Star Trek: Genesis (Part 2)

COOPERATION

Doppelgänger Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.24 – Captain’s Log

Enterprise is now eight weeks in orbit of the planet Starfleet has officially named Doppelgänger. Mister Spock’s theory about “planetary chronological instability” or “rapid aging” seems mostly confirmed. Orbital observations show the Gaza Strip region where we recovered survivors three weeks ago has decayed into ruins, seemingly thousands of years old. The instabilities are also having damaging effects on the planet itself; seismic irregularities continue to escalate, and ambient radiation levels on the planet’s surface have increased four hundred percent since our last landing party scouted the Andean Mountain region a week ago.

Aboard the ship, morale is relatively high, though we’re still faced with the problem of what to do with those twenty four survivors we brought on board. They seem happy to be out of danger, but they’re anxious about their futures. Understandable, I guess. Doctor McCoy has explained the situation to them as best he can, but I imagine this is quite a bit to take in even for the best adjusted of them. Ensign Hallab seems to be coping best of all of them, though I can’t say whether this is because of her greater maturity or the welcome distraction of her newfound duties, or maybe both.

The Cardassian Union has responded to our request for assistance on the condition that we coordinate with their space service and share all information we can obtain about this planet and its creators. We’re still awaiting the arrival of their flag ship – the Grazine – with the long-range sensor images we commissioned two weeks ago. I’ve been reviewing the contact reports from the Achilles on Cardassian culture to prepare for the meeting; Captain Balze’s impression was that the Cardassians are generally an insecure, suspicious, yet deeply passionate people, not too different from some humans I know. Culturally and technologically they’re equivalent to 20th century Earth norms. Hopefully we’ll be able get along…

We are definitely not getting along with the Gorn. We have been broadcasting our offer of assistance for twelve days, but the response remains ‘stand by.’ Lieutenant Uhura has detected a massive subspace distortion from the Gorn vessel that is probably a long range transmission to their home base. Let’s hope the response yields good news for us.

– 1240 hours –

The Enterprise’s many interlocked compartments constituted a kind of “double hull” within the protective cocoon of the hull plating; strip away the outer hull, and the ship would appear as a vast maze of independent modules and connecting tunnels and turbolift tubes. The turboshafts were probably the most important artery for the ship’s functioning, because they also doubled as the spinal supports of high-voltage power conduits, water and oxygen supply lines from the engineering module, and a network of much smaller turboshafts that branched off through the entire ship to recreation sections and crew quarters. The system was designed with such efficiency that someone – Doctor McCoy, for example – could select an item from the food slot’s menu in the officer’s lounge, then count to ten, and at the end of that time hear the buzzing/hissing sound of a turbocar race under his feet to its final destination in the slot in front of him. Finally the slot doors opened to a tiny transport car containing two small plastic trays which, between the two of them, supported a bowl of grits, half a grapefruit, a plastic cup of grape soda, two deviled eggs, a chicken sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Somehow the replicator system hadn’t processed these as separate orders despite arranging them on two different trays. McCoy set them on a table next to the gigantic officer’s lounge windows that arced high overhead like a gigantic greenhouse and then got to the complicated puzzle-breaking task of dividing up his order from the Captain’s.

Kirk took the sandwich right away, then set the coffee in front of him, but it took two tries and multiple exchanges to figure out how many sugar packets were for the coffee and how many were for McCoy’s grits until the doctor grudgingly conceded all of them to Kirk and spooned his grits in the raw. “It’s better plain anyway,” Kirk said, stirring his coffee triumphantly.

“When I was little my mother used to make it with honey.”

“Ew…”

“Try it sometime, it’s a good satisfying breakfast. Hell, if those fabricators didn’t churn out that sickly abomination the galley section laughably calls ‘honey’ I’d have that instead.”

Kirk nodded in agreement. “It reminds me of sugar-free gelatin.”

“It reminds me of modeling glue. Speaking of sweetness,” McCoy craned his head towards the hatch, which had half a second ago opened for Commander Spock on his way through it. Kirk turned his head just in time to miss the Vulcan land a parting kiss on the cheek of Lieutenant Uhura before making his own way to the food slot behind them. “Where exactly are those two going?”

“What?”

“Spock and Nyota.”

Kirk raised a brow. “Are they going someplace? What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about their future, Jim. What are the statistics of human-Vulcan family combinations? That can’t be an easy thing to pull off.”

Spock’s parents did it well enough.”

“Jim…”

“C’mon, Bones, Spock knows what he’s doing.” He checked and made sure Spock wasn’t quite in earshot yet and added, “I just hope he also knows what a lucky bastard he is…” and now that Spock was closing in, tray in hand, “Care to join us, Commander?”

Spock acknowledged with a nod and dropped into a chair between the two. He set down a tray that contained an odd mixture of multi-colored polygons that were either children’s building blocks or a salad composed of impeccably diced exotic fruits. Whatever it was it had an oddly soothing sweet and sour aroma to it; McCoy wondered what it would taste like with grits.

Kirk asked immediately, “You seem preoccupied, Spock,” and took a bite of his sandwich while he awaited a reply.

“Indeed, Captain. I have been mulling a matter of extreme personal importance since this mission began, and recent events have only exacerbated my dilemma.”

“Dilemma?” McCoy asked.

“In what way?” Kirk added, as if he already knew what Spock was thinking but only needed the details.

Spock sighed, “As you might have guessed, I have a great personal stake in discovering the technology that created this planet. I am, after all, a member of a species that has recently been deprived of a homeworld, and such technology may prove essential to the survival of the Vulcan race.”

“Yeah, no kidding…”

“This has been on my mind constantly since discovering this planet. However, our findings with the sapient life forms – Miri, for example – have lead me to consider another strange possibility.”

Kirk took another bite of his sandwich and waited patiently for Spock to continue.

“The same power that created this planet,” Spock said, “that created a duplicate Earth… it is possible, if unlikely, that a duplicate Vulcan may already exist.”

McCoy said, “If your theory is correct, this planet may have been created in the first place just to harvest an extinct cetacean species…”

“Quite right, Doctor. But the possibility exists that the force that created this duplicate Earth may have a reason to preserve endangered species from a multitude of worlds, for whatever reason. Since we do not know the method of duplication, I am intrigued by the possibility that Vulcan may also have been so preserved.”

Kirk nodded, “It sounds like a ray of hope, Spock.”

Spock raised a brow, “Hope is an emotional yearning, Captain, and a completely illogical proposi-”

“Hope,” Kirk cut him off, “is the most logical thing in the universe for a people on the brink of extinction.”

“Perhaps.” Spock dug into his meals with some type of pointed utensil, something that reminded Kirk of a type of miniature Gun. The colored rectangles made deep indistinct crunching noises when Spock bit down.

“What is that, exactly?” McCoy said.

Spock pointed with the barb in his hand, “This is pat’su, kriyat, selit, and tofu.”

“Reprocessed vegetable matter from four planets.” Kirk shook his head in amazement and sipped his coffee, “You’re a braver man than I am.”

“Most carbon based life forms have similar protein and amino acid requirements. Probably a matter of chemistry and convergent evolution.” Spock took two more consecutive bites, one of a green and another of a yellow rectangle. He chewed, he swallowed, he contemplated for a moment and then added, “I am wondering whether or not we share sufficient cultural commonalities to open communications with the Gorn.”

Washing down a mouthful of grits, McCoy asked, “You mean diplomatically or at this particular moment?”

“Both, Doctor, but obviously the more immediate circumstances remain foremost on my mind.”

Kirk shrugged, “Sulu thinks they came here on a fishing expedition. But even without knowing that, it’s a foregone conclusion that their goals and priorities are different from ours. Remember, the last time we encountered them they were in the middle of conquering an entire planet and would have done the same to New Vulcan if we hadn’t stopped them. This planet may look like Earth, but it’s not ours to defend. We should give them a wide berth and let them do whatever it is they do.”

“That would be my impression too, Sir. However,” he frowned slightly, “we learned of the Gorn’s motives through a conversation between Sulu and the one called The Runner. It is a safe assumption that the Gorn scout presented a similar report to his superiors on arrival on his ship, in which case the Gorn are now well aware of our reason for being here.”

McCoy nodded, “So they know this planet is a duplicate.”

“Precisely, Doctor. This fact may have sparked their curiosity, since clearly a force that can create and engineer planets would be as attractive to them as it is to us.”

“Of course. You can design a planet that’ll support whatever delicacies you want.” Kirk smiled, “A kind of planetary-scale agriculture program.”

“Indeed.”

McCoy asked, “You’re thinking we should make contact with them?”

“If their interest in the planet is as strong as ours, a mutual exchange of knowledge would be the most logical arrangement.”

“What about security? Whatever we find here is bound to be classified top secret by the Federation Council.”

“Yes, but we’re already involving the Cardassians,” Kirk said, “Besides, according to the Federation Charter, the Council cannot classify information it does not yet have.”

Starfleet can.”

“Starfleet hasn’t. And I agree with Spock on this one. If the Gorn could be of help to us, it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

McCoy shrugged, “If you say so. But don’t say I didn’t warn you… by the way, Jim, I meant to tell you yesterday, this pointy-eared lunatic just approved an enlistment application from one of the Onlies.”

Kirk smiled, “One of the children?”

“Ensign Miriam Hallab is sixteen years old,” Spock said, “her qualifications include a demonstrated proficiency in problem solving skills, as well as extensive maritime experience. Her physical health and fitness are above average, as are her scores for gross memory retention, visual-spatial reasoning and marksmanship. Counselor Giza has performed a full psychological evaluation and deemed her fit for duty.”

“Par for the course,” Kirk shrugged, “I don’t see the problem.”

“The problem, Jim, is that this girl just spent the last few years of her life in the festering ruins of a dead planet. I don’t see how she could possibly adjust to life on a starship.”

Kirk chuckled, “How did any of us get used to it? That’s the whole reason we have shakedown cruises, to help break in the crew. A starship has to get test-flown and certified before it even gets a name.”

“I still worry, Jim. This is a big adjustment for her, I don’t want to dump too much in her lap before she’s ready.”

“You’re CMO, Bones. The mental health of the crew is your responsibility.”

McCoy nodded, “Trust me, I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“Your concern is admirable, Doctor, but unwarranted,” Spock said.

“Really, Spock? You being the expert on human nature…”

“Human history, Doctor. Need I remind you that the force that created this planet also duplicated its inhabitants in painstaking detail. Did it not occur to you that the survivors may themselves be duplicates of real people alive on Earth during the twenty first century?”

McCoy considered that for a moment, then looked at Spock in amazement, “I take it you found the original Miri?”

Spock recited the biographical page from memory, having finally received a response to his inquiries from the United Earth historical archives, “Lieutenant Colonel Miranda Anderson, also known as Miriam Hallab, born in Gaza City on January 31st, 1994. Twice detained by security forces in 2008 and 2010 for collaboration with Hamas, later gained Israeli citizenship under the Jabez Federalist reforms in 2016. She joined the Israeli airforce under an assumed name and later claimed more than forty seven confirmed victories against Pakistani aircraft during the Eugenics Wars. She moved to the United States in 2025, entered astronaut training that same year. Commanded two Jupiter expeditions on DY-500 class vessels, later assigned to Mission Commander of extrasolar mission USS Calypso in 2036, the first manned expedition to successfully probe beyond the Solar system. Personal information is hard to come by, but statements by her peers and her ex-husband described her as a workaholic, a genius, and was described by an older sibling as, quote, ‘Too damn stubborn to fail at anything.'”

“I like her already,” Kirk chuckled, “Spock’s right, Bones. If she is a copy of Miranda Anderson, I’m sure she’ll fit in just fine.”

– 1920 hours –

“I have your vector, Mister Chekov,” Lieutenant Uhura was saying as Kirk arrived on the bridge, “Set coordinates for beacon one eight zero four.”

“Beacon one eight zero four, aye. Computing coordinates now…”

Lieutenant Bailey at the helm took thruster control now, “Coming to assigned coordinates,” Through the view-screen window, Kirk saw the stars swirling as the ship turned, the disk of the planet below dropping out of sight below the rim of the saucer. Finally the ship stopped, properly oriented in space with its main deflector pointed in the right direction to send a subspace signal to Starfleet Command. As per standing orders, every starship was required to transmit log entries and telemetry data to the nearest sector command base every two to four days, or failing that, to drop a recorder marker on autonomous return trajectory. The catch was, a starship’s subspace transceiver only had enough power to transmit over relatively short distances of up to a few dozen light years. Longer range transmissions required the greater power of the ship’s main deflector, acting in this case as a kind of electrogravitic megaphone that could blast the ship’s digital voice halfway across the galaxy or, in burst transmissions, even to other galaxies.

Chekov had now turned the ship to aim the deflector at a Federation relay satellite near the Vulcan Corridor, which would pick up the message, process it for clarity and destination, then route that message through the communications network until it reached the transceiver array at the Epsilon Hydrae colony where the computers would recognize it as Starfleet traffic and route it to directly to UESPA’s Daystrom Institute. Far off in the distance came the low rumble, rising into a mechanical whine as the warp core channeled its full power to the main deflector. Uhura worked her communications console for a few moments, then got the response from the computer and replied, “Transmission complete,” at which point the sound from the deflector dish faded out.

Kirk took his seat only now, not wanting to break the flow of activity in the middle of an operation that had cost the Lieutenant forty minutes of her own leisure time. On a mission of this great political importance, Kirk knew it was unwritten protocol to make these transmissions with greater regularity and thoroughness than usual, and the entire communications section had its hands full pulling the many thousands of terabytes of information together. Naturally, transmitting from this deep in a stellar gravity well, it would take slightly under two hours for Starfleet to receive the transmission, and longer still to transmit a response. “Chekov, what’s the ETA on our Cardassian friends?”

“Their last signal gave a distance of three hundred and fifty milliparsecs. At their present speed of warp four, they should arrive here within thirty six hours.”

Kirk felt satisfied that the wait was nearly over. Enterprise had been loitering in orbit of this planet for nearly two weeks, incessantly probing the surface of a world that stubbornly refused to yield any further secrets to them. Maybe at long last they would get some answers, or at least, they’d have a better understanding of what questions to ask. “What should we expect from that ship, Mister Bailey?”

“The Grazine is a deep space exploration cruiser, basically the Cardassian’s equivalent of the Enterprise. Its equipment is unsophisticated but versatile. They don’t have a lot of experience, but their space service is highly disciplined and well trained.”

“Tactical capabilities?”

“As far as I know, their main offensive weapons are projectile weapons and fission devices. No shields, no deflectors, just missile-based point defense and some sophisticated jamming devices. Also, Cardassian ships are powered by fusion reactors so they have a very limited fuel capacity, especially at high warp.”

Kirk grinned. “Chekov, punch up Constellation’s survey report for the rest of this system…”

“Scans show two gas giants in the Jupiter-Saturn range and one in close orbit of the central star,” Chekov reported immediately, having already pulled up that report in anticipation of the request, “the inner planet has a plentiful supply of deuterium and tritium in its upper atmosphere that could be extracted for fuel processing.”

The turbolift doors snapped open and Kirk noted Spock’s arrival, palmcomp in one hand, tricorder in the other. He knew without having to ask that the Vulcan had just completed another up-close survey of the reaver specimens they brought aboard the Enterprise from Gaza; he also knew from the Vulcan’s body language that this session had been as fruitless as all the others. Even so, “Any news from our house guests?”

Spock shook his head, “Both reaver specimens remain uncommunicative and insufferably hostile. I might be tempted to offer them my pity, if they were capable of understanding the concept.”

Turning back to Uhura Kirk asked, “Any reply from the Gorn, Lieutenant?”

“None sir, not even a response to stand by.”

“Have they received an answer from their home world yet?”

“I don’t know, but there’s been no anomalous subspace traffic so I doubt it.”

“Keptin,” Chekov started to boil in his chair again, overly excited as usual whenever anything happened on the Gorn ship, “Picking up another landing craft departing from the alien wessel. Entering low orbit approach, descending towards the planet.”

Kirk chewed his thumbnail for a moment, slightly worried, but mostly curious. “Spock, how are the Gorn selecting their landing sites? They’ve dropped a dozen teleporters in the past few days…”

“Nothing more substantial than previous analysis. Their away teams seem to be focussed on coastal areas and jungle terrain where large insects and invertebrates can be found in abundance. They have very rarely deviated from this pattern, but it must also be remembered that short-range teleport relays can allow Gorn away teams to transport from the landing platform to remote locations with relative ease. We may simply not be aware of all of their surface activities.”

Kirk nodded, “Makes sense… so where’s this one headed?”

Chekov punched in the numbers and displayed a graphic on the main viewer, “Southern England, Keptin.”

Spock raised a brow, “Curious… apart from harvesting of invertebrate life forms, the Gorn’s only interest in this planet has been a catalog of its space launch facilities and industrial sectors. There is very little in their destination zone consistent with this pattern.”

“How long until that capsule lands?”

“At present course, it should make planetfall in one hour and fifteen minutes.”

Kirk almost jumped out of his chair on his way to the turbolift, barking as he went, “Spock, we’re beaming down. Uhura, have Doctor McCoy and a security escort meet us in transporter room one…” and then it suddenly occurred to him, “And have Miri join us as well. At the moment she’s our resident expert on this planet.”

 

 

THE ONLIES

Doppelgänger Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.24

– 1900 hours –

The guest quarters in Compartment 102 were usually set aside for civilian guests, the sort of passengers and evacuees who needed to be brought aboard as something less than crew but more than cargo. Mainly for this reason, C102 didn’t have the large spacious atriums of the other habitat compartments, or even its port-side counterpart, VIP suites in Compartment 114. It was a much more traditional habitation space, essentially a conglomeration of airtight cylinders packed together in an array, joined by common access tunnels through which the Enterprise’s familiar corridors joined the different modules and the half-dozen two-person suites crammed into each of them. Three weeks earlier, Miri had helped arrange her fellow refugees – who sill called themselves “the Onlies” – into something of a working order not too different from where they had been when they were still the ad hoc crew of her father’s fishing boat. That all twenty four of them could fit into just two modules – along a single length of corridor with pressure doors at both ends – was both convenient and fortunate, since most of the children didn’t completely trust their saviors after all.

Actually, neither did Miri. Certainly she had no doubt of their intentions, in fact she was still half convinced that this was a ship of angels sent by God just to deliver them to paradise. What she doubted was their understanding of the situation at hand, and their ability to predict everything that might go wrong with their current mission. It may have been a vibe she’d picked up from the senior officers, or maybe just experience from her own struggle for survival and all the strange things that seemed to go wrong with her world. But even with all their technology and knowledge, the Enterprise’s crew was only human, and they no more understood what was happening to her world than she did.

So Leila and Nabi set up defenses. Quietly, discretely, and always out of sight of the security officers who guarded this length of corridor. Miri used her status as a Ensign-in-training to get access to the cargo bay, and from there she’d managed to recover most of their weapons, plus a few other goodies that Lieutenant York’s people had found. Using these, Ramsi and Jasmine had managed to rig the doors of all twelve quarters with old clusterbombs and a crude but reliable fuse that could be armed and disarmed with a pull string or a switch, just in case someone decided to enter who didn’t believe in knocking. Sami and The Other Jasmine drew up a patrol schedule, so at any given time at least six of the children were stationed in the corridor, two at each junction just beyond the pressure door armed with well-hidden Steyer guns and two at the midpoint with RPKs. Then during Spock’s training seminar she learned more about the actual layout of the ship, and with its double-hulled configuration the fact that there was nothing beyond the walls of the corridor but vacuum and forcefields; at that point, Miri revised their defense plans, planning escape routes through the access tubes and providing six of the Onlies – one for each patrol watch – with the access codes for the emergency bulkheads, and then spent the better part of the next week teaching her crew how to use the space suits.

Since then, the Onlies had learned most of the safety and auxiliary systems of their little slice of the ship, and except for occasional (and predictable) visits from Doctor Ayash, were mostly left to their own devices for the better part of the month. That their little section of the corridor was technically a pair of completely independent modules with their own battery and life support systems (if only for emergency use) was not lost on them, and by now they had come to consider this part of the Enterprise to be already their space ship. And Peter the Rabbit had already sent out feelers and discovered what the most acceptable name for their ship would be. “We should call it Al-Kahf!”

Miri looked at him surprised and amazed, as if he’d suddenly grown a feathers and a second pair of arms. “Are you serious?”

“Absolutely!” Peter the Rabbit sat down behind the short little desk in the two-bunk cabin he’d shared with The Other Jasmine for most of the month. Miri couldn’t remember what she came in here to talk with him about, she’d only found him in here bouncing around, totally excited for some reason when he suddenly announced his good news. “It totally fits what we’re going through right now, don’t you think?”

Miri thought about it, and in a vague sense she figured he was right. On the other hand, Peter the Rabbit – whatever his real name was, nobody could remember anymore – was the only one of the Onlies who might actually pass for religious, unlike Miri, who never got much farther than a vague half-remembrance of what Al-Kahf was actually about. “Weren’t there only seven sleepers in the cave?”

“That’s not the point. The thing is, they fell asleep in the cave and they didn’t wake up for three hundred years. When they finally came out again, there was nobody left to persecute them.”

“Right…”

“Oh, and then there’s the part about the Green One.”

Miri squinted at him.

“Don’t you remember?”

“Why would I? I haven’t seen a Quran in six years.”

Peter the Rabbit rolled his eyes. “He’s that crazy ancient prophet that taught Moses, and then Mohammed taught him.”

“Oh, I get it.” Miri smiled, “You’re thinking we can teach these Starfleet guys a thing or two.”

