers. Their atmospheric cousins – more torpedo-like than the orbital devices – simply power-dove through the upper layers of the atmosphere, letting compression and drag destroy their extra momentum. Once reduced to subsonic velocity, all four of these probes went into a kind of floating hover, each on an opposite side of the planet, suspended a mile or two above the surface on an antigrav generator where they could probe the terrain as it slowly rolled beneath them.

“All probes are now in position,” Masada announced, twenty minutes later as Constellation began slowly to emerge from the planet’s shadow, “We’ve got telemetry coming in.”

“Geographic analysis,” Decker asked lightly, “Any good camping grounds?”

“Coming through now, lateral sweep is almost finished. We’ll have a full map of all surface features in a few seconds.”

“Good. How’s the weather down there?”

Masada gazed into the hood of the infrared telescope and panned the viewfinder over the surface of the darkened planet, with data from the ship’s sensors combined with the thousands of megabytes of data from the probes, “Definitely Class-M, Captain. Scans confirm vegetation and animal life similar to Earth types. Large body of water, deep oceans… yeah… all around, surprisingly similar to home.”

“Hm… compositional data?”

Masada slid his chair away from the telescope to the gravitic/subspace sensor control on the end of his science console, “Probable Class-M planet, tentatively designated HB22147-C,” he announced, making this an official report from the flight recorder’s log, “Equatorial diameter, approximately twelve thousand seven hundred and fifty kilometers. Mass, five point nine one zettatons, density five point five three kilograms per cubic meter. Orbital period, twenty three point nine three hours-” Masada paused here, looked at his screen in puzzlement as the report was beginning to look entirely too familiar. “That’s not right…”

Decker had noticed it too. He came to his feet and stepped a little closer to the science console, looking over Masada’s shoulder as he began double-checking the sensor reports. Meanwhile, the alien sun had begun to rise over the disk of this new world, lighting an ever-growing blue-green crescent on the surface of this world. “Atmosphere composition?” Decker asked carefully.

“Twenty one percent oxygen, seventy eight percent nitrogen, one percent water vapor, argon, carbon dioxide and other trace gasses. Average surface temperature, three hundred and thirty seven kelvins, approximately one hundred and one point four kilopascals average pressure…” Masada now looked at his console in complete disbelief. “That can’t be right… one moment, Captain, I’ll have to run a quick diagnostic…”

But Decker wasn’t looking at the science station anymore. The rising sun had lit enough of the surface world that the coastlines of its continents were becoming visible to the naked eye, partly shrouded in a band of clouds, but in a shape at least as familiar as Masada’s sensor readings. “Horowitz… call me crazy, but does that look like Africa to you?”

By strange coincidence, Horowitz had just been thinking that. He set the navigational sensors to take a lidar sweep of the visible surface and then enhanced the image with an overlay on the hud, showing the outline of the coast even on the still-invisible night side. Here, now, a slightly garbled but perfectly legible coastline stood out on the viewscreen, not just the coast of Africa, but the outline of South America and the Caribbean Islands, of Mexico and the Gulf Coast, Florida and the North American Eastern Seaboard.

“Earth…” Horowitz looked over his shoulder in amazement, seeking confirmation – or at least a smirk to confirm an elaborate prank – from his Captain.

“Not Earth,” Decker said, “Not our Earth.”

Masada looked through the viewscreen and then threw himself back to his sensor consoles. “That’s impossible on so many levels…”

“Yeah, it’s impossible alright,” the boot of Italy and the Swiss alps slid over the horizon, “But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“Another Earth?” Gambrelli said, breathless, “A duplicate?”

Masada whistled in amazement, “An exact duplicate. I’m seeing cities, aircraft, roads, power signatures…” he paused for a moment and queried his library computer, then nodded, “Radio frequencies consistent with standard Earth languages. All the right languages in all the right places. Chicago, New York, Tampa… ”

Decker’s heart skipped a beat, “Orbital contacts?”

“I’m picking up… wait…” it would take more data than he had to get a definitive answer, so Masada decided to estimate. He directed the orbital probes to scan a higher altitude in co-orbital space around them, about where the global satellite network should have a densely packed ring of subspace and radio communications platforms linking the Earth to neighboring planets and moons and connecting population centers wirelessly with one another. When the probes failed to return conclusive data, he directed Constellation’s more powerful sensor arrays to sweep the standard parking orbits where starships and space stations should have been in evidence. All three scans reported back in a matter of seconds, a report concise enough for him to conclude, “Scans show no signs of orbiting spacecraft, satellites or manned stations, Captain. Only ground and air transport. I’m also picking up some massive carbon emissions from major population centers. Levels are consistent with the extremely widespread use of internal combustion engines at a level not seen since the late 20th century.”

“What in the-” asking the obvious question would get him nowhere. This planet could not exist – it should not exist – and yet there it was, right in front of them, like the Lost City of Atlantis floating out of the mist.

And yet, Constellation was in no way equipped to answer those questions. The small survey vessel could afford only brief surface excursions to examine areas perhaps a few square miles in diameter, and then only at the Captain’s discretion. Whatever they might find on the surface of that world would be just a momentary snapshot of a much larger picture and would probably raise more questions than it answered. For a mystery this baffling, Starfleet needed to the send the big guns. “Tatiana,” he ordered of his communications officer, “Program a coded message for Starfleet Command, Priority One. Tell them exactly what we’ve found here and request a followup mission.”

 

 

 

ALL VOLUNTEERS

Planet HB22147-C, Standard Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2260.357

– 0758 hours –

Holographic displays and scrolling graphics on the transparent monitor constituted complete information overload to anyone in the room who didn’t have a lucid, computer-like intellect. Such little difference it made, though, since those not technically savvy enough to understand the displays were not required to understand it anyway. Everyone knew this was a scientific briefing, so the unofficial protocols of a Federation starship prompted a seating arrangement to reflect this reality: the Starfleet planetology team – all of them rookies and all but two of them actually graduate students – dominated most of the first row, while the cartography and astrophysics sections dominated the remainder of this and the second row. The entire left flank of the room consisted of a cluster of communications officers with Lieutenant Uhura as center of gravity, with Lieutenant Sulu on the opposite wing, holding court with a score of sharply dressed navigators and shuttle pilots. The assorted rifraff down the middle had no particular arrangements, since they were the least relevant to this briefing; a half dozen security officers and phaser room specialists, a few curious junior engineers, a token representative from the Starfleet Press Corps, and Doctor McCoy – in the geometric center of the auditorium – acting as the sole representative of the medical department.

The senior most officers held court near the front of the room, facing all others, in a position to either conduct part of the briefing themselves or prompt input from the “audience” of officers gathered around. These eight men and women represented the operating nucleus of this particular mission, and these all orbited around the personal authority of Captan James T. Kirk. “Everyone take your seats,” the Captain announced, for the benefit of the three or four people still standing at the moment. The graphics in the holoscreen froze for a moment, snapping back to the beginning of the pre-arranged presentation programmed by Spock and Marcus for the occasion. “This briefing is primarily for the science teams and the communications sections. Tactical Section department heads, you should be taking notes too.”

“Excuse me, Captain,” Lieutenant Sulu spoke up from his territory of the briefing room, “First question, on notes. Is there any reason to expect combat action resulting from this survey?”

“Not that I know of. Why do you ask?”

One of the shuttle pilots, two seats behind and to the right of Sulu, spoke up, “I’m wondering if we’ll be doing anymore dustoff-type missions. That terrain looks pretty hostile up close.”

“Hold your questions for now. This is… well, it’s a complicated situation.”

I’ll say…” Muttered McCoy, loud enough to be heard but quiet enough not to rate serious recognition.

Kirk handed over the podium to the ship’s Chief Irritant, the one member of the Planetology team anointed with the title “Doctor” Carolyn Marcus, who took her place as if the entire universe had been waiting for her to speak. “Good morning, everyone, thank you for your patience,” she began in that infuriatingly smug manner of hers, as if the meeting could finally begin for real now that she it was her turn to speak, “First a little background to set the stage. As most of you are no doubt aware, the planet below was identified by the USS Constellation during its colonization study two years ago. The Enterprise will be the first Federation starship to examine in this planet in detail.” The first of several images appeared on the twin holoscreens, orthographic views of the Constellation on the left and the first orbital visuals of the planet on the right. From his seat near the front of the room, Captain Kirk noted with satisfaction that both images looked deceptively familiar; Constellation because it resembled an older and somewhat smaller version of the Enterprise, and the planet because even at a glance its shorelines and color patterns were nearly identical to those of Earth. Constellation hadn’t been equipped for an extended exploration of the planet; like most starships, it was assigned to take photographs, maps, samples and reports. Only a full exploration ship configured for extended voyages stood a chance to probe the mysteries of this strangest of new worlds, and that’s where Enterprise came in.

“As you can see,” Marcus went on, “Constellation’s initial observations raised eyebrows throughout the Federation. Apart from the visual evidence here,” the left screen changed to a sensor readout, a pair of spectral analysis charts of the planet’s atmosphere and lithosphere respectively, “early scans confirmed an atmosphere with ninety five percent commonality to that of Earth, with a crust and mantle structure of ninety nine percent commonality. It has nearly identical mass and dimensions as Earth, though a somewhat higher density in the upper core. The main differences are the planet’s orbital characteristics: it completes one orbit in three hundred and two days, although its rotational period is no more than ten seconds slower than that of Earth.”

Here Marcus paused, a silent cue for Commander Spock to pick up the pace on behalf of his own department that did was responsible for Enterprise’ first assessments on the scene. For the sake of expedience, Spock omitted the parts of his report that confirmed Constellation’ findings and skipped to the parts that Enterprise had found for itself since arriving here six weeks ago. “Constellation’s report indicated signs of an advanced civilization on the surface, apparently equivalent to late 20th century Earth. The report included radio signals, electric fields and signs of air and space travel. Based on these reports, our first task on the scene was to evaluate type, intelligence and sophistication of the inhabitants of the planet. Not knowing what to expect, we began with an assumption that the population may also have been a copy in some way of Earth inhabitants and attempted contact on that basis. The results…” the right screen changed to a set of aerial photographs, changing in five second intervals, apparently showing every major city on Earth, “…were quite surprising.” A choice of words that reflected the fact that every one of these photographs showed a major Terran population center lying in ruins, its buildings either imploded or knocked on their sides, bridges collapsed, roads and lots overgrown with wild vegetation no one had bothered to tame in generations.

“Our first assessment suggested the cities have been abandoned for approximately three centuries,” Spock went on, “based on the rate of growth of the vegetation and the pattern of decay in the surviving structures. This estimate seems consistent with other environmental clues, particularly weathering and certain geological indicators that have begun to destroy older manmade structures. As for the reason for abandonment, early hypothesis included some type of planetwide cataclysm, likely a viral infection or bacteriological contaminant. The lack of widespread devastation ruled out nuclear holocaust or other similar scenarios-”

“Pardon me for interrupting your bill of goods, Mister Spock,” Doctor McCoy snarled from his perch in the center of the room, strategically placed, it turned out, since at this moment he was speaking for almost the entire crew, “But aren’t we missing the big picture here? Anything could’ve destroyed the population of the planet, but we still don’t have a clue what created it in the first place!”

Doctor Marcus answered gently, “On what basis do you assume this planet was created, doctor?”

“You don’t have to be a Vulcan to see that’s the only logical explanation! What are the odds that another M-Class planet exactly like Earth would just happen to pop up in a totally alien solar system all by itself? And besides, last week the geological team found that both of the moons have a different composition from Luna, which means they didn’t form from a primordial impact against this planet. That means we’ve got two identical planets with two completely different histories. So, again, what are the odds?”

“Probability is not causation, Doctor,” Spock chided, though at the same time conceding, “Although your statement is logically valid. There is no natural phenomenon that could explain the existence of this planet, similarities and all. What’s more worrying is the fact that our findings lay in direct contradiction of the Constellation’s report, which indicated a thriving post-industrial society on the cusp of developing spaceflight technology. The changes we’ve observed could not have occurred in only two years. Hence our present hypothesis as to the calamity that devastated its population: that which created this planet in its previous form may also have precipitated its demise.”

This seemed to take Doctor Marcus by surprise, though not – apparently – because her theory was any different. Actually, Kirk thought she seemed gratified that another expert on the ship had also come to that same conclusion. “In the end,” Marcus took over, “This may lead us to a clue as to who or what created this world, and for what purpose. The possibilities are endless, as are the mysteries. But not to get distracted…”

“Indeed.” Spock moved to the next set of slides, replacing both screens neatly. This one showed a life-energy astral pattern superimposed over an orbital photograph of the devastated Gaza Strip. “Global surveys of all local population centers found the destruction was not entirely uniform. As expected, certain areas apparently weathered the cataclysm better than others, and this lead to the discovery of pockets of survivors in isolated areas. This initially lead to a support of the viral hypothesis, since the surviving populations were in areas that – as of 1990s Earth – were economically and industrially under-developed and lacked regular connection to the outside world. Our most promising areas included the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in North America, the Gaza Strip under Israeli occupation, rural areas in Indochina and the Malay Archipelago, Cuba, Haiti, and certain African regions undergoing civil war. The pattern in these regions was for less ubiquitous destruction of population centers, however…” and Spock almost cringed at the thought, “… the survivors demonstrated a marked regression towards animalistic behaviors. Primitive social skills, little or no linguistic capacity, extremely limited intelligence and an elevated aggressive response. Physical abnormalities in these populations were common, but phenotypically consistent, suggesting an evolutionary mutation into a type of bipedal apex predator.” The two slides changed now to orthographic views of two such specimens. The first, showed a tricorder scan of a scronny, clearly malnourished and totally nude male with shaggy overgrown body hair, the quintessential “cave man” of anthropological lore. The second, though, was a curiosity: only vaguely human, entirely hairless, with brown and grey spotted skin; its head was a flattened brick that housed a pair of small beady eyes and one gigantic nostril, smashed into a meaty torso between two beach-ball-sized shoulders at the base of huge powerful arms that ended in a set of disproportionately long fingers.

No one but Doctor Marcus and a handful of Spock’s science teams had even seen this image. It sent waves through the audience, and set the security men stirring. The communications sections breathed a collective sigh of disappointment, since there was no indication that such a monster would have any desire to communicate with them.

Mister Scott made his first contribution from behind the Captain’s seat, “That beastie’s not from any Earth I’d remember!”

“Quite right, Mister Scott,” Spock said, “This, then, leads to the current state of our investigation. A thorough search of the remaining population centers shows only Gaza, the Congo Region and mountainous inland of Cuba and Haiti are still populated, in this case only by the two creatures you see here, with the latter in far greater numbers and appearing to dominate the former.”

One of the communications officers – a dark-haired Orion woman who until now had been taking extremely thorough notes on a palmcomp – asked, “Is there any evidence that sapient life forms did exist here? I mean, for all we know this planet was created as a hunting ground for some kind of carnivorous creatures.”

Spock raised a brow, “A curious question, considering the existence of the ruins cannot be explained by anything other than sapient life forms…”

“I think Ensign Ayala is referring to indigenous life forms,” Lieutenant Uhura added, “I mean… well… to the extent that any organism here could be considered indigenous.”

“I understand.” Spock folded his arms and thought it over, “Ignoring the Constellation report, in the past six weeks we have seen numerous indications that some type of civilization did exist here not sooner than three hundred years ago. That suggests that even the original creators of this planet have ceased to be active in its unfolding development-”

“But we can’t ignore Constellation’s report,” Lieutenant Sulu said, “This planet was alive two years ago, and now it’s been dead for three hundred years. It could have gone through some kind of time warp, or maybe someone sped up the process just to see what would happen to them. I mean, for all we know, this could be some kind of huge sophisticated ant farm.”

Spock stood up straighter, “I’m unfamiliar with that field of agriculture, Lieutenant.”

“It’s… uh… sort of an aquarium, Sir. Usually two flat panes of glass with sand between them… and they have… well, not real, but little plastic farmhouses for the ants…”

“The point is,” Kirk rescued Sulu from his own stumbling, “The signs of civilization may have been placed here for the amusement of those predators. Like a castle in an aquarium or something like that.”

Spock frowned, “That would seem to be a highly illogical use of time and energy, constructing the facade of an entire civilization simply for the… amusement… of primitive carnivores.”

Doctor Marcus shared his frustration, but not his conclusion. “Until we know something about the intelligence that created this planet, we can’t really assume anything. For all we know, it’s a cosmic practical joke.”

Doctor McCoy snorted, “Somebody out there’s a got a hell of a sense of humor.”

“In either case, that does not explain the presence of the caveman organisms,” Spock said, “Or their relationship with the larger organisms, what the away teams have begun to call the Reavers.”

What relationship?” Kirk asked. This was news to him.

“They are genetically similar in most respects, in fact more similar to each other than humans are to chimpanzees. Furthermore, they are locally coincident and belong to the same social groupings.”

Kirk stood up slowly, “Then the Reavers aren’t hunting the cave men?”

“Based on observed behavior,” Spock confirmed, “They seem to view one another as the same species, though the cavemen demonstrate a remarkably sedentary lifestyle. For confirmation we are still awaiting direct or indirect evidence of interbreeding between the two phenotypes. There is also Ensign Chekov’s theory that the difference may simply be a matter of sexual dimorphism.”

Doctor Marcus turned an accusing eye towards Chekov, sitting quietly behind Sulu, trying not to be noticed. “You think the Reavers are the female of the species, Ensign?”

“Uh… um… yes, Ma’am.”

“Based on what?”

Chekov shrugged, “In my experience, Doctor, the female of most predator species tend to be larger and more aggressive.”

Spock raised a brow, “That would seem to suggest genetic tampering with this species, whatever their original form. The mutation may depend on the influence of a Y-chromosome.”

“Or a passive X-chromosome that became dominant somehow,” McCoy said, “In some isolated populations, certain suppressed traits have a tendency to resurface. If those traits have an evolutionary advantage, they can actually overwhelm the dominant gene.”

“Gentlemen,” Kirk stood up, feeling the briefing beginning to derail, “This is all fine speculation, but what we lack here is information. There are that one basic question we’re still no closer to answering.”

“Indeed,” Spock nodded, “The question of who manufactured this planet, and why.”

“Most importantly, how,” Marcus said, “at least, that’s what the Federation Council wants to know. Needless to say, the ability to construct entire planets to a specific design is far beyond Federation technology.”

“For now, though,” Kirk said, “we need to narrow down our priorities, solve one or two problems at a time. This planet has enough mysteries to occupy Starfleet for generations, but they didn’t send us here to solve all of them.”

Spock nodded, “In fact, the specific priorities of our mission include an examination of whatever intelligence might remain on this planet, as well as a search for the intelligence responsible for its creation.”

McCoy snarled from his spot in the center of the action, “And how do you propose we do that? Go down there and start asking the locals?”

Spock stared at McCoy, then almost as an afterthought back at Kirk, “I propose we should do exactly that, Captain.”

“They don’t seem very talkative to me, Spock.”

“No, Sir, they don’t. However,” and he raised his voice to make sure the rest of the department heads could hear, “on the assumption that some remnant of intelligent life may still exist on this planet, it should be our priority to identify and preserve such intelligence for any clues as to the history of this world and its origins. A living specimen would be ideal, of course, but written or digital records would also be of value.”

Kirk nodded, though he sensed something in Spock’s voice that told him there was probably an away mission and a considerable amount of danger in the works some time in the next twenty four hours. “What’s your plan, Spock?”

The Vulcan simply nodded, as if confirming that Kirk had guessed his intentions correctly. “Flyby scans of the Gaza Strip area show a relatively large population density of the caveman-type organisms co-mingling with a smaller group of active reavers…”

“All males, Sir,” Chekov added, still partially hiding behind Sulu, “I checked the readings myself. No females of the caveman wariety.”

“… which, if Chekov is correct, may indicate disproportionality in that particular population. If the changes are the result of viral influence or mass mutation, a pre-cataclysm population may still exist there.”

Kirk scratched his chin, “I dunno, Spock, Gaza was a pretty rough place in the 1990s… in fact wasn’t it known for having an extremely high population density?”

“In fact, it was known for having one of the highest population densities on the planet, coupled with perpetual guerilla combat against neighboring partisans and a proliferation of militant ideology. It is my belief that the high population density, coupled with the presence of armed reactionary elements and the availability of firearms may have delayed whatever fate consumed the rest of this world.”

“That’s a hell of a belief, Spock… almost a leap of faith.”

Spock raised a brow, “Faith is illogical, Captain… however, in this case, it may be all we have left.”

“I see.” Kirk turned to the department heads gathered in the room, and as he did, saw the looks of dread spread across their faces, “I know how you all feel… I won’t order anyone to go, but I will ask for volunteers. First team to find what we’re looking for might just earn themselves a nice fat promotion.”

The looks of dread faded a bit as various officers weighed the the risk of dismemberment by reavers – or having their heads bashed in by snarling ape-men-against the possibility of a jump in rank. The senior officers recognized this as an invitation to pass the offer on to the ambitious upstarts in their own departments, while the junior officers – including Chekov and Sulu – mulled it quietly in their own heads.

“All qualified volunteers should report to the Engineering Ready Room at eighteen hundred hours tomorrow,” Spock announced, “Be advised, this will be a prolonged away mission deep in the heart of potentially hostile territory. A degree of danger is to be expected.”

.

-1758 hours –

Sixty five men and women were waiting for Spock in the Ready Room by the deadline, an eclectic mix to be sure, from various departments all around the ship and all from different backgrounds. As a Starfleet tradition since the Second Romulan War, every single one of these officers and crewmen were required to be a jack of all trades and a master of one, and assigned to ship’s departments according to that one speciality in which they were uniquely distinguished. To this end, Commander Spock quickly divided them up to have the specialties more or less evenly distributed. With twenty six security officers (and nine others with advanced combat training) he split the volunteers into thirteen groups; three on each shuttle as a security force, one additional officer with a science or engineering background as operations officer, and finally, one member of Doctor Marcus’ survey team as section leader. Naturally, the Commander personally took command of the one team that lacked a third security officer, reasoning he could trust himself to do double-duty before any of his subordinates.

Mission planning went smoothly enough, considering the prevailing anxiety of the volunteers. The team leaders picked out twelve landing sites on the outskirts of the Gaza Strip, just outside the crumbling wall the Israeli Military had once erected to contain the strip’s one and a half million restless inhabitants. Once the away teams made landfall, the shuttles would provide air support, scouting the urban terrain for possible leads or threats and – if necessary – provide defensive support if the locals got a little too frisky. Each team head its own search sector, and the method of searching each was their own responsibility.

“This,” Spock reminded them as the planning session closed, “is to be a forensic examination of the region. Any artifact, any recording, any book, any painting, anything that could possibly have been created by an active civilization is to be considered evidence. Also required is DNA analysis of any locals encountered, microbial analysis of the soil and food supply, and catalogs of additional flora and fauna to compare against present Earth records. Your ultimate goal is to locate and contact any sapient life forms that may still survive in the area.”

A series of nods circled the room. By now, most of the volunteers were either wearing or wrestling their way into field jackets and equipment packs for the flight to Other Earth.

“Any questions?” Spock asked.

No one replied, save Doctor McCoy from the seat closest to Spock and the rest of the team on which he had forced himself, “I don’t suppose there’s a reason you’re planning this away mission like a military assault, Spock.”

The Vulcan frowned. “If you prefer to think of it along those terms, Doctor, then your role as the analogous battlefield medic may be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, recognize that this mission plan is simply the most logical technique available to us.”

“If you say so, Spock.”

Twenty minutes later, Enterprise’s shuttle bay thundered open behind a forcefield curtain. Artificial gravity was shut down, and one after another the twelve active shuttles drifted off their landing pads and maneuvered gracefully into open space. In standard orbit, Enterprise was in purely inertial flight, orbiting the planet only by its native momentum and the planet’s gravity; once the shuttles were clear of Enterprise, their impulse engines powered up, and mass suddenly ceased to be a factor. Within minutes they slipped gently into the upper atmosphere, held aloft only by the action of a few thrusters and a subspace field that cheated both the laws of physics and the tyranny of gravity itself.

