Star Trek- Enigma

Chapter 1

Cast:
Geordi La Forge
Jean-Luc Picard
Beverly Crusher
Worf
Data
Will Riker
Deanna Troi

Though serene and full of stars, an indistinct blemish passed through the region of space like a shadow of fear. In its wake, following at a cautious distance, were three Romulan warships.
‘Sir, we are nearing the Federation’s border,’ the navigator warned.
The eyes of the ship’s captain remained hard, unyielding. ‘Deter its course.’
‘Aye. Launching a spread of photon torpedoes.’
‘On screen. Maximum magnification.’
The view became murky, indistinct, despite the piercingly bright objects, three, six, nine of them, hurtling just ahead of the black-on-black guess passing before the stars.
‘Sir, there is no change in course or speed-’
‘We are entering Federation space-’
‘Damn ’ All eyes turned to the captain who hesitated only for a fraction of a second. ‘Inform the other ships that we are engaging cloaking devices. Shoot to disable.’
The navigator and chief gunner exchanged a look that hid what they were feeling.
‘Aye, sir.’

The young officer reported to the escape pod as ordered, rolled the unwieldy container inside, heaved it into one of the empty seats, began securing it in place using the safety harness, only to find that the catch didn’t quite reach. Realising there was no time and that the container had to be somehow locked into place as-is, she turned around, leaned her back against it, braced her feet against the wall of the pod, and heaved.
With relief she heard the catch click home, shifted herself upright-
-and came to in darkness, coughing, breathing acrid smoke. She thought at first that something was wrong with her senses, until it dawned on her that the lack of sensation was caused, not by paralysis, but by weightlessness  Something was wrong with the ship
Grabbing a handhold, she manoeuvred herself to the door and the pod’s one tiny window, and peered out expecting to see the lighted corridor-
-but instead saw pale sunlight and the arc of a blue and white sphere looming below-
With a rush of superheated air the pod hit the atmosphere, slamming her against the padded wall. At once the temperature inside the pod increased, the air filling with acrid white smoke. Guided half by memory, half by instinct, she held her breath and shut her eyes tight, pulled up the bottom of her shirt out of her uniform and over her face, spat on the cloth until it was damp, held it down over her mouth and nose, and began breathing once more.
From the way the pod shuddered and shook, she knew it was damaged. Through the window she could see fire, not simply the flame of air superheated by the pod’s skin, but real fire caused by burning, edged with black smoke and occasional bits of metal flaring brilliantly white-hot as they were torn loose and incinerated.
There was a sudden roar as the retrorockets cut in, and the crushing press of deceleration. But something was wrong  The pod slewed drunkenly, the engines guttered, died, restarted themselves, guttered- and then came the unmistakable sound of a line rupturing, the scream of fuel jetting out and igniting-
-and then the pod was rolling end-over-end, slamming her from wall to wall . . . she realised dimly that had the interior not been covered with a thick layer of crash-padding that every bone in her body would by now have been broken. With a final sick thud and loud hissing, the pod slithered to a stop.
Her lungs screaming for clean air to breathe, she glanced at the sensor device mounted on the door- now the ceiling- noted with relief that the pod had correctly followed its programming and selected the nearest inhabitable planet, pulled the lever and heaved the hatch open-
-only to pull the door half-closed again with a curse. A brief glimpse had revealed endless white hills, a pale silver sun, and air tinged with a halo of ice-crystals.
A crackling got her attention, and with an inner groan of despair she realised that the pod was burning, still filling with smoke. Coughing, she heaved herself outside into the bitter cold, got turned around on the edge of the hatch, slid off, and sank up to her waist in deep powered snow.
Instantly, she was hit with a blast of air so cold that it watered her eyes and stung her skin. Her vision a silvery smear, she began heaving her way through the snow around the pod to where it burned. Within moments the pod was a roaring inferno, forcing her to back away to a safe distance. The side of her away from the fire was too cold, the side nearest too hot, so she began turning in order to distribute the heat while it lasted. A sound caught her attention, and turning her silver-smeared gaze skyward, stared in sick dread as the pale blue skies became streaked with burning, falling debris.

A dull sound brought her out of a half-frozen stupor, a low vibration felt as much as heard through the deep snow. Blinking stinging soot and the possibility of freezing-death from her eyes, she struggled out from under the pod, now burned out and cold, wondering if the vibration meant rescue or an end to her misery at the hands of an enemy.
Gliding towards her through the snow was a vehicle unlike anything she’d ever seen, like a water craft. Mostly white with round tinted windows, it plowed through the snow on its hull, trailing a wake of powdered snow. Within moments it came to a stop mere metres away, then disgorged a dozen orange-clad humanoid bipeds. Their faces were covered, preventing speech. Working rapidly, methodically, she was extracted from her hole, strapped onto a stretcher, and taken straightaway to the strange snow-craft.
As they carried her through a side doorway her ears were buffeted by the roar of blowers belching heated air. Within moments she found herself on a table in what was obviously a sickbay. Her heart leaped as a woman like herself entered the room. But then the woman began speaking in a tongue that was strange to her ears . . . strange, and yet distantly familiar . . .
The woman’s eyes narrowing with distrust, she said words that this time were understandable. ‘. . . no, not Vulcan. Romulan.’
‘Romulan ’ a man’s voice blurted in surprise. ‘What the hell is she doing here?’
A second woman, human this time, appeared and introduced herself. ‘I’m Doctor Beverly Crusher. You’re on board an emergency medical vehicle. We’re going to treat you for hypothermia . . . can you tell me your name and what you’re doing here?’
‘I am called Raya,’ the young Romulan woman replied in English Standard, realising these were Federation people. ‘I was . . .’ she considered her response carefully, ‘ . . . working on an escape pod when it accidentally ejected itself, bringing me here. I ask that you return the remains of the pod and myself back to my ship.’
The doctor and the others exchanged a look in response. The Vulcan nurse then made a move to begin ministering to the Romulan woman but she demurred and sat up. ‘The damage to my person is minimal. I will be recovered shortly. But I insist on being returned-’
‘You have no ship to return to,’ the doctor told her gently.
Raya gave her a sharp look. ‘My ship was destroyed?’ She recalled the debris falling from the sky, an eyebrow upraised as the truth became plain to her. ‘There were two others . . .’ she stopped herself, seeing the look the others exchanged.
‘I’m commander William Riker of the Federation starship Enterprise,’ the man said, introducing himself. ‘Look, I don’t have time to mince words with you. We were alerted to the presence of three of your Romulan warships entering Federation space in pursuit of something. As they entered our system, your warships were observed cloaking themselves. Shots were then exchanged between your ships and the intruder they were chasing. During this exchange your ships were destroyed. A dozen Federation ships are now following the intruder at a safe distance. If there’s anything you wish to tell us, now would be the time.’
The young Romulan woman swallowed, visibly shaken by this news. ‘Destroyed . . . how is this possible?’
‘The intruder was observed emitting some type of energy bursts at your ships,’ Riker told her. ‘Each scored a direct hit, destroying their target.’
‘But our ships were cloaked ’
Riker shrugged. ‘I don’t know what to tell you, except that the intruder evidently is very powerful and has advanced technology that can see ships even when they’re cloaked.’
Raya hesitated, then said, ‘There is something in the escape pod that must be returned to my people . . . it was strapped into one of the seats.’
‘Whatever it was,’ Riker told her, ‘it’s gone. Everything inside the pod was destroyed by fire.’
‘That is untrue,’ the young Romulan told him. ‘There was a case, the content of which is able to withstand many times the heat of a normal fire. The case itself was extremely heat-resistant.’
‘We did find the container,’ Riker admitted, ‘but it was empty . . .’ he stopped himself, seeing the young Romulan’s reaction. ‘What is it? What was inside that thing?’
‘Something that has now escaped, it seems,’ she replied, her mien an unwilling admixture of respect and dread, one eyebrow upraised in thought. Appraising Riker directly, she said, ‘It seems that our problem has now become yours.’

‘Come,’ Captain Jean Luc Picard said brusquely as he was hailed by an electronic sound from the intercom. He was seated as his desk deep in thought, chin resting on his fist, but looked up, his gaze drawn to Lieutenant Commander Worf because his chief of security stood stiffly at attention- a bad sign of things to come. ‘What is it, Mr Worf?’
‘Sir,’ the Klingon bit off in his habitual deep, clipped tones, ‘the intruder has just breached the security barrier put in place by Federation engineers. Its heading is unchanged.’ He said the word unchanged to emphasise his surprise at the near-effortless manner in which the intruder had passed through a force field which could virtually halt an entire planet in its tracks.
Picard leaned back in his chair and set down the dictapad he’d been reading from. Despite the impossibility of what the Klingon had told him, he was not about to question Worf’s word. Instead, he said, ‘Is there any further word from the Romulans?’
‘Only that they advise us to use the utmost caution in regaining the contents of the container that were released when one of their escape pods crashed on Murius VI.’
‘And did they explain what those contents were?’
‘I think that you should speak with the lone survivor who was in that escape pod,’ Worf said slowly, considering his words carefully.
Captain Picard showed his surprise. ‘Why?’
‘The Romulans will say very little,’ Worf told him in that same careful tone, ‘I suspect because they know very little. We might learn more from an eyewitness who has at least laid eyes on whatever was inside that container.’
Picard sighed and considered the message from StarFleet on the face of the dictapad once more. ‘Very well. Send her in.’

Captain Picard’s senses tightened the instant he laid eyes on the young Romulan woman. He could tell a combat soldier when he saw one. Though lithe and of medium build, and quite attractive, this was a formidable and potentially lethal adversary.
‘You wish to speak with me?’
‘Please, Lieutenant Raya,’ he said gesturing, ‘take a seat.’
She hesitated, arms crossed, her eyes fixed on a point somewhere above his head. ‘I prefer to stand when being interrogated.’
‘This is not an interrogation,’ he said in a manner calculated to put her at ease. ‘Please, sit.’
She did so.
‘I’ve been in contact with the Romulan High Command regarding the incident on Murius VI. As a matter of interstellar goodwill there will be no complaint, formal or otherwise, about actions taken there or their consequences. Further, we have expressed our condolences over the tragic loss of life which occurred there. However, as you were reported to have so eloquently put it, as the subject of this matter is now our problem, we would like some answers.’
‘That depends on the nature of your questions,’ Lieutenant Raya replied evasively, looking him in the eye.
Captain Picard sighed, sensing a lack of cooperation from the young woman. ‘All right. What was in that container? And what is the nature of the object that is now in Federation space?’
‘I . . . can’t give you a direct answer to those questions,’ she told him hesitantly.
‘Why not?’
Her look softened fractionally. ‘Because we are . . . I am . . . uncertain as to what they are.’
Picard raised an eyebrow at that. ‘Is there anything you can tell me?’
‘I can give you a general description of events and my observations, for what they’re worth,’ she told him, as though what she had seen and would testify to were untrustworthy, ‘but must warn you that mere words are not enough to describe a thing that perhaps is not to be accurately described or understood.’
He considered her words in silence for several long moments, then said, ‘Start from the beginning, then. Tell me what you do know.’
Reluctantly, she began. ‘You little know what you ask . . . it is a long tale, some of which you may already know.
‘It begins with the ancient rogue asteroid which was ensnared by Romulus as the planet was forming- ah, I see that you know of it.’
‘I have an interest in archaeology,’ he told her, ‘and among archaeologists there has long been talk and speculation about . . .’ he searched for words, ‘ . . . certain aspects of that celestial body.’
Raya nodded. ‘It has long been surmised that, unlike normal asteroids, this object was part of a planet that was destroyed billions of years ago when its sun’s life came to its end; that it was hurled out of its system to wander the void of space for millennia, eventually to fall under the influence of a newly forming system.’
‘But what has any of this to do with the matter at hand?’ captain Picard asked her, trying to keep impatience out of his voice.
‘A great deal,’ she replied firmly, sensing his mood. ‘Three of your solar decades ago, geologists found evidence of past life on the asteroid. Archaeologists were summoned in secret, and within six years they found evidence of an ancient civilisation. You have heard of this?’
‘There has been a certain amount of wild speculation for some time,’ he told her, ‘outlandish rumours that seemed to have their basis in ancient Romulan myth.’
‘Ah, you speak of rumours associated with the creation myths.’
‘Actually, it’s a much older myth I’m referring to,’ he replied with a slight smile. ‘The one about the leviathan woken by an ancient race of people who delved deep into the earth and awakened a monster.’
‘Then you know,’ she said into his irony, ‘what the archaeologists awakened when they delved into the centre of the asteroid.’
He stared, looking for humour or irony, and saw none. ‘Wait, you’re telling me that they came upon a life form . . .’
‘Deep within the heart of the asteroid,’ she finished for him, ‘where it has slept for billions of years.
‘It was not yet awake when it was first discovered,’ she continued. ‘The archaeologists initially thought they had come upon a fossil, taking a piece of it to be studied-’
‘A piece of it,’ Picard echoed, sensing something unpleasant behind her words.
‘An artifact that is now loose below us on Murius VI,’ she said, completing his thought.
‘And you were doing what with it?’ he said, more to himself. ‘Following this thing . . . to do what?’
‘To buy time,’ she told him. ‘When our researchers began studying the piece that had been taken, they soon realised that it was but one small part of a vast organism. You must understand, we lost more than three ships and all hands aboard them. We lost a team of our best scientists, too, and I would advise that you do as we were doing: regain the part that is lost and make the attempt to understand it.’
‘The main organism-’
‘You will never get close enough to study it,’ she cut him off. ‘And I must warn you: even with a piece of it in your hands, your chances of unlocking its mysteries are not good.’

‘She was right about one thing,’ chief engineer Jordie La Forge said into the communicator badge on the breast of his heavy parka as he studied the remains of the burnt-out escape pod, ‘our chances of understanding this thing aren’t good.’ The howling wind was kept at bay by a ring of tough synthetic sheets affixed to sturdy poles which surrounded the pod site.
‘Why do you say that, Mr La Forge,’ captain Picard’s voice asked him through the communicator.
‘Well, for one thing,’ Jordie said as he swept the area yet again with his tricorder, ‘we’re picking up traces of the most unconventional matter I’ve ever seen. I don’t know whether this is the result of some incredibly advanced technology, or whether it’s the residue of an organism that came from some exotic region of space, but the arrangement of subatomic particles is like nothing I’ve ever seen.’
‘She did say that it’s many billions of years old,’ the captain told him. ‘Perhaps this is some type of early matter.’
‘There is that possibility,’ the chief engineer agreed. ‘The earliest matter formed at a time when the universe was extremely hot, which means that the conditions were right for putting together combinations of subatomic particles that were very different from what we know today. But if that’s right, we’re going to have a hell of a time getting a handle on this thing. It could be so different that we’ll never begin to hope to understand it.’

Captain Jean Luc Picard felt an ugly knot forming in the pit of his stomach as he switched off the intercom, left his chair, and moved to stand before the window of his quarters to think. An ancient life form or form of technology . . . perhaps both, perhaps neither. In all his years in space there was little he’d come across that had struck his senses as being truly alien. There was always something common or familiar to be found, even if it was a civilisation whose languages and thought patterns baffled even the most intelligent and experienced linguists. There were still commonalities such as language, civilisation, intelligence, beings that were recognisable as such.
But this might be something that pushed the boundaries of what was knowable and recognisable and identifiable to the limit. It was quite possibly a rare encounter with something that was truly alien, in ways that went beyond the bounds of everything that was known.
Why, then, did he have such a bad feeling about this? Why did he feel threatened instead of challenged? Worried instead of curious? Deep-rooted angst instead of wonder?
With more force than was necessary, he punched the intercom. ‘Mr Data, have the senior staff meet me in the ready room right away, and bring the Romulan. We need to know everything she does.’
‘Aye, sir.’
Waiting before the window, he studied the black reaches of space and wondered why, for the first time, he felt its black emptiness yawning like impending death.

When everyone was assembled, captain Picard addressed Mr Data directly. ‘I’m told you found the artifact with little trouble. Why is it not yet contained and aboard this ship?’
The android’s yellow eyes held his own. ‘Locating the artifact is not the problem. Containing it is another matter entirely.’
‘Explain,’ the captain responded.
‘I will attempt to do so,’ the android said, still holding his gaze, ‘but we’ve encountered a problem, although based upon what Lt Raya has told us, this was to be expected.
‘The artifact is like nothing we’ve ever encountered. We are treating it as though it were a life form but its behaviour could just as easily be explained by some form of alien technology, or an entirely unknown type of physics unique to whatever the artifact is.’
The captain had asked Mr Data because he was hoping for answers less dissatisfying than those given by Lt Raya and Mr La Forge. ‘All right. Mr La Forge, have you learned anything new about the artifact?’
Geordi made a frustrated sound. ‘We still don’t know anything about it, and I mean anything  I mean . . . have you seen it yet?’
The captain shook his head.
‘Well, it’s grey,’ Geordi continued as though the word grey was somehow offensive, ‘and that’s about all I can tell you. ‘Other than that, it changes shape and moves pretty much where it wants to. At Lt Raya’s suggestion we were finally able to corner it by creating a mini-holo-deck and boxing it in, but we don’t know why it’s staying there, and if it decides to go somewhere, we don’t have a hope in hell of stopping it.’
‘The artifact seems able to pass through conventional matter at will,’ Data said, ‘and the manner in which it does so is disturbing, to say the least.’
‘One of our engineers told me that it can penetrate solid rock,’ Commander Riker said. ‘He said it was like watching a miniature juggernaut at work, that it simply punched its way through solid rock like an icepick through a block of cheese.’
‘Except there was a lot of noise and smoke and heat generated,’ Geordi grumbled. ‘We thought at first that it was burning a path through solid rock, but it was actually pushing its way through.’
‘And yet you say this thing seems to have no physical weight,’ Deanna Troi put in, her brows knitted, trying to understand, ‘and expends and emits no energy. How can that be if the rest of it was able to destroy three starships and pass through a force barrier?’
Geordi shrugged. ‘The stuff this thing is made of is somehow able to put out more energy that is allowed for its mass. Conventional mass,’ he explained, ‘can be converted directly into a measurable amount of energy. But the rules don’t seem to apply, here. I think Raya’s right, that this thing is so far out of our experience that we don’t even know the right questions to ask.’
‘Why don’t we start with what we do know,’ the captain said. From his tone it was neither a question nor a suggestion. ‘For instance, we do know that it’s grey, which in itself seems to be a matter of some contention.’
‘Right, well . . .’ Mr La Forge began, ‘it only appears grey to us because it doesn’t reflect conventional light the way it would its own . . . what passes for light, or passed for light, in its original environment.
‘You get the same thing if you, say, put a bird’s feather underneath a microscope. Everything the microscope sees appears grey because colour doesn’t take magnification into account.’
‘In other words,’ Dr Crusher put in, ‘we see green because light bounces off something containing minute bits of stuff that’s the same physical length as a given light wavelength, say, for the colour green. With a bird’s feather, the light is bouncing off filaments which reflect colours that match their length. But what I’m not getting is why this thing only appears grey to us. Surely there must be corresponding bits of it to match light wavelengths.’
‘Which is assuming that light is able to interact with it in ways we understand,’ Data told her. ‘Perhaps we should rephrase what we mean by saying that we “see” this artifact. I do not believe that we are actually seeing it. I think what we are seeing is the lack of something.’
‘Coming from you, Mr Data,’ the captain said with a slight smile, ‘I would call that “being philosophical”.’
Before the android’s positronic brain could puzzle that out, Lt Worf interjected, ‘I am not satisfied that we understand the nature of the danger this artifact represents. It responded when threatened, despite the likelihood that the ability to damage it was beyond Romulan technology.’ He eyed Lt Raya as though challenging her to deny this. Getting no response, he added, speaking to her, ‘The Romulans clearly understood this thing to pose a threat, otherwise why try to intercept it or attempt to alter its course?’ All eyes turned to Lt Raya as he said this, sensing the truth of his words.
‘Is there anything you’re not telling us?’ captain Picard demanded.
The Romulan woman raised an eyebrow at that. ‘I assume you’re referring to the artifact? As far as that goes, I have told you what seems most pertinent to the present situation.’
‘Then I suggest you tell us the rest, even if it does not seem pertinent,’ the captain told her in an icy tone.
She hesitated, fractionally. ‘Very well. What would you know? That all attempts to discover the artifact’s secrets met with failure-?’
‘Did those attempts meet with any loss of life?’ the captain cut her off.
Not looking at him, she replied in an odd tone, ‘No, there has been no loss of life.’
Wondering if he was making a mistake, the captain decided not to pursue this line of questioning, and instead asked, ‘What tests were conducted? And did you witness any of them?’
‘All the standard tests demanded by our physicists were used to attempt to examine the artifact, all to no avail. What little they discovered is what you already know: that it is not comprised of conventional matter, that it does not adhere to any conventional dimensionality-’
‘Whoa, stop right there ’ Geordi interrupted. ‘No one said anything about dimensionality, conventional or otherwise.’
‘I stand corrected,’ the Romulan responded with thinly veiled sarcasm. ‘I would have thought your famous team of Starfleet scientists would have looked into that already.’
‘We’ve barely got the damned thing contained ’ Mr La Forge shot back, his temper flaring at her jibe. ‘It’s not exactly in the best situation for conducting tests of any kind ’
‘What do you know about the artifact’s dimensionality,’ the captain asked Raya quietly, instantly and pointedly resetting the mood to calm.
‘Only that it is not as we see it,’ she responded. ‘I suspect that only part of it, or certain aspects of it, present themselves within our dimension.’
‘That would explain why it appears flat, no matter what angle you’re looking at it,’ Geordi said. ‘I thought it was just something to do with my visor.’
‘Could it be a two-dimensional object?’ Will Riker queried.
‘That is a distinct possibility,’ Data put in, ‘given the nature of the early universe. But,’ he added, ‘there are any number of other possible explanations, including any number of dimensional possibilities-’
They were interrupted by an urgent hail. ‘Bridge to captain Picard ’
‘Go ahead.’
‘Sir, the artifact has breached its containment and is on the move, fast, and is heading for open space ’
‘Lay in a pursuit course and get us under way ’ the captain ordered, rising and breaking up the meeting. ‘Don’t let it out of your sight ’

‘Where is it headed?’ the captain demanded as he took the command chair.
‘Out of Federation space,’ the young officer said, unable to conceal her relief. ‘And we’ve just been informed that the rest of the artifact is now through Federation space and heading for deep space as well.’
The captain hesitated only fractionally. ‘Until we understand what we’re dealing with, we’re going to pursue this thing and attempt to unlock its secrets. It may be benign, but it may also cause harm which would be on our heads, within the Federation or without.’ There was palpable disappointment at the thought of going after the artifact but the captain ignored it, saying, ‘Mr Data, where is the artifact headed?’
The android frowned as he scanned his instruments. ‘It doesn’t appear that the artifact has set itself any particular objective. It seems to be doing nothing more than heading for deep space, and it will be a good many light years before it comes even remotely close to any system.’
‘Can we alter its course?’
Uncharacteristically, the android frowned. ‘It is theoretically possible, although there may be a fair amount of risk involved.’
‘Would you care to elaborate?’
‘As you know, the ship’s propulsion system works by warping space,’ Data said. ‘The object is small enough that, if we were to draw alongside, close enough to one of our warp nacelles, we should be able to curve the space through which it’s heading and alter its course.’
‘Splendid ’ the captain applauded, relieved. ‘What is the nearest class “M” planet which lies somewhat close to our present heading?’
Data checked his instruments. ‘It appears that there is only one, sir,’ the android responded, ‘but it seems that access to it is somewhat restricted.’
The captain frowned. ‘Restricted by whom?’
The android turned to face him. ‘By its owner; one Linus Seagram.’
‘Of the Rothman financial empire?’ Commander Riker blurted. ‘That Linus Seagram?’
‘That would be the one, sir,’ Data responded.
‘What is it, Will?’ the captain asked him.
‘Linus Seagram is said to be something of a recluse, although buying your own planet out in deep space is a little extreme in my opinion. But knowing how the Seagram’s made their fortune, he’s probably up to something illegal, which would explain why he would allow only limited access.’
The captain slumped in his chair, feeling railroaded. ‘Call ahead, Mr Worf. Advise Mr Seagram that he’s about to have guests.’
‘Aye, sir.’

They arrived at Linus Seagram’s world a week later and watched as the artifact decelerated, entered the atmosphere, and eventually came to a stop on the planet below.
‘Any official word yet from our host?’ captain Picard asked Mr Worf.
‘No sir. Just the same prerecorded message asking us to announce our arrival, and that he will contact us as soon as he’s able.’
‘Very well, Mr Worf. Go ahead and ring the doorbell to the mansion.’
The big Klingon gave him a sour look, and muttered, ‘Aye, sir.’

Chapter 2

Linus Seagram did not appear receptive to the prospect of receiving guests. He eyed the six Starfleet officers balefully as they materialised out of the transporter beam, as he paused from directing his robotic work-force which was sorting cut stone taken from a nearby outcrop. He was a stern-looking man of medium height and build with short black hair, and was physically rock-solid with a look that attested to a life of hard labour rather than working out.
The six Starfleet officers didn’t notice at first, however, because they were looking about in wonder. To the south stood a work in progress, a magnificent long stone building four storeys tall and shaped like an “H” that looked to be a Gothic palace. A rail ran from a tunnel which issued from a stone outcropping to the north to the front of the palatial building and beyond. The palace grounds were surrounded at a fair distance by a massive stone wall than met the stone outcropping in a semicircle running from a point north-west to a point south-east. To the north lay a stone outcropping or hill which ran as far as the eye could see from north-west to south-east. Due north from their position, and just to the left, was the tunnel entrance. Five-hundred metres to the right of this was a huge double wooden door built right into the native rock; to the right of this was a small window, a massive chimney, another small window, a long vertical line of glass running high up the outcropping, and to its right a churning stream which issued from the grass plain which lay at the top of the outcropping.
‘I’ve got that thing of yours boxed in,’ Seagram said without preamble. ‘I’d like you to pack it up and leave here as soon as possible.’
Captain Picard, Geordi La Forge, Deanna Troi, Mr Worf, Will Riker and Mr Data stared. ‘You’ve already managed to confine it?’ the captain said in surprise.
‘The locals have it surrounded,’ he replied cryptically.
‘Locals,’ Worf echoed suspiciously. ‘We detected only three humanoid life-forms in this area.’
‘Ah, bipedal arrogance,’ Seagram said, though without sarcasm. ‘If it thinks, it must walk around on two legs.’
‘We detected no sentient beings in this area,’ Data said, frowning.
Seagram turned to a curious-looking animal, a thickset creature the size of a small dog, orange-cinnamon coloured with light areas and darker stripes. The creature had ears, a nose and a mouth. But it had no eyes.
‘Bite ‘em, Sunshine,’ Seagram said, not seriously. In response the little animal uttered a curious chirruping, trilling sound. ‘Yeah, I’m not sure I like them either.’
‘Fascinating,’ Data said, engrossed with the creature. ‘I have heard that many of the indigenous life-forms on this planet have sensory capabilities other than sight.’
‘Oh, they can see all right,’ Seagram told him, finishing a short inventory of various pieces of stone and sending it on its way. ‘Far better than we can, in fact- don’t do that ’ Data had been about to scan the creature using his tricorder, but Seagram stopped him just short of turning the device on. ‘The frequencies put out by those things play havoc with their sensory apparatus,’ he explained. ‘Don’t ever use sensor equipment around them, and especially do not ever discharge weapons like phasers. They’re incredibly sensitive to certain types of energy, and trust me- you do not want to make them angry.’ As he said this, two more people beamed down- Dr Crusher and Raya. ‘Hey  Sunshine ’ He watched in surprise as the little animal bounded over to Lt Raya, reared up on its hind feet, and began pawing at her leg.
Without thinking, Raya knelt down and picked it up.
‘I’ll be damned,’ Seagram muttered. ‘He’s normally very cagey around people.’
‘He purrs ’ Raya exclaimed, causing captain Picard to suppress a small smile.
Changing the subject, the captain said, ‘Who are these others, who have managed to contain the artifact?’
Seagram appeared to be finished with what he was doing, and said, ‘Oh-h-h, they’re like Sunshine here. And not.’
‘Meaning?’ Picard rejoined.
‘You’ll see,’ Seagram said enigmatically. ‘Anyway, I’ll take you to where they’re holding it, now. C’mon . . . I’ve got some landriders parked in the underground.’

