Star Trek: Genesis (Part 3)

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

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

– 0950 hours –

Spock relieved Ensign Garcia at the science console without so much as a word. The junior science officer slipped over to the auxiliary station with all due relief, happy to no longer have the responsibility of being the ship’s eyes and ears in the face of potential combat.

Kirk, likewise, took the Captain’s chair as the bridge hummed with activity for the second time in as many days, and waited for Lieutenant Rand to find her way to the standing security console next to the communications station before asking, “Readiness status.”

“All sections report condition yellow,” Rand said.

“Tactical status.”

Sulu reported immediately, “Forcefields energized, main deflectors on standby. Number two shield is a bit twitchy, but all systems show ready. Should I arm phasers banks?”

“Not yet…” He had a million more questions to ask of the situation, but first things first, “Rand, where are the Cardassians?”

Checking her status board on one of the HUD windows, Rand reported, “Their shuttle is still finishing pre-flight checks, they’ll be departing momentarily.”

“Tell Gul Dulek to put a rush on it, and give him clearance as soon as he’s ready.”

After several minutes, a jittering alarm sounded on Spock’s science console. A moving indicator on the overhead monitor that had been showing the target’s position flickered erratically, as if the computer was suddenly confused as to where exactly the contact was. Spock reported, “We’ve lost sensor contact, Captain. The alien vessel may have dropped out of warp.”

“Long range scan. Let’s try to identify them before they move on us.”

Spock switched over to the telescope screen, his eyes illuminated by displays from the scope hood. A tentative reading did appear on his scanners, but only for an instant before he moved back to the larger gravitic sensor display of the science console, “Vessel has gone to warp again. Moving towards the planet at warp factor one point…” and then the screen flickered, “Dropped out of warp in high orbit. Estimating five hundred thousand kilometers distance.”

“Long range scans in that region, Mister Chekov.”

“Scanning, Keptin…” Chekov’s navigational sensors were, in some ways, more precise than the scientific instruments slaved to the library computer. Spock’s sensors were designed to use a more narrow beam, condensing details from the subtle vapors of nuance that an ordinary beam of electromagnetic and electrogravitic energy could discern. But the navigational array had a simpler task: scan the heavens to find a particular object and then figure out what that object looked like. In this mode, even with the brief time delay from the sensors, the main viewer suddenly flickered with the magnified overlay of the distant craft as it emerged from the rainbow-colored plume of a warp drive distortion. A sleek, long-necked space craft with a bulbous command module and a flat, almost aerodynamic engineering section.

That unmistakeable silhouette that was the stuff of every cadet’s nightmares. “Wisual identification,” Chekov said, “Klingon warbird! Type D7!”

Which was, in fact, exactly what Captain Kirk was hoping the intruder would not turn out to be. Rumors outnumbered real intelligence about the new warbird’s capabilities, except it was generally accepted that the D7 was the one thing in space that was guaranteed to outgun any ship in Starfleet. “Red alert! Shields up!”

And for the seventh time in two days, the lighting on the bridge plunged into deep red as the entire ship suddenly transformed into an instrument of war: no longer ready to merely respond to an attack, but ready to actively seek out and challenge any potential threat in the sky.

“Phaser banks fully charged, torpedo bays loaded,” Sulu reported, passing on the reports from the weapons officers at the ops stations in front of him.

“Deflectors actiwated, Keptin!”

“Grazine’s shuttlepod has docked, the Cardassians are moving away at full impulse power,” Spock reported.

The ship’s main deflectors began to audibly power up at the Captain’s order, channeling full warp power to generate a type of subspace field that would repel any incoming particle more energetic than a sunbeam. Like the warp drives that were a part of their function, the deflector screens took some time to build up to full power, but once they were fully energized they could repel the force of a dozen phaser blasts even from the most powerful Klingon battlewagons.

But no one knew for sure what the D7’s armaments were. Rumors had floated around that the latest generations of Klingon warships were being fitted with heavy phaser cannons that rivaled even the Enterprise’s main batteries. So far, no one had had an opportunity to test those rumors for truth; all the top-of-the-line Klingon warships had so far totally avoided any contact with Starfleet vessels and the few independent warlords that even bothered to harass Federation positions invariably used designs that were showing their age a century ago. Enterprise had been upgraded and enhanced for its five-year mission, but it was anyone’s guess if that would be enough to go toe to toe with the Empire’s finest.

“Klingon vessel has gone to warp again, Captain,” Spock reported, and a moment later added, “It seems to be on a direct course for-”

Through the overlay of the magnified image, a flash of rainbow-colored light indicated the arrival of the Klingon warship, not in a holographic image or a sensor display, but through the actual viewscreen, close enough to be seen with the naked eye. Even at this distance it was merely a moving spec against a background of specs, and an instant later that moving spec began to take on a menacing red glow. Spock shouted, “Incoming fire!” just seconds before that red glow exploded into a pair of blinding orange fireballs.

The twin Klingon phaser beams seemed ridiculously huge, like something fired out of a gigantic blowtorch. Both collided with Enterprise’s deflector screens, bending into bizarre curving trajectories that passed the ship on both sides. Then another salvo, and then a third; lone phaser beam whipped around the bridge like a curveball pitch and slapped against the saucer section on the port side edge, scattering across the forcefields in a brilliant aurora.

What is it that makes phaser beams visible in space? Kirk wondered for a fraction of a second before he felt the dull impact of another phaser strike and the warble of collision alarms that sounded automatically whenever the sensors detected an unsafe deceleration. Still more phaser beams whipped around the ship, whipping erratically around it like birds avoiding an obstacle.

“Shields are holding,” Sulu announced, “But deflectors are overheating fast…”

“Full impulse, port forty degrees, down ten!” Kirk could barely hear himself over the cacophony of alarms and the complaints of the engines reverberating through the ship, but somehow he knew his words were reaching their destination. In another moment, the stars peeled off to one side of the viewscreen as Enterprise turned and accelerated, turning its weakened engine out of the Klingon’s line of fire. He waited for Sulu to right the ship before order, “Lock phasers and return fire!”

Sulu hit the triggers on his console and five of the ship’s forward phaser banks tracked on the distant warbird and fired at once. At this range, Starfleet phaser weapons had almost surgical accuracy, but a Klingon warbird was designed with a deceptively narrow cross section that made it difficult to hit, especially with its deflectors active. Even so, the ship’s main phaser banks managed to make contact on the warbird’s underbelly, just inboard of outs starboard nacelle. A tremendous cloud of hot gas erupted from the impact point and enveloped the warbird as a fifty-meter section of its armor plating vaporized around it.

“Registering several direct hits, Captain. Damage to Klingon outer hull, however…” Spock hesitated, “Now reading increased output from their warp engines…” And watching on the tactical plot, Kirk saw the warbird roll ninety degrees to starboard – turning still further away from its opponent – before it vanished into a rainbow-colored flash receding over the horizon as its warp drives flung it back into the void from whence it had emerged.

“Klingon vessel has entered warp,” Spock said, “I am attempting to reacquire…”

“Warning! Outer hull damage, Section Three Thirteen,” The computer began to announce in the background, then repeated two more times until someone in damage control responded to the ship’s satisfaction.

Kirk stabbed the intercom and thundered, “Engineering, status report!”

“Starboard nacelle is at the yellow line, but coming down steadily. I’m raising output on the port engine to compensate.”

“Rig for emergency warp. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“Sulu, Chekov. As soon as he’s located, give me continual tracking on the Klingon ship with torpedoes ready. If he comes at us again, I want him to drop out of warp in the middle of a kill zone.”

“Aye, Sir…”

“Aye, Keptin..”

“I have a fix on the Klingon vessel,” Spock reported at last, “It has again dropped out of warp, now in trans-lunar orbit on the far side of Doppelgänger, one point two million kilometers distance.”

“Are they setting up another attack run?” Kirk asked.

“Their weapon systems remain active, however they are not maneuvering to intercept us…” Spock stared at his scope for a moment, then looked up slowly, “The Klingon ship has begun launching sensor drones on a wide dispersal pattern. Their drones are proceeding to equidistant positions in orbit of Doppelgänger.”

“But they’re not coming after us?”

Spock shook his head, “No further action from the Klingon vessel.”

Kirk didn’t completely buy it. But whatever they were up to, at least it would give them time to cool down their deflectors and brace for another attack, if another one was immanent. “Sulu, get those torpedoes ready, just in case.”

“Aye, Sir.”

Back on the intercom, Kirk ordered, “Mister Scott, on my signal, I want you to transfer all warp power into the main phaser bank. Put everything we’ve got into one concentrated burst.”

“Captain, that much power in one shot, we run the risk of burning out the control circuits. We won’t get another shot…”

“I’m aware of that, Mister Scott. We’re only gonna need one.”

“Aye… Uh… We’ll get on it, Sir. You’ll have it in two minutes.”

“Inform me when you’re set and standby for my order…”

For the next forty five seconds, the universe seemed to stand still. Captain Kirk waited patiently, listening to the far off hum of shield generators reasserting themselves near the impulse deck as the fusion reactors struggled to replenish their energy reserves. He listened to the audible reports on the intercom as the engineering crews started setting up the power transfers to the forward main phaser battery, shored up potential failure points in the power grid in case of an overload. In considerably less than two minutes, the forward battery was ready to receive a full power surge, the starboard nacelle returned to normal operating temperature, and the deflector screens returned to full capacity. When the Klingons came at them again, this time Kirk would be armed and ready with his finger on the button, ready for them.

But then he stopped and thought about it: surely the Klingons knew that. They wouldn’t break off an attack for this long just to give their opponents time to recover. And after still another uneventful minute, Kirk asked, “Still nothing, Spock?”

“No further action, Captain. I think we’ve been fortunate.”

Were we, though?” Kirk left his command chair for the first time in nearly five minutes and walked directly over to his science officer’s console, looking to confirm that report for himself. Sure enough, the Klingon warbird was still there, coasting gently along its high orbit as a constellation of sensor drones maneuvered for thousands of kilometers around it. “They warp into orbit, fire on us, and then run away… what is that, Klingon for hello?”

Spock folded his arms and leaned back in his chair, feeling perhaps a sense of intellectual helplessness. “There are some logical possibilities, Captain, all of them quite complicated.”

“Doesn’t seem that complicated,” Kirk was thinking out loud now, “Why would they fire on us and then break off? Not to pick a fight, they had us dead to rights in the first attack.”‘

“Our phasers did cause some damage to their outer hull, Captain. We may have affected their sensors or some other critical system.”

“But they aren’t coming after us again. Why not?”

Spock thought about this for a long moment, “A warning, perhaps?”

“They would have opened a channel for that…” speaking of which, “Uhura, hail that Klingon ship and request visual communications.”

“Aye, Sir…”

“Maybe to lure us away from the Cardassians?” Kirk said, “Or maybe just to discourage us from interfering with them?”

“Possible, but it does not explain the deployment of sensor probes.”

“True…” Kirk raised a brow, “So they came here looking for something. As soon as they got here they opened fire on us…”

Spock pondered this for a moment, as some more security-minded aspect of his mind had been doing for some time now. The only remaining possibility was perhaps the most menacing, “Mistaken identity?”

“Channel open to Klingon vessel,” Uhura said.

Which meant it was up to Kirk to initiate Enterprise’s half of the conversation. He strode back to his command chair and punched the “ship-to-ship” button on his arm control, knowing that as soon as he did his face would be appearing on the Klingon bridge. “This is Federation Starship Enterprise to Klingon warbird. Please respond.”

In turn, the face of the Klingon commander appeared on the main viewer, glaring at him with a pair of piercing blue eyes that shone like phaser cannons about to fire. It was a face that was meant to scowl, made all the more intimidating by platinum plates worn in his hair and the bridge of his nose and a bone structure suggestive of a creature that would be extremely comfortable with multiple head-on collisions. From the viewscreen’s perspective, the Klingon commander seemed to be sitting in a throne, staring down from a high place; Kirk had heard this was partly to intimidate enemies of the empire, but mostly it was an accident of the design of the Klingon bridge, whose communications screen was slightly below the main viewer.

The Klingon commander stunned almost everyone on the bridge by speaking first in untranslated English, “I am Kang Ha’lok, General Officer of the Klingon warbird Kor’ah.”

“I’m Captain James T. Kirk. Very curious why you opened fire on me a moment ago and then-”

“James Kirk…” Kang’s eyebrow rose a quarter of an inch, “You wouldn’t be related to Winona Kirk, would you?”

All eyes turned to the Captain’s chair, expressions varying from incredulity to awe. Kirk answered the only way he could, “She was my mother… why do you know her?”

“GhaH quvvam ghol…” Kang began, this time speaking in Klingon; the universal translator printed out a best-fit approximation of his words on the screen just below his image. “We met in battle years ago,” said Kang’s translation, “She killed a lot of my soldiers. Killed a lot of my enemies too. She even managed to kill me once… well, a clone of me… long story. As for you, I have heard some amusing stories about your recent adventures in the Ketha Province. Apparently you are your father’s son.”

Kirk cleared his throat as a preamble for his first non-personal (and non-awkward) question, “Explain your actions a moment ago. Help me to understand… you don’t seem to be here for a fight…”

“Quite right, James T. Kirk. We saw your deflectors going up and we assumed you must have been our target. So I may have rushed the cannons, just a bit. Your counter-attack was impressive, by the way.”

He’s impressed, Kirk thought, And he’s not apologizing. It reminded him that Klingons loved a good fight, even if it wasn’t with an actual enemy.

On the other hand, this raised another question for Kirk, “Who exactly did you think we were?”

“The Nacirema,” Kang said, “A Romulan preybird we have been hunting for some time. My intelligence specialist traced its most recent transmissions to this system four months ago and we are here to investigate its activities and then destroy it.”

Four months ago. Meaning the Romulans had actually arrived in this system before Enterprise or the Gorn and had simply remained out of sight, probably hidden behind their cloaking device. And Kirk suddenly thought about the phantom image Miri had fired at on the planet surface. Rumors about the improved Romulan cloaking device had been circulating for years, but whether or not it was possible to cloak something as small as a person… “Why would the Romulans come here?”

“Until moments ago, we had assumed they were planning to attack a Federation outpost and then blame it on the Klingon Empire. I can see, however…” Kang looked off to one side, apparently at one of his sensor monitor screens where something fairly unsettling was being displayed, “… there is much more to this situation than we expected. Do my eyes deceive me, James T. Kirk, or is this planet physically identical to the Terran home world?”

Kirk thought carefully about what to say next. Very little was understood about Klingon culture and its subdivisions, but the dominant social groupings had parallels to Earth history that were not at all encouraging. The Klingon Empire and the Federation of Planets had spent the last several years teetering on the brink of war, and disclosing too much at a time like this could create more problems than it answered questions. Besides, the last thing this political/scientific free for all needed was another highly formidable contender. “We’ve seen no sign of a Romulan vessel,” Kirk said, “And as for the situation… well, there’s more to it than even we expected. We’re not totally sure what’s going on here ourselves.” Which, actually, was far from a lie. Strictly speaking, even Spock and Marcus didn’t fully understand how Doppelgänger came to exist, theories and clues aside.

Halok turned to the ride and stared at something, probably a sensor screen built into the side of the bridge within viewing angle of his chair, then back at the downward-mounted communications monitor, “We are detecting two other vessels in the area, both of unknown design. We have also detected two Tholian spacecraft in very low orbit of the second moon, which have gone to some elaborate lengths to disguise their presence. I take it they are here for the same reason you are here.”

“Probably, so are the Romulans. There’s a great deal of interstellar interest in the technology that may have created this planet.”

Kang nodded. “There is always interest when the First Federation is involved.”

Spock almost jumped out of his uniform as quickly as he leapt to his science console. Kirk meanwhile felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. “Are you familiar with this phenomenon or its creators?”

“Not personally, no. But according to Imperial records, the First Federation is an ancient and very advanced cooperative of beings. They’ve been known to use a transformative matrix called the Chameloid, a biological construct with a penchant for…” Halok’s face turned upwards into a new expression that was halfway between a scowl and a grin, “…plagiarism.”

“No record of such a race, Captain,” Spock said, exhausting the databanks of Enterprise’s library computer, “however, Klingon space exploration pre-dates even the earliest Vulcan archives by several centuries.”

“This little race of ours is getting crowded.” Kirk turned back to the viewscreen, “General Kang, would you be willing to share some of your data regarding the First Federation and their technology?”

“No.”

The abruptness of the response was startling in itself. “Not even to honor the memory of your once worthy-adversary?”

“Honor?” Kang’s expression briefly turned quizzical, “Do I look simple to you?”

“Well, I did single-handedly take down the Narada…”

“And if you had done so on a Klingon ship, I might have cared.”

“Fair enough… Okay, so, how about a trade?”

“No.”

“Um…” again that startling abrupt rejection. Somehow, Kirk felt like he’d just been turned down for a prom date. “Kang, we have some information about this planet, and what the First Federation have been doing here for the past few decades. We’d be willing to exchange that information for anything you can tell us about their home territory.”

“A mutual exchange of information,” Kang said, suddenly thoughtful, “Beneficent to both sides, allowing a more complete picture to emerge that will eventually lead us to the truth.”

“Exactly. So, what do you say?”

“No.”

Kirk sighed, “Listen, Kang…”

“You would be a fool to make such an offer and I would be a fool to accept it. We Klingons have traveled these stars since your people were living in grass huts, James T. Kirk. We’ve seen this before.”

“I don’t think you understand what I’m offering…”

“I don’t think you understand what you’re offering. Look at the world below us, Kirk. You have surely learned by now that it was not created from nothing. There was life there once, perhaps a whole civilization. That life has been perverted from its original state and it can never be restored to what it was. Most of the inhabitants probably died in the transformation… those were the lucky ones. The survivors have been kept alive in one twisted form after another, decade after decade, raw materials for the First Federation’s sick experiments. The Chameloid is an abomination, used by a race of psychopaths who torture other life forms just for their own amusement… Why in Khaless’ name would I want information about that?”

Kirk felt a stone forming in the pit of his stomach. He tried to sound brave as he formed an answer, “We may not agree with their methods, Kang, but you can’t deny that the techniques required to do something like this are very impr-”

Kang’s response was so sharp it seemed to decapitate Kirk’s sentence. “Chab rur SoH?” It took several seconds longer than usual for the translation to appear on screen. When it did, it raised eyebrows all across the bridge: Do you like pie?

Kirk flinched, “What?”

Kang repeated the question, this time in careful English, “Do. You. Like. Pie.

“I…” Kirk shrugged, “I suppose so. Why do you ask?”

Kang tilted his head slightly, “When the First Federation grinds your entire crew into delicious meat pies, I’ll make sure to ask them for the recipe.” Kang left those words to resonate in their ears as he closed the channel.

 

 

KNOW YOUR ENEMY

[ Private Communique ] To: NCC-1701, USS Enterprise – Attn: Captain James T. Kirk, Commanding Officer From: Gallaron System, Planet B (Gloria)- Vice Admiral Winona Kirk, SolFleet (ret)

Hi Jim. I know you’ve been a busy man with your five-year-mission and all, but it’s good to finally hear from my squirmy little boy after all these months. I’ve been following you on the news, we’re all very proud of you here on Gloria. You know I hate to do this, but I have to point out the irony: you’ve been elevated to the rank of All-Time Bigshot by kicking Romulan ass… that’s exactly how your father got his oh-so-brief command, and it’s exactly how your grandfather wound up on the Montezuma the year I was born. Hell, if it wasn’t for the Romulans we’d all be plowing fields in Iowa right now. Call it a family curse… or a blessing… or whatever.

Your message, of course, was a request for information on a Klingon warrior named Kang Ha’lok. I know him very well, but I have to admit I don’t actually know much about him. He was freelancing wit his older brothers at the time, basically death squads for hire. Judging by your letter I see he’s signed on with the Imperial Army since then. The IKA is basically a mercenary corps on the payroll of the high council, the hired guns who do the dirty work the nobles can’t be bothered with. My impression is that Kang is thoughtful, methodical, patient, sometimes even charming. More importantly, he is a ruthless cold-blooded and highly efficient killer, exactly the kind of person you do not want as an enemy.

I met him when he was about six, which for Klingons is late adolescence. It’s possible that the years have tempered him a bit, but I wouldn’t count on it. He doesn’t like complications, so he’ll probably ignore you unless you get in his way. Also, don’t bother name-dropping, thinking maybe he owes me one. Kang isn’t stupid enough to fall for that, and I don’t like you nearly enough to vouch for you.

Good luck out there.

– Mom
– Stardate 2261.28

– 1140 hours –

It was about the response that Captain Kirk expected from his invincible mother, more than a day after sending the message by way of the civilian comms relay at Epsilon Hydrae. He wasn’t sure if she was joking about the last part – he had never been able to tell when she was joking – but he took her broader meaning to heart all the same.

The time delay had given him enough time to look up the historical record as to how and where she would have met someone like Kang in the first place, and so he’d spent the last two days looking up not only the service history of then-Lieutenant Commander Winona Kirk, but also the battle record of the three starships she served on before joining the colonial fleet at Epsilon Hydrae. That Kang had personal dealings with George Kirk pretty much narrowed it down, and a search of the logs of the USS Kelvin found Kang’s name cross-referenced with the heading “The Xyrillian Genocide.”

This, Kirk reflected, was already a bad sign. But once Kirk got into the Kelvin’s log entries, that’s when things got weird. Between what turned out to be gaping holes in the log – the reports mentioned data corruption due to an unexplained main computer failure – Kirk saw mention of the USS Kelvin coming to the aid of a Xyrillian refugee ship that was apparently seeking sanctuary in Federation space. Kang had arrived with squadron of gunships, the two sides exchanged fire… Then somehow, two days later, reports of mysterious injuries among the crew involving sudden organ failure, followed by some kind of massive system failure in the main computer… And then four days later, a log entry by Lieutenant George Kirk that mentioned Commander Kang having safely departed from the Kelvin and returned to his own vessel, bound for home. The Xyrillians were never mentioned again, and Federation historians record that the Klingon Empire hunted their entire species to extinction just a few months later. Kirk concluded that either Kang had murdered all the refugees, or Kelvin had arranged for their (temporary) escape. In any case, the situation was probably a lot more complicated than the logs let on, but it told Kirk one important thing about his Klingon adversary: he was old, and he was hard, even for a Klingon.

“Jim?” McCoy asked from behind the Captain’s chair, once he was sure Kirk had finished reading the printout of his mother’s message, “You called me up here?”

“Yeah. Onise.”

McCoy read between the lines. “He was exposed to a phaser stun on the planet surface. Some kind of friendly fire incident, I guess. Didn’t help that his overshield wasn’t active at the time… Anyway, the phase pulse must have activated the nanomachines somehow. They’ve started transforming him into one of the caveman males that hang out with the reavers all the time.”

Kirk winced. It seemed like a comedy of errors from a group of irresponsible rookies, combined with an epic case of unexpected consequences, “How did he get infected with the nanomachines?”

“We were all infected, probably. But none of them were activated before we beamed aboard the ship, and without a power source they shut down and decomposed on their own.”

“Hm…” Kirk looked at the tablet in his hand again, re-read the message a second time.

“Good news?” McCoy skimmed the message over his shoulder.

“Bad news,” Kirk handed him the tablet, scowling, “My sources on Gloria strongly advise against antagonizing this Kang character.”

“Sound advice from our Colonial informant,” Spock added from the science council, “In light of our opponent’s tactical capabilities.”

Kirk nodded to that, turning his chair to face him, “Have you finished your analysis?”

“I have,” Spock turned to one of the transparent heads up displays near the science console and called up the relevant data for Kirk to see. A diagram of the D7 class – based on the ship’s silhouette in their sensor readings – appeared on the screen, “We have identified at least six torpedo launchers with as many as twenty four torpedoes per launcher. The torpedoes themselves are derived from the Narada’s missile technology, combining a large carrier unit docked to several small short-range weapons with full-sized warheads. There is also a conspicuous increase in armor plating on the primary hull, plus the presence of what appears to be a transporter-based mechanism for rapid replenishment of the ablative armor. I have also determined that those two outboard structures on the secondary hull, which intelligence identifies as ‘warp engine nacelles’ are, in fact, a pair of extremely high-output phaser emitters powered by self-contained dilithium conversion units.”