Peter the Rabbit flashed a big toothy grin and nodded.

“You’re insane, you know that? These people are three times your age and most of them have been to college. You didn’t even finish kindergarten.”

“Yeah, but what do they know about Earth? Nothing, that’s what. They’ve only seen a few parts of it and they haven’t seen what we’ve seen. Plus, we still haven’t told them about the dreams.”

Miri stared at him for a moment, grappling with the implications of this. “What difference does that make? They’re just dreams.”

“They’re premonitions.”

“No they’re not. Obviously not since none of the things we dreamed about are ever going to happen. I mean, think about this, we’re already on a space ship right now, and this ship looks nothing like the one from the dream. And besides only seven of us in this entire group even have…” it occurred to her now what Peter was getting at. She wasn’t sure even he realized what an odd coincidence it was until just this minute, how the fates just seemed to line up to put it all together. “How does that verse go again?”

Peter the Rabbit actually had the page up on his monitor – and so ended the mystery of his sudden scriptural recall – and read the passage breezily, “You would have seen the sun rise and set, from the right side to the left, while they lay in the open space in the middle of the Cave. You would have thought they were awake, while they were asleep, and We turned them on their right and on their left sides: their dog stretching forth his two fore-legs on the threshold. If you had come up on to them then, you would have turned back and fled, you’d be filled with terror from the sight of them. Such as they were, we roused them from their sleep, that they might question each other. Said one of them, “How long have we been here?” They said, “We have stayed perhaps, a day, or part of a day.” But in the end they all decided, “God alone knows how long we’ve been sleeping in this cave…”

Miri skimmed a few verses down, reading the part she’d been looking for all along, “And they’d stayed in their cave for three hundred years, some say nine more.”

At this point, Peter the Rabbit looked at Miri with an idea, “Did you know Mister Spock thinks our planet is only a hundred sixty years old?”

“He may be right. Remember all that business a few years ago about the second moon?”

“My dad said that was a miracle. The moon split in half…”

“But they were both complete moons. Totally round. How could that just happen like that?”

“God works in mysterious w-”

“We’re on a space ship, Peter. Be serious.”

Peter the Rabbit groaned, “How should I know? I’ve just finally figured out how to use this stupid computer.”

“Never mind…” the thought was still bothering her, though. At the risk of trying her friend’s already strained patience, she asked, “Peter, what if… you know, the things we remember from way long ago, before the mutations started… what if none of those things actually happened?”

He looked up at her for a moment, processed the question carefully. Then failing that completely, he asked, “Huh?

An electronic chirp from Miri’s communicator put this tortured conversation out of its misery. She answered it as promptly as she’d been taught to, and immediately heard Lieutenant Uhura’s voice ordering, “Ensign Hallab, report to Transporter Room One. Bring your field jacket and hand phaser.”

Miri flinched, “Lieutenant, I haven’t been issued a field jacket. Or a phaser.”

“See the Quartermaster on the way there. Compartment One Oh Four, Deck Five.”

“I’m on my way. Hallab out.” snapping the communicator shut, Miri leaned down and patted Peter the Rabbit on the shoulder.

“Hey Miri,” he said, responding to her touch, “Do you ever get this feeling… like… like there’s something really important we were supposed to remember?”

“All the time.” She marched right out of his cabin – pausing, naturally, to disarm the small antipersonnel bomb mounted to the door – and then greeted the guards in the corridor on her way to the turbolift. The Onlies could hold down the fort while she was gone, she’d taught them well and prepared them even better. Some of them, she knew in the back of her mind, were uniquely qualified for the job, trustworthy in ways that went beyond their abilities or even their experiences. Trustworthy in ways that Starfleet was trustworthy.

“Are they really just dreams?” she wondered as the turbolift quickly deposited her in the corridor near the Enterprise’s quartermaster. For the millionth time, she dismissed it as just a fantasy or a half-remembered book from somewhere; fiction, certainly, nothing more. Even if the Americans did have a space ship named Calypso, she was the last person in the world they would ever let near it.

 

 

ARTIFACT

Doppelgänger Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.24

– 1925 hours –

Ensign Rand was already waiting for them in the transporter room, already in a field jacket, mid way into adjusting the settings on her phaser and the targeting scope on her monocle. She’d taken Spock’s advice and brought her issued side arm this time and was feeling especially pleased with herself, to the extreme chagrin of Ensign Dallas and Security Chief McCahil who both arrived only seconds ahead of the Captain and science officer, still bleary eyed from an impromptu cat nap.

Miri arrived last, struggling into a field jacket that had been issued to her by the quarter master literally minutes earlier. She looked as comfortable in a Starfleet uniform as she ever did in the dingy rags she’d been wearing when Enterprise found her. She looked excited, yet explosively nervous. So much like a raw cadet on a first assignment. “Ensign,” Kirk said, her voice snapping her immediately to attention, “Are you checked out on the EM-102 combat phaser?”

Miri shook her head, slightly nervous. “No, Sir. Just the hand phaser, but I haven’t been issued one yet.”

“Now’s a good time to learn. So here’s the situation,” and he addressed this as much to the rest of the landing party as to Miri, “There’s a Gorn capsule heading for Southern England, and I want to have a look to see what they’re after. I don’t want to be there when they arrive, so this is a quick look, in and out. Miri, since you have more experience with this planet than anyone else, you’ll come along as our resident expert.”

“I… uh… Sir,” Miri shrank a little, “I’ve never actually been to England.”

“Neither have I.” Kirk strode to the equipment locker and snatched out three tricorders, handing one of each to Spock and Miri. Life support belts came next, again one for each of them, and Kirk said, “You know about these, right?”

Miri nodded, “The life support belt. Makes you invincible.”

“Hardly invincible, Ensign. The overshield adheres to the boundary layer of a conductive surface, namely your skin and some of your equipment. It reacts to any sudden change in local energy density, like as a radiation surge or a bullet, and instantly expands to provide protection. The power cells can only sustain the field for a few minutes at a time, and the more strain you put on it faster they drain. When you hear a low-pitched beeping, it means the shield’s dead and you’re vulnerable.”

“Got it. So, what if-” her next question was already being answered as Kirk recovered a phaser rifle from the rack and presented it to Miri with both hands, “Ooh!”

“It handles a lot like the hand phasers,” Kirk said, handing it over to her, “There’s a bit more recoil, but it can handle a longer duty cycle so you can sweep with the beam if you need to. Default is for the stun setting, but remember that won’t render complete unconsciousness unless you get a headshot or a longer contact in the center of mass.”

Miri took this all in and then nodded. Since to her it was basically a death ray, all of these things seemed immediately intuitive. Obviously, this weapon could be programmed to do all kinds of different things to her enemies in all kinds of different ways, but the Captain had intentionally locked it onto its easiest-to-use setting because he didn’t want her fiddling with the advanced settings she wasn’t trained for. Which, more or less, was exactly what Gideon did when he first taught her how to shoot… “Is there a safety switch?” she asked, suddenly remembering her first lesson from way back then.

Kirk smiled, “The phaser knows if an authorized user is holding it. It will not fire – ever – unless you pull the trigger.”

“Sounds simple enough,” although she suspected it wouldn’t be. Miri reflected that unlike her fellow survivors, her Starfleet companions were totally unfamiliar with her home planet and the strange things that had been happening to it over the years (to the extent it was possible to be familiar with them at all). She could always count on the Onlies to know what to do if things went seriously sideways; with Starfleet, she wasn’t so sure.

“I want you on the lookout for reavers,” he told her, “The tricorder has a range of about five kilometers, but you should use the rifle’s scope for visual inspections too.”

“Yes, Captain… One question. In the unlikely event I have to change from the stun setting…?”

“The selector on the right side above the trigger guard. Power levels are on back, above the cheek rest.”

“Right…” and Miri found the appropriate controls on the side of the rifle and checked herself to make sure it was indeed set to stun, and checked the power level to make sure it was up to maximum.

Kirk grinned, “Don’t trust me, is that it?”

Miri shrugged, slightly embarassed, “Gideon told me once, ‘Never ever fire a weapon you haven’t checked yourself.'”

Spock admired her diligence, but not her tact. “Phasers are not firearms, Ensign, and they operate at such a level of complexity that their maintenance and upkeep are the exclusive responsibility of trained engineers.”

“Yes, Sir. I’ll try to remember that.”

“Chief,” Kirk looked to the transporter technicians, now that his team was basically assembled, “do you have a fix on the Gorn capsule’s landing site?”

“Just got it from Ensign Chekov, Sir. And get this: if they don’t make any course corrections, their landing site is within five kilometers of Stonehenge.”

“Really?”

“Always wanted to go there,” Ensign Rand said.

“No time like the present.” Kirk shot her a big obnoxious toothy grin and instructed the technicians, “Set us down… let’s say, fifty meters south of the monument. It’s a good concealed location, we’ll use it as a beamout site.”

“Aye, Sir.”

Doctor McCoy came through the hatch now, wearing a medikit on his shoulder and a scowl on his face. “Jim, what the hell kinda-”

“The Gorn are headed for England. We’re just gonna pop in and take a look before they get there. Who knows? They might know something we don’t.”

“Maybe they’re just going down to collect centipedes or something?”

Spock said as he stepped onto the transporter pad, “So far we have yet to land an away team on the British islands. At the very least this will allow for a more thorough report.”

“Sure beats Gaza, anyway,” Rand said, stepping up behind him. Kirk followed next, and the two bleary eyed security officers last of all.

McCoy took in the enthusiasm of the three, then the apparent lethargy of the other two. His hesitation tripled on the spot. “Dallas, McCahil, you two look half asleep.”

“We’re fine, Doctor. Let’s just get this over with.”

McCoy sighed and stepped onto the pad with them. Since the transporter only had six pads, he squeezed into a space next to their youngest member and patted her reassuringly on the shoulder, “How you feeling Miri?”

“Nervous, Sir.”

“Scared?”

“No, Sir. Just been a long time since I’ve worked with grups.”

McCoy raised a brow.

“Grownups, I mean. Adults.”

McCoy growled, “What adults?”

Once the Doctor was finally situated, Kirk ordered, “Energize,” and McCoy clenched his teeth, closed his eyes and waited with shrill terror to be dismantled molecule by molecule and fired across space like a human particle beam. He began to feel the tingle of the phase coils buzzing through his skin, crackling behind his eyes, inverting his ear canals and dropping his scalp into his liver…

“There it is,” Kirk said just in front of him, and McCoy opened his eyes to discover that he had already materialized on the planet’s surface before he had ever felt the first of these sensations. “Wait a minute…”

“Is that it?” Rand asked in complete puzzlement.

Miri looked in that direction and nodded, “I recognize it from the almanacs. That’s it alright.”

Spock snapped open his tricorder and started scanning intensely. He didn’t even need to say it, the word “fascinating” was printed on his face like the registry on Enterprise’s hull. “That,” Spock said, “is not the stonehenge of Earth.”

What it was – as they all saw to their complete disbelief – was an enormous obelisk some ten meters high, mounted on a tall platform like a stage or shrine. Spock’s tricorder showed him that it was in the exact latitude and longitude in which the Stonehenge monument should have been, and yet his immediate readings had a spectral pattern that told him the monument was not manmade, nor was it even made of stone.

“What do you make of that, Spock?”

“Unknown, Captain. It corresponds to nothing in the Earth archeological catalog.”

“What about alien artifacts?”

Spock adjusted the reference mode on the tricorder and tied it directly into Enterprise’ library computer. In a few moments, he had his answer, “No known alien architecture on file.”

Miri looked at them puzzled. Her first instinct was to ask whether or not the obelisk had been made by humans… but then she remembered, this entire planet – including her – was actually artificial anyway, which lead to the question, “Could it have been made by my people?”

Kirk started at the question, “Could it?”

“Well, it could have been constructed by whoever made my planet, right? On the other hand, if it’s older than the rest of the planet, it could be something indigenous to… well… whatever this planet was before it changed.”

“True… and this does seem to be the Gorn’s destination,” Kirk said, and started walking towards the obelisk. Miri was right. If it wasn’t created by the force that duplicated this planet, it could easily be a surviving artifact from whatever this planet was transformed from. That would make it a valuable point of reference to trace the true age of this world; the Gorn wouldn’t be interested in it otherwise. “Rand, McCahil, take up positions one hundred meters to the east and west. Dallas, Miri, you’re with us.”

Rand and McCahil started on an angle, both in opposite directions wide of the obelisk. Kirk, meanwhile, led the rest of the team to the shadow of the object and spread out to all sides of it while Spock squatted at the base. He unpacked the field science kit with one hand and kept his tricorder trained on it with the other. Kirk, meanwhile, flipped open his communicator and checked the timer: the Gorn capsule would make planetfall in another fifty two minutes.

Spock made the best of his time. First thing’s first, he set his tricorder to an ultrasound mode and set the device to map the entire surface of the monument down to nanometer resolution. The tricorder could do this on its own, so he set it down facing the obelisk and unpacked the rest of his gear.

“Need a hand, Spock?” McCoy set the medical kit down and squatted next to the science gear. Spock nodded a welcome, and McCoy added two more hands to the process.

Two minutes later the scan cycle was finished. McCoy collected a core drill from the kit while Spock set the tricorder to a EM-scan mode, modulated pulses of ground and metal-penetrating radar. The scan image from the inside of the object came back completely blank, as if only the outermost surface of the monument even existed. After an ultrasound sweep turned back the same blank results, Spock reported, “I am unable to scan the interior of the object.”

McCoy started up the core drill and stared down the eyepiece, focussing on a tiny section of the corner of the platform. A narrow force beam snapped out from the end of the drill, sliced into the surface of the material a few nanometers thick and then deposited those samples inside of a sealed plastic slide for examination later. He pulled the slide out of the drill and slipped it into a container in the science kit before starting up the steps to the obelisk itself. Then he looked back at the specimen container and marveled: the thin film of dusty grains on the slide sparkled like a lightning storm in miniature and then vanished. “Whatever it’s made of, I can’t get a good sample of it. The material just disintegrates into nothing.”

“It isn’t material at all,” Spock said, squinting at his tricorder screen, “Trace analysis is picking up ozone anomalies and ion distribution. Resonance scan reads it as a type of electrically charged phased-matter, similar to the quantum resonators in Suliban cloaking devices.”

“Suliban technology?” McCoy shook his head in wonder, “That’s a long way off.”

“The similarity is noteworthy, but not necessarily meaningful. It also has a superficial similarity to our own defensive force fields, but vastly more coherent.”

“Holograms,” Kirk said, noticing a trend in this analysis, “Or something like it.”

“Far more substantial than what we would call a hologram, Captain. But, again, similar in principle.” Spock set the tricorder down and unfolded from the science kit a large telescoping device shaped like a crossbow with a tripod section on the base of it. He arranged it with the arms perpendicular to the obelisk and then set the device active. Everyone – even Rand and McCahil in the distance – felt a slight vibration in the ground as the device emitted a series of powerful gravity waves and measured the reaction from the obelisk. Spock picked up the tricorder again and set it to “node” mode, and the instrument results appeared on its screen, “Fascinating!”

Kirk had known Spock just long enough to be able to tell when his science officer had discovered something valuable. He bounded down from the platform and knelt down next to him, silently awaiting a report.

“The platform here seems to extend deep below the surface, far beyond the range of our sensor equipment. It seems to extend at least as deep as the mantle, possibly all the way to the planet’s core.”

Kirk looked at the platform now totally awestruck. This was just the tip of one mind-numbingly huge ice berg after all. “Mass reading?”

“Strictly speaking, a phased-matter structure of this type is characterized by a relative lack of mass, although I estimate potential energies equivalent to some two hundred and forty kilograms.”

“Can you get an indication of the overall shape?”

Spock frowned, “Gravitational sensors are not that precise. However, based on ground-penetrating radar to a depth of two hundred meters, I estimate the platform is the top of an extremely long isosceles pyramid… judging by the angle, the apex of which is at a depth of some six thousand three hundred and twenty kilometers, give or take twenty kilometers.”

All the way to the core, Kirk realized. He suddenly had a premonition of some alien creature manifesting a steering wheel on the side of the obelisk and piloting this planet through the cosmos like a giant yacht.

“This obelisk looks different from the platform. Maybe a real substance to this one,” McCoy said from his spot at the top of the platform, “the samples don’t disintegrate.”

Spock held up his tricorder and scanned it himself, “There is a slight energy reaction… it seems to be metallic, but my scans are not reflecting back.”

“So there’s no way of knowing what’s inside it?” Kirk asked.

“The core drill is able to penetrate the surface, Captain, so it may be possible to cut through it.”

Kirk shook his head, “I don’t want to resort to that yet. For all we know this could be some kind of… burial ground, or something.”

Spock raised a brow, “A force-barrier tomb powered by geothermal energy?”

“Geothermal?”

“I can think of little other reason for the extreme depth of the object, Captain. It is probably drawing energy directly from the action of the planet’s core, using either a dilithium matrix or some type of thermocouple. That may also be sustaining its existence, as a forcefield of this coherence and complexity would obviously require a tremendous power source.”

Ensign Dallas said, “I didn’t know you could use dilithium in a geothermal generator…”

“Dilithium crystals are well valued for their energy conversion properties,” Spock cut him off, “in particular, its capacity to regulate the conversion of antiparticles in high-energy conditions. The high temperature and magnetic potentials of the deep mantle may suffice for that.”

“You think there could be a warp reactor somewhere inside this thing?” McCoy asked, suddenly very unhappy to find himself still standing on it.

“Perhaps, Doctor. Assuming it does extend as far as the planet’s core, this device may be capable of force outputs in the thousands of isotons.”

McCoy carefully stepped down from the platform and placed the core drill back in the science kit.

Spock, meanwhile, unpacked a large flat device wit a single-leg stand facing the obelisk and set it to ran scans. A hair thin line of green light swept the structure from base to tip, several times in a row, slowly at first and then a series of rapid sweeps. Spock read the data off his tricorder, then frowned in disappointment, “Microscopic DNA scans show no anomalies, indigenous life only.”

“Meaning there’s no trace of the aliens who put this thing here.”

Spock nodded.

“You know, we might be able to get a good look at the root of this ting, maybe see how deep it g-” Kirk’s words were drowned out by a series of high pitched chirps from a phaser rifle a few meters away. He dropped into the grass and looked up to see Miri drawing a bead on something close to the horizon, something at which she was now firing a series of very carefully aimed two-round bursts as if she was trying to carve a sculpture with her phaser. Which was somewhat worrisome, now that Kirk thought about it; Miri was an excellent marksman who normally wouldn’t need more than one shot to hit a single target. That she was still firing now suggested… “Reavers?” he asked, coming back to his feet.

“No…” she stopped firing now, but kept one eye glued to the phaser’s aim sight, “Maybe. I’m not sure…”

“What does it look like?”

“I don’t know. I’m not even sure it was really there. It was just a shadow…”

Spock held up his tricorder and started to scan.

Kirk walked over to her side, where the Ensign-in-training was still drawing a bead on something with her phaser rifle. “Miri, I know you’re nervous but…”

“I’m sure I hit one. The others are staying low,” she said, panning back and forth with her phaser and closing her other eye. The rifle’s targeting sensor was her only view of the world now, whatever it was she was looking at, “I don’t think they’re reavers. They’re moving too slowly.”

“What do they look like?”

She squinted through the eyepiece, but shook her head. “It’s shaped like a person, but it’s… well, transparent. It’s like a mirage or something.”

Kirk looked over his shoulder at Spock. The Vulcan was scowling at the tricorder readings. “Whatever it is, it does not fully register on my tricorder. But it is there. Moving away from us at a rate of zero point seven meters per second, approximately eight hundred meters away.”

Now the Captain looked at her in surprise, “How did you even see it at this distance?”

“I was looking for Reavers, Sir, scanning the horizon. I saw… something in the brush, and I fired at it. I hit one, the others dropped into the grass.”

“Indeterminate life form readings. And an anomaly in the ultra-violet range…” Spock put away his tricorder and brooded, “It appears we are being watched, Captain.”

“Some Gorn scouts have used optical camouflage. Could this be them?”

“Doubtful, Captain. The Gorn camouflage technique was largely biochemical, similar to Suliban adaptations. This pattern… almost reminds me of-”

Any further speculation was brought to an abrupt end by an explosion overhead, a single monstrous thunderclap of a sonic boom as something passed through the atmosphere at a fantastic rate of speed. Kirk saw the source of it almost before he had time to ponder the implications, falling out of the sky like a fireball from the heavens, so bright it almost outshined the sun. “What in…?”

“The Gorn capsule, Captain. Nearly half an hour ahead of schedule,” Spock already had his tricorder out again and aimed directly at it, shielding his eyes with his free hand, “Fascinating… It’s using a force field as an aeroshell, vastly increasing its drag coefficient. It will descend to this vicinity within fifteen minutes.”

“Pack it up, Spock,” Kirk said as he whipped out his communicator, “Rand, McCahil, get over here on the double! We’re beaming out!”

“Yes Sir!”

“Aye Sir!”

Spock and McCoy collapsed and re-stowed the science equipment in the kit, not quite as neatly as regulation but enough to close the box and take it with them at least. That accomplished, Kirk waited a handful of seconds for Rand and McCahil to catch up, then keyed up Enterprise’s frequency and called to the ship. “Kirk to Enterprise, standby for transport.”

His response – somehow unsurprisingly – was a hiss of static through which Uhura’s voice barely penetrated, “Standby, away team. That capsule’s reentry is putting out alot of radiation, we’re having to reposition to get a lock.”