Shuttlecraft Fourteen was the first to arrive, making a low-altitude pass over the Mediterranean sea as the sun set behind it. Mission pilot Hikaru Sulu checked their position against Enterprise’ sensor plot and raised altitude just as the coast became visible on the horizon. It hardly defied his expectations: drab, dreary, lifeless, a kind of desolation that was anything but magnificent. The cluster of ruins that had once been Other Earth’s Gaza Strip looked more like a sprawling garbage heap than the remains of an urbanized refugee zone. Even “Real Earth” Gaza never looked like this; this planet was as alien as any other world they had visited on training missions and simulations alike.

“I have a visual on our landing site,” Doctor Marcus said from the Ops station. Paradoxically, too, since technically Sulu was the Operations officer on this team. “Five kilometers due east, just behind that security wall.”

“I’ll make a low pass and scout our search area.” He fired braking thrusters just before crossing the coast and then descended to just above one hundred meters, coasting on momentum alone. At some low velocity he didn’t bother to specify, he set the sensors on full scan and swept the entire region below the shuttle, images and data relayed directly to Marcus’ station.

“Wow…” was her first response, followed moments later by “Oh wow!”

“What do you see?”

“An anomaly.”

Sulu glared at her, wondering of their illustrious science officer’s penchant for cryptic remarks hadn’t rubbed off.

“Suddenly I’m not so sure that cataclysm really happened centuries ago.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see that?” Marcus pointed through the window, where in the fading light a few isolated flashes were becoming visible, like the twinkling of sand in the sunlight. “You know what that is?”

Sulu stared, but shook his head.

“Small arms fire.”

“What, really?”

“If these people are using cordite – and I don’t see why they wouldn’t be – I don’t see it staying viable in these conditions more than a few decades.”

Sulu shrugged. “You never know. But it’s something we ought to look out for, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so.”

The landing site was up ahead, clearly marked on the heads up display on the shuttle’s canopy window. Sulu brought the ship in a slow descent towards it and started the landing lights in the passenger compartment for the away team to prepare for a potentially rough touchdown. “How long you think this will take?”

Marcus shrugged. “How long do we have?”

“We should setup the transporter modules as soon as we’re down. Statistically speaking, ninety percent of all accidents on away missions occur in the first thirty minutes after beamdown.”

“But we didn’t beam down this time. What are the stats for shuttle missions?”

“You don’t want to know.”

That’s reassuring.” She watched him work the controls for a moment and the corresponding movements of the shuttle as it descended towards pale dust. Deep down she secretly admired him for being able to maneuver this craft so gracefully; in her college days she almost had a heart attack just learning how to pilot a conventional aeroshuttle, and these heavy shuttles were three times that size.

Fitting, now that she thought about it, since the starship that contained them was one of the largest that Starfleet had ever put into space. With a crew of nearly seven hundred hundred and an arsenal of the best equipment and technology Earth science had ever developed, the Enterprise wasn’t a starship as much as it was a self-propelled flying city. Just this one ship could do the work of any five starships of any other class, no matter what that work entailed. Brand new ship with a brand new crew and a brand new Captain fresh out of the academy… “You know,” Marcus brought it up now that she had a spare moment and no one of consequence within earshot, “When I came to the Enterprise I was told I’d be working under Admiral Pike. It gave me a bit of confidence, you know? Thinking that whatever else happened, we’d have someone watching over us with a proven record, someone we could count on.”

“Things change,” Sulu said offhandedly, burying the pain inherent in that comment, “If it hadn’t been for your father, Pike would still be in charge of the Enterprise right now.”

“If it hadn’t been for my father, I never would have needed to come aboard the Enterprise.”

“Fair enough. Though much as I hate to admit it, he might have been onto something, what with the war and all.”

Marcus suddenly looked alarmed, “What war? The Klingons?”

“You haven’t heard, I take it?” Sulu sighed, “The Andorians invaded Coridan two days ago. They’ve announced they’re going to annex the north and south polar regions and part of that densely populated southwest island continent that I can’t remember the name of.”

Marcus looked incredulous, “Isn’t Coridan a Federation world? Why would they do that?”

“They can do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t violate the express will of the Federation Council. And Coridan isn’t a Federation world, technically it was under the protection of the Vulcan government.”

“And it isn’t anymore?”

Sulu looked slightly annoyed, but cultivated his patience. “There is no Vulcan government, not anymore. And even if there was, the Federation hasn’t recognized New Vulcan as a member yet.”

“So the Andorians are just stepping into a power vacuum?”

“Something like that. Actually, lots of different people have been fighting over Coridan for a hundred years, this is just the latest chapter in that whole saga.” Sulu slapped the controls and cut landing thrusters, more abruptly than might have been safe. The shuttle dropped the last five feet or so to the ground, slamming on its landing skids for the hydraulics to bear the brunt of it.

Doctor Marcus gripped the arms of her chair in an instant of panic, but Sulu went on as if nothing had happened, “The Telarites and the Bolians will probably get involved to protect their own mining interests. If we’re lucky, they’ll just race to annex any ore-bearing parts of the planet the Andorians haven’t claimed yet and draw a line in the sand.”

“And if we’re not lucky?”

“They’ll send their fleet to try and drive the Andorians out, and we’ll have a war on our hands.”

Marcus smiled, “It’s good to know our rookie Captain has such competent people under his command. All the same, though, I’d still feel more confident with an experienced commander on the bridge.”

“With all we’ve been through together, you still consider him inexperienced?” Sulu asked without looking up from his monitors, finishing the post-flight powerdown.

“Just saying. I’d feel better knowing the man responsible for keeping me alive actually knew what he was doing, right? I mean, apart from all that unpleasantness with Khan-”

“We’ve explored beyond the edge of the galaxy, stopped an invasion of blastoneuron parasites, prevented a full-scale war with the Romulans, intercepted a full-scale Gorn invasion and prevented the extinction of an entire species. I think the Captain’s picked up a pretty long resume by now.”

Marcus squinted at him, “What about his failures?”

“Those were the failures. And not just his, all of ours. We’re able to do our jobs because Captain Kirk is an excellent commander and a proven leader. And after some of the things we’ve seen the last couple of years, I think good leadership is something Starfleet could use a lot more of.

“If you say so.”

“I do say so.” Sulu unclipped his restraints and ducked into the passenger compartment, joined Buckley and Kruzman in unloading equipment from the cargo pod, “Tell you what. If Captain Kirk somehow fails to get us all killed, you have to have a drink with me when we get back to the ship.”

Marcus smiled. “That sounds like a safe bet. You’re on.”

– 2250 hours –

“Alpha Team to Enterprise, all mission teams have reached landing sites. We are beginning search phase one.”

Lieutenant Uhura answered, “Acknowledged, Alpha Team. We’ll monitor your progress from here.” This, of course, was the understatement of the day. Almost the entire bridge had been geared to support the ground effort; the engineering stations had been converted to mission control for the shuttles, along with the twin ops stations in the rear of the room that now displayed vital sign tracking of all sixty seven members of the landing party. The main viewer was ablaze with a real-time map of the Gaza Strip along with sixty seven transponder beacons, plus the locators for the thirteen shuttles and the half dozen aerial probes dropped in ahead of time to help the group coordinate their efforts.

Kirk watched the transponder signals begin to fan out, encroaching slowly into the strip in three-man formations: two security men armed with phaser rifles and one officer with a tricorder and a field kit. His main interest was on Spock’s team, the command group for the entire mission and-by design-covering the most densely populated region of the Strip.

Tying in his own intercom, Kirk asked, “Alpha team, we’ve gotten reports from other units about small arms fire within the strip…”

“I confirm, Captain,” Spock replied, “Gunfire appears sporadic, isolated pockets of activity. Indications are, its activity peaked some three hours ago and is now declining in intensity.”

Kirk raised a brow, “You mean the shooting just started?”

“Sensors showed no evidence of gunfire when we surveyed this area a week ago.”

“Then whatever’s happening now wasn’t happening when we got here.”

“Correct, Captain. Aerial surveillance is attempting to identify the gunmen, but so far we are unable to pinpoint their exact location. Tricorders have been set to scan for cordite, and we are continuing the search on foot.”

“Right. I want regular reports every six hours. Enterprise out.” Kirk closed the channel to the away team, then tapped the page on his chair to the tactical section, “Phaser room.”

“Tomlinson here.”

“Mister Tomlinson, set your number two phaser bank to a strong stun setting, planetary bombardment mode. Just incase the away teams need some extra support.”

“You’ll have it in five minutes, Captain.”

“Kirk out.”

“Multiple life forms conwerging on Charlie Team, Keptin,” Chekov was reading it off his control panel, but the same was vaguely discernible on the viewscreen.

“Any danger?” Kirk asked.

“Hard to say, Sir, but there is another group of life forms moving ahead of them, passing Charlie Team now. The first group may be pursuing them.”

“Advise Charlie Team to stay clear and continue their search. Meanwhile, continue scans of the planet surface for any signs of active technology or power signatures. Maybe somebody’s still got a ham radio or something.”

“Aye, Keptin…”

“Captain… I’m picking up a radiation surge on sensors,” Ensign Rodriguez, the acting science officer in Spock’s absence, reported from the starboard science station, “It’s in high orbit, bearing one nine eight mark fourteen.”

“I have it, Keptin,” Chekov reported a heartbeat later, “Readings show an unknown wessel has appeared at sublight speed, moving into standard orbit.”

This was all happening too fast. An away mission this size was already taxing Enterprise’s logistical limits, let alone the unwanted surprise of an uninvited guest. “Go to yellow alert, standby battlestations.”

A number of things on the Enterprise suddenly changed, even at a relatively low alert condition. The yellow alert condition prompted all nine of the ship’s phaser banks to power up to standby mode, with gun crews and operators checking their power cells and swapping out any units whose reports were even slightly out of spec. The coolant lines for the main deflector screen were opened all the way, and the capacitors for the forcefield generators were charged to maximum capacity. Though not quite at battle stations, Enterprise was now in a condition where the full force of its power and technology could be redirected in a matter of seconds to the singular task of engaging and destroying a hostile force; not prepared for a fight, but prepared to block if someone should take a swing.

After several tense minutes, Chekov reported, “The alien wessel has entered standard orbit, Keptin. Inclination forty eight degrees, apogee of two thousand kilometers.”

“Uhura, lock in on the alien ship, standard greeting and friendship messages.”

“Aye sir.”

“No intersect in our orbits,” Chekov went on, “he may not be aware of us, Sir.”

“Or he may not be interested, which is just as good… either way, keep an eye on the alien ship, I want to know the moment it blinks in our direction.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“No response yet from the other ship,” Uhura said, “Should I continue hailing?”

Kirk nodded, “Two minute intervals, standard linguicode. And alternate friendship messages with a request for identification.”

“Aye, Sir.”

And turning back to his science officer he asked immediately, “Have they scanned us?”

“No, Sir, but at this range they don’t really need to.”

“Same for them. What do you make of it?”

Rodriguez plunged her face into the scrolling lights of the sensor scope, reading telescope and optical sensor data from the ship’s medium-range sensor array. The library computer ran an analysis routine against its own memory banks even as Rodriguez ran one in her own head. Both came up with the same result, “Signatures are fully consistent with Gorn technology, but no previous record of this configuration. I show modular construction, between one hundred and three hundred thousand ton displacement. I can’t get a solid reading on its defenses, but its emission spectrum suggests some type of phase-layered ferromagnetic material.”

“Can you estimate armaments, Ensign?”

Rodriguez squinted at her monitors, “Very few fixed emplacements, but I’m detecting several remote combat vehicles with heavy armaments on board. Consistent with standard Gorn battle doctrine… except…”

“Except what?”

She looked up at the Captain and frowned, “That hull configuration is hardly optimal for combat, Sir. Structural density is low, plus a lot of surface features that look like very large hatches or doors or something of that nature. If I had to guess, I’d say this was an up-gunned freighter.”

“Alien ship has dropped something into the atmosphere, Keptin!” Chekov sounded entirely too excited for what his monitors were showing him. Kirk kept his eyes on Rodriguez and waited for her sensors catch up.

“It looks like a reentry capsule,” she reported immediately, “ballistic flight only… ablative heat shield… about twenty five tons… no life signs aboard.”

“Heading?”

“Um…” she worked her console for a few moments before the results came back, “If it follows its present heading, it will land on the western shore of Alaska, close to the Aleutian Islands. No present danger to the away team.”

“Must be Santa Claus making a delivery,” Kirk nodded, appreciating for once the novelty of an alien race whose motives were not saturated with wrathful xenophobia. On the other hand, alot of the more noteworthy academy situations were based on the worst-case scenarios dreamed up by a generation of long-dead explorers. It was distressing to think he’d spent all those years preparing for things that would never happen, or failing to prepare for things that would. “Bailey, you and Chekov monitor that ship, be sure to give it a wide berth.”

“Aye Captain.”

“Aye, Keptin!” the two officers poured themselves into the helm console now, and suddenly their workstations became a galaxy of holographics as they began programming escape maneuvers for every possible action the alien ship might take.

Satisfied, Kirk turned to the opposite corner of the bridge, “Uhura, contact Alpha Team, tell them keep their eyes peeled for any Gorn presence on the surface.”

“Yes, Sir, but… isn’t the alien capsule heading for the other side of the planet?”

Kirk smiled, “They’ve seen us, and they know we’ve seen them. If they’re smart, they’ll monitor our landing party as closely as possible without initiating contact.”

That seemed like merely a wild guess, but Uhura followed the order anyway.

“Speaking of which,” turning lastly to his science officer, “I want you to launch two standard probes, inertial guidance only. Put them in a Molniya orbit with maximum dwell time over Alaska so we can cover that area at all times.”

Rodriguez nodded and programmed the starboard probe bay. “Captain, at that altitude we won’t get very detailed readings. We’ll be able to track their movements, but…”

“That’s all we need, Ensign. We’re not out to spy on them, this is just a precaution.”

“Aye, sir…”

Three minutes later, the launch hatches on the side of the “neck” of the ship irised open, each releasing a Starfleet observation probe into space, port and starboard. Both probes accelerated away from the ship under the drive of micr-fusion thrusters, ponderously slow without the benefit of space-denting subspace fields, but quickly enough to cancel their angular velocity around the planet and launch into an extremely elliptical North-South orbit.

Thousands of kilometers away, the Gorn ship took note. Not that the commander on board had expected his counterpart to do otherwise, and like Kirk, it was a relief to discover commonality with an alien – but not overtly hostile – intelligence. With due caution, the Gorn commander waited until Enterprise was below the horizon, then released another teleport capsule, this time on a much flatter trajectory that would bounce off the atmosphere and back into space before again plunging to the ground below. It would take a few hours to arrive, but that trajectory was calculated to bring the second capsule to a landing site on the eastern shore of one of the planet’s enclosed water reservoirs, just off the beach of what humans would call “Gaza City.”

 

 

 

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

Planet HB22147-C, Gaza City
Stardate 2260.358

– 2258 hours –
“Surprisingly logical deduction,” Spock muttered to himself as he closed the communicator. It was already after nightfall, a stifling darkness in which no creature dared venture into the ruins without benefit of a tricorder and an orbiting starship to support. The only lights visible were the faint pinpricks of tricorder screens and hand lamps moving through the canyons of crumbling buildings and ancient streets, the perfect lure to attract the more daring predators, or the perfect deterrent for the more timid ones. Presently, Spock’s position on the hilltop overlooking old Rafah gave his tricorder an almost un-restricted angle on the ruins, and it only took a few seconds to chart a path through the ancient refugee camp that would take him through some likely points of interest.

A few paces in front of him, Doctor McCoy glanced over his shoulder, “What’s surprising about it? Jim’s pretty sharp when he needs to be, even when dealing with a notoriously hostile intelligence.”

“Indeed.” Truth be told, Spock never thought much of Kirk’s intellectual abilities even after some of his most brilliant turnabouts had come to save the day. Kirk’s command decisions didn’t seem to derive from intellect at all, but from instinct, his propensity to automatically default to the most logical conclusion when all other considerations failed. This, Spock found especially perplexing; it was if Kirk was making perfectly sound command decisions entirely by accident.

“Aren’t we at war with the Gorn?” asked Ensign Janice Rand, one of the three officers assigned to Alpha Team’s security detail, from her spot just behind Spock.

McCoy shook his head, “War is what happens when two governments decide to fight. With the Gorn, it’s more of a reflex action.”

“Well at least now we know what happened to this planet,” Presently, Rand hovered over the Vulcan’s shoulder with a phaser rifle in one hand and a tricorder in the other, apparently using the latter to calibrate the targeting sensors on the former; the targeting sensor on the back casing of the phaser was flashing error lights all the colors of the rainbow. The adjustments were consuming more and more of her concentration and at this point, even Spock was beginning to notice the sudden reduction of pace.

“Ensign,” Spock asked disinterestedly, “is your life support belt active right now?”

Rand suddenly looked half a foot shorter. “Oh, uh… Yes, Sir… Should I…?” she reached down for the thick utility belt wrapped around her field jacket and began to fiddle with the controls.

Before she could do anything, Spock reached back and tapped a control on the back of the rifle, and the malfunction light vanished. Rand blinked a few times in confusion until Spock explained,”That button activates the field conductor for the phaser’s umbrella.”

“The… Umbrella… Right… What?”

Patiently, professorially, Spock explained, “The EM-102 combat phaser is designed to extend the forcefield envelope into a protective umbrella slightly forward of the emitter assembly. The conductive elements in the power supply must be activated first, however, or the electrical charge from the field will adversely affect the phaser’s targeting sensors.”

“Yes, Sir. I’m… I’m sorry, Sir, I’m still getting used to the security department.”

“You’ll find many practical differences from the personnel section, Ensign. And to answer your question: our understanding of Gorn technology is severely limited, but there is very little corroborating evidence of prior Gorn involvement here. Their previous conquests have all followed a logical pattern which is not in evidence here.”

“Maybe they’re here for revenge?”

Doctor McCoy said, “Maybe they’re here for a deep-dish pizza? Who the hell knows? We don’t know the first thing about Gorn culture or Gorn psychology. We don’t even know if they have a unified government. For all we know the Gorn we fought last time were their equivalent of Khan Noonien Singh.”

“That’s a fair point… But God I hope they don’t come here.”

McCoy chuckled, “Hope for a Christmas Miracle.”

Spock glanced back at him, “A what?”

Rand smiled, “Don’t you know, Spock? It’s Christmas eve!”

“I am unfamiliar with that calendar reference, Ensign.

“Oh, uh… it’s an old Earth holiday steeped in religious imagery and commercialism. It’s mostly a celebration for children, gourmets and young lovers.”

“Ah… similar to Halloween or Valentines day.”

“Something like that.”

Starting back down the slope, Spock followed the map on the tricorder screen as if it were a computerized treasure map. Rand followed just behind him, while Ensign Wells and Ensign Gallager stayed in step just a few meters behind. As they got to the edge of the town, their formation changed, with Wells and Gallager moving in front of Spock and making “leapfrog” progression forward, each one moving to a cover position as the other moved past.

Spock flipped open his communicator and stopped just behind Wells in one narrow alley on a downward slope, “Spock to Eighteen.”

“Eighteen here,” answered Ensign Meyer in the cockpit of shuttlecraft eighteen, now hovering more than half a kilometer directly above them.

“Check on obstacles ahead. Any life forms or other hazards.”

“Looks clear for the next five hundred meters along your path. Your target building seems mostly intact, though part of the east wall has collapsed into the building next to it.”

“The one with the satellite dish on the roof, correct?”

“Affirmative.”

Spock flipped the communicator closed and batted Gallager on the shoulder, “Set your pace to five hundred meters and then regroup. Move out.”

Gallager moved forward, passing Wells on the way and then crouching a position using part of a rubble pile as cover from whatever may have been ahead. As soon as he stopped, Wells advanced behind him – as did Spock and Rand just behind – until Wells passed Gallager and stopped at another position still farther ahead. Slow as it seemed, Spock estimated that at their present pace they would arrive at the first building in twelve point nine minutes.

So far – uninvited guests notwithstanding – everything was going exactly to plan.

Stardate 2260.365
– 0431 hours –

Echo Team, location in Grid 17, day eight of survey mission. Ensign Kevin T. Riley reporting.

Nothing to report.

I’ve just stumbled on the corpse of a humanoid male. About fifteen years of age. Partially dressed in some kind of khaki outfit that looks like a army fatigues patched together from four different sources. There is an old-style Kalashnikov rifle lying on the ground nearby. It doesn’t have a battery pack, so I’m assuming this is a powder and gas-operated version. It must be the source of the cordite traces we came here looking for. The corpse is mangled, partially crushed, but I’m not sure by what. In the condition it’s in now this kid couldn’t possibly have gotten here under his own power. I’m a little wierded out by the fact that this corpse isn’t wearing any pants. I’m documenting the scene with spatial and photographic analysis for forensic reconstruction of the-

Wait…

Tricorder just picked up a life form reading. Five meters away. Is there someone else here? Hello? What the f-

Ensign Riley did not completely see the thing that was rushing towards him in the pale light of dawn. He did feel it, though, as a curled up fist the size of a pumpkin slammed into his chest and knocked him on his ass some ten feet to the other side of the room. As it moved again it passed through a spot where sunlight trickled through a crack in the wall and Riley was able to see its outline. His first impression was that it was enormous; if it wasn’t for the forcefield from his life support belt that fist would have crushed most of his ribcage. But that brief glimpse of the creature’s shape triggered synapses in his brain that materialized the rest of it, like a transporter beam assembling a lone passenger from a particle stream, and he recognized the oversized arms and shoulders and relatively scronny legs to be that of an Other-Earth Reaver, that type of omnivorous apex predator that – Spock had warned them all – was an incredibly violent yet less-than-proficient killer.

Instinct handled the rest from here, the basic fight or flight reaction universal to every organism that had ever harbored a desire to not be eaten: Riley set a course for the nearest hole in the wall and pounded his feet towards it like a rabbit diving for a hole.

The reaver followed him, waving its gigantic arms dementedly like a bird flapping its wings out of synch. It was shockingly fast for something so bulky, but to no avail, as the hundred and sixty pound Irishman slipped easily through the crack in the wall. Well not exactly easily; something snagged a corner of his uniform he emerged through the crack without his pants. He landed on his face with his legs in the air, flopping in the dust.

The first sound he heard was the sound of Ensign Torens exploding into belly laughs. The second sound was a mortifying crash as the three hundred and sixty pound predator crashed into the wall behind him and thrust one arm through the opening with a bone-chilling snarl. That arm was almost as wide as Riley’s entire torso, each spindly finger as long as his forearm.

Torens was still laughing, but now more from shock and surprise than humor. Petty Officer McCarthy said something unintelligible, and Ensign Doyle screamed like the leading women in old horror movies.

Despite the pain of his face-vault, Riley still had the wherewithal to reach for his phaser, theoretically still clipped to his belt on his uniform trousers. But the phaser was gone, as was the belt and trousers; all three were now dangling on the end of one of the Reaver’s flailing digits, a tangled mass of shredded fabric and tumbling equipment that somehow managed to stay together.

Riley grabbed the belt before he could think not to; the Reaver snatched its arm back with such force that it almost dragged him back through the hole in the wall with it. The buckle snapped against the concrete and the phaser, tricorder and communicator all spun into the air in different directions and clattered to the ground.

Another snarl and a crash against the wall and a three-foot section of concrete exploded into the alley, followed by the Reaver’s opposite arm. McCarthy fumbled with his equipment belt in a panic before aiming his tricorder and pressing what – had he drawn a phaser like he intended – would have been the trigger until he tripped over a hysterical Doyle and landed on his shoulders behind her. Torens scooped up his phaser rifle and leaned into the opening, just in time to be plunged into oblivion as the Reaver smashed a section of the wall next to him and buried him in half a ton of reinforced concrete.