Kirk took a long slow breath and rested his hands on his knees. Doctor McCoy’s jaw literally dropped, along with his arms limply by his sides, “Those are phasers?! They have ships smaller than that!”

“They probably double as deflector units too,” Kirk said, thinking out loud, “So their warp drive units can be a lot smaller. Probably heavily armored, close to the reactor block…” then he winced as he realized, “Damn, no wonder they broke off! Our phaser strike must have damaged their weapon pod!”

Spock nodded, having reached the same conclusion on his own, “I would estimate that Kor’ah’s offensive weapons can produce not less than three times the output of our main phaser banks.”

“And our deflectors wouldn’t last long if he fired at maximum,” Kirk added, “As it stands, he thought he was shooting at a bird of prey so he didn’t bother with a maximum charge.”

McCoy sighed, “We lucked out.”

“So it would seem,” Spock nodded, “Something else, Jim. I have been analyzing data on the life form readings from the Klingon ship. There seems to be a staggering number of distinct life units on board, and most are operating on a highly reduced level of functioning. Roughly two hundred are active at any given time, the rest are being kept in a state very close to death.”

“Sleepers,” Kirk realized, remembering where he had seen that condition before, “Most of the crew is cryogenically frozen.”

Spock nodded grimly, “If their hibernation units are half as efficient as those of 20th century Earth, Kang could have as many as two thousand warriors in stasis.”

“And if they engage us, they take down our shields, next thing you know we’re up to our elbows in Klingons.”

“It would be worth keeping in mind,” Spock went on, “The Klingon High Council is dominated by a handful of aristocratic families who wield sufficient economic resources to ensure the loyalty of commanders and troops through the promise of monetary rewards. Assault troops are known to keep a tally of battlefield kills as well as trophies of their victims to validate their accomplishments.”

“Okay, this leaves us with two major problems,” Kirk said, again thinking out loud, “Firstly, we have a Klingon asshole with some enormous guns on a search and destroy mission who doesn’t really like us.”

“Fortunately,” Spock added, “he is at worst indifferent to us and unlikely to attack unless his mission requires it.”

“That’s the one thing we have going for us right now… but the other problem is, somewhere in this system, maybe even in orbit with us, is a cloaked Romulan bird of prey. I would guess they’ve been monitoring us in orbit and even on the surface ever since we got here.”

Spock nodded sagely, “Intelligence dispatches contain no indications of a man-portable cloaking device.”

“That only means we haven’t seen them using it yet…” Kirk thought silently for another few moments, “Spock, do you suppose the portable version operates on the same principle as the larger one?”

Spock pondered the question for just a moment, “Possibly. Starfleet overshields are similar enough to our ship-borne counterparts.”

“Down on the planet, you had a partial reading on whatever it was Miri fired at. Assuming she was firing at a cloaked Romulan observer…”

Spock nodded, following the thought to its conclusion, and threw all of his concentration into the library computer console, “We should be able to extrapolate their parameters from the telemetry feed from the tricorder. I should say, a more detailed analysis is in order.”

“Agreed. In the mean time let’s go to yellow alert, just in case that analysis turns up more bad news.”

.

– 1143 hours –

Miri was just about getting used to the insanity of the turbolift system. It took her a few days to wrap her brain around the idea of an elevator that moved at nearly the speed of sound – and without any feeling of movement at all – but like most things on the Enterprise she simply accepted them as the usual technological magic of the New Earth. Then she spent a few days shuffling logistics reports for the maintenance division and kept seeing references to something called “inertial stabilizers” and gathered from her midshipman handbook that the aforementioned device was the magical technology she had been confused about, the one thing that made all the difference to a perfectly functional machine.

There were a lot of those little gizmos in the logistics reports, and as a midshipman-in-training she was increasingly required to actually know the names and functions of these gizmos to be able to answer basic questions and queries, such as the question Ensign Ayala was now asking her for the third time in as many hours, “What’s the word on that transtator array?”

Miri answered without even looking at her palmcomp, “The CRM114 you ordered… still in queue, but Lieutenant Hobus should have it up before the end of the shift.”

Ayala stared despairingly at her otherwise useless communications monitor console in an otherwise bustling room full of identical consoles and extremely busy communications officers. “What’s the holdup?”

“The planetology team placed an order for some specialized equipment that Hobus didn’t have in inventory. It’s taken a while to get it done.”

“What kind of equipment?” Ayala asked.

Miri shrugged, “I don’t know, that’s just what Hobus said.”

“Typical… go back to Hobus and tell him that ship-board orders take priority. And tell him to remember that the Enterprise is a starship, not a retail buy-n-fly.”

“Should I use those exact words?”

“Those exact words. You know, this is the fourth time I’ve had to play second banana to that da-”

“Yellow Alert, Yellow Alert. All sections to standby battlestations.” A single-tone horn blasted from the intercom panel over Miri’s head, and a sudden change of lighting transformed the ship’s atmosphere from one of a peaceful exploration to a self-contained battleship in a transitory state between dormant and deadly. It was the third time in three days an alert had been called, and like everyone else in the room Miri couldn’t help but wonder who else in the universe had arrived to try and pick a fight with the Enterprise. More and more these days, Doppelgänger was becoming the scene of an intergalactic starship tournament.

Miri knew, from a lifetime of memories that weren’t technically hers, that the number one cause of death for all astronauts was panic. So she quieted her first nervous impulses and asked, calmly, “What do I do now?” knowing as she did that the second greatest cause of death for astronauts was failing to ask questions when they needed to know something important.

Ayala answered tersely, “You’re a midshipman in training. That means you do whatever your superior officer tells you.”

“And that would be you?”

“That would be me. Now go down to the machining section, wring Hobus’ neck and get me those goddamn transtators!”

.

– 1207 hours –

“I have something, Captain,” Spock plotted its position on the overhead screen above the science station even as the more detailed data streamed through his scope, “radiative anomaly in the ultraviolet range, bearing one oh two mark forty one. Co-orbital position at approximately five hundred kilometers.”

Kirk raised a brow, “That close? Are you sure you’re reading it right?”

“UV anomaly has the same interference pattern we observed on the planet. Intensity is negligible, sensors barely read it at all.”

Kirk felt a red alert blaring on the back of his neck. If the Klingons hadn’t spotted the Romulans yet, there was no telling how long that cloaked ship – if that’s what it really was – had been shadowing the Enterprise. It could have been there for hours, days, or even weeks by now. Or it could have just arrived in the last few minutes… but in either case, there were very few reasons to move so close to the Enterprise while under cloak. Except to attack, or possibly… “Spock, reconfigure internal sensors to scan for UV anomalies.”

Spock raised a brow, “Inside the Enterprise? That may take several minutes.”

“I know. Put a rush on it.” Kirk moved away from the science console and stabbed the intercom on his command chair, “Lieutenant Rand, listen carefully. We may have intruders aboard the ship. I want security teams mobilized and heavily armed in staging areas. Keep this quiet, I don’t want the intruders to know we’re onto them.”

“Scanning of engineering section shows negative reaction, Captain,” Spock said, scrolling through reports from individual sensors-tens of thousands in all-probing the large spacious frames of the secondary hull. This would take far longer than a search of the saucer module, both because of the more cluttered environment packed with machinery, and because of the need to be more thorough in high-security areas. “Frames one through five are clear. Now scanning frames six through ten.”

Kirk was most worried about frames seven and eight, where the warp core complex was situated with its sensitive equipment and power conversion systems. If the Romulans had come with an intention of sabotage, there were a thousand ways they could destroy the Enterprise without firing a shot.

“Frames six through ten are clear,” Spock reported, and even he sounded relieved.

Kirk stabbed the intercom again, “Rand, use emergency overrides to block all passage between primary and secondary hulls. Seal all hatches and emergency bulkheads.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“Are you so sure there is an intruder, Captain?” Spock asked as the sensors began to sweep the saucer module with their new settings.

“Call it a hunch,” Kirk said, “Besides, if I had an advantage like that, one my sworn enemies didn’t know about, that’s exactly the move I would make.”

Spock nodded in agreement, and yet for the moment the sensors showed the saucer module, also, totally clear of anomalies. “Nothing on scanners, Captain.”

Kirk breathed a sigh of relief, “Sulu, raise deflectors to a minimal defensive level, just in case they do try to board us.”

Spock looked up from his console with a worried expression, the gears of logic furiously grinding away in his highly-ordered mind. “I would like to begin a second scan, Captain.”

Kirk looked at him curiously, “Something you missed?”

“My earlier scan was based on the assumption that UV radiation was not completely deflected by the Romulan cloaking device. However, this seems an illogical proposition, considering such devices are obviously designed to be used in direct sunlight, deep within solar systems and strategically vital worlds. Therefore, the UV anomaly may be an artifact of electromagnetic phase-shift, possibly capturing the user’s own thermal emissions and pumping them to a higher frequency, skipping the visual range into the high UV band…”

“Then you’re adjusting sensors to compensate for this?”

“No, Sir.” Spock turned away from his console for a moment, “Mister DeCasta, go to manual on environmental controls, increase internal temperature to thirty five celsius and increase humidity levels by forty percent.”

Ensign DeCasta, the ship’s life support technician, nodded, “Tropical rainforest, Aye Sir.”

Kirk nodded in understanding, “Turn up the heat and they’re easier to see.”

“Exactly, Captain.”

“Let’s just hope to hell that scan turns back just as negative in the hotbox or we’re going to have a very sweaty firefight on our hands.”

 

 

MIRAGE

Doppelgänger-B Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.28

– 1210 hours –

Rules… regulations… the shallow pretenses that small people placed in front of themselves to pretend they still had control of their lives in a universe of uncertainty. Carol Marcus knew that kind of control was an illusion, that most people – even the most powerful – were often slaves to the whims of others, and however else the universe changed, this one constant never would. Nowhere was this more clear than on Doppelgänger, where an entire world had been fashioned from the dormant seed of another simply because someone in the universe had a craving for whale meat. Seven billion lives had been created and then horribly destroyed just for this purpose. How many more could be spared from suffering by more compassionate use of this same process?

Or so she told herself, plugging another round of new settings into the signal processor in the corner of the room. She’d been trapped in her quarters like a prisoner for a day and a half with only a palmcomp and fifty tracks of Phaserbrane to keep her company (only a handful of Phaserbrane songs actually had lyrics; Carol stuck to the heavy space-angst riffs when she was in a bad mood). But with a quarter million credits worth of lab equipment packed into what had otherwise been her living room, she hardly noticed the passage of time. Lieutenant Rand had cut off her terminal from the Enterprise’s computer network, but the ASDEC unit she brought with her from the lab at Hesperia Planum – in itself, a kind of scientific swiss army knife with more functions than she could count – was more than enough for the job now. She still had the data from that Z-Band pulse, that unique pattern that had triggered such an astonishing change in Miri’s genome, and in such a specific and controlled way. After days of study, Carol was convinced the transformation was intentional, maybe a form of communication, or an attempt by the planet’s nanorobot swarm to prevent her from being captured by what it now interpreted as a hostile force. The only way to know for sure was to test the pattern on infected tissue and see what happened.

And for the twentieth time today, she locked in the latest round of settings to the computer and pushed another slide into the microscope slot. ASDEC was a desk-sized machine with a half dozen shoebox-sized modules arranged in racks; the module she was using now was designed to bombard tissue samples with any form of radiation from radio waves to theta rays and could even handle a few subspace frequencies if you fed it enough power. It had the right range for that recorded SZ-pattern, and relative to the size of the tissue samples she’d so expertly pilfered from the bio lab, it should have been more than powerful enough. But now, for the twentieth time today, she started up the antenna for a full three repetitions of the pulse and watched in biting disappointment as the translucent cells on the slide – in this case, liver-cell cultures from one of the Onlies – briefly turned black as coal, churned for a moment, then immediately returned to their original form as if nothing had happened to them.

“Son of a bitch…” it was the same as the other nineteen test runs. Interesting as it was, ASDEC’s limited archives couldn’t furnish an answer as to why this was happening, or even what was happening to the cells. She half doubted even Enterprise’ computers were smart enough to figure that out, but with better equipment at least she’d have a fighting chance.

And to think that the Starfleet crews weren’t even bothering to experiment with the SZ-pattern!

The sound of the door chime snapped her out of her introspection, automatically muting a chinese-language Phaserbrane song. It was one of those few sounds she’d programmed herself to respond to no matter what she was doing, sleep or awake, just in case it represented a business call and some time-sensitive matter from one of her colleagues. No such luck, now, as she plodded over to the door panel and saw Doctor Ayash’s face in the small video screen next to the door. Probably not a social call, since he had his medical kit with him, so she decided against pretending to be asleep and pressed the release to open the door.

“How you are doing, Doctor Marcus?” Ayash asked in his watered down Arabic accent.

“Could be better. Just… well…” she gestured at the ASDEC set crammed into the corner of her not-exactly-spacious living room, “I’m working on that Z pattern we recorded on the surface. Unfortunately my equipment is about a hundred years old, I can’t get any decent results.”

Ayash nodded as he pulled a medical tricorder from his kit and tinkered with the scanner settings. “I have hearing something like that. That is Z pattern that making Miri transform?”

“Yeah. I’m convinced it’s some type of alien control signal, maybe a set of command instructions to the nanomachines in Miri’s body. I was thinking that if we could get a response from those machines we might be able to isolate them and study them in greater detail.”

“That is not bad idea… though I am thinking it is too late for doing this.”

Marcus stared at him for a moment, fearing the worst. “What’s been happening out there, anyway? The guard said something about an attack.”

“It is not major thing. We having exchange of fire with Klingon warship. No damage, more like sparring really. The problem is rumor I am hearing, that Captain Kirk was told by Klingon commander that this technology being used in sick experiments by group called First Federation. He is thinking now we should abandoning this investigation.”

Marcus was mortified, but not completely surprised. It fit too well into Kirk’s growing reputation as a knee-jerk reactionary who was probably just now discovering that he was in way over his head. “That would be a shame for Starfleet. But sooner or later, someone’s going to have to keep up the chase. It might take a few years longer, but I’m not willing to give up.”

“I am not thinking Kirk would abandon the effort on a whim. He may having something right to be worried about.” Ayash switched the scanner head to trace mode and started a series of slow sweeps around Marcus’ shoulders and neck. There was the faint whistle of spectrometers and chemical traps and the hiss of air being pulled through the scanner, and after a few moments Ayash switched the scanner to ultrasound mode and started another sweep of her chest and stomach.

“I don’t feel like I’m dying,” Marcus said coyly, “Except this room feels awfully stuffy…” and now that she thought about it, “Why is it so hot in here all of a sudden?”

“I do not know, it just happening in last few minutes. Environmental malfunction, maybe?”

“Oh, so it’s not just me… in that case, what are you doing here anyway?”

“Doctor McCoy’s orders,” Ayash said, almost apologetically, “Medical screening for everyone having beamed down to Doppelgänger.”

“Screening for what? Something going on?”

Ayash sighed, “One of away team members having developed reaver malignancy. No one else seems being affected, this is just precaution.”

“One of the away team…?” Marcus raised a brow, “Are you checking for chemical traces of cancer tissues or the ionic compounds of the alien nanomachines?”

“Lieutenant Onise testing positive for both, so I scanning thoroughly for both.”

Marcus’ eyes lit up like a pair of miniature suns. “One thing I’ve been thinking about here… well, the tissue samples I have here are mostly from Miri’s second examination after she beamed back from the planet. And also from reaver tissue we collected earlier. I’m not getting any results from these, but I just realized… well, if the Reavers are disconnected from the constructor matrix, and if Miri’s constructors have already encountered this program, we might need a fresh sample.”

Ayash raised a brow.

“Lieutenant Onise hasn’t been back to Doppelgänger since the away mission, right?”

“I see…” Ayash smiled, “You are thinking of duplicating Miri’s transformation using Lieutenant Onise’s samples.”

Marcus nodded, “It could be that the transformation is just a side effect of whatever the Z-band signal really does. It probably only has that affect the first time it’s sent. Kinda like fabricator licenses, right? Once you authenticate a license you can make as many copies as you want.”

“Ah,” Ayash smiled, “Z-band signal may being software key for constructors?”

“Could be. Or it could just be an odd coincidence. Still, if nothing else, it’ll exhaust the Z-band angle and get us to look in a new direction.”

“What if not working properly?”

“Probably, nothing will happen. But if you do get a reaction, we’ll be able to observe the effect in a laboratory setting. We’ll be able to isolate exactly how the machines work and maybe catch a few of them in the act.”

Ayash smiled even brighter, “That is not bad idea… maybe we finishing this examination in sickbay, Doctor?”

Marcus almost jumped out of her skin, “You can do that? I thought I was under house arrest.”

“Medical priority. You being more familiar with this than I am. But we must being quick or Captain Dunsel may object.”

She didn’t need to be told twice, and the idea of leaving the ship’s commanding greenhorn out of the loop was somehow highly appealing. Call it karma, or divine justice, or whatever. In any case, Marcus scooped her palmcomp off the ASDEC table and darted for the door after him… but not before pausing just long enough to extract the memory tape with the hand-written label “Genesis” on the case and set it on the ASDEC table for safekeeping. It was never a good idea to keep both copies of your data in the same place, after all.

.

– 1209 hours –

As far as Miri could tell, being pigeonholed as a “runner” for the communications department had almost the same dynamics of her previous life in the slums. Run from one place to another, gathering supplies and delivering them to the people who need them most. The only difference was the supplies were easy to find, just incredibly hard to get, and required a set of social skills she had never had occasion to learn, even less so on a starship almost totally alien to her despite its Earthly origins.

She was, for example, completely unequipped to deal with Lieutenant Hobus’ blithe dismissals when she arrived at the machine shop for the fourth time that day. Ayala had rejected his first excuse (blaming the planetology team) and patiently accepted the second (“We’re closed down for the shift change”). The third simply didn’t fly, and neither would the fourth, but Miri lacked the vocabulary or the social graces to make this clear to Hobus in a way that would grab his attention. “I know we’re at alert stations, Sir, but Ensign Ayala really wants that transtator,” she repeated, “She’s been waiting patiently for a while.”

Hobus was listening, but much of his attention was on some kind of delicate task at the large work bench in the corner of the machine shop. There were dozens of these benches around, all oriented around a central terminal that had a kind of miniature turbolift door and a conveyor that, from time to time, spat out stacks of unfinished machine parts and electronics equipment. Miri had come to understand that somewhere below the machine shop was a “fabricator,” a device that used some technical magic she didn’t understand but otherwise was capable of making just about anything. For some reason it couldn’t make anything complicated, only parts and components, which – once manufactured – had to be assembled piecemeal by skilled machinists right here in the shop. She couldn’t tell what Hobus was putting together, but whatever it was it was the size of a briefcase and required some precision work with laser-soldering iron and a magnifier in his eye. “She’s been waiting,” Hobus said, “But not patiently.”

“She’s getting impatient…”

“She’s always impatient. Seems to be an Orion trait.”

Miri sighed, “If I go back up there without that transtator, she’s gonna send me right back down again.”

Hobus grinned without looking up, “And this concerns me why?”

“I’m getting tired.”

“So?”

Miri sighed again, gritting her teeth and checking a temper she didn’t realize had been fraying, “Look… I know I’m just a trainee, I know I’m nothing compared to you veterans… but see, I’m just trying to make the best of this situation, and you’re not helping matters much by being difficult.”

Hobus chuckled, “Look, don’t start crying on me or anything. It’s just some spare parts. The fabricators are already working overtime on that specialist equipment and we don’t have time to assemble a transtator array right now. So unless you want to pick up a tool belt and do the work yourself, Ayala is gonna have to wait.”

“That’s not good enough…”

Hobus looked up at her for the first time, “You’re dismissed, Ensign. Have a nice day.”

“Yes, Sir.” One of her very first lessons in the orientation briefing was that when a superior officer tells you to do something, you do it, period, no questions asked. In another lifetime she’d spent enough years flying F-22s in the Israeli Air Force to understand the consequences if she failed to live up to this implicit military convention…

“Wait a second, Ensign,” Hobus waved her back over and then quickly finished whatever it was he was working on. Miri stepped up to the work bench as he said, “Take this to Doctor Ayash in the Isolation Lab. It’s a priority job he just sent down.” He closed up the outer shell of the case and handed it over to Miri.

“You have time to do rush jobs for Doctor Ayash?”

“It’s just a stock part. Surgical tractor beam with a manual control input. The Isolation Lab only has automatics.”

“Alright… er… Aye, Sir.” She left the machining shop in a seething frustration and stepped into the turbolift at the end of the corridor. She spat her destination to the computer, and then two seconds later the door opened again to a completely different part of the Enterprise.

Miri had been to the Isolation Ward before, not long after her transcendental mutation that had granted her the knowledge and experience of an eighty five year old ace pilot and career astronaut. From that experience she understood that an Isolation Lab was usually used to quarantine highly contagious medical patients or samples of things that, if not properly handled, could contaminate the entire ship. It was not a place she preferred to go if she had a choice, but there were already rumors around the ship that one of the crew had started turning into a reaver, and her curiosity far outweighed her present anxiety.

Plus, for some inexplicable reason it was unbelievably hot on the ship today and the Isolation Lab – with its own independent life support system – was probably the coolest place on the ship right now.

Doctor Marcus was standing at a computer console to one side of the lab, partly reading a spreadsheet on the monitor but mostly watching a writhing mutated form under a stack of medical linens, something that might have once been human except for the popping veins the size of garden hoses and distended lumps of tissue sticking out of the sides of its head. Though heavily sedated, it was clear Lieutenant Onise was in a fantastic amount of pain, what Miri knew to be the late onset stages of the Caveman transformation. For some reason, she even felt responsible for what the man was going through now, as if his being exposed to her world was, somehow, her fault.

Marcus recognized Miri’s approach, then recognized the object she carried, then smiled with satisfaction. “That was fast. Thank you.”

Miri handed over the case and Doctor Marcus, in turn, handed it off to Doctor Ayash, who began the apparently simple process of swapping its contents with a corresponding less suitable device. The thing inside the case looked something like a fluorescent light tube, about a foot long and an inch wide, mounted on the end of a black plastic rectangle with a small control panel and screen on the side of it. The one Ayash replaced was mounted on a swingarm attached to the ceiling; unlike the new one, the old device had no control panel or screen, and Ayash discarded it with due care in a corner of the room while he attached the new device to the arm. “So how you wanting to do this?” Ayash asked, “Program Z-pattern manually?”

“I have it on file here,” Marcus said, waving a memory card for him, “Just plug it in and give it a blast. Keep it simple: two sweeps on blood samples, two on bone marrow, two on liver tissue, two on cancer tissue. If there’s no reaction from any of those, we’ll try a sweep on the Lieutenant and see if there’s a reaction.”

“You should kill him,” Miri said, almost chidingly despite her station on this ship. She spoke now, not just with the experience of someone who had lived through the Reaver plague on her world, but as a woman who had lived through two regional wars and a global conflict and spent more time wrestling with unknowns in space than either of them had been alive. “Get it over with now before things get complicated.”

Doctor Ayash rolled his eyes, “This is not old Palestine, Miriam. We not simply disposing of people because they are inconvenience.”

“Neither do we. We fought and killed our enemies. Your enemy is anyone or anything that’s trying to kill you. You get them before they get you, and you get to live a little longer.”

“In twenty third century, we having more evolved sensibility. We holding all forms of life in high regard, respect for all things’ right to exist.”

Miri grinned, “Heard that before… but as Jabez used to say, continued existence is a desire, not a right. The desire to exist is something worth respecting. But this man is becoming a reaver…”

“The caveman types are sedentary,” Marcus said offhand, “They don’t really do anything except sit around and wait for the females to copulate with them. Then, of course, the females eat them afterwards.”

“Yeah, there’s a reason for that. After they mate, if the females don’t kill them fast enough, the males turn into something a lot worse. We used to call them Chickenheads.”

Ayash looked up anxiously, “Chickenheads?”

“Because of the way they moved their heads. Like giant chickens pecking at the ground. They’re funny looking, but they’re bad news. Even the reavers were scared of them.”

“Then it’s a good thing Lieutenant Onise hasn’t mated with any of the reavers,” Marcus said, extracting a bone marrow sample from his left arm using a medical core drill, “And if this experiment succeeds, he never will.”