The Federation team followed Seagram to the big wooden double doors. He hauled one side to the right, rolling it on wheels so that it disappeared into a space cut right into the rock at the base of the stone outcropping. He closed the door behind them once they entered, they followed him to the left, and left again down a wide metal staircase, and then the Federation team stopped and gasped in surprise.
‘Just how big is this place?’ Geordi exclaimed. They were in a vast underground garage filled with various types of equipment, from earth-moving machines to transports to various types of air and space craft.
‘I had this area filled in,’ Seagram told them. ‘It’s really a shallow valley that goes on for about half a kilometre, right where the wall begins. This area here is for machinery, and on the left side, the upper floor is one big grow-up for vegetables and vat-grown muscle-tissue-’
‘Humane meat,’ Dr Crusher interjected approvingly. ‘The only kind I’ll eat, unless it comes out of a replicator.’
At the mention of replicator food, Seagram winced. ‘Anyway, underneath the grow-op are the manufacturing levels. Here, we’ll use this one. It’s the only one that’s been driven so far.’ He led them to a landrider, a heavy transport with two-metre-tall tires, an empty space in back with two large doors at the rear and small doors to either side, and a huge cab space in front with a driver’s seat in the middle, and bench seats to either side and behind it. With an electric whine, the machine started up instantly. Seagram backed it out, wheeled it around, and they were on their way.

As they waited for an automatic ramp to lower itself, Seagram said, ‘This is kind of an abuse of a very useful industrial vehicle, but I just love driving this thing. The back is for equipment and stuff, and the front is for the work crew. Once the crews arrive, it’ll have more of a lived-in look.’ He chuckled. ‘I doubt it’ll ever be so clean inside again.’
He gunned the landrider forward as soon as the ramp was lowered. In an instant they were out on the plain, heading for a gate in the wall. He pressed an overhead button and the gate opened before them. Just as they were passing through, he pressed another overhead button to close it, and they were afforded their first view of the open plain.
‘It looks a bit like the African savannah,’ Dr Crusher commented.
‘It does, a bit,’ Seagram agreed a bit morosely. ‘When I first arrived here the animal populations were in very rough shape.’
‘How can that be?’ Geordi asked him. ‘This place looks like there hasn’t been any human interference.’
‘Unlike Earth,’ Seagram told him, ‘things are very stable, which doesn’t drive the engine of evolution forward at a furious pace. When I first came here part of the animal habitat picture was coming to an end. There were once huge caves all over the place that the animals made use of in order to survive the winters. But the hills are all made of stone, so as they eroded away the animals were unable to dig themselves new homes, and every winter their numbers had been falling, to the point that there weren’t all that many left.’
‘You’ve been making new caves for them,’ captain Picard anticipated, his tone a mixture of respect and admonition.
‘Oh-h-h,’ Seagram responded with an enigmatic smile, ‘I interfered a lot more than that.’

Within a few minutes they came in sight of the coast. Seagram was following a road that was obviously of his own making: the shallow tire ruts of his own vehicle which had apparently made this journey often over a period of time. They were soon travelling north west in a line parallel to the high stone outcrop, which itself ran from northwest to southeast as far as the eye could see. Eventually they came to a man-made incline at a low point in the stone outcropping, surged upwards with a gravel-spitting roar . . . and then they were on the vast expanses of the upper plain.
While the others were drinking in this spectacular sight, turning often in their seats and craning their heads in order to get a look at the ocean to the west, Deanna Troi’s attention was consumed by the eyeless little animal perched on Raya’s lap, his front paws on the dashboard, gazing ahead, apparently able to see.
‘This creature is sentient ’ she exclaimed, catching the Federation team off-guard. ‘I’m sure he understands a good deal of what we’re saying ’ She looked to Seagram who was smiling broadly. ‘But you already know this.’
Seagram said nothing.

Within the hour they had entered a new region, of rolling hills and thickets, and the occasional stand of massive tree-like plants of the same type that lay to the south of the wall. Soon they were at the border of a tall forest and drawing towards an apparently dry vale. At the lowest point, in the middle, was an extraordinary sight.
‘They look like little Sunshine . . . only much bigger ’ Deanna exclaimed. ‘What on earth are they doing?’
‘They’re doing exactly what it looks like they’re doing,’ Seagram told her. ‘Sitting in a circle, blocking that artifact of yours from getting away.’
‘Astonishing,’ Data said with more emotion than he believed himself capable of.
Captain Picard raised an eyebrow. ‘The question, however, is what we’re going to do now. We still don’t know how we’re going to contain it.’
‘My understanding is that you had it contained before,’ Seagram said sourly.
‘My people did have it contained before,’ Raya said, her gazed fixed on the strange sight before them, ‘but it was a matter of trial and error and accident. We’re still not sure how the feat was accomplished.’
Seagram sighed, considering. ‘Well . . . for now, let’s get it to my lab.’ He rose from his seat.
‘How do you intend getting it there?’ Data asked him.
‘I don’t,’ Seagram shot back. ‘I intend to let others do it for me.’

The others watched in silent wonder as Seagram approached the circle of animals with easy familiarity and seemed almost to converse with them. Within moments the entire group was moving towards the rear of the vehicle, herding the artifact which remained in their midst. Worf and Geordi assisted by opening the rear doors and laying a ramp which slid out from underneath the rear of the vehicle. The suspension system groaned under the weight of the seven animals, each of which was from four to five feet at the shoulder. In the meantime, as the were loaded in and ready to get under way once more, some of the Federation team got their first look at the artifact.
‘It really does look flat, no matter which side you look at it from,’ Dr Crusher remarked. ‘It looks like nothing more than a sort of flat, grey hole.’ The shape of the artifact was changeable, and at the moment was roughly vertical and ovoid, about twenty-four inches tall by eleven wide.
‘This is part of what destroyed three of my people’s most powerful ships and their crews,’ Raya reminded them.
‘Has anyone physically touched it?’ Data asked her absently, staring intently at the animal-encircled object.
Raya gave him a sharp look, but said nothing.

Worf spent much of the ride back admiring the animals guarding the artifact. At one point he said to Seagram, ‘They are magnificent. They have the look of warriors.’
Seagram smiled somewhat privately to himself at that. ‘You’re right, they are magnificent, and they are warriors in the truest sense.’
‘How do they see?’ Worf asked him.
Picard felt the man wouldn’t answer such a question, but to his surprise, perhaps because Worf’s innocent curiosity aroused something akin in himself, he replied, ‘They have a number of sensory organs in their heads that are like sensors, some of them active, some of them passive, and they can control which are active, at will. This is because their active sensors give them away, both to one another and to other creatures that have a similar sensory apparatus. Their active sensory system probably developed from living in caves where there is no light.’
‘So they can literally see in the dark,’ Dr Crusher put in, genuinely fascinated. ‘How do their sensors work? Is it echolocation, or something different?’
‘There are several sets of sensors,’ Seagram told her, ‘and several organs that may be sensors which I haven’t figured out yet. They work on a number of principles, some of them bioelectromagnetic, some of them bioelectric, some of them to do with ultrasound, and several of them to do with senses I can’t identify.
‘Even their “normal” senses differ from ours. They have a directional sense of smell, spatial senses of orientation and hearing, a directional sense that can tell them exactly where they are on this planet at all times, a highly attuned sense of time which I’m only beginning to understand, and a distal hearing sense that can exactly pinpoint a sound’s point of origin.
‘There’s one thing to remember, above all else,’ he said, raising his voice for everyone’s benefit. ‘They’re incredibly, I would say painfully sensitive to many technological devices such as certain types of sensors and weapons. Before I purchased this planet and moved here, this planet was a haven for wack-jobs from all over, who used to pay big money to go on safaris and try to hunt these creatures. They’d kill one now and then, but most of the time the mighty hunters ended up becoming the hunted, especially when they discharged hi-tech weaponry. A phaser or disruptor discharge will drive these guys into a killing frenzy, as will a tricorder.’
‘How do you protect yourself?’ Will Riker asked him.
‘All equipment that comes here, like these landriders for example, are rebuilt using shielded parts,’ Seagram told him. ‘I won’t have these guys hurt.’ He tousled Sunshine’s head, affectionately. The little animal was half-asleep in Raya’s lap. Afterward, Lt Raya looked askance at Seagram, and it was difficult to tell what she was thinking.

Seagram sighed as he drove the vehicle into its stall, as though he’d enjoyed himself. He climbed out of the vehicle, opened the back, waited for the big animals to herd the artifact out into the underground motor pool, then led the way to a door in the south east wall. This opened into a wide stairwell, and they descended two floors, walked south through a large assembly area, came to another door, then passed through this into a darkened science centre. The lights flickered on automatically as they entered, and Seagram led them to an area replete with scientific equipment.
‘Wow ’ Geordi breathed. ‘You have some nice toys ’
‘Yes, well, they’re all yours,’ Seagram replied. ‘So if you’d like to get to work, I’ll leave you to it. I’ve got a lot to do, so the sooner you get that thing packed and crated and out of here, the better-’
‘Linus Seagram, that is no way for you to speak to your guests ’ Everyone turned in surprise as a wiry little old woman followed them in. One of the animals went straight to her, accepting the stroking of its big muzzle with something like humour in its mien.
Raya stared. The elderly woman was Romulan
The woman, in her turn, studied Raya with great interest. ‘Linus, why didn’t you tell me someone was here from the home world?’
Seagram’s eyes widened. ‘You’re Romulan? Being with the Federation, I assumed you were Vulcan.’
‘Anyway, soup’s on ’ the elderly woman announced in a tone which brooked no compromise, and began heading out. ‘Linus, bring your guests. It’s past mid-day, and you at least haven’t eaten yet.’
Linus Seagram smiled sheepishly, shrugged, and followed in her wake.

‘Who is . . .?’ Riker nodded towards the elderly woman as he walked with Seagram.
Seagram smiled, broadly. ‘I call her “Mom” because all the young guys used to call her that who came into her restaurant. It was really tough on her when she retired, and I asked her and her husband to come here with me when I moved here. They’re helping me with the planning, and to tell the truth . . .’ he chuckled, ‘she practically runs things.’
Raya followed behind them, carrying the now-sleeping Sunshine in her arms. She noted that the seven large creatures were herding the artifact in their wake, but that Seagram seemed to be taking little notice.
They eventually reached their point of entry- the two wooden doors set into the base of the stone promontory- went past this point to a door, then passed through this into what was obviously Seagram’s living-quarters. To their immediate right was a raised area with table and chairs set before the window they’d seen from the outside. Below this to the right was another table and chairs and a kitchen area. To the left was an old-fashioned cast iron hearth complete with cast-iron utensils for cooking, and to the left of this was a leviathan of a cast-iron wood furnace. To the left of this was an elevated bed before the other window, set between the great furnace and the wall, and under the bed was a rack full of eight-foot-long wooden logs, each of them easily a foot thick. To the north was one large room with a floor that was terraced towards the back, and to the east was a semitransparent wall with two doors in it. The one to the right, Seagram told them, led to a room with washing, lavatory and bathing facilities, and the one to the left led to the stream at the base of a waterfall. The area high above this was covered by glass, all the way up the side of the stone promontory, so that the water egressed through a portal leading outside.
Captain Picard was oblivious to all of this, however, as he met- and recognised- the old woman’s husband. ‘General Dalz.’ He inclined his head politely. ‘Which would make your wife  Anala, if I remember correctly.’
‘You have a good memory,’ the old Romulan said, adding, ‘Relax, captain Picard. My profession put me out to pasture a good long while ago.’
‘I heard you got something of a raw deal,’ Riker said sourly. ‘Yes, I know who you are. Many of the Federation elders thought very highly of you, even though we were on opposite sides.’
‘Many Klingons remember you with honour as well,’ Worf put in. ‘Your battle tactics are required learning.’
‘Enough talk ’ the old lady interrupted. ‘Sit and eat, and then you can talk to your heart’s content. You,’ she said, intercepting Raya, must sit with me down here and share news of the home world  I’ve been starved for gossip for several months ’

‘You are a complete fraud,’ Beverly Crusher said to Seagram with a broad smile. ‘Anala has you wrapped around her little finger.’
Linus Seagram and the retired general shared a look at that. Dalz said, ‘Anala is a force to be reckoned with, for which I am very thankful. Without her, life would have been rather dull.’
They were seated at the table before the window and rose now and then to sample a number of dishes from a tiered rack set at the head of the table.
‘I can see why she used to run a restaurant,’ Deanna said appreciatively. ‘Everything is exquisite ’
‘The food was not the reason her restaurant was successful,’ Dalz confided with a meaningful glance at Seagram.
Taking his cue, Linus Seagram said, ‘I got to know pilots in the Romulan military because I bought a number of Maltran transports and used to bring them in myself to be serviced.’
‘Those are darned good ships ’ Geordi said with a heartfelt engineers empathy. ‘I wish we made them ourselves.’
‘They are, and that’s why I bought them,’ Seagram continued. ‘Anyway, the main repair depot is at Velanar spaceport, and the place to eat, I was told, was a restaurant several blocks away in a kind of seedy, rough area. The food was great, I was told, but that’s not why the guys were going there. They were going there because of Anala.’
He smiled to himself, remembering. ‘When I walked in through the front door with two friends of mine, she was berating a table full of cadets, treating them like kids. And they just loved her for it. They’d help her around the place, keep the riff-raff out of the neighbourhood, keep an eye on the place around the clock, and come into her place whenever they were in port.
‘She had lots of old regulars, too, a lot of them higher-ups who came in for news and for her company. And especially for her advice and for her connections. She had a way of knowing everyone who counted.’ Seagram smiled to himself. ‘I can see that a lot of this is lost on you. You have to know Romulus and the military regime there in order to know how this fits in, in its proper context.’
‘I ate in that restaurant a few times disguised as a Romulan,’ Picard confessed, drawing all eyes to himself. ‘It was a secret mission that was not subversive in any way,’ Jean Luc said to Dalz, whose eyes had hardened. ‘I was not there to spy.’
Dalz sighed, the heat went out of him. ‘I shouldn’t care, regardless. I came here because of my dissatisfaction.’
‘That’s quite a palace you’re building,’ Riker remarked to change the subject. ‘I suppose you’re going to move into it when it’s finished?’
Seagram’s reply was a baffled look.
Riker nodded to the ornate building outside. ‘It’s kind of hard to miss.’
‘Oh, that ’ Seagram said, shaking his head. ‘The retirement hospital.’
Picard gave him a look. ‘Retirement hospital?’
Seagram sighed, realising replying meant opening a big subject. Trying to keep it simple, he responded, ‘The reason for this place is twofold: the wildlife and retired Romulan military people. Threefold, come to think of it. Romulan colonists, too.’
‘Why military retirees?’ Dr Crusher asked him, frowning.
Seagram and Dalz shared a meaning look. ‘Crappy pensions,’ Seagram answered, ‘crappy health-care, crappy living conditions, crappy . . . pretty much everything.’
They were joined by Mr Data, who had been making a cursory study of the artifact.
‘Yes, Mr Data?’ captain Picard said. ‘Have you found out anything?’
‘Perhaps,’ Data responded. ‘I think the animals may know what the artifact is.’

‘Data, what makes you think they know what the artifact is?’ Geordi queried as later on they mixed with the creatures gather around the artifact.
‘The old one was somehow able to modulate it,’ the android replied. ‘I think he used his sensory apparatus to interconnect with it.’
As though this were her cue, the elderly creature positioned itself before the artifact. They thought at first the creature was bowing its head, but soon realised that it was aligning the sensory organs in its head so that they faced the ancient artifact vertically. In response the artifact wavered, began to change colour.’
‘Whoa  Guys, are you seeing this?’ Geordi breathed.
Commander Riker gave him a sardonic look. ‘I doubt it. Your visor is probably picking up a lot of stuff we can’t see.’
‘Then I’ll tell you what I see,’ La Forge said excitedly. ‘It’s like a window into . . . I guess this is the past. It’s some sort of time bubble. No, wait ’ He shifted his position, sidling around the artifact for another view. ‘What the hell? It shifts when I move . . . kind of like a prism. I think these are other dimensions or . . . maybe other worlds? Or maybe the same world at vastly different times? But no . . . from this angle I’m seeing stuff I can’t make sense of. And from here . . . you’re not going to believe this ’ He turned around to look behind himself, apparently seeing nothing. ‘From here I’m seeing all of us standing here, but from behind, right about over there.’
‘I am going to touch it-’ Data began, but was cut off, both by the creatures which simultaneously chuffed a warning, and by Raya who blurted, ‘Do not ’
‘I only intend to place my hand within it in order to see if my sensors will interact with it. Perhaps I can attune my neural network-’
‘You will learn nothing ’ Raya said with a ferocity that took the others aback.
Data gave her a look. ‘You yourself have touched it. I know this because my positronic brain reacts somewhat to its unique energy signature, some of which is on you.’
‘So that’s what I’m seeing when I look at you,’ Geordi said to her. ‘There’s an odd aura around you. It’s so faint that I thought my visor was seeing things. You’ve actually handled this thing  Why didn’t you tell us before-?’ Sudden realisation brought him up short. ‘No . . . you’ve done more than touch it. The emanations I’m seeing are all over you. You’ve been inside this thing ’
‘I have ’ she shot back, ‘and I am telling you, do not touch it  You have no idea what will happen to you ’
‘They why don’t you enlighten us?’ Riker said sarcastically.
To everyone’s surprise, Deanna Troi came to the young Romulan woman’s defence. ‘She knows what she’s talking about. There’s very real danger here. She’s telling you the truth.’
‘Raya, what happened to you when you went inside it?’ captain Picard asked her quietly.
In response she shuddered reflexively, hugging herself, not as though for warmth, but in order to keep her personal demons locked inside. ‘It almost broke my mind. I was overwhelmed with what may have been illusions, or reality, or the past . . . I do not know which. All I can tell you is that it was like being inside a monitor and being at the mercy of what it shows, that the workings of that monitor are something else entirely.’
‘I have no emotional frailties to protect,’ Data said seriously. ‘Perhaps I will not be affected in the same manner.’
‘Nevertheless,’ captain Picard said, ‘the risk is not worth it. From what Lt Raya is saying, even if you make the attempt successfully, you will not learning anything that will be of use to us.’
‘I would still like to make the attempt,’ Data persisted, ‘if only to satisfy my curiosity.’
‘You know what happened to the cat,’ Geordi told him meaningly.
Data looked up in alarm. ‘Has something happened to Spot?’
Geordi patted him on the shoulder with a sardonic smile. ‘Spot’s just fine. It’s you we’ve got to keep an eye on.’

By evening the artifact was back in the science lab under the watchful presence of the seven sentient creatures.
‘I still can’t get a handle on how they’re able to hold it here,’ Geordi said to Seagram in frustration as they shut things down for the evening.
‘There’s obviously some sort of intent involved,’ Seagram replied, ‘otherwise its movements would be entirely random. It’s not sitting out in space, or a mile up in the air, or ten miles underground. It came down here to the surface, and from what you’ve told me it has a habit of doing that. It probably wants to be found and accessed by sentient beings.’
‘Wanting suggests conscious intent,’ Deanna Troi said. ‘Do you think it’s alive? I detect no consciousness in it, although the fact that I feel nothing at all from it may not mean anything.’
‘When I was inside it,’ Raya said quietly, ‘I received the impression that it is a made thing, a product of a civilisation so advanced that it transcends what we term “technology”. I do not think it has one type of function or one intended purpose. I think it represents the culmination of some lost civilisation’s overall progress and was at the heart of what their civilisation was, in the same manner that computer technology is so pervasive in ours.’
‘Did you get any sense of that civilisation’s beings?’ captain Picard ask her suddenly on an intuition.
She raised an eyebrow at that. ‘None.’ She considered him a moment. ‘That is strange, isn’t it.’ It was a statement. ‘There was no sense of civilisation or beings at all. Nor intelligence nor intent nor a guiding consciousness. No sense  . . .’ she sought for words, ‘that a conscious mind was involved at all.’
‘A machine, perhaps?’ Data asked.
Raya shook her head, thoughtful. ‘You mean like a machine intelligence? No, this is something else. Something I cannot find words to.’
‘Except that it makes you afraid,’ Deanna Troi said quietly.
Raya gave her a sharp, angry look, but seeing unassuming sympathy in the empath’s eyes soon dissolved her anger. ‘There is something to fear, here,’ she said seriously. ‘Something elusive, on the edge of consciousness, on the border of reason . . .’ she looked around as though her surroundings had become untrustworthy, ‘on the periphery of an existence we think to be known and familiar.’
Changing the subject, Seagram interjected, ‘I think we need to know more about where this thing was found. You say it was buried deep within part of what used to be a planet? Did your scientists determine how it came to be buried? I mean, did it appear to have been buried deliberately, or was it some ancient thing that just got covered over by the passage of time?’
‘It was found within some ancient ruins,’ she told him. ‘It appeared to have been buried deliberately and to have been guarded for aeons.’
All eyes turned to the artifact at that.
‘Well, that’s just great ’ Seagram said with a sarcastic laugh. ‘Hell has been relocated to my home and the front door has been left wide open.’

Chapter 3

‘Based on this evidence,’ Data said mere moments after the scientific information on the artifact had been downloaded from Romulus into the Enterprise computer and from there to his positronic brain, ‘we are dealing with two entirely separate matters: the artifact and the ancient civilisation that buried it.’
‘How do you mean, “separate”?’ Raya queried.
‘What I mean is that the ancient civilisation responsible for the ruins was not also responsible for the creation of the artifact. The capability was clearly beyond them. So much so, in fact, that they would have viewed the artifact as having magical properties. I’m guessing here, but I think it probable that the artifact dates from a time long before.’
‘How long before?’ the captain asked him.
Data considered the matter a full moment, which was far longer than normal for him. ‘I would say that it belongs to a stellar event prior to the one to which the original planet belonged.’
‘Wait, you’re saying two stellar generations ago?’ Geordi asked incredulously.
‘That is what I am saying, at the very least,’ Data told him, ‘that the artifact may in fact date from the time of the earliest stars, which would make it even older still.
‘My thinking has been running along those lines since I began working on a series of mathematical models which might explain the type of matter of which the artifact consists. Assuming a stellar event is involved, it would have to be the earliest one when the universe was still very hot: that is, hot enough to allow for quarks in a free state. No other answer is possible when speaking of non-standard arrangements of subatomic particles, unless we were dealing with an incredibly advanced civilisation, which doesn’t seem to be the case.’
‘So this may not be a technological phenomenon at all,’ Seagram muttered, half to himself.
‘Correct,’ Data agreed.
‘Then why do I still have such a bad feeling about this?’
To the others’ surprise, Data gave Seagram’s sense of foreboding serious consideration. ‘It may represent an event as profound as life itself, yet wholly different,’ Data said. ‘If I am correct, I believe the artifact may represent a period in time when something other than life evolved; something that is far more complex.’
Captain Picard shook his head. ‘Mr Data, I’m not sure I’m following you. You say “evolved” as though we’re dealing with a living thing, yet you say we may be dealing with something other than life.’
‘One can not infer that evolution applies only to living things,’ Data told him.
‘Well, if it’s not alive, then what is it?’ Geordi asked him.
‘I believe it is a highly organised, self-contained process,’ Data said. ‘Like life, it is one of staggering complexity. Unlike life, it is a state of existence, from a time when differentiation as we know it did not yet exist.’
‘I need a break,’ Seagram announced. ‘This is making my brain hurt.’

Something about the construction of and around the edifice Picard and his shipmates had dubbed the “palace” prompted him to say to Dalz, as they sat together by the window sipping the Romulan version of coffee, ‘There are landing bays for six of the old type of Romulan War Birds. I didn’t know they were still in use.’
‘Officially they’re not,’ Dalz replied with a thin smile. ‘Some of my associates and I appropriated them after they were decommissioned, seeing that none of them had been stripped for parts because they were considered so out of date. They’re cramped, they’re stuffy, they’re either too hot or too cold, and the air in them is not good, but us old-timers love them nonetheless.’
Picard chuckled at that. ‘That sounds very much like the attitude of Earth’s early submariners. They used to say that they didn’t trust air they couldn’t see.’
Dalz sighed and gazed out the window. ‘The old retirees like me who have been put out to pasture will love it here.’ He smiled and shook his head ruefully. ‘Young Seagram plans to make us work for our trouble.’ Into the question in Picard’s mien, he said, ‘A result of the Empire’s many expansion pushes resulted in a good many colonies scattered far and wide. Many were begun purely for strategic reasons and have languished ever since. Seagram plans to bring them here to begin anew.’
‘If you don’t mind my asking,’ Picard said, ‘what is this attachment Seagram has for things Romulan?’
Dalz shrugged fractionally, a complex gesture in Romulan terms. ‘You’re thinking that as a member of the rich, spoiled leisure class, that he should share their predilection for frivolous, selfish self-indulgence? In his case he turned his back on his family at a young age and struck out on his own. Pure chance found him assisting an old Romulan trader for food and passage only. That old trader happened to be one of my late cousins, and through me Seagram drifted into the Romulan military for a time, a hard life that he genuinely loved.
‘Meanwhile, greed, excess and well-earned misfortune took its toll on his family, until one day he was notified that he would be receiving their whole entire excessive fortune. He quit the military and has been a very busy man ever since. I daresay he has done far more work since coming here than the rest of his family combined had done in their entire worthless lifetimes.’

‘C’mon, Sunshine ’ Seagram waited as the cub left off exploring to come bounding after him and ran to a point ahead where he began exploring once more. Raya, meanwhile, was studying the trees lining the rutted coastal lane. To their left was deep forest, to their right the whitecapped ocean.
‘There are many nests here, but I do not see many creatures that fly,’ she said.
‘It’s the time of day,’ Seagram told her. ‘There’re no young in the nests at this time of year, so the adults are out foraging and socialising.’
‘Why do you call them birds? They are not birds of Earth.’
Seagram chuckled at that. ‘You have to call them something, and if you give everything on every world that flew a different name, you’d soon be overrun with words.’ She watched as Sunshine went bounding ahead, and spotted something white between the trees.
‘There is it, such as it is,’ Seagram told her. ‘My little home away from home.’
‘Is that a stream beyond it?’ Raya asked him.
‘That’s how I found this spot,’ Seagram told her. ‘There are animal trails on either side of the stream running beside my place at the bottom of the outcropping. I followed them all the way here, where the stream meets the ocean, and just fell in love with the place.’
Only half-paying attention, Raya said distractedly, and disapprovingly, ‘These are trees . . . you have meddled with this planet’s ecosystem.’
I had to,’ Seagram replied. ‘This planet was dying. It didn’t have all that many life-forms to begin with, and the few that remained were pushed to the limit. I had to bring in a number of things just to keep it going.’
‘Anala did say that loss of habitat was making all but a few animal types extinct,’ Raya conceded. ‘But she also said it was very cold here. She must have been referring to winter.’
‘Partly,’ Seagram admitted with a small, strange smile, ‘but I’m guilty of altering things a bit.’
‘You have caused climate change,’ Raya said with disapproval.
‘Worse. I had equipment built using part of my family’s fortune, and I used it to shift this planet’s orbit- why are you so angry?’
‘That sort of meddling is immoral and illegal almost everywhere, for good reason ’
‘You think I should have let this planet and everything on it die?’
Raya sighed, deep in thought, as they entered the small house and deposited their backpacks on the floor. ‘I will not deny that you have done good things, but there are others who are not to be trusted who would have used such power to evil ends.’
Seagram shrugged. ‘I don’t think in those terms, I guess because I don’t like most people’
‘That is true. You are a very strange man.’
He turned to scrutinise whether she had thrown a jibe or jest at him, but she had gone out the back way.

‘They do look a bit like cats,’ Jeodie said of the big animals guarding the artifact. Then, reconsidering, ‘A bit. Sort of.’
‘Seagram told me he calls them cats because he can’t think of anything else to call them,’ Riker said, his voice strained because of the large piece of equipment he was pulling across the lab floor to study the artifact with.
‘It has long been accepted custom to refer to life-forms in terms one is familiar with,’ Worf put in, giving Riker a hand. ‘The Klingon animal you refer to as a wolf is one such example, and I have even heard your own people use the Klingon word when referring to Earth wolves.’
‘Which Klingon word?’ Data asked him, pausing from adjusting a piece of equipment. ‘There are over one hundred Klingon languages.’
‘Just as there are over one hundred human names for your home planet,’ Worf replied before answering his question.
‘There we go ’ Riker said. ‘Now, let’s see if this piece of equipment does anything.’
‘I do not yet know what it is you’re trying to do,’ Worf said.
‘Just seeing if the artifact is compatible with a dimensional door,’ Geordi replied. ‘If it is, we’ll be able to put equipment inside it without having to worry about it shifting position or changing shape or size.’
‘Here goes nothing,’ Riker said, turning the piece of equipment on.
After several uneventful moments, Data said, ‘Was that intended to be humorous, or a statement of fact?’