Riley found his communicator first, then fiddled through the rubble until he found his phaser. He snapped the weapon to its stun setting just as one last blow shattered the wall in front of him, brought the phaser to bear as the Reaver vaulted into the alley. He saw the dot from the sight beam appear over the target before he really knew what the target was, and as the beast lunged at him he squeezed the trigger.

For an instant the Reaver vanished behind the crackling blue flash of a phaser beam, and for a horrifying second Riley thought he had accidentally vaporized the poor beast. But as his finger relaxed, the creature was still there, swinging its arms in the air in front of it, still very conscious if the growing intensity of its snarls were any indication. After a short disorienting moment it occurred to Riley that this thing was probably too big for his phaser to stun it; at this point he collapsed into a mass of panic, scrambled to his feet, and shot down the alley like a rocket on twin plumes of terror. Predictably the Reaver followed, snarling after him, swaying oafishly with its its massive arms slapping the walls every step it took.

McCarthy scooted to the side just in time to avoid being stepped on by the Riley as he passed him. Then he scooted aside again as the Reaver stomped past. A few meters ahead the alley opened into an ancient debris-strewn courtyard. Riley looked around for anything that might provide an obstacle; he set his sights on a narrow doorway off to one side, and made exactly one step in that direction before something caught his foot and he bellyflopped painfully on the bare concrete. Just paces behind him the Reaver picked up speed, screaming balefully as it went…

And it ran right past him without slowing down. Both of its arms were hanging limp by its sides, fingers actually dragging in the dust as it ran/swayed ahead, and now that he had a moment to think about it, its primal calls sounded more pained than angry. And as the creature came to the end of the courtyard – still making no obvious effort to slow down – it ran head-first into a concrete wall and tumbled unconscious onto its back.

Riley clambered to his feet and picked up his phaser. He thought about stunning it again to be safe, but not wanting to actually kill the thing he decided against it. At this point the rush of adrenaline finally wore off and Riley became aware of three things: first, that the courtyard he was standing in was completely covered with relatively fresh carcasses, most of them stripped to the bone, plus a few mounds of dung piled up in the corners. Second, that a distant howling of other creatures was growing steadily closer as this beasts’ family raced to its aid, which made sense since this courtyard-evidently-must have been their nest. And third, possibly most seriously, that his pants were missing and his boxers were soaked in a warm yellow liquid that he seriously hoped was rainwater.

“What in the cosmic hell was that all about?!” McCarthy asked, running after him with his tricorder in hand.

“I was just checking out a corpse in that building,” Riley said, catching his breath, “Then that blasted thing came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass!”

McCarthy jogged past Riley, knelt down next to the Reaver and popped the medical scan head out of its slot on the side of the tricorder. “Blunt force trauma, skeletal damage… what the hell did you do to this thing?”

“I stunned it, but it didn’t work for some reason.”

“I’ll say. You shot it in the arms.”

“Oh…” then Riley thought about this and his eyebrows arched, “Oh! Right, because these things use their arms to balance at high speed.”

McCarthy nodded. “Probably panicked.”

“Well, it doesn’t know about phasers, it must have thought I’d poisoned it or something.”

“I wasn’t talking about the Reaver, genius.”

“Oh…”

“Why didn’t you just shoot it again?”

“Hell, I dunno.” Riley sighed, partly for the fate of the Reaver but also for the demise of his favorite uniform slacks. “Anyway, good news for us, right? We’ve finally got a live specimen for Mister Spock.”

“I guess so, yeah… where’s the kit?”

“Torens had it.” Riley looked back to the alley and a pile of crushed concrete under which the still form of Ensign Torens had moments ago been buried alive. “Hey Torens!”

“Torens!” McCarthy shouted, “You okay?”

From somewhere below the rubble, in a low Klingonish growl, Torens managed to utter back, “I hate you, Riley!”

“Yeah, he’s fine.” McCarthy snapped open his communicator and tapped in Enterprise’ monitoring frequency. “Echo Team to Enterprise. McCarthy here.”

“Go ahead, Echo Team,” Uhura answered from orbit.

“Just had a close encounter of the wild kind. We’ve got a Reaver specimen here that might need some medical attention, and I think our science officer needs an ice pack.”

“Acknowledged, Echo Team… indigenous life forms are closing on your position, collect all equipment and specimens and standby for transport.”

“Give us thirty seconds. McCarthy out.” he flipped the communicator closed, then turned to Riley with a grin, “Cheer up, Ensign, you’re not the first man in Starfleet to piss yourself on an away mission. You’re just the first to have it documented in a ground-team log entry.”

Riley smiled like this was the most charming thing anyone had ever said to him and replied, “You’re a bastard.”

“No I’m not, I just really hate you.”

Riley sighed.

“C’mon, let’s pack up so they beam us over to the camp.”

– 0455 hours –

It didn’t seem that Captain Kirk had actually bothered to decorate his own quarters. Lieutenant Uhura didn’t know what to make of this, whether as a strike against or for him, although in fairness it was only by pure force of will that she had managed to customize even her own quarters after the Vulcan Incident at the fleetwide pandemonium that followed. Ensign Chekov and Lieutenant Bailey, on the other hand, hadn’t even had time to unpack, and Lieutenant Scott had been living out of a suitcase so long he’d basically forgotten how.

This eclectic mixture of opinion provided a seventh impression of the Captain’s mindset that only reinforced the previous six: he was a man who didn’t seem to plan anything, even when he was in complete control of the situation. Which all in all was consistent with the spirit of this impromptu and almost certainly clandestine meeting in his quarters, in the wee hours of the morning when only the graveyard shift was on watch and the ship’s civilian contingent wasn’t likely to be encountered accidentally.

All four officers took seats around the table in the middle of the Captain’s office, and once they were settled, Kirk took the most official part of the business out of the way first. “Bailey. Any changes from our visitors?”

Bailey straightened up and reported, “Their teleporter landed on one of the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. It’s difficult to tell what they’re doing down there, but we’re tracking twenty to thirty individuals fanning out in what looks like a search pattern around the landing site. Rodriguez thinks they’re focussing their attention on coastal areas, close to the water’s edge. Might be surveying local aquatic life.”

“Any response to our hails?” Kirk turned his attention to Uhura.

“None. I’m sure they’re receiving, but so far they’ve given no reply.”

Next, the Captain turned to his newly-anointed chief engineer, “What’s your analysis of the Gorn ship, Mister Scott?”

“Surprising, Captain. They use alot of the same biomechanical technology as the Gorn we encountered last year, but the similarities end there. It’s beyond the basic hull configuration – which, by the way, is a lot more efficient than the designs we’ve seen. They have a very different sensor and propulsive setup in that ship, some odd thermal management systems, some new equipment I can’t begin to identify.”

Kirk raised a brow, “You think it’s a more advanced faction?”

“I wouldn’t say more advanced. The technology is the same, just more refined, more sophisticated. It’s like they’re a more expensive version of the same product line.”

Chekov nodded, “There are many different types of Gorn, maybe there are many different types of ships?”

“I’ve been wondering about that,” Bailey drummed his fingers on the table, “You normally don’t see that kind of biodiversity in a single species, even the ones who do tinker with genetics. I mean, even the Suliban follow a baseline phenotype no matter how much they’re enhanced. I’d bet my pilot’s license that most of the Gorn we’ve encountered are actually a more primitive species uplifted to intelligence as proxy warriors. Like, the Gorn equivalent of chimpanzees.”

“If that’s true,” Chekov said, “Our fight last year might have inwolved a very small faction of the Gorn species. Maybe even renegades?”

“Or it could have been a girl scout troop for all we now. We’ll keep an eye on them for now, but speculation gets us nowhere.” Kirk finally took his seat at the table himself and, anxiously, waded knee-deep into the purpose of this meeting, “Uhura… Are we at war with the Klingons yet?”

Uhura was both surprised and bothered by this question. Actually, everyone on the ship had been bothered by this same question ever since the circumstances of the creation and destruction of the USS Vengeance came to light. The Klingons had been understandably furious, and the Federation’s blustering response hadn’t made matters any better. But in spite of the ratcheting tensions, in spite of maneuvers and actions and counter-actions all through disputed space, the Klingon Empire still refused to make the first move. “Last reports suggested some unusual fleet movements in the Gamma Hydra sector,” Uhura said, “But nothing provocative. As usual, they seem restless, but so far they’re behaving themselves.”

“Am I imagining things, or is that behavior completely at odds with absolutely everything we know about Klingons?”

“What do you mean?”

Scotty picked up the subtext and nodded agreeably, “The Klingons are a warrior race. They value strength and viciousness and have few other virtues except for their ability to copy other people’s technology.”

“And they never forgive offenses,” Chekov added, “There is an old Klingon proverb: ‘Revenge is dish best served cold.'”

Kirk flinched, “I thought that was a French proverb?”

“Pashtun, actually,” Uhura said. Then something else occurred to her and she added, “Which… Well, makes a lot of sense, now that I think about it, since many Klingon cultures have so much in common with Pashtunwali… Maybe there’s your answer, Captain?”

“I don’t think I follow…”

“Just a minute ago you were saying the Klingons are a warrior race, right? But there are subgroups of humans on Earth that have similar cultures, a proud warrior tradition that dates back at least as long. If some Pashtun tribesmen had discovered warp drive in the twenty first century, the Vulcans would have thought we were a warrior race.”

“As if a bunch of Afghan nomads could discover the secrets of faster-than-light travel,” Bailey said.

Kirk raised a brow, “Well then, how did the Klingons do it? I kind of see Uhura’s point, the Klingons probably aren’t a monolithic culture. We sure as hell aren’t.”

“It could be that the warrior class in the Klingon Empire is spoiling for a fight,” Uhura added, “But the reins of government are controlled by a more moderate bloc. Or maybe even less than that… Could be a subversive faction within the government that’s secretly trying to prevent a war.”

“A Klingon bizzaro Admiral Marcus.”

“Something like that.”

Scotty shrugged, “Am I hearing an echo in here? Are we really about to decide that the Gorn and the Klingons – two hostile species that keep trying to kill us – oh, they’re really not so bad once you get to know them!”

“Once again, Scotty, neither are we. When I think about somebody like Admiral Marcus being the head of Sol Fleet…” Kirk shook his head, “I think this is more about people than governments. I think we’re being dragged down a rabbit hole by a handful of psychopaths that just happen to be on opposite sides of a border. I think that’s been the root of a lot of our problems lately.”

“You think Starfleet’s being run by a bunch of dangerous maniacs?” Bailey asked.

Kirk shrugged, “I think the universe is run by dangerous maniacs. I think if you really dig deep enough all of the major wars and conflicts of history mainly boil down to a bunch of crazy people telling everyone else what to do.”

Scott straightened up suddenly, “You’re not exactly a picture of mental health yourself, Captain.”

“Start worrying if I ever try to start a war with the Klingons. Besides, I’ve got Spock to keep me grounded if I ever get carried away.”

Bailey snorted, “And who the hell’s gonna keep him grounded?”

Lieutenant Uhura cleared her throat. Bailey shot her a glance and then quietly retracted the question.

“Keptin,” Chekov interrupted, “How would we make that work to our adwantage? If the problem being poor leadership all around…”

“People who serve under crappy leaders usually realize it when they do. I figure we can use that to our advantage. Not turning people against their own commanders, but it would be enough to get a little extra breathing room, a little more information. I mean, think about if, if the average Klingon isn’t looking forward to war, you could get him to tell you how to avoid the ones who are.”

Bailey rolled his eyes. “Because the Gorn are really gonna appreciate us having secret conversations with their armies of trained monkeys, right?”

 

 

THEORY

Planet HB22147-C, Gaza Strip
Stardate 2260.365

– 1120 hours –

The ground teams had setup transport sites in a convenient locale near the Rafah crossing, within short walking distance of most of the search teams and strategically close to Alpha Team’s landing site. Since then the camp had mushroomed into a shanty town of collapsible aluminum huts that made up the field lab complex, the scientific mecca for the away team to pool all of their findings and samples for analysis and decontamination before shipping them back to Enterprise for more detailed study.

For an all-volunteer team, Spock found their industriousness quite gratifying. Over the last three or four days he had actually started to grow disheartened from the slow progress of his own search, but stepping into the anthropology lab/hut for the first time he was struck with the impression that someone had given the ground teams the false impression that they were collecting artifacts for the world’s biggest museum. The shelves stretched from wall to wall, stacked so high the supervisors had to use stepstools to reach the top levels now, with literally thousands of items tagged and entombed in hermetically sealed containers having been scanned examined tested and tried by every instrument the athropology team had at their disposal. He could only see the closest items through the clear plastic containers: children’s dolls, books, handheld video games, posters, tools, cassette tapes, compact disks, and an astonishing collection of cellular phones.

Lieutenant York was fiddling with one of those phones when Spock came in, and almost seemed startled by the Vulcan’s arrival, perhaps under the impression that being caught fiddling with an ancient device like this would somehow offend Spock’s sensibilities. “Commander… uh… good to see you. Welcome… and you too Doctor,” he added abruptly as Doctor McCoy came into the hut behind him.

Spock excused his awkwardness and spared him the trouble of having to compose himself. “Is that a cellular handset, Lieutenant?”

York nodded and handed it over, and now it was Spock’s turn to fiddle. “Actually, it’s a pre-paid satellite phone. An old-world precursor to our communicators. Nobody at the time knew what a huge precedent this was.” York said this almost nostalgically, as if he was secretly channeling the sensibilities of that forgotten era through his supernatural historian powers. “According to the cultural computer, Palestinian youths made extremely wide use of cell phones for social networking, as did militants, politicians, even policemen. Constant warfare with neighboring factions basically shattered their communications infrastructure and forced them all to improvise. That’s lucky for us, because all of these old phones used EEPROMs to store data in a non-volatile state.”

“Which means it’s still readable after all this time,” Spock said, remembering Earth’s technical history. “Fortuitous.”

“Tell me about it.”

“How many of these phones do you have, Mister York?”

“So far we’ve collected a little over forty thousand, and about half of them we beamed back to Enterprise already. Most of it’s just routing information, but the real valuable stuff is multimedia: text messages, audio and visual recordings. There’s also plenty of books, journals, what looks like a virus war between rival Zionist and Jihadist websites, some doodles and sketches on paper and cardboard, and a handful of videotapes shot on old-style VHS. We also found one extreme curiosity.” York gestured for Spock and McCoy to follow him to the back of the hut, through rows and rows of artifacts and objects harkening back to a long-dead culture. In one corner of the hut there sat an object sitting on a small examination table, closed off in a stasis chamber to suspend any chemical reactions in the object without the damaging effects of freezing or desiccation. “This is what I called you about, Sir,” York said, gesturing to a yellowed and brittle but otherwise mostly intact newspaper, “It’s dated 5 November 2001. Look at the headline.”

Spock pulled out his tricorder and let the system translate from Arabic into Vulcan. But before the translation was even finished, the photograph on the cover caught his eye, and he knew what to expect before the words even came through. “Judgement Day: Repent of your Sins.”

McCoy snorted, “Of all the superstitious dolts…”

“An under-developed corner of an under-developed world. What do you expect, Doctor?”

“I’d expect a little optimism, not self-recrimination. Then again I suppose when this article was written they were probably past that point.”

York nodded, vaguely sympathetic to the photographer who – having somehow snapped a photograph of a reaver tearing the hood off a pickup truck to the extreme horror of its occupants – must have thought the same thing. “Based on some of the content from the cell phones, it seems that these people believed the cataclysm was a sign from God that the world was about to end. It drove the rapid formation of an apocalyptic cult who believed they would be spared if they devoted themselves to religious purity before it was too late. They became rabid isolationists, sealing their borders from the outside world and imposing a strict religious code.”

Spock nodded. “If the reaver mutation is caused by a type of pathogen, then an isolationist strategy would be the most logical choice.”

If they did it for a logical reason, Spock,” McCoy said, “That’s just religious mania disguised as a survival strategy.”

“But it didn’t work,” York went on, “Based on the cellular videos, the mutations continued for a number of years. The isolationists lost control pretty quickly and the community split up into a collection of small armed bands.”

“What did the paper say about the international response?” McCoy asked.

“It’s hard to separate fact from propaganda,” York said, “One editorial blamed it on a conspiracy of Jewish scientists, two letters claimed it was an alien invasion. The main article accused the United States, pointing out the fact that the reavers were first reported in the American Northwest.”

“Nothing more recent?” Spock asked.

“Well, that’s just it: there are no mass media sources after 2003, just text messages forwarded around by the isolationists and some angsty teenagers with dark senses of humor. Most of that information comes from a few thousand handsets that were reconfigured to operate in a peer-to-peer mode using low-power transceivers as a relay. As near as we can tell, all the phones reconfigured to operate in that way had much later activity logs, some as late as 2014.”

“I see…”

“But Commander, there’s something really weird going on here.”

Spock raised a brow, “Define ‘weird.'”

“The field teams did standard workup on all of these artifacts, tested for age, wear, radioactivity, and so on. They found a discrepancy here. The average age of most wooden components is about three hundred years, but the average age of the electronics, the books, the posters, most of these are less than sixty years old. Now, that’s consistent with our findings of these phones, based on proton resonance scans of their batteries and memory circuits. One device I profiled this morning looked like its battery had been discharged no later than twenty years ago.”

“Fascinating.” Spock looked at the newspaper again and let the tricorder translate the rest of the front page. Then it occurred to him that the field teams had probably already done this, so he turned to York again, “Have you scanned a transcript into the library computer?”

“Of course, Sir. Should be available through the Enterprise. By the way, we’ve had to beam down another twenty specialists to keep up with the load. That puts us at two hundred and sixty on site.”

“Your point Lieutenant?”

“Well…” York looked down and studied his feet for a moment, then glanced up at Spock sheepishly, “Aren’t you worried about the evacuation limit, Sir? I mean, two hundred and sixty would just barely fit into the shuttles…”

“The evacuation limit for this mission, Ensign, including evacuation transport capacity, is three hundred and ninety. There are also twelve un-used shuttlecraft still aboard the ship.”

York nodded, “Still… don’t you think it’s kind of reckless to have almost a third of the crew planetside with that Gorn ship in orbit?”

McCoy raised a brow. “Stop being coy, Lieutenant, and say what’s on your damn mind.”

York sighed, “I just think someone… perhaps you, Sir… should mention it to the Captain. You know, just in case.”

“Just in case the Captain is unaware that having a third of his crew on an away mission with an alien ship in co-local space is potentially hazardous?” Spock asked, stone faced.

“Well…”

“I believe, Lieutenant, that Captain Kirk may anticipate and mitigate potential hazards just as effectively without the benefit of your valuable command experience.”

“Yes, Sir,” York sagged and pretended to have something really important to do with his tricorder, “I’ll have that transcript available for you if you need it, Sir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Spock stepped around McCoy and strode out of the tent like a tropical storm passing through an island chain. McCoy followed, rudderless, not sure where Spock was going and not really caring except for that nagging sensation that had consumed him for the past hour or more than somebody needed to keep on eye on that green-blooded hobgoblin before he volunteered the away team for something even more irritating than an extended ground mission.

“Spock!” McCoy caught up with him just beyond the doorway and sidled up to his elbow in a hushed voice, “You hear that back there?”

Spock nodded. “The discrepancy bothers me. Radiometric dating should be consistent with all-”

“I’m not talking about the damn analysis. I’m talking about a pattern of morale. It’s not just Lieutenant York, there’s talk all over this camp and back on the ship.”

“I have always noticed a certain abundance of irrelevancy in human speech…”

“It’s more than just chatter,” McCoy’s voice raised a little in irritation, “We’ve got officers questioning the Captain’s abilities, questioning his experience, questioning his judgement, hell even questioning his dedication to the fleet. A while ago I had to treat a petty officer for a snake bite; he commented that he wasn’t worried about dying, because he’s sure they’d just give his son command of a starship right out of high school.”

Spock slowed his pace and glared at the doctor, “General disdain for an authority figure is neither unprecedented or unhealthy, especially among humans. In fact, it seems to be one of Captain Kirk’s most useful traits.”

“You may be right. But disdain for authority can lead to an outright challenge. A captain on a starship sometimes needs to make difficult decisions. Now what happens if Jim Kirk has to order a hundred men to their deaths to save the ship?”

“Your concern is logical, Doctor,” Spock paused a moment and faced him, “For the time being, if you would keep me informed of any further deviations from what you theorize to be ‘normal’ morale conditions…”

“What I theorize?”

“It bears mentioning, Doctor, that your experience on a starship is as limited as the Captain’s. Having said that, no sarship in history has ever attempted a deep space mission of such long duration before. We may both find the next five years to be… Enlightening.”

Several huts down, Spock found his way to the forensic field lab, the largest compound in the camp with four tents adjacent to one another through sealed tubes reinforced with force fields. The main tent that held the entrance had the same chaotic arrangement of specimens, except in this case most of the containers were filled with old body parts – bones, tissue samples, hair, teeth – along with collection slides, fragments of clothing, utensils, shoes, bottles and food containers. Spock didn’t meet anyone here, the DNA and tissue analysis was being fed directly to the library computer to be collated into something coherent for the final report. Instead, he made his way straight through the building to the door on the opposite side and stepped into the next hut, a kind of triage area that had been setup for living samples – preferably sapient life forms – but had been otherwise completely un-used until this morning.

Doctor Ramsi Ayash held vigil here by himself, along with a single enlisted officer with a phaser, half asleep on a folding chair. The Reaver was sedated and restrained in a tractor field in the middle of the room, hovering some two and a half feet above an examination table that in the mean time held a small wedge-shaped device that made intermittent high pitched clicking sounds. This was Doctor McCoy’s arena, and so Spock let him do the honors. “Morning, Ramsi,” McCoy said as he took his place in front of Spock.

Ayash answered with his thin Arabic accent, “Have I got a patient for you! That navigator… what is name… Chekov, no? I have scored point for his theory.”

McCoy smiled, “You confirmed this is female?”

“Double X chromosome, it is female. And I am just finishing photosection now. Those enormous shoulders there,” Ayash pointed to the gigantic mounds that formed the base of this creature’s equally gigantic arms, “They are deformed pectoral formations. You see this?” he pointed to something on the top corner of the “shoulders,” something that Ensign Sulu had once compared to the horns on a samurai’s shoulder armor. “This is mamary gland. Full functional, not vestigial or malformed. It having merged with shoulder muscles into single massive formation.”

Spock said, “Would these creatures classify as true mammals?”

“It classify is true humans. This polymorphism is genetic mutation of some sort. This,” he pointed to the shoulders again, “And this,” to the arms and the long fingers, “and even this,” to the squashed head and distorted remnant of a face, “this tissue is all malignancy, all the way to bone structure. I estimate seventy percent of the reaver’s mass is actually cancer tissue.”

McCoy looked at the creature in astonishment, “The thing is a walking tumor…”

“Mutation is a consequence of re-sequencing process, whatever process was used. DNA molecules are having normal structure and everything is blueberry pie. And then there is this,” Ayash waved both of them over to a computer console against the side wall. A display there – what he was working on when they came in – showed an extreme close-up, probably nanoscale, of one of the Reaver’s cells. Spock saw that the cell was in the process of undergoing perfectly normal division, with chromosomes dividing up along the spindle body, ready to separate into two new bodies. But at the critical moment, the cell seemed to reverse course; the spindle collapsed, and the otherwise circular body suddenly exploded into a shape like a mediaeval mace, spearing any nearby cells with its barbs. Almost immediately, the cell collapsed into itself as a shriveled mass of protoplasm, but the cells that had been around it all began to fizz and bubble like alkaseltzer tablets, then expanded, then quickly divided and expanded again.

“Fascinating…”

“What the hell could cause that?”