“You have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into…”

“Let’s get started.” Ayash pushed the memory card into a reader slot on the side of the tractor beam and moved its swingarm over to an examination table in the corner. Doctor Marcus joined him after a moment with a tricorder and three small vials of tissue samples she’d just extracted from Onise’s body: one blood, one of bone marrow and one taken from deep in his distended abdomen where part of the reaver-tumor had pushed three of his ribs half a foot out of his chest like a mountain of meat and bone. “We should know right away if there’s any effect,” Marcus said, “Program for Z-band modulation. We’ll do the reaver tissue first.”

“If you don’t mind,” Miri moved towards the door, “I’ve got an obsessive compulsive Orion girl to deal with. I’ll see you in a f-” she froze as the doors opened in front of her, partly in shock from the blast of warm humid air that filtered into the room even through the double-layered quarantine field leading to the rest of the ship. It felt like stepping out of a refrigerator into a sauna.

The feeling of heat had made her stop and pause, but someone who hadn’t been expecting the pause bumped into her from behind on his way through the door. Miri didn’t give it much thought for the first instant, but in rapid succession she suddenly realized that there was no one else in the Iso-Lab except for Ayash and Marcus and both of them were on the opposite side of the room. More out of curiosity than anything else she whirled around to see who exactly had bumped her, and out of the corner of her eyes saw something move past her that wasn’t completely there.

It was just a ripple, almost a man-shaped mirage moving casually through the air, like the way a man might stroll through a park or a market looking for nothing in particular. She wasn’t even sure she was really seeing it at all – perhaps it was just a heat shimmer from cold dry air mixing with warm humid air? – until she remembered seeing this exact same pattern once before, down on the surface of her duplicate world. Then, as now, she’d thought it was merely a mirage, but even Spock had confirmed that something had been there, something that didn’t fully register on their sensors. Something possibly hostile that was monitoring their progress from under concealment…

The 2089 biography of Miriam Hallab pointed out that her instinct for self-preservation frequently overwhelmed her sense of discretion, and this time was no different. The instant she perceived the image as a threat, she drew her hand phaser out of her belt, dialed it up to its highest setting and fired at the middle of what she imagined was this thing’s chest. In doing so, the “mirage” in front of her suddenly flickered into the shape of a perfectly visible person, who instantly folded over backwards as the phaser burned a fist-sized hole in his chest. The newly-dead intruder was wearing some kind of body armor, with a large bulbous helmet and camouflage colors that otherwise might be mistaken for twenty first century battle dress… except for the icon of the bright green raptor painted on the top of the helmet, and the fact that the wearer was now lying in a pool of dark green blood.

Three other “mirages” that Miri hadn’t noticed until now made sudden ducking motions, drawing unseen weapons from unseen holsters. Instinctively, she dove back through the doorway as the three fired their phasers directly over her head. A salvo of speeding fireballs sliced through the air like tracer bullets, each carrying with them the energy of a hand grenade. Several of them exploded against the far bulkhead of the isolation lab, blasting furniture and lab equipment about the room like a chain of grenades. One of the equipment racks in their path exploded in a shower of sparks and tumbled a few feet until it knocked Doctor Marcus’ legs out from under her and sent her spinning to the deck. Marcus reached for the nearest thing in range to stop her fall, which unfortunately turned out to be the surgical tractor beam on its swing arm; the arm rebounded and swung itself back to its default position, and the newly-modulated energy beam snapped into action directly into the middle of Lieutenant Onise’s chest.

Half a second later, the Isolation Lab flared up as if a bucket of firecrackers had been setoff on the examination table. Sounds of confusion were heard in at least four distinct languages, overlapping phonemes in Romulan, Arabic, English and Hesperian. Lastly came something that was neither a voice nor a language, just a primal scream of rage and power from the creature that used to be Lieutenant Kenbi Onise.

 

 

FIRE DRILL

Their collective memory spans billions of years, to a time when the Milky Way Galaxy was still a malformed globular cluster churning sloppily in the cosmos, slowly collapsing into itself in the cosmic dance that would one day stabilize into a natural spiral. They had been the first to understand the true nature of gravity, the secrets of space and subspace and hyperspace and quasi space. They had watched empires rise and fall on a million worlds, they had guided new species to prominence and quietly blotted others out of the book of life. They were timeless, eternal, immortal, all knowing and all powerful. Yet they were the humblest of all life forms produced in the universe, utterly powerless against even the most benign chemical changes, suffering and dying in radiation little more intense than moonlight.

Eons ago, in a star system that no longer exists, they had been microbes in the salty marshes of a dying world, eeking out a pathetic existence in pockets of life, nourished by chemical elements baked out of the mud by their sun’s increasingly harsh radiation. By all other accounts they were an evolutionary cul de sac, never to develop into the kind of complex life that might build cities, roads, starships and colonies. And yet here, as on many other planets, the miracle of life spawned that rare miracle of intelligence, all the more amazing for the risks it took and the hurdles it overcame. It evolved, as intelligence often does, from the simplest forms of communication, the chemical signals used by bacterial colonies to indicate changes in salinity and temperature. As the signals became more complex over tens of millenia, so too did the mechanism of acting on them, until action itself became a form of communication, and the messages began to order themselves into patterns. Overlapping patterns spawned new patterns, and then the new patterns gave rise to orders and classes and relationships that had almost nothing to do with the simple genetic algorithms that spawned them until, after untold thousands of generations, the first vague twinkle of consciousness began to emerge: complexity slithered from the bacterial slime of almost perfect simplicity.

In terms of individual creatures, there were more Chameloids on Doppelgänger than there were stars in the galaxy. But unlike other beings who reveled in the illusion of self-continuity, the demarcation for an individual Chameloid was tricky, and sometimes totally arbitrary. While the number of life forms on the planet numbered in the millions of trillions, the fact was that only a single distinct entity existed here, a singular identity supreme to all others. It was also true that five thousand two hundred and forty identities existed on this world, all of them integral but vastly less intelligent subsets of the whole. Each of these multitudes was conscious and sentient, but fully conscious only of themselves and that which truly distinguished them from one another. They were aware of the Whole only in the vaguest sense, with a distant understanding that they were part of something larger and more powerful than themselves, something which they could not access but, in any case, had access to them. Presently, several of these beings felt the inexorable call of their master, they a part of it and it the entirety of them. Their orders were given as if it were their purpose to exist, as a mind gives an order to an arm, an arm to a hand, a hand to a finger. At these orders, a group of twenty organized themselves into an appropriate form and rose silently from the depths that had hidden them until now, first to the surface of Doppelgänger’s dying oceans, then into the upper atmosphere as their power plant became fully alive.

The trouble was immediately evident. The skies were crowded with messy aliens, creatures confined to unmoving bodies, isolated from each other, part of nothing but themselves. Distinctly unlike “us,” and yet similar enough that on some level of organization, common ground could be reached. They sensed that aboard one of the alien vessels, a single of their number had been made to do exactly that, breaking itself deliberately and carefully into fragments as small and as isolated as the rodents that had discovered them. Without a means to share their thoughts, there was no way to know if that effort had been successful, and yet scanner beams beyond even their comprehension had identified the problem.

Something new had been born. Something unplanned, something uncontrolled. It had been created by the rodents, probably accidentally, most likely in curiosity and an attempt to learn more. Like most newborns, this one was confused, hungry, and frightfully temperamental. It could be absorbed by the Scout if it came to that, but more likely it would continue to rampage until it matured, and then it would probably reject absorption in ignorance and fear and continue on its ravenous path in a slightly more organized but still unacceptably savage path. It would become a Hunter, a predator of the skies, feeding on the life blood of familiar life forms until someone or something was forced to destroy it.

Though the Chameloid cared little about such wayward offspring, it was always best to prevent this if it was ever possible. Absorption was the best option, as it would mean either the death of the newborn or its recreation in a less tragic form. Of course, the humanoids who inhabited the ship called ‘Enterprise’ would find the solution almost as perplexing as the problem itself… as if anyone cared about the desires of rodents.

.

Doppelgänger-B Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.28

– 1212 hours –

Doctor Ayash would never understand what was happening to him. Understanding would have required more time than remained in his abruptly terminated life, and the jumble of sensations he now experienced would only complicate the matters. His mind was still trying to process the shock of seeing The-Thing-Lieutenant-Onise-had-become physically envelop the examination table and most of the bulkhead next to it, as if melting the materials from body heat alone. When it stood, the table and the bulkhead had become a living, moving part of his body; the former parted and became an extra pair of legs, the latter straightened into a shaft protruding between what still almost resembled shoulder blades to form something like a scorpion’s tale above a headless, throbbing torso. It wasn’t even a creature as Ayash understood the concept, just an amorphous jumble of body parts and limbs, all of them specialized for something, but thrown together on a body in a state of such complete disorder that one wondered if it hadn’t been dreamed into existence by a feverish toddler.

He had two seconds to try to process this image before one of those highly-specialized limbs snapped out from the headless torso and impaled him through the chest. It instantly tore his heart in half, and then a set of spiny mandibles attached to that limb opened in his chest cavity, the arm parted down the middle, and Doctor Ayash was torn in half like a wet napkin, upper and lower torso tossed to opposite sides of the room. Just as quickly as it had killed him, the creature slithered through the ruined isolation lab until it reached Ayash’s shattered torso, knelt down over the remains, then formed a mouth from a convenient orifice between two of its legs and scooped the remains whole. It paused for a moment, digesting the carcass, and then seconds later seemed to collapse in on itself until it took on a new form. This one more organized, more natural; man-shaped, but not quite human, almost apelike in build and stature. And still headless at that: where there should have been a neck, there was a only a large gasping maw lined with crooked white teeth, opening and closing reflexively.

Doctor Marcus watched this with a fascinated horror and a touch of disbelief, like watching a mountain lion eating a bear. She understood instantly that whatever Lieutenant Onise had become had suddenly panicked when its form had been disrupted, that it killed Doctor Ayash in order to obtain DNA information on what it was supposed to look like. It was just as evident that the new creature hadn’t been very careful in assimilating that DNA, it had accomplished only a gross and undetailed approximation based on what it assumed were the most relevant features. Relevance, in this case, was a horrifying epiphany: apart from its enormous muscle mass, the only other “correct” features it had copied was that weird toothy maw in the neck hole and a complicated bulb on its stomach that, unless Carol’s imagination had gone haywire, appeared to be a set of extremely exaggerated genitals.

Miri’s horror was anything but fascinated, and laced with fury. It wasn’t only that she’d gone out of her way to warn everyone how dangerous the Reavers really were, but in their tinkering they had gone and created something far more dangerous, something more pure. The knowledge wasn’t exactly her own, but on some level she understood that she was part of something that did understand, and that something – whatever it was – scorned Starfleet for bringing this thing into existence. And precisely as she expected, Miri saw a pair of beady globes open and close on its chest, just below that toothy maw, like a pair of eyes on an upside-down face. Those eyes fixed directly on her, and the creature began to stomp towards her, snapping its teeth in an unnerving mixture of hunger and lust.

Miri’s phaser was still grasped in her hand. She shined the guide beam on the middle of its chest and fired, full disruptor force, at a distance of less than five feet. The creature flashed into flame where the beam hits its chest and it recoiled from her in agony. She fired again, this time at the waist, and the beam drilled right through it to tear a gash out of the wall behind it. It had had enough of this; in pain and terror, it bolted for the door and ran frantically down the corridor in no particular direction, simply seeking shelter from something it perceived as a source of pain.

But if Miri had her way, it would find no sanctuary on this ship. She ran after it, snapped open her communicator and toggled to the intercom directory for the Cave. Leaving in such a hurry, she no longer noticed or even cared about the three squatting mirages ducked down in the corridor and ran past them without a second thought. Nor did she notice those three barely-visible figures rush into the Isolation Lab after her departure, and last of all failed to notice the sounds of weapons fire from the lab and the brief, highly abbreviated screams of Doctor Marcus as a plasma rifle robbed her of consciousness.

“Peter, this is Admiral Miri! Call in the troops!”

“No kidding! Something in here smells like Reavers! Did one of them get loose?”

“One of the grups has been transformed. A male.” Miri said, running down the corridor after it. It was moving quickly, but stopping just long enough to tear through the pressure doors that had closed when the ship went to yellow alert. Since it didn’t know about turbolifts, Miri knew she would have no trouble keeping up with it. “Doctor Ayash triggered it somehow. It’s looking for food and a breeding source.”

“A breeding source?”

“Do you remember the Chcikenheads we fought on Cyprus?”

She heard Leila and Nabi say in unison, “It becomes what it eats.”

“Exactly. Every time they kill someone, they turn into a weirdo version of that person. And then they split down the middle and copy themselves…”

Only Peter answered, “Who did it eat? Who does it look like?”

“Doctor Ayash. But it didn’t transform all the way yet…” Miri paused momentarily, finding two security officers lying unconscious in the corridor. Both looked as if they’d been slammed into the walls, one with a badly broken arm and the other bleeding from the nose. They were alive, and from the looks of things they’d even managed to do some damage of their own. Miri followed a trail of dark red blood down the corridor to where the Reaver was right now in the process of tearing a pressure door off its hinges. It was doing so in a strange way. Its hands had somehow melded into the actual structure of the door, as if it was spreading its fingers in a wall of soft butter. Then a swift jerk of its arm pulled the entire pressure door off its frame, the Reaver folded the entire door up like a piece of cardboard and tossed it out of its path so it could continue running.

“This could be interesting…” Miri picked up both of the guard’s phaser pistols and picked up her pursuit, “Get everyone together, get all the firepower you’ve got. Let’s show all these grups how to do it right!”

.

– 1214 hours –

“All security teams mobilized!” Lieutenant Rand said on the intercom, “I’ll do what I can, but all hell’s breaking loose in that compartment, Jim!”

Kirk could see that from the security board. Spock’s sensors had detected almost a dozen UV anomalies, mostly centered around the science labs and some of the library computer access ports. It was obvious that the Romulans were helping themselves to any information Enterprise could collect on Doppelgänger, and much less obvious that they had probably done a thorough inspection of every sensitive military device on the entire ship for intelligence purposes. Far from obvious was just what the hell was happening in the isolation lab, with computer reports of a totally unknown life form followed by failure reports as something crashed through a series of pressure doors in Compartment 106. Whatever it was, it was headed for the core module in the very center of the saucer, and had evidently moved up three decks to make a beeline for the communications center below the bridge.

Too much was happening too quickly and with too many unknown factors to take into account. No wonder the Klingons were staying out of this. “Security teams in place in Compartment 106, decks two through five,” Sulu reported, “Additional alien life form reported on Deck Four! It’s a Reaver, Sir! A big one!”

“It’s headed for the communications center,” Spock added, monitoring the pursuit on his console, “Security Team Four is in the nearest defensive position. Contact in five seconds…”

“Phaser fire in Compartment 212,” Sulu said, “UV anomalies and… wait… now reading plasma weapons! And a life form!”

Spock added, “I read it as Vulcanoid, Captain. Probably an additional Romulan infiltration team.”

Kirk pounded his fists on his command chair, “We need more security… where the hell are Rand’s people?”

“Security teams moving into position near Compartments 212 and 307. Additional Romulan presence detected in Compartment 308, near the starboard impulse engine. They may be attempting to reach the engineering module.”

“Send an ad-” then Kirk thought better of it. The Romulans almost certainly had some kind of plan for how to escape the Enterprise if they were discovered, and were probably instructed to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured alive. If they thought they could get to the engineering section, then their next actions might be wholly predictable. They could be contained, maybe even dealt with, as long as they were routed through a pre-determined path into an ambush… “Spock, assuming they’re headed for the engine room, what would be the best manual route?”

“The ladder-way dorsel access, forward frame. They would enter the engineering section just aft of the fuel lab. Although, Captain, I suspect the Romulans may attempt to leave the Enterprise using our own airlocks as an egress point. Probably Airlock Three via deck twelve.”

Kirk nodded, “Seal up their suits and jump overboard. Once they’re outside our screens, their ship can beam them back.”

Spock nodded, “Yes, Captain. However, the possibility of sabotage to our engine systems remains a factor…”

“True that,” Kirk punched the intercom for the engine room, “Scotty, incase you haven’t heard, we’ve got ourselves some uninvited guests on board…”

The answer was filled with static, a voice in the distance through a cloud of white noise so thick Kirk could barely make out Scotty’s voice, “Aye, Sir! I’ve got a jammer operating incase the bloody Romulans planted a noisemaker! Keenser’s got a team checking the plumbing now!”

“A miracle worker, that’s what he is. This might just work…” he punched the intercom again, this time for Rand’s communicator, “Status report, Ensign!”

“All teams moving into position, Captain. We’ve secured compartment 307, but it looks like the Romulans are barricading themselves in sections 212 and 310. I can’t imagine what for, it’s not like they can go anywhere.”

“Let ’em go, Rand. I want a clear a path for them into Airlock Three, that’s their most likely exit plan. Hopefully we can force them off the ship with a minimal fight. Meanwhile, divert two fire teams to deal with that Reaver before it does more damage than it already has.”

“Captain, I request manual environmental control through the security board. It’ll be easier to encourage their movements if I can decompress compromised sections.”

Kirk shouted, “DeCasta!”

“Security override engaged,” the environmental officer reported, “It’s all yours, Ensign.”

.

– 1221 hours –

“This is the bridge! Intruder alert! All personnel, evacuate decks four through seven, sections 209 through 212. Repeat: all personnel, evacuate decks four through six, sections 209 through 212!”

Miri heard the announcement, but from what she could remember of the Enterprise’s arrangement on the fly she was nowhere near those sections. The “two hundreds” were in the second ring from the middle of the saucer and everything above “oh eight” was on the port side of the ship. Presently she was passing through an intersection with a label in one corner reading, “D4-C105,” meaning “Deck Four, Compartment 105.” She knew exactly where she was now, because she remembered that this compartment was close to the Communications Resource center where Ensign Ayala and fifty other linguists were still busily processing and categorizing the thousands of gigabytes of audio, video and sensor data gathered from the away mission three weeks ago. Somewhere in that communications center, Ensign Ayala was still fuming over the lack of a working transtator array in the library computer board, and that was probably the Reaver’s destination after all.

Over a year ago, the Onlies overheard some radio messages that mentioned that there were very few females on the island of Cyprus and that the place was overrun with caveman-types (and therefore, presumably, a much safer place to be). When a month later they landed there to see for themselves, they were greeted by a group of bizzare creatures that looked like a pack of six-foot chickens, pecking at shipping containers trying to get cockroaches. When those creatures discovered the Onlies, they turned vicious in an instant; a dozen of them cornered Big John (the second oldest boy in the group, one who had a crush on Miri ever since Gideon died) and ripped him to pieces, eating the flesh in large chunks without seeming to even chew. In short order all twelve of the creatures transformed into duplicate images of their victim, wearing the same clothes he was wearing, and two of them even talked like him, though the other ten didn’t have anything intelligent to say other than garbled threats and curses.

Miri wondered if the thing that attacked Ensign Ayala a few days ago really was the transformed Lieutenant, or just a clever chickenhead that beamed aboard the ship in his place. Either way, she knew exactly how to fight these things. All of the Onlies did, and one check of her communicator confirmed that they were all in the right position. “It’s headed for the communications center. Where are you?”

Peter the Rabbit answered, “We’re on Deck Seven, just outside Compartment 204. Ready for your call.”

And Miri didn’t even need to ask why they were where they were. Chickenheads always sought lower ground when startled, and moved instinctively towards the largest open spaces they could find. That meant that even if it got to Ayala before Miri did, it would be easier to drive it towards the lower decks, heading into the larger and less cluttered compartments where it could find more room to maneuver. And Peter the Rabbit must have figured out, somehow, that Ayala would probably head straight for her own quarters if she had to run for it. His position was perfect for both contingencies, and Iron Town had just the right architecture for it too.

Exactly how Peter could know any of this was something of a mystery. But Miri knew it too, and she knew it with enough certainty that she didn’t bother wondering how or why.

She climbed a ladder and rounded a corner on her way to the communications center where, half an hour ago, Ensign Ayala had ordered her to retrieve that transtator array for the fourth time. There was no sign of the Chickenhead here, but it couldn’t be far away. Somehow Miri could “smell” it moving nearby, like the scent of burning garbage carried on a non-existent breeze. It was down a corridor somewhere, waiting for something. It was changing somehow, but Miri couldn’t tell into what. Nor could she tell how she was able to tell any of this just by the scent of it; for the first time, she was becoming aware that there was something else outside of her that was involved in this task, something that had an interest in seeing the Onlies succeed.

“God is with us,” she said, taking comfort in the revelation, “God will provide.”

The Communications Center looked like business as usual, except for the cloud of nervous energy hanging over everyone’s heads and the half dozen security officers situated in flanking positions near the room’s two exits. It wasn’t a good look, the exits were far too close together. Miri made her way to Ayala’s station and batted her on the shoulder, “Ensign, can you come with me please?’

Ayala spun in her chair in surprise, “Where have you been? Did you talk to Hobus?”

“We’ve got more important things to worry about.”

“Yeah, I think we’ve been boarded. The security teams can handle that, though…”

Miri took one of the phaser pistols off her belt and handed it to Ayala. “No. No they can’t.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Trust me.”

“What’s going on?”

“Just trust me. You need to get out of here right now.” Miri started for the opposite hatch, the one that opened to the starboard side closer to Iron Town. It would be preferable if they could make a calm retreat to where the Onlies were waiting for them, but it wasn’t all that likely with a reaver chasing them. Ayala followed in an anxious stroll, feeling very much like she was being lead somewhere at gunpoint but without an actual gun pointed at her.

Just short of the hatch, Miri caught a powerful whiff of that burning garbage smell and turned to the other end of the communications center as another person entered the room. The reason for the smell was immediately obvious, as the figure of Doctor Ramsi Ayash locked its eyes directly on Ayala and started moving purposefully through the rows of computer stations to follow them.

Just like the other chickenheads. It would try camouflage first until someone tried to challenge it. “Come on. We don’t have much time…”

“Ensign Ayala!” The imitation of Doctor Ayash shouted through the room, “I am needing a moment of your time, please…”

“Oh, right, my physical,” Ayala turned from the door, feeling more than a little relieved to be involved with something other than Miri’s creepy desperate errand.

“Ayala, don’t!”

“I had a physical scheduled twenty minutes ago. I forgot to…”

Miri drew her phaser, snapped into the disruptor setting, and fired a single blast directly at Ayash’s head. The phaser beam vaporized the top of his skull and almost knocked him over a computer console behind him. Almost. He caught his balance and stared at Miri in shock and surprise, until his more primal instincts reasserted themselves and the surprise gave way to rage. His disguise no longer valid, his form began to change; not completely away from Ayash’s general outline, but more of a distorted monstrous version of him, as if he had swallowed Doctor Jekyl’s fabled concoction.

The communications officers became a stampede of red-shirted cattle, flooding the exits in a disorganized panic that almost swept Miri along with it. “Iron Town! Now!” Miri grabbed Ayala by the arm and dragged her through the hatch before they were both trampled to death. For the moment they became part of the stampede, running down the corridor in no particular direction as the sound of phaser fire – probably from the security officers guarding the door – framed their retreat. From the sound of things, the phasers were on a strong stun setting; that would probably slow it down, buy them enough time to get closer to their destination. The nearest turbolift was just down the corridor from the comm center, but already a dozen of the fleeing officers had crammed into it and closed the doors behind them. “Keep going!” Miri said, and spun around in the corridor towards the now-distant hatchway.

“Going where?”

“Iron Town! Your quarters!”

“Why?”

Miri snatched the other phaser from Ayala, snapped it to the disruptor setting and pointed it at her head, “Because if you don’t, I’ll kill you and feed you to that thing!”

Ayala didn’t have the wherewithal to wonder if Miri was serious. She sprinted down the corridor as fast as she could, catching her bearings just long enough to make sure she was heading in the right direction. It was still another hundred meters to the outer habitat ring, and without knowing anything about what was happening Ayala didn’t want to risk not having enough time to make the dash.

Miri planted herself in the now-empty corridor next to the turbolift doors and thumbed a control to call the lift. It would be a few seconds longer than usual, what with the security alert and computer verifications and all. Which was just as well, because if the lift got there too early it would throw her timing all to hell. The sound of phaser fire from the communications section dwindled away, followed by screams and cries of alarm as the chickenhead – obviously unaffected by phaser stuns – pummeled a handful of them. The turbolift doors opened, then when no one entered, closed again; Miri swore silently and this time waited before calling another one.