“I was afraid of that…” actually, this was the very reason Kirk had wanted to use Stonehenge as a beamout site, hoping that the natural cover of the monument would conceal them if the reentry plume disrupted the ship’s line of sight. The non-existence of the henge had caught him so off guard that he’d almost forgotten about the need for cover. “Tall grass nearby,” he said, gesturing to the field around them, “we’ll move out two hundred meters and lay low. Miri, you keep an eye on that whatever-it-is out there. Move out!” Kirk lead by example, of course, sprinting off due east in the opposite direction of the whatever-it-was that Miri had fired at. The rest of the team followed in his heels, not quite in a sprint but fast enough to keep the Captain in sight so they would at least know when to stop and gather around him.

 

 

GUNBENDER

Doppelgänger, Southern England
Stardate 2261.24

– 1950 hours –

The sound of engine noise boiled to a groan as the capsule descended, rising to a howl just before touchdown, then fading to a distant hum once the craft finally planted its landing struts in the grass some fifty meters away from the obelisk. It didn’t sound like an old-Earth combustion engine, but it wasn’t quite an impulse engine either. It was a noisy, oscillating sound, something that reminded Kirk of the pulse-detonation engines on WW-III cruise missiles. It was an almost human-like design: a flattened teardrop shape that, now that it was safely situated on the ground, open like a clamshell on one entire side that exposed the glowing innards of what was clearly some kind of high-capacity transport chamber.

Kirk stopped in his tracks and turned here, squatted in the tall grass where he could still see with his own eyes. It wasn’t quite two hundred meters, but if the Gorn were here for this obelisk – and they certainly appeared to be – it was more than far enough.

The transporter chamber came ablaze with sparkling orange light, and then several moving figures materialized there, hauling equipment packs and sensor devices as they scattered around the site. Scale was had to judge at this distance but he knew from Sulu’s report that the Runner stood just shy of five feet tall even accounting for his long flexible neck. These Gorn weren’t much larger: biped reptiles about the size of human pre-teens. They all seemed to be wearing some type of uniform, except for the first two off the craft, who were wearing heavy body armor and were armed with plasma weapons. They all walked with an almost simeon posture, their legs never quite straight, yet they moved with a kind of artful grace and casualness, the way a diver might move through water.

In their previous encounters with the Gorn they had encountered a number of subtypes of the species, ranging in intelligence and sophistication from semi-feral berserkers to sublimely intelligent and frighteningly strong command types. Though it was hard to tell from looking, these Gorn seemed to lack a distinct characteristic from any particular type and seemed to be an amalgamation of all of them; small as they were, they stood mostly upright and every single one of them wore a uniform and a full pack of field equipment. A few of the larger ones also carried plasma weapons and some tactical equipment, but the difference in size was subtle, closer to the difference between McCahil and Miri than a human and a Gorn.

It was theorized that these Gorn were a different faction than the groups Enterprise had encountered before; that theory was looking more and more likely by the second.

Spock kept his attention glued to the tricorder, while Rand and McCahil squinted through their monocles. “Phasers safe,” Kirk reminded them, fearing an itchy trigger finger might accidentally turn surveillance into a shooting match. Both of them obeyed, as did Miri, though her attention seemed to be less on the Gorn and more on the mysterious ‘something’ that had caught her attention earlier.

His communicator beeped again and Kirk answered it quietly, “Kirk here.”

“We’re in position, Captain. Standby for beamout…”

“Hold on that for a moment, and keep this channel open. Energize on my signal.”

“Aye Captain… but sir, changing our position means we’ve dropped into a much lower orbit. The transport window closes in four minutes and won’t reopen again for another forty five.”

“Understood, Enterprise. We’ll keep you posted.”

Spock touched Kirk’s shoulder, radiating concern out of every pore.

“They took the time to observe our mission,” Kirk said, “It’s only fair we take the time to observe theirs. Besides, I don’t want to risk being outdone by our invisible friends out there.” For the time being, he kept an open communications line to the Enterprise, ready to give the order to beam out at a moment’s notice. If he waited too long, the transporters would have to extract the away team under fire and the six of them would be trapped in a combat beamout situation. If he beamed out too early… well, that ran the relatively small risk of not seeing exactly what the Gorn were up to. It almost wasn’t worth the risk when he thought about it, but then, curiosity was a heinous virtue of starship captains…

For nearly half an hour, the Gorn moved around the monument, unpacking equipment from antigrav cases in a manner not unlike Spock and McCoy earlier. Spock could identify Gorn versions of a few basic devices – gravity sensors, ultrasound probes, life form scanners and a few others – along with a few whose purpose he couldn’t begin to guess. Several attached some elaborate-looking devices to the surface of the platform which – once activated – were flung away from it as if propelled by explosives.

“Electron resonance probes,” Spock said, carefully scanning the failed devices as the startled Gorn scrambled to retrieve them, “They’re attempting to determine the shape of the object by inducing an electric current on its skin. Intriguing methodology. Futile, though, in light of the composition of the platform.”

Actually, they seemed to have better luck attaching similar devices to the obelisk on top of the platform. Kirk briefly wondered if this method would be more effective than Spock’s failed attempt to scan inside it. Even if it was, he doubted there was anything useful inside the monument that would give them clues as to the origins of this planet; the monument was much too conspicuous for that.

After what seemed like a long, tense delay, one of the Gorn approached the obelisk with a stubby cylindrical object in hand, looked along its surface for a moment, then found a corner section of it and pressed the cylinder against it. Kirk saw the violet snap of a force beam and realized this was some kind of core drill, pulling samples out of the surface layer and encasing them in a slide or capsule for later analysis. So far, the Gorn were exactly replicating Starfleet’s examination procedures except for their seemingly greater preparedness…

Then the tip of the obelisk flickered and a lance of orange flame snapped out from the tip, right down over the head of the Gorn with the core drill. The beam swept through the long axis of the hapless creature and carved a six-inch section out of him, neatly splitting him in two from head to groin. The bisected Gorn collapsed into a heap, then the beam swept out a circle around the perimeter of the platform as the remainder of the Gorn team scrambled for cover.

The beam stopped as quickly as it started. Spock looked up from his tricorder now with an almost gleeful expression. “Fascinating! Tricorder indicates a power output in the thousands of megawatts…”

“I’m more interested in the trigger, Spock. Am I crazy or did that thing just react to the core drill?”

Spock nodded slowly, “It is fortuitous that Doctor McCoy took it upon himself to take that sample. This device appears to be programmed to defend itself against any non-human aggression.”

“Probably to avoid accidentally blowing up inquisitive locals…”

“Indeed.”

“Meaning we can take samples,” Kirk decided, “But the Gorn can’t.”

Spock nodded again. “That would seem to be the logical assumption, Captain.”

Kirk came to a decision all at once. He slipped off his phaser and his tricorder and quickly recovered the core drill from Spock’s field kit before the science officer even realized what he was up to. McCoy reached over with a cautionary gesture, but much too late; the Captain was already to his feet and marching through the overgrown grass towards the landing site, where a dozen Gorn were still cowering behind the hull of their capsule or any other rock big enough to conceal them. They didn’t need to be told, but Rand, Dallas and McCahil all trained their phasers on the Gorn camp, not so much to prevent a hostile action as to be able to respond in the event that the Gorn found the Captain’s actions as incomprehensible as his own away team.

With most of their attention on the obelisk, the Gorn didn’t notice him until he was almost forty meters away. They found his arrival almost as perplexing as the force beam that had torn through their numbers a minute ago, but much easier to deal with since – at the very least – a humanoid life form wasn’t completely outside the realm of their experience. Kirk approached with both arms in the air, core drill in hand, so the Gorn could see he wasn’t approaching in a fighting posture or with any overtly aggressive intentions. Even so, three of them partially emerged from concealment, each brandishing small handheld weapons that looked like techno-art sculptures of dinosaur skulls. Kirk hesitated for a moment, wondering about the alien weapons. The plasma rifles he understood, but the skull-guns were an odd design even by Gorn standards. He suspected they were a lot more intimidating than they were dangerous.

When the Gorn didn’t cut him down where he stood, Kirk picked up his pace and walked directly to the obelisk. This both put the Gorn at ease – at least on his account – and frightened them back into hiding as they became convinced that another force beam attack was about to vaporize their human counterpart. Before they could get more nervous, Kirk walked to the same spot where McCoy had taken an earlier sample, set the drill against a corner of the platform and let its tiny sampling beam scrape a few microns off the surface of the structure. Then he stepped up to the obelisk and did the same, collected both samples into separate slides, and very carefully set the slides and the drill down on the top of the platform and walked away from it.

When the obelisk failed to slice him in half, the Gorn emerged from concealment again, watched and waited. When another minute passed with no activity, one of the skull-gunners carefully approached Kirk while his companion bounded up the steps to collect the drill and the sample slides. Seeing – and perhaps for the first time, realizing – what they were, he looked back to the capsule where his companions were still cowering and fired off a long and complicated series of musical whistles that Kirk’s translator eventually rendered as “The transmitter is programmed to permit human examination only.”

Kirk picked up on this and asked, “Transmitter?”

The closer one with the skull-gun in its hand, though no longer raising the gun as if to blast him with it, sang out a long composition that translated to, “This object here, we’ve identified it as some kind of long range communication device. It has seen to resonate at three specific subspace frequencies.”

“My science officer thinks this device might be powered by geothermal energy. Maybe using a dilithium lattice for thermal conversion.”

“Geothermal power transformation… but the device would have to extend many thousands of kilometers down.”

Kirk nodded, “According to our readings, it does.”

“Fascinating!”

Kirk smiled. “This device seems to have a defensive program in place. It may misinterpret your analysis as a hostile act.”

The Gorn nodded, apparently come to the same conclusion on its own.

“You may have guessed by now that this object wasn’t created by the inhabitants of this planet.”

“We have suspected this. The transmitter is not consistent with indigenous technology. We do not know where this came from.”

“Let’s work together to find out,” Kirk went on, seizing what seemed to be a brief rapport with his Gorn counterpart, “You know I’ve made this offer to your ship before, and now I’m making it in person. If we combine our resources, we can help each other to solve the mystery of this planet.”

“That is a wonderful idea…” the Gorn stared at him for a moment, “Who are you?”

“I’m James T. Kirk, Captain of the Federation starship Enterprise.”

“I am Seventh and First Cycle the Gunbender. I am chief inspector of the Gorn starship Francium.”

“It’s in our mutual best interest that we cooperate on this mission. We’re stronger together than apart.”

“Oh, I fully agree with you, James T. Kirk. But the decision is not mine to make.”

“Whose decision is it?”

“The orbit commander at this time is Second and Twentyfirst Cycle the Dancer. He tends to make decisions that are not in anyone’s best interest.”

“Is there someone else up there we can talk to? Someone more open to a cultural exchange?”

“Our navigation commander, Eighth and Fifteenth Cycle the Boneless. She is far more reasonable, and is more flexible in her interpretation of our instructions.”

“Instructions?”

The Gunbender lowered his head and tilted it horizontal, what Sulu had determined was their equivalent of a nod, “From our harbor. We have been instructed to avoid contact with your species and to collect information about this planet and its technology. The harbor was not more specific than that. Eighth and Fifteenth is open to cooperation if it is necessary, but for some reason Second and Twentyfirst interprets these instructions as an order to prevent you from getting that same information. It is a source of some controversy among my colleagues.”

“What about your Captain?”

The Gunbender lowered his head slightly and narrowed his eyes. Somehow, Kirk recognized this as puzzlement. “I don’t understand that question.”

“Um… who has highest authority on your ship?”

Gunbender stared for a moment and pondered the question. Then he came to a realization and said, “Each watch is a team, each watch has authority. We do not dispute between watches.”

“You have no single commander who oversees the entire mission?”

“Yes. Our ship performs multiple missions. Orbit mission is commanded by Second and Twentyfirst. Navigation between planets and stars is for Eighth and Fifteenth.”

Kirk thought about this for a moment, then nodded, “You’re saying you have different commanders for each mission phase.”

“Yes…” The Gorn seemed unsure about his end of the translation, but it seemed close enough to his own understanding. “Yes, different commanders.”

“That may be a problem.”

“It may be a problem. Yes. Cooperation is unlikely while we are in orbit of this planet. And while we are on the subject,” the Gorn craned its head almost one hundred and eighty degrees, back towards the reentry capsule where another Gorn was in a low crouch position, having a very animated conversation with its ankle bracelet in that rumbling/musical language of theirs, “My team leader,” the Gunbender gestured to this one, “must now make a report to the Francium. If I know Second and Twentyfirst, the new instructions regarding your people will not be pleasant.”

“Perhaps if you let me explain to your commander…”

The transporter chamber began to hum. “Go. You do not have much time.”

“But…”

“Go!”

Sighing, Kirk turned and started jogging back towards the landing party, reaching for his communicator as he did. Behind him, the Gorn likewise jogged over to his team leader, already in conversation with their command ship above. There came from the two of them a brief but frantic exchange of vocalizations, almost certainly a heated argument. A few seconds of gesticulating and elevated voices culminated into a sweeping gesture by the leader, followed in short order by a change in posture from almost the entire Gorn away team. The transport chamber glowed furiously, and then the size of the Gorn team doubled as the new arrivals took their positions. All of them – even the one Kirk knew as “the Gunbender” – made a check of their weapons, pulling mechanical leavers and handles as if to load physical projectiles. Kirk doubled his pace and broke into a run.

It all happened at once, too quickly for him to register and too abruptly for him to anticipate let alone understand it. There was a series of loud popping sounds like firecrackers going off, followed immediately by a blunt impact and a blast of heat against the backs of his legs as if he’d just been hit by a speeding car. He hit the ground sideways on his elbow, scrambled back to his feet and went on running, feeling the hot pins-and-needles sensation of his overshield cycling down. Despite both sides’ reluctance, he knew they were in a fight now; what he didn’t know, even as he finally reached Rand and McCahil’s positions, was what exactly the Gorn had fired at him that could have hit with the force of a hand grenade.

The three security officers had started firing their phasers in bursts when Kirk slid into the grass in front of them. Spock was glued to his tricorder screen while McCoy was bitterly growling obscenities under his breath. Only at this point he noticed the phaser beams were the fiery orange of a high material-disruptor setting instead of the blue-violet pulses of the stun pulse. “Keep your phasers on stun,” Kirk said, “they’re not heavily armed, and they’re reluctant to fight with us…”

“The latter may be true, Captain,” Spock said tersely, “But they are quite heavily armed…” as he spoke, Kirk heard more gunshots from the Gorn camp and looked back in that direction as several large, brightly-glowing objects hurtled towards them, like photon torpedoes in miniature, flying in flat arcs out of the “mouths” of the skull-guns like fast-pitch baseballs. It took Kirk half an instant to work out the landing sites of those projectiles and then he turned and dove in the opposite direction, seconds before a chain of explosions ripped open the ground just short of where he’d been standing.

He chided himself for not seeing this sooner. It was the basic components of a photon torpedo launcher, miniaturized in hand-held form. These Gorn were undeniably smarter than their counterparts. “Enterprise, away team! Require combat beamout immediately!”

“Standby, away team. We’re coming around in our orbit again. Transport window opens in two minutes, twenty seconds.”

Ensign Dallas brought up his phaser rifle and swept the beam across the Gorn lines like a flashlight. The reptilian soldiers dove into the grass, some of them firing randomly with plasma rifles in a token attempt at an answer. One of the Gorn took a phaser beam directly across his chest; a circle of translucent material seemed to appear directly in front of him and the phaser beam crashed against it, driving both the shield and the Gorn behind it backwards into the tall grass as if they’d been hit with a fire hose. They have shields too, Kirk realized. That also explained why Spock had taken his phaser off stun.

Kirk took advantage of the covering fire, retrieved his own phaser, set it for kill. Without a targeting sensor he had to walk the guide beam across the landscape and dance through the grasses in the field until he saw the little blue dot skitter across the chest of one of the giant lizards. When he squeezed the trigger, a shimmering line of orange flame shot from the emitter and struck the Gorn in in the side of its head; as before, a circle of translucent material appeared in the path of the beam, but the force of the phaser blasted knocked the hapless creature completely off his feet and flipped him end-over-end as if he’d been hit by a runaway car.

Kirk looked for other targets, but more of the mini-torpedoes were being fired into the air, these on much more random headings than the others as the Gorn landing party was now more concerned with staying in cover than killing their opponents. Which was, for Kirk, a considerable problem; he figured out that it wasn’t necessary to stun the entire Gorn party, just any member of the party who might have outranked the Gunbender.

“The guidance systems on those grenades are unsophisticated, Captain,” Spock said reassuringly, “Simple ballistic trajectories calculated automatically to land at a pre-arranged target. No midcourse guidance.”

“Like field artillery. But they don’t even have to hit us to score a kill.”

“The grenades produce temperatures in excess of four thousand kelvins,” Spock looked up from his tricorder, “Our shields may withstand one, possibly two direct hits.”

“Can you jam their scanners? Keep them from tracking us?”

“I’ll try, Captain…” Spock started adjusting the controls on his tricorder, toggling through scan modes into the tactical operations menu that – both of them knew – would allow the tricorder to operate as an ECM device. Whatever the Gorn equivalent of a tricorder was, it was about to get an ear full of mind-crushing white noise.

“Let’s put on some distance first,” Kirk said, and then shouted to the others, “We’re gonna leapfrog it. Bones, Miri, Dallas and McCahil pull back first, Spock and Rand with me. Fall back twenty meters then reposition. Ready?”

“Ready,” shouted Dallas and McCahil, and McCoy grumbled something sarcastic and depressing.

Kirk counted in his head, then shouted “Go!” and raised up in the grass high enough to fire off series of sweeping beams from his hand phaser, joined after the shortest delay by Miri and Rand. McCahil’s group turned and broke into a run in the opposite direction, as fast as they could without raising their heads high enough to give the Gorn a clear target.

Two Gorn emerged from cover, raising skull guns and aiming more carefully than the others and fired a salvo of those burning orange grenades into the air. A flurry of phaser fire from Rand and Miri slammed of them into the ground like a traffic accident and sent two others scrambling back for cover. The grenades they launched sailed high into the air, spiraled down towards the Earth and then landed in a ragged cluster directly in the path of McCahil’s group in rolling sheet of explosions. Dallas and Doctor McCoy dodged explosions like frightened cats dodging hailstones. McCahil, for no obvious reason, stopped in his tracks, turned and fired his phaser up in the air as if trying to shoot down the grenades. One of the little fireballs came down right in front of him and detonated between his feet; the explosion launched him twenty feet into the air and flipped him five times before he landed on his head few meters away, most of his uniform already on fire.

A group they hadn’t noticed until now opened fire from a different direction, plasma bolts cut through the air over and between them and sent all four of them diving back into the grass for cover. Kirk glanced just as a plasma bolt hit Ensign Rand in the stomach like an errant fastball, doubling her over as it knocked her off her feet. He fired blind at where he thought the shot had come from and jumped to her side to inspect the wound; her field jacket was scorched and blackened where the plasma bolt had breached her overshield, but the skin underneath was barely singed. He pulled her up to a kneeling position; she nodded an ‘I’ll be fine’ gesture and took up her phaser again. Kirk knew, though, that if she took another hit like that they’d be recovering her remains with a shovel.

“They’re flanking us, Captain,” Spock said, squinting at his tricorder screen.

Kirk looked back at where McCahil’s team had run and saw them drop to a new position almost thirty meters behind them in the wild grass. It was, in fact, a precarious position; off to one side, the wild grass tapered off to shorter growth that would provide almost no cover at all, and off to the other side, the grass ended abruptly at the crumbling remnants of an acceleratedly-ancient road. It made a relatively straight retreat path, on the one hand, but it meant the Gorn would have almost no difficulty figuring out which way they went.

No choice either way. “We’re gonna fall back next,” Kirk said to the others. He wanted until Miri and Dallas had their new position, then thundered, “Go!” and shoved Rand to her feet ahead of him. All four of them sprinted back towards their new position while Miri and Dallas fired swept their phaser beams over them as McCoy – apparently having the same idea as Spock – set his tricorder to start jamming the Gorn sensor devices.

Kirk made sure the others were still ahead of him as he passed Dallas’ position, but hesitated for a moment when he didn’t see Miri with either group. He followed Spock and Rand back another thirty meters behind Dallas and Bones, then ducked down in the tall grass and asked, “Where’s Hallab? Was she hit?”

“She’s engaging the flankers, Captain,” Spock pointed with his finger towards the ancient road, at a point where Miri was lying prone on a piece of asphalt that had been pushed up from the ground by hundreds of years of rapid-aging vegetation. She was methodically plinking at the Gorn landing party as if she were shooting at tin cans on a fence, short and highly-controlled phaser beams into the heads and necks of anything she didn’t recognize as human. Their shields could block the destructive energies of a phaser rifle, but they couldn’t dissipate it as efficiently; Miri’s sniping would only be more effective if she were firing bean bags out of a howitzer.

The sound of Gorn plasma weapons subsided off slightly, as did the sounds of explosions from the skull grenades. The combination of distance and return fire had bought them enough time to catch their breaths. “Enterprise, away team!” Kirk shouted into his communicator, “I strongly suggest you beam us aboard now!”

“Away team, Enterprise,” Uhura answered, “We’re coming into position now, so… oh damn… standby, Captain, things are getting interesting up here.”

“Define interesting.”

“The Gorn vessel has changed orbits, coming over the horizon on a high-angle trajectory. At their present heading, they’ll be in firing range in about two minutes!”