‘If I had the time,’ Jean Luc Picard intoned, ‘I would read them. All of them.’ He was in Dalz’ quarters looking through his small library. ‘It may be small, but it’s a magnificent collection.’
‘They will still be here when you retire,’ Dalz told him.
‘Which won’t be long now,’ Picard muttered with feeling. ‘God, but I feel old these days. Old and tired.’
Dalz raised an eyebrow at that. ‘You are mistaken if you think mere age is to blame. What you need is a change. The right kind of change.’
‘I know,’ Jean Luc sighed ruefully. ‘I’m finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that I’m no longer in love with my occupation. I do need a change. I need to grow once more, but in different ways. In new ways.’

‘Now then,’ Anala chirped, sitting up, ‘didn’t I tell you? I may be old, but I’m as fit as they come.’
Dr Crusher was using one of the upstairs guest rooms to give the elderly couple a physical. Both, it turned out, were in robust good health, aside from the normal aches and pains associated with their age.
‘We should be in as good shape at your age,’ Deanna griped.
‘The two of you will be long dead by the time you reach my age,’ the old lady quipped. ‘Neither of you are as long-lived as us Romulans.’
‘I’m sorry we’ve dumped this thing in your back yard ’ Deanna Troi said.
‘Oh, think nothing of it,’ Anala said with a disconcerting twinkle in her eye. ‘It has been good for my husband, and even if I’m not getting much done, he’s not under foot all the time. Men and retirement  Pah ’
Deanna and Beverly shared a covert grin at that.

Raya followed the path bordering the stream a short distance inland and came presently to a rocky knoll that had been transected by the stream and hollowed out so that it formed a natural barrier to the light breeze. Just ahead a shallow stone cave had been scooped out of the rock, a natural alcove that faced the sun. Raya kicked off her shoes and savoured the warmth of the smooth-worn stone. Taking a cursory look around, she doffed her clothes and stepped into a wide pool. She sighed, savouring the deliciously tepid water, and dove under to explore the bottom.
The pond, like the stream, was miraculously clear, the round stones and convoluted smooth-worn rock of the streambed clean and unstained by scum. Schools of tiny fish darted about. Here and there were patches of sand and gravel.
An hour or so later she went back to the building Seagram referred to as his “cabin” and was greeted by the smell of something frying in a skillet. ‘I hope you’re up to sampling a bit of the local ocean animal and plant life. Don’t worry- it’s something like Earth’s shellfish, nothing with a brain or consciousness to speak of.’
She sat on a tall stool by the window and accepted the food he offered her. After they’d eaten in silence, she finally spoke. ‘You have lied to me, Linus Seagram. There is evidence that you have done far more than meddle with the ecological balance of this planet. I stumbled across the remains of several species of animals that were made extinct in one violent catastrophe.’
‘Yes, and good riddance to them,’ Seagram replied unrepentantly as he took their plates to the kitchen. ‘They were an abomination.’
‘How can you say such a thing?’ she demanded.
He shrugged. ‘Just like I did. What you don’t know is that none of those things were from this planet. They were brought here to destroy the indigenous wildlife.’
She glared, uncertain whether to believe him or not. ‘Why would anyone do such a thing?’
‘In a word, “cost”,’ he told her. You did notice that all those skeletons had long, pointy teeth and claws and walked on two legs? If they had been successful, they would have eaten all of the indigenous life forms on this planet, after which they would have starved to death. It’s what they were brought here for.’
‘So you wiped them out ’
‘Every last one of them,’ he agreed. ‘And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.’
‘You seem to like playing god ’
He chuckled at that. ‘If you like, I can take you to the planet they’re from so you can see for yourself that they’re in no danger of becoming extinct.’
‘Still . . .’ she subsided, watching Sunshine play with his pant cuff.
‘They wiped out almost all of Sunshine’s family,’ he told her, tousling the little creature’s head, evoking a playful growl in return.
‘The one you call “Auntie” is a survivor?’ she asked thoughtfully.
‘The only other survivor,’ he replied quietly. ‘The rest, including his mother, were torn to pieces.’
Raya sighed. ‘I see.’ And stiffened as Sunshine had become alert, his little ears tracking some sound they couldn’t hear.
Seagram went to a wall panel and opened it, revealing a complex computer-station. He switched it on, ran a scan of the area, and then-
‘Well, well, well. We have visitors. Stay here.’
‘I will not stay here  Where are you going?’
He went into the utility room, opened a box, and tossed her a few items. ‘Ever used one of these?’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘A personal cloaking device. Where did you get this?’
‘I was referring to the stun gun,’ he rejoined with a smile, ‘but the cloaking device is my own little invention. It’s not just a cloaking device,’ he said as he strapped on its parts. ‘It’s body armour as well. That’s why the back pack is so big.’ He held up a camouflaged backpack as evidence. ‘This puts out a lot of power. It’ll take direct hits by a phaser or disruptor set to vaporise.’
‘Who is it that is going to be shooting at us?’ she demanded, strapping herself in.
His only reply was to smile and nod for her to follow.

Raya hissed in anger as they ventured a look over the ledge of rock. ‘The Valgoroth  And you intend to attacked them armed only with stunners?’ She glowered as Sunshine ventured a peek, his stubby little tail twitching in anticipation, she assumed, of innocent fun. Although the curious little animal wore his own version of a cloaking suit, she wasn’t convinced of his safety.
‘Yeah, the mighty Valgoroth,’ Seagram said with light sarcasm. ‘Ugly things, aren’t they?’
‘This is no laughing matter- Seagram  What are you doing?’ He had switched on his cloaking suit and Sunshine’s as well. In her earpiece she heard, ‘Time to switch on. And flip your eyepiece down so you can see Sunshine and me, otherwise we’re likely to run into one another.’ She did so, and was surprised to find that she could see Seagram and Sunshine fairly clearly, through with green lines and patterns of distortion. ‘Don’t use your stun-gun unless you absolutely have to,’ Seagram told her. ‘Use the other gun.’
‘This little thing?’ she demanded. ‘What is this? Are you insane?’
He chuckled in response. ‘You’ll see. Aim for the smaller extremities at first. Anything to cause the most annoyance.’

The Valgoroth were among the strangest creatures ever encountered, and considered by many to be the most ruthless, the most deadly. It was true that they were ruthless, and deadly where the upper hand was theirs, but members of the Federation had found that a firm hand in driving them off invariably led to their removing themselves to other regions of space.
The origin of the name “Valgoroth” was unknown, but was thought to be a derivation of “Val-gora”, or “demon of the underworld” in the ancient tongue of an unknown race, the only knowledge of whom were ancient ruins found on a scattering of far-flung planets in deep and barely-explored space that had been dead for several millennia.
The Valgoroth themselves had baffled scientists for generations because although they acted as though they were alive and conscious, all the evidence seemed to indicate otherwise. Single specimens captured for study ceased to be animate, becoming as rigid as stone, and would remain that way until they came within the proximity of animate members of their race. A specimen that had been part of a collection of artifacts in a Klingon museum for over three hundred years was said to have come to life over six-hundred years ago during a bloody raid on the Klingon home world.
In appearance the Valgoroth were an asymmetrical anomaly, having a long right “arm”, a left appendage like a short whip, a small, eyeless head-like appendage which looked roughly like the head and neck of a vulture, a grotesquely muscled torso that tapered to an absurdly narrow waist, a strong-looking right leg, and a left leg that was actually an arm. It was otherwise black and featureless, with no nervous-system or brain, no circulatory system or blood or lungs, nothing that could be defined as internal organs or muscle-tissue or skeletal structure.

Seagram stared as the strange creature showed no reaction to the tiny barbed needle that stuck fast in its neck. Experimentally, he fired a number of stingers into its body, from top to bottom.
‘I told you ’ Raya hissed. ‘These creatures can not feel pain.’
‘They could the last time they were here,’ Seagram muttered.
Raya stared her disbelief. ‘What are you talking about? The Valgoroth do not feel pain.’
He turned his attention back to the odd-looking creatures. ‘Something’s not right. They should be vocalising, too.’
‘You have seen creatures that look like this?’ Raya asked him, realising that he was as confused as she. ‘But that act differently?’
‘Yes. They’re from deep space. No one knows where they’re from, exactly, or what they want, but they tend to show up where there are sparsely populated settlements. The general feeling is that they’re looking for something.’
‘Looking for something . . .’ Raya muttered, her gaze fixed inward. ‘Looking for something . . .’ her eyes widened.
‘What is it?’ Seagram asked her.
Raya studied his features with something like revulsion. ‘This isn’t real. None of this is real. Seagram . . . did you enter the artifact?’
‘I did,’ he admitted slowly, ‘but nothing happened.’
Fixing his eyes with her own, she said, ‘Seagram, you must get out of here. Now  None of this is real. None of this is happening. You are still inside the artifact.’
‘What are you talking about?’ he said, almost laughing. ‘You’re real-’
‘I have been here before,’ she told him levelly. ‘That is one of the dangers of the artifact. Part of me remains here, and always will. Please, Linus,’ she said, ‘get out of here. Now. While you still can.’
He looked at Sunshine uncertainly.
‘Did he come with you?’ Raya asked him.
Seagram shook his head.
‘Then he is still on the outside. You must go, now, before the Valgoroth become aware of your presence ’
Something of the way she said Valgoroth sent chill down his spine . . . and he began running.

Something about his home at the bottom of the stone outcropping caused him to duck into a copse, crawl on his belly to the north side, and check the area. With a cold, metallic knot in his gut, he realised what had alerted his senses: there was utter silence, no sign of life, nothing at all to indicated the presence of the Federation members or General Dalz or his wife.
‘What am I afraid of?’ he demanded of himself, standing up. ‘I’m wearing a cloaking suit  Even if there was something remotely dangerous here, it wouldn’t be able to see or detect me, even if it had access to the very latest scanning technology.’
He was about to take a step forward, when the wooden doors rolled open and a dozen Valgoroth came lurching forth in a double row, the middlemost ones bearing something on a primitive litter.
‘What the hell ’ They were taking the artifact with them  He stopped himself a moment to gather his thoughts. ‘Raya said that none of this is real . . .’ He studied the line of Valgoroth moving along like the ungainly procession of some ancient, demented cult. The artifact was in plain view atop the litter, held in place by what appeared to be nothing more than four upright staves made of black stone and ornately carved. And yet . . . he flipped the eyepiece down over his left eye, flipped open a control-panel on his wrist, and began making adjustments. ‘Great ’ It appeared that the artifact was being held in place by some sort of energy field. He made some adjustments to the frequency of his cloaking suit and steeled himself. ‘Real or not, why do I have the feeling that this is going to hurt like a sonofabitch?’ With that, he waited until the line of Valgoroth drew in front of his position, then like a rugby blocker began running forward with his head down, prepared for impact-

-withdrew his head from the artifact and sat down on the floor. What the hell  He took a look around the cave. Where on earth were General Dalz and Anala, and the Federation team?
And then, he remembered. The General had died years ago, as had Anala, he shortly after retirement, and she not long after. They had wanted to accompany him but were too old and frail. There was no Federation team. A familiar sound got his attention, causing him to smile. No, there was only little Sunshine, who was waiting impatiently for his supper. With that, Seagram got to his feet, dusted himself off, and began preparing another lonely supper.

‘What an idiot, hey Sunshine,’ Seagram said as he and Sunshine began eating: Sunshine his artificially grown diet of organ meats, and Seagram his usual vegan fare. ‘I was warned not to touch the damned thing, and there I go sticking my head in it ’
Sunshine’s only response was to sating his hunger, which he did with a low growl as he wolfed down chunks of warm, purplish meat.
There was an unexpected beep from the communications pad on a console just to his right. The Federation people were probably here. He punched a button. ‘Linus Seagram here.’
‘Mr Seagram,’ a familiar voice replied, ‘this is Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Federation ship Enterprise. Are you there, Mr Seagram?’
Seagram was stunned into speechlessness. Captain Picard? But . . . he thought of the artifact, which was guarded in a safe place belowground. But he had only imagined that he’d met the man while his head was in the artifact
‘Mr Seagram?’
‘Seagram here,’ he replied, and found that his hands were shaking. ‘Sorry . . . I was just a little preoccupied.’
The Starfleet officer seemed to take that as face value. ‘If you don’t mind, I would like to send an away team to your planet right away to assess the possibility of removing the artifact. Do I have your permission?’
Linus Seagram took a deep breath, let it out slowly. ‘Sure. Come on ahead. You may as well beam down to my coordinates.’
Within moments, the away team appeared in the shimmer of the transporter beam, but Seagram’s attention was fixed on only one of them.
‘Do you two know each other?’ Commander Riker asked, looking from one to the other.
‘In a manner of speaking,’ Raya said, unable not to stare.
‘We met in the artifact,’ Seagram said, wondering if anything was trustworthy any longer.
Captain Picard started at that, but held himself in check. ‘Would you care to elaborate?’
‘I . . . took a look inside it,’ Seagram said, tearing his gaze away from Raya, only to find himself staring at the members of the away team. ‘I met all of you . . . Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Lt Worf, Dr Crusher, Counsellor Troi, Mr La Forge, Mr Data-’
‘Inside the artifact?’ Data asked him. ‘That is curious, as we have never made your acquaintance before-’
‘You have a cat named Spot,’ Seagram interrupted. ‘Commander Riker plays the trombone. Mr Worf was raised by human parents. Mr La Forge-’
‘We get the picture,’ the captain cut him off, his mien a strange admixture of anger, wonder, worry, and perhaps fear. ‘The artifact showed you a facsimile of us which you interacted with. I understand that-’
‘When you were in the artifact, did I warn you to leave?’ Raya asked Seagram.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘There were these things called “Valgoroth”. I expected them to be alive like us, but they weren’t.’
‘Valgoroth?’ Dr Crusher asked.
Seagram shrugged. ‘I only seemed to know of them when I was inside that thing.’
All eyes turned to Raya. ‘That was my experience also,’ she said, her head slightly cocked in thought. ‘Inside the artifact, they were not alive. Yet part of our shared experience within the artifact was the knowledge that outside of the artifact they are alive.’
‘Perhaps a condition of existing only within the artifact means that things within it are non-living,’ Data said. ‘That would after all be in accordance with existence as it was at the time the artifact came into being. What it does not explain, however, is what is meant by these Valgoroth as being living entities.’
‘Assuming they exist at all, beyond being a figment of one’s imagination,’ captain Picard put in pointedly, ‘perhaps someone at a later time used the artifact to imprison them, in which case the artifact would quite literally be a Pandora’s Box waiting to be opened.’
‘Except that there’s nothing to stop them from leaving any time they want to,’ Seagram said.
‘“Wanting” implies conscious volition,’ Data rejoined. ‘You yourself have said that the Valgoroth are not conscious entities.’
‘But if they were at one time,’ Geordi said, ‘maybe there’s still something left of their having been alive and conscious, like a memory or something.’
The captain shook his head. ‘This is just idle speculation. We need real information, and for that we have to study the artifact. Mr Seagram, you said in your communication that you have a well-equipped lab suited for this purpose. May we go there now and begin our work?’

‘Whoa  You say those things are sentient?’ Geordi said when he saw the creatures guarding the artifact in the underground lab. ‘They look like they could bite man in half ’
‘I suppose they could,’ Seagram said, taking a fresh look at the artifact. As before it was little more than a grey, roughly ovoid smear that appeared flat no matter which direction one saw it from. ‘There’s something that’s been bothering me,’ he said. ‘How did the Romulans manage to obtain this piece of it?’
Raya raised an eyebrow at that. ‘I am not sure.’
‘But you were there when they were studying it,’ Seagram persisted. ‘Surely you must know something.’
Raya, too, took a hard look at the thing. ‘It seems that I should . . .’
‘When did you first touch it?’ Seagram asked her.
Raya stared, and tried to remember. ‘I do not know why . . . but I am not sure.’
‘Get out, now  He grated. I think you’re still inside-’
‘What are the two of you talking about?’ the captain demanded.
Seagram took her by the arm. ‘Go  Now  Before it’s too late ’
Not knowing why, and trusting to instinct alone, Raya dove for the artifact-

‘-Lt Raya  Lt Raya, can you hear me?’
Her ears were ringing. She felt horrible. Her right arm was numb, yet throbbing dully with the promise of pain. And she was laying on her back . . . inside the chamber where they were studying the ancient artifact.
‘My arm . . .’ she winced as her right hand and arm began to ache, excruciatingly. ‘What happened?’
‘You touched it,’ one of the scientists said. ‘Don’t you remember?’
She sat up, only to find that her head was spinning. ‘I do now.’ She looked around, remembering. ‘We must get out of this chamber  Now ’
The scientific team stared at her as though she were mad.
‘There’s no time to explain  We must get out of here, now, before it breaks free ’
The head scientist hesitated, then nodded, curtly. In single file they began filing out of the chamber. Only moments after the pressure hatch was sealed behind them, the asteroid was shaken by a sharp report, followed by an ominous tremor.
‘Run for the ships ’ Raya shouted. ‘We’ve got to get out of here ’
Moments later, from the safety of the ship they watched as the ancient artifact burst free from the asteroid like a parasite bursting free of its host. A grey, nebulous, indistinct smear, it began moving . . . accelerating . . .
‘Lay in a pursuit course,’ her Romulan captain barked. ‘Lt Raya, what do you know about this?’
‘It is heading for Federation space,’ she replied. ‘Don’t ask me how I know, because I do not know the answer. This is something I learned from the artifact itself when I touched it.’
‘It is headed in the direction of Federation space,’ the navigator said in mistrustful surprise.
‘This is an incident that would be unwise to share with the Federation,’ the captain muttered as he studied the forward monitor. ‘They will not thank us for this invasion of their space.’
But all Raya could think of was that she was back.

Chapter 4

‘That’s quite a story,’ the Federation captain said, unable to suppress a smile. He and his senior staff were seated in the Enterprise ready room across the table from a Romulan captain and one of his younger lieutenants.
Raya coloured at the human’s tone. The real captain Picard was far more authoritarian a presence than the one she’d encountered in the artifact.
‘Nevertheless,’ the Romulan captain said, ‘she did rightly predict the danger, and that the artifact is headed for your Federation. That, and the details she knows about yourself and your crew.’
‘Those details amount to fairly common knowledge,’ captain Picard countered.
‘Suit yourself,’ the Romulan captain shrugged. ‘Try to destroy the thing and learn the danger for yourself. I took the precaution of sending out an unmanned shuttlecraft and used it to fire upon the artifact. As Lt Raya had warned, it was instantly destroyed.’
‘She is telling the truth,’ Counsellor Troi said to her captain. ‘They both are.’
‘I’m not disputing whether or not you believe this to be a truthful accounting,’ captain Picard said to his Romulan counterpart. ‘But I have already contacted this Linus Seagram, and he says that he has no knowledge of this matter.’
‘He did not enter the artifact,’ Raya stressed.
‘You just told us he did,’ Commander Riker said dismissively.
‘I told you I thought he had, until I realised that it was only myself who had touched it.’
Captain Picard took a deep breath, leaned back in his chair, and let it out slowly and angrily. To Lt Raya, he said, ‘Young lady, I don’t know whether to believe your story or not, but this matter puts me in a very difficult position. Starfleet dragged us away from a very important mission, one that is costing lives each and every day  Based on what I’ve heard here, this . . . this artifact, has yet to pose any real danger, and from what you’ve told us, it will pass through Federation space and continue beyond, heading out into deep space. Nothing I’ve heard here convinces me that Starfleet involvement is required, or even needed.’
Raya looked to her captain, who was studying his fingertips. She got to her feet, angry and mortified. ‘You can believe me or not. That is your affair. But I tell you that the artifact is evil and it is dangerous  If a way is not found to contain it once more, you will regret it. All of you.’ She glanced her captain’s way as she said this, spun on her heel, and left the ready room.
After an uncomfortable silence, Picard turned to the Romulan captain. ‘I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter.’
The Romulan captain, though a stern, ascetic-looking man, was clearly torn. ‘Lt Raya is young . . . but she is one of my best officers. Her record and her performance are both exemplary. I have never known her to be an imaginative sort. She has no history of mental illness, nor is there any in her family, and according to our physicians her mental health is sound beyond question.’ Looking Picard in the eye he added, ‘I regret the imposition placed upon you, and the subsequent loss of life . . . but were the discretion mine, I would take her at her word.’
‘Unfortunately,’ captain Picard told him, ‘I do not have the luxury of discretion in this matter. Without something more substantial than the young lieutenant’s word, Starfleet will take a rather dim view if I do not return immediately to the situation we were involved in.’
He as about to say more when the red alert siren shattered the air, followed by a hail from the bridge.
‘Captain Picard here. Go ahead.’
‘Sir, a high-speed shuttle has just been reported stolen from one of the Romulan ships  We’re tracking it through Federation space right now  It seems to be following that anomaly.’
The two captains’ eyes locked. The Romulan muttered, ‘Raya.’ Seeming to reach an unpleasant decision, he said, ‘Shall I order my ships to intercept and destroy it?’
Nonplussed, captain Picard said, rising to his feet, ‘No. We will go after her. But you might want to be prepared to attend her hearing.’

‘That is one fast shuttlecraft ’ Geordi said with an engineer’s enthusiasm, drawing an unimpressed glare from Mr Worf.
‘Perhaps your admiration is misplaced,’ the big Klingon groused.
‘Are you kidding?’ La Forge said, his ebullience unfazed. ‘I’d just love to get my hands on the schematics- whoa  What the hell is she doing?’
‘It appears that she is attempting to use the shuttle’s nacelles to alter the artifact’s course,’ Data said, impressed.
‘Aren’t they already stressed to the limit?’ Riker said, looking to the captain who also appeared worried.
‘At this rate,’ Data said, ‘the shuttle will begin to disintegrate in-’
‘Get her out of there ’ captain Picard snapped. ‘Transporter room, lock onto that shuttle’s passenger and beam her aboard ’
‘Aye, sir.’
There were gasps as a visible halo enveloped the shuttle’s port nacelle. The inevitable soon followed: first the port nacelle, then the rest of the tiny ship, came flying apart in a hail of debris as the shuttle lost its structural integrity.
‘We have her, sir  We’re transferring her to sickbay, right now.’
‘What is her condition?’ Picard asked.
‘Sir . . . there are no vitals.’
After a numb silence, the captain said, ‘Mr Riker.’
‘Aye, sir?’
‘I’ll be in sickbay if you need me. In the meantime, continue on our present heading.’
‘Sir?’
‘You heard me, Number One. A young woman thought that chasing down that anomaly was worth sacrificing her own life. Perhaps we need to address this matter more seriously.’
‘What’ll I tell Starfleet?’
The captain thought a moment before heading for the turbolift. ‘Tell them we’ve been unexpectedly and unavoidably delayed.’

The man named Linus Seagram was overseeing the progress of his robotic work crew when he was unexpectedly interrupted. He did not like interruptions, and he was not kindly disposed towards the Federation, who were many light years out of their jurisdiction. He listened to the story impatiently, and with growing anger.
‘This thing you’re looking for is here? On my planet?’
‘With your permission,’ captain Picard continued, ‘we would like to began searching for it.’
‘You do not have my permission, and I’m not going to give you my permission,’ Seagram said with perhaps more force than was necessary. ‘There are life-forms here that are adversely affected in the extreme by sensor equipment, and I will not have them put through that while you go fumbling around for this thing. And while we’re on the subject, my sensor equipment, the long-range type, picked up some sort of disturbance about two hours ago, and there is now a small cloud of debris fouling up my neck of the woods. Would that have anything to do with your presence here?’
‘A small ship was lost tracking the anomaly,’ captain Picard told him. ‘The person piloting that ship had managed to avert a series of worse disasters which the anomaly almost caused earlier.’
‘You say this thing is dangerous,’ Seagram said, ‘but from what you’ve told me, the only danger seems to be in not leaving it alone.’
There was a long silence. At last, Picard replied, ‘If you do not want our assistance, that is your affair. But at least one person was so convinced of the danger this thing represents that she was willing to give her life, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
Seagram cursed under his breath. ‘Is there any chance you can locate this thing using your passive sensor array?’
There was a slight pause. ‘Initiating as we speak. It appears to be only eleven kilometres from your position.’
‘Give me the coordinates,’ Seagram said resignedly. ‘I’ll meet you there. But leave your equipment behind  No phasers, no tricorders, no equipment of any kind. I’ll bring my own. Its shielding protects the local wildlife. Seagram out.’
He switched off the intercom, wiped the sweat from his brow with a sleeve, and considered the yellow-green sky a moment. Hopefully these people would be on their way before sundown.

Raya studied her reconstructed face and arm with not a little wonder. Not a single scar remained of the ruin her body had been mere hours before.
‘I hope the pain was worth it,’ Dr Crusher commented as she helped the young Romulan lieutenant into the fresh clothes provided for her.
Raya winced as she lifted her arms in order to get the top on. ‘Your medical staff does remarkable work.’
‘You do realise that you’re in serious trouble.’
‘Only until the artifact is recognised for what it is,’ Raya rejoined.
‘And what if it isn’t?’ the doctor asked her.
Raya straightened her top and adjusted the sleeves. ‘It is said that evil cannot withstand scrutiny. We go to scrutinise the artifact. It will be found out.’
‘And what if you’re wrong?’
‘I am not wrong ’ Raya replied darkly. ‘I know what I experienced of it, just as you know the colour of your own uniform. Some things are certain. This is certain.’
The doctor sighed, mainly out of concern. ‘Look, you’re going to be very tired soon, and you’re going to need sleep- a lot of it. Yes, you’ve been put back together, but you still have to heal. So, I’m going to keep and eye on you, and when I say it’s time for you to call it a day, that’s it ’

Seagram glowered as the Enterprise away team materialised in a semicircle before him. Behind them stood his landrider, and beyond that was the open savannah. At his back, a circle of what he termed “cats” guarded the entrance to a cave. With the cave was the artifact the Federation seemed so interested in.
‘That’s what all this nonsense is about? A big grey blob that doesn’t appear to do much, if anything?’
‘Where is it, Mr Seagram?’ captain Picard asked him. ‘Is it in that cave?’
‘It’s more of a sinkhole,’ Seagram told him. ‘Caves are too valuable to the indigenous wildlife here to waste. But yes, it’s in there. So please, bottle it up as soon as you can and be on your way.’
‘As I told you before,’ Picard said succinctly, ‘that is easier said than done.’
Seagram stared as Sunshine dropped from the running board of the landrider and galloped on his stumpy little legs towards a young female member of the Federation away team. The Romulan woman appeared pale and a little unsteady on her feet, but that isn’t what had Seagram’s attention. She knelt down to pick up the little animal, and it seemed they knew each other. ‘There’s a lab’s worth of equipment in the back of the landrider,’ Seagram told Picard distractedly, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. ‘Let’s see if we can’t get a handle on what’s going on, here.’

‘I have come up with a template for forming a mathematical model of the anomaly,’ Data said after they had almost given up on trying to analyse the artifact. ‘The Enterprise computer is working on extrapolating it now. The only drawback,’ he added as apologetically as an android could, ‘it that it may take considerable time.’
‘How considerable?’ Riker asked him, knowing that Data’s notion of what constituted a long time often differed from a human’s.
‘At the least it may take only hours,’ Data told him, ‘ but that is a purely optimistic estimate. It is quite possible that there are variables contained within the artifact’s structure that won’t become apparent until that structure is sequenced.’
‘In other words,’ Seagram put in sourly, ‘if there are enough hidden variables, and if those variables are complex enough, the computer may not be adequate to the task.’
‘That is correct,’ Data said bluntly.
‘Why must you use such an arcane method for analysing the artifact?’ Deanna Troi asked Riker.
‘Because the artifact isn’t made out of conventional matter,’ Will replied.
‘But it is made out of the same subatomic material as everything else in the universe,’ she persisted. ‘We should still be able to analyse it.’
‘The problem,’ Will Riker told her, ‘is that those subatomic particles are grouped together completely differently to form matter with properties we can only speculate on. A simple comparison is isomers, or mirrored molecules. If you put sodium and chlorine together one way, you get sodium chloride, or salt such as we use in cooking.’
‘And mirroring the molecule literally turns food into poison,’ Deanna responded. ‘I know that. So you’re saying what the artifact is made of goes far beyond that. But how will a mathematical model help you to understand what it’s made of?’
‘If it works,’ he told her, ‘it will create a ground-up model of the physical workings of the artifact’s matter.’
‘You mean that, by working out how the subatomic material interacts, you may be able to extrapolate what it is on a large scale?’
‘Exactly. We can’t analyse the large scale because it’s an expression of its small-scale constituents. Our tools won’t interact with anything but its smallest constituents because they’re all we have in common.’
She smirked, and said pertly, ‘You know, you’re a lot smarter than I thought you were,’ then, still smirking, went off to give Geordi a hand, leaving a perplexed Will Riker to say, ‘And just what is that supposed to mean?’