It was taking longer than usual. It must be smarter than the ones on Cyprus, Miri realized, actually taking the time to assume new forms instead of just blindly rampaging through the ship looking for a host. She wondered for a moment if it was trying to impersonate one of the security officers… but then the hatch reopened, and globular pile of human flesh about the size of a buffalo stomped into the corridor. Miri couldn’t make out an actual shape of the thing anymore – it wasn’t using clearly defined arms or legs, just flailing powerful limbs propelling it by any surface they could reach – but from the look of things it had probably eaten three or four of the security officers and used them to replace damaged or stunned body parts.

So it was changing forms, but only to heal and grow stronger, and not to camouflage itself. It wasn’t that much smarter than the Cyprus creatures after all. The plan would still work.

Miri punched the turbolift controls again, then aimed both phasers and fired at the thing, as close to its center of mass as possible. Twin shimmering beams of fire poured against the thing’s skin like firehouses against a garbage bag, partially collapsing it and partially forcing it backwards. Huge chunks of the thing flashed into incandescence and floated into the air as a cloud of sash, but still the thing kept rushing forward with considerably effort, even as her last dual-phaser beam tore off a piece of it nearly three feet wide.

The turbolift opened. Miri ducked inside and pressed the manual controls, set the turbolift to deposit her at the next station in Compartment 204, one deck down. The way this thing was moving, it would catch up to her in less than a minute. Hopefully, Miri thought, she could extend that by another minute or two, depending on how well these two phasers held up…

.

– 1228 hours –

Lieutenant Rand watched the display on her tricorder screen, relayed from the ship’s internal sensors, tracking the cluster of UV anomalies moving through the corridor on the other side of the hatch. Teams three and five were in the adjacent passageways perpendicular to the one the Romulans were in now, ready to unleash a barrage from their phaser rifles if the Romulans did not continue to move in the proper direction towards Compartment 309 and the vertical causeway to the engineering module. She watched them go, waited until exactly the right moment, then hit the controls to open the hatch and fired her rifle in a long, sweeping burst through the curving corridor, forcing several of the Romulans to flatten themselves against the circular walls to avoid her shots. Rand held the rifle over her head and kept the phaser pulses pouring out continuously, sweeping it back and forth like a garden hose as the other five security officers crouched low, advancing on the Romulans under her covering fire. The intruders could do little in this situation and in these close quarters, and they knew it. A few of those bright green phaser bolts tore pieces out of the corridor in a vain effort to discourage their pursuers, and then the last of the Romulans vanished behind the next pressure door, sealing the passage behind them.

Rand keyed her communicator again, “Security to bridge. Intruders have entered compartment 309, Deck Seven. Maintaining pursuit along pre-arranged path.”

On the bridge, Uhura relayed the report to Commander Spock, who in turn collected the report into a mental picture of the situation and reported to his captain, “Intruders have entered the causeway, Captain, sealing hatches behind them. Confirming approximately fifteen individuals, seven of them moving downwards on the forward ladderway, the others covering their retreat.”

“Uhura, evacuate Airlock Three,” Kirk said, “have all security teams continue herding the Romulans there. I want those intruders off my ship!”

“I have a reading on the alien intruder on the starboard side,” Spock added, “It is now moving at speed towards Compartment 204 amidst intermittent phaser fire. Security teams are having difficulty tracking its movements, but report they should have it cornered momentarily.”

Kirk nodded, feeling the situation teetering on the brink of his control. On a starship with a crew of nearly a thousand, it shouldn’t have been this difficult to neutralize an uninvited guest.

Uhura’s voice boomed over the ship’s intercom, “This is the bridge, all personnel evacuate compartments 105 and 204, decks five through eight. Repeat: all personnel, evacuate compartments 105 and 204, decks five through eight. Security teams secure both compartments…”

“Captain,” Spock’s attention was drawn away from the internal security monitors for a moment as something intense flared on the overhead screen. It was a celestial tracking display from the SADAR computer, really just an elaborate graph of virtual graviton paths from different directions through the Enterprise’s gravitic sensors. “Sensor contact from the planet,” and turning to the more precise sensor scopes he added, “There is a large body approaching from the direction of the planet. Possibly a vessel.”

“The Gorn,” Kirk said, scornfully. Their timing couldn’t be worse.

“Mass reading is inconsistent with the Francium, Captain. I read a small craft, less than two thousand tons in mass, some one hundred meters in length. Unknown power, unknown configuration. Life form readings indeterminate.”

“Then it’s just another new contestant in this little treasure hunt. Great. Whoever they are, they’re just gonna have to wait in line until things calm down.” Another inquisitive alien was the last thing the Enterprise needed right now. And though on some level Kirk was a little concerned as to how another alien vessel could have arrived without being detected on the long range sensors, for the moment he had much more important matters on his mind. Not least of which was…

“Airlock Three is already opening, Keptin,” Chekov said, reading his status display console, “The Romulans have their own thruster suits, it seems.”

Spock confirmed those readings with his own scientific sensors, “Reading sixteen Romulans in thruster suits, unknown type. Six of them are cloaked, three are visible. Seven appear to be enclosed in some type of ballute-style lifepods.”

Kirk could already picture them: large inflatable spheres just big enough for a man to sit in, containing little but a portable life support unit and a spigot for a very limited supply of fresh water. They were the starship’s equivalent of an inflatable life raft, a device that could be deployed by a desperate crew-member in seconds instead of the five to ten minutes it would take to find and dress a space suit. “Probably using them to transport their wounded,” Kirk decided, “And maybe any information they might have stolen from the Enterprise… either way, they’ll be easier to deal with outside the Enterprise.”

“Romulan contingent moving away from us under thruster power, towing the ballutes behind them,” Spock added. Then he noticed something peculiar, something that didn’t quite jive with his understanding of the Romulan methods or objectives. All seven of the ballutes contained discernible Vulcanoid lifesigns along with several kilograms of other materials that were probably pilfered Starfleet equipment and memory tapes. But one of the ballutes – towed through space by what was probably the ranking officer, judging by their formation – appeared to be completely empty, save for a small object that read like a Hesperian palmcomp, and an ultraviolet refraction consistent with a portable cloaking device. “Captain, the Romulans h-”

“Enemy wessel becoming wisible, Keptin!” Chekov shouted as the viewscreen image told the same. Shaped like a flying wing, the Romulan bird of prey was a flying dagger of hostility just under two hundred meters in length, painted black and jade green over most of the ship and the dark red outline of a giant alien bird painted on the underside of the hull. The ship was maybe a dozen kilometers away, too close for torpedoes. Too close for a Romulan warship. Closer than any hostile vessel should ever be.

Kirk immediately ordered, “Deflectors, full intensity! Lock phasers on tar-!” a tumbling rope of bright green flame whipped over the top of the saucer section, the first of what suddenly became a series concentrated plasma bolts from the Romulan’s main batteries. At this range, it was hard for them to miss; nearly a dozen direct hits struck the shields in as many seconds, shaking the Enterprise slightly but not seeming to cause major damage.

“Phasers locked,” Sulu reported.

“Fire at will. Impulse power, evasive Flanker Three Starboard. Spock, analysis of Romulan weapon…”

“Their ballutes, Captain!” Spock shouted to complete what had been interrupted by the Romulan attack, “The Romulans may have a hostage!”

“What?!”

“Multiple phaser hits, Keptin,” Chekov reported, “Their forward shields are failing…”

“Transporter beams!” Spock looked up from his sensor scope with an urgent, almost emotional expression, “The intruders must have beamed aboard the Romulan vessel. They’re taking evasive action, now moving towards… they’ve powered up their main drives!”

Framed in a thick barrage of phaser fire, the bird of prey glowed brightly for a moment and then exploded into a streak of white light, racing into the distance faster than even the sensors could follow. The Romulans had gone to warp, taking with it not just a treasure trove of military secrets, but a living prisoner for the Romulan intelligence services to interrogate.

“Pursuit course! Maximum warp!” Kirk ground his teeth; he’d allowed himself to become overwhelmed by the sudden confluence of disasters and hadn’t considered all possibilities. The Romulans had outmaneuvered him completely, and to think one member of his crew might have been endangered by that mistake… “Security check on all personnel, find out exactly who’s missing! Sulu, Chekov, I don’t care how you do it, you find a way to get that ship out of warp!”

“We’ll try Sir, but we do not know enough about Romulan wessels to-”

“No better time to find out! Get to it!”

“Aye, Keptin! Programming pursuit course!”

“Warp engines standing by,” Sulu reported, then punched the intercom on his consoles, “All sections man battle stations! Standby for warp!”

.

– 1225 hours –

Ensign Ayala heard phaser fire behind her, then the tortured screams of whatever that nightmare was that was chasing after her. The next pressure door on the left opened into Iron Town, Compartment 304. The way that thing was moving she wondered if she would be safe even in her own quarters. Maybe if she crawled into a rescue pod and rolled into the closet it might not find her, or maybe…

She heard the sound of grinding metal behind her, and turned her head just enough to see the shape of something large and shaggy racing down the passage after her. It was barely keeping its form anymore, just a jumbled mass of limbs and jaws mated together with patches of seared flesh. There was no sign of Miri to keep the thing at bay now; the only thing between Ayala and Iron Town was that last pressure door, and she was now quite sure this thing was about to kill her within sight of her bedroom door.

The pressure door opened in front of her, almost miraculously, just before she would have crashed into it. Then it closed again just as quickly, though obviously less miraculously as Ayala turned her head and saw two of the children from Doppelgänger squatting down next to the door with Kalashnikov rifles, one of them still pounding the door control as if trying to make sure it closed all the way. Just as the pressure door closed completely, something massive crashed into it from the other side, knocking it completely off its tracks but not quite breaking it down. The two children guarding the door scurried off, but they were hardly alone. Twenty five Onlies, heavily armed, squatting behind sitting benches and the big stairway to the upper level, leaning over the balcony rails overhead in perfect firing positions. The spacious atrium of Compartment 204 had become a kill zone.

Ayala slowed down just long enough to take this all in, then sprinted for her quarters, her hands already grasping for the door handle a dozen meters away… then with a flash of light and an electronic pulse, she felt a blast of heat in her left hip, and an instant later she lost all feeling in her leg. She staggered and fell, crashing to her shoulder within a few meters of her own door, knowing but not understanding that someone had just shot her in the leg with a phaser on stun.

“I’m sorry, but you have to be conscious!” she heard Miri shout, and traced the voice to where the Ensign was kneeling on one leg at the top of the big stairway, fiddling with the settings on a phaser rifle. “It won’t take you if you’re unconscious.”

“Then stun me so it’ll leave me alone!”

“That won’t work. It can’t be killed while it’s still liquid like this. It’s too adaptable.” As if to prove her point, the warped and barely-holding pressure door began to churn and melt, collapsing in on itself as something on the other side of it began to dissolve its structure, molecule by molecule. “When it takes your form, it’ll be vulnerable for a few seconds. Once it knows it’s been discovered, it’ll transform itself into something stronger. That’s the trick. You have to kill it before it can change forms again.”

Ayala fought back tears. Not that she needed to be told, but it was worth the point to ask, “Then what happens to me?”

“It likes you for some reason.”

“Miri, please!”

“I’m sorry, Ensign, but you grups brought this on yourselves.”

The pressure door collapsed into a pile of disjointed chemicals. The writhing mass of limbs and mandibles clambered through, ridiculously flailed around the courtyard for a moment until it finally located its preferred quarry. And noticing nothing else, it closed the distance to Ayala almost before she could think to crawl away from it. It caught her by the back of the neck almost without slowing down, hoisted her almost ten feet into the air. Ayala screamed and cried, and the thing grabbed at her writhing form with as many limbs as it could bring to the task. She pleaded with it frantically, hysterically, then fell silent as the creature twisted her backwards and tore her in half at the waist. Then it broke her again into quarters and into eighths, separating legs from pelvis and arms from shoulders, arms from elbows, even hands from wrists. Then after neatly dismembering her into bits of manageable size, a dozen sets of jaws opened at once and swallowed the parts almost in a single action.

For a second or two, the creature seemed dormant, satiated, even delighted. Then its surface began to writhe and churn, the dead scorched parts of its body dropped away as it salvaged what little it needed to complete its transformation. In less time than it took to claim its last victim, it arranged the thickest part of itself into humanoid form, and a part of its shaggy skin took on a dark red color and became a uniform tunic. The spitting image of the late Ensign Ayala stood up slowly in the midst of a pile of dead flesh.

She seemed confused for a moment, regarded her surroundings in puzzlement. She patted her left leg to find it was not – as she remembered – paralyzed, and looked around for any sign of the creature that she vividly remembered was about to eat her alive. Then she remembered Miri, and the Onlies laying in ambush around the courtyard. Confusion turned to anger and frustration laced with anxiety, “Miri, what happened? Where did it go?”

Miri shouted at the top of her lungs, “Set!”

Twenty four children shouted back, “Set!”

And Miri gave the order, “Fire!”

 

 

CHASE

Catalog Star System HB22147
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.28

– 1231 hours –

Even a shape-shifting reaver could experience bewilderment, and this Miri was counting on most of all. In the guise of Ensign Ayala it wasn’t equipped to understand what was happening to it, and even less so when it abandoned that guise and resorted again to its natural instincts. Ceasing to imitate the mind of its victim was the first step of the transformation; the rest would take a bit longer, and that also was what Miri was counting on.

Leila, Nabi, Samir and Michael were on the ground floor, positioned to stay out of each other’s line of fire, instructed to aim for the creature’s legs, as many legs as it was likely to sprout. Their first salvo from RPK machineguns did the trick well enough, shattering the duplicate Ayala below the knees. Peter the Rabbit and the Jasmines aimed for its head, because even a Reaver required a physical organ to think with. And in the first few seconds of this, once she was sure it was properly immobilized, Miri set her phaser rifle on maximum disruptor setting and a long, punishing beam into the thing that looked like Ensign Ayala. Two other beams joined hers from opposite directions as Moshe and Forrest-Forrest-Gump added the hand phasers she’d given them, and between the three of them the Chickenhead started to smolder like a hotdog on a bonfire.

It was already beginning to transform; the legs that Leila’s team had shattered now parted at the knees, each becoming extended tripods flailing around trying to get a foothold on something. Its arms were growing longer and thicker, shielding itself from the relentless phaser fire as best it could, and yet even these efforts were wasted as Miri walked the phaser beam down to its “stomach” and burned it from the waist down. Loosing balance, it collapsed in an enraged howl, and the rain of bullets and phaser beams tore at it until it could withstand no more, and the combined power from three phaser beams finally incinerated its expanding bulk.

“Hurry! We don’t have much time!” From this point, Miri had no idea what more was needed; in Cyprus, the combination of firepower and a dozen molotov cocktails had brought an end to the argument, but here on a starship there was something more to be done. Sensing her options, she took a running jump right down to the bottom of the staircase, hit the deck and shoulder-rolled to keep moving. The other children did the same and vaulted over the balcony railing, though not all landed as gracefully; several of them broke legs and ankles on the way down. The Other Jasmine caught her foot on the rail as she jumped over it; she landed on her neck and shoulders, dying instantly. Somehow, they all ignored their injuries, crowded around the obliterated mass of the Chickenhead and began shoveling its remains into a pile as dense as they could in the middle of the courtyard.

The pile was already beginning to move again. It only took a small amount of living tissue for the creature to reconstitute itself, and that would be enough – in a few more minutes – to resume the hunt for more prey. “Hold it down!” Miri said, “Tighter! Tighter!”

They all complied, pressing with elbows and fists and knees and legs, stomping it into a tighter and tighter pile until it was almost too solid to be compacted any more. The creature tried to fight back the only way it could; bits of still-living flesh projected out like barbs, stabbing at anything nearby. Miri felt one of those barb suddenly form next to her thumb, and before she could pull her hand away it pieced her through the palm and then impaled her through her chest. She actually felt her heart stop beating, and somehow this only prompted her to push down harder.

When it seemed they could compress it no further than this, a tingling sensation interrupted them and the air around the creature began to sparkle like a fireworks display in miniature. The same surrounded the Onlies too, gripping them all in the force of what even Miri recognized as some type of transporter beam. As the beam began to dissolve her into a cloud of phased matter, she found herself overwhelmed by a sense of warm satisfaction, as if she had just accomplished the very thing for which she had always been destined in the first place. How right that sensation turned out to be, as the alien transporter beam reduced her existence – permanently – into the abstractions from which it had been created, like desktop computer terminating an un-needed program.

Terminated, but not destroyed. As Miri felt the glimmer of consciousness dissolve, she felt a new one taking shape all around. True, the alien transporter beam hadn’t properly re-materialized her, but it hadn’t exactly left her floating in oblivion either. She had become something new, something more pure; Peter the Rabbit was with her, so were the Jasmines and Samir and Leila and Nabi, and all the others she had ever known, all the ones she had lost, and all the ones she had never thought she would see again. Gideon was here, so was her mother, her comrades on the Calypso, her squadron mates from the Eugenics Wars. Even Big John was here, still quietly in love with her and still too proud to admit it. She realized now they had never gone anywhere, that they had simply been moved off the game board like spent pieces in a chess game… but not even a game as such, as this board had no players and no rules, no objective. “Reenactment” would be the better word, or maybe “simulation.”

In any case, she felt herself finally granted the liberty to break from a character she never knew she had been playing. Several characters, actually; internally she sensed the wonder and bewilderment of Peter the Rabbit having discovered the truth of his own existence, little more than projected aspect of someone else’s mind. As to just who that “someone else” might be… Miri briefly allowed herself the conceit that perhaps the Onlies were just dissociative elements of her own psyche, but that was impossible, since obviously she too was just another component of the thing – whatever it really was – that presently watched the passage of the starship Enterprise from a safe distance, observed as Enterprise vanished into a radiation burst, hurtled into the cosmos as its main engines propelled it to warp speed. And from her new perspective, Miri watched through the alien’s eyes as other vessels she had been only scarcely aware of made similarly dramatic movements; as the Cardassian survey ship powered up its engines and raced away at surprisingly high speed, as a very confused Romulan commander ordered his helm to do the same, and as both the Enterprise and a Klingon warbird jumped to warp in pursuit of the Romulan ship. Moments later, the Gorn trawler Francium vanished from the universe is its star drive peeled the space time continuum like an orange, folding reality back on itself and enclosing its entire bulk in an artificial wormhole. And far off in the distance, the two Tholian vessels that had been hiding in the moon’s shadow for weeks already, totally unnoticed and uninvolved, quietly gathered their orbiting sensor probes and sped off towards their homeworld to deliver their findings.

Last, of course, was the fesarius. In the guise of an innocuous dwarf planet a few million kilometers away, even the Klingons had not suspected its presence. From a safe distance, the aliens’ inane competition had been monitored, archived, and ever so gently refereed until the crucial moment that Director Chellik decided that the last of his questions had been answered to his own satisfaction.

As advanced as the Chameloids were as a species, they were content to exist as tools for others’ use. The First Federation had many such tests at its disposal, and a great many tools in its ancient arsenal. Some were more expedient, some were more efficient. But even Chellik would admit than none were quite as charming as a Chameloid duplication.

.

– 1231 hours –

“All sections have confirmed, Captain,” Lieutenant Rand reported on the intercom, “We have eleven unaccounted for, in addition to Miri and the Onlies. It’s not just that, Sir, but Doctor Marcus and Doctor Ayash are both missing, and the computer has their last known coordinates in the isolation lab, a few meters from where we first recorded alien weapons fire.”

“Then we’ll have to assume the Romulans have grabbed our people,” Kirk said, “Assemble a team and standby in the transporter room. I’m authorizing Class-Four loadouts for all personnel.”

“EVA equipment, Sir?”

“Got a feeling this is gonna be messy, Janice. Be ready for anything.”

“Yes Sir. We’ll stand by. Security out.”

Kirk had no doubt that Janice could get the job done if he got her within range of the Romulan vessel. The real trick, actually, was getting in range in the first place. For all intents and purposes, the Romulan ship had left the “normal” universe and had entered one of its own, from outside of which it could not be seen and from inside of which it could not see beyond. But it was not quite invisible, not yet; Enterprise’s gravitic sensors still possessed the means to track its progress by the gravimetric ripples it created as it moved through space.

“I have the Romulan vessel,” Spock reported, “Turning away from us at warp one, bearing zero one three mark four, twenty million kilometers. They’re changing course, heading towards…” he trailed off suddenly and squinted at his monitors, “They’re on a pursuit course for the Grazine, Captain.”

There were a half dozen things wrong with that statement and Kirk had to take them one at a time, starting with the most relevant. “Where’s Grazine going?”

“Heading two eight one mark sixteen, out of the system at warp speed.”

He wondered briefly why the Romulans, having suddenly captured several human crewmembers and probably countless terabytes of data from Doppelgänger, would suddenly take off in pursuit of a Cardassian vessel they had so far not been engaged with at all. There was only one reason he could think of – a hunch, really – but its implications were far less surprising. “Lay in a pursuit course for the Grazine,” Kirk said.

Sulu glanced over his shoulder, making sure he’d heard correctly. Kirk nodded a confirmation and Sulu replied, “Aye, Sir. Laying in new course…”

Spock added, “Grazine has changed its heading towards Planet-A in this system, a large gas giant in close solar orbit. They may be trying to use the planet’s radiation belt to obscure their warp signature.”

“Alter course to follow, maximum warp. Let’s try and close the distance.”

Sulu advanced the engine controls, and from far below decks came the sound of energizers beginning to howl. The distorted effect through the main viewer had already transfigured into a hellish vision of swirling madness with only a distant, dark core in the center. It was like flying through a tunnel of blue-white fire, as if every star and every planet for a hundred light years had been stretched into an infinitely long fiber and then woven into a tunnel through which the Enterprise now flew.

“Now at warp two! Coming to pursuit course,” Sulu said. The hum of the engines was rising in tone as the field built up, just as fast as it was designed to on a ship of this size as power. Beyond warp one, their exact velocity was impossible to determine for sure, it could only be estimated based on known values for local gravity fields and subspace densities.

“Grazine is definitely accelerating,” Spock said, “Field output is approaching warp three.”

“Passing warp three now, Sir,” Sulu said, “Three point two… three point six…”

“Grazine is now passing warp three.”

Kirk smiled, “We’re gaining on them.”

“But can ve make them stop?” Chekov asked.

“You tell me, Ensign. You’re the local wiz kid.”

Chekov glanced back at his Captain, just long enough to make eye contact but not long enough to break his concentration on his navigational console, “We might try thumping them, Keptin.”

“Thumping?”

“Warp four…” Sulu stared at his console for a long moment and then declared triumphantly, “Warp five…”

The sound of the engines had almost become a high pitched whine, but by now it was already on the verge of human hearing. Soon it would be just a vibration and a barely-noticeable ringing in their ears. “Grazine has passed warp five,” Spock reported, “At our present acceleration, we will begin to overtake them in twenty five seconds.”

“Thumping, Ensign?” Kirk asked.

Sulu answered, “We overtake them on a parallel course, then chop power and expand our deflectors in their path. They either drop out of warp or they loose much of their velocity in the process.”

“Seems a bit drastic…”

“Yes, Sir. We’ve done this with stunt planes, but I’ve never tried it with a starship before.”

This might be a good time to try, Kirk decided. The only more conventional method would be to sidle up to the fleeing Cardassian ship and take out its warp engines with concentrated phaser fire, something Enterprise was never designed to and until recently wasn’t even known to be possible. That would certainly accomplish the desired effect, but only if the Cardassians were stupid enough to hold course so Enterprise could zero in on them. And even then there was the question of the prisoners: the Cardassians weren’t supposed to have transporter capabilities, but with everything else they’d tried to conceal it wasn’t really surprising. Kirk and Spock both had assumed the transporter beams that scooped up the Romulan boarding party had come from their own ship, but the Romulans clearly had no room for assumptions, and if their recent behavior was any indication, they were furious. “Estimate distance.”

“Four million kilometers and closing,” Chekov answered excitedly, “We are maintaining parallel course, correcting for turbulence.”

“Captain,” Spock looked up slowly, “Cardassian vessel is now at warp six point five.”

“Sulu?” Kirk left his chair for the first time in almost an hour and leaned over the helm console between them.

“Six point eight…” Sulu pushed the engine leaver again, but it was already at the stops, “Warp seven!”