“I have not the foggiest. As I say, DNA replicates normally and everything is blueberry pie. Then suddenly the cell attacks neighbors, they turning cancerous, they do the same to neighbors, and not so blueberry pie. I have theory, but it is… strange, no?”

Any theory is valid at this point, Doctor,” Spock said.

Ayash nodded in agreement. “This effect. It reminding me of experiment on Mars colony, say, forty years ago. Doctor Isaac Soong using transporter system to replicate organic tissues…”

“The bio-replicator experiment.” Spock nodded, remembering himself, “Doctor Soong attempted to use a transporter system to dub the pattern of a living organism onto a mass of inert material with the goal of creating a perfect copy. Initial tests showed promising results, but his first attempt with a live animal subject caused severe disruption of the duplicate’s genome.”

“Even that was different,” McCoy said, “the duplicate lab mouse lived for thirty eight seconds before it… well, exploded. It didn’t mutate into some kind of crazy supermouse.”

“Regardless,” Spock said thoughtfully, “the analysis of the creature’s cell structure did yield similar results.”

McCoy looked at Spock, then looked at Ayash, “You’re saying this creature – this person – was replicated?”

Ayash grinned, “Doctor, this entire planet having been replicated, no? Why not the people too?”

“The principal is sound, doctor,” Spock said, “Given proper materials, a sufficiently immense replication matrix could allow for the duplication of an object the size of a planet. Indeed, duplication of massive structures may already be possible with existing technology. It is the duplication of details – organisms, geologies, cities, cultures – that requires more precision.”

“Apparently too much precision since the entire civilization got some kind of…” McCoy looked at the Reaver, “Xenoforming breast cancer.”

“It evidently lasted long enough for this culture to develop along similar Earth-like norms.”

“Well…” McCoy thought for a moment, “The industrial fabricators on the Enterprise are the size of a grain silo and they produce finished products maybe two meters on a side. What kind of machine could have built a planet? Something that massive moving through space, we would have seen it from Earth.”

“Indeed.” Spock looked at the recording of the cell-burst play through again and studied the more detailed sensor notation scrolling on an adjacent screen. Which, McCoy had learned by now, pretty much left him off in his own little world until that analytical mind of his could be bothered with the more mundane effort of carrying a conversation.

McCoy turned his attention back to the Reaver, still held aloft in the tractor field. “Can I ask you something, Ramsi?”

Doctor Ayash said, “You just did, Leonard.”

“Why didn’t you volunteer for the search mission? I thought you grew up in Gaza City.”

Ayash shrugged, “Gaza City today is not Gaza City of 20th century. And Gaza City of 20th century is not Gaza City of the Other Earth.”

“Well, sure, but aren’t you the least bit curious?”

“That is why we have history books, no? Besides, if I was that curious about home town, I would be tourbus operator, not Starfleet Consultant.”

“Fair enough.”

“I am curious about this one, though,” Ayash gestured at the Reaver, “I sit and I think, if this planet is replication of Earth, then perhaps this creature is mutation of someone I know.” he grinned, “This could be my mutant duplicate sister, no? She must having better luck on this world than on real one.”

Spock glanced back from the computer console, seemed to think about something, then turned back to his work.

McCoy snorted, “If you can call it luck.”

“Oh, I forgetting to tell you. Photosection of pelvic region turn up the good news. This Reaver being two weeks pregnant.”

“Oh, wow.” McCoy looked at the creature and grimaced, “The male’s sex drive must have mutated to match.”

“Not at all. I have profiled several corpses recovered from city center. Fifteen males, all dying from internal injuries. They being crushed while mating. And mutilated and partially eaten afterwards, so probably not consensual on the male end. After what happening to Ensign Riley, I am recommending male team members use much caution from now on.”

“What did happen to Ensign Riley?” Spock asked.

“He was attacked by this young lady here. I have not mentioned it to him, but his tricorder recorded the reaver’s calculated attempt to disrobe him. I suspect the young woman probably would have stimulated his… er… anatomy somehow, forced a mating, then following normal behavior, eaten his intestines to prevent other females doing the same.”

“Reminds me of my ex wife.” McCoy sighed and moved back over next to his remarkably unperturbed companion, “Spock, I’ve got a sudden urge to leave this planet. Will you still need me down here?”

“No,” Spock said tersely. Then after a moment added, “When you return to the Enterprise, bring the creature with you. You can conduct a more thorough examination using the ship’s xenobiology lab.”

“I’m not sure an examination would help at this point until we know how this thing was created in the first place.” McCoy said, “And I’m not convinced it was replicated either.”

Spock looked up curiously. So did Ayash.

“Think about our fabricators. They can’t create things out of thin air, they have to have raw materials to work with first. If this planet was created, it had to have been created from something, and the easiest way to do that is if your base material is chemically similar to your desired product. Now, what if this creature here was an indigenous form of life transformed into something not-so-indigenous? Its original genome might still be recoverable somewhere beneath all that programming.”

“That is a leap of speculation, Doctor, but it is at least as plausible as any other hypothesis.”

McCoy nodded, “Well I’ll leave it up to you to find the answer, Spock, I’m a doctor not a detective…”

“Doctor Ayash,” Spock stood up slowly and pointed at the monitor, focussing his attention on something he had been looking at for the past minute or more, “Do you recognize that?”

Ayash looked over Spock’s shoulder, as did McCoy once he decided not to leave right this minute (and fully convinced he was about to regret it).

“If I did not know better,” Ayash said, “I would say that is hearing aid.”

“Hearing aid?” McCoy leaned closer, staring slack jawed.

“Hearing loss was widespread in the local population,” Spock said, “A consequence of constant high-speed flybys by military aircraft. The problem primarily affected children.”

“Then this creature was probably child during Israeli occupation…” Ayash looked back at the Reaver in amazement, “Three hundred years ago? How is that possible?”

“Either this creature is extremely old,” Spock said, reaching for his communicator, “or this planet is extremely young.”

“How could-?”

But Spock was already tuning in to his team’s frequency. “Spock to Doctor Marcus.”

“Carol here.”

“Have you completed the quantum dating analysis on the coastal soil samples?”

“I… uh… finished those samples an hour ago, Mister Spock.”

“Good. Save your results with due precision, then return to the test site in twenty minutes and repeat the entire analysis before returning to base camp with both samples.”

“What? Why?”

“Just a theory, Doctor. Meet me at base camp in two hours. Spock out.”

 

SAPIENTS

Planet HB22147-C, Gaza Strip
Stardate 2260.365

– 1445 hours –

If the culture on this planet was as similar to Real Earth as Sulu thought it was, this building must have been an old mosque at one point. The signs were too badly distorted for the tricorder to translate them all, but he’d been to enough old Mosques – and asked enough questions – to recognize them as old Jihadist propaganda slogans, something to the effect of “Death to the Infidels” or “God Destroy the Zionists” and so on and so forth. Another two hundred years of cultural evolution would have sharpened that unfocussed militarism into the Al Rafah fighting style, even now the most potent incarnation of Earth martial arts; this Earth, however, had been frozen in time before social evolution could transform the political tantrum of Jihadism into the more constructive philosophies that had become so indispensable to Starfleet trainees.

In that way, Sulu realized, this entire place was like old news footage of the Bell Riots: depressing to look at, but foreshadowing of better days ahead.

“Why here?” asked Lieutenant Kruzman, looking up from his tricorder screen with a slight wince, “The place was probably stripped down by looters.”

Sulu shook his head, admiring the architecture. For some reason, something about the Mosque reminded him of the bridge module of a starship. It was intentional, of course, the intent by the architects to visually convey a structure of extreme significance to anyone who saw it. “Before the Enlightenment, these Mosques used to be the center of the Muslim social life. They doubled as community centers, meeting halls, lecture halls, they hosted militants, political rallies, some were even used as bomb shelters. I’d take a guess this is probably the first place the survivors would have gone during some kind of major cataclysm.”

Kruzman conceded the possibility and turned her attention back to her tricorder. “Lots of material in there, but I can’t tell what. And th-” she squinted at the screen and lifted the tricorder up a little higher.

“What’s wrong?” Sulu glanced back at him.

“Funny. I thought for a second there was a life form reading. It’s gone now. Must have been a shadow or something.”

Sulu nodded and started up the low stairway to the naked main entrance to the structure. “Let’s check it out.”

“We have to meet up with Doctor Marcus in an hour.”

“It shouldn’t take long, these places aren’t built with alot of nooks and crannies.”

Kruzman followed, and the three security officers made pace behind him, waving their phaser rifles through the air and letting the targeting sensors see for them. The sun was already above the horizon, but this early in the morning the shadows from the ruins created dark spots in the most inconvenient places.

Sulu stepped in first and swept the place with his rifle’s sensor incase something had been waiting for them. Nothing was, and now that he paid attention to his eyes instead of the targeting scope he saw them at the same time as the slack jawed Kruzman, “My God! Do you know what these are?!”

He understood her surprise, but not the nature of the question. “They’re just tents.”

“They’re not just tents!” Kruzman stumbled towards them with his tricorder as if the room was full of buried treasure.

“They’re not?” he looked at them for a moment, sized them up for any special significance. They were all extremely makeshift tents, come to think of it, apparently built out of some kind of animal skins suspended from ropes dangling from the ceilings. Altogether they amounted to structures that would never hold up to any wind or rain by themselves, in fact they served no real purpose except to conceal their occupants and trap heat. “They look like tents.” Sulu gave up.

“They’re suspension tents.”

“Okay…”

“No indigenous population on Earth ever used suspension tents!”

“I can see why. They seem pretty flimsy.”

Kruzman looked at him annoyed and then poured himself into detailed analysis. “Suspension tents are mainly used by castaways, campers… People who wouldn’t normally use a tent. In urban areas, they’re typically found only in post-cataclysmic societies, particularly societies where small numbers of survivors are trying to utilize existing structures. Sometimes they fall into a foraging pattern like hunter-gatherers and build semi-permanent dwellings in any structures that will support them, but nothing complicated enough that they can’t leave behind or tear down in an hour.”

Sulu nodded slowly, “So there were survivors here.”

“There were.” Kruzman smiled at the tricorder screen, “Just as I thought. They were here pretty recently.”

“If the cataclysm happened two hundred years ago, then these tents could be decades old…”

“Try hours.” Kruzman leaned into one of the suspension tents and pulled out a long strip of something dark and leathery, approximately shaped like a large rodent but too distorted to identify the species. “It’s a rabbit.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“It’s been cooked.” he held it up to his nose and took a small, dainty sniff. Since that didn’t yield anything useful, he took a careful bite, chewed, and then nodded in appreciation, “Smoked hare. Still warm. Got an aftertaste too…” he took another bite and chewed thoughtfully, “It’s not bad. You want some?”

“Knock yourself out, I already had breakfast.” Sulu flipped open his communicator and keyed it to Alpha Team’s frequency, waited a few seconds for someone there to answer the call signal and then reported, “Charlie Team to Command.”

“Spock here.”

“Mister Spock, we’ve got a lead on a group of sapient life forms moving somewhere in the strip. We’ve found an encampment in an old Mosque that’s been used pretty recently. Wherever they went, I think we just missed them.”

“Acknowledged, Charlie Team. Maintain your position and complete forensic analysis of the site…” Some two kilometers away, Commander Spock was in mid stride on his way up the steps of Shuttlecraft Fifteen where Doctor Marcus was waiting for him. He was met halfway by Ensign Riley and Ensign Torens, the latter handing him a palmcomp with a set of tricorder readings and genetic sampling data. Spock regarded the computer with satisfaction, then as a slight sting collided with his nostrils he regarded Riley with extreme dissatisfaction. “Is your base camp not equipped with a shower, Ensign Riley?”

The Ensign rolled his eyes before he remembered that Commander Spock wasn’t in the habit of teasing people, then snapped to attention and said “Um… er… yes it is, Sir, but I…”

“Charlie Team,” Spock raised his communicator again, “Recommend you begin a search of the immediate area and report your findings. I am diverting Foxtrot, Lima and Kilo teams to your location to assist you.”

“We’ll meet them here and fan out in a search pattern. Something tells me our friends might be returning to this spot pretty soon.”

“At your discretion, Ensign. Spock out.” he snapped the communicator closed and then turned his attention back to Riley, noting his torn uniform pants and a fading but persistent urine stain on the visible part of his boxers. “Please explain your dishevelment, Ensign.”

Torens grinned slightly, “It’s not his fault, Commander. Riley here literally snagged that Reaver by the seat of his pants. The transporter room hasn’t sent us a replacement yet.”

Spock shot the Ensign a stare so chilling that all possible humor in this situation died in his throat. “A novel use for fabric, Ensign, although I fail to understand why your field equipment was not sufficient for the task.”

“It’s… um… a long story.”

“Then I shall expect a long report.” Spock took one step to sweep past them, stopping just long enough to say, “After you have obtained a fresh uniform and a shower.”

Torens and Riley both sighed and sculked off towards their waiting shuttle on the other side of the camp. “I think he hates me,” Riley said, despondent.

Torens laughed and swatted him on the back, “Of course he does, Riley. Everyone hates you!”

“Thanks alot…”

“C’mon, champ, I’ll loan you my spare until Enterprise beams down a fresh uniform for you.”

At the shuttlecraft, Spock bounded up the ladder into the passenger compartment where Ensign Rand and one very frustrated Doctor Marcus were waiting for him, specimen containers piled up to the ceiling. Quantum dating was tricky business even with the best equipment, and from the look of things Doctor Marcus had nearly exhausted herself trying to get a good sample. “Doctor-”

“Don’t even start. I’m sure the first sample was fine, we’ll have to make due with that.”

Spock raised a brow. “Explain, Doctor.”

Marcus sighed, “For some reason, I can’t get a good reading on subsequent samples. The first test – the one from the community center – turned back three hundred and ten years. The second test turned back three hundred and forty, so I took another one and it turned back forty five. And then things just got craz-”

“I assume you used three standard methods of analysis, Doctor. In-situ measurements, remote measurements, and lab-control sampling, in that order.”

“Well, yes…”

“And in those three examples, I believe your situational measurements showed a discrepancy towards extreme age where isolated materials in a laboratory setting demonstrated extreme youth.”

Marcus and Rand traded glances, confirming the question.

“Fascinating.”

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t have time to explain how, Doctor, but I suspect this planet is in a state of chronological flux. Parts of it are aging more rapidly than others.”

– 1501 hours –

Ensign Ayala kept her attention focussed on the tricorder screen and nowhere else, because if she looked up right now she wasn’t really sure what direct eye contact would do to Lieutenant Onise’s libido. If he was paying more attention he would have noticed that the Orion communications specialist had spent the last half a minute scanning him instead of the surrounding area and therefore had an extremely good idea of his current physiological condition. Elevated heart rate, genital blood constriction, pupil dilation and respiration rate all pointed to a pattern that Onise was concentrating very hard on something other than making the rendezvous with Charlie Team. “Another eight hundred meters west, Lieutenant,” she reminded him, pretending to be unaware of the Onise’s growing erection.

“Yeah…” Onise was in dreamland already. She could have announced the arrival of a Klingon warbird for all the attention he was paying. And just her luck, those two civilian archeologists had wandered off again to take holophotos of some landmark somewhere.

“Is there a problem, Sir?” she asked, trying her best to sound hostile.

It didn’t work, but at least Onise realized she was actually talking to him. “Hm?”

“You seem preoccupied, Sir.”

“Oh…” Onise smiled as if she was a green-skinned beauty queen trying to conduct a publicity interview. “I was just thinking about something Lieutenant Olson told me before we left p-”

“It’s a myth, Sir.”

Onise raised a brow, “What’s a myth?”

Ayala rolled her eyes. Human males were so damned predictable. “That old story,” she said, exasperated, “that Orion women enjoy being raped. Not only is this untrue, it is very untrue.”

“Oh… um…” Onise shank a few inches into his boots. “A-Are you sure?”

“As is the myth,” Ayala went on as if she hadn’t heard him, “that Orion women are half-feral nymphomaniacs who generate irresistible pheromones that drive humanoid men wild with passion.”

“Uh…”

That is a myth propagated by female con artists who use neurotoxins to burglarize male victims. Of course, they spread that myth with no regard at all for innocent women and girls who don’t want to spend the rest of their pathetic existence toiling in a life of crime!”

“I ju-”

“Incidentally, that myth is also propagated by slave traders, cretins and Ferengi as a convenient excuse for raping Orion women. And ever since your idiot race got involved in the galactic economy, it’s been a favorite campfire story of gutter-minded freighter captains who have spent too much time being henpecked by their self-conscious, unappreciated wives.”

“Yeah… um…” Onise shrank even more, feeling a little like he just accidentally insulted her mother. In fact, for all he knew, he might have. “Look, I was just curious, okay? Olsen said he heard the story from an Orion merchant.”

Ayala rolled her eyes. “Of course he did. No doubt a male Orion merchant trying to make a little money under the table.”

“Well if it’s such a false myth, why do your people still spread it around?”

“Because, Lieutenant, I come from this primordial, fatuous, dungheap of a culture dominated by a cult of patriarchal chowderheads who made fortunes, for nearly two centuries, by selling their own daughters into sexual slavery!” Ayala spat in the dust and stomped it with her boot, a cosmic spite to the entire Orion race.

“Oh…”

“And because interstellar law being what it is, this,” she pointed to the Starfleet emblem on the front of her uniform, “is the only thing that stands between me and fifty parsecs of horny capitalists who wouldn’t know morality if it walked up to them and bit off their legs!”

“Huh.” Onise sighed and leaned against the wall, muttering to himself, “Figures I’d get the one feminist in the entire Orion species.”

Ayala suddenly pulled up the phaser rifle from the shoulder sling and pretended to look at its status indicator with alarm. She did, of course, let the guide beam paint a target on Onise’s torso without really looking at it. “Hm… sir, something’s wrong with my phaser. I think it might discharge by itself.”

“That’s not fu-”

True to her warning, the phaser did discharge – though not exactly “by itself” – in a short burst that hit Onise right between his legs. To her surprise and mild amusement, his shield belt hadn’t been active; the Lieutenant screamed in high pitched agony then keeled over on his face and shoulders as paralysis spread out from his public area throughout the rest of his nervous system.

Doctor Bates and Doctor Adel appeared a moment later, drawn by the noise, and seeing Onise crumpled up in the dust stared at the Ensign bewildered. “Phaser malfunction,” she said casually, “He’s stunned. We’ll have to carry him with us.”

“Right, well,” the two of them rolled him over on his back, Bates picked up his ankles while Adel grabbed his shoulders. It would slow them down a bit, but their main goal at this point was meet up with Sulu’s team a few blocks away, so it wouldn’t be too much of an obstacle in any case. “Can you carry some of this other sutff?” Adel said, using Onise to lead his partner back the way they came.

“What stuff? Did you find something?”

“Russel found it. He wanted to get the Lieutenant’s opinion.”

Ayala nodded and followed their lead. It wasn’t far, just a few dozen meters away where the two of them had been posing for photographs for the team scrapbook. There was a storefront there with a sign over the door, what her tricorder translated as Ali Bukari – Internet Cafe. This was more puzzling than almost anything else she’d seen in this city over the last two days. “Internet Cafe… some kind of alien coffee shop?”

“‘Internet’ was a precursor to the Global Optical Data Network,” said Ensign Russel, leaning out of the doorway, “It wasn’t very fast, but I guess it was good enough for the kinds of computers they had back them. And of course, unlike Godnet, it wasn’t free.”

This just raised even more questions. “So… What’s an Internet Cafe? Were the fabricators networked too? Or is ‘Internet’ also the name of a coffee drink?”

Russel shrugged, bobbling an enormous specimen container slung on his shoulder, “Hell if I know. But I noticed they’ve got alot of computers in that building, and I figured if we pulled their memory banks we might get some useful data.”

“Oh!” Ayala looked and saw the specimen containers were indeed packed with archaic looking electronic components. Appropriately enough, they looked like larger and less elegant versions of a Starfleet memory card, and Russel looked like he had pulled more than a dozen of them. “You know what, in that case,” she snapped open her communicator and keyed it to Enterprise’ frequency. “Kilo Team to Enterprise. Enterprise, how do you read?”

“Enterprise here.”

“This is Ensign Ayala. We’ve recovered some computer records from a… I guess a computerized coffee shop in town, a good amount of material to go through. I worry about carrying it to the rendezvous with Charlie Team, and Lieutenant Onise has been injured by a phaser malfunction.”

“Acknowledged, Kilo Team… um… you’re traveling with two civilians… have Doctor Bates accompany the Lieutenant and the equipment. We’ll do a transport relay to base camp.”

Ayala nodded at Bates, who was close enough to hear for himself and was already helping to set Onise down in the doorway. Russel handed over the specimen containers, and Bates sagged from the weight of it. “They’re ready now. Lock onto Onise’s communicator signal.”

“Locked on. Standby…”

Some twenty seconds later, both Onise and Bates along with the specimen container were engulfed in a swirling funnel of sparkling lights, and then both vanished, whisked into orbit by Enterprise’s transporter beam where they would be briefly re-materialized in the transporter room, checked for any ill-effects, and then beamed back to the planet close to Alpha Team’s base camp.

Once transport was complete, Ayala’s communicator beeped again, indicating a coded channel from Enterprise. Ayala picked up the message and casually put some distance between herself and the others as Uhura’s voice hissed, “Malfunction, Ayala?”

“It misfired.”

“Phasers don’t misfire.”

“This one did.”

“I can’t believe you’d be that stupid! Your record is shaky enough as is it is with all those fights!”

“C’mon, Nyota, they can’t prove it was intentional.”

“You better hope not. Gaila isn’t here to cover for you anymore. If you loose your commission over thi-“

“Hold it…” Ayala turned her ear to the wind, trying to recapture the sound that had caught her attention a second ago. It was familiar in a way that wasn’t at all pleasant, similar but extremely different from some of the sounds her team had heard from a distance on the first day. At the moment, the sounds were anything but distant, and they were getting closer. “Uhura,” she snapped open her tricorder and started to scan for cordite traces, “We’re hearing small arms fire in the area. Do you have anything on sensors?”

“We’re out of position now, but I’ll route your channel to the nearest shuttle. And seriously, Ayala, you’ve got to watch that temper.”

The signal crackled for a few seconds, then the call signal beeped a response. “Kilo Team to shuttlecraft.”

“Fourteen here,” answered the most sublimely logical voice in the universe that could only belong to Commander Spock himself.

Ayala smiled at her luck, and meanwhile zeroed in on the source of those cordite traces on the tricorder, “Commander, we’re picking up small arms fire close to our position. Bearing…” the chemical signatures were too far away to localize, but she could at least get a general direction, “… zero seven three, about five hundred meters.”

“I have visual, Ensign… Fascinating!”

“What do you see?”

“A small group of armed humanoids being pursued by a very large group of Reavers.”

“Armed humanoids?” Russel leaned out of the doorway of the internet cafe, “Carrying firearms?”

Ayala nodded. “Must be the sapients we’ve been looking for… how should we proceed, Commander?”

“The sapients appear to be moving in the direction of their Mosque encampment. Your team will connect with Charlie and Lima teams to provide safe haven for them at that location.”

Russel asked over her shoulder, “Why not use the shuttle’s phasers to cover their escape, Sir?”

“There is no guarantee the sapients will show our landing parties any less hostility than they show the Reavers. We may facilitate contact by placing ourselves personally between them and their pursuers. Hopefully, they will interpret this as a gesture of solidarity.”

“Hopefully…” Ayala tuned back to Enterprise’ frequency, and after a few seconds locked back into Uhura’s bridge channel, “Kilo Team to Enterprise. Three to beam up.”

 

 

GESTURE

Planet HB22147-C, Gaza Strip
Stardate 2260.365

– 1522 hours –

To Spock’s lack of surprise, it was far simpler to devise a plan of action than it was to communicate that plan to the ground teams. For tactical purposes, he’d elected to coordinate from the air in the shuttlecraft, high enough and far enough that he could see the mission area without accidentally drifting into Enterprise’ line of fire or spooking the sapients away from their haven.