The slanting late-afternoon sun was becoming hot, the air sultry, when Seagram said, ‘Let’s leave it for the day. It’s not going anywhere, and it looks like it’s pretty much up to your ship’s computer, now.’ He approached Dr Crusher, then. ‘That Romulan lieutenant, Raya, doesn’t look too good, but she seems too bullheaded to stop on her own.’
‘I was about to tell her to go back to the ship and rest,’ Beverly said approvingly.
‘Was she the one . . . ?’
‘Who almost got herself killed? Yes, that would be lieutenant Raya.’
‘Huh,’ Seagram grunted, appraising the young woman as she began helping pack up the equipment. To the captain, he said, ‘Look, if that mission you were on was so damned important, why don’t you just leave a few personnel here and go back to it?’
‘As is normal for a disaster,’ the captain replied, relieved by Seagram’s apparent change of heart, ‘other help came unexpectedly and unlooked-for. Things are now under control there.’
Seagram nodded. ‘All right. Well, let’s go back to my place. At least I can offer you a home-cooked meal instead of replicator food.’
‘What about-?’ Geordi said, inclining he his towards the artifact’s impromptu lair.
‘Oh . . . it won’t go anywhere without my knowing about it,’ Seagram told him. ‘The big cats will keep it right where it is for now, and if anything changes they’ll get word to me immediately. Trust me- you couldn’t keep it under any better guard yourselves.’
As they walked and carried equipment towards the landrider, Data said to Seagram, ‘I was wondering: why do you call them “cats”?’
Seagram shrugged as he heaved a box of electronic equipment into the back of the landrider. ‘Gotta call them something. Besides, it’s pretty standard practise to name things after something they remind you of, otherwise we’d have too darned many names for things.’
Data considered the eyeless creatures for what for him was a long time, perhaps a few seconds. ‘I am finding it difficult to identify your comparison.’
‘This, from someone who named his cat “Spot” Riker said as he passed by, winking and patting Data on the shoulder.
Seagram smiled to himself at the idea. ‘An android who has a pet companion named “Spot”. I think I’m going to like you, Mr Data.’

‘Those animals of yours are quite amazing,’ Worf said with barely concealed enthusiasm. He had made sure he got a front passenger seat near to Seagram who drove the landrider. ‘They have the bearing and the scars of warriors.’
‘They are magnificent in battle,’ Seagram replied with feeling. ‘And now that their habitat has been increased, their numbers are no longer in such steep decline.’
‘Do they fight with one another for mates, or for territory?’ Worf asked him. ‘I ask because I could not detect an alpha male or female among those present.’
‘All of those you saw back there are of the same caste,’ Seagram told him, glad to have an interested ear. ‘Regardless, they rarely fight amongst themselves. I don’t know how mates are chosen, but the females seem to choose a different mate every breeding season. They have strong family units consisting of females, female relatives and offspring, and the males fall into groups I call “prides” that live an independent existence.
‘There are three castes, which I call “junior”, “middle” and “senior”. All of the animals back there belong to the “middle” caste, which is completely different from the “junior” ones. The junior castes do all the breeding and live separate lives, but when they reach a certain age the males and females come together and form an entirely new caste.
‘The “middle” caste is one big complex social entity I’m only beginning to understand. They’re the eyes and ears of the “senior” caste, which is about as much as I know about them.
‘Don’t expect to see any members of the “senior” caste. I’ve only seen the odd one. Like the middle caste there’s only the one group, which is closely guarded and protected and spends all its time in its lair. Although,’ he added with an odd laugh, ‘the senior caste doesn’t seem to need protection.’
‘They are great warriors, then,’ Worf said, thinking he understood.
‘They are ancient,’ Seagram said almost reverently. ‘As ancient as the bones of the land itself. Any one of them could take on an entire pride belonging to the middle caste and destroy it if they had a mind to. And yet they are amazingly intelligent, compassionate creatures that love their offspring and know all of them, right down to the smallest cub.
‘I think they tolerate me because I care for Sunshine and his aunt, who are all that remain of their immediate family. They’ll both join their extended family when they get a lot older, but for now we kind of look out for one another.’

Again Seagram was disturbed by the manner in which the young Romulan woman, Raya, seemed to know every detail of his home and personal life. Sitting down at the table with the others and looking out the window absently, Raya remarked, half to herself, ‘I keep forgetting Anala is no longer alive. It doesn’t feel the same without her.’ After a hasty explanation, Raya excused herself from the table and went to lie down on a sofa which stood before the massive fireplace and furnace. She was instantly asleep.
‘Anala never lived here,’ Seagram told the others. ‘She has been gone for several years. But as Raya described her . . . I don’t know. It’s almost as though I could feel her presence again. The old general’s, too.’
‘I met General Dalz. And his wife Anala, come to think of it,’ captain Picard said thoughtfully. ‘They were such different people that I couldn’t imagine how they’d become acquainted in the first place. I ate at her restaurant a few times, quite by coincidence. Mr Data and I went there disguised as Romulan citizens.’
‘You were spying on Romulus?’ Seagram said in surprise. ‘That took guts ’
‘We were there for diplomatic reasons,’ Picard rejoined emphatically. Then, seeing Seagram’s expression, ‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know . . . I’m having one of those déjà vu moments, I guess. I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.’
The others exchanged a meaning look at that. Captain Picard then told Seagram everything he’d left out about the Romulan artifact.
‘Is it possible,’ Seagram said, ‘that there’s another . . . I don’t know . . . maybe another reality inside that thing?’
‘We are hoping that the Enterprise computer will soon provide the answer to that and all other questions,’ said Mr Data.

That night, four of the planet’s seven small moons rose full and bright over the savannah, illuminating the seven motionless sentinels guarding the opening into the earth. Down into it the artifact had flowed like a grey viscid distillation of time and space. Now, something within it began to stir, something that hadn’t occurred since the previous age of the universe.
The seven sentinels perceived the shift in the artifact’s being and knew it for what is was. Instantly, every member of their kind was made aware, from the most ancient to the smallest cub.
It had begun.

The big “cat” Seagram referred to as “Auntie” because she was Sunshine’s aunt, lifted her head and chuffed. She had trained Seagram to know that this meant she wanted his attention for something. He, Picard, Troi, Riker and Crusher were having a late cup of coffee. Seagram was rather astute and could tell from her tone that something was wrong.
‘What is it, Auntie?’ he said, flipping open a console near the table and glancing at the various scanner arrays. ‘H’m. Guess she just wants out. Normally she sounds like that when there’s some sort of intruder . . . now what the hell is that?’    Motion sensors were picking up movement- that of the seven guardians, which were returning at a run, and of something else that followed slowly in their wake. Seagram got to his feet and began bringing more equipment on line. Sensing his mood, the others got their feet and crowded behind him.
‘I have a very bad feeling about this,’ Seagram muttered as he switched to visual surveillance and zoomed in.
‘What the hell are those?’ Riker blurted, staring at the monitor.
Captain Picard blinked his eyes as though unable to trust what he was seeing. ‘Based upon Lt Raya’s description,’ he said faintly, ‘I believe those are Valgoroth. There must be tens of thousands of them ’
‘What? Where the hell are they coming from . . . ?’ Seagram’s voice trailed off as realisation set in. ‘You ’ he snarled, glaring at Picard with the promise of violence in his eyes. ‘You brought this thing here ’
Picard held his stare a moment, then touched his communicator insignia. ‘Picard to Enterprise ’
‘Enterprise here.’
‘Go to battle stations. Scan the surface of the planet for non-life entities issuing from the artifact.’
‘Sir . . . we’re not seeing anything. There seems to be some sort of barrier, obscuring them from view. It’s reflecting our sensors back at us.’
‘Check the passive arrays ’ the captain barked.
‘We’re checking everything, sir  But it’s like . . . it’s like there’s nothing there ’
‘Arm photon torpedoes  Fire one directly into the centre of that barrier.’
‘Aye, sir. Photon torpedoes armed. Firing . . . what the hell ’
‘Enterprise ’ Picard said. ‘What’s going on up there?’
‘Sir . . . we’re . . . brace for impact ’
The away team exchanged a shaken look as the unmistakable sound of the Enterprise taking a direct hit came to their ears through the captain’s communicator.
‘Captain  We’ve just taken a direct hit from our own photon torpedo  It must’ve been redirected back at us ’
‘Damage report,’ the captain demanded.
‘Shields are down. Reports are coming in of injuries, but no fatalities so far. We took a hell of a hit, but we’re holding together, sir.’
‘Call Starfleet,’ the captain said. ‘Tell them we need immediate assistance. Tell them we need a ground assault force equipped with specialised weapons that are provided with electronic shielding. And get every available hand down here, on the double, armed with . . .’ he thought a moment. ‘Belay that. Stand by. Picard out.’ He turned to the others, his look grim. ‘We don’t even know if we can penetrate that barrier. We need to take a closer look at what we’re up against.’
‘With any luck the wall will keep them out,’ Seagram said in a low voice, like a betrayed man whose help was needed. ‘In the meantime, I’m going to take a landrider to the upper plain.’
‘How do you propose to get through those things?’ Riker asked him.
‘This area gets some pretty nasty weather in the Fall and Winter months,’ Seagram told him, ‘so to make getting around easier I had a number of tunnels built. I have some low-tech weapons, too,’ he added. ‘I don’t know if they’ll be of any use, but they’re safer than shooting your head off with your own phaser.’

Seagram agreed to take Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Lieutenant Worf and Mr Data with him. Within minutes they were armed and riding in the landrider through an unlighted tunnel which rose steadily toward the upland plain.
‘It’s funny,’ Seagram said as they passed through the gate which opened before them and closed behind them, ‘but the tunnel mouths were concealed for purely aesthetic reasons. It never dawned on me that they’d come in handy for defensive purposes.’
‘We’re only a kilometre from the artifact,’ Mr Data said from a back bench seat as he checked the specially shielded tricorder Seagram had provided him with. ‘It seems that the Valgoroth are indeed issuing from its location.’ He frowned. ‘It seems, too, that they are being watched by a number of the animals you refer to as “cats”,’ he said to Seagram.
‘Sentries,’ Seagram told him, craning his neck to get a look at the display on Data’s tricorder. ‘Good, they’re keeping their distance. Although . . .’ he added warily, ‘it also could mean that the Valgoroth are dangerous, in which case we’d better be careful.’

Seagram parked the landrider on a hillside which concealed their presence from the Valgoroth emerging from the cave entrance. As they crested the hill and began working their way downward through the woods, Riker muttered, ‘Hold up a minute. I want to get this thing strapped on, first.’ With the captain’s assistance he strapped a brace to his left arm which was attached to a highly-complex-looking slingshot mechanism. The others followed suit.
Data was the first finished, and remarked, ‘This is an ingenious disc-throwing mechanism. May I ask where you acquired it?’
‘I make them myself,’ Seagram said distractedly as he helped Worf with his. ‘I designed them for taking cuttings from the local version of certain types of “trees”. I found it was the quickest way to get new trees started. In the process I found out,’ he said pointedly, ‘that these things can also be very dangerous. They’re deadly accurate, and could practically take off a man’s head from a hundred yards.’
Worf took out one of the discs to examine. It was five inches in diameter, razor-thin and sharp around the edges, but slightly thicker in the middle. ‘It is surprisingly heavy,’ he remarked doubtfully, ‘and very sharp. But I have my doubts about its accuracy.’
‘You see all these?’ Seagram said, pointing to his own slingshot’s bands, ‘and the part that grabs on to the edge of the disc? When you draw back, you’ll feel that there’s something odd about the tension. That’s because this upper and lower extra band on the right side are stiffer than the four outside bands. When you release the disc, these two inside bands contract faster than the others, and this part here close to the centre of the disc grabs on when you pull, then releases shortly after you’ve let go. So the disc is propelled forward, and it’s made to spin at the same time. And if you use the electronic sight, you’ll be pretty much dead accurate up to a thousand yards.’
Commander Riker drew his disc-sling back experimentally. ‘Whoa  This thing takes a lot of effort to draw.’
‘Yes, well,’ Seagram told him, ‘don’t waste it.’

Using the bush at the foot of the hill as cover, they were able to arrive undetected within a stone’s throw of the cave mouth. Kneeling behind a boulder, in the light of four of the planet’s moons they watched the Valgoroth issue from the ground, making only a faint rustling as they moved.
‘If they are not alive,’ Lt Worf asked, ‘is it possible that they will not be able to detect our presence?’
‘I don’t know,’ the captain said, ‘but let’s find out.’ He picked up a small rock and lobbed it at the strange creatures. Nothing. He picked up another rock. This time he threw it into their midst. They watched as it glanced off the torso of one creature and struck two more on the legs on its way down. Still nothing. He glanced at Seagram enquiringly.
With a shrug, Seagram loaded his disc-sling, and in one smooth, easy motion fired a shot. The disc decapitated the nearest creature . . . which kept on walking. ‘I guess that thing on top of their shoulders isn’t really a head,’ he muttered, and took another shot. This time he chose one of the whip-like left “arm” appendages.
Instantly, the column of weird creatures halted in their tracks and began uttering strange clicking noises. And their left “arm” appendages began to glow dully red in the dark.
‘Let’s get the hell out of here ’ Picard barked as they began running for cover. From behind them they could feel a thrum of power that beat on their backs like the threat of impending destruction.
They were just filing into the landrider when the far side of the hill where they’d been erupted with a dull red flash and concussion. Moments later, the air was filled with falling debris.
‘We should be safe in here,’ Seagram said as he fired up the landrider and began speeding up the hill towards the tunnel entrance.
There was a loud bang as a boulder the size of a man’s head bounced off the landrider’s nose, but there were otherwise few other direct hits.
‘Well, at least we know one thing for sure,’ Seagram said as the tunnel gate closed behind them.
‘What’s that?’ Riker asked him.
‘We know why that artifact of yours was buried. I guess the question now is, “How do we put it back?”’

Chapter 5

‘One thing is certain,’ the captain said as they assembled atop the wall overlooking the greatest concentration of Valgoroth. ‘According to the analysis of the sensor data, these creatures are very much alive.’
To the east was a foreshadowing of dawn; to the west was night and a sea of motionless ebon forms over which an unnatural darkness hung like a penumbra.
‘The computer was unfortunately not able to extrapolate any useful information which might explain their behaviour,’ Data said. ‘There are simply too many variables at the physical level. However, it has been able to give us some indication of what we’re dealing with.’
‘Which is?’ Commander Riker prompted.
‘Unlike organic matter as we know it,’ Data continued, ‘these creatures function almost entirely on the subatomic level, which is why they have no recognisable internal structure. Beyond that we have learned very little.’
‘This is all very interesting,’ Seagram said without sarcasm, ‘but we’re in serious trouble, here. They have us surrounded, and if they attack the wall, judging from what happened back at the cave, they could probably blow it to rubble.
‘The thing is,’ he continued, ‘you can always leave, but I have to stay here. The animals I call “cats” are sentient beings, and I’ll die protecting them if I have to.’
‘We have no intention of shirking our responsibility in this situation,’ captain Picard told him. ‘I give you my word that I will do everything in my power to make this right.’
Seagram sighed, tired and frustrated. ‘Take a good look down there,’ he said to the captain. ‘Your word may not be enough.’ With that he left to return to his cave.

Despite his anger and frustration, Seagram had to smile at the sight of the bleary-eyed Lt Raya sharing her breakfast with Sunshine, who stood on her lap with his front paws on the table.
‘Okay, I believe you. I believe everything you’ve said.’
Caught with her guard down, she froze for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision and relaxed. ‘That is well. Disbelief was hindering action. We need action.’
‘You seem to have an unusual connexion with my friends. Especially little Sunshine, there. It has been my experience with them that they’re . . . I don’t know . . . empathic. Not like Counsellor Troi, but in other ways. I’ve learned that if you empathise with them, or at least try to, they’ll respond by allowing you into their world a little bit.’
‘You know, then, that they are planning to attack the Valgoroth?’ she asked quietly. To the disquiet in his mien, she said, ‘I can see it in the way they watch the enemy at the gate. They know things about the Valgoroth we can only guess at.’
‘You don’t think it was any accident that those things are here.’ It was a statement.
‘No more than you. I see it in your eyes, that you sense your “cats’” understanding of them.’
‘You are very perceptive ’ he said, somewhat mistrustfully.
She looked him directly in the eye. ‘Warriors know warriors. One does not need words on the eve of battle in order to know what the morning will bring.’ She tousled Sunshine’s head. He seemed to be watching her. Without looking up at Seagram, she said in an odd tone, ‘But you know this. These creatures who are your friends . . . you have seen battle before. A great evil was unleashed upon this world once before, and together you vanquished it.’ She turned to face him once more. ‘I will fight with you when the time comes, to stand or to fall by you, whichever way things go.’
‘Why?’ he asked her, trying to understand. ‘You have no stake in this.’
She frowned at that. ‘Do you not sense it? There is something in the air. The coming battle marks a pivotal moment that is beyond our ken. Far-reaching forces are at work, of which we are only minor players. Great things are at stake. Fate and Destiny are on the move . . . both are watching. Do you not feel it?’
‘I do feel it,’ he said wonderingly. ‘I do . . . profoundly so. It’s just that I’m amazed you do as well. I’ve never met another who shares this . . . this certainty.’
‘Certainty  The only certainty is death,’ she told him. ‘Life is about uncertainty, and how we face and deal with it. But . . . I know what you mean. It is more . . . recognition, I think, than certainty. Recognition,’ she said thoughtfully, as though considering the word for the first time. ‘That is what it is. I know you, Linus Seagram. I know you . . . even as I know myself.’
‘I hear the others returning,’ Seagram said somewhat reluctantly. ‘We will continue this conversation later.’

‘We just heard from the Enterprise,’ Geordi said as he and the other members of the Federation away team joined Seagram and Lt Raya. ‘There may be a way we can fight those things.’
‘How?’ Seagram asked, sensing the engineer’s excitement.
‘Our passive sensor array was able to identify the type of energy emitted by the Valgoroths’ antenna-like organ: you know, the one where a left arm would be? Well, it turns out that it’s a pulse of electromagnetic radiation. It packs one hell of a wallop, but it’s something that standard shielding can protect against. That is, as long as it holds out.’
‘No wonder the “cats” don’t like them ’ Seagram growled.
‘Yeah, I was thinking about that,’ La Forge said. ‘They must be pretty ornery, because they seem to be coming here in large numbers, looking for a fight. I was wondering if you could tell us how they’re getting in.’
‘They’re using the service tunnels,’ Seagram replied. ‘I rigged the doors to open and close for them because before the doors were installed they’d use the tunnels during winter.’
‘Is there any way you can send them to safety?’ captain Picard asked him.
‘Even if there was a way I could talk to them, they wouldn’t go,’ Seagram replied. ‘This is their world, and they will fight for it.’
‘They will be slaughtered ’ Worf protested.
‘Not if we can do something to level the playing-field,’ Seagram rejoined, ‘and I have just the thing.’

Captain Picard watched the proceedings as though witnessing some novel new form of madness. Seagram had set up a number of production lines at the cave entrance consisting of replicators and robotic assemblers. Through these passed endless lines of the eyeless cat-like animals. Mechanical arms strapped on shield-armour devices on to each animal, but the insanity didn’t stop there. Each creature received wicked-looking prosthetic claws and strap-on weapons packs across their shoulders which were controlled by thought. Turning away and shaking his head, he was surprised by the look on Worf’s face. If he didn’t know better, he’d have said he was witnessing the Klingon version of glee.
‘You approve of this ’ Picard said disbelievingly.
‘If I thought you would give it, I would ask that you allow me to join them in battle ’ the big Klingon said.
The captain caught his first officer’s eye. He too seemed to be watching the proceedings with approval.
‘You too, Number One?’
‘In a heartbeat ’ Riker blurted. ‘This is going to be a battle unlike anything we’ve ever seen ’
They watched as the mechanical arms hesitated. Little Sunshine waited his turn expectantly, his little tail wagging in anticipation. After a moment’s delay he was fitted with devices more suited to his stature, and trotted eagerly after Seagram.
‘Hey, little pee-wee, what do you think you’re doing?’ Seagram said kneeling down to inspect the little animal. He was clearly worried by what he saw.
‘He is small, but he has the heart of a warrior,’ Worf said quietly, touched by what he was seeing.
‘Well . . . I’ll tell you what: you can guard the cave,’ Seagram told his little friend. ‘If it comes to that you’ll be our last line of defence, and there won’t be any choice in the matter. But you leave the big fight to the big guys, okay?’

They went back to the wall just before sunset, and what they saw made them feel sick inside. The black forms of the Valgoroth surrounded the wall like preternatural night, as far as the eye could see, and more were coming.
‘Why are they keeping their distance?’ Riker muttered. ‘Why don’t they just attack?’
‘They are still massing,’ Worf growled. ‘They have not yet formed battle formations. Many went off into the forest.’
‘So that’s what that noise is  You don’t think they’re building ladders and siege engines?’ Geordi blurted in disbelief. ‘Isn’t that a bit low-tech?’
‘But effective, nonetheless,’ Worf said, a strange light in his eyes.
‘What is it, Worf?’ Deanna asked him. ‘Why are you looking like that?’
‘This type of warfare,’ he replied slowly, staring off into the distance as though looking for something, ‘is not complete without something to daunt ground forces.’
‘I do not think they have elephants or horses,’ Data said, though he too was staring into the distance as though searching for something.
‘What in the devil’s name is that?’ Picard barked. ‘There  Do you see it?’ At his side, Seagram handed him a pair of digital field glasses. Picard put them to his eyes, and sucked his breath in angry trepidation.
‘What is it?’ Riker asked him.
Wordlessly, Picard passed the field glasses to him.
‘I’m not seeing . . . wait a minute . . .’ he became silent for several long moments. One by one they passed the field glasses along to take a look. At the edge of sight, in the deepening dusk, were rising fearsome black forms with massive arms and shoulders walking on all fours. Their heads, if that’s what they were, were tiny, round and featureless and on the end of a short stalk. Their rear legs were short but powerful, made for crawling on all fours or standing.
‘I’ve got shielding equipment in storage,’ Seagram said to the captain. ‘It won’t take long to install.’
‘Mr La Forge,’ the captain said. ‘Data.’
‘We’re on it ’ Geordi responded. ‘Get me some hands down here from the ship and we’ll have this place shielded in no time.’
‘Mr Worf,’ the captain said.
‘Sir?’
‘I’d like you to organise units to work with Mr Seagram and his “cats”. If that’s all right with you?’ he added to Seagram.
‘It would be my pleasure,’ Seagram responded. ‘C’mon, Mr Worf  Let’s take another crack at learning to use those disc-slings.’
Picard, Riker, Troi and Dr Crusher watched them go. It didn’t go unnoticed that Lt Raya was at Seagram’s side with little Sunshine at her heels.
‘I’ve just been told that the Enterprise’s weapons won’t be any use against their shielding,’ Riker told the captain. ‘But they may be able to disrupt it enough that we can get some shots through it here at ground level.’
‘If this were an old-fashioned ground-war,’ the captain replied, turning up the light sensitivity on the field-glasses, ‘there would be someone or something directing the movements of the enemy.’
‘You think someone or something is behind this?’ Beverly asked him.
The captain turned to his counsellor. ‘What do you think? Are you sensing anything?’
Counsellor Troi’s gaze became disfocussed as she attempted to attune herself. ‘There is something,’ she said slowly. ‘I can feel its presence . . . but I can’t seem to access it. It’s as though I’m being shut out.’ She turned to face the captain. ‘It’s because of the animals Seagram refers to as “cats”. They’re empathic. Not like Betazoids . . . they’re altogether different. But those things out there are blocking the “cats” out because they can attune themselves to the Valgoroth. Captain . . . I think they know what the Valgoroth and the artifact are.’
‘Where’s a Vulcan when you need one to perform a mind-meld?’ Riker said rhetorically.

‘Whoa  This is some nice equipment,’ Geordi said as he began directing Enterprise personnel in the movement of shield generators from the storage unit below the underground motor pool.
‘This language is not familiar to me,’ Data said, appraising one of the units. ‘It’s not related to any language that I know of.’
‘I don’t care, just as long as they do the job,’ Geordi said.
‘In fact,’ Data continued with a frown, ‘little of Linus Seagram’s equipment is of known origin.’
‘What are you saying?’ Geordi asked him as they began loading the equipment onto a flatbed transport.
‘I’m saying that he has access to highly advanced non-Federation technology,’ Data replied.
‘You’re wondering where he got it?’
‘In part,’ the android said as they jumped aboard one of the low-slung transports as it was moving toward the surface. ‘I recognise some of it as having been manufactured here by robotic assemblers, but the core of the technology itself, as well as the more complex items, was produced by a culture that is somewhat more advanced than our own.’
‘Seagram does live outside the Federation,’ Geordi responded as the vehicle drove out into the deepening night on the plain within the wall. ‘He obviously is acquainted with someone out here who sells him their technology.’ He considered his android friend a moment. ‘You want to know who that is.’ It was a statement.
‘Considering how advanced their technology is,’ Data admitted, ‘I was just wondering if they have positronic technology equal to or more advanced than my own. I am always wondering if there are more beings out there like myself.’
‘Well . . . why don’t you ask Seagram?’ Geordi asked him as they reached the wall and began the ascent up one of the ramps which brought one to the roadway running along its top.
‘I’ve been meaning to,’ Data said, ‘but a good opportunity has not yet arisen.’
‘Well,’ Geordi said as he got a look at the waiting enemy outside the wall, ‘something tells me you’d better ask soon.’

‘What is it, Number One?’ Captain Picard asked his first officer. Riker was standing before a tripod on which was mounted a powerful night-vision camera with a long-range lens.
‘I’m guessing those are the shock troops,’ Riker said, pointing to the video display.
The captain stared at the lines of bizarre creatures, each of them half again as tall as a man. They appeared to consist of nothing more than a pair of arms instead of legs, with the upper-half being a mass of long writhing appendages like snakes.
‘We’re calling them “medusas”,’ Riker said. ‘The name seems appropriate.’
‘These have to be made beings,’ Picard said emphatically. ‘I don’t doubt that they’re somehow being remotely controlled. Which leads me to speculate,’ he added with an inward frown, ‘that to win this thing, we may have to make our way into the artifact itself and take on whoever or whatever is leading this army.’

Raya and Worf were about to go to the tunnel opening when Seagram roughly grabbed them by the arm. ‘Those “cats” near the tunnel entrance are guardians,’ he said in a low voice. ‘They keep outsiders away from members of the high caste. It’s okay if they come to you, but never go to them; not unless you’re known to them.’ The guardians were huge animals, utterly unlike those Worf or Raya had seen before.
They watched, listening, as something in the tunnel drew near. Suddenly, the guardians were on the move in formation, leading some sort of procession. And then, something dark, something enormous, began emerging from the dimly lighted passageway.
‘Oh . . . my . . . god . . .’ Seagram muttered. Dimly he was aware that Raya was clutching his arm tightly, her mien transfixed with awe. Worf’s jaw dropped in very un-Klingon-like open astonishment.
Out of the tunnel emerged members of the high caste: huge, hoary, ancient beasts that more resembled dragons than cats. They flowed silently like darkness and stealth personified, muscles rippling across shoulders, hips and backs. One of them let out a low growl that sent the entire underground chamber to trembling and reverberating like a seismic event.
There weren’t many of the great beasts- only six of them- but even such a small number was more than Seagram had ever dared hope to lay eyes upon. As soon as the small procession had passed, he, Worf, and Raya bearing little Sunshine, followed in their wake.

‘Let’s get these field generators set up and running right away, people ’ Geordi shouted. ‘Those uglies look like they’re getting ready to come at us ’ He was referring to the huge creatures accompanying the Valgoroth that walked on all fours.
‘The crewmembers have taken to calling them “gargoyles”,’ Data said as he erected a tripod and turned on a field generator, ‘but a gargoyle is a decorative ornament on a building that often is also a waterspout for redirecting runoff during rainfall-’
‘They’re calling them “gargoyles” because they’re grotesque and ugly, Data,’ Geordi replied as they got back on the cart to take up a new position and deposit another field generator on the wall.
‘I see,’ Data replied with a frown as they stopped and set up another field generator and turned it on. ‘Then anything grotesque and ugly might be referred to as a “gargoyle”?’
‘I guess, if it has a sort of demonic look to it,’ Geordi said as they got under way once more. All at once he came to an abrupt stop. ‘Look  They’re on the move  We’d better get this done as fast as we can.’ With that he gunned the cart forward, almost dumping their payload.