Kirk was afraid of that. Apparently the Gorn orbit-operations commander – who by Gunbender’s account had blanket authority over anything that happened while still in orbit – was a bit too impetuous for his own good. Probably he’d decided it was simpler to dispose of the alien presence in orbit with them than continue to worry about potential complications. “We don’t have time to get to a safe position! Get your shields up and break orbit now!”

“Stand by, Captain. We’re gonna give you some cover.”

Spock’s tricorder whistled a warning and the Vulcan looked at the screen in alarm, “They’ve locked onto my tricorder!”

“Dammit… Covering fire!” Kirk shouted to McCahil’s team as he snatched the tricorder from Spock’s hand, wound up and threw it as hard as he could, straight back towards the Gorn as the four security officers opened up with their phasers. A dozen skull guns all fired at once from some place too far away to see, and a dozen blazing orange grenades sailed high up into the sky before raining down in a ragged pattern around where the tricorder had finally come to rest. A series of white hot explosions ripped the ground where Spock’s communicator had come to rest, melting the ground around and beneath it into glass.

Kirk’s communicator chirped again and Lieutenant Uhura’s voice announced to all of them, “Brace for support fire! Danger close!”

It was all the warning they had before a dense cluster of bright red phaser beams poured out of the skies above and behind the Gorn. Each beam was immense, easily the width of a man’s torso, and where each made contact with the ground a small artificial volcano erupted from the Earth, sending plumes of crushed rock and soil and incinerated vegetation geysering tens of meters into the air. It wasn’t clear if they were specifically aiming at the Gorn or just blanketing the area to discourage their pursuers. Either way, the Gorn soldiers immediately scattered in every direction and seemingly forgot that Starfleet had ever landed an away team on this planet.

“Thank you, God!” Miri gasped, fully moved to tears by the very miracle she’d been praying for, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…”

Kirk snapped open his communicator and bellowed, “Nice shootin’, Sulu! We’re the clear!”

“We have your signal. Standby for transport.”

“We’re ready, Enterprise. Beam us up.” He closed his communicator and turned to Ensign Rand with a smile, “Well. That was fun.”

Rand either didn’t hear him or didn’t bother to respond. Her attention was focussed down the site of the phaser rifle, scanning the wall of madness that was Enterprise’s ongoing phaser bombardment.

“Rand?”

“Sir?” She spared him a momentary glance, enough to reply, but not enough to break her concentration.

“Transport in five… four…”

“What do you think?” Kirk asked, looking at Rand out of the corner of his eye.

“About what, Sir?”

“… Three… Two…”

“It’s not too late to go back to being a yeoman.”

She glanced at him for a moment, showing slight confusion, followed in short order by a flash of amusement as the static discharge of the confinement beam began to crackle around her, “To hell with that!”

 

 

CLOSE ENCOUNTER

Doppelgänger Orbit
Stardate 2261.24

– 2021 hours –

The ship was already on Red Alert when the away team materialized in the transporter room. That was to be expected, considering the circumstances. What Kirk did not expect was the sudden lurch against the hull and the sound of power generators straining somewhere as the deflector screens struggled to repel some kind of attacking energy. The inertial dampeners quickly cancelled out the vibration, and the Captain leapt from the transport pad to the hatch, already sprinting on his way to the nearest turbolift.

He got as far as the transporter room door when the room suddenly filled with screams. He made out the voices of Rand and Dallas, plus the transporter chief whose name he could never remember. But there was a third scream in the room, an almost animal-like howl of greater power and intensity than any human could aspire to, and it was coming from the transport chamber.

For whatever Miri had been on the surface of Doppelgänger, the thing that beamed back to the Enterprise was far from human. Standing seven feet tall, a black charred apparition with compound eyes and a pair of spiny mandibles for hands, roaring madly with a mouth large enough to swallow a man whole. Miri’s duty uniform and field jacket were stretched to the tearing point around the alien, and the phaser rifle she’d been carrying was lying at its feet. It wasn’t moving, it wasn’t lunging, it wasn’t even cowering as a frightened animal might. It was simply standing there, looking at its own clawed hands, screaming.

Somehow, it was still Miriam Hallab… But transformed into something else. Kirk didn’t understand how or why, but with a battle unfolding around him he had exactly zero time to investigate. “You’re on, Bones!” he shouted, and without waiting for a reply, sprinted into the corridor towards the nearest turbolift for the bridge. Spock was right behind him as ever, cool as a glacier and solid as a rock; between Miri’s transformation and the firefight on the surface, Kirk’s entire body was shaking like an old cellular phone.

“Evasive action! All phasers continuous fire,” said Lieutenant Sulu, six seconds later as the Captain emerged through the turbolift on the starboard side of the bridge. The ship lurched again as something struck the deflector screens, but Kirk kept his footing just long enough to drop into his command chair as Spock moved towards the science station. “The Gorn vessel has moved back out of phaser range, Sir,” Sulu reported along the way, “Multiple torpedoes inbound on our position, impact in twenty seconds! We’re moving at full impulse power to try and evade!”

“Tactical plot, Mister Chekov,” Kirk ordered. And at a push of the navigator’s fingers, a tactical display appeared on the starboard HUD, showing Enterprise’s position in near orbit of Doppelgänger; four small blips indicated a spread of fast moving objects that were racing towards the Enterprise in a close formation, almost like fighter planes on an attack run. Beyond the translucent display, Kirk could see the sweep of the stars as the ship was completing a fast evasive turn away from the alien torpedoes, and felt the slight pull in the deck as the thrust of the impulse engines argued with the inertial dampeners. An indicator on the viewscreen gave the range and impact estimates for the torpedoes, at this point counting down the last eight seconds before they would hit the ship.

Four seconds from impact, the four torpedoes broke their formation and split out into a wide pincer formation, attacking from all directions at once. In the last instants before they could impact, Enterprise’s phaser banks opened fire all at once, and three of the Gorn torpedoes vanished into tiny puffs of ionized gas. The last weapon slipped past the phaser barrage and dove towards the ship at meteoritic speeds until – tens of kilometers from the ship – it slammed into the outer layers of the Enterprise’s deflector screens and detonated in an impressive fireball.

The deflectors absorbed the expanding force of the explosion as well, but through the engines and the plasma coils transferred that momentum into the ship. Enterprise lurched violently backwards, and the lights dimmed slightly as a high pitched whine sounded from the main engines, already racing to full power. Sulu shouted in surprise, “Shields held, but main engines just spiked! We can’t take many more of those, Sir!”

Spock added, “Picking up four more torpedoes heading our way. Impact in thirty five seconds.”

In their previous encounters the Gorn had used small attack fighters to bolster their offensives and converted those fighters into suicide bombs when the battle didn’t go their way. These torpedoes seemed similar, but Kirk sensed he was looking at something new. “Analysis on alien weapons, Spock.”

A display appeared on the long monitor above the science console, displaying the Gorn torpedoes silhouettes. Despite what Kirk expected, the alien torpedoes were actually ring-shaped projectiles with a cylindrical core that spun along their axis of motion like drill bits as they flew. They were relatively large, easily five meters across, but the core section wasn’t much larger than a standard photon torpedo. “I read them as strategic anti-ship weapons, Captain,” Spock said as he completed his analysis, “Relatively long range, possibly equipped with their own small warp cores. Warhead consists of an antimatter-pumped fusion device, comparable yield of approximately one hundred isotons.”

“Could we outrun them at warp?”

“Almost certainly,” Spock said, “But I cannot estimate their maximum effective range. They may be able to pursue us indefinitely.”

Kirk considered and dreaded the implications. They could go to warp and move to a position far from the planet, but the Gorn might still be able to attack them even from that distance and their torpedoes would still continue to harass them from the other side of the solar system. Sooner or later they might wear down their defenses…

The next wave of Gorn torpedoes appeared on the tactical display, twenty seconds from impact and closing at high velocity. Sulu was burning the impulse engines at full overboost to make the intercept that much harder, but there was no getting away from them at sublight now.

“Where’s the Gorn ship?” Kirk asked.

Chekov answered on a reflex, “They have moved to a higher orbit, range eight thousand kilometers. Bearing zero three one mark eight.”

It wasn’t exactly close quarters, then. “Arm photons one through six,” Kirk ordered, “Set warheads for proximity blast.”

Chekov released safeties from his console, which in turn kicked the order to the tactical officers at the ops station to the left and in front of him. The port HUD transformed itself into the Fire Control graphic, showing load status of the torpedoes and a sensor scope image of the Gorn vessel framed in the targeting scanners. Within a heartbeat the Ensign answered, “Torpedoes armed and ready! Targeting Gorn wessel…”

“Negative! Fix all weapons on the enemy’s torpedoes, interception points at four thousand and two thousand kilometers. Wait for my command. Sulu, pitch us down ninety degrees at full impulse power and then cut your engines.”

Sulu grunted acknowledgment and swung the bow ninety degrees straight down. Not that Enterprise actually began to travel in that direction – like the torpedoes, it was still hurtling around the planet below at thousands of meters per second – but the sudden move changed the ship’s direction by such a huge degree that all five of the Gorn torpedoes had to stop and regroup to reconsider their programmed attack pattern.

And it was at that exact moment that Captain Kirk ordered, “Fire torpedoes!”

The entire bridge heard an audible tone from the weapons console warning the bridge crew of a torpedo launch, and then, all at once, six blue-white fireballs leapt out from under the saucer section and raced off into the distance like angry meteorites. Half a minute later, a ripple of blue-white fireballs danced among the stars, followed by several larger and brighter orange ones among them.

“All enemy torpedoes detonated, Captain,” Spock announced, “The Gorn ship has changed course, now moving towards us at one-half impulse power…”

“Arm torpedoes seven through twelve, lock on and fire!”

“Guidance lock,” Sulu reported, then “Firing!”

If the Enterprise was a baseball, the distance to the Francium ship would have spanned an olympic stadium; those six torpedoes covered that distance in about thirty seconds, homing on the energy signature of its sublight engines. Though naturally too far away to be seen with the naked eye, a magnified image now filled Enterprise’s viewscreen showing the distant vessel maneuvering in space as a second wave of its super-torpedoes launched from slots along the hull, this time moving to intercept their Starfleet counterparts in space. Then a new wonder to behold: one of the torpedoes crackled in space, and in its place, another Francium now appeared. And again with another torpedo across from it, and two more below. In seconds, one Gorn ship with six torpedoes had become seven identical Franciums in a loose formation, moving towards the Enterprise. Kirk immediately saw that he couldn’t tell which was the original and which were the duplicates; Spock saw that the torpedoes couldn’t either.

Two photond dove at one of the new Franciums and passed right through it without detonating; the new ship flickered like a bad monitor image but suffered no damage at all. Two other torpedoes slipped into the middle of their targets and detonated; the phantom Franciums vanished without leaving so much as a scrap of debris behind. The last three closed in on the Francium at the very center of the new fleet, which suddenly began filling the sky with plasma bolts in a last-ditch effort to defend. Two of the photons were hit and destroyed before they could even detonate, but the sixth and final weapon slipped through and exploded against the Francium’s starboard side. The Gorn ship lurched to port, tumbled for a moment out of control before it began to right itself, like a boxer shaking off a blow.

“Direct hit on enemy’s starboard side,” Spock reported, “Reading large-scale structural displacement, power fluctuations. We may have seriously damaged him.”

Kirk didn’t let himself feel relief yet. “Is he moving off?”

“Unknown. I am picking up a power buildup in their engineering section. They may be preparing to go to warp.”

On the tactical plot, Kirk watched as the power field around the Gorn ship continued to grow in strength, then an indicator that showed that another small object – one of their spinning ring-shaped torpedoes – had been ejected from the ship. The torpedo didn’t accelerate immediately, in fact for several seconds it floated lazily in space alongside the Francium as if waiting for a signal from its mother ship. “Sulu, give me visual,” Kirk ordered, and a telescope image appeared on the viewscreen showing the Francium and the small torpedo alongside.

It hadn’t been apparent on sensors, but in the viewscreen image they could see what looked like flashes of lightning between the torpedo and the Francium’s hull, an indicator of enormous power being transferred from the latter. The torpedo was even beginning to spin faster as it absorbed more energy from Francium’s power field, glowing fiercely as it gained energy. Then the electrical discharges ceased. The torpedo hung in space for a moment, and then snapped forward like a bullet fired from an invisible gun.

A microsecond later a brilliant explosion filled the viewscreen. Enterprise lurched so violently to backwards that most of the bridge crew was simply slammed to the deck as if they’d been slapped out of their chairs by a tidal wave. Ensign Chekov wound up on his back underneath his console, and Sulu’s head bounced off his helm station and left a three-inch gash on his forehead with an audible, “Holy shit!”

Kirk struggled up to his hands and knees, shook the bells out of his ears and shouted over his shoulder, “Spock!”

The science officer was still climbing back to his console at this point, but through the audio pickup in his ear he could interpret the raw sensor data well enough to answer the implicit question, “They’ve transferred warp power to their weapons! That torpedo hit us at almost warp four!”

“Sulu, adjust your heading to-”

“Incoming fire!” Spock warned, and then a second shot struck the deflectors and slammed the Enterprise into a spin. This time most of the bridge officers were ready for it, but the suddenness of the impact still knocked half the crew out of their seats or slammed them against their consoles or the bulkheads next to them. It was like experiencing a train cash without a seatbelt; the inertial dampeners just couldn’t keep up with that kind of sudden impact.

A small alarm sounded from the left side of the bridge, drawing the Captain’s attention to one of the HUD displays that now showed a “Shield Status” graphic. It was a simple double-bar graph above a digram of the Enterprise with special emphasis on the warp nacelles, particularly in the deflector elements within them. The icon that represented the starboard nacelle was flashing red, and the twin bar lines that represented it – one for load and the other for output – were oscillating violently, as if someone were working over the sensors with a jackhammer. Kirk knew this pattern, of course, even before Scotty’s voice thundered on the intercom, “Engineering to bridge! Warp engines just red-lined! Deflectors are cutting out!”

Four minutes, Kirk thought. They’d been fighting the Gorn for all of four minutes, not including the half a minute or more it had taken them to get to the bridge from the transporter room. For some reason, Kirk remembered Lieutenant Cartwright, another non-believer in No Win situations, his tactical operations instructor on their sophomore training cruise on the Farragut. Cartwright once told him that the average engagement between any two starships lasted between three and five minutes, while anything longer than that was usually a delaying tactic by the defeated party to evacuate its crew. Inexperienced commanders often had difficulty knowing whether or not victory was still achievable and committed themselves to battles they already lost; the smart commanders, Cartwright said, knew that that if they weren’t close to achieving victory by the four minute mark, it was because they were loosing.

In this case, Kirk still had a few seconds left. And looking at the situation, he decided to settle for a draw. His deflectors still had a few seconds of life to them, therefore – by definition – so did his warp engines. “Arm remaining torpedoes! Transverse pattern, set for proximity blast!”

“Ready, Sir,” Chekov reported.

“Lock on the Francium and fire! Sulu, bring us to absolute heading three oh one mark zero, warp one!”

“Turning, Captain. Warp power coming up… twelve seconds to space warp…” A withering salvo – twelve more photon torpedoes – leapt from the weapons bay and quickly formed themselves into an attack pattern, four groups of tree, spreading out in a wide pattern to converge on the Francium from four different directions. Beyond the rim of the saucer and the receding fireballs, Kirk saw the horizon of the planet below shifting and turning as Sulu maneuvered the ship, vectoring the impulse exhaust to throw the ship through space like a stunt fighter. Something bright and frightening flashed past the viewscreen, and Kirk realized with a flash of panic that the Gorn had fired another one of their warp-speed torpedoes, and that this last weapon had cut right through the deflectors only to miss the Enterprise by a few hundred maters.

After a few moments the ship stabilized its attitude and Sulu keyed up the ship’s intercom, “All sections, standby for warp in six… five… four.. three.. two…”

Kirk saw the snap-streak of yet another torpedo zip past the ship, then the stars themselves exploded all around them. At that moment, the conspiracy of field coils and plasma dynamos that were the Warp Drive Engines created a distortion in space into which the Enterprise presently disappeared, like a raft going over the edge of a waterfall. Enterprise leapt forth – freed from the tyranny of Newton and even of Einstein – in an explosion of speed and power that registered on the Gorn monitors only as a massive gravitational disturbance. From there point of view, it was as if the Enterprise had simply disappeared; from Enterprise’s point of view, the ship didn’t move at all.

It would take a handful of seconds to surge out of Doppelgänger’s orbit, less time than that to clear the Gorn’s firing range. Once the drive engaged, Kirk silently counted to four, and then ordered, “All stop”

“All stop, Aye Sir,” Sulu cut output from the warp engines, and almost at once their velocity dropped to nothing. Just as quickly as it had burst free, Enterprise came crashing back to the universe of mass and inertia, another floating object hurtling lazily and unpowered through space. Their new position was much higher in orbit than their original point, and it took a few moments of thrust from the impulse engines to give the Enterprise enough “real world” momentum to maintain a circular orbit without ultimately plummeting to the world below. “New position on viewer, Sir,” Sulu reported, “We are one point four million kilometers from the Gorn vessel.”

“Photon torpedoes have impacted, Captain,” Spock reported from his sensor scope, “The Gorn vessel no longer register on our…” Spock looked up and slid his chair over to the library computer interface, “Fascinating!”

“We did we destroy their ship?”

“No, Sir. It has moved to a new position on the far side of the planet. A translocation of approximately twelve thousand kilometers.”

Kirk raised a brow, “What’d they do, warp through the planet?”

“There is a transient spatial distortion present near Francium’s previous position. It is similar to the transwarp vortex we encountered near New Vulcan last year, but of much smaller magnitude and far less stable. I believe this may be the Gorn equivalent of warp drive.”

“Good to know…” Kirk nodded, “Compute a course for orbit of the planet’s outermost moon. The Gorn won’t follow us that far.”

Spock looked up from his science console, “How did you come to that conclusion, Captain?”

“Their science officer said something about their command structure being divided into different mission commands. He tried to warn me that their orbit operations commander is a bit trigger happy, and that if we wanted to get anywhere we should talk to their navigation commander.”

“I don’t understand…”

Kirk turned his chair and rested his elbows on his knees, “In the old days of space exploration, NASA used to have what they called the Ring of Command. A crew of thirty would have six or seven senior astronauts, each with their own speciality. One would command the launch phase, one would command the ship during planet crossings, one would be responsible for the landing, another would lead the expedition on the ground, another would be responsible for the launch and docking, and so on. At each phase of the mission they completely rearranged their entire command structure, so that each person was an expert in one particular field and merely proficient in all the others. It’s kind of like we do today with different ship departments, you know?”

“And you believe the Gorn follow a similar Ring-structure for command authority?”

Kirk shrugged, “It may not be, but it’s something like it. It was explained to me that they don’t have an ultimate commander for the ship, it depends on what the ship’s doing at any given time.”

“Your theory seems correct, Keptin,” Chekov volunteered, “alien wessel has scanned us, but is not pursing.”

“Did we damage their engines or are they just hanging back?”

Spock looked at his sensor scope for a moment, “It is uncertain if any of our torpedoes impacted, but I am picking up some unusual power fluctuations from the Francium. Either the power transfer to their torpedoes or the sudden translocation appears to have considerably taxed their engines.”

Kirk nodded, “Same boat as us, then. They jumped to warp to escape our attack, same as we did.”

“New orbit confirmed, Captain. ETA, one hour eighteen minutes to orbit of the outer moon,” Sulu reported as a navigational graphic on the left side HUD showed their new orbit and a spiral course that turned into a ring five hundred kilometers over its surface.

“They won’t follow us,” Kirk repeated, “Navigation between planets would require a shift change. If their orbital commander wants a fight, he has to wait for me to come back into his jurisdiction. Besides, I think we’ve demonstrated that we’re a pretty even match when it comes to combat.”

“In the mean time,” Spock said grimly, “We are effectively prevented from any further action on this planet until the Gorn leave the area.”

“For the time being, yes. But we haven’t run out of options yet.” To this end, Kirk turned around and faced the communications station with a self-satisfied smirk, “Sulu, reload all torpedo bays and then have Mister Scott do a full workup on the deflector systems. Uhura, maintain standing yellow alert and assemble a damage report from all sections.”

“Aye, Captain… and what about the Grazine, Sir? Should I tell them to abort the rendezvous?”

“Negative. As soon as they drop out of warp, arrange for new rendezvous coordinates in orbit of the-”

“Sickbay to bridge! Urgent!”

Kirk had almost forgotten about Miri. Remembering now filled him with a sense of dread even greater than the prospect of battle with the Gorn. Punching the intercom to sickbay, Kirk said, “Bones. How’s the girl?”

“Sedated, Jim. She’s in a state of shock. Understandable considering what’s happening to her.”

Kirk looked at the intercom as if someone had painted a clown face on it. “Yeah… what the hell is happening to her? Transporter malfunction?”

“I uh… Jim, honestly, I think you’d better get down here. Bring Spock too. You’re gonna want to see this in person.”

 

 

RAPID AGING

Doppelgänger-B Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.24

– 2055 hours –

“Wait, that’s Miri?” Kirk asked of the withered figure under the hospital blanket on the biobed. He’d been merely curious when he walked into sickbay and saw a mysterious woman in her mid seventies lying there in the infirmary section, but that curiosity had grown into near panic when McCoy told him the woman’s name. “You can’t be serious!”

“Serious as a heart attack,” McCoy said, “We did another genetic screening a minute ago. The DNA is a perfect match to Miri’s pattern. Besides, she looks exactly like Miranda Anderson in her interviews in the 2070s”

“But the thing that materialized on the transporter…”

“She didn’t stay that way for long. When we tried to take her to sickbay she…” McCoy shook his head in disbelief, “I don’t know how to explain this, but we were carrying her – what she’d become – on a stretcher, and suddenly there was a flash of light and she as gone. There was this thing on the gurney the size of a baseball, this malformed lump of flesh… if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was a fetus.”