“Cardassian vessel is passing warp seven.” Spock frowned at his sensor readings, “Their engine temperature is rising fast. They will not be able to maintain this acceleration curve for much longer.”

“Warp seven point three…” Sulu said, “Seven point four… point five… point six…”

Almost as if to confirm his theory, Spock reported, “Cardassian vessel passing warp eight.”

Kirk ran back to his chair and stabbed the engineering intercom, “Scotty, we’re falling behind! We need more out of those engines!”

“You’ve got all I can give ye, Captain! It’s hard enough just to keep em in balance!”

“It’s not enough! Hook some shuttles up to the drives if you have to, just get me more speed!”

“I’ll try ma best, Captain!”

Kirk turned his chair towards the science station and braced for bad news, “Target velocity.”

Spock said slowly, “Warp eight point one and holding.”

“Sulu?”

“We’re at seven point eight…” he pushed the engine leaver again, as if trying to trying to drive the Enterprise faster just by his own sense of urgency. “Seven point nine…”

“We’re approaching Planet-A’s outer radiation field, Captain,” Spock reported, “Contact in seventeen seconds.”

Sulu added with alarm, “Grazine’s changing course. Yawing starboard fifteen degrees…”

“Heading for the gas giant’s largest moon,” Chekov said, “Survey shows an E-class ‘hothouse’ environment similar to conditions on Venus. Totally uninhabitable.”

“They may try to loose us in the cloud cover,” Spock added from the science console, “The heavy sulfides and hydrocarbons in the atmosphere will severely reduce our sensor effectiveness.”

“So much for thumping,” Kirk thought out loud. Then a new thought occurred to him as he remembered the face of his adversary. The smiling, double-talking Gul Dulek, like a used-car salesman with a Colt .45. He was all about tricks and misdirection, hiding his real capabilities as well as his real intentions. Dulek wasn’t the kind of person who would try to beat the Romulans and Starfleet at their own game. He’d prefer to do an end-run around all of them, use their assumptions against them.

“Suicide run,” Kirk said.

Spock looked up thoughtfully.

“They’ll drop out of warp with engine trouble and then dive into the atmosphere on impulse power. A few minutes later we’ll see an explosion, and we’re supposed to think their ship couldn’t handle the extreme environment and crashed.”

“Their warp engines are superheating…”

“But their ship was designed from the Shofixi dreadnought. They can survive down there and they know it. They also know we can’t afford to look for them if they appear to be destroyed. Or even if we do, while we’re sending shuttles to pick through that smog…”

“Then they can break loose at warp speed and run for the sun,” Sulu added, “We’d loose them in the corona. Clean getaway.”

Kirk nodded, “Although I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a safehouse down there. These Cardassians are some sneaky bastards.”

“Mister Chekov,” Spock stood up, “Give me a navigational fix on the Grazine. We will calculate the most likely deceleration point with intent to enter the planet’s atmosphere at high speed.”

Kirk nodded at this and added, “Sulu, go to manual on main phasers. Be ready to target largest heat source on the Gorn ship, tight concentrated burst.”

“Let’s try and get a tractor beam on him once we’ve got him stopped,” Spock added.

Kirk half-grinned, “Yeah. Don’t want to risk them crashing for real.”

“Coming to interception point,” Sulu said, “Dropping out of warp in five… Four… Three… Two… One…”

The viewscreen exploded into a completely new vista: the enormous yellow sun of the Doppelgänger system blazing over the horizon of a vast, yellow-white cloudscape on an alien world beneath them. Grazine was there in front of them, a distant sliver of metal glinting in the bright sunlight less than a hundred kilometers away. Already the ship was dipping its bow, starting the descent into the thick poisonous clouds under a rapid but controlled impulse power descent; even now, Sulu had the targeting relays painting the Cardassian warship for a decisive phaser shot.

Kirk ordered without excitement, “Fire,” and Sulu did. A single bright red phaser beam reached out into the distance, and then the tiny sliver of the Cardassian ship lit up like a match being struck in a dark room. A fireball was just barely discernible there, plus a few trailing particles of debris scattering off in all directions.

“Direct hit on the engineering section,” Spock announced, “Warp propulsion unit has been destroyed, impulse drives heavily damaged.”

“I have another wessel approaching at warp speed,” Chekov reported, “I read it as the Romulan bird of prey, approaching at… Warp five, Keptin. They’ll be on top of us in three minutes. Additional contacts detected more distantly, unable to confirm.”

If the Romulans were here looking for their missing crewmen, the Klingons wouldn’t be far behind. Kang had probably brought hundreds of his sleepers out of stasis by now in preparation for a boarding action. Once he realized what was happening on the Cardassian ship, he would surely thaw hundreds more. “Can we beam an away team onto their ship?” Kirk asked.

Spock shook his head, “Without knowing the internal arrangement of the Grazine, it would be extremely dangerous. Their jamming devices may also interfere with transporter functions if we attempt to beam out again without a manual lock.”

Kirk stabbed the intercom switch for the security center and gave the order he was sure he would come to regret, “Janice, send fire teams to Airlock Four. We’re EVA in two minutes.”

Lieutenant Uhura spun in her chair in amazement, “You’re not actually going over there…?”

The Captain was already on his way to the turbolift by now, talking fast, “I can’t risk the Romulans recovering our missing people, and we know what the Gorn do to their prisoners. Spock,” he paused just before the turbolift doors, “I’m counting on you. Keep them off us, however you can.”

“To whom are you referring?” Spock asked, “The Romulans, the Gorn, or The Klingons?”

Kirk answered simply, “Yup,” as the turbolift closed.

 

 

DANGER CLOSE

HB22147-a, High Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.28

– 1236 hours –

Fire Team Alpha squatted down in the airlock and tucked their phaser rifles into the storage racks on the bottoms of their backpacks, leaving their hands free to work thruster controls. All five of them – Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Rand, Ensign Reims, Ensign Barnheisel and Lieutenant Loganoff – were wearing the euphemistically named “Hazardous Encounter Suits,” each with its own built-in overshields, thrusters, sensors, life support systems, even an enclosed transparent aluminum helmet with a heads-up display. The suits’ inner layer had its own elastic pressure bladder that squeezed every inch of the wearer’s body to maintain standard atmospheric pressure even in the vacuum of space, and with the combination of ballistic materials in the outer layer, overshields and shock absorbers, it could protect a Starfleet officer from from anything short of a thermonuclear explosion.

The other three fire teams were standing by in the other emergency airlocks in the neck of the ship and the shuttlebay further aft. One man in each fire team had a quad-pack of photon grenades clipped to his belt, while a second carried the football-sized casing of a portable deflector unit that could be used as a barricade if the team got cornered. Encounter suits were specifically set aside for situations that involved heavy combat in zero gravity and/or the total vacuum of space; apart from Rand, there were only a handful of people on the entire ship who were trained for this kind of mission, and all but three of them were waiting in the airlocks now.

Hopefully, Kirk thought, they wouldn’t need to be replacing any of them today.

His communicator chirped, and instantly the voice of Lieutenant Sulu spilled out of the speaker in his helmet, “Captain, we’re coming up alongside the Gorn ship at ten thousand meters. I have command of airlock purge protocols. Standby for jettison.”

By the tone of his voice, Sulu was feeling as nervous about this as she was, maybe more so, because he knew that if anything went wrong with this part of the operation Kirk’s team might not have enough propulsive power to correct their course. If he released them at the wrong time or on the wrong angle, they might also not have enough thrust to stop themselves before slamming into the ship’s armored hull at hundreds of meters per second.

“Standby,” Sulu said again, “Stand… by…”

Kirk never actually saw the hatch open. He thought he felt the ground drop away from his hands and feet, and then he was suddenly aware of the fact that he was in space, tumbling end-over-end in a fetal position that more or less mirrored the crouched position he’d had an instant ago. Training took over from here: he tapped the thruster controls in the palm of his glove and steadied himself, then waited for the display compass on his helmet to tell him where they were going.

The Cardassian warship was just up ahead, just ten kilometers away and closing fast. Behind him, Enterprise was banking hard over to port, counter-thrusting with its impulse engines and thrusters to kill its relative velocity and match the Grazine’s orbit. He could almost smell the tension in the air as the bridge crew focused their efforts on keeping other aliens from interfering with this mission, illogical as that thought may have seemed to Spock.

He saw a trickle of motion on the Grazine’s hull and watched several large gunports slide open, revealing turreted weapon mounts and missile launchers and other assorted unpleasantness. With their main engines disabled the ship probably didn’t have enough power for its laser-based defenses, but Kirk understood that some of its smaller weapons were chemically-fueled slugthrowers that might just be good enough to repel a boarding action. Fortunately, they were too close to the Grazine for them to try shooting nuclear weapons at them… “Away Team, Actual,” he announced, “Objective is non-cooperative, repeat, objective is non-cooperative. Take appropriate countermeasures now.” Then he took his own advice: he reached down and tapped the control pad on his arm band, toggling the suit’s built-in functions until he found its ECM settings. Like the standard tricorder used by away missions, the sensors on the Encounter Suit could modulate their impulses to jam hostile devices and communications. Unlike the standard tricorder, the Encounter Suit was powerful enough to scramble even the detection systems of some starships at all but suicidally close range.

“Enterprise to Away Team,” Sulu again, calling from the bridge, “You have incoming fire. Recommend adjusting your entry point seven point five degrees towards the aft quarter to achieve high deflection angle on enemy weapons.”

“Copy that, Enterprise. Away Team, Actual. Work your way aft a bit to throw off their shooters…”

The gun emplacements on the Cardassian hull started to flicker and a salvo of dim orange bolts raced away from the ship. Kirk fired his thrusters and slipped sideways, shifting his aiming point further aft; a stream of tracer rounds cut through space close to where he’d been a moment ago. Again on the thrusters, back and forth in random motions to keep the Cardassian gunners from guessing at her position. Their sensors couldn’t completely resolve his course and speed, and all they could do now was fill the sky with bullets in the hope that he’d blunder into their path. And even if he did, his overshield would handle at least one direct hit.

All the while, Kirk watched the helmet display count down the distance to their target. At eight thousand meters, the Grazine looked like a skyscraper turned on its side, and Kirk actually tilted himself sideways to reinforce this impression. At four thousand meters, he realized that this perception was essentially correct: unlike every other starship he had ever seen, Grazine’s deck plan was arranged perpendicular to its impulse drives so the crew could experience a semblance of gravity as long as the ship was under thrust. He made a note of that for later: despite the ship’s angular silhouette, even without artificial gravity, this would be more like trying to take a very tall tower than a very long spacecraft. As it stood now, they were moving towards the base of the tower where the Enterprise’s phaser blast had torn open the drive section. The climb through layers upon layers of Cardassian defenses promised to be interesting to say the least.

Just short of two thousand meters, Kirk felt something slam into his legs and felt himself tumbling in space. He used the hand jets in the suit’s forearms to steady himself, and then checked his overshield to make sure it was still active. It was, but the power cells were drained to ninety percent. Kirk made a few small, sharp evasive moves to avoid further hits, and a second later was struck again, this time in the middle of his chest. The high-explosive shell knocked him almost completely off course and drained almost half his overshield; without the shield, it would have blown him to pieces.

The flak from the Grazine was getting thicker. Streams of tracer rounds zipped past him as he flew, passing over and under him, bracketing him on all sides. Smaller, short-range projectile weapons had started opening up too, and Kirk realized that somewhere down there the Cardassians must have sent some of their people out in space suits to try and repel what they now knew to be a boarding action. The small-arms fire wasn’t quite a accurate as the heavier flak, but the Cardassians were firing so much that it didn’t really have to be.

Kirk saw a stream of thick, grapefruit-sized tracers pass underneath him and then heard an electric snap on his radio, the power surge as someone’s overshield revved up. “Rand to actual… I’ve been hit. My shields are down to seventy percent.”

“They’re putting it on thick, Captain,” Loganoff said, “It’s gonna get worse the closer we get…”

“Tighten up your formation and use the deflector pod,” Kirk ordered, and again took his own advice. The six members of fireteam Alpha all formed a spherical formation around Lieutenant Loganoff, who immediately activated the portable deflector pod as soon as they were within range. An invisible sphere of repulsive energy now formed around them; Kirk saw the storms of burning projectiles being thrown at them with increasingly deadly accuracy, only to veer off at the last second and speed uselessly into space, harming nothing. The deflector pod wouldn’t last very long, but it would get them the rest of the way there.

At five hundred meters, Kirk ordered, “Break cover, let’s get in there,” and, tapped the thruster controls and applied braking thrust, cutting his velocity by half. He covered the rest of the distance in half a minute and his suit thrusters slowed him to a speed comparable to a fast jog just before he pulled up his feet and planted them on the Grazine’s armored hull. Three Encounter Suited figures landed in a loose pattern around him, and then the group of them were immdiately hit from all sides by gunfire from a dozen space-suited figures that had been waiting for them. Their shields registered the hits, the bullets deflected off into space; Kirk brought up his phaser and methodically shot them down after another, as did the rest of the team in turn. Their phaser blasts wouldn’t penetrate through the Cardassians’ heavy space suits, but bursting their pressure layers put the wearers very much out of the fight.

When the last of them were dispatched, Kirk looked down the length of the hull he could see the other two fire teams planting boots on the ship as well, picking off the hapless Cardassian defenders even before they made contact. It would take too long to check their status individually, and the team leaders knew to report in with coded beacons on their suits that reported their status as soon as Kirk looked for them. Every one of them reported: No casualties, ready for orders.

They’d be switching communications to coded channels now that they’d reached the ship. He gave them a few seconds to switch their communicators and then gave them their orders. “There’s a jamming field active on this vessel, so we’ll have to get inside it to get any sensor readings. Bravo and Charlie, breach forward and amidships and start your search there. Alpha team, we’re going for their engineering section.”

Lieutenant Rand chirped, “Have you seen their engines, Jim? Sulu peeled it like a banana.”

“Which means there won’t be any resistance there, will there? We’ll breach aft and then work our way forwards until we run into somebody who complains.”

“How are we supposed to breach the hull?”

Kirk reached behind him and took the phaser rifle off its storage rack on the bottom of his thruster back and dialed it up to full power in front of her. “How do you think?”

Rand was about to ask another question, but a bright rainbow-colored flash of light drew their combined attentions to the arrival of a Romulan battleship and a reminder that an even larger Klingon warbird wasn’t far behind. This prompted the Lieutenant to pull out her own phaser rifle and gesture with one hand, “Engineering it is. Lead the way, Captain!”

.

– 1245 hours –

The rainbow-colored splash of a warp-driven starship exploded out in space, far off to starboard to form an almost right triangle between the Enterprise and the still-disabled Grazine. It was obviously the Kor’ah, even though Spock couldn’t see its lines from this distance. He wondered if the Gorn ship was planning to join this melee, or for that matter even the Tholians…

“Picking up a disturbance,” Uhura said from where she’d taken over the science console, as the viewscreen displayed a picture of a swirling apparition twisting against the star field like a black hole carving its way through the heavens. Then a flash of light, and suddenly the Gorn vessel was turning in space a few thousand kilometers off the Enterprise’s bow, making a beeline for the nearby Grazine.

“Francium, Sir,” Chekov said, in case there was any doubt.

“Small craft detected leaving the Romulan ship,” Uhura added, “Heading for Grazine at high speed. I’m also detecting active weapon signatures from the Klingon vessel.”

Spock’s eyes narrowed in a moment of contemplation, “Are the Klingons targeting the Grazine?”

“No, Sir. They’re locking their phasers on the Romulan ship…” a pause, then a puzzled expression, “I lost it… The bird of prey no longer appears on sensors.”

“They must have cloaked. Fascinating…” Spock thought back for a moment as something else occurred to him, “They have cloaking devices small enough to hide their soldiers? Why isn’t their shuttlecraft cloaked?”

“What if…” Uhura looked up brightly, “It has to be a decoy. Probably distracting the Cardassians from a cloaked shuttle at one of their airlocks.”

“That would be the logical conclusion… what are the Gorn doing?”

Uhura adjusted the science console, slewing the navigational sensors towards the approaching Francium in the distance. What her scans revealed should have surprised no one, and yet, “Francium’s releasing several small objects towards the Grazine at high speed. Look like smaller versions of their teleportation capsules…” then she flinched at a new reading on her scopes, “Transporter signals now. From the Klingon ship. Massive in volume… They must be beaming over by the hundreds.”

Spock understood the implications immediately. Klingon sensors could no more penetrate the Cardassian jamming than their Starfleet counterparts, but the Klingons had thousands of troops on board their ship, every one of whom was deemed expendable. They were probably beaming blind, hoping that a few of their soldiers would materialize both intact and not inside of a bulkhead or an engine component. It was an ancient and well-known Klingon battle tactic: any defense, no matter how sophisticated, could be overwhelmed with a properly-structured swarm attack.

On the other hand, the Gorn presence suggested something Spock had only speculated about until now: the Romulans must have taken a few of their people as well, undoubtedly to discover whatever the Gorn had learned about the planet. It would have been difficult for them to do so without the abductions being noticed; they must have taken advantage of the confusion at Stonehenge.

Spock tapped the communications controls on the armrest, “Enterprise to away team. You have multiple boarding parties inbound on your position.”

“Copy that, Enterprise,” Kirk answered, sounding tired and a little shaken, “We’ll try to hurry this up, but-“

Before Spock could ask for more information, the tactical display on the main viewscreen flashed a proximity warning, plotting the position of “verified hostiles” closing on their position. The distant Francium had fired a spread of its odd spinning torpedoes, several of which were now maneuvering to approach the Enterprise, but a few were veering off in the direction of the Kor’ah as well. Either the orbit commander was still running the show, or the deep space commander was too concerned about rescuing her people to bother sorting out friend from foe.

“Starboard tubes programmed for intercept,” Sulu announced on reflex.

Nodding, Spock ordered, “Launch torpedoes on intercept pattern,” before turning his attention back to the viewscreen, “Tactical display.”

“Tactical plot on viewer,” Chekov announced, and Spock watched the battlefield around them crystalize into clarity.

Kor’ah was maneuvering fast, banking sharply to starboard and then veering away from the Cardassian ship as the Gorn’s torpedoes began to close in around it. Enterprise’s six photon torpedo interceptors were moving fast to a pre-determined point ahead of the Gorn weapons; in just a few seconds, the two projectile formations met each other in space, and a titanic roiling mass of explosions ripped through space as they canceled each other out. Curiously, at least one of the Gorn torpedoes seemed to already be heading towards the Grazine, probably homing in on the signature from the lone Romulan boarding shuttle. Whatever else the Gorn wanted with the Cardassians, Spock thought, they wanted it all for themselves.

On the other hand, Spock couldn’t care less what the Gorn wanted. With Kirk’s team still aboard, his one and only priority was the rescue of his abducted crewmen and the safe return of the boarding party. Spock, more than anyone else, knew what the Gorn were capable of; he’d helped repel their merciless assault on the New Vulcan colony, and through a mind meld had watched them butcher Vulcan prisoners, subjecting the corpses – and sometimes the survivors – to horrific genetic experiments. The Vulcan in him reasserted that this was clearly a different faction, possibly the Gorn’s equivalent of the Romulans; the human in him angrily screamed Remember Surok, and conjured up an image of T’Mar, chained and bleeding to death on a table in the Gorn flagship’s engine room with a neural tap drilled into her skull. “Sulu,” Spock began with ice in his voice, “Give me full impulse power, twenty eight starboard, up twelve.”

“Coming around. Full impulse power,” Sulu poured on the power and Enterprise surged forward in space, accelerating at a speed that – without inertial dampeners – would have flattened most of the crew against the nearest rear bulkhead.

First things first, Spock thought, and then gave the order, “Arm all photon torpedoes and give me sensor lock on the Francium.” Then to the intercom, in hopes he wouldn’t regret what he was about to do next, “Mister Scott, I seem to recall Captain Kirk asked you to arrange a power transfer to the main phaser bank?”

“Aye, Sir. But-”

“I will require warp power to phasers in approximately thirty seconds. Make all necessary preparations.”

“Warp power available, Commander. But Sir, as I told Captain Kirk yesterday…”

“I am aware of the risk, Mister Scott. Make all necessary preparations. Bridge out.” Spock saw a warning on the tactical display as Francium launched yet another salvo of its spinning ring-shaped torpedoes at them, with an impact time of under thirty seconds. With the Gorn launching first, they had the strategic initiative; logically, Spock knew he would have to time his counter-attack very carefully to change the tempo of this fight. “Range to Francium,” Spock asked.

Chekov answered, “Three thousand kilometers, closing fast.”

“Uhura, open a channel to that ship. Tell them our people have been abducted by the Cardassians and we are attempting a forced rescue operation. Ask them if they require any assistance recovering lost personnel or equipment.”

Lieutenant Uhura switched modes on the science console and quickly composed the message, programming in a best-fit solution based on what was already known from the Gorn translation devices. Spock, meanwhile, watched the tactical display as the range to the Francium ticked down slowly. Under impulse power they were closing even faster now, down to fourteen hundred kilometers; close enough for torpedoes, but still just out of phaser range.

The tactical screen continued to count down, eighteen seconds to go. Enterprise’ deflector screens would barely withstand one or two direct hits. Spock shot a glance at Uhura; she simply shook her head and sent the message again, this time ignoring the translator and dictating the message in English. Show me that you are different, Spock commanded to them in his head, almost with urgency, Show me that you’re not the monsters I believe you to be. Give me a reason to spare you. Any reason will do. “Launch intercept.”

“Torpedoes away,” Sulu said, “Interception in… Six… Five… Four… Three… Two… One…”

This time the explosions were framed dead center in the middle of the viewscreen and flashed so bright that the screen automatically dimmed itself to avoid injuring the crew. Even so, the translucent tactical plot beneath it showed that three of the twelve torpedoes were still inbound. Sulu did something quick and subtle to his control console, and suddenly all three torpedoes vanished in a flaming tunnel of phaser fire.

“Closing to extreme phaser range,” Sulu announced, as the last torpedoes vanished from the display, “Two thousand kilometers, closing fast.”

“They’re firing more torpedoes,” Chekov said, gazing into his sensor screen, “Two distinct spreads of three each, converging from both sides. Impact in twenty seconds.”

Spock squinted at the tactical screen and considered his next move for a heartbeat. Then, “Target the Francium. Torpedoes thirteen through eighteen, lock on and fire.”

Sulu rolled his fingers across the firing switch and answered, “Torpedoes away,” just as their projectiles became visible ahead. A spread of torpedoes raced away into space, homing on the distant Gorn vessel with their own sensors. “Should I launch interceptors after the Gorn weapons?”

“No,” Spock said, “That will no longer be necessary.”

Indeed it wasn’t. The torpedoes the Gorn had launched at them a moment ago suddenly halted their attack heading and moved to a position in front of the Grazine. Three of them moved to physically intercept Starfleet’s torpedoes, while the other three others projected holographic “dummies” as before. Some of the Enterprise’s torpedoes began to change course towards the dummies, while the ones that remained on target new flew into the paths of the Gorn’s interceptors.

“Impact in twelve seconds,” Uhura announced, “Slightly less for the decoys.”

Spock said, “Port ten degrees, maintain thrust.”

“Port ten,” Sulu said, and Enterprise began to turn, “Now fifteen hundred kilometers…”

Uhura looked up anxiously, “Reading an energy buildup in the Francium’s drive systems. I think they’re getting ready to transfer warp power to one of their torpedoes.”

Spock had determined by now that those “charged up” torpedoes, though amazingly powerful, were very difficult to aim in a ship-to-ship engagement. They were probably meant to be used for planetary bombardment, or fired in frustration by a commander facing what seemed to be a well-defended opponent. Either way, just two direct hits from the Gorn torpedoes might severely damage the Enterprise, where a hit from a supercharged high-warp torpedo could easily vaporize the entire ship. “Ready port-side photons twenty through thirty,” Spock said, “Turn starboard ninety degrees, bow up ten.”

There was a split second hesitation from Sulu as he tried to make sense of this order. The first spread of torpedoes hadn’t even impacted yet, and here Spock was ordering another spread armed before even assessing the effectiveness of the first. It seemed like a bit of overkill. Possibly, even a violation of regulations.

It also seemed far out of character. Captain Kirk was a creature of passion and action and never pulled punches unless he absolutely had to. But Commander Spock had a reputation for precision and control; he used exactly as much force as was needed and not a micron more. Was there a logical reason for this plan?