‘Captain . . .’
The tone of his counsellor’s quiet voice got Picard’s attention as much as though she’d shouted at him. He followed her gaze- and stared
‘Jean Luc, what are they?’ Beverly asked in the same low voice, as though fearing to speak aloud.
‘I don’t know, but we’re about to find out,’ he rejoined, barely aware of what he was saying. The sight of Seagram in tow of the great animals diverted his instinct to react to possible threat but did nothing to quell his unease at the sight of the massive, craggy-looking beasts whose great jaws looked as though they could effortlessly tear a man in half.
Those atop the wall stood aside as the procession took up position at the edge, forming a line and gazing down at the enemy in eyeless assessment. And then, they witnessed something that Seagram himself had never seen: organs inside the great animals’ heads began to glow dull-red.
In response, the Valgoroth on the plain below began uttering a strange sound like guttural barking. They raised up their antenna-like left arms, which began to glow in the dark, shadowing their ebon shapes in crimson hues the colour of blood.
Noticing the suffused expression on Deanna’s face, Riker asked her, as though fearing what she might tell him, ‘What is it? Do you know what’s going on here?’
‘Will . . . something terrible is going to happen. There’s something inside the artifact . . . something we haven’t seen yet . . .’ she put her hands to her temples as though in pain. ‘It’s whatever is leading this army . . .’ She turned horror-widened eyes to his. ‘It’s coming ’
Without warning, the air was rent by an indescribable sound that was part subsonic howl, part seismic tremor. Those atop the wall put their hands to their ears reflexively and stared to the northwest where a dull red flicker like distant flame touched the horizon.
In response, the massive creatures atop the wall roared, a sound so powerful that the air trembled. Even after those atop the wall uncovered their ears, afterechoes continued to cannonade off and throughout the stone hills and valleys to the north.
Without warning, the gargoyles surged forward, pushing though the Valgoroth and medusae like enraged bulls charging through grass. At the last moment they reared up, standing on their short hind legs, and swung their massive arms down and against the shield wall-
It took Picard a moment to realise what had happened. With the sole exception of the cat-like animals, everyone else had been flattened by the impact. Scrambling to his feet, he took stock of his surroundings. The thunderous impact had left his ears ringing. Others getting to their feet were putting hands to head and ears, attesting to the force of the gargoyles’ impact.
He leaned over the parapet to inspect the enemy army. The medusae and Valgoroth in the vanguard had been likewise flattened and were recovering themselves. The gargoyles, however, were still standing, and seemed to be gathering themselves-
‘Brace for impact ’
With his ears covered this time, and expecting the force of impact on the shield wall, the captain steeled himself-
-only to be knocked senseless once again. Only this time he had watched the shield generators, and with an ugly knot forming in his belly recognised the inevitable. The shield wall was only moments from collapsing  His long experience of command sent him to his feet and into action. ‘Get everyone out of here ’ he shouted to his first officer. ‘Mr Seagram, I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but you’ve got to get these creatures to follow us out of here.’
Seagram gaped at him as though he were insane. ‘You’ve got to be joking  You don’t tell these creatures anything, not unless you want to get them seriously pissed off at you, and trust me, you do not want to see what happens when they get angry.’
‘Then what do you suggest?’ Picard demanded, unable to keep sarcasm out of his voice.
Seagram thought a moment. ‘The only thing we can do is move everyone away from here and watch what they do, and if they go on the move, the best thing we can do is follow them. Trust me,’ he said before Picard could protest, ‘they know better than we do what’s going on here and how to deal with it. Following their lead might make the difference between fighting those things out there and getting massacred.’
Picard held him with his gaze a moment, taking the measure of him. Then, apparently having come to a decision, he said, ‘Let’s get everyone into those landriders of yours and get the hell out of here. We’ll stall for time so that we can get as much equipment and supplies loaded into them as possible. With your permission, we’ll blow this place behind us in order to keep the enemy from following us.’
Seagram considered the impending destruction of all his hard work with a sick look but nodded resignedly. ‘All right. I only have a limited supply of explosives . . . blasting through rock is pretty much a thing of the past. We cut through it these days: less damage, less waste that way. I’ll give you what I have, but don’t be surprised if I don’t leave a few surprises for those bastards.’

To Picard’s relief the cat-like animals wasted no time leaving the wall and heading for the tunnels. It disturbed him, however, that they seemed to be communicating with one another. If Seagram was right, every one of these creatures were aware of what was taking place here. And if that were true, how were they going to react? Were they as trustworthy as Seagram believed?
They were just piling into the loaded landriders when the dull thud of an explosion shook the complex. The shield wall had been breached- possibly the wall itself had been blown inward. With a roar the landriders headed for the tunnel entrance in orderly single-file and began making the ascent towards the upper plain. No sooner had the last landrider begun its ascent when the dull crump of explosions began coming to their ears through the ground as explosives first blasted the face of the bluff, then the complex itself, into rubble.
‘That ought to slow them down, at least,’ Seagram growled as he drove. To Worf’s delight, the great beasts had elected to accompany them in the landriders. Two of the largest creatures were in the back of their vehicle and allowed him to ride with them.
‘I’m sorry for the trouble we’ve brought you,’ Picard said.
Seagram huffed in response. ‘As bad as this is, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. It’s not every day something really new turns up in your back yard.’
‘You’re not angry?’ Raya asked him.
He actually smiled. ‘I am, and in a way I’m not,’ he said. ‘Besides, I’m serious. No matter how this turns out . . .’ he was silent a long moment, thinking. At last, to Picard, he said, ‘You know we’ve got to get inside that thing. We need to know how big the enemy’s army is, what their resources are, who’s behind this. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that this is just a diversionary tactic. I think your counsellor is right, that something much worse is to come. There could be entire worlds or an entire universe of invaders inside that thing.’
‘Or we could be looking at their entire army,’ Picard replied thoughtfully. ‘But you’re right: someone has to get inside the artifact and assess what we’re up against.’
‘You do not know what you are saying ’ Raya told them. ‘The artifact is chimera  You will discover nothing but what it wants you to see.’
‘I wonder . . .’ Picard said. ‘Lt Raya, you only touched the artifact from what I understand. You didn’t actually go inside it. Isn’t it possible that your experience would have been much different if you had actually entered it? Perhaps you were only tricked into believing that what lies inside is illusion.’
‘“Tricked” means being manipulated through conscious intent,’ she rejoined. ‘The artifact itself is an act of nature. It is not an entity, conscious or otherwise. Although . . .’ she added thoughtfully, ‘perhaps something inside it is able to exercise some sort of influence by using it, either as a conduit or medium. After all, it does appear that the creatures issuing from it are guided by the mind of a single being. Perhaps your answer lies somewhere in that.’

Seagram slowed the convoy as they neared an egress on the upper plain. He flipped a panel open as he drove and activated the vehicle’s scanners.
‘Everything appear’s to be all clear,’ he muttered as the others leaned over around him for a better view of the display. He flipped a few switches and brought up a display of the entire area with the enemy highlighted.
‘Nice,’ Riker commented. ‘A view from the Enterprise’s scanners couldn’t do any better. How far does this system go?’
‘All over the planet,’ Seagram told him. ‘I had it installed for keeping track of wildlife populations and activity. Never knew it would come in handy for . . . other things.’
‘It appears they’ve left the artifact unguarded,’ Data put in. ‘Perhaps we should avail ourselves of this opportunity before something changes.’
Seagram gunned the landrider ahead, drawing the convoy in his wake. ‘There’s another facility sixty kilometres or so north of here,’ he told them. ‘We’ll head there, first. I’ve got smaller vehicles there which are much faster and more manoeuvrable than landriders. Plus,’ he admitted reluctantly, ‘unlike the landriders, they’re armed.’
‘Armed?’ Picard asked him. ‘What sort of vehicles are they?’
‘You’ll see,’ Seagram replied cryptically. ‘The old facility is a throwback to when I first arrived here. This place was raided frequently before the planetary defence system was up and running. The defence system is fully automatic, and when I realised that ground forces were no longer necessary I let them go.’
‘You seem to have a way of isolating yourself,’ Raya commented.
Seagram raised an eyebrow at that but said nothing.

Within the hour they came in sight of the old facility. It too was a walled affair and appeared to be a circular concrete bunker ringed every hundred feet by stations with small black-tinted windows. Seagram drove towards a depression that led to a low-lying door which opened as they approached.
The gate led to a ramp which took them back up on to the plain within the facility. Seagram turned to the right and drove for some distance until they came to a ramp which led underground. Within moments they were traversing a vast underground motor pool with equipment and land vehicles, but eventually they came to a more open area with high ceilings that was a pool of very different type- for air and space craft.
‘We’ll park over there,’ Seagram told them, ‘then get some gear together and take some of those, and head for the artifact.’
Those were a number of unimpressive-looking things laying together on the pavement which appeared to be nothing more than seats attached to frames studded with boxes.
‘And how are those going to get us to the artifact?’ Riker queried as they disembarked.
‘Very quickly,’ Seagram said with a smirk that caused Will to study the things mistrustfully.

Chapter 6

‘Here,’ Seagram said, tossing Raya a small handheld device. ‘Whatever you do, don’t lose it.’ He gave one to each of his companions.
‘How quaint,’ she said, following in his wake with little Sunshine in his armour at her heels. ‘What is it for?’
Seagram and Raya walked toward the unimpressive sight of seats attached to frames followed by Picard, Riker, Worf, Data, La Forge, Deanna and Beverly. ‘This,’ Seagram said, pointing his handheld device at one of the objects. The others stared in surprise as the unimpressive thing seemed to magically transform itself into a small craft just big enough for one or perhaps two people to ride. ‘The bodies are virtual. Same idea as a holodeck, except these are for the great outdoors.’
‘Ni-ce,’ Geordi intoned as he turned his on and looked it over. ‘It’s fast, judging by the speedo . . . extremely light . . . wow, lots of power, lots of firepower . . . where the hell did you say you got these?’
‘I didn’t,’ Seagram replied in a tone that said and I’m not going to tell you.
‘Mr Data,’ the captain said, taking the android, Dr Crusher and his counsellor aside, ‘I want you to lead a strike team to harass the enemy and try to keep them drawn away from the artifact. Beverly, Deanna, I want the two of you to lead the defence of this facility; find a way to better protect it so that it doesn’t suffer the same fate as the one we just destroyed.’
‘If I may, sir,’ Data said, ‘I might be of more use to you inside the artifact.’
‘The truth is, Mr Data,’ Picard said, ‘we have no idea what affect the artifact may have on your positronic brain. You may fare better than ourselves, but on the other hand the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the subatomic matrix within might be harmful or damaging to yourself. It may even destroy you, and that’s a risk I’m not willing to let you take.’
‘If that is so, then why are you going, sir?’ Data asked him pointedly. ‘It could just as easily prove an environment toxic or deadly to humans.’
‘I’m gambling, Mr Data,’ Picard told him frankly. ‘That, and I’m going with my instinct.’
‘What if your instinct is wrong?’ Data asked him, in a way that told Picard the question was important to him.
The captain shrugged. ‘If I’m wrong, we may very well lose the battle.’
Data thought a moment, then said, ‘Then I will try to hope that you are not wrong.’

Worf was loath to leave the great beasts behind. To his Klingon mind they were objects of reverence, so ancient, hoary and powerful were they. But once they got under way his mind was consumed with interest for the strange craft they were driving.
The craft didn’t exactly fly: they repelled themselves from the ground at a distance that could be adjusted by throttling the antigrav drive. In a sense they could fly for short distances, but they were made for skimming over the land at speeds up to three hundred kilometres per hour.
Their arsenal, like their operation, was basic enough that a beginner could master their operation within minutes. The craft even had shielding, which was of enormous advantage if one were ambushed.
Worf felt a pang of misgiving as he looked ahead and saw that little Sunshine rode before Raya, his little body protected by armour. Little things had no business being in the midst of warfare, in his estimation. True, the little creature seemed fearless, and no doubt would try his best to show his worth, but the likelihood was that he would at best be a hindrance, and at worst pay for this adventure with his short life.

It wasn’t long before they came to the lip of the bluff which marked the end of the high plain. In the distance rolled the narrow low plain and beyond that stretched the sea.
Seagram didn’t bother with the road which ran down the cut which connected the high plain to the low, but to the others’ surprise shot straight toward the edge and over. Raya slowed to watch what happened, then followed suit as she saw that Seagram’s craft plunged at a controlled rate rather than dropped like a stone.
At the bottom they turned to follow the roadway to the right, and within minutes drew near to the location of the artifact.
‘It’s unguarded,’ Seagram shouted, checking his sensors. ‘At least, on the outside. There’s no telling what we’ll find on the inside.’
‘Number One, I want you to proceed first,’ Picard said to his first officer as they came to a stop and shut off their machines. ‘If all is well, I want Mr La Forge to follow. If your visor doesn’t operate in there, Mr La Forge, I want you out of there as quickly as possible.’
‘Understood,’ Geordi said brusquely. ‘Well, after you,’ he said to Riker.
They found that a ramp had been dug into the earth to the artifact, so that they were able to proceed in orderly fashion and stand in a semicircle before it. Riker put out his hand, tentatively, then thrust it into the artifact. Nothing. With a quizzical look in Raya’s direction, he leaned over and plunged into the alien portal.
After only a moment, his head reappeared. ‘It’s all clear, Geordi.’
Mr La Forge took a deep breath. ‘Okay, well, here goes nothing.’ He followed Commander Riker inside.
After a prolonged period, during which the others began to worry, a hand groped blindly through the opening. The rest of Geordi La Forge soon appeared. He appeared disappointed.
‘It’s no good,’ he said to the captain. ‘I’m as blind as a bat in there. You may as well leave the machines out here because our technology doesn’t seem to work in there.’
‘I was afraid of that,’ Picard said, sharing his disappointment. ‘I can only imagine what would have happened if I’d allowed Data to go in there.’
A ground-shaking roar caused the team to wheel around with a jerk. Plunging toward them at a run were six of the massive high-caste beasts and a dozen of their smaller counterparts as escort.
‘There are other advantages than technology,’ Worf said, a strange light kindled in his eyes as he watched the creatures draw near.
One by one the animals plunged through the opening, and one by one the team followed, save for Geordi who switched on his machine and headed back toward base.

‘Okay, now this is just plain weird,’ Seagram commented as he looked around. As far as the eye could see in any direction was the same flat grey plane punctuated by grotesque black shapes that looked roughly like trees. The “sky” was likewise grey, but a paler shade. There was no sun, no source of light to explain why they could see. He tried breathing experimentally, and spoke once more. ‘There doesn’t seem to be any air. I don’t think we’re actually breathing. Is it just me, or does my voice sound funny?’
‘It sounds kind of flat,’ Riker said. ‘I think the first order of business is to find something to mark the portal with. Anyone see anything that looks like a rock or something?’
Raya knelt down, removed her backpack, and produced a small marker beacon. Nothing happened when she switched it on, but she opened up its tripod base anyway and stretched out its telescoping shaft. ‘We should be able to see this for quite some distance.’ She pulled out a pad of paper and pencil and made a few markings. ‘Those tree things are all different. By keeping track of them we should be able to find our way around without getting lost.’
Worf, meanwhile, was watching the cat-like animals. ‘I believe they want us to follow them,’ he said.
‘Where?’ Picard asked in disparaging surprise. ‘How can they possibly know where to go in this place? I see nothing that appears to be any sort of structure. Unless,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘their senses are reacting to clues we can’t see.’
‘This place looks almost like a film-noir stage,’ Riker said. ‘Everything’s black and white, including us. Nothing has any colour. And as far as the air goes . . . I don’t think there is any. I don’t think we’re actually breathing.’
‘Not breathing?’ Worf said. ‘Then why are we not unconscious or dead?’
Riker shrugged. ‘I have no idea. I only know that this place feels sort of . . . two dimensional. Well . . . make that three dimensional, but in a two dimensional way.’
‘It is awfully flat,’ Seagram said, kneeling down and eyeballing the lay of the land. ‘It doesn’t appear to have curvature at all- hey  Wait up ’ The others were following the cat-like animals which had set off at a brusque walk.

‘Captain, those things that look a bit like trees . . .’ Riker’s voice trailed off.
‘Yes, Number One, I have noticed. They seem to be aware of our presence.’
‘I thought I saw one of them move ’ Seagram said. ‘If they can communicate like the Valgoroth, then whoever we’re up against knows we’re here.’
For the last half hour the huge cat-like animals set a steady pace, their direction unwavering as though they were as sure of their surroundings as they were of their destination.
‘Look  Worf blurted, pointing off into the distance. ‘It’s some sort of structure; a pyramid, perhaps.’
‘It does indeed look to be some sort of pyramid,’ Picard agreed, ‘and it’s a long ways off.’
‘You’re being awfully quiet,’ Seagram said to Raya. Sunshine, who trotted beside her, looked up as though in agreement.
‘This is nothing like my previous encounter with the artifact,’ she replied flatly. ‘Nevertheless, I do not trust what we seem to be experiencing.’
‘You don’t think this is real?’ he asked, surprised.
She looked to the great cat-like animals. ‘It seems to be real enough to them . . . but they are unlike us. Who can say what they see in this place?’
‘Captain ’ Worf’s warning, though quiet, bore an urgency that brought everyone to an abrupt halt. ‘The trees . . . I believe they are made up of Valgoroth ’
‘Oh, great ’ Riker muttered, advancing with the big Klingon to examine a tree-like structure, the closest they had yet encountered. And indeed the “tree” was made up of individual Valgoroth clutched together, the purpose of each individual possessing an arm instead of one leg suddenly becoming clear. The “trunk” was made up of several individuals; each “branch” consisted of members stretched out to form “limbs”. Riker walked around the “bole” experimentally. As he did so, the parts of the Valgoroth-tree swayed almost imperceptibly to track his movements.
‘Let’s keep moving,’ the captain ordered. ‘Come away, Number One, Worf. They may be waiting for some sort of provocation.’
They reluctantly got under way once more, but this time kept a wary eye to the Valgoroth-trees, watchful for any sign of activity.

Geordi La Forge did not like to be reminded of his handicap. The artifact not only had rubbed his nose in it, but had torn open the scar tissue of his psyche with an acuteness he hadn’t felt in years. The cat-like animals had inadvertently rubbed salt in his wounds when, despite their own blindness, they had plunged into the unknown with all the self-assurance of the sighted.
He was reminded yet again that his visor, though it provided him with a type of vision, was not the same thing as sight; that it had limitations, and it was a sore point with him that those limitations served to define him as a person.
Feeling shamed perhaps explains why he failed to follow a direct order to return to base, instead opting to check on the activity of the enemy without informing anyone.
Hunching over, he gunned the virtual machine to its three-hundred-kilometre-per-hour limit and went in search of the army that had issued from the ancient alien artifact.

Data felt a pang of something he couldn’t identify except by description, and wondered if he wasn’t feeling frustration. He found it an ugly sensation, one that made one pointless demand- that he give it his undivided attention.
Not giving it all his attention was proving a challenge, because without information to process he was left at loose ends. He could speculate as much as he felt like speculating, but without information the odds of his speculations being useful diminished exponentially.
‘A data-less Data desires data to sate a need for Data to have data,’ he hummed to himself, and began spinning his chair about. ‘Data is not Data without data, for he must process data to be Data.’
And then it occurred to him what the real problem was. The real problem was that he had been sent away from the artifact, when he very much wanted to sate his curiosity as to whether or not his positronic innards could function inside the artifact. After all, it was just as likely that organic matter should be at risk when exposed to a wholly alien physics.
It also occurred to him that Geordi was late, and getting later by the minute. Perhaps if he went to look for Geordi, he could, to use a human expression, “kill two birds with one stone” by having a quick look inside the artifact. After all, what would be the harm?
‘A data-less Data shall go forth and seek data,’ he hummed to himself, getting to his feet. ‘After all, Data is not Data without data.’

‘What have you got there?’ Deanna asked Beverly, looking over her shoulder. They were in the old outpost’s science lab, which conveniently commanded a southerly view from above the wall.
‘It’s a piece of one of the Valgoroth,’ Dr Crusher replied, her eyes to a powerful microscope made for scanning subatomic, atomic and molecular structures.
‘How on earth did you get it?’ the counsellor asked.
‘Geordi found it about a half hour ago. He said he found it laying on the ground not far from the artifact. I’m guessing this is the head-like appendage that Seagram shot off with that disc-sling of his. By the way, have you seen Geordi? I wanted to ask him a few questions.’
‘I was told that he took right off again,’ Deanna replied, ‘which means that both he and Data are now unaccounted for.’
‘Data?’ the doctor said sharply. ‘Where could he have gone? You don’t think-’
‘Oh, but I do think,’ Deanna cut her off. ‘Data has gone to the artifact and disobeyed a direct order.’
The doctor was silent a moment, considering the implications, then turned her attention back to the microscope. ‘Data was right about one thing: the Valgoroth are not sentient. They’re incredibly complex problem-solvers, but in a way that doesn’t require thought or consciousness. Take a look at this.’
‘And what am I looking at?’ Deanna asked her, baffled by what she saw.
‘You’re looking at an arrangement of matter that works like a calculator. The Valgoroth are the outward expression of one single problem-solving mechanism.’
Deanna frowned. ‘And just what problem are they trying to solve?’
‘First off,’ Beverly told her, ‘they are really an it. The Valgoroth are copies from a single template-’
‘You mean, like clones?’
‘More like parts stamped out by an assembly line. And they have one directive, which is to solve whatever stands in their way.’
Deanna gave her a look. ‘That doesn’t quite sound right. What if whatever is standing in their way isn’t something to be solved?’
‘That’s the problem,’ Beverly told her. ‘These things are from a universe that for us is sort of like two dimensions acting as three. To us it would look pretty much three-dimensional but would behave in a two-dimensional manner. What they are and what they do makes sense where they’re from, but it makes absolutely no sense in our three-dimensional universe, and I don’t even like to consider the implications of what might happen if they find ways to manipulate the stuff our universe is made of.’
‘Why? What could happen?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Beverly admitted, ‘but it could be particularly nasty because it would involve rearranging the subatomic structure of atoms in our universe.’
‘I remember reading something about this when I was in school,’ Deanna said. ‘Some physicists warned that playing around with subatomic structure might start a chain-reaction which could annihilate existence as we know it. But that sort of talk was compared to similar warnings of a steam locomotive travelling faster than a horse for the first time, or the first atomic explosion.’
‘There’s a difference,’ Beverly told her. ‘Once you’ve rearranged matter in favour of a new matrix, you’ve introduced whole new laws of physics, and under the right circumstances, if those laws come into conflict in a controlled manner, it’s possible to realign sectors of matter, just as you’d topple dominos.’
‘So . . . is there a way to stop them?’ Deanna asked.
‘I think there very well may be,’ Beverly said, ‘but it would mean destroying whatever is controlling these things, right at the source. Which means that we have to get word to the captain right away.’ She huffed in annoyance. ‘Geordi and Data couldn’t have gone missing at a worse time ’

‘Whoa  What the hell is that?’ Geordi manoeuvred his vehicle up the side of the cliff by angling towards the rock and driving at it, which he had discovered earlier caused the vehicle to compensate by climbing. He found what he was looking for- a small cave in the rock face- drove into this, switched the vehicle off, hunkered down, and peered from behind a concealing shoulder of rock to study the object of his attention. The Valgoroth appeared to be directing the gargoyles in the construction of a Stonehenge-like artifact, only the centre of the structure was pulsating with some sort of energy. ‘This is not good ’ Geordi muttered to himself. ‘It looks like they’re building some sort of energy-matter converter . . . if they manage to change the subatomic matrix of our universe, even on a small scale . . . I’ve got to warn the others ’

Data found the artifact unguarded, and proceeding with caution stuck his hand into it. Nothing. Experimentally, he pushed only his face into it, leaving his positronic brain on the outside.
‘Fascinating ’
Seeing no reason not to proceed, he moved bodily into the alien artifact.
He noticed right away an almost indiscernible movement from a tree-like structure which his positronic brain deduced from structural regularities was comprised of Valgoroth.
‘Intriguing ’
He moved closer to study the structure, at once attempting to deduce a reason for it. His brain was able to comprehend something the others had missed entirely- that it was radially symmetrical, something one would only be able to see from above. Data craned his neck to look above, but the sky was a grey blank from horizon to horizon.
He turned about once, slowly, trying to deduce in which direction the others had gone. He had almost completed his turn when he saw it- a far-off black pyramid-like structure.
He could think of nothing else to do, so he began walking.

‘It can’t be,’ Seagram muttered as they approached the base of the massive structure.
‘It does seem to be made entirely of Valgoroth,’ Raya said as though to affirm what he was seeing. She put Sunshine down.
‘In an odd sort of way it makes sense,’ Captain Picard said, regarding the compressed tangle of bodies and limbs, ‘considering how few physical forms there are in this world.’
‘There’s something almost computer-like about it, for lack of a better word,’ Riker said.
‘What do you mean?’ Worf asked him, his eyes on the eighteen cat-like animals which had come to a stop, the twelve escorts waiting behind the six enormous high-caste beasts.
‘It’s like there are only a few templates,’ Riker replied. ‘Everything made from those template is absolutely identical. Computer programmes are like that.’
‘Looks like they’ve figured out where the front door is,’ Seagram remarked as the cat-like creatures suddenly began moving as a body, turning to the left. Moving at a brusque pace, the team followed in their wake.
As they made their way, Seagram studied the tangle of Valgoroth bodies that made up the massive pyramid. ‘Why aren’t they crushed?’ he asked no one in particular.
‘A pyramid is a very efficient structure,’ Riker replied. ‘Each layer supports the layer above, which decreases in size and weight exponentially.’
‘Which explains why gymnastics teams utilize its properties,’ Picard put in.
‘These Valgoroth are aware of us,’ Worf cautioned, noting how they reacted as the team passed. ‘I do not like this. We are at the doorstep of a potentially vast army. Whatever is inside this pyramid is no doubt awaiting our coming. We should prepare ourselves.’
Seagram stifled a chuckle.
Glaring, Raya said, ‘I fail to understand your sense of amusement.’
Her look only prompted Seagram to quiet laughter.
‘Perhaps you’d like to share?’ the captain said in a warning tone.
‘I was just thinking,’ Seagram replied. ‘You mentioned gymnastics teams. The first thing that popped into my head when you said that is what they do at the end of their routine, only I envisioned them doing it once we’d gone inside.’
As realisation set in, some of the others found themselves unable not to grin.
‘Why is that amusing?’ Worf demanded.
‘Worf,’ Riker said to the big Klingon, ‘remind me to tell you about slapstick humour.’
‘I do not find slapstick amusing,’ Worf grumbled.
Raya, who likewise did not share their sense of humour, shook her head. ‘Humans ’

‘Deanna  Have a look at this ’
Troi joined Beverly Crusher at the view screen which showed details of the piece of Valgoroth at the border between the atomic and subatomic levels. ‘What on earth  What is it? It looks like viewscreen static.’
‘Yes, but watch this ’ Beverly said in excitement as she modulated the frequency of the apparatus.
‘Oh my god ’
‘It’s a fusion of some sort of subatomic process and information processing,’ the doctor said, pointing to the analysis readout. ‘It must have occurred naturally, and I’m guessing that it’s a distant ancestor of organic matter.’
‘But . . . what information is it processing?’ Deanna asked her.
‘That’s just the thing,’ Beverly replied. ‘It’s going through the motions of processing even though there’s no external input.’
‘So . . . because it’s not sentient . . . it hasn’t yet evolved a sense of purpose to it actions?’ Deanna wondered slowly.
Beverly’s returning look was disconcerting. ‘If you assume that life has a built-in sense of purpose. There are those that think that life at its basis is nothing more than a self-perpetuating process that exists solely because of complimentary conditions of being and environment. The question at hand, however, is, “Can we stop or control this thing?”’
‘That’s if you assume the meaning of life to be less important,’ Deanna muttered tartly as she began helping Beverly set up testing equipment.
At that moment Geordi rejoined them, slightly out of breath.
‘Where on earth have you been?’ Beverly demanded.
‘I decided to take a quick look at what the Valgoroth are up to,’ he told her, and cut off her protestations by saying, ‘They’re building some sort of matter-energy converter  It looks like they’re trying to set up a chain-reaction aimed at converting matter in our universe to theirs  If they’re successful, I don’t know just how far the conversion process will go. Maybe it’ll just be a local effect like an atomic blast, but it might be worse. Far worse.’
Geordi and Deanna watched as Beverly considered. At last, she said, ‘Let’s get to work. Damn Data anyway  We need him here. And damn you too, Geordi  You should at least have let us know what you were up to.’
Geordi wisely didn’t reply, but got right to work.