“A fetus…” Spock pondered this for a moment, but didn’t comment further.

Kirk looked at the withered figure again, vaguely resembling the Miri he knew, but aged into a woman maybe a century old. “She transformed into these things?”

“She did it right in front of us. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.” And just in case there was any doubt, Bones walked to a computer console next to the biobed and replayed the security video from sickbay during the Gorn attack. The malformed lump of flesh that had been Miriam Hallab had already collected itself into something of a distorted toddler form, the kinematics of a premature baby with the size and girth of a three year old. At the first touch of the hypo, the poor child steadied and then seemed to inflate itself, rapidly into that of the elderly woman on the biobed now.

“I’ll be…”

“Fascinating,” Spock folded his arms, “Do you have any theory on how to account for this phenomenon?”

“I have a few, none of them good. I figure it has something to do with that weird duplicate planet she came from. And on Doctor Marcus’ theory that the planet was recreated using some kind of nanotechnology, I did an electron microgram of a blood sample just before you two came in.”

Kirk asked, “What did you find?”

Bones shrugged, “There’s something weird in her blood plasma. A chemical trace. Something complicated like I’ve never seen before. My tricorder picked up a trace of it when I examined her a month ago. Reads like an explosive compound but it could also be something with some flimsy electron bonds… whatever it is, it’s in abundance now. Her blood and muscle tissues are saturated with it.”

“Could it have been caused by the transporter beam?” Kirk asked, “We know our sensors can have an effect on the planet’s variable aging cycle.”

“If that’s what triggered it, she would have gone through this the first time we beamed her up. It’s got to be something else.”

“The Gorn weapons perhaps? Or emotional stress?”

Spock stirred suddenly as something occurred to him, “They had to momentarily lower the deflectors in order to beam us aboard. The subspace distortion may have-”

There was a crackling/scratching sound from behind them, and all three turned just in time to see the wrinkled old woman change forms again, like a timelapse of a person aging in reverse. In a handful of heartbeats she again became Ensign Miriam Hallab, exactly as she had been when she beamed down; the newly restored youth sat up on the biobed and looked around perplexed, then looked at her hands and the tatters of her uniform and – finding them all relatively normal – asked plaintively, “Bones… What the hell is going on?”

Kirk stepped forward from the group and put his hand on her shoulder, “How much do you remember?”

Miri took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, “That’s a bigger question than you realize, Captain. I guess it depends on how much of it was real.”

“What if all of it was real?”

“Then I remember all of it, Sir. But it couldn’t all be real.”

“Why not?”

“Because I remember…” she hesitated at this point, not wanting to give away something that might either incriminate her or convince her newfound crew of her loss of sanity, “I remember things that couldn’t possibly… couldn’t logically have really happened.”

Kirk looked at McCoy helplessly.

“Miri,” the Doctor said tenderly, “you underwent some kind of transformation. We don’t know how or why, but we think it might have something to do with the use of our deflector shields. Do you remember any feelings or sensations that went with the transformations?”

Miri shook her head. “When we were beaming up, I remember feeling that we were finally going home. Then I looked at myself and my body was all…” she shuddered, “It was strange. It looked like I’d been burnt in a fire, but I felt cold.”

“Cold?”

“Terrible, terrible cold. So cold it was painful.”

“Then what?”

“I remember… I remembering being small, not being able to move, then…” she decided to skip some of the details. Seventy five years worth of details, to be exact, and summarized it all as, “There was a jumble of crap that makes no sense at all, and then I think I passed out.”

“You seemed to undergo an entire human lifecycle in the span of a few minutes,” Spock pointed out, “Beginning from the moment of conception before leaping rapidly to old age.”

“Just like the planet, come to think of it,” Kirk said, “This is… worrisome.”

“Tell me about it,” Miri hung her head, “You don’t know why this happened to me?”

McCoy sighed, “We’ve never seen anything even remotely like this. I don’t have the first clue what caused it.”

“What would you need in order to find out?”

“I’d have to take some tissue samples, run a few tests. It’ll take some time. Meanwhile,” McCoy looked at Miri, “Take a few days medical leave. After that, if you feel fit to return to duty…”

“Bones, I know how this is going to sound, but right now the last thing I need is to be sitting around, left to my own devices, with plenty of chances to scare the hell out of myself. I want to go back on duty as soon as possible. I still have a lot of training to do…”

“I understand that. But until I know for sure your condition is stable, I’m ordering you to take the day off from your normal duties. If you must occupy yourself, I suggest you study up on your cadet’s service manual for next month’s exams.”

Reluctantly, Miri nodded in agreement. “You know where to find me…”

“Right down the hall to the left of the armed guards and the cluster bombs.” McCoy winked at her, “Stay put for a big longer. I want to run a few more scans to make sure you’re not going to turn into a dinosaur or something, and then you’ll be free to go.”

Slightly embarrassed, but feigning ignorance, Miri nodded and laid back on the bed.

McCoy slid back the privacy curtain around her biobed, then he lead the Captain and Science officer to his office across the medical bay. Once he was sure they were out of earshot he said, “You know, McCahil wanted those kids disarmed. He was worried they might try some ill-advised takeover of the compartment…”

“I have spoken with the one called Peter the Rabbit,” Spock said, “He denied any knowledge of the subject, of course, but he insisted – hypothetically – that any visitor to the Enterprise would take such prudent measures as long as the reavers were aboard. I also agreed to his… er… hypothetical scenario.”

Kirk grinned, “I’ve been hearing about that kid. Some kind of junior philosopher of the group…”

“Despite his unusual moniker, the boy is blessed with an almost professorial intellect. Though I have not been able to locate his original, I suspect he may have been well regarded in his adult years.”

“Speaking of the reavers,” McCoy said, “When Miri went through that trans-”

“Lemme stop you for a minute…” Kirk raised his hand in a “halt” gesture, “those two reavers are still on board, right? What do you want to do with them?”

McCoy folded his arms, “If it was up to me, I’d send them back where they came from. But Ramsi’s against it, and I almost agree. With the rapid aging effect on that planet, it’s basically a death sentence. Then again, they’re not much better off with us. Alive, yes, but not much else.”

Spock nodded in agreement, “Despite our efforts to stimulate what may remain of their sapient background, the two reaver specimens have demonstrated no higher cognitive function beyond expression of basic instinct. After murdering the lone caveman we recovered, their main activities have been reduced to sleeping, consuming food and copulating, and they seem capable of little else.”

“Wait. The female reavers are having sex with each other?” Kirk raised a brow, “Damn, I don’t know if that’s disgusting or kinky.”

“Are you finished being an idiot, Jim? This could be serious.”

“Sorry, Bones. Go ahead.”

McCoy sighed, and continued his earlier interrupted thought, “When Miri went through that transformation, I got a good look at the tissues and body structures involved. It wasn’t just the mutilated flesh of a transporter accident. It transformed her into a completely different kind of organism. She changed into a fetus pretty quick, but the transformation did leave a bit of residue on the gurney from the original form. I had the lab put the scraps under a microscope, just in case.”

“What did they find?”

“They found this.” McCoy tapped an icon on one of the monitor screens and a micrograph report came up on the screen. “The exobiology lab thinks it’s some kind of acidophile tissue from complex, multi-cellular life form. High proton mobility, probably all-around kinetic-acid stability. Also alot of crystalized carbon in the cell membranes.”

Kirk looked at Spock, wondering – and hoping – that his science officer knew what McCoy was talking about.

Spock did, but not to the point of its relevance. “This would suggest an organism adapted to a highly acidic environment.”

“And extremely high temperatures at that,” McCoy added, “Or so the exolab thinks. Lieutenant Collins says it’s the sort of thing that would be comfortable on Venus.”

Kirk flinched, “Wait a minute. We beamed back to the Enterprise only fifteen minutes ago? When did you have time to send tissue samples to the exolab?”

McCoy frowned, “I didn’t. I took some tissue samples from the Reaver specimen Ensign Riley recovered. The malignant samples underwent a drastic morphological change just a couple of days after removal, so I turned them over to exobiology for culturing and analysis. Their preliminary analysis revealed this,” he gestures at the images on the monitor, “Which turns out to be an exact match to the residue on Miri’s gurney.”

“So if you were to strip the Reavers of all their malignant tissues…”

“…they would start to revert into whatever organism this,” McCoy pointed at the monitor, “belongs to.”

Spock nodded slowly, finally comprehending. “So you’re saying the form that beamed back to the Enterprise was a form indigenous to this planet.”

“More than that, Jim,” McCoy said, “It’s Miri’s form. It’s what she really is.”

Spock nodded as he understood McCoy’s implications, “When we look at Miri and the children, we’re looking at a human pattern that has been superimposed on an alien form of life. Circumstances suggest this is one-to-one conversion of one organism into another.”

“And the reavers,” McCoy was thinking out loud, “It must be… A hybridization of some kind. Maybe a transitional state between the human pattern and the original.”

Kirk got a mental flash of the thing that had materialized in the transporter room wearing Miri’s uniform. He hadn’t noticed it until it started screaming; it didn’t start screaming until it looked at its hands… “It’s not just their physical form, Bones. They think they’re human. They don’t remember being anything else.”

Spock stood a little taller, as if inflated from within by a sudden explosion of ideas. “It stands to reason that the humanoid form of these creatures is being sustained artificially, in which case the Reaver transformation commences immediately following the cessation of external controls. There may be an identifiable mechanism at work here.”

“Something that not only transformed them into a completely different life form, but it’s actively keeping them that way,” McCoy said, folding his arms, “What the hell kind of technology could even do that?”

Spock only half registered the question. He was already on his way out of sickbay when he composed an answer, almost as an afterthought, “When I have an answer, Doctor, you will be the first to know.”

.

– 2204 hours –

Samir and Michael stirred at the sound of the turbolift. Not that they expected an alien invader would travel through the ship by turbolift, but there was always a need to seem innocent and – most importantly – unarmed whenever Starfleet officers came through this part of the ship. Though unscheduled visits were rare, ship’s business came in many shapes and sizes, and reports of a bunch of squirrelly kids wandering around with sub machinepistols would create complications that the Onlies did not need.

Both boys briefly pretended to have absolutely nothing to do, Michael leaning nonchalantly against the corridor wall and Samir suddenly paying very close attention to the screen of an iPod that hadn’t worked in years. The turbolift stopped at the deck below, and then footfalls sounded from the ladder well down the corridor as someone began to climb. When Miri emerged into the corridor, they relaxed a little, but kept up their charade of nonchalance until she was close enough to talk in just-above-a-whisper, “Where’s everyone?”

“Talking to Peter,” Samir said, without looking up from the screen. He didn’t need to look up, over the years he’d sharpened his peripheral vision into an almost radar-like precision, “Everyone’s all jumpy. What’s going on out there? Where have you been?”

“Come on, I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Shouldn’t we stay here on guard? What if the monsters get loose?”

“Just come on. You’ll want to hear this. All of you.”

As it stood, everyone else was gathered in the corridor begging Peter the Rabbit for answers anyway. He was by no means the wisest or most experienced of the group, but he had the most confidence of them all and a knack for pulling up wild guesses that just happened to be correct, and this made him valuable in a crisis of impotence. Miri remembered from a year ago that Peter the Rabbit had managed to whip the entire crew back into working order after a storm had killed the diesel on their fishing boat; while Miri got together an ad hoc engineering team to make repairs, Peter single handedly sequestered the crew in the wardroom and bombarded the lot of them with such artful rhetoric that would have made Malcolm X look like Alan Colmes.

Presently he was in the middle of a long speech about how their indomitable spirit had carried them through far greater trials than this when Miri entered the passage and stole the stage by default. Peter the Rabbit seamlessly transitioned from speaker to audience as all eyes turned to her.

The first words she spoke were the most pertinent, even if they weren’t most relevant to what the Onlies were worried about. “Guys, the dreams aren’t dreams. They’re real.”

Everyone looked at her confused for a moment. Forest-Forest-Gump was the first to ask, “What dreams?”

“The dreams that Jasmine and Leila and Nabi and… and…”

“Samir and Louis and Khan and Horace,” Miri finished as Peter stepped back into obscurity, “We all had the same dreams. We all thought they were premonitions. But they’re not premonitions. They’re memories.”

“Memories?” Samir asked.

“Memories of the people we were meant to be. I think whatever created our planet wanted to be able to rewind and fast forward to different points in history. It gave us all the memories we would need along that continuum, but we couldn’t use those memories until the right time. Like the second moon. None of us remember there ever being two moons on Earth, right? The time when we first noticed it, I’m sure that’s as far back as our real memories go. Everything before that is just copied data.”

A stir went through the assembled group. Not panic or disturbance, just a bit of incredulity and anxious acceptance of what half of them had already begun to suspect.

Peter the Rabbit was the first to ask, “So what are we? Walking VCRs?”

Miri remembered materializing in the transporter room, the feeling of terrible cold, the way the air burned her skin, the disfigurement of her hands. The reflection of herself – the thing she had become – on the console’s radiation shield. What we really are… “Sort of,” she began, but that didn’t seem right. Whoever had bothered to get this information also found a need to give it expression in living, thinking, talking bodies. More to the point, it had stopped the playback at a specific moment and allowed part of those stored memories to be overwritten with new ones. Obviously, the old memories were still intact somehow… “I don’t think it matters though. We were allowed to come aboard this ship with these people, so I think that for whatever purpose we were made, we’ve fulfilled that purpose and now we can do as we wish.”

“Or maybe we’re just not needed right now?” asked The Other Jasmine, “You know, I’m not religious like Pete, but I was just thinking, what if this is all part of God’s plan?”

From somewhere deep within a memory that Miri had recently had the horrifying pleasure of experiencing, she asked, “Define God.”

“Um… the creator of the world… and everything…”

“Same difference. Whatever created our world – let’s call it God, for simplicity – whatever it is, it had a purpose for us. It must have been a very specific purpose because we all have a lifetime of memories stored inside of us somewhere…”

“How do you know this all of a sudden?” Asked Leila, neatly interrupting her brother who was about to ask the same question, “What’s happened out there anyway?”

Miri summarized: “They needed me for a mission on the planet. We all beamed down to stonehenge in England. Except it wasn’t stonehenge… it wasn’t the stonehenge of the Other Earth. It was some kind of alien machine that extends all the way to the center of the Earth. The Gorn – the other aliens – landed there too, and we ended up in a gunfight.”

“Whoa!”

“You got shot at by aliens?”

“Did you kill anyway?”

“What’d they look like?”

“Did they have acid for blood?!”

“Did they have two heads?”

“Was it scary?”

Shut up!” Miri snapped her fingers, and the corridor became silent again, “Mister Spock beamed us back aboard right when their starship attacked us. The Captain fought them off, but we’ve had to change orbits now so we’re much farther from Earth than before. The weirdest thing is, when the transporter brought me aboard… well first it turned me into an alien, and then I turned into a baby and aged into an old lady all in a few minutes. And all the time I had all my memories of my whole entire life. It was exactly like my brain was being fast-forwarded.”

“But you’re okay now?” asked The Other Jasmine, “You look pretty normal.”

“I’m fine. Better than fine… well… sort of fine. I feel like I just woke up from one hell of a crazy dream, and for some reason there’s alot of new things that I know about…”

“What about the monsters?” Nabi asked, “The battle didn’t… like… loosen their cage or anything, did it?”

“No, they’re all safely locked away. I heard them talking before I left. They’re doing some experiments on the monsters to see if they can turn them back into their original forms.”

Peter the Rabbit nodded sagely, “That would be a nice change of pace. Maybe we could save some of the people who-”

“You know something? Mister Spock thinks the monsters only change when they’re close to Earth. I think he’s wrong. I think if Bones tries to undo whatever’s been done to us, it’ll only make things worse. Starfleet is dealing with forces they can’t understand. They’re doing their best, but they’re missing key pieces of the puzzle.”

“Like what?”

“For one thing, their transporter device transformed me into all sorts of different things. They don’t even know why.”

“God alone knows why,” said Peter the Rabbit, “But do you want to know my theory?”

His theories were getting more interesting every day. Miri shrugged, “Go ahead.”

I think it was a message.”

“A message?”

Peter the Rabbit nodded.

“From who? From God?”

“Maybe… but I think, a message from the planet.”

Miri put her hands on her hips and stared at him angrily. This was not one of Peter the Rabbit’s better theories. “The planet sent us a message?”

“It sent you a message.”

“Really?”

“It’s a pretty smart planet. I must have realized you were training to become an member of the crew, so it gave you some information it thought you might need. That is what happened, isn’t it?”

Miri nodded slowly, “It gave me the memories my… Well… Of my duplicate’s future. The space program and the Eugenics Wars and the Calypso’s mission. I remember it all like it actually happened to me. Which is weird, right?”

“Not so much. The planet was giving you the memories you would need to properly fit in to your new environment. It wants you to fit in and be comfortable no matter where you are.”

Miri sighed, “If you say so…”

“I found a movie in the Enterprise’s computer. An old American movie. About these guys at the bottom of the sea, they find a space ship with a big golden ball in the middle of it. One of the scientist guys thinks the ball is alive, because it has a reflective surface, but it doesn’t reflect everything. Like, it doesn’t reflect their suits and their lights, for example. It chooses what it will and will not reflect.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, think about it. We came from a planet that’s, like, basically a mirror image of another planet. It had everything on it that the old one have, but the one thing it didn’t have was humpback whales.”

Miri remembered the summary report Mister Spock had given her to review, mainly on the assumption that she might want to add something form her own unique perspective. She had added quite a few notes and confirmations and cleared up a few confusions of details, but for her, the report had raised more questions than it answered. “Mister Spock thinks that whoever created this planet created it just to harvest those whales for some purpose.”

“That could be, but I doubt it.”

“How would you know? Spock’s a genius.”

“But he doesn’t know this planet,” Peter the Rabbit rhetorically dismissed him with a wave of the hand, “And he doesn’t know us. And besides, he’s one of those smart guys who makes big stupid assumptions without realizing the obvious. Like the religious teachers we used to have. He just assumes that somebody out there must have created this planet, just like the religious teachers always assumed that God created the Earth. Well you know and I know that this planet created itself.”

“We know that?”

I know that.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just do.”

Miri rolled her eyes.

“But we just recently found out that this planet was created in the image of another planet. Which means…”

Leila smiled brightly, finally catching on, “Wait… the planet created itself… but it created itself in an intelligent way… I get it! That means it’s a smart planet!”

“Exactly.”

“Smart planet…” Miri thought about this, and in a way it was beginning to make more and more sense. Certainly the one question Spock’s report had raised for her was the matter of how an alien intelligence could have gathered that much information about Earth and its people without being noticed. Quite probably, it didn’t have to: it simply looked across the cosmos and reflected what it saw there, duplicated it without really knowing what it was duplicating. Smart planet indeed, but with the question in mind, “Why wouldn’t it copy those whales?”

“Maybe it just doesn’t like whales?”

Miri thought about this for a long moment. But since they were on the subject of old American science fiction anyway, another idea occurred to her from a half-remembered (but oh-so-cherished) novel she once read in that shattered library in Haifa, years before all the books had decomposed, “Maybe it doesn’t need to copy whales?”

“Why wouldn’t it need to copy whales?”

“Why would it need to copy humans? To learn more about them and how they live, right? And they let the world go crazy as part of an experiment. Maybe testing humanity’s tolerances to extreme forces.”

“But they don’t care about whales, though?”

“If I had to guess,” Miri said, “It’s because they already know about the whales.”

 

 

THE GENESIS FILE

Doppelgänger-B Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.26

– 0650 hours –

“Bridge to all decks, red alert. Weapons bay, stand by for immediate weapons release.” The rising tone of the red alert claxon sounded next, joined by flashing lights and the sounds of pressure doors dropping to isolate independent sections of the ship. Back on a combat footing for the fifth time in two days, and judging by the sound of his voice, Lieutenant Sulu found it a lot less exciting than he had the first two times.

Kirk pushed his chair back from his desk terminal and snapped his communicator open. It found the bridge intercom immediately and he demanded, “Talk to me, Sulu.”

“Same as before, Captain. Inbound torpedoes, bearing two eleven mark six. Impact trajectory in forty two minutes…” a long pause on the intercom circuit, and then Kirk heard the whistle of a power transfer and the distant reverberation of a torpedo launch, like the sounds of gigantic springs recoiling back and forth. Six torpedoes, from the sound of things, which meant the Gorn had fired a full spread as well. “Interception at z-minus twenty one minutes,” Sulu added, “Second wave can intercept at z-minus eight. Phasers are standing ready and deflectors remain fully operational.”

“Have we figured out yet why they haven’t tried warp-charging their torpedoes again?”

“The warp charge was pretty effective, but it lacks accuracy. Weapons lab says it’s more likely a planetary bombardment weapon and not an anti-ship one. When they used it on us, it was probably a desperation move.”

Kirk grunted, “Make sure they haven’t launched a second wave at us, and then downgrade to yellow alert. I want the ship ready to receive our Cardassian guests when they arrive.”

“Aye, Sir.”

In all the previous attacks, Kirk had come directly to the bridge to check on the situation in person, only to be told that Sulu or Spock had already taken appropriate counter measures, programming their photon torpedoes to intercept the incoming Gorn torpedoes halfway between Doppelgänger and Enterprise. The attack before last had seen the Francium launching their torpedoes in a staggered formation so the interceptors could only hit two of the four; the second wave torpedo strike had cleaned them up before they even got into phaser range. The leading opinion among the command staff was that the Gorn were determined to keep the Enterprise away from Doppelgänger and that these random torpedo attacks were kind of harassment strike meant to disrupt their scientific mission as much as humanly (Gornly?) possible.