Spock reasoned that a proper defense of the Mosque Camp would require at least twenty men with phasers in good firing positions, but he also had to figure out how to pick firing positions that would be perfectly visible to the sapients so that their actions would be obvious to even the most imbecilic observer. On some level, he felt there was something a little unsettling about using Starfleet officers and weapons in such a blatantly contrived display of solidarity, but logic allowed for little other recourse. He could not use the shuttle’s phasers, since there was no guarantee the sapients would connect the shuttles with his ground teams, nor could he rely on Enterprise’ phasers for the same reason. Likewise, simply beaming their query aboard the ship was problematic for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which was the basic fact – given human psychology – that the sudden abduction of their entire group into a technologically advanced setting would generate a first impression of sheer terror that would poison any future dealings with them. It had to be done this way: a gesture of friendship, of risking one’s own life to save the life of a stranger. To humans there were few more powerful gestures, and with any luck these humans weren’t all that different from their “Real Earth” counterparts.

Each of the seven participating teams were directed to their proper starting position, in well-concealed spots where the sapients wouldn’t notice them. Once they’d passed, they were to take defensive positions near the Mosque and use phasers to keep the Reavers at bay, hopefully stunning enough of the Alphas that the rest would loose heart and look for less troublesome prey. Of course, in the event that this was some kind of feeding frenzy, Spock left open the possibility that the away teams would fall back to within the Mosque structure and leave the balance of the predators to the Enterprise’ phasers; after all, there were limits to the lengths he was willing to take just to make a gesture.

“There they are!” Ensign Rand was watching on the sensor screen next to her head, high resolution and high magnification as the first of the sapients came into range. The excitement in her voice reflected the importance of this find: eight days they had been on this planet, searching for exactly this.

And then, “Oh my god!”

Spock detected a new emotion in her voice: horror. “Ensign?”

“Look at that!”

He looked at the monitor, and to his extreme distaste, shared that cold rush of horror. The wave of fast-moving sapients was, in fact, a running mob of rail-thin children, mostly between six and twelve years old, making a military-style retreat down a narrow roadway, firing behind them as they went. He identified their weapons as Kalashnikov-types, though a handful were armed with shotguns and a few of the older children with bolt-action weapons with which they, more than their peers, seemed especially proficient. Further down that same road, the Reavers were in a disorganized rushing pursuit that more resembled a stampede of frightened chickens than the merciless feeding frenzy it really was.

“Fascinating,” Spock said.

Rand was almost ready to climb through the cockpit window. “We’ve got to help them, Commander!”

“We are, Ensign.” Spock tapped the comm panel and put the general call to all teams, “Sapients approaching as expected, three hundred meters. All teams assume positions.”

– 1522 hours –

Echo Team had found themselves a perfectly suitable spot, divided up between two rubble piles that had congealed around the rusted-out frames of old automobiles. Lima Team found an even better spot with better visibility, tucked in behind a contraption of tubes and leavers that was probably some kind of modified rocket launcher centuries ago. Bravo Team had to be directed to an overturned truck since their chosen hiding spot would be visible to the sapients after passing but before the Reavers were close enough and Spock worried about one of the children accidentally machinegunning his landing party before they realized whose side they were on. The other teams found their spots without incident, mostly in doorways and the stoops of partially collapsed buildings that were probably used by Palestinian guerillas ages ago for exactly this kind of military ambush.

At the three hundred meter warning, only Charlie team was still out of position. The reason became evident – as Spock could see from the air, and as Sulu had just found out the hard way – that the building they had taken position on top of wasn’t nearly as stable as it looked, and most of the roof was about ready to cave in. A ten foot patch of it suddenly did, and Sulu suddenly found himself lying in a cloud of dust staring at a hole in a rapidly crumbling ceiling.

“The damn building’s coming down!” someone shouted. It sounded like Lieutenant Kruzman, but with the adrenaline that suddenly poured into his veins it might as well have been Buddha.

Another section of the ceiling caved in a few feet away, and Ensign Buckley followed behind it. There was a sickeningly humorous moment when Sulu watched the man apparently land on his feet, then collapse like a pillar of salt as both of his knees bent the wrong way and collapsed under his weight.

Kruzman was more fortunate, or maybe just smarter. As the rest of the ceiling crumbled, he plummeted from the roof through the same hole Sulu had fallen through and missed landing on him by handful of inches. That just left Ensign Rao, who was standing at the edge of that same hole staring down into it with a look of sheer awe plastered on his bronzed, pampered mug. “Rao, get your ass down here before you bring the roof down!” Sulu shouted to him, making it an order and not a request.

Rao did it without thinking, landing on his feet, but loosing his balance and spilling over on top of Sulu.

“Two hundred meters,” Spock’s voice flowed from the communicator.

Damn the luck. Fortunately, it looked like the rest of the building was stable enough even if the roof couldn’t support their weight. Sulu pushed Rao and Kruzman towards a corner of the room where the ceiling was still solid – no sign of crumbling – then whipped out his communicator and keyed Enterprise’ frequency, “Charlie Team to Enterprise. Ensign Buckley is having a very bad day.”

“Scans show two broken legs and a ruptured appendix,” Uhura answered from the bridge. “We’re locking on his signal. Standby…”

“Spock to Charlie Team. Your present position has insufficient visibility for proper defense of the camp…”

“Yes, Sir, I can see that,” Sulu answered, now that he realized the room he was in had only one door and a single row of windows that faced the Mosque and nothing else. Around this time he heard the musical whine of a transporter beam on the other side of the room and saw the glow out of the corner of his eye as the injured Buckley vanished into a matter stream, bound for the safety of Enterprise. “Any suggestions?”

“There is a store front twenty meters from you around the northeast corner of your position. It will provide concealment from the sapients, but you will have to reposition to properly cover Flank Three.”

Sulu gestured for his team to move out, and almost as one, they did. Outside the door, Rao and Kruzman spotted the northeast corner of the street and ran around it, diving into the store front and crouching down where the remnants of ancient shelves and furniture would hide them from view. Before he got there himself, however, his eyes fixed on something on the side of the road, a deep depression carved in the ground that looked like a blast crater of some kind. It wasn’t completely empty, there was something that looked like a dead animal of some kind lying in it, but Sulu imagined he could bear the unpleasantness just long enough to stay out of sight. He checked his bearings to make sure he knew which way to go, then dropped down into the hole and crouched down next to the carcass.

“One hundred and fifty meters. All teams standby.”

Sulu checked the power setting on his phaser rifle, confirmed the “Stun-III” setting, then flipped open his communicator, “Charlie Team’s in position, more or less.”

“I can see that, Mister Sulu. Standby.”

Sulu checked his tricorder with his free hand, linking up with the sensor feed from Spock’s shuttle and the aerial probes. The Reavers had closed to one hundred meters, the sapients were closer still, and from the way they were moving it looked like they had completely given up shooting at the reavers and were now simply running scared. His first thought was that this would make their job that much easier since the sapients were less likely to turn around and shoot the away teams.

His second thought immediately rendered the first irrelevant, as around this time he discovered that the thing in the crater with him wasn’t actually dead.

– 1522 hours –

“They’re just children.” Ayala redoubled the magnification on the scope. Not only children, but extremely young children, between toddlers and preteens. They were moving in a ragged military formation that looked more Hollywood than experience, and most were firing their weapons in that frantic, squinty-eyed-style so characteristic of conscripts tossed into the path of cannons with too little training. They obviously weren’t novices, but they were hardly the battle-hardened survivors she’d expected.

And then there were the reavers, waddling through the streets after them, their enormous arms waving in the air like meaty pendulums to balance their impossible bulk. They were ridiculous looking brutes, and if they weren’t so vicious Ayala might have found them comical. “Targets in sight,” she whispered into her communicator from her balcony perch. Russel had helped pick this spot out, second story of a rotting apartment building next to a dangerous looking rubble pile that was just stable enough to climb down if they didn’t land on it two hard. With Onise still stunned they were a man short, not that it mattered in a situation like this. “You sure you want to take them from here?” Russel asked, “We’ll be in trouble if they come up after us.”

“They won’t. They’re all instinct and emotion, not much for strategy.”

“Heh.” Russel checked his power levels and squatted down behind her, “Well, you’re the expert.”

“Shut up, Russel…” there was a crashing sound off to one side, around a corner closer to the Mosque. Ayala turned that way and saw several humanoid figures on top of a rising dust cloud… then several of those figures dropped into the midst of it and vanished. “Oh my God…” she snapped out her communicator and called “Kilo Team to Charlie Team. What just happened to you?”

Static at first, then a low pitched beep to indicate a contact code but no direct response, save that from Mister Spock on the all-team channel, “Two hundred meters.”

Ayala flipped open the cover. The communicator’s tiny screen showed their three positions on an overhead map of the area, and at the same time, showed one of the four fading out as a transporter beam whisked him away to orbit.

“Building must have fallen in…”

“Spock to all units. Charlie Team has repositioned near Flank Three. Kilo and Lima teams, you’re to concentrate fire in your sections for three minutes, then fall back – if possible – to cover open position Flank Two.”

“Kilo Team, acknowledged…” A burst of machinegun fire erupted extremely close. Ayala looked down the street and saw two teenagers standing on top of an overturned truck, one holding an ammunition belt as the other fired a .50 caliber machinegun mounted on the axle of the truck like a gun nest. They had remarkably good position there, enough angle to fire over the heads of their comrades and still keep the reavers at bay. A planned strategy, from the look of things.

Or so Ayala thought. Someone in the middle of the retreating formation began waving their arms in a frantic “stop!” motion, and then the shooting ceased. Too late, though, as the sudden clatter of sound from both sides had converted a dozen of the children from an orderly withdrawal to a state of panic, many dropping their guns and falling into a sprint in no particular direction. The Reavers tracked them as they lost cohesion, and those fallen to panic were quickly enveloped by piles of waving arms and long clawing fingers. A scream trickled out of the bedlam, followed by thick blood spray as one of the the children was torn clean in half by the predators.

Russel gagged and tried not to vomit. Ayala’s finger tickled the trigger, but she forced herself not to shoot. If she opened up now, there’d be no protecting any of them.

The silver lining became that pouncing on the few stragglers had slowed the Reavers’ advance. The sapients now ran like the frightened children they were, none of them even daring to look back let alone shoot at their pursuers. A few of the reavers saw fast-moving bodies and resumed the chase; they were much faster than the children, but their prey had a head start.

“One hundred and fifty meters. All teams stand by.”

“Charlie Team’s in position, more or less.”

“I can see that, Mister Sulu. Standby.”

“Remember, you’ll have to hit center of mass to stun them. Extremities won’t cut it.” Ayala squatted down lower to make sure the children couldn’t see her. The machinegun opened fire again and this time kept firing. The children ran right past it, and the Reavers began to collapse in stride as projectiles the size of hypo sprays ripped into the mass of them. She noted with a sinking sensation that the machinegun nest was too far ahead for her to cover it, and hoped anxiously that the kids running that post were smart enough to run for it when their friends had passed them.

“One hundred meters,” Spock said.

The last of the children passed the machinegun nest. The kid holding the ammunition belt jumped down and ran after them, but the boy behind the gun remained, firing wildly into the approaching stampede. The line of reavers converged directly on him, their snarling trippling in intensity while his comrade tried to flee.

“Fifty meters. All units, engage on my mark.”

A single shot rang out from below. Then another… then a third… five shots in under ten seconds, and extremely close to them. Russel followed the sound to a robed figure crouching on the rubble pile just a few feet from them, shouldering a Soviet SKS rifle with some kind of telescope duct-taped to the back of it. He recognized it as the same figure that had waved at the machinegunners before. A girl from the look of it, much older than all the others. The kid from the gun belt kept up his pace, and every time a reaver would come close to him the girl on the rubble pile fired off a single shot, hit her target right between its beady little eyes, buying her comrade another five seconds to live.

“Protective range… mark. All sections, begin firing.”

Ayala popped up and discharged her phaser rifle across the machinegunner’s nose. Two Reavers ran through the blue-white phaser beam on their way to tackle him, and both lost muscle control and instead plowed head first into the side of the truck. The kid behind the gun hesitated, and thanked his good fortune a moment too long; Ayala fired again, but the Reaver was already jumping, and one swing of its enormous arm swatted his head clean off his shoulders. Meanwhile, the girl on the rubble pile spun around and saw Russel and Ayala standing there, firing off their phaser rifles at the approaching stampede. She stared at then just long enough to determine that they weren’t about to eat her, and since this basic fact defined them as “friend,” she tossed the gun over her shoulder and took off running after her peers.

A dozen phasers opened up at once now, quick bursts against carefully selected targets, through each Reaver’s center of mass. The streets were ablaze with fiery blue light, and the closer they got to the Mosque, the more the children began to slow, looking back over their shoulders wondering who or what had finally come for them.

– 1523 hours –

It was trying hard to look like it was dead, but it was undeniably alive. It’s eyes were closed, its mouth slightly open, breathing softly to make as little sound as possible. This gave Sulu pause, not to mention a cold sweat, and he performed his first instinct and also pretended to be dead.

“One hundred meters.”

The creature blinked at the sound of the communicator. As its eyes flicked open, it caught Sulu’s gaze for an instant and then quickly closed both eyes shut again. Then it carefully opened one eye, seemed to realize it had been noticed and then turned both of its eyes – but not its head – and stared at him. Sulu stared back, and the two lay there, staring at each other out of the corners of their eyes, each waiting for the other to make a move. Sulu held his breath; the thing next to him did the same.

“Fifty meters. All units, engage on my mark.”

Sulu coughed.

The creature blinked, then made a small cooing noise that might have been an attempt to speak.

“H-Hello… I um… I didn’t see you there.”

It blinked again, slowly this time. Something electronic and very powerful sounding whistled under his feet, and Sulu looked down to see a row of blinking indicator lights flashing in some kind of sequence. The lights were mounted on something attached to the creature’s ankle like a bracelet.

That was confusing on so many levels.

“Protective range. All sections, begin firing.”

“I’m supposed to crawl out of this hole now, so don’t freak out when I do…”

The creature blinked again, and this time made a low, semi-musical rumbling sound.

Overhead, the sound of a dozen phasers crackled through the air, but much closer came a voice almost directly in Sulu’s ear, “Why? What’s going on?” the voice came from his communicator: a generic computer-generated translation of what the databanks calculated the creature was probably saying to him.

That was confusing on even more levels. The sound of phaser fire overhead was suddenly light years away. “You have a translator?”

“Translator… yes. Do you?”

“Yes.”

“That is interesting.”

Sulu took a shot in the dark and asked, “You’re from that ship that entered orbit a week ago, aren’t you?”

“My ship entered orbit recently. Yes.”

“Why are you here?”

“Mission.”

“What mission?”

“Orders.”

Phaser sounds intensified around them, followed by the shrieks of dozens of surprised and pained Reavers as finely-tuned energy pulses scrambled their collective nervous systems. They were getting close, in fact without looking out of the hole Sulu realized his position had probably been overrun by them already. Popping up now would make no difference except to run, as fast as he could, to the safety of the mosque before the beasts could pummel him to death.

He didn’t really know the protocol for first-contact scenarios, much less first contact in a foxhole in the middle of a firefight. Since this creature didn’t seem like it was going to eat him, at the very least he could count on getting a few basic contact principles established. “My name is Hikaru Sulu. My species is known as Human. We come from a planet called Earth.”

“Human?”

“Yes.”

“Earth?”

“Yes.”

“Here?”

Sulu squinted at it, “No, not here.”

“Your planet… is…”

“Earth.”

The creature made its largest movement yet, turned to face Sulu in the crater so he could see all of it. It was obviously bipedal, wearing some kind of form-fitting uniform that showed off a compact but muscular frame perhaps five feet tall when fully erect. From what Sulu could see it had thick scaly skin and a long flexible neck that ended in a reptilian head set by a pair of powerful jaws and broad, yellow eyes. It reminded Sulu of a kind of anthropomorphic gecko; not nearly as scary as the reavers, in fact it might even make a good pet if it wasn’t obviously sentient. “What planet do you call this?”

It took him a moment to realize what this thing was asking him. The implication made his hands shake. “We have no name for it yet… this planet is…” he took a breath and narrowed himself down to the most relevant thoughts he could arrange, “We came here to because this planet is completely identical to ours. Our mission is to find out who created it and why.”

“Planet… created…?”

Sulu continued carefully, “Yes, created. This planet is a copy of our world. There are a few small differences, but it’s definitely a duplicate.”

“Copy. Duplicate.” The creature briefly lowered its head on its long neck and then tilted it completely horizontal, probably its equivalent of a nod. Overhead, the shrieking of Reavers and the whistling crack of phaser blasts tripled in intensity before it began to rapidly fade towards silence.

“What about you?” Sulu asked, “What is your name?”

It blinked a few times, processing the question. Then it answered ponderously, “I am Fifth and Twelve cycle the Runner.”

Sulu blinked slowly, “That’s… um… an interesting name. What species are you?”

“To outsiders, we are called Gorn. We come here for orders.”

“What are your orders?”

“I do not know. I have not ordered yet.”

In any other time and place, Sulu would have interpreted that as a joke. Here in a foxhole with a sentient hyper-gecko, nothing would have surprised him. “You mean a dinner order?”

“Dinner… is… meal? Yes.”

“What kind of things do you eat?”

“Tailed Water Claw, Small Water Claw, Many Leg Worm, Eight Leg Trapper, Poison Tailed Claw, Pollinating Hive Fly.”

Sulu picked up on the pattern and guessed, “You’re an insectivore?”

The creature made its strange shrugging motion, and this time Sulu was sure it was nodding. “Yes. We come now to investigate change.”

“A change in… the planet or the animals?”

“A change in planet… a change in people. When we first came there were cities and lights. We came quietly, take our orders without being seen. On the fourth cycle after, another ship returned, and cities were ancient, the lights were gone. Many creatures gone, but many more have changed. We have come to take our last orders from this planet before it comes to ruin.”

“So your ship is… what? A fishing vessel?”

The Gorn blinked, but didn’t answer the question. It didn’t even seem to understand it.

“My ship is called the Enterprise. It’s a Federation starship, designed for deep space exploration and reconnaissance.”

The Gorn responded in kind, “My ship is called Francium. It is designed for killing and recovering.”

“Killing what?”

“Our meals, our criminals, our enemies. We bring these back to our harbor.”

“Is Francium a… warship?”

Again, the Gorn blinked stupidly. This could be a good sign if the Gorn had no concept of war or ships dedicated to fight them, or a bad sign if Gorn motivations were so alien that their equivalent of war was incomprehensible to even the translator’s logic circuits. The latter was far more likely considering what Starfleet already knew about the Gorn and their seemingly warlike nature. “How many years have you been coming to this planet?”

The Gorn processed the question for a moment, as did the translator. It apparently did a conversion between Terran years and Gorn “cycles” and came up with the answer, “The first ship arrived three years ago. Fourteen months later, this planet was dead.”

 

 

MIRI

Planet HB22147-C, Gaza Strip
Stardate 2260.365

– 1545 hours –

Stunned Reavers lay piled on top of each other in a massive arrangement around the mosque. Those that hadn’t been stunned by phasers were now stunned with fear and kept their distance, with most of them wandering off looking for easier prey or fleeing in fear of their lives. A handful squatted amongst their fallen comrades, apparently in mourning, until Starfleet officers stunned them as well, just in case they decided to seek revenge.

Finally, only the children remained. The medical teams beamed down behind the mosque where they wouldn’t spook anyone and setup a triage center using the children’s own tents. Doctor McCoy counted twenty five altogether, out of a group that originally contained forty to fifty. He moved through them like a mechanic on a factory floor, mentally cataloguing injuries to send his priority list back to the ship. Once the translators zeroed in on their dialect – no easy task considering how hysterically most of them were crying – he was able to gather that this fight had been some kind of last stand, that the Reavers had been slowly boxing them in wolfpack-style for weeks, systematically separating and eliminating all the older males while disposing of the younger ones much less carefully. Apparently all of these children had once been classmates at a local elementary school, a class that once consisted of two hundred boys and girls.

Which was hardly the most confusing thing McCoy had learned today.

“Leila! Nabi!” someone ten miles tall and radiating enough dominant energy to power a starbase was shouting across the room from one of the suspension tents. McCoy turned his attention that way and saw one of the children – a teenaged girl, the oldest of the group by far – standing next to the tent waving two of her younger comrades over to join her. By the thick cloak she was wearing and the SKS rifle slung on her shoulder he identified her as one of the sharpshooters the fire teams had noticed; the going theory right now was that she was the closest thing this group of ragtags had to a leader.

The children she’d called looked eight to ten years old. They were obviously siblings, in fact they might have been twins. “You two, get together anyone who isn’t injured, collect all the hardware you can in this tent.”

“Weapons and ammunition…?” asked the boy.

“Leave that for later. We need the engine stuff. Petrol, batteries, alternators, that sort of thing.”

“Yes Admiral!” both of the children saluted, then sped off with such speed and purpose that would have put half of Starfleet to shame.

Meanwhile, the older girl squatted back down in her tent and went back some delicate maintenance task she’d been engrossed in until now. Her fingers had an almost surgical precision; if McCoy didn’t know better, he’d swear she was a trained engineer. “What are you doing?” he asked, walking towards her with all appropriate respect for what was, after all, the closest thing this planet still had to a local authority figure.

“I’m trying to fix this computer,” she said, not even looking up from the jumbled assortment of electronic components at her feet. Whatever sort of “computer” it might have been, it was really little more than a stack of circuit boards held in position with electrical tape and pieces of plywood.

McCoy didn’t know if she was serious or just playing a game. “If you need a computer, I can provide one for you.”

“This one has files we don’t want to lose.”

“Like what?”

“Pictures, video…” she thought for a long moment, a very long moment, swept up in a sudden flood of memories, “Our parents, our friends, basically a record of everything that’s happened to us until now. I know, it’s silly, but we felt like it was important to document everything in case we didn’t survive.” The two kids she’d called over earlier returned now with a half dozen others, all carrying armfuls of machine parts and bottles of petrol fuel. These they carefully deposited in the tent around her and went off through the mosque, looking for anything else that might be salvageable. “It was tricky to keep the cell phones working,” she added, “Most of the batteries are no good anymore, but some of them still work. As soon as we could charge one, we took videos of everything we could, we recorded some journals and updates and downloaded it all to this computer.”

That prompted another look at this crudely-assembled device. Gathering clues from scattered and confused reports was one thing, but here was a group of people who had intentionally gathered from their own environment all the information relevant to the fate of this planet and whatever it was that caused the cataclysm here. Lieutenant York would have an orgasm when he heard about this.

Carefully, delicately, the girl peeled up a layer of electrical tape and removed a long flat rectangular component, similar enough to one of York’s artifacts that McCoy immediately recognized it as a computer hard drive. “I’m sure you have machining equipment on your ship. I can finish it when we get there, but I don’t want to loose these files.”

“How do you know we came from a ship?”

“I saw your…” she pointed at the ceiling and the sky beyond it, “helicopter… airplane… things… flying around up there. I haven’t seen any tanks or ground vehicles, so you must have come from an aircraft carrier or something.”

“Something like that,” he snapped open his tricorder and started the first of a series of bioscans with the scanner probe. As much as this girl seemed to be in control of the situation, he wasn’t about to let her get away without a physical.

She seemed to sense that some kind of examination was underway, though she didn’t have a clue how or why. Nor did she seem to care; for her, indeed everyone here, Starfleet technology seemed equivalent to magic, but even to these children, it was undeniably technology. “Are you a doctor?” she asked, then seemed to kick herself for asking such a dumb question.

“Yes. Are you a general?”

She smiled. “No, I’m an admiral.”

“You don’t look old enough to be an admiral.”