Data considered the massive pyramid-like structure with interest. ‘The Valgoroth have many uses, it seems,’ he said to himself. ‘I wonder why the medusae and gargoyles do not? Everything in this world seems to be about the Valgoroth, and that would seem to indicate that they’re a central template, whereas the medusae and gargoyles may be nonce creations.’
He found the entrance without difficulty but stopped to consider carefully before committing himself. ‘The others have no doubt gone this way, as there is no other entrance. There is something disturbing about this situation, however. Whatever awaits them inside knows they are coming, and evidently desires some sort of direct confrontation. But the possibility of meaningful communication is remote at best, therefore there is the very real possibility that they are walking into a trap. If that is the case then I too would be following them into the same trap. And since there would be nothing gained if all of us are trapped, I will remain here and await the outcome.’

The team at last came to a halt as the cat-like beasts ahead of them stopped abruptly. Having reached the centre of the pyramid-like structure, they found themselves at the entrance to a massive inner chamber. What drew their attention, however, was what lay inside.
‘I’m just guessing here,’ Seagram muttered, ‘but I’ll bet that thing is running the show.’
The team, including the eyeless cat-like creatures, stared upwards at a vast, seething, formless mass.
Riker switched on a piece of equipment, only to toss it aside with a curse as it overloaded in a shower of sparks. ‘Whatever kind of energy that thing’s made of, just trying to get a reading fried my tricorder. But it looks like it’s some sort of matter-energy matrix- whoa  What the hell are they doing?’
The cat-like creatures suddenly plunged on ahead with a roar, sensory organs in their heads glowing. In response, the powerful object thrummed with might. At its centre something began to take shape and descend. By the time it reached the ground, it was a fully-formed gargoyle.
The team watched in dread interest as the huge cat-like creatures moved towards and encircled it.
‘Hold your position, Mr Worf ’ Captain Picard barked as the big Klingon moved to join them. ‘We don’t yet know what they intend to do.’
Like a giant gorilla, with short, thick back legs and long, massive arms, the gargoyle shifted its mass left, then right, its tiny head-like appendage swivelling as though trying to decide what to do.
There was a collective intake of breath as the gargoyle lifted a massive fist over one of the cat-like creatures. Instantly, the cat-like creatures shifted position, moving clockwise around the ungainly gargoyle. If the grotesque giant had had a face and eyes, they would have said that it stared stupidly at the circling animals, unable to choose a target.
At once the environment within the pyramid began thrumming once more, and again, from the centre of the energy-matter object, a gigantic form coalesced and descended to join the first. Then came a third form, and a fourth-
‘I think we’d better get the hell out of here,’ Riker said as the great cat-like animals backed off as a body, seeing they were overmatched.
‘Agreed,’ the captain rejoined without hesitation. ‘In fact, I think we’d better make a run for it ’ This, because the gargoyles were surging straight towards them.
‘You don’t happen to have a plan B?’ Seagram said as they began running.
A faint sensation touched upon Data’s positronic senses, causing him to try to make sense of it. A dull throbbing, like that of a great subterranean machine, was emanating from the pyramid-like structure. And then, there came the sound of movement from the Valgoroth which made up the entrance. They were shifting position in a complex, interlocking fashion.
It took Data only a moment to realise that they meant to close the opening. With instant deliberation he pitted his android strength against the gnarled ebon limbs of the Valgoroth, preventing them from sealing off the only entrance to the great pyramid.
But the Valgoroth were many, and could shift their efforts at will, so he was hard put to keep the opening clear. Within moments he stood amid a tangle of clutching, grasping limbs as they tried to reach one another, which in turn redoubled their ability to pull the opening closed.
‘Data  Stand out of the way ’
‘But-’ he protested the captain’s order in confusion.
‘Data, move ’
Data sprang away from the opening just in time as the big cat-like animals crashed through in a scattering of broken Valgoroth limbs.
The team didn’t pause for breath but began running for the artifact’s opening.
‘Sir, what have you learned?’ Data asked as he jogged beside the captain and William Riker.
‘That there’s an enormous matter-energy source in there, and it has it in for us,’ Riker replied, taking a look over his shoulder.
Even as he glanced back, the gargoyles came crashing through the pyramid wall like a battering-ram, scattering Valgoroth like shards of shattered ebony.
‘Look ’ Raya’s shout almost brought them up short. Ahead of them the Valgoroth “trees” were disassembling themselves.
‘They’re trying to prevent us from reaching the exit,’ the captain said.  ‘We have no choice but to fight our way through ’
‘If I may, Sir,’ Data said. ‘The Valgoroth are strongest when they can work together. I shall attempt to disperse them somewhat.’ With speed and reflexes far beyond human ability, the android began running through the Valgoroth lines, pausing occasionally to hurl one into a mass of bodies, knocking them over like ninepins.
Meanwhile, the cat-like creatures ran the Valgoroth down with disdainful might, forging through them as though ploughing a track through a thicket.
They were suddenly through  And just about to plunge through the opening to their own universe, when a shout from Riker brought them up short.
‘Data ’
They stared in frozen horror as the android went down under a tangle of bodies. Fixing the captain with his eyes, he shouted, ‘Leave me  They are too many  There is nothing you can do ’
Seeing the truth, the captain tore his agonised gaze away and ordered the team out of the artifact. He turned for one last look but Data had disappeared into a mass of writhing black forms that kept coming from every direction. And with that the android was lost to them.

Chapter 7

‘There is something that has been bothering me,’ Raya said, her head pillowed on Seagram’s shoulder. It was late at night and they were back at the encampment. ‘Something other than the loss of the android.’
Seagram chuckled at that. ‘Several hours of lovemaking and that mind of yours is still hard at work.’ They were both silent for several moments. At last, he said, ‘Okay, what is it that’s bothering you?’
‘That we refer to those things out there as “Valgoroth”,’ she told him. ‘When I first touched the artifact, I was shown what seemed to be an alternate version of the present in which you referred to creatures exactly resembling those things as “Valgoroth”. Was it purely chimera, I wonder, or is there more to it? I mean, where did that name come from? Not from the artifact or from those things- that much is certain. Neither have demonstrated the type of comprehension that is related to the forming of words or speech.’
‘So? What do you think?’
She sighed, making little circling motions with her fingers in the hair of his chest. ‘I am thinking that the Valgoroth may be copies of living things, that the original Valgoroth may have encountered that matter-energy force inside the pyramid several millennia ago.’
Something in Seagram’s chest responded by going cold at that. ‘You think it was attempting to trap us so that it could make copies of us? But instead . . . oh my god ’
‘What is it?’
Seagram was suddenly out of bed, pulling her by the hand after him, heading for the shower. ‘Information processing ’ he snapped. ‘That thing wasn’t after us  It was after the android ’

At that very moment the android in question found himself confronted with something, the like of which had never been dreamed of in his positronic sleeping or waking: an entity of incredible power which, though astonishingly active in calculation and action, could be said to be only vaguely on the threshold of conscious awareness, if at all. It calculated because it was the process of calculation incarnate; it acted because action is the physical expression of calculation. What it calculated was whatever came its way, and when it sensed Data, Data himself, simply by existing and being at hand, tipped the scale of calculation toward being included in the process.
The Valgoroth had released him when his attempts to escape ceased as he was brought before the monstrous entity that dwelled within the pyramid. He was free to go where he pleased, he assumed, so long as he didn’t attempt to escape.
‘Hello,’ Data said to the entity. ‘I am Data. Are you a conscious entity capable of meaningful communication? Or are you merely a seething mass of subatomic energy that is nothing more than a primitive force of nature?’
To Data’s emotionless astonishment, the entity boomed a reply that reverberated and thundered throughout the pyramid. ‘Hello. I am Data. Are you a conscious entity capable of meaningful communication . . . or are you merely a seething mass of subatomic energy that is nothing more than a primitive force of nature . . . Hello. I am Data. I am . . . Data. I am.’
If Data was capable of awe, it showed only in his stare. After several moments, he said quietly, almost reverently, ‘Fascinating ’
‘That’s what I was afraid of,’ the captain muttered as Dr Beverly Crusher and Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge showed him their findings. They had concluded that the process that was the Valgoroth could no more be halted than the law of gravity repealed. ‘Well . . . have you any suggestions? Is there any way we can we beat this thing on its own terms?’
‘There is one thing we could do,’ Geordi said reluctantly, ‘but it’s kind of a doomsday scenario.’
The captain fixed him with an unblinking, steely stare. ‘Explain.’
‘It would mean collapsing this planet’s star into a black hole,’ Geordi told him. ‘We have the means on board the Enterprise to do it. But,’ he added, ‘it would also mean sacrificing the ship as the means of delivering the components of a subatomic implosion to the star.’ He shrugged. ‘We’d have to abandon ship and make sure we got the hell out of here.’
‘You’re talking about destroying this planet,’ Seagram said, his face darkening with rage. ‘You’d end up killing everything on it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Geordi said quietly, ‘but I honestly don’t know what else we can do.’
‘Find another way,’ Seagram said in a cold voice that made the others uneasy. ‘I’m not leaving this place. If you take out this system, you’ll have to take me out with it.’ With that, he spun on his heel and left the room. Raya stared after him but didn’t or couldn’t move.
‘Geordi?’ Riker said quietly. It was almost a plea.
‘I’ll work on it,’ Geordi replied apologetically, ‘but I can’t promise you anything. In the meantime, you’d better start on the conversion of the Enterprise. If that thing out there manages to get loose, we’re talking about a lot more than the destruction of one system.’

‘Seagram?’ Raya said quietly to catch his attention. He had gone to an adjoining room with a view overlooking the plain. ‘Linus?’ She held little Sunshine in her arms.
‘This world has struggled on the verge of extinction since the beginning,’ he said, his gaze fixed in the distance. ‘Its life-forms have fought and clawed their way back from the brink countless times. If it’s going to end like this . . .’ he shook his head. ‘I’m not leaving. I’ll fight for them with my last breath if I have to.’
‘Have you not considered the possibility that they were destined for extinction?’ she asked him gently. ‘After all, if you had not come here this planet would soon have been a barren, lifeless rock.’
‘I do not believe in fate or destiny,’ he told her. ‘It’s not in my nature. What is in my nature is the struggle. If that means going down fighting, so be it. I can accept any outcome so long as I’ve given my best.’
‘If that is your decision,’ she replied, ‘then it will be my honour to stand at your side.’
‘You’re crying,’ he said in quiet disbelief as he took her in his arms.
‘Are you surprised? After all, I want there to be a future for us. And for little Sunshine and all his kind.’

‘What are you doing?’ Riker asked Worf. The big Klingon was laying out a number of weapons Seagram had given him.
‘I am preparing to do battle,’ Worf answered, examining a disc-sling. ‘La Forge has told me that Seagram’s animals are somehow able to interfere with the Valgoroth energy bursts. I am going to test the accuracy of his claim. And,’ he admitted, ‘I am not good at waiting for an enemy to come knocking at the door.’
‘I’m coming with you,’ Riker announced. ‘In fact, let’s assemble a strike team. Maybe we can exact a little payback for losing Data-’ they stopped talking as they became aware that Seagram and Raya had joined them.
‘You’re not going anywhere without me,’ Seagram told them.
‘Or me,’ Raya added.
They looked down to see Sunshine studying them. He was wearing his little suit of armour.
‘You can watch,’ Seagram conceded, ‘but that’s all. You’re not getting too close to all the action.’
Sunshine responded with a disgruntled growl.
‘I mean it ’ Seagram said sternly, though it was plain he was having difficulty maintaining a straight face.

The captain sighed, faced with the would-be leaders of the strike team. ‘All right,’ he said reluctantly, ‘but I’m going with you. If we’re to save this planet, we need to buy enough time for La Forge and the others to come up with a means to shut down the enemy’s ability to convert matter’s subatomic matrix. I wouldn’t agree to this,’ he added pointedly, ‘unless the concerns at hand were not potentially so far-reaching.’
‘You’re thinking that someone may someday manage to create a doomsday device,’ Riker said, anticipating his captain’s thoughts.
‘The thought has occurred to me,’ Picard admitted, ‘and it is for that reason that we must find a solution to this problem if we can. Simply put, the day may come when we may need it.’

‘I do not trust these contraptions,’ Worf groused as they switched on their machines and watched as the virtual parts appeared. ‘If something were to fail, the rider would be left riding little more than a bicycle frame.’
‘Just about everything that can fly can fall like a rock,’ Riker commented as they mounted. ‘Besides, it’s not like these things fly ‘way off the ground.’
‘Their velocity is more than sufficient to cause fatal injury,’ the big Klingon grumbled as he checked over the virtual console display.
‘If it’s any consolation to you,’ Seagram said as they got under way, ‘these things are equipped with ejection seats.’ With a deafening whine, he and the others were under way, leaving Worf to belatedly realise that the human’s comment was intended as humour.
‘Very amusing,’ Worf said sourly as he gunned his machine ahead to rejoin the others.

‘Huh ’ Geordi commented as they passed through the rubble which had been the stone wall and came in sight of the outcropping. ‘It was there before, right where the entrance used to be. Wait, my visor’s picking up something . . . it looks like some sort of power emanation coming from inside.’
‘I’m surprised this place looks pretty much intact after all the explosives that went off,’ Riker said.
‘It’s only the tunnel entrances that got blown up,’ Seagram told him. ‘I didn’t have much explosive to begin with, and that rock is pretty darned tough.’
‘This place is as good as any to set down our machines,’ Picard said. They were near a small boulder-studded knoll that afforded a place of concealment for their transportation. ‘The Valgoroth do not appear to have set a watch. Without their leader here to guide their actions, I very much doubt they have the intelligence or the foresight to set a trap for us. Still, let’s use all caution, shall we?’
‘Oh, great ’
They turned to see what had caused this outburst from Seagram and discovered that the huge high-caste members of the armour-clad cat-like animals and their entourage were trotting toward them from their place of concealment- a pile of rubble that had been the wall.
‘Sunshine is certainly glad to see them,’ Raya said, placing the little creature on the ground and watching as he galloped excitedly toward them in his little suit of armour. ‘And I do not think that his presence here is unwelcome or unexpected.’
‘I’d forgotten about that,’ Seagram said thoughtfully. For the others’ benefit, he said, ‘Any one of them can act as a set of eyes and ears for the others. They’ve no doubt been keeping tabs on us through the little guy.’
‘I wonder . . .’ Picard muttered. Aloud, he said, ‘They do seem able to impair the ability of the Valgoroth to use those energy wands they have in place of their left arms. Perhaps they may be able to assist us.’
‘It’s not the Valgoroth I’m worried about,’ Seagram said. ‘Taking down the gargoyles is going to be a problem. And the medusae . . . we don’t know what they are yet or what they can do.’
‘I do not know about the medusae,’ Worf said, ‘but I think I know of a way in which the gargoyles may be dealt with.’

‘Hey, you in there ’ Geordi yelled, tossing a rock into the entrance. ‘C’mon out and play ’
‘“Come on out and play”?’ Riker echoed.
Geordi shrugged. ‘Why not? I don’t think it really matters what we say to them. We just have to get their attention. See? It’s working.’
‘H’m . . . just medusae,’ Geordi muttered as they began backing away. ‘I wonder what the gargoyles and Valgoroth are up to?’
If they hoped to provoke the gargoyles into coming out, they were disappointed. Only the medusae came toward them.
If the strike team meant to convey nonchalance in the face of danger it was extinguished by their first close-up look at the medusae. Half again as tall as a man, they had muscular arms instead of legs; above their waists flowed a writhing mass of tentacles. They looked for all the world like horrific living trees out of some long-forgotten ancient myth.
‘Whoa  They’re a lot faster than I thought ’ Geordi yelped as they mounted their machines and sped to a safe distance. The medusae pursued them at a pace equal to a galloping horse, their tentacles hissing with menace.

‘No gargoyles yet, Mr Worf’ captain Picard muttered through his communicator as the terrifying creatures vomited forth from the entrance. He could just see the big Klingon and members of his hand-picked security team at a point above the entrance. ‘We’ll let you know if and when any come forth.’
‘Aye, sir,’ came Worf’s reply.
‘They don’t look like much from a distance,’ Geordi announced breathlessly as he and Riker rejoined the strike team, ‘but up close they are right big and nasty ’
‘Well, hopefully this won’t be a case of “here goes nothing”,’ the captain said, raising his arm. With a stentorian utterance whose power surprised those surrounding him, he shouted, ‘Weapons at the ready ’
With that, eighty disc-slings were drawn full back, ready to fire.
‘Release ’
With a whipping sound, eighty weighted, razor-sharp and razor-thin metal discs were sent ripping through the air at the medusae. Most found a mark as the ungainly creatures rushed forward in a knot. The effect was immediate: tentacles and limbs were severed, slashed, scored, separated, or left hanging by a thread.
Despite their losses some of their number were able to reach the strike team. As though guided by individual intent, each tentacle whipped out to wrap itself around necks, arms, legs and torsos, or balled into fists at the ends and began lashing out. Within moments all was chaos as the strike team was forced to break into groups in order to deal with each medusa.
The creatures were horribly strong, and for a moment it seemed as though the strike team was doomed. But then, with a ground-shaking roar, the huge, cat-like animals surged forth and fell upon the medusae like a storm.
Raya had been about to fire a disc at a medusa that had taken down a number of personnel when a huge, dragon-like form charged the ungainly creature, seized it in massive jaws, and with a horrid crunching sound began shaking and dismembering it, until the medusa was a lifeless ruin.
The light of battle in his eyes, uttering a rarely-heard Klingon war-cry, Worf and his team above the entrance began hurling a rain of boulders down upon the medusae.
Seeing that the medusae were caught wholly unawares by this tactic, Riker, Seagram, Raya, the captain and the others surged forward drawing forth weapons made for personal battle- swords, machetes, scimitars, and a dozen other instruments of death, many of them not used in actual combat for centuries.
Seagram, who despite being in excellent physical condition, was wheezing for air like a wounded bagpipe, his shoulders, neck, lower back and thighs stiff and trembling with exhaustion as the battle raged, and he wondered at the tireless ferocity of Raya at his side who wielded a pair of wicked-looking ancient wide-bladed Romulan knives. She was as agile and lithe as a dancer, as beautiful and fierce as a goddess of war . . . as . . . as suddenly motionless as a statue? Leaning forward on his knees for support, Seagram turned to see what had her attention and that of the others.
As suddenly as it had begun the battle was over  All eyes were now on the cave entrance, their surroundings gone suddenly and ominously quiet. The only motion was the captain raising his arm, telling Worf and his team to maintain their position above the cave entrance.
‘I do not like this,’ Raya muttered, and Seagram wondered that she wasn’t even breathing hard. ‘Where are the gargoyles? Why do they not show us their main strength?’
It was then they heard it, faintly at first . . . a low sound emanating from the cave mouth.
‘What do you make of that?’ Riker muttered rhetorically as the captain and Seagram exchanged a look.
Raya, whose sense of hearing was sharper than theirs, said, ‘It is the sound of voices. Many of them.’
‘Let’s move in slowly,’ the captain ordered, leading them toward the cave entrance. As they progressed he indicated that teams were to advance to either side, flanking the cave entrance and keeping a careful eye on what lay inside.
As they gained the entrance, the leaders to the teams on either side of the entrance shook their heads. There was nothing to be seen from the cave mouth.
‘It’s all changed ’ Seagram said in wonder. ‘This isn’t the way the entrance was before. This tunnel leads straight ahead into the gut-rock underneath the plateau. They’ve filled in all the side passages with the stone they’ve tunnelled out . . . why would they do that?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ Riker told him.
‘Or anyone’s,’ the captain seconded. ‘They may have done it to remove the advantage of our knowing the lay of the land,’ he speculated, ‘but something tells me they did it for reasons entirely their own. That is, if they have any reasons. It could just as easily be the result of blind impulse on their part.’ He hesitated for a moment, reached a decision, then said, ‘Let’s go in, shall we-?’
They were taken off-guard by a dozen of the huge cat-like creatures that seemed to materialise out of nowhere and set off at a brusque pace into the tunnel, padding almost silently into the dark.
‘They seem to know what they’re doing,’ Riker commented.
‘If that is so, then we’d best take advantage of their having taken the initiative,’ the captain said as they surged forward in the great animals’ wake.

‘Whoa  Hold up a minute,’ Riker said, bringing them to a stop.
‘What is it, Number One?’ the captain asked him.
‘Look at the walls,’ Riker said carefully in a low voice.
‘Valgoroth ’ Raya bit off. ‘Like the pyramid, the entire tunnel is made of them-’ her sudden silence got their attention as though she had shouted at them. ‘We’re walking on them . . . they make up the ceiling, too.’
The captain and his first officer eyed each other warily.
‘Great  What do you think we should do?’ Riker asked him.
‘We’re in far too deep to think about backing out now,’ the captain said with a shrug in his voice. ‘They must know we’re here. If we retreat, there’s nothing to stop them from trapping us. I don’t think we have any choice but to continue on.’
‘So much for the element of surprise,’ Seagram muttered as they got under way once more.

They had gone several hundred feet when Seagram said, ‘Does anyone but me find it odd that we can see where we’re going? I’m not seeing any source of light. Heck . . . I’m not seeing any light at all ’
‘It feels the same to me as when we were inside the artifact,’ Raya said pointedly.
The sound of Worf’s voice came over the captain’s communicator.
‘Go ahead, Mr Worf.’
‘The Enterprise reports that we are very near an intense dimensional rift, that you are travelling towards the centre of it. Sir, they say that it is showing signs of becoming unstable ’
Unstable  Which could only mean-
‘Thank you, Mr Worf,’ the captain said in a throat suddenly gone dry. ‘Picard out.’ To the others he said, ‘This must mean that the Valgoroth have created an extension of the artifact. Perhaps they no longer need it in order to access the dimension or whatever it is they’re from. Regardless, if we’re not successful, and soon . . .’ the trailing off of his voice filled the others with dismay. ‘I’m sorry, Mr Seagram,’ he said very quietly, his voice flat with finality, with fatality. ‘I’m going to have to order the Enterprise to annihilate this planet. If it’s any consolation to you, the Enterprise and all its crew will share your fate and the fate of this planet.’
‘Let’s get going,’ Seagram muttered in a low, dangerous voice, shoving his way past them. ‘I’m not giving up while there’s still a chance.’
‘All right,’ the captain conceded, following in his wake, ‘but if we’re unable to do anything-’
‘I get it ’ Seagram bit off. ‘I don’t need reminding. Whatever else happens, I want to see what these bastards are up to.’

‘Look ’ Riker shouted, ‘there’s an opening  It must be the end of the tunnel ’
They began running, then bunched up reflexively and stopped as they came to the tunnel’s end.
‘Oh my God  That’s impossible ’ Riker stared incredulously into the vast underground cavern. There, in the distance, was what appeared to be a pyramid- the very structure that lay within the artifact. ‘It can’t be the same one, can it? How can it be in two places at once?’
‘If my memory of dimensional theory serves,’ Raya said hesitantly, ‘there is only one such structure and only one artifact. I believe we are within the artifact once more . . . the tunnel we passed through is merely another portal leading to the artifact’s interior-’
‘Data’s still inside that thing ’ Riker said intently. ‘Maybe we have another chance to rescue him ’

‘We’re getting nowhere,’ Beverley Crusher muttered in exasperation as she peered through the subatomic structural magnifier at the microscopic piece of Valgoroth. ‘Even if we figure out how its matter is organised, that won’t tell us anything useful about its function.’
‘Why not?’ Deanna Troi asked her. ‘Surely we can extrapolate something from the way it’s put together. I mean, there must be some forms of commonalities, otherwise why would the Valgoroth have what we clearly recognise to be arms and legs?’
‘The problem,’ Beverley told her, ‘is that their arms and legs seem to be copies, which I’m guessing were made of a species they had contact with millennia ago. The Valgoroth themselves seem to be a composite of various functions which were deemed to be useful by whatever it is that lives inside that pyramid.’
‘So . . . what . . . are you saying they were formless before that encounter?’
‘No,’ Beverley replied, ‘I’m saying that they didn’t exist prior to that encounter, that whatever is inside that pyramid made them after encountering some sort of alien beings. Maybe they were explorers and happened upon it by accident, and as a result of that encounter it copied certain aspects of the aliens it thought to be useful.’
‘And why do you think that?’ Deanna asked her.
‘I think that,’ Beverley rejoined, ‘because it seems that the entity or whatever it is that’s inside the pyramid hasn’t gone anywhere.’ She shrugged. ‘Maybe it can’t.’
‘You think it may be trapped inside there?’ Deanna asked with a frown.
‘I very much doubt it,’ Beverley told her. ‘After all, the pyramid is made of Valgoroth and it made the pyramid. No, I don’t think it’s trapped inside there. But I do think that maybe it lacks the ability to be mobile, which would explain why it reaches out through the things it makes.’
‘Guys ’ Geordi blurted, joining them, ‘I may have come up with something ’ He moved to take over the magnifier and inserted something.
‘What are you doing?’ Beverley demanded.
‘Here, I’ll put it on-screen,’ Geordi said as he worked, transferring the display to a large wall monitor. ‘There  You see that?’
‘It’s a bit grainy at this extreme magnification,’ Dr Crusher muttered as she moved closer to inspect the image. ‘But . . . okay . . . that is what appears to be the actual data stream.’
‘Exactly ’ Geordi told them. ‘It’s a bit iffy, but I think we may be able to get its attention, maybe even interact with it.’
‘How will this help us to do so?’ Deanna asked him.
‘Because I just found out that part of this structure exists in other dimensions,’ Geordi told them. ‘See, I get this same kind of distortion from my visor sometimes, and sometimes it’s because of limitations of my visor, but a few times it has been because things are just on the edge of what my visor can see, meaning that there’s a disruption of some sort in the fabric of time and space. I’m betting that this piece of Valgoroth is still connected to the rest of the dimension, or organism, or whatever you want to call it.’
‘So . . . what do I plug into it?’ Beverley asked him doubtfully. ‘A universal translator? A computer link?’
‘We need Data,’ Geordi told them. ‘Somehow we have to get to him. I’ve constructed an interface which will allow him to directly interact with this thing. The problem is . . . I’ve got to get inside the artifact to get it to him, but the moment I go inside the artifact I’m stone blind. So I need the two of you . . .’ he added apologetically.
The two women exchanged a look.
‘Not a problem, Geordi,’ Dr Crusher said emphatically. ‘We were getting tired of being cooped up in here. Weren’t we, Deanna?’
‘It’s far too safe in here,’ Deanna quipped. ‘Let’s go join the boys and get back in the action, shall we?’

At that very moment Data was conducting an interface of his own.
‘It would seem that you process both information and matter simultaneously,’ Data said to the entity, wondering all the while if it could understand him. ‘In fact, it could very well be that, for you, there is no distinction between the two. I am wondering if perhaps this process did not give rise to the existence of organic matter.’
‘It would seem that I process both information and matter simultaneously,’ the entity boomed. ‘It would seem that I am both information and matter simultaneously. I am both matter and information. Matter is information . . . information is matter . . . so it would seem . . . but is it so?’
‘There is so much for you to learn,’ Data said to the entity, ‘and so little time left for you to do it without destroying everything, everywhere.’

‘This can’t be good,’ Seagram said as he watched the huge cat-like animals. They had stopped well short of the great black pyramid and now seemed to be considering it, cocking their heads in an attempt to align their sensory apparatus’ with the massive structure.
‘Why?’ Riker asked him. ‘What’s happening?’
‘They’ve stopped because they can’t get a lock on that pyramid thing. Something’s blocking their ability to see it . . . that is, if sensory organs can be said to “see”.’
Raya backed off a step, pulling Seagram with her.
‘Something is happening  Can you not feel it? Perhaps we should remove ourselves to a safe distance.’
Something was indeed happening  The huge cat-like animals, which more resembled dragons at this formidable stage of their lives, were now standing stock-still, their heads lowered to align the sensory apparatus in their heads with the great black pyramid. It soon became apparent that they were doing more than simply attempting to scan the structure: the dull reddish colour generated by their sensory organs began asserting itself in their otherwise colourless environment. The effect, though silent, was harsh, earsplitting, skin-crawling . . .
‘Look ’
At first they thought that the massive structure was beginning to melt. It took them only a moment to realise with sick dread however, what was really happening.
‘This does not look good,’ Riker said to no one in particular as the pyramid disassembled itself and the massing army of Valgoroth began advancing towards them.
‘No, it decidedly doesn’t,’ the captain agreed and began shouting orders. ‘Everyone, spread out  Form two flanks  We’ll have to meet them head-on in order to prevent them from surrounding and overwhelming us. Retreat is not an option  Failure is not an option  Mr Worf,’ he shouted into his communicator badge, ‘you and your team are needed in here, right now ’
‘Aye, sir. We’re on our way.’
‘Well, Number One,’ the captain said to his first officer as he watched the Valgoroth army spread before them like a black sea of writhing bodies, ‘this could well be the last hour we serve together.’
‘I wouldn’t count us out quite yet,’ Riker replied as he watched the huge animals in awe. ‘Look  They seem to be having some sort of effect.’
As he spoke, angular shards of red light began piercing the lightless gloom within the artifact. The effect was painful, almost blinding. The Valgoroth responded by halting in their tracks, their voices of babel of guttural barkings and clicks. The energy wands they bore in place of left arms were pointed at the Federation defenders, but for some reason remained black, dead, powerless. Suddenly, the huge gargoyles in their midst began turning this way and that, apparently blinded. Enraged, they began lashing out in blind, undirected fury. A few came upon each other and began clashing like titans.
Captain Picard seemed to come to life, then. ‘This is it  This is our chance  Assume attack formations  Charge ’
With a roar, the entire Enterprise crew surged forward firing disc-slings into the bewildered Valgoroth, wielding ancient but deadly weapons, the like of which hadn’t seen battle for countless generations.
Worf and his team burst from the tunnel at that moment, slightly winded, the light of battle in their eyes. It took the big Klingon warrior only a moment to choose his target. ‘There  Where the walls of the pyramid are falling  We must fight to secure the android ’
Behind them streamed a hundred of the cat-like creatures, and in their wake trotted little Sunshine followed by Dr Crusher and Counsellor Deanna Troi leading Geordi La Forge who looked like anything but a blind man.