Actually, it was working, if the report on his desk terminal was any indication. Captain Kirk got the planetologists’ reports as part of his daily briefing, typically two hundred thousand words worth of memos, complaints, reports, announcements, mission logs of the department heads, and journal-style abstracts from every department of the ship, even the engineering section, each of which had the unnerving tendency to make otherwise terribly boring subjects seem both urgent and interesting. As Captain, it was Kirk’s job to sign off on the daily digest and commit it to archives for transmission to Starfleet with their next upload. It wasn’t necessary to read over every last detail of the reports; the department heads would handle that, and summarize any outstanding issues in the report summary. It wasn’t even necessary for the Captain to read through every summary; that was the Science Officer’s job, being ultimately responsible for the execution of the ship’s mission.

But Spock had chosen to make the Captain personally aware of an official protest from the Enterprise’ planetology department over the allocation of their resources for the course of this mission. The protest was strongly worded and unusually detailed, evidently the third such incident the department had logged in as many weeks, which probably meant that Lieutenant O’Grady had filed the protest in frustration rather than out of necessity. One detail in particular stood out: the fact that “the civilian meddlers,” as O’Grady described them, continued to use the planetology lab’s resources even under alert conditions, which O’Grady believed – Kirk knew, correctly – was in direct violation of Starfleet regulations.

Since Kirk had a pretty good idea who “the civilian meddlers” were, he decided to look into this personally.

Enterprise’s single planetology lab was a large circular room built into one of the research modules in Compartment 105, five decks below and immediately aft of the bridge. Normally, the room was dedicated to the detailed analysis of alien worlds using combinations of probe readings and orbital scans to construct a perfect digital model of that planet and its manny natural features. The model itself dominated the center of the room as a six foot translucent sphere lined with forcefield diodes, host to a realtime dimensional image so detailed that one could pick out individual skyscrapers with a large enough magnifying glass. On his arrival, Captain Kirk saw the model of Doppelgänger flickering erratically as minute details were fed into the holographic matrix to alter its overall shape. The computer model wasn’t just a recording tool, it was also a predictive tool that helped that planetologist refine the fidelity of their model against the real thing; every few hours, the sensors would take another detailed sweep of the planet in question and then compare those scans with the model, recording any differences and leaving the scientists to modify the equations and functions in their model until those differences vanished.

The source of their frustration was already evident. The fact that Doppelgänger was in a kind of chronological flux introduced so many random factors that the model was probably unacceptably randomized even under the best of circumstances; this alone would be tolerable to a team of dedicated Starfleet explorers who loved a challenge anyway, were it not for the presence of Doctor Carol Marcus and three other blue-shirted physicists who were, at this very moment, feeding variables into the simulation computer using an old Hesperian palmcomp with an old-fashioned fold out keyboard. A large crowd of red-uniformed paleontologists had congealed around a monitor station on the far side from the door, most of them muttering angrily to each other in quiet but furious protests. The arrival of the Captain changed their mood from one of resentment to one of hope, since there was little other reason he could have been here now except that Lieutenant O’Grady must have made good on his threat.

Doctor Marcus didn’t even notice his arrival, though her two companions – Bates and McGreggor, if he remembered the names correctly – regarded his arrival with shrill terror and astonishment, like a couple of commuters watching a bengal tiger climb into their train. Kirk didn’t mince words with any of them, his purpose here was much too specific. He simply cleared his throat, reached past Doctor Marcus and plucked the wire from the palmcomp out of the simulation computer.

Marcus whirled on him as if she was about to throw a punch. She very nearly did, even after she recognized exactly whose hand had unplugged her handset. “Why would you do that? Are you daft?!”

“Starfleet General Order Six,” Kirk said slowly, “clearly states that all non-essential scientific and computer resources are to be secured during alert condition red.”

“This is essential, Captain! This laboratory…”

“All exceptions to be handled at the discretion of Starfleet Command Division personnel.”

Marcus rolled her eyes and plugged the computer back into the terminal, “Don’t quote rules, Captain. This mission is too important to hide behind some bloody regula-”

“This ship is not your personal playground, Doctor,” Kirk unplugged it again, and this time snatched the computer from her hand, “As long as you are aboard my ship, you will abide by those bloody regulations just like everyone else. Is that understood?”

You of all people shouldn’t be lecturing me about the following the rules!”

“I only break the rules when I have to. Not just because it’s convenient.”

“It’s not a convenience! It’s really just an inconvenience for small-minded people!” she shot a nod at O’Grady, who – along with the rest of her staff – was watching the scene with an increasingly satisfied grin.

“Look, I get it. You’re the admiral’s daughter, you’re used to people letting you do whatever you want…”

“Oh, please…”

“But that’s not gonna fly here, and I really think you’re mature enough to know that. You gotta learn to play nice with the other kids, okay?”

Doctor Marcus took a deep breath, smoothed her hair back and breathed out slowly. “I’ll try to be more accommodating in the future. But this simulator…” she started talking faster and more excitedly with every syllable, “it’s the only computer on the ship that could handle the test parameters we’re working on. With a conventional unit, even a supercomputer, it might have taken us years just to develop a suitable engine-”

“We have these regulations for a reason, Doctor. If you do not get proper authorization for the use of Enterprise’s resources,” Kirk cut her off, “Not only will you never again have access to this computer, but I’ll see to it you never get access to any computer, ever again, anywhere on the ship.”

She looked at the ceiling, drowning in frustration, “God…”

“It’s pronounced ‘Kirk’. And this is the only warning you get, Doctor.”

Marcus shifted her weight angrily. As was her custom, she immediately assumed that Kirk’s objection to her activities was in ignorance; like so many others, he must have misunderstood what she was doing here and couldn’t grasp how important it really was.

Much as it demeaned her to do so, she would have to enlighten him. “Captain, my team has some working theories about how the transformation might occur. I’m working on a self-regulating phase-wave process, something a bit like the force-transfer fields in photon torpedoes. I think the timeslip anomalies aren’t as random as we thought, they look to me like aftershocks, like standing waves left over from the planet’s creation. It’s an emergent property, so it’s hard to analyze, but if we run the sequence in reverse,” Marcus grabbed the wire and plugged it back into the computer, even without bothering to retrieve the actual handset from Kirk, “we can get a general process template for the planet’s formation on macro-scale. Obviously this isn’t very helpful in determining the causal mechanism, but it gives us a good paradigm to simulate the finer details of-”

Kirk pulled the wire again, just as Marcus’ simulation started to load on the hologram. This time, he turned off the palmcomp and handed it to one of her subordinates, then walked slowly away from the modeling computer and gestured for Marcus to follow.

“Well don’t you understand?” Marcus said as she followed him – it turned out – right through the door and out into the corridor, “Not only will this solve the paleontologists’ collective headaches, it will help us unlock the secrets of this planet. This is, like, the bloody holy grail of modern terraforming! This is what humans have dreamed about since we invented the first telescopes.”

“Terraforming.” Kirk leaned on the corridor wall next to the door, “Right, that makes sense.”

Marcus flinched, “What makes sense?”

“Your accent, the way you talk, that damned old computer in there… You’re Hesperian aren’t you?”

Marcus looked slightly offended. But only slightly. It was a trait of Martians in general and Hesperians in particular to be proud of their colonial heritage while at the same time profoundly ashamed to have it recognized by outsiders. “Is there something wrong with that?”

“Well Admiral Marcus was Californian. But you used your mother’s name when you first came aboard last year, so…” come to think of it, there had always been something eerily familiar about Carol Marcus since the day she came on board. He’d thought it was simply the odd similarity she bore to his Aunt Betty (before she left for Tarsus IV; she was never the same again when she came back). But there was something more specific than that, something personally familiar that he associated with not just the person but the name too. And if Carol Marcus really was from Mars, he had a pretty good idea what it was. “That means you lied about your age to get into Oxford,” he said, recalling her dossier, and then going on a hunch he added, “And you probably had Old Gil pull some strings for you too.”

“Yeah, So what?” Marcus scowled at him, “This coming from the most inexperienced captain in the entire Starfleet… wait…” she flinched, “How do you know John Gil?”

“Because I sat three rows behind you in history class in college. University of Iowa, class of 52. I’m not surprised you don’t remember me…”

“You were at Iowa? James… you’re that James?”

Kirk smiled, “What James?”

“Gary Mitchel’s friend James? The guy who used to hang out with Ruthie at that hick bar in the cornfields?” Marcus took a step back, stunned and surprised, but also overjoyed, “Shit… I thought you were in prison!”

“Breaking out of prisons is an old hobby of mine,” Kirk said only half-jokingly, “Though I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that anymore with this new job. Still, you were only at Iowa for that one semester, right? Only reason I remember you is because you were constantly crabby and totally anti-social,” and he refrained from the excessive honesty of adding, “and I had a huge crush on you the whole time” and simply went on, “So, still the same, more or less.”

Marcus rolled her eyes, “I don’t remember anything about you. Except that you had a big mouth and a bad sense of humor. That’s probably why you were hanging out with a wanker like Gary Mitchell… what happened to him anyway? I figured he was probably in prison with you after the thing with that Suliban musician…”

“That wasn’t us. Some Tandarians got in a fight with the guy, and they followed him home and tried to burn his house down. Anyway, I ended up convincing Gary to join Starfleet.”

Marcus grinned, “I would have expected you’d have brought him on board with you the way you two used to hang out.”

“I did bring Gary on board. He was killed in action on our first assignment together.”

Marcus hesitated, struggled for words. Then she shrugged, “A hero’s death. That’s how he would have wanted it. Posthumous two-rank promotion too, right?”

“Why do you have such a chip on your shoulder, Carol?” Kirk folded his arms.

“What do you mean?”

“Ever since we left Earth, you’ve done nothing but stomp around this ship like everyone here is in your way. Like anything that isn’t done specifically for you is a waste of time.”

She shrugged, “I can’t help it. I’m Hesperian.”

“Don’t give me that. You know good and damn well the data we’re gathering from this planet could take generations just to process it all, let alone try to replicate the process. Why are you in such a hurry?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Marcus looked up and down the corridor as if the answer was some big secret. Whether personal conceit or long-developed reflex, it was hard even for her to tell, “I just told you, this technology is the holy grail of human terraforming. The first person who figures out how it works will have a place in history right next to Isaac Newton and Zephram Cochrane…”

“And there’s nothing more personal than that?”

Marcus stared at him for a moment, “What are you asking me, exactly?”

“Forget it, it’s not important. There’s only one thing that is important: the Enterprise is a starship, not university science lab, and as long as you are a member of this crew, you will observe proper procedures for the allocation of resources and equipment. If I get any more reports about your team interfering with normal Starfleet operations, I’ll strand you on Doppelgänger until its creators show up and give you the secret in person.”

“Don’t even joke about that…”

Kirk looked her dead in the eye, the kind of fierce penetrating look that a lion usually gives to its unsuspecting prey just before making a kill. With this, he said slowly, “Do I look like I’m joking?”

Doctor Marcus decided not to answer the question, since the rational part of her knew that he was, but another part – the primal, instinctual part that was still programmed to react to body language instead of intellectual discipline – wasn’t so sure. “It… um… won’t happen again, Captain. I’m sorry.”

“That’s good to know,” but his expression didn’t soften. And unbeknownst to Doctor Marcus, Kirk had actually spent most of his sophomore year at the academy perfecting this staredown, and had polished it so thoroughly that it ultimately earned him an honorary ‘Best Poker Face Ever’ award in the academy yearbook. He even managed to hold the expression when his communicator chirped and he answered the call in an official and regular, “Kirk here.”

“Captain,” Spock’s voice said on the intercom, immediately indicating this page as some extreme importance, “A second wave of Gorn torpdoes has been intercepted and we are now standing down to yellow alert. Also, sensors have located the Cardassian starship Grazine approaching at warp five. Estimated time to orbital rendezvous is three hours, eighteen minutes.”

“Almost seven hours ahead of schedule. It’s almost as if they wanted to catch us off guard.”

“Indeed.” Not that Spock would ever admit it, but the amusement in his voice was almost detectable.

“Okay. Linguicode standard greeting, confirm their identity and rendezvous coordinates. Kirk out.” He snapped the communicator closed and – still staring a hole in Doctor Marcus – said, “Duty calls. Stay out of trouble, Carol.”

“I’ll do my best, Jim…” she watched him turn on his heels like one of the generals in old war movies and march into the nearest turbolift, probably headed for the bridge. Once he was gone, she returned to the planetology lab were her defeated contingent was standing off to the side, watching the Starfleet team thoroughly enjoy being able to use their own equipment for the first time in four days. Marcus was annoyed, as there was still more work to be done and more data that needed modeling, but so far she was satisfied with what the computer had already shown her and she decided to process this little bit before coming back for the rest later. “Bates, McGreggor, let’s compile the simulation with what we have so far. That’ll give us some idea of how big the gaps are that need to be filled.”

Both of them seemed to love this idea, since it meant removing themselves from the permanent stinkeye from the planetologists. He handed over the palmcomp to Doctor Marcus and then handed over three of its memory cards; Marcus plugged all three cards into the computer’s data slot and then set the computer to translate the machine code from the simulation computer into object code for the imaging program on this palmcomp’s more powerful big brother. Compiling the program took a handful of seconds, but it ground to a halt once the computer prompted her for a file name. “What the hell?”

“What?” Bates asked.

“It’s asking for a file name. Didn’t we already have a file name from the last batch?”

Bates shrugged dumbly. Hesperian computers were famous for excelling at complicated operations while totally failing to perform more basic tasks due to random and unpredictable hickups.

Marcus first tried the file name they’d been working with for the past several weeks already, typed in Project Marduk, and told the computer to save. Marduk, of course, being a reference to the Summerian creation myth, the deity that slew the monster Tiamat and created the world by forging order out of cosmic chaos.

Another dialog box and a synthesized feminine voice told her, “File already exists.”

And why the hell did it go to voice command all of a sudden? Stupid machine. “So overwrite the existing file.”

“Cannot overwrite. File name Project Marduk is being used by another application. Do you wish to save the compiled program under a different name?”

Marcus sighed, “There are not enough words in the English language to describe how much I hate this computer…”

“File name must be sixteen characters or less. Please choose another filename.”

If this thing didn’t contain information so priceless to her career, she would have smashed it against the wall right then and there. First, though, she swallowed her temper, gave it half a second thought, and rattled off a quick filename that was similar enough to the original that she could still find it and change it back once this stupid machine recovered from its temporary bought of electronic idiocy. “Save under ‘Project Genesis.’ And then port it to a memory card, universal format, so I can run the program on a set that isn’t an outdated overpriced piece of shit.”

 

 

RENDEZVOUS

Doppelgänger-B Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.26

– 0750 hours –

The Detapa Republic Space Vessel Grazine eased into a slot position off the Enterprise’s starboard bow, its fusion drives firing at almost right angles to the ship’s present orbit. For some reason the Cardassians had decided to make the final rendezvous with a complicated plane-change maneuver instead of simply aligning their entry point to bring them right to interception point with Enterprise. Kirk suspected it was a way to look over their potential ally from a distance before making the actual rendezvous.

Grazine was larger than Kirk expected it to be, in fact it was slightly larger than some Starfleet vessels, just over four hundred meters long and massing a little over one hundred thousand tons. It was a long, slender craft with a blunt nose that was packed with sensors, antenna farms and ports for weapons Kirk could not immediately identify. Three massive impulse engines dominated the rear of the ship, directly below a large pill-shaped module half-buried in the armored hull that probably contained a solitary warp engine. Everywhere along the hull, the ship was freckled with armored hatches for missile silos and gun turrets and whatever else the Cardassians kept hidden from the universe when they weren’t in a fighting mood. Overall, Kirk thought the Grazine looked like a mechanical sperm whale with rockets attached to its fluke. God only knew what the Cardassians thought of the Enterprise.

“The ship’s configuration is reminiscent of Shofixi patterns,” Spock pointed out, sounding less than impressed, “At least, the external arrangement and shape. The Cardassians probably copied the basic design without fully understanding the philosophy behind it.”

That, for sure, was a mouthful. In some ways, Shofixi spacecraft weren’t ships as much as they were gigantic heavily shielded missiles launched from one solar system to another; the colonists hibernating aboard them were a biological payload whose only real weapons were their disarmingly cute appearance and ravenous appetite for the flesh of other sentient beings. “Run a tactical analysis,” Kirk ordered at once. Not that he didn’t trust Bailey’s knowledge on the subject, but it was always best to make sure.

Spock ran a detailed scan for a few moments as the Grazine’s attitude thrusters turned the bow towards “prograde” orientation, aimed towards the horizon along the present axis of their orbit. Naturally, it wouldn’t stay that way; as both ships orbited the moon their un-changing orientation would be constantly changing with respect to the surface, and thirty eight minutes from now both ships would be hurtling through space with their bows pointed straight up away from the surface.

Finally, Spock reported, “Sensors cannot resolve the internal arrangement of their ship, Captain. Some type of energy field is severely degrading our instruments.”

That was unexpected. Kirk filed that away for later. “Anything on a surface scan?”

“Grazine is armed with fifty two chemically-fueled missiles, explosive yield unknown but probably nuclear-tipped. Twenty six large caliber electromagnetic projectile weapons, estimated one point three isotons standard yield, ammunition capacity unknown. Multiple gamma ray laser emplacements, probably some type of point defense system. Power system, unknown.”

Kirk nodded, relieved. “So far as we can see, nothing our shields couldn’t hold off… how about their defenses?”

“In addition to their jamming devices, I am picking up several small canisters capable of deploying chaff constellations and decoy units…” Spock raised a brow, “And two RIM-3 phase cannons in a turret mounting near the bow.”

Now that was an interesting surprise, but not quite enough to make the Captain uneasy. The RIM-3 series was the first production-model phaser cannon ever produced, and after a short-lived heyday was deemed obsolete by the end of the Second Romulan War. Since then, it had become a staple of close-range defense for the Earth Cargo Service and various mercenary outfits that couldn’t afford more effective weapons, although its cheaper successor – the RIM-4B – was also a common sight on some of the newer Boomers. Either weapon was still decades ahead of anything the Cardassians could have developed on their own, though, which in itself was somewhat worrying. “Have you translated their message, Lieutenant?” Kirk asked, turning to the comms. station.

Uhura nodded, though tentatively and not with total certainty, “They’ve stated a desire for direct face-to-face meeting aboard the Enterprise and have requested permission to dispatch a… well… either a shuttlepod or a parasite, the translator isn’t sure which fits better.”

“Grant permission in either case. We’ll meet them in the shuttlebay in half an hour.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Meanwhile,” Kirk stood and gestured at the senior navigator, “Let’s prepare to greet our guests, Mister Bailey. You’re with me.”

.

– 0822 hours –

Kirk had never seen a Cardassian before, but from what he remembered of their profile they were reptilian bipeds, vaguely human-like in structure and stature, most notable for a cold-blooded metabolism, a delightfully rhythmic language that sounded poetic even to the untrained ear, and a peculiar haploid reproductive system that – according to rumors – made them capable of breeding with almost any other carbon-based life form in the galaxy. Novelty of their race aside, there was nothing novel about their uniforms and equipment, which were simple khaki-colored jumpsuits adorned with insignia and thick black boots that reminded Kirk of some old 20th century military garb. The five of them even carried sidearms at the hip, slug-throwers from the look of things; judging by their uniforms Kirk imagined they were the Cardassian equivalent of Colt .45s.

They had objected to the use of transporters partly out of a general phobia of the device (apparently lacking one of their own) but mostly because of the desire to see the Enterprise up close from one of their own shuttles. Watching them climb down the ladder from their vehicle, Kirk found the craft somewhat quaint, if not admirably utilitarian. Actually, it looked a bit like the old NASA lunar and Martian landers with its four spidery landing pads and cylindrical hull studded with heat-shield ballutes. It had even taken Uhura almost ten minutes just to convince them that they didn’t need to bring spacesuits with them on the crossing; how these people ever made it into deep space, Kirk could barely comprehend.

“According to our information, Captain,” Lieutenant Bailey said softly from behind him, “One of the Cardassian nation-states, the Detapa Republic, obtained basic warp drive technology from a Shofixi dreadnought that landed off their coast fifty years ago. It took ten years and twenty million casualties to suppress the Shofixi invasion, but the fighting helped them form a powerful and very competent military institution. Afterwards, Detapa went on a violent and fortunately brief campaign to establish global hegemony, and they’ve acted as the de facto world government for the past thirty five years. Their experience with alien cultures is pretty limited, in fact the Federation is the only alien power they have any peaceful contact with.”

Kirk asked, “Has there been a lot of un-peaceful contact?”

“Their region of space is pretty crowded. Apart from the Shofixi – who invaded them again ten years ago – they’re in close proximity to seven other warp-capable species, including the Breen, the Tzenkethi, the Ferengi and the Talarians. We’ve heard reports that one of their lunar outposts was attacked by Klingon raiders last year, and a few months ago one of their mining colonies was literally carried off by… something.”

“Tough neighborhood,” Kirk said as the last of the Cardassians finally disembarked from their craft, “Well it’s a small galaxy, let’s try to make a good first impression.”