“I’m the oldest, and I’m the only one who knows how to run the fishing boat, so that makes me the admiral.”

“You have a fishing boat? We didn’t see anything on the way in.”

“Ah… the monsters wrecked our boat when we put in a week ago. They’ve been chasing us ever since. Are you sure you didn’t see us? We launch flares every time we go out to sea… you are with the U.N. aren’t you?”

“Something like that,” he said again. Hopefully her curiosity would abate until someone a little more tactful arrived to explain the situation to her.

No such luck, though. “Where are you from?” She looked at his uniform and his equipment and then asked, “European? American? I don’t recognize your accent but it sounds kinda British.”

“Accent? Oh…” it was easy to forget that what she heard and what he heard were two completely different things. The Linguicode Translator worked in the background of every conversation, converting Arabic to English and back again, but there were always some nuances of speech and pronunciation that the mechanical device couldn’t fully process. In her ears, he was speaking Arabic; apparently, it sounded to her like Arabic with a slight British accent. “We’re from the uh… the new U.N. It’s a lot bigger than the old one.”

“Oh…” she glared at him now, manifesting impatience. “Are you finished yet?”

“I’m just getting started. First of all, what’s your name?”

“Miriam Hallab. My friends call me Miri.”

“How old are you, Miri?”

She turned and faced him finally, resigning herself to the fact that it was apparently time to give an interview with the people who had just shown up to save her. “Sixteen. I think.”

“You think?”

“It’s been a long time since I saw a calendar. What year is it?”

McCoy scratched his head. “You know something, that’s a very good question. How long ago did this…” he gestures around, “all of this… when did it happen? It looks like it’s been ages.”

“Yeah, the world has gone crazy. The grownups said it was the end of the world. When I saw your tasers I thought you were angels…” Miri looked around the square surrounding the mosque, at the crumbling ruins beyond, at the twisted bodies of unconscious Reavers in the distance all around. She shuddered, “I don’t know why, but everything is decaying at super speed. Only a few years ago this was all new construction. And it’s no coincidence, that’s when everyone started to change into monsters too.”

“This all started a few years ago?”

Miri nodded. Then she thought about the question and added, “Well… started, no. It’s been going on for a long time. But it didn’t get this bad until two about two summers ago.”

“Why? What happened then?”

“Everyone started changing at once. See, the year before that, twenty or thirty people would change in a week, the gangs would take them out and shoot them before they got dangerous. Then it was fifty, then a hundred, then two hundred… and then that summer, like a thousand people all changed at once, then everything went straight to hell. Last year, even some of the kids started to change… that had never happened before, it used to only happens to adults.”

“How long have these changes been going on for?”

“I don’t know. I first heard about it when I was very young. Seven, I think. I remember my mother saying it was God’s punishment to the Jews. A few months later she started to change and the soldiers came and shot her.”

“You were seven?”

She thought for a moment, “Maybe older. I just remember my mother changed after I turned seven. Then little by little, everyone else started changing. Some of the religious groups tried to pull things together a few years ago, but it didn’t last. There were gangs, bandits, some crazy Jordanians were driving around in a tank they stole somewhere… but sooner or later, all of them changed. Us here…” she gestured around the room, “we all stuck together since we were in the same school and we figured out that only the adults go through the change. And now it seems like we’re the only ones left.”

McCoy patted her on the shoulder. He watched her shrinking down little by little, years of desperation and white-knuckled clinging to life pouring out of her feet. She was becoming a civilian again, making the transition from fighter to refugee that would never completely end. “You survived by yourself all this time?”

“There were some soldiers with us at some point,” she looked at her feet, “Two guys from the security forces and a couple of freedom fighters. We even had some Israelis come and join us when their cities started to collapse.”

“Social order broke down…”

“No, I mean literally collapsed. Every new building in Haifa just disintegrated. That happened here too, but most of our buildings are alot older. But the Israeli survivors, they all started to change too. They stopped talking, they stopped wearing clothes… they acted like… well, apes or something, except they got all fat and lazy and refused to do anything but growl at each other. The ones that didn’t change, they got killed off by the monsters a few at a time. Those monsters rape the men they capture. It’s how they breed.”

McCoy shuddered. “We’ve noticed.”

“We had this guy, Private Gideon… he taught me how to shoot, and how to hide, and how to dig trenches and make tents. And my father taught me how to use the fishing boat since the navy ships weren’t blockading anymore. So when everyone else changed, Gideon and I got as many of the kids as I could and we got on those last two boats and went out looking for food and fuel. Poor Gideon… when he started to change into an ape-man he became really stupid and lazy. That’s when the monsters got him.”

McCoy grabbed her by the arm and lead her to a corner of the room, offered her a folding chair Doctor Ayash had set up for occasions like this. He’d warned the entire medical team, but McCoy had special interest in her most of all. If the other children really looked up to her as a leader, then she would be at the top of the triage list if they were ever going to save them.

The scanner was setup next to the chair, a smaller version of the device that had done the photosection of the reaver. In this case, Ayash programmed it to make a microcellular scan for specific markers, so as soon as Doctor McCoy turned it on the results were beamed to his tricorder in a matter of seconds. “Damn.”

Miri looked at him in alarm. “Did you forget something?”

McCoy sighed. “I need to take you back to our ship. We need to treat you, and soon.”

She looked him in the eye for a moment or so, then asked almost in a whisper, “Am I changing?”

He nodded.

“How long do I have?”

“A hundred years, if I have anything to do with it. But you need to come with me right now.”

“What about the others?”

McCoy smiled, “We won’t leave anyone behind. Once they’re well enough, they’ll come too. And by the way, you can leave your weapons behind this time, you won’t be needing them after this.”

“That’s good to hear… hey, Doctor, you didn’t tell me your name. I told you mine. That’s rude, y’know.”

“My name is Doctor Leonard McCoy. My friends call me Bones.”

Miri grinned. “I used to have a dog named Bones.”

“Arf.” McCoy offered a hand, and Miri stood and followed him around behind the Mosque. Near the back entrance he passed Spock, hard at work with a tricorder and flux beam trying to make heads or tails of the erratic quantum date readings he was getting from the structure around them. “How goes it?”

Spock looked at his tricorder for a long moment, a look of consternation and angst growing on his face. Then he looked at Miri, then at McCoy, and said simply, “Do you think it would be possible to transport all of these survivors within the next five minutes?”

McCoy startled, “Five minutes? Well… sure, it’s possible, but…”

“Five minutes, Doctor. Less if possible. I have reason to believe our sensor devices may be inherently disruptive to this planet’s stability.”

“Disruptive of… you mean the aging thing?” He’d seen enough to get a good idea of their injuries. Most of them had bumps and bruises and contusions, the worst had broken bones or pains in strange places that left concerns about internal injuries that might be aggravated by a transporter beam. “Alright, I’ll take the first five right now. Some will have to be transported in stasis fields, though.”

“Very well, Doctor, just as long as they are taken off this planet as soon as possible.”

“Is it that critical, Spock?”

“Probably not. But to quote an old Human proverb, ‘Better safe than sorry.'”

“I guess.” McCoy turned Miri back the way they came and marched back into the triage center, shouting as he went, “Listen up! I want the first five in the lowest priority ready for transport in thirty seconds! We’re clearing out, right now…” he was almost knocked off his feet as Lieutenant Sulu rushed past him, sort of stumbling/shuffling towards the back entrance where Spock was still analyzing the structures and hating every minute of it. “Easy there, sailor.”

“Sorry, Doctor… Mister Spock!”

Spock somehow acknowledged his presence without looking away from his screens.

“Sir,” Sulu said, running up to him panting, “I have to report, Sir…”

“You were absent from the defensive action, Mister Sulu, I therefore expect your report to be either extremely interesting or insulting to my intelligence.”

Sulu took a moment to translate the hidden meaning, then said, “I won’t make any excuses, Sir. I got… well, distracted.”

“Doing what”

“I ran into a scout from the Gorn ship, Sir. We were both stuck in a bad position and couldn’t get out of it until the Reavers passed. Had a good talk, though…”

Spock looked up at Sulu wide eyed, “You spoke with it?”

“Yes Sir.”

A few moments passed, and when Sulu didn’t continue Spock asked, “And?”

“They’re not interested in us, at least not primarily. Said his ship is called ‘Francium.’ As far as I can tell, it’s a military fishing vessel. They’re here to collect specimens for a dinner order.”

Spock raised a brow.

“His exact words, Sir. It didn’t make much sense to me either… um… I gather that their nutritional needs favor invertebrates, so I guess they’re here, sort of, foraging, or something. Either way, he gave me the impression their ship is one of the front line vessels of their fleet. I told him that Enterprise was on a peaceful mission and we weren’t looking to fight anyone, he said they were the same way.”

“Fascinating.” Spock thought this over for a long moment, almost blissfully satisfied with the knowledge, “What do they know about this planet?”

“The translator might have malfunctioned, Sir… but according to the scout, the planet was inhabited by a thriving civilization only three years ago. When they came back a year later, the place was in ruins. If the timing is right, then the cataclysm must have happened just a couple of weeks after Constellation’s survey.”

“Then they already know what we have just discovered, Lieutenant… what else have you determined?”

Sulu shrugged, “Apart from that, nothing. He gave every indication that they’re not interested in us at all. They’re only here for the food, Sir. There are certain invertebrate species they consider to be delicacies that they can’t find on any other planet.”

Spock nodded. “I’ll expect a full report when you return to the Enterprise, Lieutenant… where is the Gorn now?”

“He took off as soon as the coast was clear. He seemed nervous.”

“Understandable, given the circumstances…” the room crackled with light, and Doctor McCoy along with a small collection of children vanished into the swirling lights of transporter beams. “Lieutenant, spread the word to all away teams to break camp and return to the ship immediately. We may be in danger if we remain any longer.”

Sulu nodded and moved off to the triage center’s command post to circulate the order.

 

 

DOPPELGANGER

Doppelgänger Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.1

– 0820 hours –

Ensign Rand had a pretty good idea what to expect when she got the security call from sickbay. There weren’t, after all, that many things that could go wrong in a sickbay that might require the presence of security officers, and most of those had to do with guests and civilians. Enterprise’s only guests, as Rand confirmed on entering the room, was a gaggle of extremely anxious toddlers and pre-teens, crowded around the glass divider between the infirmary section and the surgery suite. Some were sitting in a circle muttering half-remembered prayers, three were penciling good-luck symbols on voodoo dolls, and two were actually presiding over the entire group with stern, authoritarian expressions with AKM rifles slung from their shoulders. It was probably the two armed children that prompted the call for security, not that they were making any threatening actions when Rand walked in. Maybe just the idea of a couple of twelve year olds with machineguns was enough to make the medical staff more than a little nervous; she couldn’t really blame them.

Nor could she blame the children either. After all, the closest thing they had to a parent had been in surgery for the last two hours, and that would have been stressful enough even under normal circumstances.

“Miss Rand, good to see you,” Doctor Ayash flagged her over as soon as she came in. The children had largely congealed around him like bees around a bowl of honey, seeking any sort of medical reassurance he could give them that their beloved Admiral would be with them again soon. “I was just explaining to our little guests here how poor Miri is going to be up and about very soon.”

Rand nodded at the other two security officers, and they both took positions on opposite sides of sickbay, far enough away that they didn’t seem to be a threat but close enough that a wide-field phaser stun could immobilize everyone in the room if something went wrong. Rand moved through the middle of the group and remembered that old introduction her gymnastics teacher used to use when she was little, “Good morning, friends! What seems to be the trouble?”

The two kids with the guns – a boy and a girl who looked like they might have been twins – answered dutifully, “Admiral Miri is in surgery, Ma’am,” said the boy, “We’re here to guard her until she’s fully recovered.”

Rand could relate. It hadn’t been that long since she’d dropped out of college to enlist in Starfleet; she was still young enough to remember what it was like to be a child. “You don’t need to guard her from us, do you? I thought we were friends?”

The girl shook her head, “Not from you, but what if the ship gets attacked by aliens?”

Rand smiled, “As I’m sure the Admiral would tell you, since you’re on our ship now, defending it is our responsibility and you are our guests. If we were on your fishing boat, you wouldn’t want us walking around with our guns all the time, would you?”

“I guess not,” the twins exchanged long, confirmatory glances. Then both pointed their rifles at the ceiling, detached the ammunition magazines and cleared the round from the chamber, a set of movements so precise and so well practiced that Rand realized they probably knew those weapons better than she knew her phaser.

“My name’s Janice,” she said, collecting their ammunition but – respectfully – not their weapons, “Can you tell me your names?”

“Leila,” said the boy, pointing to his sister.

“Nabi,” said the girl, pointing to her brother.

And suddenly there was a ripple of responses from all around them, voices on top of voices all saying at once:

“Gabriel!”

“Sami.”

“My name’s Karr.”

“Your name’s not Karr!”

“Sahib.”

“I’m Jasmine.”

“No you’re not! I’m Jasmine!”

“I’m Ramsi.”

“Moshe.”

“Peter the Rabbit.”

“That’s such a stupid name!”

“Peter the Rabbit is a wise name!”

“My name’s Forest Gump! People call me Forest Gump!”

“Hold on, now, one at a time,” Rand held up her hands, but the kids went straight from barking their names to arguing about what their names actually were. Half of them, evidently, went by pseudonyms that the other half didn’t like.

Leila and Nabi silenced it all with a single loud military-style yelp, so fast and so curt that the translator didn’t really pick it up. It might have been an obscenity, or maybe just a sharp phoneme the others were trained to follow; either way, the entire room became totally silent, and Leila turned their attention towards something more constructive. “Doctor Ayash says Miri has cancers.”

Rand looked at Ayash. The older Doctor nodded, “Doctor McCoy is doing an operation to remove them now. He’s very good, you know.”

“But what if she bleeds out?” Nabi asked, “Like in TV shows, when they do a operation, sometimes the operation people die.”

Ayash stepped back a few paces and pulled a medical kit off the table behind him. He carefully selected several surgical tools and a medical tricorder, and then gestured for Nabi to walk towards him. “I’ll show you how easy it is, okay? All of you gather around, you’ll want to see this.”

The promise of a demonstration was too tempting to resist. In seconds all twenty five children had formed a tight formation around the doctor, and Nabi and Leila were standing in front of him with nervous but excited expressions. “First we use this,” Ayash opened the tricorer and took out the scanning head, “It’s a little gadget that can see inside you. We can use it to see what’s wrong. And you, little Nabi…” Ayash ran the scanning head next to the boy’s chin, “Does your tooth hurt?”

Leila answered for him, “He has a bad tooth. It’s really painful. Sometimes he wakes me up at night crying like a bit fat baby, always ‘aww, aww,'”

Nabi, for his part, just nodded.

“Want me to fix it?”

Nabi shook his head and clenched his jaw shut.

“It won’t hurt at all. In fact, it might even tickle.”

Nabi grinned, the reluctantly opened his mouth.

Ayash took another scan, then turned the tricorder around so the kids could see, “The machine tells me that Nabi’s left bottom molar is dead and it’s gotten a little infected. So we’re going to do a little operation to fix it.”

“An operation?” Nabi looked mortified.

“Yes. Right here.”

“Here?”

“Right here. Right now.” Ayash took out two surgical tools. Each of them could be mistaken for a simple fountain pen any other day, but Ayash demonstrated the first by using it against the second. “First I’m going to grab it with these forceps here, like this,” he aimed the tip of one “pen” at the handle of the second and pushed a button. A faint blue beam sparkled between them, and when Ayash moved his hand, the second tool moved with it, gripped in the air by the implacable force of a short-range tractor beam. “Then I’ll take this other tool,” he dropped the second pen into his open hand, “And I’ll make the tooth wiggly so we can just take it right out. It’ll be just like when you were little and you used to get loose teeth.”

That didn’t seem all that scary. Nabi relaxed, though even he didn’t understand how this was supposed to work.

Ayash put both tools down on the table, then before Nabi could ask the question, loaded a hypospray and shot a quick injection into his jaw. Nabi flinched, but before he could even complain Ayash put his hand on the top of the boy’s head and aimed the forceps right at the side of his jaw. “Open wide, now.”

Nabi opened, and looking straight into his mouth, Ayash adjusted the beam depth until the end of the tractor beam passed through the skin, held it steady until it was poised directly over the offending tooth. Then he locked the beam in place with another button and let it go; the tractor beam held in place, and the forceps hovered in the air, attached to Nabi’s jaw by its invisible graviton beam.

“Whoa!” Leila’s was the first reaction, followed by amazed gasps and “oohs” and “ahhs” from the kids. It had all the dynamics of a magic trick so far, except for Nabi, who could only get the sense that something really improbable had just happened to the forceps but couldn’t tell what.

Ayash took the second “pen” and adjusted it the same way, first toying with the beam depth so the guide beam would pass through the side of the boy’s jaw until it was at just the right spot on the offending tooth. When he pressed the second button, the beam passed harmlessly through the side of his cheek and began to slowly ablate the tissues around the tooth, literally vaporizing part of the gum and the root of the infected molar. The widest part of the beam could scoop and cauterize the entire root in a milisecond, much faster than the reaction time of his pain receptors, and once his work was done, Ramsi gently lifted the forceps, moved the now-extracted tooth out of Nabi’s open mouth and held it in the air for all to see. “How was that, huh?”

“You mean you just to-” Nabi patted his jaw then suddenly smiled, “My tooth doesn’t hurt anymore!”

The rest of the children were equally impressed: “That’s cool!”

“I wanna be a doctor when I grow up.”

“It’s, like, magic!”

“One time, I went to a dentist, and he used a big metal drill with a big-”

“My tooth hurts too!”

“Mine too!”

“Me next!”

“Can you put fangs in my mouth?”

“I want a gold tooth!”

“Excuse me, friends!” Rand shouted from the back of the rapidly-exploding formation, “We can’t all get operations! Remember, Miri still has to get her tumors taken out, and that will take some time.”

Leila asked, “She’ll be okay, won’t she?”

“Of course she will,” Nabi answered, “It’s just like taking out my tooth.”

“Right. Now,” Rand gestured for them all to stand; half of them did, the other half stood only on seeing their peers stand up. “While we’re waiting, how about we head down to the cafeteria and get some ice cream? Anyone want ice cream?”

To Rand’s surprise, no one showed much excitement about the idea. Which was briefly confusing, until it occurred to her that most of these kids had grown up in the decay and desperation of a dying planet, and the only ones old enough to remember the pre-calamity times were already living in a war zone. Less than a handful of them had any idea what ice cream was. “Come on, friends,” Rand started for the door, “Today is your lucky day.”

Leila and Nabi shrugged, and followed her out of sickbay. The others followed Leila and Nabi, and in about half a minute the sickbay was empty of anyone but medical staff and a handful of Starfleet patients.

Ayash breathed a sigh of relief, then tapped the intercom button for the surgical suite as he stared through the glass, “How’s the patient, Leonard?”

McCoy – who was, at the moment, beaming a walnut-sized tumor out of Miri’s chest with a microtransporter – said without looking up, “Separated from the planet, this all becomes ordinary cancer tissue, and alot of it’s gotten into her lungs. It’s gonna take more microtrans work than usual.”

Ayash looked at the patient, sleeping a dreamless sleep under the gentle coaxing of neural calipers on the operating table. She would never truly know how close she came to degenerating into one of the half-mad abominations she’d been fleeing all her life; even Doctor McCoy didn’t care to contemplate it. “How much time do you need?”

McCoy shrugged, “Should have it in another four hours. Why don’t you have the kids come back after dinner. She’ll be up by then.”

– 1859 hours –

Captain Kirk arrived in the conference room exactly five seconds before 1900 hours. He hadn’t exactly planned it this way, he had simply underestimated the speed of the turbolift and overestimated the walking distance from the lift station to the conference room, two mistakes that cancelled out magically. Spock, of course, was able to deduce this by the Captain’s body language and stride, and it mystified him to the point that he almost greeted him with hostility, “Captain. It is agreeable to see you again.” And Spock inwardly wondered about human superstitions and what kind of strange mystical force compelled Kirk to always be at exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

“Yeah, I missed you too, Spock. And happy new year.” He took a seat next to the computer console – Spock’s reserved station – and searched the faces of the assembled staff. Doctor Marcus was opposite both of them, with the balance of the table occupied by Doctor McCoy, Lieutenant York, Lieutenant Sulu, Ensign Chekov, Lieutenant Bailey, Commander Scott and Lieutenant Uhura. “So what have you found?”

Spock summarized his results as succinctly as he could manage, the relevant information already on the conference room screen. “We have now determined the total age of the planet we have come to call Doppelgänger to be approximately one hundred and sixty five Earth years. The remnant of the humanoid civilization we have encountered came into existence between five and ten years ago, only to be ravaged by a cataclysm that caused widespread mutation and political upheaval approximately eighteen months ago, culminating in the events of today. Current readings indicate the planet will be uninhabitable within six months, totally inert within a year.”

Kirk stared at Spock in something like awe, but more subdued than that. It was the face of a man who had just been told his car wouldn’t start because of a tribble stuck in the fuel line. “What is your support for that conclusion?”

“Anomalous radiometric and quantum dating results required more detailed analysis of the age of structures and organisms. We determined that certain materials – particularly stones, metals and minerals -showed disproportionate age readings compared to others. Isolating samples from the planet’s environment yields still more discrepancies, however a cross-sectional analysis between two clusters of samples, one isolated and the other not, indicates a pattern of chronological disparity. In summation, Captain, this planet is subject to extreme rapid aging.”

“We saw this in the cell structure of the reavers,” McCoy added, “During mitosis the cells begin to divide normally, but their DNA structures immediately become viral. They form unstable tissues that resemble cancer cells, grown too fast to sustain themselves, so they have to metastasize into surrounding tissues just to keep from disintegrating.”

“Similar effects were observed by the inhabitants themselves,” said Spock, gesturing to Lieutenant York’s report on the monitor, “Our most useful information comes from archival information, amateur videos and news sources compiled by the group of survivors who call themselves ‘the Onlies.’ This, combined with peripheral information culled from our own field work, captured the rapid disintegration of modern buildings as their supporting structures began to decay at an unbelievable rate. Several independent sources recorded the collapse of the Sears Tower as its load-bearing structure succumbed to rapid oxidation.”

“You’re saying its things that are accelerated?” Kirk said, “It’s not time dilation or any similar phenomenon?”

Spock nodded, “Quantum dating and radiometric dating both depend on the regularity of certain natural processes, either quantum oscillation of g-mesons, or the decay of radioactive elements such as carbon-14. In both cases, the rates of oscillation and decay are accelerated only in surface samples. Most core samples and deep strata specimens remain unaffected.”

Kirk nodded slowly, taking this in and accepting it as fact. If Spock had discovered it, no matter how strange it sounded, he knew better than to doubt him. “What could have caused that?”

“Our two competing theories, composed by Doctor Marcus and myself, both assume that that this is a consequence of the technique used in the planet’s creation. I believe that this may have been intended by the designers, and that this planet may have been designed to live a short life before destroying itself. For what purpose, I cannot say.”

“And Doctor Marcus’ theory?” Kirk looked at her coldly, almost as a challenge. Did she have something better than Spock, or was this just a token effort by the resident civilian?

“My theory,” Marcus said, “is that these conditions may have resulted from unplanned alien influence. In particular, that Gorn ship in orbit.”

“You think the Gorn are responsible for everything that’s happening down there?” asked Lieutenant Bailey.

Doctor Marcus shrugged, “Not directly. But based on the information we’ve collected, the irregularities are most widespread on the North American west coast, close to the Gorn’s present fishing grounds. They either did something to the planet that destabilized it, or their very presence is somehow disruptive.”

“Doctor Marcus’ theory does have merit, Captain,” Spock added, “Sensor readings of the Gaza Strip area indicate severe seismic and radioactive anomalies following the departure of our shuttlecraft. The region’s atomic clock may have somehow been disrupted by the subspace emissions from our drive systems, in which case even our presence in orbit may be contributing to greater instability.”