Chapter 8

Data frowned as the entity began to seethe. It took him a few moments to realise that the cat-like animals, in suppressing the sensory apparatus of the entity’s minions, had effectively blinded it. Yet blind though the entity was, the android could feel its awesome might beating upon his sensors.
‘Although the Enterprise crew has the decided advantage in the fight,’ Data said aloud, wondering if the entity could still hear him, ‘you present a grave danger to them. Are you able to listen to reason?’
Although formless, something of the entity’s posture, if it could be referred to as such, suggested that it considered the android’s words.
‘I do not think they are capable of causing you harm,’ Data said, choosing a reassuring tone of voice. ‘In fact, if you were to attempt to communicate with them, I think we could come to some sort of mutual . . . agreement, perhaps.’ It was almost a question.
The entity’s prolonged motionlessness led Data to think that it was considering his words. But then, without warning, it seemed to rise up into the chamber, then plunged downward with horrific force.
Knocked off-balance for a moment, the yellow-eyed android righted himself and tried to puzzle out what the entity was doing. What he was seeing was confusing to his sensors, but it seemed that the entity had forced a sort of downward bubble into the floor of the cavern. Or was it really the floor of its own world, leaving the cavern untouched and flat-bottomed as before?
As he tried to sort out this bifurcated confusion of his sensors, the entity rose up, then hurled itself downward once more, seizing the android as it did so.
A hole was forced into the bottom of the artifact, but strangely, not the cave bottom as well. In any event, the entity plunged into the hole it had made, still clutching Data who watched the proceedings with wide-eyed emotionless interest, and like a bubble detaching itself from a larger bubble, they vanished into the floor, leaving the cave bottom untouched as before.

‘What’s going on?’ Geordi shouted as the entity came crashing down, knocking down foe and defender alike like ninepins.
‘It’s the entity,’ Dr Crusher told him. ‘It’s . . . it just sort of reared up and came smashing down. Look  It’s made a big dent in the ground ’
‘Geordi, wait ’
Blind as he was, Geordi La Forge didn’t need anyone to tell him where the entity was or what it was doing. The sheer force of it beat on his brow like a desert sun, telling him exactly where it was, and he suspected what it was doing: attempting to break off a piece of the artifact like a bubble.
‘I’m coming, Data ’ With that, he went charging ahead, even as the artifact reared up once more and came crashing down.

Worf stopped short and helped the doctor and Counsellor Troi to their feet, even as the others arrived to help. ‘They are gone,’ he said as they turned their gaze to where Geordi had run. ‘Mr La Forge appeared to be attempting to succour the android. It appears that the entity has taken them both.’
‘But . . . where could they possibly have gone?’ Riker asked. ‘I mean, it appeared that the entity managed to break off a part of the artifact, but that should mean that they’d still be here, shouldn’t it?’
‘One would think so,’ the captain said thoughtfully. ‘After all, until the present time it appeared that the interior of the artifact was indivisible.’
‘Geordi went after Data,’ Dr Crusher said in a tone that drew everyone’s attention, ‘to give him a programme that may allow us to interact with the entity . . .’ her voice trailed off as she and everyone around her began looking around in amazement. ‘What the hell?’
Even as they watched, the walls of the tunnel and dead and broken Valgoroth and Gargoyles alike began taking on an odd hue, as though they were dissolving into two-dimensional black-and-white television static. There was a smell of ozone like electrical circuits burning, and then everything that had issued from the artifact was gone, leaving them in a vast underground cavern.
Anxiety tightening the skin around his eyes, the captain moved forward a step and struck his intercom badge urgently. ‘Enterprise, this is the captain  Do you have a fix on the artifact?’
‘Sir ’ a voice from the bridge responded, ‘it’s left the planet and is moving away fast ’
‘All hands ’ the captain shouted, ‘prepare to beam back to the ship ’
‘We’re coming with you,’ Seagram said firmly.
The captain considered them briefly, then said, ‘All right. Though at least, Mr Seagram, it seems that your planet is no longer in danger.’
‘If I may,’ Seagram put in, ‘I’d like to bring them along.’
The captain turned and frowned. “Them” was a number of the huge cat-like creatures and their entourage which seemed to be appraising him expectantly.
‘All right,’ he agreed slowly. ‘They’ve been of enormous help to us already. It could be that they still have a vital role to play before this is over.’

‘Do we still have a fix on the artifact?’ the captain said without preamble as and his senior officers exited the turbolift onto the bridge.
The young officer-in-training seemed relieved to relinquish the command chair to the captain. Rising with alacrity, he said with trepidation, ‘Sir, I have a team following the artifact in the shuttlecraft. I was afraid we’d lose it, so I . . .’ He trailed off, youth and uncertainty causing him to question the wisdom of his decision.
‘Well done ’ the captain said as he took his chair. ‘It seems you were well-chosen for your first command.’
‘Thank . . . thank-you, sir,’ the young man stammered as he left to return to his post.
‘He does you credit,’ Picard said to his first officer as they shared a knowing smile. ‘Be sure to put his name in for citation. In the meantime, let’s see if we can’t get an exact position on our quarry. Hail the shuttlecraft.’
‘Aye, sir,’ Worf responded, then frowned. ‘Sir, they are hailing us ’
‘Get a lock on their position, lay in a pursuit course and engage, maximum warp ’ the captain said tersely, springing into action. ‘On viewer.’
‘Sir ’ a young woman in the shuttlecraft responded urgently, another raw recruit left behind to manage the ship as all but a few of the crew had been despatched to the planet’s surface. ‘The artifact is almost out of range. I can’t maintain this speed much longer.’
‘Shut the shuttle’s engines down immediately and lock her down ’ the captain cautioned. As she did so, he said, ‘I’m surprised you managed to hold her together at that speed. In any event, prepare yourself. We’re going to do a high-speed beamout as we pass by your position.’
‘You’re leaving the shuttle here?’
‘That’s affirmative. We’ll return to pick up the shuttle later. In the meantime, get ready. High-speed beaming can be rather . . . disconcerting.’
‘Sir,’ Worf said, ‘we are approaching the shuttle’s position. Transporter room six has a lock on her.’
‘Engage,’ the captain said as they watched the young woman’s eyes go wide. As they watched, her voice modulated as her features dissolved in the transporter shimmer, accompanied by a wail of panic.
The captain was smiling as he punched an intercom button on the arm of his command chair. ‘Transporter room six, do you have her?’
‘Aye, sir,’ a voice responded dryly. ‘Could you send someone down here with a bucket and mop?’
‘Oh, I’m sure you can handle that yourself,’ the captain said, still grinning as he switched off. ‘Nothing like a bit of levity during a crisis, eh Number One?’
‘If you ever do that to me, you will live to regret it,’ his first officer warned, although he too was smiling.
‘In the meantime, are we still closing in on the artifact?’
‘Aye, sir,’ said the young officer who had assumed Data’s job. ‘It’s only doing a little better than warp six. We should be on top of it in . . . roughly eight minutes.’
The captain sighed, regaining seriousness as he considered the chronometer in the arm of his command chair. ‘All right . . . let’s see if we can’t find a way to get this thing to go to ground again on a class “M” planet. We can’t rescue Mr La Forge from space.’
‘We’re a long way from the nearest class “M” planet,’ Riker warned.
‘Be that as it may, Number One,’ the captain answered, his brow furrowed in thought.

Raya raised an eyebrow as she scrutinised the quarters assigned to herself and Seagram. Little Sunshine was poking about excitedly, hindquarters protruding from behind a dresser, his tail twitching.
‘How many people normally occupy this space, I wonder?’ she asked rhetorically.
‘One,’ he told her. ‘Two at the most. If these quarters seem large to you it’s because we humans need our space, especially when cooped up in a spacecraft for prolonged periods of time. Otherwise we tend to go a bit . . . loopy.’
‘There’s even a bathroom . . . will you share a shower with me?’
‘I will,’ he said, joining her with a broad smile as they disrobed, went into the shower stall and turned on the water.
Somehow they were soon in each other’s arms, and within moments were half-dried and on the bed making love. Hours later, laying together amid a tangle of sheets and blankets, Raya sighed, stretched, got comfortable, and was all set to fall asleep, when a little tongue began licking and nibbling her toes, playfully.
‘Sunshine,’ she muttered sleepily, reaching down to retrieve the little creature. ‘Have a nap with us, little pest.’
‘Bad as having a little kid around,’ Seagram muttered, on the verge of sleep.
‘You had better get used to the idea,’ Raya said in a dreamy voice as she closed her eyes.
Minutes later Seagram was wide-awake, considering Raya’s remark as she slept.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard blinked sleep out of his eyes as he considered the time. It was early yet but he’d slept more than enough. Two long weeks had gone by and still they hadn’t come within range of a class “M” planet. They were now in deep space, well out of Federation territory and heading for an unexplored quadrant, beyond which lay uncharted territory.
He thought of whiling the morning away with his customary cup of tea, then changed his mind in favour of the arms-length human company of Ten-Forward. He wanted to be around people without being with people.
Having showered and dressed before leaving his quarters, he entered Ten-Forward with some relief, seeing how few were present. Further to his liking, the only people he recognised were Seagram and Lieutenant Raya, and they were too preoccupied with each other to notice who came and went. The little animal Seagram referred to as a “cat” lay asleep on its back in Raya’s arms; she stroked it absently from time to time, half-smiling secretively.
Jean-Luc ordered a ham and lettuce sandwich on rye with hot mustard and black coffee, giving in to a spur-of-the-moment whim for something a little different. When it arrived he took a bite, savouring the nasal-stinging sensation, washed it down with Columbian dark-roast, and sighed.
Retirement, he sensed, was looming in his future. Even with the artifact on the loose, he still felt there would be a future in which to retire.
Even so, he felt a sense of loss stealing upon him as it often did of late, his sense of wonder at the ancient origins of the artifact unable to dispel a weight of gloom that seemed to settle on his shoulders.
‘Am I losing my sense of wonder?’ he thought. ‘I never felt old before . . . not on the inside, at least. Not like this.’
The sight of Seagram and Raya somehow served to drive it home, that plans and future life had somehow fallen behind in his life, had slipped out of reach somehow, unmarked and unnoticed . . . leaving him alone . . . alone and empty.
‘Feeling sorry for yourself, Picard?’
As though materialised from his angst, there, sitting across from him, was the capricious and powerful being, Q.
‘Why are you naked, Q?’ Picard asked, not in the mood for games.
‘Am I naked?’ Q asked ingenuously. ‘My apologies. Will this do?’
‘That is a Starfleet admiral’s uniform,’ Picard replied acerbically. ‘You do not have the stature or the character to wear it-’
‘Then I shall go back to being naked,’ Q said with a sigh. ‘After all, I do feel perilously exposed, given the present circumstances.’
Something in the strange being’s tone warned Picard that a hidden seriousness lay behind his words. ‘For god’s sake, Q, stop playing games and put some appropriate clothes on- ’
‘Will these rags do?’
Captain Picard put his head in his hands. ‘Suit yourself. Now, are you here for any reason, other than to antagonise me?’
‘As a matter of fact,’ Q told him, ‘I have been sent here by the Q Continuum because of the threat the Romulan artifact represents. You do know that it is capable of wiping our universe out of existence?’
‘Is it really?’ It was captain Picard’s turn to be disingenuous. ‘Then perhaps you could do something about it, and save us all the trouble.’
‘Trust me, Jean-Luc, I would if I could,’ Q said with uncharacteristic candour. ‘The problem, however, is that fiddling around with the lynchpin of the subatomic matrix of the old universe would entail destabilising all of existence. The entity can do it because its consciousness is mind, hands and tools all in one. On the other hand, I can’t do it because it would be like performing brain-surgery on myself at the subatomic level.’
‘The lynchpin . . .’ Picard echoed, brow furrowed in concentration. ‘Are you saying that the entity itself-’
Q nodded. ‘The entity is the glue that holds all of this,’ he made an expansive gesture, ‘together. It thinks,’ he said meaningfully, ‘therefore we are.’
‘What are you saying?’ Picard demanded in disbelief. ‘That the entity is a god-like figure?’
‘Would that it were that . . . complex,’ Q answered with heavy irony. ‘The entity is . . . that consciousness is a potential of existence. Or, to put it in more succinct terms, the entity is . . . that proto-consciousness is a potential of proto-existence.’
Picard gave him a look. ‘Are you saying that the entity is the conscious mind of the old universe?’
‘In a sense,’ Q replied slowly, considering his own words. ‘It’s more a case of the old universe being . . . shall we say . . . the outward expression of the entity.’
‘You’re saying that the entity is God?’ Picard demanded in disbelief.
‘That’s an interesting hypothesis,’ Q said, ‘except that the entity didn’t think itself into existence, nor did it exist before the event you humans miscall the Big Bang. Think of it as the last remaining vestige of the old universe . . . in a very real sense it is the old universe, or what’s left of it.
‘The problem is that it’s the foundation of the present-day universe as well,’ he continued, ‘and until recently it lay safely sealed away and hidden-’
‘By whom? The Q?’
‘I don’t know,’ Q pronounced in a way that said this was the simple, literal truth. ‘It was long before the Q Continuum came into existence. Whoever placed it there left no trace . . . not the slightest echo of their being . . . in fact, the Q were wholly unaware of its existence until the Romulans stumbled upon it and let the genie out of the bottle, as it were.’
‘Q, this is all very interesting, but why are you here?’ Picard said, sighing tiredly.
‘I am here,’ Q replied bluntly, ‘because the Q have a vested interest in your success in bringing the entity to heel. Our continued existence is at stake, you see, and our hands are tied in such a way that we have no choice but to work through such crude tools as . . . yourselves.’ Before Picard could speak he held up a hand. ‘I know what you’re thinking  Oh, the irony, that the mighty Q is forced to come begging for favours, cap in hand.’
‘Actually,’ the captain replied dryly, ‘I was thinking of withholding our aid, just for the rare pleasure of watching you squirm.’
‘It’s your head on the chopping block as well as mine ’ Q spat petulantly. ‘Therefore it’s in your own self-interest to do as I tell you ’ He stared doubtfully as Picard burst into laughter.
‘I will see the universe and everything in it end before I’ll play the part of lackey to a self-involved prat such as yourself, Q,’ Jean-Luc said as though Q had no power to harm him. ‘I will gladly accept your . . . help . . . such as it is . . . but it will be on my terms, not yours.’
‘Such help as I offer should not be taken lightly,’ Q said, leaning back and speaking darkly.
‘I take nothing you do lightly,’ Picard said with mild sarcasm. ‘It’s just that I do not trust your capricious and condescending nature. We both know you wouldn’t scruple to save yourself at our expense, so don’t try to impress me with glib talk of “help” and “favours”.’
‘You wound me, Jean-Luc,’ Q said in a parody of a hurt tone. ‘After all we’ve been through together-’
‘You mean, “After all you’ve put me through ”’ Picard shot back.
‘I only did it for your own good,’ Q replied in a glib manner, echoing Picard’s epithet.
‘Right . . .’ Picard drawled, thinking to add more, then changing his mind as he realised Q was attempting to bait him. ‘Well, what of it, Q? You say you’re here to help? Let’s see you put your money where your mouth is. What do you propose?’

Worf stared in affronted anger. ‘Q is here? Why did the computer not register his presence as an intruder and notify me?’
Riker shrugged. ‘You’ve got me. Maybe he doesn’t register as a life-form . . .’ he went to the bridge’s science station to check out of curiosity, the big Klingon looking over his shoulder. ‘Huh. Q must’ve tampered with the computer log. It knows he’s here, but his presence seems to have been logged in automatically.’
‘I specifically had the computer programmed to respond to his presence so that he could not make an appearance without our knowing it,’ Worf groused.
‘Yes, well, I doubt even a containment field could hold him, even with prior warning,’ Riker told him.
‘We’ll see about that,’ Worf muttered darkly to himself. ‘Perhaps the transporter could be set to respond by dispersing his molecules into space.’
‘Remind me to stay on your good side,’ Riker said, slightly appalled at the notion.
‘Where Q is concerned, I do not have a good side,’ Worf grumbled.

‘They don’t look like cats to me,’ the young ensign named Stiles said, trying to pretend he wasn’t nervous. ‘They look kind of like . . . evil furry dragons.’
His cohort, another young ensign named Cooper, made no pretext of not fearing the huge creatures. ‘Look at the size of their teeth, and their claws  They look like they could tear us apart in less than two seconds. Why won’t they give us phasers?’
‘Relax,’ Stiles drawled, swinging his feet. The two sat high up on a shelf in cargo bay eight. ‘They’d have to be able to jump thirty feet in order to get us. Besides, Mr Worf says they’re tame . . . sort of.’
‘What’s that mean, “sort of”?’ Cooper demanded. ‘Either they are or they aren’t ’
‘Look,’ Stiles reasoned, ‘if they weren’t, then they’d be locked in a cage or something.’
‘Yeah, right ’ Cooper muttered. ‘Like the dog that won’t chew your leg off until its owner goes inside.’
Just as he said that, the huge animals stirred as one and got to their feet. The largest of them let out a low reverberating rumble that caused the two humans to cover their ears reflexively. As it moved to the door, the two men thought its head was bowed, until they realised that it was aligning some sort of dully-glowing sensory organs in its head with the door mechanism. To their amazement, the door, which was sealed and locked, opened seemingly of its own accord.
‘Call security ’ both men said together, looked at each other, then scrambled for the ladder.

Captain Picard was just about to exit Ten Forward when he stopped in shock, and stared as the huge animals entered silently and purposefully, making their way straight towards-
‘Q ’ Picard shouted.
The troublesome Q surged to his feet in uncharacteristic astonishment as the largest of the beasts bowed its head, sensory organs giving off a pale red glow that thrummed with power.
To Picard’s amazement, Q’s mouth was instantly frozen open in a soundless “O” as the creatures first immobilised him, then surrounded him on all sides.
‘What the hell ’ It was Seagram, who came running, Raya at his side trailed by a yawning little Sunshine. ‘What on earth are you doing? Are you trying to kill him?’
The animals’ leader pushed its grizzled muzzle to within millimetres from Q’s face, teeth bared.
As though he were a puppet with its strings cut, Q fell to his knees, gasping for breath, one hand held above his head as though vaguely trying to ward off blows.
‘All right, all right  You win  I’ll help you in any way I can ’ He accepted Picard’s help in getting to his feet. In characteristic fashion, he tried to laugh off what had just happened. ‘Nothing to see here,’ he wheezed. ‘Just a . . . friendly disagreement.’
‘How did they . . .’ Picard’s voice trailed off as he reconsidered the animals as though seeing them for the first time.
‘The operative word is “they”,’ Q rejoined. ‘Let’s leave it at that, shall we?’
‘Let’s not,’ Seagram interjected angrily. ‘I’ve never once seen them take a dislike to a complete stranger. They obviously know you. Who the hell are you, and what did you do to piss them off?’
‘I merely had some harmless fun at their expense,’ Q protested. ‘Or at least I would have, if they hadn’t seen through my disguise-’
‘You met members of the high caste, face to face ’ Seagram blurted in comprehension, awe vying with outrage. ‘You’ve seen them ’
‘I may have . . .’ Q said evasively.
‘Why the hell would you do such an idiotic thing?’ Seagram demanded.
His ego getting the better of him, Q replied, ‘I would hardly consider a chance to experience their collective to be idiotic. A bit risky, perhaps, but well worth the price.’
‘Their “collective”?’ captain Picard echoed.
Q nodded. ‘It’s how they seem to communicate. Every one of them is part of a single collective mind. Even the young one there,’ he indicated little Sunshine who sat watching him. ‘They’re the most ancient beings in the present universe. The collective is divided into layers of consciousness, what you refer to as “castes”,’ he said as an aside to Seagram, ‘with the “high caste” members being the directing consciousness behind it all. It’s why they’re never seen, and why they remain hidden. It’s because they’re thinking . . . watching . . .’
‘And you wanted to sit in because . . .’ Seagram prompted.
‘I wanted to experience being part of the collective, of course.’ Q replied. ‘An experience which I, alas, will never know, I’m afraid. But it was worth a shot.’
‘Why?’ captain Picard demanded.
‘We of the Q Continuum know a lot, but not everything,’ Q admitted candidly. ‘The universe holds many secrets that it does not give up willingly, their collective being one of them.’
‘So it rankles you that there are things not for you to know,’ Jean-Luc said, shaking his head. ‘Like the proverbial child in the house with the one forbidden room.’
‘Except that within this one forbidden room is a treasure unlike any other,’ Q said almost reverently.
‘Treasure?’ Picard mused with sardonic irony. ‘The privacy of the collective’s thoughts?’
‘You’re missing the point, Jean-Luc,’ Q shot back with uncharacteristic candour. ‘It’s the content of their thoughts, the things they know about the universe. Especially . . .’ he drawled, ‘the old universe.’
All eyes were now on the hoary, ancient beasts.
‘How could they know . . .’ Seagram began.
‘They were there,’ Q replied simply. ‘In other form, of course. But they evolved, over countless millennia, into their present form. And the collective mind . . . it evolved along with them-’
‘Are you saying that it has something in common with the entity?’ Picard said in disbelief.
‘You might say that,’ Q said with relish. ‘In fact, you might say that it is the entity.’

‘Think of it, Number One,’ captain Picard said, standing before the window of his quarters and staring out into the eternal starlit night of space. ‘An ancient consciousness that has been around since the dawn of time. No wonder Q wanted to participate in the collective.’
‘You sound as though you approve,’ Riker said with a frown.
‘Do I?’ Jean-Luc turned to face him. ‘It may be that I do. At least, the archaeologist in me understands the desire to be able to look back in time through the eyes of a consciousness that has watched it all since the very beginning. It may even know, or have some idea of, what came before. Perhaps . . . and this is something to beggar the imagination . . . perhaps it was there before.’
‘Before the Big Bang?’ Riker breathed, trying to grasp the unimaginable. ‘Is that possible?’
‘There is no reason to assume that it only gained consciousness after the fact,’ Picard told him. The two were silent for several long moments, each considering his own thoughts. At last, the captain said, ‘I keep trying to imagine what goes on in the collective mind of the high caste, and I keep drawing a blank. They undoubtedly do not use words, but what it is they use to communicate? Or what is the content of their communications? Feelings? Abstractions? Literal actuality? Is there any way we can possibly know?’
‘There is a Vulcan nurse in sickbay,’ Riker said. ‘As I’m sure you’re well-aware.’
‘The problem,’ Picard said, his gaze inward, ‘is that . . . I’m certain she would never be the same afterward.’
‘You’re wondering whether the harm done to her would be worth it in terms of the greater good?’
‘Actually,’ Picard told him, ‘I’ve been wondering about the consequences . . . for all of us. You see, if she can successfully mind-meld with these creatures, then people like her can, and probably . . . I would say “inevitably” . . . act as a conduit for endless others that would follow.’
The impact of what the captain was saying finally struck home. ‘You’re saying that the collective could grow . . .’
‘I would say “explode”,’ Picard told him. ‘I’m saying that it could potentially join every conscious mind in the universe.’
‘Yes, but . . .’ Riker fumbled for words. ‘If that’s true, then why the hell hasn’t it happened already? Has it just been waiting for the opportunity? Or have these creatures isolated themselves for a reason?’
‘It may have just happened as it did, purely by chance,’ the captain said, ‘or there may have been intent behind it. Either way, the only way for us to know . . . is also the very thing that could let the genie out of the bottle.’

‘So it’s true, then,’ Raya breathed, trying to grasp what seemed impossible. ‘Sunshine is many thousands of years old.’ The curious little creature lay asleep in her arms.
Q had joined Seagram and Raya in Ten Forward, although Q was being unusually quiet and thoughtful.
‘I knew they were ancient,’ Seagram said, ‘but . . . I don’t know . . . this just boggles the mind.’
The creatures were back in the cargo bay, reportedly sleeping.
A thought occurred to Seagram. ‘Wait, if they’re part of this . . . collective . . . then why don’t they control the entity?’
‘The thing is,’ Q spoke unexpectedly, his gaze inward, ‘they evolved from it and away from it a very long time ago. It’s a sort of pre-consciousness . . . pre-life . . . they’re aware of what’s going on with it, but it lacks the ability to comprehend them. I have no doubt that it is aware of them on some level, but it’s more a question of perception than comprehension.’
Raya nodded. ‘A child’s brain is very different from an adult’s. Certain functions actually shift from one region of the brain to another, so that a child’s experience of reality is very different from what an adult experiences.’
‘So when you say things like “pre-life” and “pre-consciousness”,’ Seagram said to Q slowly, ‘you’re actually talking about something that’s alive and conscious because it’s highly complex, but in a borderline sense, like a computer that’s marginally self-aware that’s also processing a whole country’s data.’
‘In this case, a whole universe’s data,’ Q replied.
Something in his voice prompted Raya to say, ‘A whole universe . . . you’re saying that something about the old universe had to change in order for it to evolve. What, it’s dimensionality?’
‘Only its entire architecture,’ Q said, regaining some of his sardonic playfulness.
‘Like a computer ’ Seagram said, concentrating. ‘Or . . . maybe more like a computer evolving into a living thing . . . but no, that’s backwards . . . there have to be living things before you can have computers . . .’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Q drawled. ‘DNA preceded living organisms. Who’s to say that something similar in function, a very, very long time ago, didn’t evolve towards consciousness a long time before organic matter developed.’
‘You already know all this ’ Raya accused.
‘Only in principle,’ Q said evasively.
‘I wonder,’ Seagram said ingenuously, considering Q sharply, and thinking about the Vulcan on board the ship who had until the next day to decide whether or not she would approach the creatures in one of the ship’s cargo bays and offer to mind-meld with them.

Chapter 9

‘I can’t believe they’re agreeing to this ’ Seagram spat. ‘Why the hell are they letting that . . . that Q character in on this?’
‘You know them better than anyone,’ Riker said apologetically. ‘I don’t know what else to tell you.’
‘And you’re actually going to allow this?’ Seagram demanded of captain Picard.
‘As much as it pains me to say this,’ Jean-Luc told him, ‘Q is at least ten times more intelligent than any of us, and has special powers suited to the situation. Therefore it would make little or no sense not to allow him to join in the mind-meld.’
‘Intelligence isn’t the issue here and you well know it,’ Seagram said resignedly. ‘He’s up to something . . . he’s only involving himself because of his own self-interest. It’s not just about survival, either.’
‘What do you think about all this, nurse T’naia,’ Picard asked the young Vulcan woman. ‘After all, the risk is greatest to yourself.’
‘Risk and opportunity often go hand-in-hand,’ she replied matter-of-factly. They were having a last-minute meeting in sickbay, which at present was unoccupied. ‘Even if my life were to be forfeit, that is but a small thing next to what we might learn.’ As she said this, her gaze was fixed on little Sunshine, who in his turn fixed Seagram with his eyeless gaze.
With a sigh, Seagram knelt down and tousled the creature’s head. ‘Well . . . I guess I’ve got to assume that they know what they’re doing. I should be relieved that they seem to know how to deal with Mr Q . . .’ he said this with sarcasm, ‘but trusting him with this ancient secret of theirs . . . it doesn’t feel right. No matter how I try to reason through it, I see nothing but bad coming of this.’
‘You fear for them because you feel responsible for them,’ Raya told him gently, ‘but isn’t that a bit like feeling responsible for a force of nature?’
‘I suppose,’ Seagram admitted, getting to his feet. ‘But when you love something . . . or someone . . . there also arises the desire to protect.’ They shared a secret look at that as little Sunshine looked from one to the other.
‘Well, let’s get on with it, then,’ the captain said quietly. ‘We’ll meet you all in the cargo bay.’