Of course there was. There had to be. “Starboard ninety, up ten,” Sulu echoed and then a glance at his console told him, “Range to target is now five hundred kilometers and closing very fast-”

“Fire torpedoes.”

“Firing…” Sulu armed a half dozen port-side weapons, gave them their target, and sent them off. All six weapons fired almost at once and began to home in on the Francium just as the first reached the walls of decoys and interceptors. Those first six torpedoes dove into the Gorn illusions and exploded on contact; one after another, the phantom Franciums flickered and ceased to exist altogether. The Gorn’s interceptors moved to strike down the remaining torpedoes, but one photorp slipped through the chaos of explosions and dove right into Francium’s starboard bow. The explosion ripped open the Gorn vessel like a popped balloon and sent it tumbling out of control.

Spock ordered, “Ninety five to port, down eight. Thrusters at stationkeeping.”

“Turning, Sir…”

“Range to target, three hundred kilometers. Second wave will impact in five seconds,” Chekov announced. He didn’t add that the first salvo had completely overwhelmed the Gorn’s defenses and that her scans showed they were desperately trying to reload their torpedo launchers – whichever ones were still operational – in a last ditch effort to defend themselves. The Gorn wouldn’t be ready in five seconds; if Enterprise did nothing else right now, Francium was finished.

“Lock phasers on target,” was Spock’s next order.

Sulu’s eyes flew wide as saucers, “Uh… A-Aye, Sir. Scanning… Phasers locked.”

Uhura looked up from his console, “Spock, they’re in no position to-”

“Divert warp power to main banks. Fire all phasers.”

This time, his hesitation was more than momentary. But Sulu was too well trained in his duty not to immediately comply.

The Gorn torpedo launchers hinged open just in time to swallow a storm of fire from the Enterprise’s phasers. The burning energy beams sliced into the unshielded Francium and carved huge chunks out of its hull plating. An instant later, the forward main phaser bank fired a blast directly from the warp drive that sliced through Francium’s engineering section like a flaming sword, smashing the rear third of the ship just moments before the next six photons dove into its already-crumbling hull. A ripple of explosions tore through the ship from bow to stern, bursting bulkheads and cargo hatches, scattering bodies and debris in all directions. Francium seemed to shake itself like a dog as its inner hull collapsed, and then the entire vessel simply disintegrated into a cloud of tumbling debris.

A stunned silence fell over the bridge, the sense of people who had just watched a horrible thing happening to an equally horrible person. The Gorn had hardly been a friendly force in this system, but they weren’t entirely enemies either. Did they really deserve this?

The chirp of a communications link broke the silence and Commander Spock’s voice filled the void, “Enterprise to away team. Status report.”

Captain Kirk answered back, sounding both winded and pained yet somehow confident at the same time, “Enterprise, I think we’ve found our people, but we’re encountering Romulan boarding parties and we’re facing heavy resistance. I’m gonna to need a little more time here.”

Spock swiveled his chair towards the science station where a slightly bemused Uhura was still scanning the tumbling wreckage of the slaughtered Gorn vessel, “What are the Klingons doing?” he asked.

It took almost an effort of will for Uhura to turn her attention away from her scanning beams and over to the main sensor console in the middle of the station. She located the Kor’ah almost instantly, but the answer to Spock’s question took a few moments of careful examination. “Klingon ship is holding position seven thousand kilometers from the Cardassians. Still picking up transporter activity directed towards the Grazine.”

Solve one problem, gain another. Spock clenched his fists, ever so slightly, before his emotional control returned and his logic again prevailed, “Where’s the Romulan ship?”

“No sensor contact since it cloaked,” Chekov said, “They could be anywhere by now.”

Spock shook his head, “The cloaking device cannot hide their ship’s gravitic displacement. If they had left the area at warp or high impulse velocities, we would have detected their passage on motion sensors.”

“So you think they’re still in the area?”

“Certain of it. In fact-”

“New sensor readings!” Uhura shouted, “Locator beacon from inside the Grazine!”

And an instant later, “Kirk to Enterprise! Emergency! We need starship fire support! My coordinates! Danger close!”

Spock’s eyes flared at this signal. Kirk sounded as if his hair was on fire, and in the background of the signal he could make out a cacophony of phaser fire and a dozen voices all shouting at once. It was the sound of a man who had only a couple of seconds left to live and was clinging to his life with the white-knuckled determination one would expect from a man like James T. Kirk.

Nodding calmly, Spock answered, “Standby, Captain,” and then to Sulu, “Secure warp transfer pathways and standby for support fire.”

 

 

THE PROBLEM WITH KLINGONS

HB22147-a, High Orbit
DRSV Grazine (SG01)
Stardate 2261.28

– 1245 hours –

Captain Kirk was flying head-first down one of the Grazine’s narrow corridors, gliding along with the ship’s null gravity to where his sensors told him the life form reading was last recorded. The location was a hundred meters ahead and a few degrees starboard; the heads-up display told him there was a passage ahead and to the right, so just before he got to it he tucked his knees into his chest, turned slightly in the air and then uncoiled at just the right time to push his feet off the opposite wall and dart into that corridor. His fire team followed close behind, each in a slightly different direction to avoid a collision so that all five of them emerged into the passage in a loose formation, filling the opening with their bodies.

They nearly collided with the four heavily armored Romulan marines who had been coming the opposite direction at that moment. Both sides recognized each other instantly, raised their weapons and fired from only a few feet away. Kirk felt their plasma bolts pinging off his overshield and saw his phaser shots sparkling against the Romulan’s armor. A combination of panic and training sent him scrambling back out of the passage and around the corner as the volley trailed off, and somehow he was aware that the Romulan marines were retreating back down the passageway in the opposite direction.

Same direction we’re going, he thought. The tricorder reading had been only been clear for a few moments, but it was unmistakably coming from the somewhere in the vicinity of the very large hangar bay into which all three of the Starfleet fire teams and an indeterminate number of Romulans were now now converging. That open bay would be a free for all: there was no cover anywhere, no bulkheads dividing the space. There were a few small suttlecraft in holding racks, but once they were in that space there would really be nowhere to hide. This would be a real test of starfleet combat training. Kirk had always hated tests.

“Enterprise to away team. You have multiple boarding parties inbound on your position.” It was Spock’s voice. The hardness in his tone suggested that the ship was having a difficult time of things too, which was somehow comforting.

“Copy that, Enterprise,” Kirk answered, “We’ll try to hurry this up, but something tells me we’re gonna need-”

A burst of static filled the channel and then it went dead. Spock had ended the transmission without even signing off; or rather, something had ended it for him. Must be heavily engaged, Kirk thought. Then to Lieutenant Rand he shouted, “Let’s try and take that shuttle bay before more reinforcements show up.”

“Gotcha,” the Lieutenant toggled her communications settings for a second, and then her voice came over his helmet speakers, “Alright, people going into a skirmish space,” Rand announced, warning her team and any others on her channel, “Stay mobile, don’t take any position for more than two seconds. This is null gravity, so keep sight of each other and watch all the corners, not just the sides.”

Kirk turned his attention back to the heads up display. The scanner showed another passage coming up on the left, and vast open space just behind that. He moved forward a bit, caught a hand hold just short of the intersection and paused, peaking his head around the corner. The short passage opened into a huge stadium-sized cavern built into the Grazine’s hull, within which a rather violent gun battle had already erupted between Romulan plasma rifles and another weapon that Rand thought sounded like phasers. Couldn’t be Cardassians in there; they used projectile weapons with smokeless powder, and in any case the Cardassian marines had stopped trying to repel the boarders once it became clear that none of their weapons would work against Starfleet shielding.

“This is it, everyone. Let’s get our people back,” Rand announced, then batted Kirk on the shoulder, “You ready?”

“Nope.” He planted his feet on the hatch rim and shouted, “Go, go go!” as he pushed off with both legs.

Captain Kirk shot out of the corridor like a gun from a bullet and then immediately fired his suit thrusters, veering off to the left to clear the path. Lieutenant Rand was right behind him, keeping pace and covering his back, while the rest of the fire team came through right behind her and darted off in the opposite direction.

Kirk was prepared for trouble, but not on the scale she was seeing now: a squad of about twelve Romulans was zipping around in their strange armored suits, jetting back and forth using thruster inserts that flashed like plasma arcs. They moved almost like fighter planes, swarming and swooping, arranging into squads and then breaking off again to get the advantage. They moved so gracefully and with such frightening purpose that Kirk almost didn’t notice the loose knot of Klingon warriors fighting them. The Klingons’ movements were impressive in a different way: powerful, purposeful, like parkour athletes trying to outrun a police droid. They had no thrusters and no armor, but they used structural columns, hand rails, parked shuttlecraft and even each other to push off and change directions, angling for a better position on their Romulan enemies. It was almost like watching a war between birds… If birds could be equipped with tactical armor and directed energy weapons.

Kirk felt a series of plasma bolts hit him in the shoulder and his suit gave a warning that its overshield was almost depleted. He didn’t have to search long to realize that the same four Romulans that he had nearly collided with a moment ago were scattering their formation and moving to encircle him. That suited him just fine; beyond them, he could see the rest of the fire team was moving around outside their circling move taking up positions. He shot his phaser rifle into one of them and was joined by Rand a moment later. The second Romulan was hit from behind by the combined attack of three phaser rifles from the rest of the fire team. Both of the Romulan soldiers flared up bright orange where the phaser beams hit them, then they erupted into clouds of ash and floated away on the air, like giant cigars burning out at superfast speeds. The other two moved evasively, trying to get clear of the crossfire. Kirk let his encounter suit track them on sensors in case they came at him again.

Then he heard a scream from the far side of the bay, like the roar of a hundred men simultaneously burning their fingers off. From that direction, he saw what looked like a solid wall of Klingon warriors pouring out of a passageway into the shuttlebay. Even the Romulans had paused to marvel at the spectacle.

This was not going to end well.

“Got a reading,” Lieutenant Rand announced, “Personal locator, twenty five meters! It’s Doctor Marcus!”

The locator appeared on Kirk’s HUD and he took stock of the situation before letting himself really focus on it. For the moment, the Romulans had become preoccupied with the growing swarm of angry Klingons pouring into the room, whose combination of phaser fire and enthusiasm was rightly their number one concern. Kirk took a second or two to work out where the locator was pointing him in relation to the actual hangar, and then with a burst from his suit thrusters veered up and away from the cross-species melee until he found the lone abnormality he was looking for: a large blast door, large enough to admit a Federation shuttlecraft, had been forced open with explosives or plasma fire or both, and behind it he could see twists of machinery and electrical equipment. His tricorder detected no life signs inside, but Doctor Marcus’ personal locator was clearly present. “Target located! Converge on me now!” Kirk made another adjustment with his thrusters and rocketed towards that location without waiting for the others.

One of the Romulans behind the forced-open door fired a plasma rifle at him as he approached. Kirk deftly evaded it with a controlled thrust, then tucked his knees under himself and landed on the bulkhead just above the blast doors, out of their sight. He paused for a moment, set his phaser on stun, reached into gap where the door had been forced open and fired blind into the compartment.

Lieutenant Rand landed next to him and added to the fire, and four others landed on the opposite side and did the same. In a few seconds, the room was filled with crackling blue light as phaser beams spilled over the walls and irradiated everything in sight. A flurry of plasma bolts flew back out again as someone on the inside started firing back.

The chirp of a communications link caught Kirk’s attention even as he poured phaser fire through th blast door. “Enterprise to away team. Status report.”

Gasping between phaser blasts, Kirk answered, “Enterprise, I think we’ve found our people, but we’re encountering Romulan boarding parties and we’re facing heavy resistance. I’m gonna to need a little more time here.”

Lieutenant Loganoff didn’t land with the others, but pulled his arms into his sides and dove head-first into the opening before immediately firing thrusters to both slow down and veer off to the side. Three others penetrated the same way, and then Rand and Kirk and the rest of their teams followed with phasers ready.

The transporter chamber was a huge enclosed sphere with a vaulted door on one side that had been left open to reveal its contents. It filled most of the room, but a small staging area had been left in front of it where people and materials could be moved in and out of the sphere for transport to and from the ship. There were no individual receiving pads or coils, the Cardassians simply beamed the entire volume of that sixty-foot sphere to a location somewhere outside, or beamed everything within sixty feet of their target into the sphere. A small green box indicating Doctor Marcus’ locator beacon had been flashing on Kirk’s hud until now, but his eyes saw nothing in that location and the beacon was floating in the middle of the air, slowly moving downwards with no physicality. Must be a false reading or a sensor ghost. Maybe the jamming field throwing off the scans…

Maybe not. Kirk pushed off a wall and moved towards the beacon until the sensors showed him he was close enough to touch it. He reached both hands to either side of the beacon until he felt his body hit something, and he wrapped his arms around the waist of the suddenly-visible Doctor Carol Marcus.

She was unconscious, though either from phaser stuns or some other injury, he could not tell. His sensors showed him no other personal locators except for the Starfleet fire teams, and no other life forms either except for two partially-visible (and very unconscious) Romulan troops floating in the air a few meters away. If the missing crewmen were on the Grazine at all, their locators were beyond their reach, and with the shuttle bay filling with Klingons they had no opportunity to look for them. “We’ve got what we came for, people! Fall back to the corridors for beamout…”

“They’re coming in!” Lieutenant Loganoff shouted from the open blast door, an instant before a Klingon phaser rifle tore through the middle of his chest and burned his torso into a cloud of ash. The rest of the startled away team ducked back behind the cover of the mangled door just as what seemed like a solid wall of phaser fire poured into the entrance, scorching the walls and deck plating around them. Ensign Barnheisel crouched down low next to the gap, pulled a photon grenade off his belt and tossed it through the opening; a Klingon phaser beam vaporized his head and helmet before he could even get behind cover. A second later the photon grenade detonated outside of the bay and the massed phaser fire thinned out enough for Lieutenant Rand and the rest of the fire team to pop up and fire back without instantly dying.

Kirk estimated they had between five and ten seconds before the Klingon zerg rush flooded into the room and literally tore them all apart. He keyed his communicator again, first setting up a high-gain locator beacon so that Enterprise could pinpoint his location despite the interference from the jamming field, and then piggybacked voice channel onto it, “Kirk to Enterprise! Emergency! We need starship fire support! My coordinates! Danger close!”

“Standby, Captain,” Spock replied, and then was silent.

On the same channel Kirk heard Lieutenant Rand ask, “Is there another way out of here?” and a voice he couldn’t identify answered, “Only the blast doors. This compartment is sealed off from the rest of the ship!”

“Then fall back to the transport chamber,” Kirk shouted, “We’ll use the blast door as a bottleneck! Hold them off until Enterprise can assist!”

The fire teams next to the blast door moved back along the walls until they were completely clear of it and then repositioned themselves in a broad, fanned out formation to cover the blast door from all sides of the room. A few moved inside the spherical transporter chamber to use its vaulted door as cover. Kirk thought about trying to use the Cardassian transporter to escape, but nixed the idea when he realized it would take more time than they had left to figure out how to operate it and longer still to figure out if it was even still working after all the damage this ship had sustained.

An ear-splitting battle cry poured into the room from outside, growing in intensity as its source came closer. All eyes and all weapons trained on the half-open blast door, and Kirk watched the sensor feed from his heads up display as what appeared to be a solid mass of Klingon genome poured towards the blast door like a living avalanche.

How long can we hold out here? Kirk asked himself, An hour? A minute? A few seconds?

The light filtering in from the shuttle bay went dark, and then the darkness exploded into a half dozen moving shapes pouring into the room: Klingon warriors with phaser rifles, diving head first into the compartment. A dozen Starfleet phaser beams hit them from all sides, burning them to cinders as fast as they could appear. What had been a group of humanoid aliens passed through the door as humanoid ash clouds, still smoldering by the time their remains bumped into the transport chamber. Still another wave of Klingons tumbled through the blast door, howling like animals and firing their phasers in random directions. Some didn’t even have that much and burst through the blast door carrying daggers and swords, and a few were even carrying Cardassian or Romulan weapons.

The Starfleet crossfire reduced them to a wall of fire and organic debris, but a handful slipped through intact and began darting around the room, looking for a target. Kirk used his phaser to pick off the survivors before they could make trouble. One came through waving a bat’leth in one hand and a phaser pistol in the other before Kirk shot him through the chest, burning through his torso. The air opened up behind the new corpse and two more Klingons came up behind him, snarling like a pride of lions closing for the kill. Kirk shoved Doctor Marcus deeper into the transport chamber and fired his phaser at the closest one, catching him in the kneecap and spinning him end over end in the path of his comrade.

Kirk heard Spock’s voice as if speaking to him through a mile-long tube, “Brace for support fire…”

In zero gravity, no one felt the vibration in the hull or sensed the sudden movement of the decks. There was not, at first, even a sound to go with it. The first that the Klingons knew that something odd was happening was a bright red flash of light that suddenly filled the Cardassian shuttlebay and then a portion of the bulkhead door disappeared, exposing the bay to space. The second indication was an even brighter flash as the entire bay door erupted into incandescence and then it, too, was gone. Almost a hundred cubic meters of atmosphere instantly blew out into space, carrying with it over a hundred Klingon and Romulan corpses and almost as many live bodies. Within half a second the shuttle bay was in vacuum, and five seconds and a hurricane rush of air later, so was the transporter complex adjacent to it.

The sudden silence that filled the transporter complex brought with it a kind of confusion and bewilderment that commanded attention all by itself. Kirk knew immediately that the compartment was in vacuum, and he knew just as immediately that this gave him between fifty and one hundred seconds to get Doctor Marcus out of hard vacuum before she suffered permanent damage. For the briefest moment he entertained the notion that the hard vacuum of space would at least deal with the Klingon problem…

Until a Klingon phaser beam bounced off his chest and scorched the bulkhead next to him. The same two he had just been fighting with were moving , one of them pulling an edged weapon from his battle dress while the other – the one he had kneecapped with his phaser – was adjusting the setting on his phaser pistol, reprogramming it to a lower setting to take full advantage of the hard vacuum of space. No, three of them were moving; the one he had shot in the chest had actually recovered from what should have been a fatal chest wound and was now moving up to join battle with his comrades, bat’leth in hand.

The problem with Klingons, Kirk reminded himself, is that killing them only makes them angry.

He pushed off the wall behind him and darted upwards towards where he had pushed Doctor Marcus’ form, firing blindly behind him as he went. He grabbed her around the waist with one arm, and with the other thumbed his thruster controls to push himself up and clear of the three Klingons and their boiling, vacuum-packed rage. Phaser blasts cut through the air around him. He had just enough presence of mind to expand his shield envelope to cover Marcus as well, but almost as soon as he did so he heard the low-pitched “power cell” warning, which meant he had about five seconds of serviceable life left in it. Whether the Klingons noticed this or not, Kirk would never know; three of them moved to the sides to box him in while a fourth summersaulted through the vaulted door, pushed off the inside of the transport chamber and brought his bat’leth around in a wide, deadly ark, straight through the thickest part of Captain Kirk’s throat.

He felt the blade pass through his body.

He felt the Klingon pass through his body.

Then he felt himself crash to the ground on his back as Doctor Marcus’ limp form landed on top of him in the Enterprise’s transporter room. The impact seemed to shock her back into consciousness; Marcus rolled on her side, flailing and gasping for breath as Kirk came to a sitting position in his encounter suit, clawing at his neck where he’d felt the blade pass through him. He’d been partially de-materialized when the bat’leth struck, but he’d still felt it all the same. “Wow,” he muttered, “Great timing, Chief…”

“Clear the pad!” someone shouted, and when Kirk didn’t move immediately he felt a set of arms hoisting him up by his arms and legs and carrying him off to the side of the transporter room. Another set of arms – these, he could see, belonging to a set of field medics and service robots in white smocks – scooped up Doctor Marcus and four other prone forms that Kirk hadn’t noticed until now, loaded them onto gurneys or just sat them against the wall as the transporter activated yet again. Another set of floating bodies appeared over the pad, and as before, crashed down to the platform as if they’d rolled off the top of a bunk bed.

“One more coming in!” the transporter chief shouted, “Clear the pad! Clear it fast!”

Most of the officers who’d materialized managed to roll/crawl/jump down under their own power, one tripped over a badly broken ankle and crawled painfully down from the platform. The transporter hummed one last time, and a humanoid figure materialized in the center of it: Lieutenant Janice Rand appeared in the middle of the transport chamber and immediately dropped to her knees; she was wearing her encounter suit, a helmet with a shattered faceplate, and a nine-inch straight-edged dagger that had impaled her through the chest.

 

 

THE WINNER’S CIRCLE

HB22147-a, High Orbit
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.28

– 1250 hours –

“Transporter room reports all boarding parties recovered,” Chekov announced, “Casualties listed. Four dead, six injured. One hostage recovered, Doctor Carol Marcus. Away team reports no other captives aboard the Cardassian vessel.”

Spock ordered immediately, “Can you confirm that, Lieutenant?”

“Sensor readings are still impaired, but I’m not detecting any other locator signals from the Cardassian ship. We could try another phaser strike to dissipate the jamming field…”

“But we’d run the risk of injuring our own people,” Spock finished.

Uhura nodded, “From the brief openings in the jamming field, Sir, no indications of any human life signs on board.”

Which meant that the other missing crewmembers had either been misplaced during the boarding action or otherwise fallen victim to the reaver-creature that had suddenly appeared and then disappeared in the starboard compartments. If they were ever on board the Cardassian vessel, Kirk’s team would have been in the best position to know. “Any sign of the Romulan vessel?”

“We detected a mass disturbance a moment ago,” Chekov said, “Moving out of contact range, heading one four two mark seventeen.”

Spock half-turned his chair towards the science console, “Fleeing the system?”

“I don’t think so,” Uhura said, “The Kor’ah’s started her engines… I think they’re moving to attack the Klingon ship.”

That made perfect sense. The Klingons had come here looking for the Romulans, and their boarding parties had probably massacred the Romulan infiltration team before the Enterprise intervened. The Romulans had come here for a very specific purpose, and now the biggest obstacle to that purpose appeared to be the Klingons.

The turbolift hissed open and Captain Kirk staggered onto the bridge, still wearing his encounter suit, still stained with traces of blood from three different races and scorch marks from at least four different kinds of weapons. He dropped tiredly into his command chair just as Spock moved to leave it. “What’s our status?” he asked, shouldering the weight in his voice.

“Francium has been neutralized,” Spock said, re-establishing himself at the science console, “And the Kor’ah appears to be engaging the Romulan vessel…” something flashed on one of the overhead screens, and the more detailed information flowed through Spock’s monitor, “Now scanning a large mass displacement reading. Indications consistent with small attack craft entering warp speed.”

Kirk didn’t need to ask, but he already knew what was happening next. “The Klingons?”

“Changing course, raising output in their main drive core.”

A magnified image of the Klingon ship appeared on the viewscreen, the hump of its engineering section giving off a churning glow as the ship gathered power within itself. In a matter of seconds, the ship vanished into a stream of light, and seconds after that it disappeared even from the long range tracking sensors.

Kirk sank into the command chair, feeling about a hundred pounds heavier. Then he remembered that he was both alive and in the command chair; he stood up, stretched his neck, then casually tapped his intercom switch and asked, “Engineering, status report.”

“Multiple warning lights on the main phaser banks, trying to correct. All drives and primary systems are fully operational.”

“I want a full damage report from all departments within the hour, along with a full account of any missing equipment.” He closed the intercom and then ordered, “Uhura, hail the Grazine.”

“Aye, Sir,” Uhura toggled to the Cardassian’s standard radio frequency and sent them what could only have been a very expert rendition of a standard hail in the Detapa political language: “Detapa Gol Grazine, zalg Gister Dol Enterprise, utentan raskas. Gadrasu.” She waited a few moments for a reply, then looked to Kirk and shook her head.

“Regular intervals,” Kirk said, then turned to the opposite workstation where his science officer was just finishing archiving her intercepts of Klingon and Romulan transmissions for intelligence debriefing later. “Spock, what exactly are our orders from Starfleet in relation to this system?”

“Specifically or the political intent?”

“Just the specifics.”

Uhura was starting another hail of the Grazine and Kirk watched her out of the corner of her eye in case they finally responded.