As all five stood beneath their craft’s boarding ladder, their eyes turned to the surrounding shuttlebay and their faces opened into what must have been a Cardassian expression of awe. At a time like this the shuttlebay was hardly a hotbed of activity, but standing inside the cavernous miniature harbor gave a sense of robust purpose that perhaps the Cardassians weren’t used to on anything other than a full-sized space station. “Gentlemen,” Kirk greeted them to capture their wandering attention, “Welcome aboard. I’m Captain James T. Kirk from the United Federation of Planets, this is my senior navigator Lieutenant George Bailey.” A second or two later, Kirk’s communicator chanted a facsimile of his voice in extremely different words and inflections: “Branous. Pardes thraval. Ligra Gul James T. Kirk, Ru’ta Botu Dentalla Likandes. Tes Gister Likandra Glyn George Bailey.”

One of the five – apparently the ranking officer – stepped forward, clicked his heels together and threw both arms high into the air. Kirk suppressed a chuckle; it reminded him of a Banzai salute from those old war movies hybridized with some kind of overdone tap-dancing movement. “Branous, Gul!”

“Greetings, Captain!” rendered the translator as a strong, firm voice.

“Ligra Gul Dulek ta Dakan Grazine, ru’ta Detapa Bodrino…”

“I am Gul Dulek of the space vessel Grazine, representing the Detapa Republic…”

“E’tes rutas raskanous, Glyn Lynoi.”

“This is my first officer, Glyn Lynoi,” he gestured at a small, lightly-built female behind him, “and my flight crew Gerin Jelad, Gerin Horan and Gerin Gamar. We’ve been sent here under orders from the our space probe service and I have been briefed on the overall situation.”

Kirk nodded, and carefully worded his response,”I appreciate your enthusiasm, but we’re all friends here. No need to be so formal.”

Once the translator related Kirk’s words in Cardassian, Gul Dulek’s entire body seemed to unclench itself from its absurdly rigid posture. He became an organism once again instead of a caricature of archaic military discipline. “This ship of yours,” Dulek said, this time in a language subtly different from the one he’d used earlier, “it’s unbelievable!”

Kirk smiled brightly. “She’s only the second vessel of the Constitution-class, Our newest deep-space explorer.”

“My Grazine looks like a lifepod next to this monster.” Dulek turned and looked back out to the enormous cavern that was the shuttlebay, “It could almost fit inside of your hangar.”

“Well not quite, but…”

“Your one vessel,” he gestured around him, “could overpower our entire fleet!”

Kirk got the sense that Dulek, for whatever reason, was laying on the flattery in anticipation of some special treatment later on. Maybe this was the way Cardassians made friends with new races, or maybe the alien Captain wanted to put Kirk in the frame of mind that the Cardassians were no threat to him at all. In either case, Kirk found himself looking at Dulek with even more suspicion than before. “Perhaps we could, but we wouldn’t. Starfleet’s primary role is peaceful exploration and scientific research. In fact, the Enterprise is designed to be self-sufficient for up to five years without a port call, and we have to be prepared for everything. We have factories, laboratories, workshops, foundries, even conservatory for animal and plant samples from the various worlds we visit.”

“Amazing!”

Kirk gestured for Dulek and his men to follow, “If you’d like, Lieutenant Bailey has arranged to give a brief tour of the Enterprise’s facilities.”

“We would like that very much, Captain. Thank you. My flight crew will remain here, if you don’t mind.”

He gave the nod to Bailey, who took Gul Dulek and his science officer through the airlock and into the service corridor leading to the nearest turbolift. Bailey had planned that tour extremely carefully, Kirk knew, to give the Cardassians the best possible impression of the Enterprise’s capabilities and what exactly it was designed for. This would include a brief overview of the engineering section, its various factory blocks and manufacturing machinery, the bussard collector and the main deflector dish, the fuel lab, the navigational control center, and ultimately up through the EVA complex in the neck of the ship to the living quarters and duty stations in the saucer section on their way – finally – to the officer’s lounge where the briefing was scheduled to start in twenty five minutes.

It would give Kirk enough time to settle some other ship’s business. Flipping open his communicator, he stepped into a turbolift and quickly queried of the computer, “Locator for Ensign Janice Rand.”

The communicator’s display screen printed out: Deck Six, Section 307. Upper recreation level on the starboard side, a place the crew had started calling the Clownface Cafe after the holographic bartender of the same name. He couldn’t remember why the program was called Clownface, except for some obscure reference to a popular Phaserbrane song. He had never actually been to Clownface Cafe, so he decided he had just enough time to have Rand show him around the place while he broke the good (or was it bad?) news to her.

The turbolift opened four seconds later to a corridor just around the corner from the Cafe. Kirk’s untrained ear picked up the sound of a woman’s voice singing in untranslated Japanese what – judging by the tempo – was probably a dubstep/space-angst love song. Assuming, of course, that the song was about anything at all; despite the best efforts of programmers, linguicode translators still couldn’t properly account for the subtleties of wordplay and rhythm, so a growing number of singers – especially space-angst singers – composed lyrics by throwing random words together from a dozen languages just because they happened to rhyme. For a moment, then, Kirk made the mistake of leaving his translator on automatic mode and was briefly subjected to a fetching soprano voice singing “Fishing certificate, book girl birth remote, chicken wing table wall, letters falling man me do…” then he set the translator back on manual and went back to pretending the music was that of a Japanese love song.

The Cafe didn’t quite dominate an entire compartment, it mainly conformed to the section of the pressure hull where the the five massive floor-to-ceiling windows looked out at the starboard nacelle and the desolation of Doppelgänger-B, spinning slowly a thousand kilometers below them. Most everyone was focussed on the source of the music – Lieutenant Hayase, if Kirk remembered the name right – but there was something else in the background that was gathering more and more attention until, once Kirk traced it to its origin, even the singer had to stop and stare as the computerized music dropped out for a moment. It looked like a brawl in progress, which curiously enough seemed to revolve around a single heavyset Nigerian who was in the progress of fighting off no less than six different people with his bare hands.

Janice Rand was just entering the fray now, along with two other security officers who had obviously been called here for exactly this situation. All three tackled the Nigerian as a singular force, slammed him to the ground and held him there. Kirk heard Rand shouting in desperation, “Onise, Calm the hell down before we have to h-” one of the security officers was propelled into the ceiling by some incredible force as, heartbeats later, Janice and the other officer were thrown over a table not far behind him. Lieutenant Onise leapt to his feet and took a powerful lunge at something. Two science officers moved to block his path, and both were immediately swatted out of his path with a single wave of his arm, like a pair of grass stalks in the path of a tractor. Someone in the path of this deranged officer screamed; Kirk recognized her as one of Uhura’s communications officers… Ayala, was it?

Acting before thinking, the Captain drew his hand phaser and launched himself into the path of the officer-turned-maniac. He’d just begun to utter a single word of warning before Onise’s fist slammed into his chest like a jousting lance. Kirk tumbled backwards over a cafe table and landed on his shoulders, and just as he scrambled back to his feet he heard the electronic pulse of a phaser in stun-mode. A pair of blue-white pulses tore into Onise’s back from behind him, phaser energy rippling around his skin and stripping electrons from his central nervous system, first to trigger paralysis, then unconsciousness.

Impossibly, Onise didn’t go down. Instead he whirled on the source of the phaser fire – Ensign Rand taking cover behind a cafe table – and bellowed an almost primal growl that barely pronounced the words “Kill on you! Kill on you!”

Kirk picked up his hand phaser, fixed the aiming laser on the base of Onise’s spine and fired. The little pocket-knife-sized hand phaser let off a high pitched scream and a long continuous blue beam right into the small of Onise’s back, just as Rand joined in with another brighter beam from her service pistol. Onise howled something unintelligible, then stiffened, and collapsed to the deck like a tree falling in a forest.

Things seemed calm now, but surveying the aftermath Kirk had to wonder seriously how all of this started. Nearly a dozen people were sitting, standing or lying around nursing bruises, cuts, scrapes, and – in the case of Ensign Ayala – a painful looking wound on the left bicep. “Are you alright, Ensign?” Kirk asked, helping her to her feet by her uninjured arm.

Ayala started to answer before she really knew who was asking. Once she recognized him, she transitioned between admiration and standoffishness half a dozen times in as many seconds before she finally settled on gratitude. “I’m fine, Sir. Could be worse.”

“What happened here?” Kirk looked at the wound, dark blue Orion blood staining the arm of her otherwise red uniform.

“Onise and I haven’t been getting along lately,” Ayala began, apologetically, “It’s a longstanding argument of ours… kind of petty really…”

“What happened?” Kirk asked again.

She shuddered, struggled to keep his composure, “I um… I’m not really sure…”

“What are you sure about?”

“I was just sitting here, having a drink with Ensign Meaney, minding my own business, when all of a sudden Lieutenant Onise comes up and grabs me around the neck and pushes me down on the table. He… I think… I think he tried to rip my pants off.”

Kirk’s eyes widened. “Just so I’m clear… you two have no prior relationship in this context…?”

“Actually, we pretty much hate each other, Sir. But then I scratched him in the face to try and get him off, and that’s when he bit me.”

Kirk looked at her wound now in astonishment, “He bit you?”

Ayala nodded.

Not far away, Ensign Rand took this all in and made a snap decision. She flipped open her communicator and keyed it to the medical intercom channel, “Security to sickbay. I need a stretcher and some medics at the Clownface Cafe. Bring a tranquilizer.”

“He’s been acting weird all week, Captain,” Meaney said, “I thought maybe he was just drunk, but he never seems to go back to normal, and he’s getting worse.”

Rand added to her communicator, “Sickbay, have a toxicology screening and a cerebral exam scheduled for Lieutenant Kembi Onise and forward those results to the security office as soon as they’re ready.”

Doctor McCoy answered, “I’ll run it as soon as he comes in, Rand, but you know confidentiality rules. I can’t release the test results to anyone except the chief of security…”

“Bones,” Kirk leaned over her communicator, “Ensign Rand has been appointed acting Security Chief until further notice. She has full security clearance as of today.”

“Well… okay then. I’ll have it for you in two hours, Chief. Sickbay out.”

Rand looked at Kirk with surprise and betrayal now, “Acting Security Chief?”

“Not really ‘acting,’ I’m making it official as of midnight night, authorizing a promotion to the rank of Lieutenant.” Kirk started for the corridor to the turbolift and gestured for her to follow. The medical team passed them on the way in, carrying an antigrav stretcher.

“For how long? Doctor McCoy said it’ll be months before McCahil’s fit for duty.” she said, catching up to him as he pressed the controls to summon a turbolift.

“Even then, I doubt he’ll be up to the job. Consider this a permanent appointment.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“Can’t I?”

“Jim, c’mon, I am in no way qualified to-”

“You didn’t hesitate under fire, Janice,” Kirk said as he stepped onto the turbolift, “and you kept your cool when going got rough, which is more than I can say for McCahil. Plus I like the way you handled Onise back there. Very impressive.”

Recently-promoted Lieutenant Janice Rand followed him, resisting the competing and paradoxical urges to kiss him and punch him in the nose. “What about Ensign Dallas? Or Lieutenant McKena? Or Lieutenant Badjarule? Or that creepy Russian guy with the eyepatch?”

“You need me to go down the list? McKenna has no hand-to-hand combat training, Badjarule’s still on disciplinary for smoking cannabis on duty, and Doctor Loganoff – in addition to being partially blind in his one good eye – is a civilian. And I already asked Dallas, he turned down the position because he wants to transfer back to the sciences division.”

“That coward…”

“In a nutshell,” Kirk explained succinctly, “McCahil was a last minute replacement for someone a hell of a lot more qualified. Now McCahil’s out, and you’re the only one left who could fill those shoes. And the next person down the line… hell, there is no one down the line, Janice, so I’m not giving you a choice!” Kirk punched the lift controls in the wall, keying a destination for Deck Three, section zero, near the command briefing room aft of the bridge.

Rand ground her teeth at him, “That is a blatant violation of regulations, Jim!”

“You can file a complaint when we get back to a starbase.”

Five years from now!”

“Yep. Until then, effective immediately, you are now Security Chief Janice Rand. And you may not like it much, but if you don’t do this job there’s a good chance we could all get killed out here, so just do the best you can until someone higher up the food chain overrules me.”

Rand sighed, then straightened up at something like attention, “Yes, Sir, I’ll do my best.”

 

 

TRANSFORMATION

Doppelgänger-B Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.26

– 0942 hours –

The turbolift opened to Deck Three at the semi-circular corridor just aft of the bridge. Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Rand followed the curving passageway around to the command briefing room where Doctor Marcus, Spock and Doctor McCoy were already gathered at the conference table, along with a newly-arrived pair of Cardassian officers just now entering through the opposite hatch with Lieutenant Bailey bringing up the rear.

Kirk stopped and took them in for a moment, giving his newly anointed Security Chief some time to get comfortable with her sudden authority. Gradually the entire group took their seats around the long table; Spock took his customary station at the library computer terminal, and all seats around the table were arranged facing a circular bank of HUD windows, designed to display information without compromising the line of sight between any two seats. Kirk spoke first, as he knew he was expected to, “Gentlemen,” he said, addressing the Cardassians first, “How was the tour?”

“Enlightening, Kirk,” said Gul Dulek, this time by way of a universal translator Lieutenant Uhura had programmed and clipped to his breast pocket. Now at least Kirk could hear a rendition of his voice in standard English through his own earpiece, although he still had to adjust to Dulek’s lips moving totally out of synch with his words, “This ship is very impressive. We were told ahead of time that your vessels are equipped with artificial gravity devices, but to be honest I’d expected this was an exaggeration.”

Kirk chose his words carefully, not wanting to offend, “Actually, I was impressed with your Grazine when I first saw it. It’s a surprisingly large vessel for a ship with no gravity control. I imagine it takes a bit of technical ingenuity to solve the microgravity problem, especially during combat maneuvers.”

Dulek suddenly seemed uncomfortable. “Well… actually, the Grazine’s current mission is exploratory. Our orders are to avoid combat whenever possible. Which is only prudent, considering our limited defensive capabilities.” He was choosing his words equally well; that sentence took almost two seconds longer to finish in Cardassian than the translation let on.

“I know the feeling.” Of course, he didn’t mention the anomalous fact that a black-market phase cannon wasn’t totally consistent with that mission, considering the number of seedy connections the Detapa government would have had to cultivate in order to purchase such a thing.

Glancing around, Kirk spread the focus of his attention to the remainder of the room and began, officially, “Anyhow, Dulek, we’re extremely eager to have a look at your findings. We weren’t expecting your government to send a whole ship to deliver them, but the fact that you are here suggests you turned up something interesting.”

“You could say that, Captain.” Gul Dulek gestured to his science officer, who retrieved an encapsulated silver disk from his sleeve pocket and handed it over to Spock. The Cardassian government had transmitted the specs for their computer systems over subspace days earlier, and Spock and Scotty had spent the last four hours rigging a disk-drive adaptor for the Enterprise’s computer and the Cardassian data disks. It was into this adaptor that the disk was fed, and Spock went to work hammering out any compatibility differences and formatting the information in time to display it on the monitors, seconds later, as a programmed presentation briefing.

“Astonishing!” Gul Dulek came half out of his chair, “You were even able to preserve our system’s formatting!”

Spock almost smiled. “I have simply programmed equivalent formatting into this computer terminal. It is logically identical to your native configuration.”

Glyn Lynoi rasped, briefly in that whimsical sing-song Cardassian language before the translator kicked in, “How could you do that so quickly? It would take an entire team of programmers with access to the source code-”

“Mister Spock is the foremost authority in computer science aboard the Enterprise,” Kirk said with a note of pride, “and as a Vulcan, he is trained in high-level logical analysis.”

Gul Dulek squinted, “A Vulcan… you are not Human?”

“I am half Vulcan. My mother was Human.”

Gul Dulek was about to comment further when Doctor Ayash interrupted on the ship’s intercom, “Security Chief, please report to sickbay. Code blue, urgent.”

A dark cloud suddenly flooded the room, hanging over the heads of the Starfleet officers – and Lieutenant Rand in particular – knowing that “code blue” indicated that someone on the ship was either dead or dying and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Rand snapped into her communicator, “I’m on my way,” and then nodded apologetically to the Captain and swept out of the room like a humanoid breeze.

“If you care to continue, Dulek,” Kirk said, salvaging the meeting from any further derails.

“Yes, of course…” and turning to the monitors Dulek announced, “Stage one, begin playback.”

The image on the monitors became a split-screen, four separate frames dividing the screen, one showing a navigational plot of the Grazine’s position, another showing numerical scrolls of raw un-processed sensor data, another showing a multi-colored, multi-line graph of spectral analysis, and the last showing an extreme range telescope view of the system that now contained the Enterprise, the Grazine, and the so-far unnamed Gorn trawler. “Our first reading was taken from these coordinates, a position at one hundred sixty one light years distance. We were able to identify the planet,” as he said this, the telescope image adjusted and panned, slowly and haltingly as if under manual control, until it settled finally on Doppelgänger and its two Class-D moons. “Visual observation shows an oxygen nitrogen atmosphere, equatorial diameter of approximately twelve thousand seven hundred kilometers, gravitational flux at eight point one meters per second. Average surface temperature of approximately two hundred and eighty kelvins.”

“Identical to the planet as it is now,” Kirk said.

Spock shook his head, “The gravitational attraction is almost twenty percent lower. I am not sure how to account for that discrepancy… except possibly instrument error.”

Dulek shook his head, “We thought so too, but we double checked using diffraction measurements of nearby stars. The gravitational flux is lower at this time, but maybe more relevantly, distant observations showed circumstantial evidence of a subspace field surrounding the planet.”

“Circumstantial?”

Glyn Lynoi said, “We determined the planet was generating an electromagnetic field between five and eight hundred thousand gauss. With proper modulation, a field of that intensity could easily produce a subspace differential.”

“Thereby reducing the effective mass of the planet,” Doctor Marcus said, “Lowering its gravity.”

Kirk asked, “Why would anyone need to lower the planet’s mass? It’s not as if it was being moved anywhere…”

“We think it may have been accidental,” Gul Dulek said, “Or, that is to say, a consequence of the planet’s formation. Speaking of which,” and to the computer he said, “Stage two, continue playback.”

The screen images all changed at once. The timestamp in the corner showed this second set of readings was taken two days later, and again the image panned and zoomed until it finally identified Doppelgänger.

Only it wasn’t Doppelgänger, at least not yet. The object on screen now was a Class-E “hothouse” world surrounded by a thick greenish yellow cloud layer and intermittent flashes of high altitude lightning. “At a distance of one hundred and sixty nine point two light years. Spectral analysis indicates an oxygen-methane atmosphere prone to spontaneous combustive episodes, and a hydrosphere containing high concentration of phosphoric acids. Visual observation gave an equatorial diameter of roughly eight thousand kilometers with a gravitational flux of twenty six point two meters per second, average surface temperature of three hundred and ninety kelvins. There’s some evidence of life forms, but our sensors aren’t designed to take those kinds of readings from a distance. We also identified two oddities: firstly, the the planet’s orbit at this time is about twenty million kilometers closer to the star than it is today, and secondly, that at this time the planet had three moons, the outermost being highly geologically active. Obviously, the absence of the third moon presents a bit of a mystery.”

Lieutenant Bailey asked, “How sure are you that this is the same planet?”

“We surveyed the entire system and visually confirmed all ten major planets in their proper orbits. Doppelgänger was the only anomaly. We even checked twelve nearby dwarf planets just to be certain. Of course, at that distance it’s still possible we were in error.”

“In any case,” Spock says, “this is a revealing development, since no planet similar to the one you observed currently exists in this solar system.”

Dulek smiled, “We haven’t even gotten to the best part… Stage eight, continue playback.”

The image changed three times in rapid succession, each time pausing for a few seconds to show an extremely abbreviated summary of the long-range sensor findings. “We made several warp jumps at one light-year intervals,” Dulek explained, “basically, observing the planet one year at a time. After one of our jumps, we lost track of the planet and picked it up again in its transformed state, almost identical to our first observation, so we backtracked by three months, then three more, then forward again by four weeks… and so on. Finally we were in the right position and our telescopes recorded this.” The final stage began, with Grazine’s telescopes zeroing in on the Class-E world with its bands of poisonous oceans and toxic atmosphere.

But even before the telescope could zoom in, something else was already in the frame. It was moving quickly – at the scale of the image, much too quickly to be anything but a warp driven space vessel. At this distance, identification would be impossible; even at the highest resolution of Starfleet telescopes it would have appeared as little more than a fast-moving pinprick that was only visible because it was moving faster than light. But as they watched the recording, that singular point of light assumed a heading directly into the northern hemisphere of the greenish-yellow world and slammed through its thick atmosphere without even slowing down. A titanic burst of energy rippled out from the impact site, followed by an expanding madness of orange and yellow streamers as if the entire planet had been coated with thermonuclear warheads all detonating in sequence.

“What am I looking at?” Kirk asked, as the glowing fiery effect slowly enveloped the entire planet.

“We don’t know at this point, but our sensor logs suggest it might be a t-”

“Material transformation,” Doctor Marcus answered breathlessly, staring at the frame that contained the raw unprocessed telemetry data, “the entire planet is being transformed at the subatomic level! I’ve never seen anything like it!”

“What could cause that?” Kirk asked.

Marcus stood up and leaned half over the table, freezing the playback and maximizing the sensor readouts on the screen, “The readings are fuzzy from this distance,” she said, “But the energy signature reads like… almost like a thousand small transporter signals all overlapping.”

Kirk looked at the monitor himself, baffled, “Where do you see that?”