“Yes, that’s an interesting theory, but it doesn’t really explain what the hell is wrong with this planet, does it?” Kirk leaned forward, “We’ve orbited planets before without warping their… atomic clocks, as you put it. Why would it be happening here?”

Spock frowned, “At the risk of stating the obvious, I would say it is because this planet is artificial, and may not be fully formed yet. If it was created through a phased-matter manipulation process similar to our transporters, on a scale this large the planet itself may yet to have completely materialized even a hundred and sixty years after its formation. As with, for example, concrete: it takes a certain amount of time to ‘cure.'”

“And the larger the structure,” Scotty said, “the longer it takes to cure.”

“Precisely. Beaming people or objects, the analogous ‘curing’ requires a handful of seconds. A planet this size may still be in flux even now.”

“So, okay,” Kirk rubbed his temples, “The planet is becoming unstable, parts of it are aging too quickly… this explains the mutations?”

“Parts of their cells are aging at accelerated rates, yes. The discrepancy is only a matter of milliseconds, but it is enough to cause mutations and aberrant behaviors. In other cases – those of buildings and artificial structures – the acceleration is more marked. For another example, several days ago we identified an American naval vessel – the USS John McCain – sitting abandoned in its dry dock in San Diego.” Spock put an image of that vessel on the viewscreen, showing an orbital image of a rusted but otherwise intact vessel sitting half-collapsed on a giant concrete platform near the shore. “This is the same vessel an hour ago,” and this time, the ship was gone; in its place was a pile of reddish soil hundreds of feet high, the results of an iron hull completely decomposed into rust, a process that should otherwise have taken hundreds of years. “Curiously, this phenomenon is not entirely consistent. The USS John C. Stennis, docked only a quarter mile away, remains in relatively good condition, despite being infested with reavers and some of their male counterparts.”

“Radiometric data from the rocky mountains,” Doctor Marcus added, “Shows a timeslip of almost five thousand years, while the Swiss Alps show almost no timeslip at all. And based on deep strata samples we beamed aboard, the planet’s mantle is at least thirty million years older than the crust.”

Kirk looked around the table, wondering if this was about to become the Spock and Carol show. “Mister Sulu.”

“Sir?”

“Your friend, the Runner. What was his take on all of this?”

“He seemed troubled by the changes the planet was going through. They’re not exploring it like we are, but they’re definitely curious.”

Kirk nodded, then turned to his communications officer, “How about news sources? What did the locals know about all this?”

“The Onlies did a pretty good job of compiling the records, considering their limited resources. The first mention of the mutations seems to coincide with the arrival of a Gorn ship some time in the year 1998, first as conventional but extremely unusual cancer cases, but as these cases increased it lead to the first reports of the Reaver phenomenon in 2000. But even as early as 1996, there are some confused reports of age anomalies, structures weakening in days that are supposed to last for years, reports of airplanes fresh off the assembly line collapsing from metal fatigue…”

“The age distortion is along a pattern of geologic time,” Spock added, “the more recently something formed, the less susceptible it is to age distortion. It remains a possibility that the creation of this planet one hundred sixty five years ago was of a ground-up approach, accelerated by degrees in order of which structures took the longest to form. Complex life took less time and was therefore subject to less acceleration. Humanoid life, less time still, same again for intelligence, technology, social structure…”

“But that doesn’t explain the mutations,” Marcus said, “If this was all according to design, something must have gone wrong.”

Spock folded his arms, “This type of rapid development method does not take into account the presence of necessary developmental dead ends, processes and structures that develop slowly, but at a specific time have a large effect on other processes. Many human characteristics, for example, develop slowly over a period of years and undergo final development abruptly at the onset of puberty. To reverse this process – with rapid development of body features followed by extremely slow maturation – evidently results in the extreme distortion of the genotype, resulting in physical deformities and behavioral abnormalities. Now, having said that,” Spock lowered his head, “Logically, I must concede the fact that some triggering factor must be responsible even for this.”

Kirk stiffened, “Why?”

“It seems evident that the mutagenic cataclysm occurred at a pivotal moment, possibly when the planet neared the completion of its intended form. Something interrupted that completion, and the entire planet began to mutate. The Gorn may have introduced a contaminant, or some other factor we are not aware of.”

“So your theory,” Kirk said, “is that this planet was created – somehow – a hundred and sixty five years ago. That furthermore, this planet was supposed to become what it was meant to become three years ago, but something interfered. Am I getting all that, Mister Spock?”

“In summation, Captain, yes.”

Chekov added, “But isn’t it possible the planet did achieve its final form? Think about this: perhaps the planet was only programmed to have a normal evolution up to a certain point, and beyond that point the program terminates and what we’re seeing now is the leftovers?”

“Completed, neglected, and fallen into disrepair…” Spock nodded, “That, also, is a possibility.”

Kirk said, “But it still leaves us with three basic questions: who created this planet, why did they do it, and how did they do it.”

Spock sat up a little, “We are somewhat closer to the how, Captain. Circumstantial evidence suggests massive application of some type of quantum replication technology or similar transporter device on a massive scale…”

“That’s still circumstantial. I want something solid. The Federation Council wants to know why, Starfleet wants to know who, and the science ministry wants to know how…” Kirk shot a glance at Doctor Marcus, “and I suspect they already have in mind who they want to replicate the process once how becomes known.”

“Or develop their own, inspired by it. And I don’t mind telling you, Captain, this entire mission has been pretty damned inspiring.”

Doctor McCoy said, “Jim, I’ve been talking with those kids we beamed up from the surface. Most of them were born after the mutations started, but the two oldest mentioned some things that made my hair stand up. They say that a few years ago there were rumors about an alien invasion in Japan…”

“Speaking of which, Doctor,” Kirk asked, “How are they holding up? I’m told a few were injured on the planet.”

“They all checked out. Especially Miri, the oldest. I had to remove about five kilograms of tumors, but she’ll make a full recovery in a day or so,” McCoy turned to Spock, “if we’d gotten to her a few hours later, she’d be eating carrion off the streets by now. Whatever’s happening to these people, the effect only lasts as long as they’re near the planet.”

Kirk nodded. “Sorry to interrupt, go ahead.”

“Well,” McCoy went on, “I had Scotty and Uhura check the media archives we pulled from Miri’s hard drive…” he glanced at Uhura.

“They confirm a slew of UFO sightings in the Pacific region not long before the mutation period,” Uhura finished.

“They must have spotted the Gorn,” Doctor Marcus said.

“That’s what I thought at first, but the most detailed reports describe, and I quote,” Uhura pulled up a note file on his palmcomp and red it aloud, “‘The total eclipse of the sun by an unknown object other than the moon.'”

That’s a little unsettling…”

Uhura went on, “Yeah, but then I had York compare press releases between real Earth and this Earth. They’re identical until the time of that incident, and until the mutations start to manifest there are only three one major discrepancies. Firstly, the entire satellite communications network became totally inoperable, all GPS and communications satellites ceased to function in an instant. It was believed to be related to the eclipse event. But that issue slipped into the background with the second discrepancy: an almost global panic at a certain point when ground observers suddenly noticed the presence of the second moon.”

Kirk raised a brow, “Doppelgänger has two moons…”

“Right, but remember that other report mentions the moon. Meaning that prior to that point, the people on this world believed they had a single moon. They didn’t seem to notice the second until after that anomalous eclipse event, and after that they observed that both moons were significantly different from the one they…” Uhura hesitated on this point, “The one they landed on in the 60s.”

Did they land on the moon?” Sulu asked, “Constellation’s report emphasizes that there were no spacecraft or satellites in orbit of the planet…”

“They seem to remember that they did, but it’s unlikely it really happened.”

Spock added, “I suspect a certain amount of development time would be required, even if this planet was created instantly in its completed form. The inhabitants were probably programmed with the memories and experiences of real humans of the early twenty first century. The current group of survivors shares no memories in common with any real person, they were all born during or after the onset of decay, yet are not themselves immune to it.”

“That’s very unsettling,” Kirk said, “Replicating a planet is one thing, but replicating an entire society right down to individual memories…”

“Captain,” Uhura interrupted, “The third major discrepancy before the mutations comes from an activist group called the Sea Shephards Conservation Society, a group of volunteers opposed to illegal whaling in the Southern Oceans. Those reports indicated the complete disappearance of Humpback whales after that species seemed to be recovering, followed shortly by the disappearance of the entire Minke species.”

“How is that significant?” Marcus asked.

“Earth records show the Humpback was hunted to extinction in the 2040s after anti-whaling laws became un-enforceable, and the Minke was never threatened with extinction in the first place. Timeslip aside, this planet is in the equivalent year of about 2009, so they shouldn’t be extinct yet. But three days of sensor passes and oceanic probes, there’s no sign of the Humpbacks or the Minkes anywhere on the planet.”

Commander Scott smiled. Then he faintly laughed.

“Mister Scott?” Spock looked at him sideways.

“Our first candidate for ‘why’ Mister Spock,” Scott said with a grin, “This planet was created because someone in this wide galaxy wanted some whales.”

Marcus snorted, “With that kind of technology, they could have just replicated them.”

“Yeah. That’s exactly what they did.” McCoy’s eyes twinkled, “Think about it, Spock. We can clone tissues in a laboratory, we can even stimulate them to grow faster, but you still have to incubate those tissues somewhere, and the best incubators always mimic that tissue’s natural environment. And if you were to clone an entire species – even if you meant to transplant them elsewhere – wouldn’t you want to do it on a planet that most closely resembled its native environment?”

“Especially if one intended to breed clones with natural specimens,” Spock nodded, “A very distinct possibility, Doctor.”

Kirk turned his chair towards Doctor Marcus, “Okay. That’s weird, but it’s a possible why. Now are we prepared to speculate as to whom?”

Lieutenant Bailey shrugged, “There are no known aquatic life forms with this kind of technology. The only ones who even come close are the Xindi Aquatics and the Tiburon Covenant and neither of them have the industrial capacity for anything this big.”

Sulu asked, “Why an aquatic life form? If they’re transplanting whales, they might be cultivating them for food just like the Gorn.”

“For that matter,” Chekov said, “Maybe the Gorn have created it?”

“We don’t know enough about the Gorn, but that’s unlikely given what little we know of their technology. As for sustenance… it is possible. If the development period is analogous to germination, then the whales may have been harvested at a time when the planet had sufficiently ripened to remove them from it.”

“But apart from the Minkes, they didn’t take any other cetacean species,” Uhura said, “I checked with the oceanic probes. As best we can tell, they’re all accounted for at roughly 2009 numbers…”

Bailey leaned forward, “Captain, can I make a suggestion?”

“By all means, Mister Bailey.”

“All this speculation is getting us nowhere. We need solid information from a direct source.”

Kirk looked slightly annoyed. “We know that, Mister Bailey. Unfortunately, Mister Spock won’t know how to travel though time for another hundred and twenty eight years, so direct observation is out of the question.”

Emotional control on the brink, Spock almost rolled his eyes.

“Yes, Sir, I understand… but I think there might be a way.”

Kirk tilted his head invitingly, “You have a suggestion, I’m all ears.”

“One hundred sixty five years, right Mister Spock?”

“Approximately sixty thousand four hundred and thirty eight days, Lieutenant.”

Bailey pretended to understand how or why that was relevant and went on, “From a far enough distance, we could view the creation through a telescope.”

Sulu said, “We don’t know the exact date of the planet’s creation. It would take us weeks of warping back and forth between observation points to figure out the exact moment of creation. Plus, we’d have no way to monitor the progress of the planet…”

“We could arrange for another starship to take remote readings from that distance. Get a before and after shot of what the system looked like one hundred and sixty five years ago.”

Kirk glanced towards the computer console. “Spock?”

“There are no Federation vessels in the appropriate range. The closest is the USS Edinburgh, which can be in proper position within two to three months. However, there are a number of foreign organizations in the appropriate range: the Tandar Colonies, the Ferengi Alliance, and the Cardassian Union.”

“Tandar’s probably out of the question,” Kirk said, “and we have no diplomatic contact with the Ferengi and I seriously doubt we ever will… what was the third one?”

“The Cardassian Union,” Bailey said.

“Never heard of it.”

“The starship Achilles made first contact eighteen years ago. They have had good initial relations with the Federation, despite some internal economic problems.”

“What sort of problems?”

“Well, they’re at a technical level equivalent to late 20th century Earth, except for having recently developed warp drive and some computer technology that’s surprisingly advanced even by our standards. Their home world is resource-poor, so most of their space service is geared for energy exploration. They have a few outlying colonies and deep space telescopes, but only a handful of ships capable of high warp.”

“That might work.” Kirk drummed his fingers on the table, “Uhura, under my authority, contact the Cardassian government, explain the situation to them and offer to share any information we have in exchange for their cooperation.”

Uhura squinted at him, “Are we authorized to do that, Sir? I thought this mission was classified?”

“Technically it is, but our five-year mission is public knowledge, isn’t it?”

“Good point…”

“So, if they want to send a ship to join the effort, give them my permission.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“They’ll probably divert the Grazine to join us, Captain,” Bailey said, “It’s their most advanced starship, the only one outfitted for deep space missions. Her top speed is only about warp five, so maybe three weeks to get here if they have a good navigator.”

Kirk squinted at him, “Mister Bailey, are you the local expert on Cardassians or have you simply memorized the specs of every primitive space fleet in the quadrant?”

Bailey shrugged, “I was assigned the Bajor Sector for my thesis, Captain. Cardassia is one of the planets the ancient Bajorans are believed to have colonized.”

“Then you’ll be our liaison officer when they arrive. Until then,” and Kirk addressed it to the entire room, “Continue your analysis, make sure we cover all possible leads before we bring in our partners. Any more questions?” when no one answered after a few moments, Kirk said, “Dismissed.”

 

 

IRRATIONAL

Doppelgänger Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.1

– 2040 hours –

USS Enterprise was designed to function in deep space for months or years at a time without ever visiting a starbase. Its interiors were spacious and forgiving, despite being thoroughly compartmentalized and reinforced against fire and exposure damage. In the saucer module – which contained almost the entire volume of the ship’s habitation spaces – the inner hull was divided into three concentric rings around the “core” compartment, with each ring divided into sixteen independent compartments with their own life support, batteries and data servers. Command and control spaces and other vital areas of the ship were located closest to the core block, while quarters for ship’s company filled out the middle ring of the saucer in sixteen grouped compartments, and the working areas of the ship – machine shops, laboratories, sensor bays and airlocks – dominated the outer ring, closest to the rim.

Each of Enterprise’s crew compartments was its own little neighborhood, with turbolift stops accessing each one individually. Crew assignments were arranged so that officers who lived together rarely hard to work together, and since each individual cabins all had connections to the food processors below decks, they didn’t even have to eat together. The old human saying “familiarity breeds contempt” wasn’t entirely logical, but in alot of cases it was an undeniable truth.

What Security Chief McCahil was finding increasingly puzzling was the few cases where contempt had been bred to absurdity in the absence of familiarity. The number of fights between on-duty officers had more than tripled since New Years, and though on one level he knew this to be the usual holdiay-season dustup, some of the disorder was beginning to exhibit patterns now that he was beginning to see the same faces dragged into his security office over and over again, each time for totally different yet somehow totally same reasons. He’d last seen Lieutenant Onise, for example, after a fist fight with one of his supervisors in the belief that the latter was too friendly with his ex-girlfriend; similar case for Ensign Ayala, who was confined to quarters for three days for tattooing the words “chauvinist pig” on the forehead of one of her inebriated co-workers. His overall conclusion was that both of these people were a pair of misanthropes who were probably secretly in love with each other and hated themselves for it. Having them both dragged into his office at the same time for involvement in the exact same incident was… well, interesting to say the least. “Let me get this straight,” McCahil leaned over his desk towards Ayala but fixed his gaze on Onise, “You’re reporting Ensign Ayala for… attempted murder? Is that it?”

“Yes, Sir, I am.”

McCahil looked at him incredulous. Then he leaned towards Onise and looked at Ayala, “And your contention is that the incident you recorded in your log…”

“It was an accidental shooting, as I reported. Therefore his accusation is groundless and he should be reprimanded for making it.”

McCahil raised a brow, “You don’t reprimand people for having opinions, Ayala. What I’m more interested in is how the hell you managed to accidentally shoot a man in the testicles with a perfectly functional phaser rifle.”

Ayala cleared her throat, struggled to maintain her facade of complete knowledge and control of the situation, “There was some odd behavior in the firing circuit. It had happened once before and I thought it was going to discharge so I tried to warn the Lieutenant. He didn’t listen.”

“Your warning was a threat!” Onise snarled at her, “You were mad just becau-”

“First of all,” McCahil cut him off, “If your overshield had been active at the time like it was supposed to be, the phaser blast wouldn’t have affected you at all. You should be reprimanded just for that. Second of all, a phaser on low stun at a distance of five meters, discharged into the lower abdomen, is not a life threatening injury. Not even close. If anything it’ll temporarily lower your sperm count, which isn’t such a bad idea considering the duration of this tour. So your accusation is completely groundless.”

Onise sighed, “Yes, Sir, but…”

“As for the accident report…” McCahil shook his head, “I’m having trouble buying this, Ensign.”

“Respectfully, Sir, I’m not selling it. It’s just a fact.”

“Then how do you explain the operation log from the targeting monocle that suggests the phaser discharged intentionally?”

“The unit malfunctioned, Sir. I can’t explain why it wouldn’t reflect that fact. In any case, I had determined by myself that the malfunction was in the fire control circuit, which I have already replaced with a spare.”

“How convenient.”

“You can check that with the maintenance division, Sir.”

“I intend to. Either way, consider yourself on report.” Leaning towards her, but turning back to Onise, McCahil asked, “Now, what’s your story?”

“My story about what, Sir?”

“Do you have any theories about why one of your shipmates might desire to intentionally shoot you in the gonads?”

“Simple malice, Chief.”

“That’s one theory… but see, most of the time when someone is pissed off enough to take a phaser to you, they’ll just shoot you in the back and then claim ignorance. This is called “fragging.” It usually happens to an officer with a big mouth and a small mind, which based on your record is you in a nutshell. But see, I’m curious right now as to what exactly would prompt one of your fellow officers to specifically shoot you in the nuts.”

Onise cleared his throat and struggled to maintain his facade of complete knowledge and control of the situation, “I didn’t want to say anything, Lieutenant, but… well, during the away mission, and even before that, Ensign Ayala’s behavior has been incredibly erratic.”

“Really?”

Onise nodded, “I um… well, the Ensign has made a number of advances… sexual advances, Lieutenant.”

Ayala looked at him sideways, as if he was claiming to be in contact with the Virgin Mary.

McCahil’s expression was little different. “Really?”

“I believe Ensign Ayala was angry with me for rejecting those advan-”

“You know what, forget I asked. You two… I don’t know what the hell is going on with you and I really don’t care. You need to pull your heads out of your asses and focus on your damn jobs. Is that understood?”

“Yes Sir,” they both said.

“Now,” McCahil turned his attention to his desktop computer and pulled up their personnel files, “Lieutenant Onise, you’re berthed in 212, port side. Ayala you’re in 204, starboard side. Obviously, there’s no reason you should run into each other while off duty, so take steps to keep it that way. I’m also changing your duty roster so you’ll never have to work with each other again either. And let me make this clear: if you can’t find it in your combined willpower to get along with each other, you do us all a favor and avoid any further contact for the duration of this mission. Is this understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” they both said in unison.

“Good. Now get the hell out of my office. Ayala, you go first. Onise, stay for a minute, I need you to drop off a requisition form to the machinists.”

Ensign Ayala did go first, not sure if McCahil was going to talk privately with Onise, and not really caring. She walked out of his office and down the pristine, shiny white corridors of the administrative section to the nearest turbolift, conveniently parked at the stop just for her. Four seconds later, the lift opened to an identical but light blue colored corridor – color coded for her residential section – which, in turn, lead into the vast open space of the “Iron Town,” Compartment 204.

No other starship in the fleet had accommodations like this, and Enterprise probably wouldn’t survive without it. Like all the other Junior Officer’s areas, Iron Town was a large open atrium two decks high with sun-spectrum lights built into the ceiling and a set of strategically placed circulation fans hidden in the bulkheads, all for a fairly convincing sensation of being outdoors. This single compartment had twenty two double-bunk cabins, two small lounge areas with seating for a dozen officers and a sub deck with storage compartments for emergency supplies and survival gear in the event of a ship-wide catastrophe. It reminded Ayala of one of Earth’s indoor shopping malls, only a little more cozy and a lot less crowded.

In some ways, the ground level “lobby” floor was the center of social life for each compartment, and Iron Town 204’s lobby contained a green faux-grass garden lined with imitation park benches and a large empty platform where some kind of statue was probably supposed to have been mounted before Enterprise left space dock. Presently, that statue was occupied by a mechanical pitching machine firing sixteen-inch softballs at a spot in the courtyard that had been emptied of tables by Ensign Meaney and Lieutenant Badjarule, the latter holding a wooden baseball bat and crouched in a stance, a mangled officer’s field manual doubling as home plate. A few others sitting off to the side were half watching the game and half chatting amongst themselves, Ensign Meaney being in the midst of it all along with Ensign Riley and Lieutenant Sulu. Ensign Torens and Ensign Doyle were there too, but not engaging the others in conversation; actually, they had both squeezed into a single chair in one corner of the table where they were both intensely and lovingly admiring each other’s eyes.

The pitching machine fired off another salvo, Badjarule swung and blasted the softball towards the far uppermost corner of the room where it bounced off a structural column and began a chaotic, pinball-like ricochet around the compartment. Perhaps a dozen officers standing in the lobby and the balcony tracked the ball’s progression, ready to reach out and grab it if it should come within range. Some of these officers were playing in the game, knowing that whoever caught the ball before it hit the deck would get the next turn at bat, while others were just enjoying the novelty of having to not-get-hit by a wayward softball. Naturally, anyone who didn’t want to be bothered by a shipboard softball game was either in their quarters or safely tucked way behind Badjarule’s line of fire.

Ayala wasn’t in the mood for ball games today, but she didn’t wan to retreat to the relative seclusion her cabin yet. She found an empty seat at the table with the others and quietly dropped into it. A conversation was under way, currently dominated by Ensign Meaney, in the middle of explaining, “It’s a fact of sentient life forms. Everyone has this one pet peeve that drives them totally insane. Just the mention of the subject makes them crazy. At least one, but everyone does. It’s like a psychological berserk button.”

Ensign Torens looked dubious, but not actively so. Just bored with Meaney’s usual nonsense and eager to talk about something else. “If you say so…”

“I’ll prove it. See, I happen to know Lieutenant Sulu’s berserk button is the idea of having a food slot on the bridge.”

Sulu looked at him angrily, “Don’t you start that again.”

Meaney shrugged, “What? Don’t you think it be nice to have a food slot on the bri-”

Sulu came half out of his chair, “No it wouldn’t be nice to have a food slot on the goddamn bridge! What the hell is wrong with you?! It’s a command station, not a cafeteria! How the hell do you have time to eat something in the middle a bridge rotation?! The whole shift is only four hours long! You can’t wait a couple of damned hours to get something to eat?! Christ! If you’re that hungry in a duty cycle, you’d better be curled in a diabetic seizure, call a goddamn medical emergency if you can’t wait two freaking hours for the next cycle! What are you, bored?! Do you not have enough to do on the bridge that you have to sit their munching on fried chicken every fifteen goddamn minutes?! This is a starship, not a buffet table you fat bastard!”

Not even halfway through Sulu’s tirade, everyone within earshot had fully collapsed into hysterical laughter. Including Torens, who found the entire display not only hilarious, but completely unprecedented.

And Meaney wasn’t even finished. Gasping for breath, he slapped the table a few times to get his composure and then offered sheepishly, “Okay, no food slot… how about a coffee maker?”