“Our orders are to investigate all possible leads as to the origin and nature of the technology that was used to duplicate the planet and attempt to make contact with its creators.”

“In your opinion, Commander,” Kirk glanced at the data scrolling the science console, “have we made a reasonable effort to comply with those orders?”

Spock glanced back at his science monitor now, which at the moment was streaming with text prints of damage reports and injury lists from a dozen compartments and a dozen duty stations. “I think our efforts have been more than reasonable, Captain.”

“Do you believe we would be justified in terminating our current assignment?”

Spock raised a brow. And perhaps in a moment of mental and physical exhaustion he offered an almost human response, “Do you really have to ask?”

Kirk nodded in agreement. For the moment it was really better left unsaid that the three of them, much like the overall crew of the Enterprise, had had just about enough of this assignment. “Uhura, start to-” he paused at the contemplative look that suddenly flashed across her face and waited for her to finish with whatever had suddenly grabbed her attention.

Finally, “Grazine is signaling, Captain. It’s on a tertiary signal, probably rigged from one of their shuttlecraft.”

Kirk walked over to the communications console and knelt down next to the audio pickup on her monitor. An altogether familiar voice hissed out of the speaker under a cloud of static, “Enterprise. This is Glynn Lynoi in temporary command of the Grazine.”

“Glynn, we recovered one of our officers from your vessel. Several others are still unaccounted for. For some reason I am unable to scan the interior of your ship-”

“We are running with a high-energy thoron field in place. Part of our basic security protocols.”

Kirk frowned, “If we can’t account for the rest of our missing crewmen, it may be necessary to conduct a more thorough search of your ship.”

There was a long pause from Lynoi’s end, then the transmission suddenly seemed to become more clear. Then Spock announced from his console, “Jamming field disabled, Captain. I am scanning for human lifesigns.”

“I can assure you,” Lynoi said as the signal returned, “We recovered only a single human among the Romulan boarding party. Two others we beamed aboard turned out to be hostile alien life forms with shape-shifting capabilities. Apparently the Romulans abducted them from one of your laboratories.”

Kirk shot a glance at Spock, who simply nodded slowly. The meaning was clearly there: the Reaver specimens had been counted among the missing equipment. “Lynoi, your vessel has been compromised,” Kirk went on, “Your warp drive engines are disabled. We are prepared to evacuate your crew and arrange for transport back to Cardassian space.”

“Would that be a show of moral superiority in addition to tactical?” Lynoi sighed sadly, “Thank you for the offer, Enterprise, but I think we will manage to survive on our own.”

Kirk bristled at the science officer’s tone, “You left us little choice, Lynoi. You abducted our officers and tried to shake our pursuit with an evasive maneuver. We have now ended hostilities and we wish to avoid further loss of life.”

Lynoi sighed again, “Between the damage to our engineering section and the boarding actions, we have loss over two thirds of our crew. Gul Dulek and most of the senior staff were eaten alive by one of those reaver things, and my chief engineer – the only man who knew enough about our warp engine to repair it – was blown into space when your phaser cannon vented the compartment. All of this because you couldn’t be bothered to ask us what our intentions were. Did it not occur to you that we would have been happy to return your officer to your custody as soon as we had shaken the Romulan vessel chasing us?”

“No,” Kirk said as blunt as a sledgehammer, “Because if that had been your intention, you would have offered to join forces against the Romulan vessel. You saw an opportunity to betray us and you took it. You miscalculated.”

“And we will own the consequences of that mistake. If it’s all the same to you, Captain Kirk, I would rather not suffer the humiliation of having to be escorted back to Cardassia like a rambunctious child. Don’t concern yourself with us. Go and complete your mission.”

The hiss of static crumbled to silence. Uhura glanced at him with a look that told him Lynoi had stopped transmitting and closed the channel.

That suited Kirk just fine. He had moral and regulatory obligations to aid any ship in distress – even if that happened to be an enemy vessel – but he didn’t have to help them against their will. “Well, that’s it then… Uhura,”

“Sir?”

“Prepare our final report for burst transmission to Starfleet in twelve hours… and use a different cypher this time, the Romulans have probably broken Maroon.”

“Aye, Sir. We’ll use Indigo this time.”

“Right…” Kirk started for the port side turbolift, and paused just short of the door, “Secure from battle stations, all decks begin repairs. I’ll be in sickbay.”

.

– 1304 hours –

The infirmary section was filled to capacity, thirty beds and thirty dividers pulled into position with thirty different kinds of injuries in various levels of severity. Kirk knew – he could sense somehow – that this was just the tip of the iceberg, that there were dozens of more minor cases being treated at aid stations all over the ship by a cadre of damage control officers moonlighting as paramedics. Obviously, it could have been alot worse; between a boarding action by Romulans and then a close-quarters fight with a Gorn warship, it was remarkable that Enterprise had taken as little damage as it had, to say nothing of the violent alien presence that had torn through a dozen compartments before it simply vanished without a trace.

There were still loose ends to settle, most troubling of which was the fact that most of the missing crewmen were not found aboard the Cardassian ship, and neither for that matter was the reaver specimen. And on top of that, all twenty five of the Doppelgänger survivors were unaccounted for, and Kirk knew of only one person on the entire ship who might know what had happened to any of them.

Doctor McCoy was nowhere to be found, as expected. He managed to intercept Nurse Chapel, though, bouncing back and forth between a pair of loudly-groaning patients who were both wearing Class Four tactical gear and were obviously part of Lieutenant Rand’s away team. “Christine, where’s Doctor Marcus?”

Chapel answered without making eye contact, “She’s with Lieutenant Rand in the ICU.”

Decompression sickness, Kirk knew, was fairly easily treatable if you got to it soon enough, which they almost certainly had. But the image of Lieutenant Rand materializing on the transporter pad with a Klingon dagger in her chest danced through his mind like poorly-timed commercial advertisement. “How bad is it?”

Chapel frowned, “Terminal. If you’re planning to debrief her, you had better do it now.”

Kirk navigated the sea of doctors and patience and medics and equipment until he got to the hermetic doorway into the intensive care unit. Doctor Marcus and a pair of civilians were standing in a corner, whispering to each other with a sense of suppressed urgency, while the center of the room was dominated by Doctor McCoy and a surgical tractor beam that was in the process of extracting something that looked like a half-eaten meatball from the Lieutenant’s wide-open chest cavity. Rand herself was sealed away inside of a medical forcefield that maintained a sterile environment around her; a dozen smaller tractors held the chest incision open, and several fist-sized lumps of flesh – organs, maybe? – were floating in a stasis field next to the surfical bed. McCoy himself was just a pair of arms among a half dozen robotic arms that were hard at work inside the Lieutenant’s body, and it was only now that Kirk understood what Chapel had meant. Terminal: she was already dead. McCoy’s job now was to reduce her death to a temporary setback instead of a permanent inconvenience.

Kirk looked at the vivisected Lieutenant, then at McCoy, reading his expression, and then back at Rand. “What’s the prognosis, Bones?”

“That knife had a nasty serrated edge,” McCoy said, “Tore her heart into three pieces and ripped one of her lungs in half. I’ve got a bypass to cortical functions through artificial circulation, but I can’t keep her this way forever.”

“How long?”

“Five days, give or take. We can regenerate the damaged organs, but it’s a question of whether or not her body can handle that kind of trauma without shutting down. I’ve induced a medical coma, but if she hasn’t made any measurable progress in five days, she never will.”

Kirk felt his stomach twist in a knot. “Do what you can, Bones. We’re getting ready to pack it in…”

“It’s about damn time!”

“… but we’re still missing some people. If you have a spare moment, ask around, see if anyone knows what happened to Doctor Ayash.”

McCoy sighed tiredly. “Jim, I’m a doctor, not a detective.”

“It’s possible he might be injured or-”

“He’s dead, Jim,” Doctor Marcus said, emerging from her civilian group in the corner of the room, “Lieutenant Onise ate him.”

Who, Kirk remembered, was in the process of transforming into a reaver the day before yesterday. And if reports were accurate, who had been picked up by security after attempt to eat one of the communications officers in the Clownface Cafe. “Somehow, that makes total sense… so what happened to Onise?”

“He transformed into… well… some kind of creature. Like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It absorbed anything it touched, it took the shape of everything it absorbed… I don’t think it was an actual creature, though. I think it was a utility cloud.”

Kirk raised a brow, “Doctor Ayash was eaten by a cloud?”

“Industry term, Jim. I mean a swarm of nanorobots acting as a singular entity. They did it right in front of me. They were breaking down materials and rearranging them on the molecular level.”

“Rearranging them into what?”

“Anything they wanted. That’s how these machines operate, Jim. They just take a mass of something and change it around. Just like humans would take, say, a pile of rocks and turn it into a castle, or a pile of mud and make pots and jars.”

“So they take a pile of molecules and turn it into…” Kirk frowned, “Flesh eating monsters?”

“Maybe just an outer facade, I don’t know. But Connor got a good look at with his tricorder. Based on his information, what we saw from the thing was only a small part of it. Most of it was airborne.”

“Like a virus?”

One of the civilians said, “More like a swarm of bees, Captain, except each insect would be the size of a bacterium or something. As far as I could tell, they were using Lieutenant Onise like a mobile hive. They literally rearranged his molecular structure into a vessel for them, any form they thought they could use. When I first saw him, he was an exact duplicate of Doctor Ayash…”

“Where was this? When did you see him?”

“I was in the communications center, dropping off a letter to my wife. Doctor Ayash walked in, he shouted something to Ensign Ayala. Then Miri spun around and shot him in the head. Damndest thing I ever saw. Phaser on full force, blew the top of his skull clean off. It didn’t even stun him, it just pissed him off.”

Kirk looked at Marcus in puzzlement, “And where the hell were you?”

“Getting a physical in sickbay. That’s when Onise transformed.”

“And where was Miri?”

Connor answered, “Last I saw, she was shooting at that… that… whatever it was with a hand phaser. I know it followed her into Iron Town, but by the time I got there the show was over. Lots of bullet holes and phaser burns, but no sign of the creature.”

Kirk suddenly had a chilling thought, “You said a minute ago that most of the creature was airborne… how did you detect it?”

“It showed up on the tricorder as a cloud of sub-micron particles. Most of them even had an energy signature, a few microjoules each. And to predict your next question,” Connor handed him a tricorder, “There’s no sign of it anywhere on the ship. That’s what we were just talking about when you came in. There were trace readings of it at low levels ever since the Onlies beamed aboard, but after Miri disappeared, even the background signal is gone.”

“Can we back up a minute? You said something about bullet holes in Iron Town…”

“Like I said, I followed the creature down there. There’s signs of a firefight, but there’s none of the fixings. No shell casings, no guns, just a couple of drained hand phasers and a phaser rifle. No blood, no bodies, nothing.”

Kirk sighed. He’d have to have someone pull the security camera footage from Iron Town for the times Connor mentioned, and for clarity he would have to do the same for sickbay to figure out exactly how the Romulans managed to abscond with Doctor Marcus without being eaten alive by whatever had disguised itself as Lieutenant Onise. The only thing he was now convinced of was that there was no recovering the remainder of the missing; wherever they were, they were far beyond his reach.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Doctor Marcus said. She was trying to sound noble and collected, but there was a note of such crippling sadness in her voice Kirk thought she might burst into tears on the spot. “It’s all my fault. She was hurt trying to save me.”

“You didn’t invite a squad of Romulan infiltrators aboard the Enterprise. Don’t blame yourself for this.” Kirk put his hand on her shoulder and felt her trembling through her jacket. By touch, he could tell she was much skinnier, much more frail that she let anyone believe, “If anything, it’s my fault. Traditionally, Romulans don’t take prisoners, not even for intelligence purposes. I should have covered that possibility and I didn’t, and that mistake put you at risk. And for that, I apologize.”

“Jim you risked your entire ship, your own life and the life of your crew, just to save me…”

“That’s my job, Carol. I’m responsible for all the lives aboard this ship. Even yours.”

Marcus nodded, “Then I thank you, and I forgive you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. We’ll be holding here for twelve hours to make final repairs before we send our report. While that’s going on, I’m going to check the security records to try and figure out exactly what the hell happened to the Onlies and my missing crewmen.”

Marcus took a small step back, but Kirk’s hand-still on her shoulder-had become a tractor beam holding her in place. “What are y-”

“Those Romulans never got anywhere near sickbay. They hit the isolation lab and the aft science labs. If you were in one of those places, it means you weren’t in your quarters where you were supposed to be, which means you once again ignored my orders not to interfere with the operation of this ship.”

“But…”

“And if I check those tapes,” Kirk squeezed her shoulder, “If I find out you had anything to do with those disappearances – anything at all – I swear on my father’s grave, I will maroon you on Doppelgänger.”

“Yellow alert! Bridge to Captain Kirk! Yellow Alert!” Uhura sounded on the verge of a nervous breakdown even on the intercom.

Kirk turned away from the suddenly-pale Doctor Marcus and snapped open his communicator, “Kirk here!”

“We’ve picked up a… Vessel… Or… something moving towards us at high warp. It’s not responding to our hails.”

“The Klingons coming back?”

Spock’s voice cut in,”Negative, Captain. Mass reading and power levels are off the scale. Based on its trajectory, it appears to have come from the vicinity of Doppelgänger.”

And suddenly Kirk turned just as pale as Doctor Marcus. “I’m on my way.”

“I’ll come with you,” Marcus followed him to the turbolift before he could tell her no. And even if he did, something told him that whatever was happening outside involved the Doctor just as well as himself.

.

– 1309 hours –

“Object has now dropped out of warp,” Sulu announced as Kirk came to the bridge, “Sublight velocity, but coming in fast!”

“Exceptionally strong contact,” Spock added from the science console, “Radar silhouette reads as unknown.”

“Sulu, prepare for warp speed. Get ready to move as soon as-”

Chekov announced under him, “Wisual contact!”

“-I give the command.” And Kirk turned his attention towards the viewscreen and the brown and yellow horizon of the hothouse moon beneath them. Somewhere out there, one of the few stars bright enough to be seen over the glare of the sun had suddenly doubled in brightness, and every second they watched it, the star grew brighter and larger. The light began to pulsate as it grew larger, and then the pulsation became a swirling of colors that were beginning to resolve themselves into discernible patterns.

For a moment, Kirk wondered if it was a larger version of those odd spinning torpedoes the Gorn had been firing at them. But it was much too large and too powerful for that, unless of course it was aimed at the planet below.

It was different, though. As Kirk watched it through the viewscreen it grew to a surprising size; the color patterns swirling around its circumference became visibly more elaborate and harder to interpret. It seemed to be a spherical body made up of a thousand moving parts all rotating around each other, concentric circles on top of other circles with lights and lines spliced between. Kirk remembered an animation of the Xindi Superweapon from his high school texts; even that monstrosity seemed mundane compared to this.

And still it was growing. In a few moments it filled most of the screen and even began to eclipse the sun behind it. Kirk kept expecting it to finally come to a stop and meet them face to face, but it never actually did; and as it came still closer, the visible part of the approaching ship actually dipped below the horizon of the hothouse moon.

And still it came closer. It grew in size as it approached until it eclipsed the sun altogether.

When it finally stopped, it filled the entire sky.

The viewscreen showed the churning details of a mechanism of incomprehensible size. Thrusters the size of cities pulsated fitfully, nested warp coils turned on bearings that could have swallowed whole countries. A large black sphere about the size of Okinawa slewed quickly around in space until a fiery red glow appeared in its center, like the disembodied eyeball of a demon, and Kirk realized without needing to be told that this – and countless others like it – was probably the equivalent of a phaser turret.

A terrified hush fell over the bridge as the crew took in what was facing them now. It was perhaps one-half the size of the hothouse planet below them, but such a comparison was almost beside the point.

“Fascinating,” Spock said, breaking the silence, “Energy patterns are consistent with the vessel that departed the Doppelgänger system one hundred and sixty years ago.”

What vessel?” Kirk asked, before remembering what Spock meant. Of course. The third moon.

A visceral fear rolled down Kirk’s spine as he contemplated this encounter. Just the idea of a moon-sized starship that could tow entire planets into new orbits was, to say the least, intimidating. But the thought that such a vessel had actually taken note of him and was now moving directly toward him was disquieting on too many levels.

“Captain,” Uhura’s finger came to her ear and a troubled look began to orbit her face, “I think they’re hailing us.”

Kirk swallowed and numbly returned to his chair. “Sulu…?”

“Ready, Sir,” The helmsman said quietly.

“Alright, Lieutenant,” Kirk said, “Let’s see what we’ve won.”

An image appeared on the viewscreen, and Kirk’s jaw dropped. The voice that flowed from the speakers snapped Spock’s head around and the visibly started Vulcan turned white as a sheet as he recognized both the voice and the face it belonged to. “Hello, Captain Kirk,” said Peter the Rabbit, or at least the tiny alien that looked and sounded very much like him, sitting on a small chair behind a child-sized desk in a child-sized office at a control complex somewhere. He wasn’t quite the same as he had been in his human form. He had no ears, no hair, and his teeth were sharpened to carnivorous points. His appearance was the perfect combination of harmless and surreal. In that regard, at least, Peter the Rabbit had not changed at all. “So,” he went on, “Here we are. I believe you have many questions for me.”

“You were running the entire scenario from right here on the Enterprise?” Kirk asked.

“Not at all. Peter the Rabbit is a facsimile of me. I plant someone like him in all my scenarios. Call it a maker’s mark. It helps me to better understand the outcomes.”

Kirk nodded and took this in, “And who are you?”

“I’m Chellik,” said the distorted child, “I’m the operator of this fesarius.”

“Your vessel,” Kirk looked through the translucent image at the spectacle outside and decided to commit the grandfather of all understatements, “It’s kind of impressive.”

“It is not a vessel. It is a fesarius. I regret that word has no equivalent in your language. It is similar to… Well… Fortress? Dreadnought? Citadel? Except it’s disposable… Shell, maybe?”

A moving vehicle fashioned from the transformed bulk of an old dead planet. It was fitting, somehow, that such a thing would have its own separate category. “Where is Miri?” Kirk asked, gently but bluntly moving to his next question, “And where are the other children?”

“I’ve returned them to… Doppelgänger, as you call it. There are a few more scenarios I would like to run while I still have viable test subjects.”

Kirk winced, “Viable test subjects…”

“There are about thirteen thousand native life forms still present on Doppelgänger right now. Not nearly as many as the early days, but still workable for some scenarios.”

“What do you mean by ‘scenarios’?”

Chellik shrugged, “I use the Chameloid to create circumstances on a model of your world, just to see how the population reacts to them. This way, I gain an understanding of your species’ group psychology. It is not enough to understand your intentions, Kirk. I also seek to understand your habits, your obsessions, your dreams, your fears, even your instincts. This recent scenario was one of the more interesting ones. Rather than creating specific control conditions, I simply let the parameters float and be altered by interference from your scanning devices. I have learned more about your people from my observations of your crew than in the last three scenarios combined.”

“Those other scenarios,” Spock spoke up from the science console, “Would have involved what? Wars? Famine? Pandemics?”

“Natural disasters,” Chellik added, “Extinction events. Mass insanity. Once I produced a version of your Earth populated entirely by sociopaths.”

“To what end?” Spock asked.

Chellik’s head tilted slightly tot he side, “The same as you. To learn all there is to learn about new life forms and new civilizations. That’s why I’ve come here to you now, Captain Kirk,” he returned his attention to the center seat, “I would like to offer an exchange of information between our two species. It’s so very rare that I have an opportunity to study advanced warp-capable cultures, especially one in such an early stage of development. The analysis could be most enlightening.”

For some reason, Captain Kirk thought about General Kang and his blunt response when presented with a similar offer. “What kind of information?” he asked.

“I know you’re curious about the Chameloid technique. I, on the other hand, am curious about the last two or three centuries of development among your species. You might bring me up to date, and I might give you some basic information on how the Chameloid works.”

That offer didn’t seem half as tempting as it did a week ago when Kirk could still convince himself that the terraforming technology was a potential boon to Federation galactic power. Now, though, he had only one thought on his mind. “What about your test subjects?”

“As I said, I still have a few thousand left. Enough to devise some new scenarios based on your new information…”

“I wasn’t talking about your experiments,” Kirk said, holding his temper, “I’m talking about the life forms you destroyed to create them in the first place?”

“Life forms? Oh… the Sheliak? They’re not terribly important. In fact, I think your people would find them particularly unpleasant.”

“And for that you decided to simply overwrite their entire existence? Just to experiment on human behavior?”

“Hardly their entire existence. The Sheliak do have a few colonies in neighboring star systems and a number of sleeper ships on long-duration voyages to distant worlds. Their species will probably survive. Their culture, not so much.”

Kirk took this all in, aware of the growing sense that he was a small and tasty-looking rabbit having a discussion with a very large wolf. “What does the First Federation hope to gain by these experiments?” he asked carefully.

At this, Chellik’s smile faded noticeably. It was the first crack in his facade of superiority Kirk had seen so far, and it was an important one. “My research is a… Well, personal project, not on behalf of the First Federation. Technically, this planet was created by the Anu’Anshee for the collection of he minke and humpback species…”

“Who are the-?”

“… but I must admit I have always wanted to simulate humanity. Your entire history seems like one long case study in cosmic irony.”

“You could have…” Kirk kept his temper in check for the sake of all of their lives, “There isn’t a way you could have simulated humanity without torturing an entire species?”

“They’re just Sheliak, Captain. Does it really matter?”

“They’re living, thinking people with a right to exist!”

“A right to exist…” Chellik raised a brow, amused by the notion, “To exist is a capability, not a right.”

How truly strange, Kirk thought to himself, to hear such familiar words coming from the mouth of such an utterly alien being. Chellik may have looked small and harmless on the viewscreen, but behind those words and the philosophy behind them mirrored one of the bloodiest chapters in human history. If the First Federation hadn’t already suffered the consequences of that philosophy, it was now beyond doubt that many others had, and many others soon would.

And then something Chellik had said tickled the back of Kirk’s mind. ‘A personal project,’ he’d called it, for a planet that had been created for a totally different purpose. Probably, his government or whatever authorities he answered to had been satisfied with the results he’d delivered them as per his orders, but how much did they really know about how Chellik had accomplished his assignment?

And how much trouble would he be in if they found out about it? “Why did you create this planet originally?” Kirk asked.

“As I said, a request from a client. The Anu’Anshee needed specimens of two Earth species that have been extinct since the mid twenty first century. I was unable to obtain original members of the species, but with some effort I was able to use the Chameloid to obtain suitable reproductions.”

“Who is the Anu’Anshee, and why do they want extinct Earth species?”

“Why the sudden interest in my clients?” Chellik asked, sounding ever-so-slightly annoyed, “That business is long concluded. We are discussing a new business deal in the here and now. Please consider my offer, Captain, I think you would agree that we are very much alike as a species. We have much to learn from one another.”

“Do we?” Kirk stood up slowly and folded his arms across his chest, “Our goals are definitely the same. You want to expand your knowledge of the universe. You use tools to do that. You have the Chameloid as one of your tools, you used the Sheliak as raw materials to create another tool. But our methods are very different, Chellik. We have certain cultural beliefs that we hold to very strongly. One of those is the imperative to preserve life – particularly intelligent life – whenever and wherever it is possible to do so.”

“I understand, Kirk,” Chellik smiled, “I don’t agree, but I understand. It is one of the more interesting things I have come to learn through the eyes of my… Tools, as you put it.”

Kirk shuddered as the image of Miri – transformed to her original shape on the transporter pad – flashed through his mind. She had been a child, a survivor, a friend, and for the briefest of spans, a member of the Enterprise’s crew. Now she was just a set of facts for Chellik to categorize in his fesarius’ database.

Fesarius. The alien word was suddenly charged with meaning. A construct of such magnitude that its presence alone could alter the destiny of entire solar systems; a starship so massive it had natural gravity. If God built a starship, it would be a fesarius.

And this one just happened to have a madman at the helm. “We have a long mission ahead of us, Chellik,” Kirk said as politely as he could, “We’ll be moving on from here, if it’s all the same to you.”

“If you ever do reconsider, Kirk,” the mutated image of Peter the Rabbit smiled his toothiest smile and somehow managed to look like a tiger shark chasing a baitfish, “You know where to find me.”