“I believe Doctor Marcus is correct,” Spock added, watching the presentation on his own monitor. After a moment he resumed the playback and manually highlighted the data fields relevant to both of them. They were just gibberish to everyone else in the room, but simultaneously Spock, Marcus and Glyn Lynoi all shared an expression of wonderment. “It’s as if the planet is being dismantled and reconstructed by an enormous matter replicator.”

Doctor McCoy asked, “Now wait a minute, didn’t one of you say something about how this would require some kind of giant machine? Like a planet-sized transporter?”

“Evidently not,” Marcus said, too lost in her amazement to care about any past theories. “Back it up a minute or so, mister Spock… look at the spectral pattern at the blast site.”

“When?”

“At forty five through sixty… you see it?”

Spock did, and then raised both eyebrows, “Fascinating. The planet’s atmosphere has been converted into gaseous carbon and helium, with rapidly increasing levels of oxygen and nitrogen.”

“Fusion transmutation?” Lynoi said.

“Energy output is too low. Possibly rankine-cancelation or muon-catalyzed transmutation…”

Kirk interrupted the scientific spectacle with a terse, “We can leave the details for later. What I most need to know right now is what kind of technology could cause all that to happen. Obviously, by the time this process is complete, the planet transforms into what it is now…”

“As I have surmised,” Spock said, “based on the composition of the artifact at stonehenge, the most likely culprit is a type of sophisticated phased-matter process.”

Lynoi looked at him as he if he’d just invoked the existence of God. “I beg your pardon?”

“It is a concept widely in use by our technology, sometimes called photonics or programmable energy,” Spock explained, “It is known to your science in the field of quantum process physics, what your people currently regard as a fringe theory. In principle, it describes a method of using standing-wave energy patterns to produce coherent structures with a set of behaviors. Our transporter beams, for example, can deconstruct an object at the subatomic level and encapsulate its constituent molecules into energized capsules, composed of electrons and virtual photons, which are themselves programmed with an assembly matrix that will allow them to re-construct the transported object in a specific location of the operator’s choosing.”

Gul Dulek smiled, “Sounds like nanorobotics. You program millions of tiny robots to take something apart, then go somewhere and put that thing back together in a new location.”

“Conceptually, yes,” Spock nodded, “Except the so-called ‘robots’ in this case are themselves created from programmed photonic energy transmitted as a phased-matter particle beam, which is under indirect control by the transporter operator. Our primary weapons employ a similar principle, using phased-matter particles called nadions.”

Glyn Lynoi looked incredulous, “How could that possibly be true? I mean… building atoms out of photons?”

“Virtual photons and electrons,” Spock corrected, “And not atoms, per se, but virtual particles whose existence is merely the intersection of multiple controlled energy fields. The process allows for apparently solid materials to be fabricated out of pure energy in some arbitrary form, such as a wall or a protective dome. The applications for the process are numerous, but phased matter cannot exist for more than a few seconds at a time without an external energy source.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like this before…”

“The details of these processes can be made available from our library computer if you so desire.”

“I do desire, Mister Spock. I won’t believe a word of this until I see it myself.”

“Theoretically, you’ve already seen it yourself,” Doctor Marcus said with a gesture to the viewscreen, where the once-toxic Doppelgänger was already beginning to stabilize from an unnatural orange glow until something vaguely Earth-like. “Although, with a caveat, I might disagree with Mister Spock in one aspect. Gul Dulek mentioned nanorobotics… that seems more consistent with what we’re seeing here.”

Now it was Spock’s turn to look incredulous, “Doctor McCoy earlier made mention of your hypothesis to this effect. What is your basis for it, Doctor Marcus?”

“Storing a completed pattern for phased-matter duplication would require an enormous database and an inconceivable amount of power. You’d have to harness the total output of a blue giant just to support a process like that.”

Spock caught the reference with growing interest, “The Helios Device.”

“Exactly! But what we see here…” Marcus shook her head, “This is a radically different approach. See, if I wanted to reduce the hardware requirements, one of the ways I might do that is a kind of self-organizing data matrix, maybe some kind of fractal algorithm for data compression. Phased-matter processes don’t perform well in fractals, but quantum computers do, especially in nanoscale. So the device that struck the planet… it’s not a giant device to do the job, but billions of tiny devices each doing a microscopic part of the job, like bees constructing a hive. I think what we’re probably seeing is the effect of a swarm of nanorobots, each equipped with a tiny phased-matter device. They’re probably programmed to make use of the planet’s structure for raw materials and rearrange it to a specific pattern.”

Spock thought about this for a moment, “Such an endeavor would require an alarming number of nanoscale devices…”

“Ultimately, yes,” Marcus said, “But you could start the process with just a handful if they were self-replicating. Like a Von Neuman device or something, maybe cannibalizing part of the planet to make more of themselves. We don’t know what they’re using for an energy source, but whatever it is, it’s obviously powerful enough to propel a small vessel to warp velocities. That should be enough for the initial boost.”

“Indeed…” Spock nodded, slowly conceding defeat, “They may be powered, or even controlled, by subspace differentials or electromagnetic fields… if that is true, then the energy emissions from our own sensors may have reactivated some of the constructor devices on the surface, perhaps triggering a malfunction in the construction process… Captain, it has just occurred to me that, if those devices are still present in Ensign Hallab’s body, it may also explain the incident in the transporter room when we tried to beam her aboard. Her original pattern briefly manifested before the nanomachines present in her body restored the humanoid facade…”

“This is all very interesting, Spock,” Kirk said, quickly terminating what had already mutated into a scientific brainstorming session, “But we’re overlooking two very simple things. Firstly, the entire system is in a different orbit than it was at the time of this recording. Second… well, I don’t mean to be dense, but what the hell happened to the third moon?”

“That,” Gul Dulek said, “is where this recording gets interesting.”

As if it wasn’t interesting enough, Kirk thought. But then Dulek’s prediction became true: the recording backtracked to a point slightly before the transformation of Doppelgänger, this time focussing on the turbulent third moon. As before, a small object was shown racing towards that moon at superluminal velocities; a flash of light in the background indicated the beginning of Doppelgänger’s transformation, and moments later the moon was struck as well, undergoing the same fame. “We almost overlooked this second event,” Dulek said, “But the spectral pattern of the impactor is identical to the one that hit the planet. The transformation pattern, however, is very different.” The recording showed this as well: for the second time the expanding blaze consumed yet another world, but this time more quickly than before, spreading fast until the volatile third moon stabilized into a cold dense sphere of brightly-shining material. “According to spectral analysis,” Dulek concluded, “The third moon is now encased in a layer of iridium at least five kilometers thick, interlaced with other compounds our sensors could not identify.”

“Kemocite,” Spock said, looking at the sensor data, “And large amounts of Trellium and Verterium allotropes. All three are common in warp propulsion systems.”

Kirk took a moment to absorb this as he watched the recording. A moon that size, instantly transformed into a pile of valuable resources. Just one of the Enterprise’s warp engine nacelles cost as much as a Saladin-class scout ship; this transformed moon could provide building materials for a million Enterprises and still have resources to spare.

“We fixed our telescope on it for a few hours, and then…” the recording skipped this interval also, transitioning to a moment only seconds before the now-silent moon suddenly lit up with a galaxy of swirling blue lights, as if a million highways suddenly lit up with traffic for a million city-sized vehicles.

“What’s all that?” Marcus asked.

“The moon is generating some type of force field,” Spock said, and watching the sensor data added, “Am I reading your telemetry correctly, Gul Dulek? It appears to be towing the entire system into a higher orbit.”

Gul Dulek nodded, “It’s a type of tractor field we’ve never seen before. Power levels are beyond measurement, but our observations record that the Doppelgänger system was moved into a higher orbit over the course of just seventy five hours. After that…” the now-transformed third moon released its hold on its former siblings, then moved out of its once-stable orbit and raced off into the distance, leaving a rainbow-colored after image in its path. Though it didn’t seem to be moving that quickly, the telltale splash of the Tachyon Effect indicated that it was moving somewhat faster than the speed of light.

“Did the moon just go to warp?” Marcus asked.

“Yes it did,” Dulek said, “Or, at least what was a moon, until whoever-they-are got to it. We think they may have used the same material transformation process to rebuild the third moon into a gigantic space vessel.”

“A vessel…” Kirk drummed his fingers on the table, grasping an implication he hadn’t considered earlier. It made perfect sense: why transform the entire moon into a stack of raw materials when you could just as easily transform it into a finished product?

For the moment, Kirk brought their attention back to the monitor, “Doctor Marcus, your theory is that Doppelgänger and its third moon were rearranged by a swarm of… what? Microscopic robots equipped with fabrication equipment?”

“It’s just a hypothesis, Captain,” Marcus shrugged, “For all we know, it could have been Jesus.”

“But it does partially fit the facts, Captain,” Spock added, “At the very least, the radiative emissions from our engines could result in the time-slip effect we observed, especially if the constructor devices were spurred into undesired action by those emissions. The Gorn arrival several years ago may have had a similar effect that resulted in the planet’s instability…”

“And the people too,” Kirk said, and suddenly a thought occurred to him, “But it can’t be radiation alone. Our engines and sensors have had no further effect on the survivors from the surface, or even the reavers for that matter. Bones, you said the effect only lasts while they’re on to the planet?”

“And in Miri’s case, brief return to the planet might account for the transformation when she was beamed back aboard. Who knows what those things are programmed to do under those circumstances?”

“A nanorobot formation would probably operate using swarm intelligence, Captain,” Spock added, “separating a small portion of them from the remainder of the group would undoubtedly diminish their operating capacity to an extremely low level. In Miri’s case, returning her to the planet may have allowed them to briefly reestablish their network, and her sudden separation from it probably resulted in what we might call a ‘reboot’ of her molecular structure.”

“Well, that’s possible, but mainly I’m wondering…” Kirk hesitated for a moment. The implications were starting to turn bitter, “Doctor Marcus, suppose Miri’s still carrying those little robots around. It should be possible to isolate a few of them for study, don’t you think? I mean,” he glanced at Spock, “This could be that unknown factor you mentioned, the difference between the Onlies and the reavers we brought back. It might be that the children still have active units operating inside them while the reavers have been fully isolated from the swarm.”

“Isolated…” something dark passed through Spock’s features and he added, “Or discarded.”

“Spock?”

“Captain, we’ve established that Miriam Hallab is one of the original inhabitants of the planet, but transformed – body and mind – into a human being. She was beginning to degenerate into a Reaver when she was discovered in Gaza. But when we beamed back aboard from Stonehenge…”

McCoy’s eyes widened, “She arrived her original form, but the machines turned her back into a human.”

Spock nodded, “We also know that all of their memories prior to about twelve years ago have been falsified. Yet the planet has existed in this form for one hundred and sixty five years.”

“And what’s been happening down there for the other hundred and fifty years?” Kirk also nodded as he saw what Spock was getting at, “So this is all some kind of huge experiment, and the Onlies are…” he winced at the unintentional pun, “The only active test subjects.”

“This can be verified,” Spock went on, “If we can determine for sure the presence of nanomachines in Miri’s body and the absence of machines in the reavers, we will have established this fact for certain.”

Doctor McCoy straightened up a bit, “I’m not really sure how to go about determining that, Jim. If Doctor Marcus is right, those machines could be extremely small, maybe even molecule-sized. We can’t search for something that small unless we have some idea what they’re made of, what kinds of molecules they contain. If they’re made of the same phased-matter quasi-substance as that platform on the surface, then we’ll have a hell of a time just identifying their presence, let alone studying them.”

“And again,” Spock said, “it is only an hypothesis. We do not even know for sure that there is anything within the Ensign’s body for us to find.”

“I might be able to help you with that.” Marcus punched up something on a palmcomp, and a prompt appeared on the monitor for an indexed file being pushed electronically from Marcus’ unit. Spock opened the file, and the Cardassian splitscreen was replaced by a similar but differently formatted playback, one showing security video footage from the transporter room, the other three showing energy readouts from the main transporter sensor. It was a playback of the away team’s emergency beamout where the transformed Ensign Hallab first appeared on the pad. The blackened apparition that materialized behind Kirk and Rand looked so totally alien as to be utterly unrecognizable, but Marcus’ focus was on one of the sensor readouts: a gyrating line graph labelled space-energy flux. “Just before Miri beamed back aboard,” Marcus said, “The transporter sensor registered a very brief disturbance in the subspace Z-Band. It only lasted a few seconds, but the pattern had modulation characteristics that, at least to me, looked artificial. Mister Conrad thinks it might be a transmission from that alien artifact, maybe instructions to Miri’s nanomachines to execute the program Doctor McCoy observed. If this is true th-”

“Doctor Marcus,” Spock paused the recording, and by the sound of his voice something very unsettling had just crossed his mind, “This would appear to be a duplicate copy of the transporter diagnostic log.”

Marcus nodded. “Of course it is.”

“How did you obtain this?”

“I uh… downloaded it myself. Why do you ask?”

“With whose security clearance?”

Kirk bristled, now that it occurred to him – just as it moments ago occurred to Spock – that the operational transporter logs weren’t generally accessible to science-division personnel without direct action by one of the ship’s department heads.

Marcus raised a brow, “I didn’t get any clearance. I didn’t think it was necessary.”

“Then am I to understand you gained access to this transporter log by circumventing the computer’s security protocols? By, I presume, enlisting the services of Mister Conrad?”

“Who’s Mister Conrad?” Kirk asked.

“Doctor Glenn Conrade, graduate of Cal Tech, with advanced degrees in subspace harmonics and information warfare, presently working towards a PhD in cryptanalysis. He is also a close personal friend and colleague of Doctor Marcus.” Spock looked at her in what – for anyone other than a Vulcan – would have been a threatening glare, “You circumvented our security protocols to access this data?”

Marcus looked apologetic, but undisturbed. “Didn’t think anyone would mind.”

“You thought wrong, Doctor,” Kirk said, and immediately snapped open his communicator, “Lieutenant Rand, you’re needed in the briefing room.”

“Already on my way, Captain.”

“Oh, bloody hell…”

“Doctor…”

“You’re really calling the cops on me? For this?” Marcus rolled her eyes, “Don’t be thick, Captain. Because of this, we have a real chance of identifying the actual mechanism behind the alien transformation techn-”

“Because of this,” Kirk corrected her, “the security of this ship may have been jeopardized. There’s a reason diagnostic subroutines require command authorization, Carol. We’ve already had one conversation today about following proper protocols.”

“It’s no big deal, Jim! It’s just the transporter logs!”

“And you should have gone through proper channels to obtain them.”

“Look, Captain,” Marcus drummed her fingers on the table, “This transformation technology isn’t fundamentally beyond anything the Federation has now. I mean, the basic principles are simple…”

“Doctor, y-”

“Do you not understand what a Von Neuman machine is? We can make something like that with our own technology. Imagine if you programmed an industrial fabricator to scoop some of the regolith off the lunar surface and use that material to make a copy of itself. You’d have two fabricators, then four, then eight… in a few days, you’d have a million of them. With a million fabricators you could transform the moon into anything you wanted, you could transform dead rocks into fertile soil, you could turn sand into oxygen, you could even…”

The briefing room doors opened and Lieutenant Rand entered the room with along with two additional security officers. She’d come here, obviously, under the assumption that the two Cardassians were making trouble; at the sight of Doctor Marcus’ body language, she realized it was actually much worse than this.

“Lieutenant,” Kirk began with a dismissive scowl, “Escort Doctor Marcus to the brig.”

“The brig?! What?!” Marcus stood up, but the two security officers were already herding her towards the door, “Captain, please, don’t do this! I didn’t intend any of-” the briefing room doors closed behind them, leaving only silence and a frustrated-looking Lieutenant Rand in her absence.

“She may be right, you know,” Glyn Lynoi added, ever so cautiously, “Our sensors also detected a subspace anomaly that matches the pattern in your transporter logs. That might have been some sort of alien control signal…”

“She was almost certainly right about that,” Spock said, “She was, however, seriously in error as far as her methodology-”

“She put her own personal curiosity over the security of the Federation,” Kirk said, and then turned and glared at him, “And you of all people know the penalty for treason, Mister Spock.”

Spock stared back at him for a long moment, searching the Captain’s expression for clues. After half a second, he nodded slowly and answered, “I am not looking forward to another public execution.”

“Hopefully, she’ll make a strong enough example that this will be the last time.” Kirk turned to the three Cardassians, who were making a very strong and almost successful effort not to look absolutely mortified. He smiled pleasantly as if they’d just been discussing the weather, “I can’t thank you enough for your help, Gul Dulek. Once again, we’re happy to share with you some study materials about phased-matter physics if it’ll help you understand the theory behind this technology. Although…” he knew he shouldn’t, but he was tempted to add, “Considering the armaments on your ship, it seems you’re already familiar with the subject.”

Gul Dulek squinted at him, “Armaments?”

“Your vessel is equipped with a phase cannon, is it not?”

“How could you know that?” Dulek’s eyes widened.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. We’ll adjourn for now. In the mean time, you’re welcome to stay aboard as long as you like. Mister Bailey will see to your needs.”

“Ah… thank you, Captain, for your hospitality.” Unhappily, Gul Dulek rose from the table and followed Lieutenant Bailey out of the room. He had the look of a man – well, a Cardassian – who did not like being one-upped by a potential enemy, or even a potential ally.

That was admirable, on some level. Cardassians, like many humans, seemed to have a natural distaste for ever being at a disadvantage.

With only Starfleet personnel left in the room, Kirk turned to Lieutenant Rand, still standing unhappily behind Doctor Marcus’ Chair, “Once the Cardassians are gone, have Doctor Marcus confined to quarters for the duration of this mission. I’m putting a formal reprimand in her file.”

“Yes, Sir,” Rand said, then, “Capt-”

“What was that all about, Jim?” McCoy asked, “I thought you were loosing it for a minute.”

Kirk frowned, slightly angry at the need for the performance at all, “That Gul Dulek’s been shuckin’ and jivin’ ever since he came aboard. He wants us to think he’s awe struck and intimidated by the Enterprise. But he’s way too smooth with it. He’s like used car salesman or something.”

McCoy frowned, “Could be he just rubs you the wrong way…”

“No, he did the same thing for me,” Bailey put in, grimly, “He said something about how our computer systems were so advanced and he wished the Grazine had that level of automation. It’s a weird comment considering the Grazine is flying with an evolved AI.”

Spock raised a brow, “Is it?”

“It’s another hand-me-down from the Shofixi. In every other measure they’re over a century behind us, but their computers are at least as good as ours. Up to ninety percent of the Grazine’s internal functions are fully automated, and there’s Gul Dulek going on and on how impressed he is with our automation.”

“He’s assuming we know nothing about them,” Spock added, “And he wants to leave us to believe that they are harmless and primitive.”

Scotty laughed, “And you want them to believe that you’re a hardass who executes people on a whim.”

Rand started again, “Sir, there is a-”

“I want them to believe that double-crossing us might have some serious consequences. That will be useful when the time comes. Speaking of which, Rand,” he turned to his newly-appointed security chief, “Have a team go over the shuttle bay after the Cardassians leave. Make sure they didn’t leave any nasty surprises for later.”

“Yes, Sir. Also-”

“You suspect the Cardassians are planning a subterfuge?” Spock asked, slightly alarmed.

“Subterfuge?” Kirk frowned, “I think they’re planning to kill us the moment cooperation isn’t to their advantage. That’s why they came all the way over here instead of transmitting their findings remotely. They know what this is about and they’re after the same thing we are…” then he shook his head, grinning, “And I’ve just realized that in relation to our Gorn friends out there… Francium’s orbit commander must have figured it out too. I don’t know why we didn’t see it sooner.”

“See what?” McCoy asked.

“The technology that created this planet… I think Carol’s got it right. The technology itself isn’t that exotic, it’s just a question of technique. The Gorn want to be the first to discover it, and obviously so do the Cardassians.” He grinned to himself but refrained from saying aloud, So does Carol Marcus.

Scotty chuckled, “Bloody chance of that. Those laddies are still decades away from developing their own transporters.”

“If they bother to develop them,” Kirk said, “The Cardassians obtained warp drive by reverse engineering an alien space craft, and they probably obtained phase cannons form the Orion Syndicate or God knows who else. I’m guessing they’re planning to speed up their entry onto the galactic stage by getting a corner on this whole planeteering thing. And still, with all of that, there’s the question of whatever the hell it was that Miri fired at down on the surface. We thought at the time those might have been Gorn scouts, but who knows what that was? It’s likely there’s at least one other party involved that hasn’t openly revealed itself.”

“So it’s a competition,” Bailey said, “A good old fashion space race…”

“Captain!” Lieutenant Rand, raised her voice over the others, an outburst that commanded attention just by virtue of its being totally unprecedented from what used to be the captain’s yeoman, “I have just been informed that Lieutenant Onise has a malignant tumor in his brain. That‘s what was causing his erratic behavior. Doctor Ayash extracted a piece of for analysis… it’s definitely reaver tissue.”

“Son of a-!” without another word, Doctor McCoy was out of his chair and out the door on his way to sickbay, almost running the security chief over on his way.

Kirk nodded. And then he rubbed his temples as his head started to throb, “So what else can go wrong today?”

“Bridge to Captain Kirk,” sounded Lieutenant Uhura in the ship’s intercom circuit, paging the conference room specifically instead of the entire ship as normal.

Sighing, Kirk punched the intercom button, “Kirk here.”

“Long range sensors have detected a vessel approaching Doppelgänger at warp speed. ETA, eight minutes, twenty seconds. There are no other vessels expected at this time.”

“I had to ask.” Kirk sighed once again and stood painfully from the conference room chair, “Uhura, sound yellow alert, and have Lieutenant Bailey escort our Cardassian guests back to their ship.”

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