A vein popped out on Sulu’s forehead, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I want sitting on my console during combat maneuvers, a big dumbass pot of hot-freaking-coffee! How about we install some water fountains in the engine room too? You never know when those high voltage lines might get ya thirsty! Christ! How the hell did you get on this ship if you can’t make it through a duty cycle with a goddamn coffee pot plugged into your gut?! You can do what the rest of your shipmates do and get your coffee from the galley, you thirsty son of a bitch!”

Ensign Riley was laughing so hard his face had turned bright red. Torens and Ayala were already hunched over the table in spasms. Meaney was quietly chuckling to himself at having pushed Sulu to the edge of madness for the fourth time today, and it didn’t seem like the man would ever become any less irritated by the very mention of the subject. And as he had before, he diffused the entire mood by commenting simply, “How about a tea kettle?”

Sulu started to launch another rant. Then he thought better of it, and seemed to immediately return to his usual calm, collected, thoughtful personage they had all come to know and love. “Tea’s fine,” he said gently, “It’s good for you.”

“Damn, Hikaru,” Ayala rasped, wiping tears from her eyes, “Just damn.”

Sulu shrugged, “Don’t even talk. We all know what it takes to set you off.”

“What? What do you mean?”

Not that it was meant to set off Ayala, but it definitely triggered something close to the surface in the rest of her comrades. All eyes turned to her, and the expressions of five officers turned to accusing scowls.

“Okay… what’d I do?” Ayala asked in protest.

Meaney was the first to ask, “Is it true that you shot Lieutenant Onise in the balls?”

Ayala shrank a little bit. “So what if it is? We gonna have a problem here?”

Sulu shrugged, “Don’t get so defensive, I mean this is Onise we’re talking about, he probably deserved it. We’re all just wondering… you know… what exactly was he doing that would prompt you to shoot him in the balls?”

“Quick question,” Ensign Riley held up a hand, “Why does Onise deser-”

“Shut up, Riley.” Meaney turned his attention back to Ayala, “He didn’t… you know… try something, did he?”

Ayala’s first thought was, for the sake of rumor control, she might as well let everyone go on thinking the worst so at least they wouldn’t look down on her for loosing her temper. On the other hand, she understood that she was messing with forces she couldn’t really control and opted to keep her exaggerations as small as possible. “We had an argument to that effect… but I maintain for the record that phaser discharged accidentally.”

“So, well… off the record, what happened down there?”

“He didn’t try anything but he was getting ready to.”

“What do you mean?” Riley asked, “Did he threaten you?”

“He’d assumed an aggressive posture.”

Long glances cycled the table as everyone there tried to figure out what she was talking about.

Ayala’s cheeks turned blue as she started to blush, “I saw that he was flexing some of his muscles in preparation for a certain action…”

“He had an erection,” Badjarule said, half listening to the conversation from home plate.

Everyone sat up and looked at Badjarule, then at Ayala in amazement.

Ayala hung her head. “I honestly thought I was in danger. But I really never meant to shoot him.”

“I don’t believe that for a minute,” Meaney grumbled, “And besides, I hope you’re aware, human males don’t have manual control of that part of the anatomy.”

“You don’t?”

“No, we don’t. It’s mostly automatic reflexes and instinct. And since I know your next question: No, human women do not have ovisepticles.”

“What’s an ovisepticle?” Sulu asked.

Meaney said plainly, “Orion men have a prehensile penis. They use it to move egg sacks from one chamber to the next, sort of like an elephant’s trunk.”

Sulu whistled in amazement, “Orion mating must be complicated.”

Ayala looked puzzled, “And human mating isn’t?”

“It is,” Badjarule said from home plate, pausing just long enough to swing at the next pitch, “but with Orion men, they have to directly locate the egg sack, fertilize it, then move the sack to an implantation site within about five minutes. With humans, it happens on a microscopic scale and it mostly takes care of itself.”

“Then why do your men have ovipositors?” Ayala asked.

Badjarule laughed, then swing at the next pitch and smashed it in a line drive straight towards the main pressure door, “It’s really big dumb rod that gets pushed around with brute force. It stiffens during arousal, but other than that they can barely move it at all.”

“Wow…” her cheeks turned almost bright blue now and she stared at the table in a state of interminable self-horror. “That actually sounds kind of… romantic.”

“Romantic?” Meany asked.

Under his breath, Sulu grumbled, “Is anyone else amazed that this discussion hasn’t gotten awkward yet?” Torens and Doyle both nodded in agreement.

“I mean… if you think about it,” Ayala went on, “it’s sort of an anatomical geiger counter, right? It’ll respond automatically to the attractiveness of a nearby female. You can’t hide your true feelings, because you don’t have conscious control of your ovipositors… huh… In hindsight, I guess I should have taken it as a complement.”

Meany started to say something else, but Riley had his attention on the corridor at the other end of the atrium to say, “Apparently we have some trouble controlling turbolifts too.”

When they looked in that direction, they saw Lieutenant Onise standing there, scanning the walkways and sky bridges and the alcoves along the bulkheads until he finally located Ayala at the table. Obviously his goal, he approached the table with the kind of arrogant swagger and a look of smug superiority that almost made Riley want to shoot him as he stood up to greet the man, “Aren’t you supposed to be on duty, Onise?”

“Shut up, Riley. Ayala, can I have a word with you please?”

Ensign Ayala slowly stood up, then sat back down in her chair facing him.

“In private, Ensign.”

“I’m off duty, Lieutenant.”

“I’m your superior officer, and I just told you…”

“I’m your superior officer,” Sulu interjected, “And I’m telling you to check that attitude in the corridor. We’re all having a nice peaceful conversation here, there’s no need for all this hostility.”

Onise glowered at Sulu, then glowered even harder at Ayala. “Look. McCahill obviously won’t do anything to resolve this situation, so I thought we could settle this like adults. So… I… uh… I really think that you owe me an apology.”

Ayala chuckled, “I’m sorry you don’t have conscious control of your reproductive organs, and I’m sorry I didn’t realize that until recently. I’m not sorry my phaser accidentally stunned you in the baby-maker.”

“Ensign Ayala…” Onise chuckled lightly, menacingly, “You and I both know, you can’t afford to loose this commission. Once Starfleet cuts you loose, there’s a whole galaxy full of colorful characters ready to make a new home for you. If that’s what you want… well… it can be arranged.”

“So could another phaser malfunction…”

“And if you even try that again, I’ll make you wish you were never born. One way or the other, you will show me proper respect.”

Even Sulu thought this was going a little far. And more to the point, it was a little out of character for Onise, whose most aggressive posture usually stopped at snide sarcasm and a rolling of the eyes. “Kembi, what the hell’s gotten into you?”

“Mind your own business, rice picker! I can handle my own woman!”

Everyone at the table looked at Sulu – and Sulu looked back at them – in tickled amazement. The thought they all shared was a universal concern, but Onise didn’t seem to be drunk…

To Riley, the turbolift station on the far bulkhead was starting to beacon to him, like a football end-zone to Onise’s football-shaped attitude. He stood up from the chair and very firmly, very carefully, gestured for Ayala to stand up, “And we all know how to handle a drunken asshole on a power trip,” he pushed her aside and picked up the chair she had been sitting on until now, “And you know what, I think this chair is about to have a malfun-” he spun around and flung the chair, as hard as he could, directly at Onise’s head. The Lieutenant was fast enough to dodge the chair, but not fast enough to dodge the suddenly-running Irishman who pounced on him in a dive, grabbed the back of his uniform shirt and pulled it over the top of his head like a hood. Blinded and disoriented, Onise swung his fists in the air, until Sulu and Meaney joined Riley and grabbing him by his arms and legs and flinging him, bodily, into the compartment’s turbolift. Sulu punched the code for Main Shuttlebay, and then stepped out before the doors could close on him.

Riley returned to the table to find Ayala beaming at him, a look of joy and gratitude he hadn’t seen on a woman since that time he sowed the nose back onto his baby sister’s teddy bear. “That was really sweet of you, Riley.”

The Ensign laughed nervously, “Awww… well… it was uh…”

“Oh, please, don’t get him started,” Ensign Meaney said as he rejoined the table, to the agreement of Sulu and Torens.

“Gentleman, I do believe the lady just paid me a compliment. Don’t get all salty on me just because you’re jealous.”

“We’re not jealous,” Sulu said, “We just hate you. Anyway, what the hell’s gotten into Kembi lately? I’ve never seem him act like that before.”

Ayala nodded, “And him talking about ‘my woman.’ What’s that all about?”

“Maybe he’s infatuated?” Riley said, “I heard somewhere that Orion woman sometimes emit pheremones that-”

Ayala shot Riley a look so angry, so chillingly violent that for a few seconds he actually forgot how to speak.

“Um… the… I… I mean, it’s just a rumor.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard many rumors about Orion women. Let me assure you-”

“God… don’t get her started.” Meaney grumbled.

Ayala took a deep breath and reconsidered her response, “Maybe some time we’ll get together and I’ll show you how many of them are true. Until then,” Ayala leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, “I still hate you”

Riley sighed, “I’m so confused…”

“Shut up, Riley,” Ayala patted him on the cheek with a heartwarming smile and then headed off to the stairway to her quarters on the second level.

Riley watched her go, then buried his head in his arms and groaned in frustration. “Screw you all. And one day I’m gonna marry that girl. And we’re gonna have, like, six kids. I’m gonna become an Admiral. And I’m gonna have a whole planet named after me.”

Sulu patted him on the shoulder sympathetically, “We know, Riley. That’s why we hate you.”

 

 

ENLIST

Doppelgänger Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.5

– 0940 hours –

“Bones, seriously, what’s with the salt shaker?” Miri asked, half complaining and half just curious, “You keep waving that thing around like-”

“It’s a scanner head,” Doctor McCoy said, finishing his third and final set of physical exams for his patient. If there were any remaining cancer cells somewhere in her body, the mutation cycle would start again, and he didn’t want to have to subject her to another round of surgeries if he didn’t have to.

“What does it do?” Miri asked.

“It takes detailed sensor readings for my tricorder.”

“What’s a tricorder?”

McCoy held up the small metallic device sitting on the desk next to her, keeping the readout display facing him. “It’s a machine that uses three different senses to gather information. Sight, sound and smell.”

Miri raised a brow, “It can smell me?”

McCoy chuckled, and touched a key on the tricorder to change the scanner’s mode. Since he was finished with the active scan anyway, he decided to switch to the passive chemical scan – for Miri’s amusement – at which point the low-pitched hum from the scanner head became a series of soft clicks. “It analyzes chemical traces in the air,” he explained, “Just like the receptors in your nose. Except it’s thousands of times more sensitive. Hell, if I programmed it right, it could tell me what you had for breakfast yesterday.”

“Cool…” She smiled fondly at the thought. Of course it was just a fancy gadget to her, but in the broader context… it was a fancy gadget on a space ship, just like the big glorious space cruisers on those TV shows and DVDs she used to watch, in those early years before running for her life came to consume all her free time. Just a reminder of those easier days-that time of peace and innocence-made her giddy with joy. “So Bones, tell me again: how far are we from Earth?”

“Five thousand kilometers, give or take,” the tricorder picked up none of the chemical traces of the cancer tissues from before. It picked up something else, though, something it couldn’t quite identify and therefore broke down into a list of chemical constituents: oxygen, carbon, phosphorous, hydrogen, nitrogen, and water vapor. The way it was configured it almost looked like an explosive compound. “Have you been handling firearms lately?”

“Not since you zapped me up here. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, nothing…” he tapped another key and the scanner head started to emit an oscillating high-pitched whine.

“What’s it doing now?” Miri asked.

“Ultrasound.” McCoy passed the scanner over her shoulders and torso, where the most intensive surgeries had removed kilograms of tumors from her chest and abdomen. “I’m making a map of your insides.”

Miri folded her arms self-consciously. And maybe just to distract herself from the examination asked, “How far are we from your Earth?”

“I don’t remember… hey Ramsi,” McCoy waved Doctor Ayash over to the biobed from across the room, distracting the junior surgeon from the all-consuming task of lasering an errant hangnail off his thumb. “How far are we from Sol right now? What was it Spock said?”

“Three hundred and twenty light years,” said Doctor Ayash. Using a translator instead of his own rendition of English, his accent had all but vanished. “Which is pretty close in galactic terms.”

“How long a travel?”

“Don’t know. A month, perhaps, with a skilled navigator.”

“I’d like to go there some day.” she smiled, her mind light years away, “Maybe even move back to Gaza? Who knows, maybe I might find a copy of myself out there?”

“You’re not bothered by that prospect?” McCoy put the scanner away and returned the tricorder to his medical kit, “I don’t think I would be comfortable with the idea of having a clone living a whole other life on some other planet.”

“Why not?” Miri grinned, “I think that would be neat. Like if there were two of me. We could get a lot of work done.”

“Young people and their adaptability…” McCoy chuckled, and as his last act as her surgeon, compared the tricorder readings with her chart displayed on the console screen next to her biobed. “Well, Ramsi?”

Doctor Ayash came to her side and looked at the chart. He nodded in approval, and said to her with a look to match, “Looks like you are having clean bill of health. We can officially set you free.”

“Thanks to you and Bones. I was terrified that one day I was going to change into one of those… those…” Miri banished the thought and strategically changed the subject to something a little less terrifying, “So what’s your Palestine like, Doctor Ramsi? Don’t tell me we’re still fighting the Zionists after all these years.”

Doctor Ayash smiled warmly, almost patronizingly, “Not exactly.”

“Well you must have overcome them somehow or else you wouldn’t be here, right?”

Ayash looked at his feet, embarrassed, “There is much history to go through, but I should say that on Earth right now, there is no more Palestine.”

Miri’s expression dropped a little. Not that she had ever particularly cared about the outcome, but it was growing more and more important for her to place her identity in the scheme of a much larger universe than she was used to. “You mean we lost.”

“Not exactly.”

“Ugh. Every time you say that phrase ‘Not exactly’ I know something weird is about to happen.”

Ayash chuckled, “I not suppose you know what an Augment is?”

Miri flinched, “Is that… uh… kind of bird?”

“No… bear with me, okay? I am having to try to skip some of the details, so try to keep up.”

“Okay…”

“There was a man in the Israeli Government, a few years after your time, named Ehud Jabez. He was intelligent, charismatic, extremely effective leader. He used his intellect to engineer political change all over middle east, installing people he could trust into positions of power, including the Palestinian Authority and even his own government. To make things easier, he unified Israel and Palestine as a single country, divided it into four Federalized districts, two Palestinian and two Jewish. He abolished the racist policies of the extremists and brought both peoples together in peace… for a time.”

“What went wrong?”

“As we finding out some years later,” Ayash went on sadly, “Jabez was what we came to call Augment: a product of genetic engineering from the Cold War when NATO countries were trying to create race of super-soldiers. Jabez was one of dozens of augments who simultaneously seized control of a few powerful governments. Along with Uday and Qussay Hussein, Pierre DeVries, Pervez Musharoff, Barrack Obama, Khan Noonien Singh, many many others. They took control of the almost the whole world and divided it up between them like game of Risk, and in short order started fighting amongst themselves. When the dust finally settled, most of the world was ruins, the augments were either killed or vanished. After Zionist movement collapsed, the Jihadists ran out of things to complain about, Israel remained Federalized, and it having been peaceful ever since.”

Miri took this all in, patiently and sagely, like the passionate history student she had once been before circumstance promoted her to Admiral of a fleet of ragtags. “So you mean that entire fifty year struggle for freedom was… what? A historical joke?”

“If it is joke, it was as our expense. I thinking that as a people – both the Palestinians and the Jews – we spent the majority of human history as race of sheep. We have wandering around looking for some good shepherd to lead us. Sometimes it was God images, other times just political leaders. Most of them lead us like lambs to slaughter.” By stunning coincidence, the sickbay doors opened as Commander Spock walked into the room, busily studying a palmcomp display while at the same time navigating his way towards Doctor McCoy, “And then we meeting the Vulcans,” Ayash nodded at Spock.

The science officer paused, noted his sudden focus of attention, then moved slowly to the Doctor’s side. “Can I help you, Doctor?”

“As I have just explaining to the young lady here,” Ayash gestured at Miriam, “How mankind having reached a state of clarity thanks to the Vulcans. You see, Miri, an American scientist tested a new star drive for the first time, and a Vulcan space ship noticed the test and following him back to Earth. They make first contact with our people, and finding the planet in chaos, they offering us… I guess you could say ‘humanitarian aid’ to help us rebuild. It changed everything, our society, our values-”

“Doctor Ayash is, of course, quoting the conventionally accepted history of First Contact, as taught in many European high schools,” Spock said, “In truth, humanity remained in a generally barbaric state for another five decades. In point of fact, many regions actually regressed even deeper into authoritarianism and poverty, achieving no significant political or economic progress until the early twenty second century.”

Miri looked back and forth between Spock and Ayash, sensing a field of tension beginning to stretch between them.

“We were making some progress,” Ayash began.

“You were making mistakes,” Spock corrected, “The same silly and illogical mistakes your species had always made.”

“Now wait a minute…”

“The former Eastern Coalition degenerated into the so-called ‘Post Atomic Horror,’ a collection of peasant states enforced by drug-addicted mercenaries and ultra conservative jurists using a quasi-Confucian legal system. Even the most enlightened efforts to achieve public order were sabotaged by vested political interests of neighboring partisans.”

Bones chuckled, “Like the Tokyo Incident. I almost forgot about that.”

“What was Tokyo Incident?” Ayash asked, remembering the name but not the details.

“In 2075, the United States government was implicated in an plot to detonate a thermonuclear warhead near the Vulcan Embassy in Tokyo, apparently in an attempt to sabotage relations between the Vulcan government and the Japanese Empire.”

“Why?”

“Because Japan was the central member of the Eastern Coalition,” McCoy said, “And arguably the most gruesome member of the Post Atomic Horror. Supposedly it was some cockamamie scheme to get the Vulcans to cut their support to ECON members and lean more towards the Americans. Of course, they got caught red handed and the whole plan backfired.”

“Resulting in a new policy, which forced any remaining governments to renounce membership in both WESCON and NATO or face a termination of interplanetary aid,” Spock said, “This resulted in the collapse of both organizations, and catalyzed the formation of the United Earth Treaty Organization in 2105, which eventually become the United Earth Government. The social elites who had prospered under WESCON were largely marginalized and continued to denounce Vulcan as an obstructionist power even after Earth joined the United Federation of Planets.”

Doctor Ayash looked shocked and disgusted, “That’s completely untrue…”

“One second, though,” Miri asked, just to make sure she understood correctly, “Most of the people on this ship are from western countries. Like Bones is from America, isn’t he? I mean… well, it seems like everything turned out well in the end.”

Spock nodded, almost professorial in what was quickly turning into an impromptu history lesson. “It does represent some historical irony. Starfleet, for example, was founded by the embittered elements of those same social elites, mainly in an attempt to compete with the more successful exploration programs of the United Earth government. Indeed, in 2151, Captain Jonathan Archer – commander of the first Enterprise -publicly accused the Vulcan High Command of sabotaging Starfleet’s first deep space mission. He was either unaware or unwilling to consider that the Vulcan Space Command had previously provided direct material support to three previous UESPA missions and various elements of the Earth Cargo Service, support that opened the Sol Sector to the galactic economy some thirty years before Starfleet was founded.”

“When did all that change?” Miri had her attention focussed completely on Spock now. Not so much because of his superior authority, but only because Spock’s version of the story was more compatible with what she already knew about humanity.

Spock almost smiled. “Ironically, it was our illogic that was humanity’s salvation.”

“What?”

And Ayash looked even more puzzled, “What?”

“At some point, not long before contact with Earth, the Vulcan government came to be dominated by a kind of petty autocracy, not unlike the old Earth systems of the twenty first century. Socially, we had begun to embrace obedience under the banner of logic and order, and in the end we failed to recognize the logic of disobedience towards errant authority figures. Our failure to recognize these problems nearly destroyed us, first during the Syrranite Revolution, and again thirty years later in the Second Romulan War. To some extent, those problems remain unsolved today.”

“And that saved humanity?” Ayash asked, astounded, “Really?”

“It is difficult to explain in detail, Doctor. It is ironic that humans could finally banish the creeping elitism in their own society only after witnessing the havoc it had caused in ours. Both cultures made the logical choice to abandon privilege in exchange for survival, and the result was the total collapse of the existing class structure in both societies. And even then, humans proved more successful at this than Vulcans.”

Ayash took a small step back and thought this over, “That is interesting perspective…”

“But there’s always rich and poor in a society,” Miri said, “Even when nobody has any money. Somebody always has more than the person next to him.”

“True,” Spock nodded, “But in a meritocracy, a person is only as valuable as his gifts, not his birthright. The Captain of the first Enterprise, for example, is widely believed to have gained his command through family connections to Starfleet’s upper echelons. Several more experienced command officers – many with thousands of hours of deep space experience – were rejected without explanation.”

Ayash snickered, “Not unlike the Captain of this Enterprise…”

“If you are referring to Captain Kirk, I’ll remind you that his mastery of this vessel comes with the blessing of several command officers far more experienced than you.”

“Same difference… but still, he is much less experienced than John Archer was.”

Miri asked before Spock could get too far, “Who is Captain Kirk?”

“The commander of this vessel, and a source of controversy within Starfleet. His service record has placed him increasingly at odds with some of the more conservative figures of Starfleet’s chain of command.”

“He is also youngest Captain in Starfleet history,” Ayash added, “Hell, he was not even active duty officer when disabling that Romulan doomsday weapon.”

Drifting into earshot, Doctor McCoy sidled into the conversation in his usual abrupt manner, “He’s a hero is what he is. I don’t care how young he is, it took some major cojones to pull of that little stunt on the Vengeance…” and exchanging palmcomps with Spock added, “Hell, he nearly gave his own life just to save all of ours.”

“If you are ask me,” Ayash said, “Spock should have getting command.”

“Then it is fortunate, Doctor, that no one asked you. I have no present ambitions to command this or any other vessel.” Spock looked at the palmcomp, then nodded with satisfaction. Turning to Miri he added, “Now that you have been medically cleared, I shall have had the duty officer arrange quarters for all of you, but since we do not know the details of relationships I leave it up to you, Miri, to see to berthing accommodations.”

Miri squinted at him, and Doctor McCoy promptly translated, “He’s saying we need you to help pick rooms for the Onlies.”

“Oh… sure, I can help with that. But before I do, there’s something else I wanted to ask about.”

“And that is?”

Miri smiled nervously, “I… um… well, I know I’m not exactly the best and brightest, and I know astronauts are supposed to be some kind of geniuses, but I was thinking maybe about joining the crew here? Perhaps becoming a doctor like Mister Ayash?”

Spock tilted his head slightly, “Your medical qualifications do not seem adequate for that task… however, if your desire is genuine you may be able to pass the physical and mental requirements for cadet training.”

McCoy snorted, “You’ve got to be kidding me…”

“Trainee duties are not overly complicated, Doctor, and Enterprise does have facilities adequate for field training.” For a moment or two, he actually looked Miri in the eye, probed her resolve for any cracks or pretenses. Finding none, he concluded safely, “If you are willing to learn, we are willing to train you.”

“I am, Sir. Completely. Ever since I was a little kid I always used to dream about being an astronaut.”

“This may not live up to your expectations. A life in Starfleet can be difficult, dangerous, frightening, and often surreal. Much of what you may encounter on this ship will certainly exceed the grasp of both your knowledge and your imagination. Are you prepared for that?”

Miri smiled, “I’m on a space ship, Mister Spock. This is already way beyond my knowledge. And don’t underestimate my imagination.”

“Then I will arrange to have the duty officer meet with you tomorrow evening. Until then, your first duty as cadet will be to see to quartering arrangements for the other refugees by 1400 hours tomorrow.”

“Uh… sure… y-yes sir, Commander!” Miri jumped off the table and saluted.

 

 

 

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