Kirk smiled back, and then hit the control on his arm rest to close the channel. He waited until Chellik’s image had completely vanished from the screen, and then all the urgency boiling in his chest spilled out of his mouth in the order, “Sulu, get us the hell out of here!”

“Maximum warp, Sir,” Lieutenant Sulu hit a single command on his helm console, then slammed the throttles all the way to the stops. Enterprise’ warp engines built up to full power, and then the ship snapped through space like a rubber-band, vanishing into the heavens.

 

 

CAPTAIN’S BURDEN

Thorne System – FGC88305
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.30 – Captain’s Log

It is twenty eight hours since our departure from the Doppelgänger system. Note commendations for Chief Engineer Scott and Engineer’s Mate P’droy Keenser for their timely repairs of the warp drive engines and critical repairs to our outer hull battle damage nearly twelve hours ahead of schedule. Minor repairs continue on damaged pressure hull sections, but vessel status remains fully operational.

We have submitted our final report on the Doppelgänger phenomenon [see attachment] as well as our battle report as far as the Gorn trawler Francium. The final wearabouts of the Romulan vessel or the Klingon ship pursuing it are unknown, but given their respective missions I don’t believe this is the last time we’ll be seeing them out here. Long-range probes suggest the Cardassian ship Grazine remains in orbit of the inner planet as its surviving crew attempts to restore its damaged warp drives. Mister Spock theorizes that they will probably try to strike a deal with Chellik in exchange for repairs and passage back home, and Chellik will probably dissect them and copy their memories to his files. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch. Furthermore, it is my assessment that the Romulan infiltrators were unable to transmit any of the information they obtained from the Enterprise back to their mother ship, and it is probable that most of that information was lost during the firefight in the Grazine’s shuttlebay. Assuming the Cardassians ever manage to leave that system alive, Starfleet security need not be considered compromised.

My final conclusion is that our brief contact with the First Federation has been as a front-level nature and cannot be interpreted as official communication. Same conclusion regarding the Gorn. Contact with the Cardassian government may be considered official communications, but I an disinclined to interpret the actions of their exploration vessel as sanctioned by the Detapa Republic, and peaceful relations may still be possible. My official recommendation regarding the First Federation as follows: Avoid contact under any and all circumstances.

The crew is showing signs of depressed morale as well as emotional and physical exhaustion, much to my complete lack of surprise. My final investigation faults Doctor Carol Marcus for failing to observe onboard security protocols, but after everything that’s happened I’ve decided not to pursue any further action on this regard beyond the official reprimands I have already entered into the record. Beyond that, the total loss of the Genesis Data is punishment enough. To that end: our planned expedition of the Eagle Nebula requires long-range transit of the Vega Corridor, and I expect a shore leave opportunity to present itself before too long. Enterprise is scheduled to get underway within the next eight hours once we tie up our last loose ends.

.

– 1941 hours –

Airlock Two was preferred for these occasions, being much larger than the other four complexes and much more comfortable even than the otherwise-identical Airlock One. It was another quirky aviation tradition dating back to the first Earth starships, at a time when most ships only had two airlocks suitable to this purpose. Some two hundred officers and crewmen were gathered on the bottom level and the overhanging catwalk, distributed in the open bay amongst parked travel pods and EVA equipment that was permanently pushed further aside than would normally be practical. The center of it all, planted on a launch rail in front of the ten-foot circular airlock hatch was – of course – the pre-programmed recorder marker bearing the names and last messages of the twenty five Enterprise crewmen who could no longer be counted among the living crew of the Enterprise.

The two hundred gathered here were either close friends or family of the deceased. Decades had passed since a burial in space was an affair that necessarily involved the entire ship; seven years of brutal war with the Romulan Empire had brought that particular tradition to an end, and the frugal nature of the so-called “Boomer Brats” that later inherited Starfleet had been remiss to bring it back. But it made the Captain’s job that much worse: the people gathered here weren’t just shipmates of the deceased, they were necessarily close friends aboard the Enterprise. The loss was felt, not just lamented on principal.

“By command authority granted by Starfleet Command,” Kirk announced solemnly, his voice carried by the audio pickup in the all behind him, “and with the remembrance of respect of the officers and crew of the Federation Starship Enterprise, we dedicate this memorial to final voyage of our fallen comrades and friends: Ensign Maximillian Schnieder, Ensign Shin Shui-Tin, Ensign Timothy Buchannon Junior, Ensign Stephen Vargas, Ensign Beth Petrosky, Ensign Orlando Pryor, Ensign Madeline M’bais, Ensign David Barhneisel. Of Lieutenant Dimitri Loganoff, Lieutenant Frank Hayes, Lieutenant Susan Collins. Of Lieutenant Commander Ikemba Taskun, Lieutenant Commander Jessica “Jelly” Lane, Lieutenant Commander Ik’toah, Lieutenant Commander Sani Ebadi, Lieutenant commander John Thirsk. Of Commander Steven Tanner, Commander Will Jordan, Commander Olivia Asakura. Of Doctor Haro Kusenagi, Ensign H. Ayala, Lieutenant Kembi Onise, Doctor Mioh Hr’arku, Lieutenant Commander Sam McCahill, and Doctor Ramsi Ayash.”

By the time he was finished reading the list, the room felt like it had been filled to the top with wet cement. Everyone here knew at least two of the faces that belonged to those names, and especially in the case of the last few, everyone knew the circumstances of their deaths. At the reading of Lieutenant Onise’s name there were even a few murmurs of disapproval, but even more of sorrow. Less than a day after the incident, there was some controversy still as to whether the Lieutenant was a victim or an enabler of the disaster that singly contributed six of those names to the list.

“To them and to their memory do we now devote our mission, and to the future of mankind and the safety of the Federation. Let this memorial carry their spirit to the final frontier, and beyond.”

The launch rail fed the recorder marker into the outer airlock complex and the hatch closed behind it. An alarm sounded on the deck as the airlock began to cycle, then the hiss of air escaping as the outer doors opened, venting the last of the residual air into space. The memorial buoy was pushed into space by a shove from the launch rails, then fired its maneuvering thrusters and pushed away from the ship, heaving itself into a solar orbit and in essence becoming a new planet of this newly-explored solar system.

There was no established procedure for how to carry on from here. It typically depended on the religious background of the deceased, but in cases of multiple deaths like this, the normal flow of events called for the friends and family to step forward to the podium and say a few words about their departed comrades. There were only a handful of speakers now, limiting themselves to about a minute each, expressing feelings of pride, of loss, of fond farewell. And only when Kirk thought the last of the words had been said did a gain the not altogether unpleasant surprise of an eerily familiar Orion officer in an engineering officer’s uniform. It took Kirk a few moments to place the face to a name, and a few moments longer to drag up the relationship from Ayala’s personnel file, just in time for him to recognize exactly who was speaking. “Ayala and I came to Earth looking for a new life,” said Ensign Gaila in a half-subdued whisper, “And though our adoptive homeworld is a thousand times better than Orion, for the longest time we were still singled out by others who didn’t know and us and didn’t want to know us. People who couldn’t look past the color of our skin. We spent most of our lives being treated like… like toys, like little dolls you could rent out when you were bored. When Ayala said she wanted to join Starfleet, I thought she was crazy. I told her we would end up… like… serving coffee in a thong in the officer’s lounge or something. And then she finally talked me into it, and year after year, I started to see she was right. I saw that in Starfleet, we were all equals to anyone else. Not just cardboard cutouts, but real people with real rights. Valued members of a team.” Gaila turned and fixed her gaze directly on Captain Kirk. A petty officer next to her sensed what was coming, but didn’t quite get to her before she could blurt out, “But now I see I was right all along. We really are just disposable parts to you, aren’t we Kirk?! You used my sister just like you used m-” three sets of hands hauled her away from the podium as she started to degenerate into hysterics. Somehow, out of respect for the solemnity of the occasion and a conscious effort not to dignify her outburst with too much attention, the next speaker in line began his remarks as if nothing unusual had even happened.

And Kirk received them in kind, even with a pair of tightly clenched fists. By the time the ceremony had finally drawn to a close, both of his palms were dripping blood.

.

– 2250 hours –

The main deflector drew power from the main reactors again, building up energy wave after wave like a miniature warp engine itself. A dozen times before, the same powerup procedure had been used to blast the Enterprise’ radio voice halfway across the sector to be heard by the sensitive transceivers in the Starfleet communications relay. Now, Enterprise was using its deflector for an entirely new purpose: once the system reached full power, a titanic blast of gravitic energy tore at the surface of the dwarf planet Lethe, a dusty ball of water ice and noxious hydrocarbons just a few hundred kilometers in diameter that was so unremarkable that its discoverer – USS Constellation – hadn’t even bothered to map its surface. Once the deflector beam struck the crust of this little world, the surface layers began to break free from the surface, dragged into space as if by a cosmic vacuum cleaner and funneled directly into the induction units just behind and around the deflector hardware. For several minutes, a stream of pulverized dust and vapors funneled into the Enterprise like an inverted tornado, sucking material right off the face of the planet.

The fuel lab was never busier than at times like this. Ensign Allenby presided over the control room from a science station in the middle of what was for all intents and purposes a secondary bridge, lacking only a helm station and a viewscreen to complete the image. The bussard collector could draw material from a planet or comet at almost a ton per second, but much of that material was useless waste product, and of the stuff that was useful, only a portion of it could be used by the engines. For the massive organism that was a starship, the fuel lab was the “stomach” of the beast, sorting nutrients from fat and fat from poison and pollutants. “This is a dirty son of a bitch,” Allenby muttered at the latest set of spectrograph samples. Lots of exotic ammonia compounds, some aromatic hydrocarbons, and something that looked suspiciously like a base-chain amino acid. The water-ice on the surface was abundant, though, and after a few rounds in the turbofilters it could easily be cracked into oxygen for the crew and hydrogen for the engines. And now that he looked at it, those weird amino acids that kept cropping up in the spectrographs looked like they could be reworked into base proteins for the fabricators, not to mention all the C-H and C-O combinations in the hydrocarbons…

“Computer,” he tapped the voice command for his science station, “Began permutational analysis, statistical distribution on chemical output verses available reaction catalysts.”

“Working…”

“Bridge to fuel lab. What’s it taste like down there?”

Ensign Allenby grinned, “Not too bad, Captain. There’s a few weird-looking carboxyls we could rework for the food synthesizers, maybe a dozen tons extra board. Fuel status should work out as well.”

On the bridge, Captain Kirk looked at the palmcomp Lieutenant Uhura had handed him and read carefully off the note the engineering department had forwarded them, “Mister Scott was wondering about any mineral input from the collectors. Any heavy metals, uranium, polonium…”

“Nothing that heavy, bridge. This rock is more Pluto than Paris.”

“Understood. I’ll pass it on.” Kirk shrugged. Uhura shrugged back. “Shouldn’t be a problem either way.”

“Scotty likes to keep a full cabinet when he can help it,” Uhura decided, and strode back to her communications console. It wasn’t as if the Enterprise was short on raw materials anyway; the machine shops had enough duranium ferrite left over to resurface the entire saucer module, and they’d even finished the outer hull damage in record time. There was still some cosmetic repairs completed in the damaged sections – pieces of corridors and bulkheads scarred by Romulan and reaver action – but Enterprise had more than enough spares for all of that. And even if they didn’t, Starfleet’s Vega 6 probe had reported indications of at least four intelligent, warp-capable species along their current exploration route, any one of which might be willing to trade for supplies.

“Any response from Starfleet on our final report?” Kirk asked, rising slowly from his seat.

Uhura looked back at him tiredly, “Twelve hours overdue, Captain. I suppose that’s probably a bad sign.”

“Starfleet doesn’t like unsolved mysteries. Probably debating whether or not to recall us to give a report in person…” Kirk sighed and made his way to the starboard turbolift. “Uhura, have Mister Scott advance our departure table, I want to be underway for the Eagle Nebula no later than oh seven hundred tomorrow morning.”

Uhura looked at him in alarm, “Captain, at that timetable the fuel lab will have to w-”

“Lieutenant,” Kirk held up his hand, silencing her objection with an almost chilling glance, “Just do it.”

“Aye, Sir.”

Kirk punched the turbolift control for Compartment 205 and then rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Just disposable parts…”

.

Interstellar Space
USS Enterprise (NCC-1701)
Stardate 2261.34

– 0330 hours –

The Yellow Alert tone had roused the Captain from a semi-comatose state and catapulted him still half-sleeping into a turbolift to the bridge. He was not quite fully awake until the moment he dropped into his command chair and wrapped himself in the practiced facade of command confidence and ability the crew so completely depended on at times like this. “Report, Spock.”

The science officer answered from his display console, “We have intermittent SADAR contact ahead of us, something directly in our path. Evasive action is unsuccessful.”

The usual pattern of a gravitic mine, Kirk realized. Judging by the viewscreen display, the Enterprise was still on course for the Eagle Nebula at warp six; that alone told Kirk all he needed to know about the situation at hand. If it was an immediate emergency, Spock would have dropped to impulse and screened with deflectors long before bothering to call the Captain to the bridge. “Can you estimate inertial mass?”

“Not at this distance, but field intensity is immense. Profile is consistent with a Starfleet long-range antiship torpedo…” Spock’s sensor beams suddenly flickered a warning on the overhead displays, “Distance, two point six milliparsecs…”

“Take us out of warp,” Kirk ordered, “Deflectors up full.”

Enterprise slammed back to sublight velocity in the middle of interstellar space, instantly falling into orbit of the galactic core like a miniature solar system itself. The deflector fields powered on now, then extended their reach to create an impassible barrier in space tens of kilometers around the ship. Whatever was heading towards them, it would have much to cope with if it was after a collision.

Now reduced to impulse power, Spock’s sensors had a better view of the universe. Subspace radar as well as passive sensor data came streaming through his monitors now, “Definitely something out there, headed this way.”

Ensign Tyler reported from the navigator console, “Contact in thirty seconds! Closing at… warp seven, Sir!”

Kirk punched the intercom button, “All decks, upgrade to condition red! Forward phasers, standby to fire!”

The lightning on the bridge changed to deep red, consoles dimmed and displays adjusted their output to preserve the crew’s night vision. Alarm claxons and then a series of audible readiness reports announced the transition of Enterprise from an exploration vessel to a deep space battleship capable of engaging any threat in the galaxy.

“Object slowing to warp two, Sir,” Tyler reported, “Now warp one…” in the distance there was a slight rippling effect as something collided with the Enterprise’s deflector barrier and somehow managed to push through. It was like watching a heat shimmer from a forest fire move closer and closer until, at last, the object came to a dead stop a few kilometers off the Enterprise’ bow.

Lieutenant Garrison magnified the image on screen, and recognizing it reported immediately, “It’s a courier, Sir. An old-style recorder marker.”

Kirk nodded slowly, understanding dawning on him. “From the old Romulan Wars. They were designed to home in on any passing vessel and use their last bit of fuel to make the intercept.”

Garrison looked incredulous, “That seems a bit self-defeating, isn’t it?”

Kirk smiled, “The old phase cannons weren’t accurate enough to hit targets at that range. Anyway, it was a good way to attract attention.”

“Indeed they did,” Spock said from the science console, “Whoever ‘they’ are.”

Kirk nodded, “Hannity?”

The communications officer was already hard at work interrogating the recorder marker for its identification code. It took a few seconds for her to call up the relevant communications protocols from the ship’s memory, and once she did, “I read it as a private charter vessel, leased to the New Horizon Corporation from UESPA public services devision. NAR-02, SS Columbia. Recorder marker reports catastrophic engine failure, atmospheric interface, emergency landing procedures.”

The Columbia?” It was little more than a historical curiosity now, something most people chalked up to the law of averages catching up to a group of plucky civilians with more enthusiasm than brains. The former second vessel of the NX-Class was nearly a hundred years old when it embarked on its final voyage into uncharted space, never to be heard from again. There was no specific theory about to what had doomed the ancient vessel, it was simply old, and had probably failed in a critical way at a critical time along with its crew of homesteaders.

Spock pulled the files from the library computer just moments later, “I have it, Jim. Last known position as of Stardate 2240.8, Sector Thirteen by Four by Seven, M44 quadrant, approaching a formation called the Talos Star Group, one point two light years from our present position.”

Kirk did a bit of mental arithmetic and nodded sagely, “That old recorder marker would have taken at least that long to fly towards a major spacelane at impulse speeds… probably launched from inside the system.”

Without needing to be asked, Spock called up the ship’s records on that system and displayed the subspace telescope data on the overhead screen, “Talos System is a trinary G-S-C formation, multiple superjovian bodies and an unusual abundance of dwarf planets and cometary remnants. Primary system similar to Sol, eleven major planets and forty five dwarf planets. Visited twice by Starfleet, first in 2161 and then 2174 by starships Enterprise and Challenger respectively. Detailed charts by USS Archimedes on Stardate 2209.6. SS Columbia was intended to perform a colonization survey of the fourth planet in the system, thought to be Class-M.”

Kirk sighed, “It’s a shame they never made it.”

Garrison glanced over his shoulder, “They could still be alive. Even after eighteen years.”

If they survived the crash. That recorder marker took this long to get into deep space, they probably launched it as a last will and testament.”

Spock looked up from his science console in puzzlement, “We’re not going to go? To confirm one way or the other?”

The image of Lieutenant Janice Rand, slumped on the transporter pad with a Klingon war saber driven though her chest, flashed through his mind. Kirk shook his head, “Not without any indication of survivors, no. Even at trans-warp, it’s three weeks to the Eagle Nebula… I’d prefer not to get sidetracked unnecessarily.” Kirk punched the intercom on his chair and announced, “All sections, stand down from Red Alert, set condition green throughout the ship.” And closing the intercom, he lurched to his feet and started back for the turbolift, “You have the Conn., Spock. Bring that courier aboard and start downloading the Columbia’s last transmissions.”

“Aye, Sir…” Spock watched him go with increasing puzzlement, as if watching a shuttlecraft engine going into a stall. Even a Vulcan with little experience with emotion could tell by now, Captain Kirk’s personality was growing more sour by the minute.

The turbolift deposited him back in Compartment 205, down the corridor and one deck down from his cabin. He made his way there by way of a ladder and a stretch of corridor that still wasn’t completely repaired from battle damage (the overhead lights hadn’t worked in a week), slipped into his cabin and hurled himself onto his bed like an old piece of clothing. A text letter from the Daystrom Institute – apparently from The Man Himself with more pointed questions about what had gone wrong in the last mission – was still flickering on the computer terminal. Kirk ignored it, rolled over on his side and prayed for sleep.

And perhaps thirty seconds later, his prayer was answered a resounding “no” as the door to his cabin hissed open and a brooding southerner strolled into the room with a large bottle of amber liquid, two glasses, and a small plastic container filled with something that looked like modeling clay. “Beware Romulans bearing gifts,” said Doctor McCoy as he set both items on the table next to the bed. “Happy birthday, Jim.”

Kirk rolled over and glowed, “Crazy old man…” then he sat up a little, “Birthday? What birthday?”

“You were born, weren’t you? You didn’t just congeal out of antisocial quirks and bad moods?”

“Get outa here, Bones…”

McCoy snapped open the plastic container and offered it to him like a precious gift. “Sweet potato pie. My mother’s recipe. Goes good with a bit a Tennessee whisky. And if you don’t quit feeling sorry for yourself and enjoy one of these things, I’m gonna stick both of them straight up your ass.”

In spite of himself, Kirk actually laughed. “I didn’t think they still made suppositories.”

McCoy poured a glass for Kirk, then another for himself. “My size twelve boot can cure all kinds of ailments when administered in the proper orifice.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Kirk half-heartedly toasted, then sipped the whisky. And when it didn’t kick in fast enough, he gulped the entire glass in one sitting, coughed through the afterburn, and rolled back over on his bed feeling perfectly miserable.

“Aw, what the hell…” McCoy sighed, “Truth is, Spock and Nyota told me to come check on you.”

Kirk rolled slightly back towards him.

“We may be your junior officers, but we’re also your friends. We’re gettin’ worried about you.”

“About me?” Kirk rolled all the way over and scowled at the thought of it, “I’m the Captain of this ship. You don’t get to worry about me.”

“Oh? Is that Starfleet regulations or what?”

Kirk rolled his eyes. “Get to the point, Bones.”

“You already know the point, don’t be a child.” McCoy grabbed his shoulder and rolled him back to face him, “You’ve been all in a funk ever since we left Doppelgänger, you’ve been sitting here sulking like a bitter old man…”

“Sulking?” Kirk looked at McCoy and almost laughed, “What should I be doing? Tapdancing on the recreation deck?”

“It’s a start.”

“Aw hell… you know what it is? Here I am, rookie Captain Greenhorn on his first deep space assignment with only his ego to guide him. A simple research mission is all it was, and what happens? Watch the Greenhorn make a judgement call and twenty five people wind up in the morgue.”

“It could have been worse, you know that.”

“Yeah. The other sixty eight crewmen in sickbay could have died sooner rather than later.”

McCoy sighed, “Perfectionist asshole! Jim, you set standards for yourself no one could meet. You think anyone else in this fleet could have handled that situation as well as you could?”

“I took three fire teams into an alien battleship with no recon scans, no sensor coverage, no beamout point. I lead our people right into a kill box and the goddamn Klingons had us for breakfast.”

“Jim-!”

“That should be me lying there half dead in the ICU,” Kirk sputtered sourly, “Not Janice. Not Loganoff. Damn… I appointed her to head of security two days before I lead her into a suicide mission! And let’s not forget, the only reason we were in that situation is because I let the Enterprise get boarded in the first place.”

McCoy poured him another glass, then opened the plastic container and helped himself to a pinch of the sweet potato pie. “As Spock would say, this is all just illogical emotional nonsense. What do you plan to do about it?”

Kirk rubbed his knees as if his legs had started hurting from walking through a maze of his own remorse. “I dunno… I should probably resign before I get court-marshaled.”

“And do what? Crawl into a bottle in some hayseed bar in Iowa? You and I both know this is the only job you’ve ever been good at.”

“Not good enough. But there are other options.”

“Like?”

Kirk shrugged, “I don’t know… knock up some blonde, start a family…”

McCoy laughed, “Yeah, right. You being personally responsible for a completely helpless human life that depends on you for its emotional, educational and nutritional needs… yeah, that’s much easier than commanding a starship.”

“The point is I’ve got options! As it is, I’m responsible for the lives of seven hundred men and women on a hundred and forty thousand ton flying city with four and quarter billion moving parts. People live or die depending on whether or not I make the right decision at a moment’s notice… well Bones, what if I’m wrong?”

“Then people die. We burry the dead, we learn from our mistakes, and we move on.”

Kirk stared at his feet, “How many Janice Rands are worth Jim Kirk’s experience?”

“That all depends on what you do with that experience, doesn’t it?” McCoy sipped his whisky and frowned, “You’ve got alot of nerve sitting here feeling sorry for yourself when there’s a whole shipload of people depending on you for leadership. Maybe it was a mistake, who knows? But like it or not, you’re in command, and this ship needs its Captain.”

“Bones, I ha-”

“Bridge to Captain Kirk,” Spock’s voice echoed through the loudspeaker, paging all sections of the ship.

Kirk fumbled for the intercom switch on the computer terminal and answered tiredly, “Kirk here.”

“Recorder maker contains remote-access log entry. There are survivors on Talos Four.”

Or at least, there were. Eighteen years is a long time to be marooned on an alien planet, M-Class or not. Even so… “From our present position, what’s our ETA on the Talos Star Group?”

“Fourteen minutes at present speed.”

Only a small deviation from their course. If there were any survivors, it shouldn’t take more than a day or two to find them. “Alter course for Talos Prime. I’ll be there shortly.” Kirk stood up like a rusty mechanism, paused briefly over the sweet potato pie, and with three switch movements of a fork, shoveled the entire concoction into his mouth. “Bones, I haven’t felt this lost since… Well, since Pike died. I can’t shake this feeling like I’m into something way too big for me.”

“Fortunately, your crew doesn’t care about your feelings, and between Doppelgänger and the Black Ship Affair, most of them look up to you like God Almighty. If nothing else, that means you’re in, it means you’ve earned their respect and their loyalty. This isn’t the end for you, Jim, it’s just the beginning. Don’t you dare throw it away because you’re too busy feeling sorry for yourself!”

Kirk shot him a jaunty wave and then strode out of his quarters, wearing the best facade of whisky-fueled confidence he could muster on short notice.

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