As Q headed for the cargo bay, he found himself coming face to face with the captain.
‘Jean-Luc  To what do I owe this, er . . . distraction. Can’t we just get on with it?’
‘Q,’ the captain said in a low voice that said he was in no mood for hyperbole or any other of the strange alien’s vices, ‘I want you to understand something. The young woman who is about to put her life on the line is the only daughter of a family that would be destroyed if anything were to happen to her-’
‘I assure you, Jean-Luc,’ Q said hastily, trying to push past him, ‘that I will do everything in my power to ensure her safety-’
Not letting him past, the captain said tersely, ‘I’m not the least bit interested in your assurances because we both know what they’re worth where your self-interest is concerned.’
‘I-’
‘Don’t interrupt  If anything happens to that young woman, Q, I will ask that those creatures tear you limb-from-limb  Is that understood?’
‘Perfectly,’ Q said unconvincingly, prying Picard’s hand from his chest. But then, in a more reasonable tone, ‘Look, Jean-Luc, despite what you many think of me, I’m not a total ass. I give you my word that if anything happens, I will place my own life on the line ahead of hers. Is that good enough for you?’
Despite himself, Picard found himself touched by the simple sincerity of this, but sighed and said, ‘All right. Let’s proceed. But . . . step softly.’
‘Not even a little mouse will know I’m there,’ Q said with insolent insouciance, patting the captain on the shoulder.
Picard winced and shook his head as he moved to follow Q to the cargo bay. ‘Just as I was beginning to warm up to you.’

The Vulcan nurse T’naia frowned as she considered the massive beast submitting itself for the purpose of mind-melding. Every sentient being she’d ever encountered had a central point of consciousness that she thought of as the essence of being within. Yet this being’s essence was not so straightforward. What she and the others thought of as sensory organs in the animals’ heads were actually extensions of their brains. The consciousness within was changeable in ways she’d never before encountered, able to manifest shifts in function and location.
The overall structure seemed primitive at first glance until it was realised that underlying the division of parts and functions was a necessary connectivity that entailed sensory processing on an unheard-of scale.
Everything was connected in this manner in a way that would not have been possible had everything been hardwired together. Smell, for example, was interpreted spatially, visually, proximately, temporally . . . these creatures, she realised, could tell how old a smell was, what direction it was coming from, where it had been, what it looked like in the air . . . they could envision what had produced it . . .
T’naia indicated to Q that he was to stand to her left. She hesitated then, feeling a disconcerting disquiet at finding herself between two beings that overmatched her mind in every way by many times. For herself it would be like using one circuit to join two powerful sources of energy. Pushing the thought aside, she placed a hand on the head of each subject, one of them deceptively humanoid, the other the mind of the enigma itself.
As she aligned herself to facilitate the joining of minds, she became aware of Q’s eager curiosity, the great beast’s ageless patience and startling serenity. Both came as a surprise, Q because of an unexpected childlike quality, the beast because it was anything but.
It was far easier melding Q into the equation, but an unexpected barrier prevented her from accessing the vast mind to her right.
At once she felt Q’s impatience, felt herself thrust aside . . . but no, Q was strangely gentle. It was not the thrust of eagerness she expected but the push of an adult removing a child from imminent danger . . . he was there at her side, an adult taking a child by the hand. He pitted his own mind against the barrier, if barrier it was . . . and they were through
Were it not for Q at her side, T’naia sensed she would have lost herself, and realised too that the barrier had been placed there, not to keep her out but to protect her.
Once on the other side she found herself falling into the abyss of time, rising into the endless reaches of space, expanding to fill the universe, shrinking to the size of atoms and beyond . . . all the while there was a sense of timelessness, of eternal peace and serenity, of calm and silent wonder . . .
She began to sense the passage of long ages of awareness, like dark unseen waves moving through eternity itself to the beginning of the present-day universe . . . and in the beginning, myriad stars continued the process of burning away the simplicity and strict uniformity left in the wake of the Big Bang . . .
. . . and then they were in an earlier age, an old universe that was empty, dark and starless, an age of waiting where time seemed to drag interminably . . .
. . . and before that, an even older universe that was oppressively hot . . . too hot even for conventional matter to form. Quarks roamed free for a long age, at a time when it was inconceivable that they would one day be locked in the prisons of protons and neutrons . . .
. . . and then there was nothing . . . nothing but incredible heat, out of which the universe had formed . . . heat so intense that the beginnings of matter literally formed from nothing . . .
. . . and then, there it was  The event itself that gave rise to it all
At once, everything began to shrink, to contract faster and faster. Everything rushed headlong in reverse toward the centre, an orderly collapse towards a single point of origin . . .
It took T’naia several moments to realise that it was over, that she, Q and the huge creature were no longer in contact.
‘What is it?’ the captain asked Q, whose face was a contradictory study in disappointed wonder.
‘I certainly wasn’t expecting that,’ Q said softly, sadly.
‘What did you see?’ the captain persisted.
There was an uncomfortable silence as Q walked from the cargo bay deep in thought, shoulders slumped in defeat.
‘Nurse T’naia?’ the captain asked gently.
The Vulcan woman sighed deeply before answering, her mien troubled. ‘We came face to face with a profound knowledge . . . but it was incomprehensible to us. We ourselves are but a brief pattern of colour . . . on the surface of a bubble . . . a bubble that is within a foam . . . on the edge the sea of eternity . . . beyond that I cannot adequately explain it.’
‘Did you see what came before?’ Raya asked her.
‘I did,’ the Vulcan woman replied, her gaze inward on what she had seen. ‘To my senses there was nothing . . . but in the way that space itself may be considered nothing. To unlock that mystery requires questions and tools we do not have . . . and may never acquire.’

Picard was not surprised to find Q alone, staring through the window of Ten Forward into space.
‘The devil really is in the details,’ he muttered as the captain approached. ‘Sentient beings . . . we presume to know much . . . but what I have seen beggars comprehension.’
‘If I knew what you were talking about, perhaps I could sympathise,’ Jean-Luc said. An olive branch.
Q shook his head, wryly. ‘To tell the truth, I don’t know what I’m talking about. The problem, you see, is our limitations. We need tools to put together the machinery of reason, and that machinery, in turn, is what we use to do our reasoning for us.
‘You see a scientist standing before a blackboard, upon which is written a formula too complex for any to grasp. What is understood is the nuts and bolts and how to assemble them in order to get the desired result.
‘But those creatures in the cargo bay . . . they do not need tools or aids of any kind. They do not need the machinery of reason. Their minds, you see, are in fact one mind, one consciousness . . .’ he turned to face the captain. ‘They are, in a very literal sense, the mind of existence itself . . . and as such they simply have no need for introspection.’
‘You’re saying that everything we do is introspection in their eyes?’ the captain mulled, trying to get his head around the notion.
‘On an incredibly minute scale,’ Q said, completing the thought. ‘Beside them we are like microbes that try to understand their surroundings. They, on the other hand, are the conscious mind, not just of those surroundings, but of everything that is and has been. Our pitiful attempts at amassing knowledge are to them the irrelevant squeakings of an individual brain cell that is trying in vain to comprehend itself, unaware that it in itself is only a tiny part of something much larger.
‘Understand, Jean-Luc, that every facet of our ability to reason is based upon comparison. Comparison is the basis of mathematics, of reason, of language and the communication of ideas. They, on the other hand, have no need of reason because they do not need comparison to make sense of the world around them. They are the world around them, so their understanding of it is direct, not comparative.’
‘I suppose this means we can no longer count on your help,’ the captain said. When Q didn’t answer, he added, ‘Where’s your sense of wonder? Of discovery-?’
‘Wonder? Discovery?’ Q bit off with a vehemence Picard had never witnessed in him before. ‘Haven’t you listened to a word I’ve said? Everything we know, everything we think we’ll become or hope to be . . . it’s all a lie  A delusion  We think of ourselves as explorers and intellects, when we’re nothing more than a bunch of children poking around in their own back yard, whose only discovery and revelation will be that of seeing themselves for what they really are- I’m glad you’re finding this so amusing ’
The captain chuckled some more and shook his head. ‘Christopher Columbus should have had such humility. He was an arrogant, murderous thug who stumbled upon a far shore and called it a discovery, when people were already there living full and imaginative lives.
‘The point, however, is that the real discoveries are often about ourselves, and that often we find things out about ourselves that are disconcerting, painful, disappointing, that cause us regret . . . but be that as it may, it’s still a learning experience.’
‘I suppose,’ Q replied, feigning exaggerated discomfort with this reversal of roles. ‘In any event, we still have a universe to save and an entity to rein in. I suppose that I shall just have to console myself with that.’

Seagram woke during the night and, finding himself restless, left Raya to her sleep and went to Ten Forward. Once there his eyes were drawn to its one occupant- the Vulcan nurse, T’naia.
‘Mind if I join you?’
She gestured to the seat opposite.
‘Still thinking about what happened in the cargo bay?’
‘It is what didn’t happen that irritates my sense of curiosity.’
‘You mean, they could easily have shown you something useful to the situation but chose not to?’
‘Something like that,’ she said, scrutinising Seagram closely. ‘But then, you know them perhaps better than anyone can. What is your assessment?’
‘I think their ancestors buried the artifact and the entity within it. Right now I think they’re trying to decide what to do about it this time around. I don’t think it’s any accident that the entity made its way to them, or that they’ve contrived to pursue it.’
Her scrutiny of him narrowed. ‘How can you have come to think this? Is it supposition, or does your line of reasoning have an underlying cause?’
He sensed the challenge of her words to his trustworthiness, his credibility, his reliability. ‘The notion just popped into my head, to tell you the truth,’ he told her, and shrugged. ‘Over the years, ideas like that have popped into my head when I’m around them, and over time I’ve come to believe that this is a sort of friendly way to make use of me.’
‘I’m not quite sure I understand you,’ she said.
‘That makes two of us,’ he replied frankly. ‘But there is a danger here- one that again, I think they planted in my head. There is a very real danger that if their secret got out, they’d automatically become the object of a host of kooks looking to join with the creator, or become part of the collective, with the Q Continuum topping the list.’
Not looking at him, she said carefully, ‘There is something to what you say. During the mind-meld I had a brief waking vison of the Q on some sort of fanatical messianic quest, having abandoned all reason.’ Holding him with her eyes, she added, ‘I have not spoken on the matter yet, but my experience was wholly unlike that of Q. As well,’ she said uneasily, ‘I have not spoken because that which I experienced seemed private in some manner, as though it were intended only for myself and my people.’
‘Then don’t say any more on the subject,’ Seagram told her without hesitation.
‘I would say no more,’ she said, ‘were it not for the fact that it concerns yourself, and Raya too.’
Seagram blinked once, slowly. ‘Should I ask how?’
‘Again, as in a vision,’ she told him, ‘I saw colonists arriving on your planet. From Romulus . . . and from Vulcan.’
‘Raya has told me a little about various plans for Reunification,’ he replied thoughtfully. ‘But something tells me this isn’t about Reunification. It’s about something bigger . . . much bigger.’
‘That is a matter we need not speak of again,’ she said succinctly, ‘at least, not under the present circumstances. Once this is over, perhaps, but not until then.
‘In the meantime,’ she said in such a way that he knew she was confiding in him, ‘here is another thing they did not share with Q: that we are to do nothing, until such time as the entity turns to confront us.’
Seagram stared. ‘Which means what, exactly? That they and the entity will somehow have it out, here in space?’
‘They indicated to me that we will know when the time arrives.’
‘Oh, joy,’ Seagram muttered. ‘I was hoping you’d say something that would let me go back to bed and sleep.’

Riker and Deanna Troi entered Ten Forward, spotted Seagram and the Vulcan nurse T’naia speaking quietly together in a corner, and elected to sit as far away as the area would allow. The sole night shift server brought them their pre-ordered light meal and left.
‘I don’t know what else to tell you, Will. He is the captain, and unless his command decisions become questionable there is nothing I can do.’
‘He is also our friend,’ Riker said pointedly, ‘and as friends we have an obligation to intervene.’
‘Yes, and as our friend he also has the right to tell us to let him sort this out on his own. I don’t like it any better than you do, but my advice is to wait it out and see what happens.’
Riker sighed unhappily. ‘The part that bothers me is what happens after he retires. We won’t be able to keep an eye on him then, although Geordi tells me he’ll look in on him as often as he can.’ The two were silent for some time, thinking. Then, ‘I just wish I knew what to do. There’s nothing for him after he retires. I was hoping he’d go into archaeology full-time or grow an interest in becoming an admiral or a diplomat . . . but the death of his nephew has really taken the wind out of his sails . . . blown all the passion right out of him. When he retires he’ll be all alone in that big, empty house with no family and no future to come home to. It just eats me up to think of him that way . . . sad, empty, old . . . and alone.’
‘That sounds a bit melodramatic, Will,’ Deanna told him. ‘I mean after all, give him some credit for being able to organise his life. There’s still his family wine business and a lot of old family friends and relatives in the area. As soon as he retires, a lot of them are going to drop in on him to reconnect.’
Riker gave her a look. ‘Seems like you’ve already been doing your homework ’ he accused.
Deanna gave him a pert look. ‘Beverly and I are ‘way ahead of you on this one. The captain doesn’t know it, but we have his life pretty much planned out for him for some time to come.’

Raya came awake with a start, holding on to the remnant of a dream that left her in a cold sweat. She showered quickly, dragged on clothes though still a bit damp, rushed out the door and into the corridor, almost colliding with Dr Beverly Crusher.
‘Sorry-’
‘Where are you going in such a rush,’ they said together.
‘Can you take me to Stellar Cartography?’ Raya said.
‘What-’
‘I think I may know where the entity is headed,’ Raya told her.
Beverly gave her a searching look, then sprang into action.
‘Just follow me.’

‘There is an asteroid field,’ Raya told her, pointing do a dark region of space, ‘here in this area where new stars are forming. It has always been dismissed as an unimportant anomaly, this juxtaposition of stellar gasses and dust and new stars, but with this long irregular line of asteroids running through it.
‘But what if this line of asteroids was not as it now is? What if it was once a long arc . . . can you tell the computer to alter this image as it would have appeared back in time?’
Beverly turned to one of the cartographers and nodded. He and one of his fellows went to a nearby console and inputted the necessary commands.
‘We’ve set up a backwards time sequence at one-hundred-thousand years per second,’ the technician told them.
‘Go ahead,’ Beverly told them.
At once, the line of asteroids began to change shape, but very slowly.
‘Increase speed,’ Beverly ordered.
They watched as the line of asteroids began to writhe like a snake.
‘Increase speed some more . . . and highlight the asteroids and back off so we can see a larger area,’ Beverly said.
‘There ’ Raya blurted. ‘It’s forming an arc. The asteroids are debris left over from some sort of event. Calculate the centre of the arc and check its location against the entity’s heading-’
‘Already on it,’ the chief cartographer said in anticipation.
‘Whoa ’ Beverly blurted, ‘let the sequence run its course. There’s something odd here.’
As the ring of asteroids contracted they saw she was right.
‘The event doesn’t appear to have been an explosion,’ the chief cartographer said in comprehension, ‘as you can see from this lopsided pattern of debris . . . which explains a number of puzzling things about the asteroids’ composition. So there was a collision . . . at this point here, between a huge mass and a very small black hole, which is now at the centre of a star. The huge mass was literally ripped apart, and . . . this is interesting  The fastest-moving debris was hurled directly into what is now Romulan space.’
‘So this is how the entity came to us,’ Raya said wonderingly. ‘It was inside a piece of the old universe, perhaps inside the burnt-out remnants of a system of planets cast off from their dead star, billions of years ago. A collision with a black hole sent the artifact within its piece of debris into Romulan space, where it became caught by our home world.’
‘This is all very interesting,’ Beverly said, ‘but it doesn’t tell us anything very useful about the entity or how to deal with it . . .’ her voice trailed off as Raya pointed to the far end of the trailing arm of debris. ‘Seagram’s planet is right in its path . . .’
‘Meaning the creatures on that planet may have evolved from the entity,’ Raya told her. ‘At least, that is what I suspect.’
Beverly was silent for several moments in thought. At last, she nodded. ‘Maybe like knows like.’
‘I believe that the creatures’ collective consciousness dates back to the entity,’ Raya said.
‘But . . . that would mean-’ Dr Crusher blurted.
‘That on some level they and the entity are one,’ Raya finished for her.
‘Then . . . shouldn’t they be able to control it?’
‘Perhaps not,’ Raya answered thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps the entity, for them, is like the primitive older brain of creatures such as ourselves. I think this because I sense that the creatures are not yet decided on how to deal with the entity. They mean to confront it, but I do not think that themselves know what will happen until the time comes.’
‘In the meantime,’ Beverly said, scrutinising the young woman, ‘do you have some idea of why the entity is making its way to the point of collision that sent it into Romulan space?’
Looking uncomfortable, she replied, ‘I had a dream just before leaving my quarters. I dreamt that the entity was searching for something . . . something very ancient. In my dream we found it on a planet belonging to the star that absorbed the tiny black hole the body containing the artifact collided with.’
Beverly was silent for so long that Raya became uncomfortable, thinking the woman would ridicule her story. But at last, the doctor said, ‘It may be a long-shot, but if your dream is right, and I feel that it is because of your connexion to the artifact . . . then we may finally be able to get ahead of the curve on this thing.’

‘I’ll be damned,’ Riker muttered as he and the captain stared as the data coming in from the long-distance scan of the star and its planets. ‘So far it appears that there are no less than three class “M” planets in this system  What are the odds?’
‘In a word,’ the captain replied, staring intently at the forward viewscreen showing the approaching system, ‘“astronomical”. I would say “impossible” but for the evidence. The question for now, however, is How do we figure out which one we’re looking for?’
‘Maybe Seagram’s animals can help us out,’ Riker offered.
‘I wonder,’ Picard mulled. To the navigator, he said, ‘Does the artifact’s trajectory match with any one specific target?’
The navigator checked a moment, then replied in surprise, ‘Sir, if the artifact maintains its present course it will intersect with the third planet at this location,’ he called up an image of the planet on a small screen at the science station, ‘on the larger of the two southern continents.’
‘On main viewer,’ the captain ordered. ‘Zoom in.’
‘Sir, there appears to be some sort of structure,’ the navigator said.
‘I see it. Magnify that structure and the surrounding area.’
Riker got to his feet to study the image as the captain looked on, mystified.
‘That looks like a pyramid ’ Riker blurted.
‘A step-pyramid, to be precise,’ captain Picard said, joining him.
‘There’s more, sir,’ the navigator said. ‘It’s only one of a series of stone structures.’
‘Yes, I can see that,’ the captain answered, only half-listening as he stared intently at the screen.
‘Are those statues?’ Riker asked, pointing at a line of half-distinct structures.
‘I believe they are, and they appear to be lining what used to be a major square. Come, Number One  The away-teams will begin there. We’ll no doubt be looking for a structure of great importance, one that in all probability will advertise its presence.’

More away-teams beamed down from the Enterprise to the massive square on the planet’s surface than at any time in the ship’s or any of its predecessor’s histories. Everything was at stake. All speed was needed. All hands were needed. Only a skeleton crew remained on board the ship.
‘Are you seeing this?’ Riker breathed, the captain at his side.
‘In more than the rhetorical sense,’ Jean-Luc replied dryly.
‘I’m talking about their bodies,’ Will said, referring to the seemingly endless line of massive statues and pointedly ignoring the captain’s tone.
The captain chastised himself mentally as he realised what his first officer meant. The limbs, the hands, the feet. Obviously these had served as the models upon which the entity had designed the arms, legs and torsos of its Valgoroth and the legs of the Medusae.
The square was bordered by the massive pyramid to the south, the line of statues to the north, and by buildings, monuments, obelisks and other structures to the east and west.
‘Away teams,’ the captain shouted, his voice surprisingly loud and clear, perhaps due to the design of the square, ‘spread out and begin looking for anything of apparent significance. The ship will be scanning for hidden chambers and things deemed for now to be of secondary importance. If you find anything, do not hesitate to report it immediately.’
‘This is an important piece of the puzzle,’ the captain said, returning his attention to the great statues. ‘Whoever these beings were, Number One, they and the entity were apparently acquainted with each other.’
‘This site is incredibly ancient,’ Riker breathed, working his tricorder as they moved toward the nearest statue. ‘The only reason it’s in such good shape appears to be a natural lack of erosion, plus the unusually tough durability of the stone. Good thing for us, because in Earth-terms, given the site’s age, there’d be nothing left but piles of rubble.’ Looking up, he considered the statue before them. ‘Whoever these people were, they didn’t look any too friendly. They’re so alien-looking that it’s hard to tell . . . but I’d lay money on the odds that they weren’t exactly peaceful-’
‘Number one ’
The captain’s voice, though quiet, brought Riker to a frozen halt, tense with alarm, the hair on the back of his neck standing up.
‘Keep talk to a bare minimum and begin backing away, slowly.’
Riker obeyed, wondering. At last, when they had backed off a hundred feet or so, he spotted what had caught the captain’s attention. The statue before them had moved
‘Away teams,’ the captain whispered into his communicator as he and his first officer continued to back away, ‘stand down  Return to the ship as quickly and as orderly as possible.’ They were perhaps five hundred feet away, still backing away, when the captain muttered, ‘Obviously, these aren’t statues. They’re sentinels.’
‘Guarding the pyramid?’ Riker asked with a frown.
They came to a stop.
‘I wonder . . .’ the captain mulled, considering, looking from the line of statues to the pyramid and back again. ‘Sentinels are normally placed to watch for the approach of possible threat . . .’ He returned his attention to the great pyramid. ‘And there it is,’ he breathed.
Riker looked a question.
‘Whatever those things are guarding against, Number One,’ the captain said in a low voice, ‘I’m guessing it’s inside the pyramid. Further,’ he added with a thoughtful look at the line of sentinels, ‘I’m guessing that they don’t see us as an immediate threat. They’re probably here only to keep something inside the pyramid. Which means,’ he added pointedly, ‘that we have to gain access without drawing attention to ourselves.’
‘Why do I have a very bad feeling about this?’ Riker muttered.

Chapter 10

‘You should not have come to my aid, Geordi’ Data said as he helped the chief engineer to his feet. ‘I do not think that this will end well.’
Staring blindly in the yellow-eyed android’s direction, Geordi said, ‘That’s what friends are for, Data. They’re there for you in the good times . . . and the bad.’
‘Here, I believe that I can help you with that,’ Data said, gently removing Geordi’s visor. He made a few adjustments, then put it back in place. ‘You should be able to see, now.’
‘Whoa ’ La Forge breathed, taking in the content of his newly-restored sight. ‘Data, are you getting any of this?’
‘If you are referring to the manner in which this . . . “reality”, for lack of a better word . . .is constructed, then yes, I am able to see it for what it is.’
‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s one giant computer,’ La Forge said, kneeling down to explore the “floor” of the space they occupied.
Data frowned at that. ‘Can it not be said that life as we know it is a form of computer? Or the human brain, for that matter?’
‘Not like this,’ Geordi replied. ‘Those things are life first, computers second. Although,’ he conceded slowly, ‘you might say that DNA is both simultaneously.’
‘That has been my thinking exactly,’ Data said. ‘I believe that both the entity and its world are natural expressions of calculations, the difference between the two being that the entity’s calculations are ongoing, whereas the artifact seems to be the result of those calculations. Which raises an interesting question, one I have been devoting considerable thought to. Is the artifact a result of the primitive thinking of the entity, or did the nature of the artifact somehow give rise to the entity’s existence?’
‘If it’s a “chicken and egg” scenario, then I believe the egg came first,’ Geordi replied, taking something from his pocket.
‘What is that?’ Data asked him.
‘Something that may help us find the answers,’ Geordi told him, holding it up for the android’s inspection. ‘I’ve got some microchips here, plus a lot of data. They should allow you to be able to interact directly with the entity.’
At that moment the proto-being in question was little more than an unmoving, pulsing shape.
Before La Forge could ask, Data said, ‘I believe that the entity is engaged in transporting this place, either away from what it perceives as danger, or toward some sort of destination. Its current preoccupation should afford us time enough to install the interface mechanism and programmes.’
‘There’s a big risk involved, Data,’ Geordi told him, gesturing with the microchips for emphasis. ‘I’ve fixed things so that the entity can’t overload your neural net, but the big danger is that the entity may be too complex for you to withstand. Now, one of the programmes is designed to act like a safety valve, allowing you to control how much information will be going in and out at the same time. So to be on the safe side, don’t lose sight of that programme at any time, or you may risk being assimilated into the entity’s computational matrix.’
‘I am aware of the risks involved, Geordi,’ Data replied as though well-aware of what was involved. ‘But you know as well as I that there is no other choice in the matter.’
‘Yes, well . . .’ Geordi said awkwardly, ‘just be careful. We . . . I wouldn’t want to lose you.’
‘I will be as careful as I may,’ Data told him. He considered the entity a moment, then said, ‘It is time. We must act swiftly, as there is no telling how long the entity will remain distracted.’

‘It’s sealed,’ the captain said when he broke off communications with the ship. ‘Scans show that there are apparently a number of interconnected chambers within the pyramid structure itself, but that there is no way to access them from the outside.’ Assembled before him in the slanting sun were his remaining senior officers.
‘Then we may as well beam the away teams back to the ship and use the transporters to beam our way in,’ Riker said.
‘Mr Worf?’ the captain asked his chief of security.
‘Agreed,’ the big Klingon rumbled. ‘It is doubtful that we will require more than one away team once we are inside the structure. Since the interior of the structure appears to be deserted,’ he said with emphasis on the word “appears”, ‘we should be able to assume control using minimum force.’
‘Jean-Luc, we have no idea what’s in there,’ Beverly put in. ‘If it takes those things,’ she nodded toward the massive sentinels, ‘to keep whatever is in there inside, then we could find ourselves face-to-face with something extremely dangerous.’
The captain looked to Deanna, who seemed lost in thought as she considered the great structure. ‘What is it, Counsellor? Are you sensing something within?’
‘There is something,’ she replied vaguely and shook her head. ‘But I’m not sure what it is.’
‘Does it feel like a threat?’ the captain asked her.
‘All I can tell you is that it is in a state of waiting,’ she replied carefully. ‘Beyond that, I don’t get any sense of its character.’
The captain sighed. ‘All right. Have the away teams beamed back to the ship,’ he said to his first officer. ‘In the meantime, let’s give this some thought. Then, once the away teams are out of danger, let’s beam inside and see what we’re up against.’

Geordi was never comfortable seeing Data in any state of disassemblage and especially disliked seeing the android’s positronic brain hacked into like a jerry-rigged home-electronics project, but at least he had the comfort of being able to install the parts and close him up again.
‘This is very intriguing,’ Data said the moment his head was closed up, his yellow eyes full of interest. ‘I am witness to a type of information processing never before encountered.’ After a few moments he added, ‘Though I am not yet fully engaged, the entity does not yet seem aware of me. Perhaps its consciousness is too rudimentary to comprehend what is happening.’
‘Don’t count on it, Data ’ Geordi warned. ‘It’s plenty aware if it’s on the run.’
‘Threat avoidance in itself is not a sign of intelligence,’ Data rejoined, ‘but I will take your concern into consideration as I broaden my connexion to the entity’s information-processing matrix.’
‘Take it slow ’ Geordi reminded him.
‘This is interesting,’ Data said, in a way that indicated he was observing a singular phenomenon. ‘Much of the data stream is engaged in processing itself. I would speculate that this is what gave rise to the entity’s self-awareness. In this manner it knows the world around it just as it knows itself, in such a way that there is no division between the two. This is a case of existence itself literally possessing self-awareness . . . which raises some fascinating speculation.’
‘You’re saying this thing is God?’ Geordi blurted incredulously.
Frowning, Data replied, ‘If one assumes that a self-aware existence constitutes God, I suppose one could offer such an assertion. However, one must remember that existence gave rise to this consciousness and not the other way around. In that sense, the entity is no different from any of us . . . except for the fact that it is plugged into its entire universe.
‘I am going to probe a little deeper, now. This is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.’
‘Careful, Data,’ Geordi reminded unnecessarily, giving in to nerves. ‘Remember what’s under the water.’
After an interminably long silence, during which Geordi almost began doing things to vie for the android’s attention, Data came out of a seemingly trance-like state and said, ‘I was afraid of this. There is nothing beyond but the data-stream itself. I have only two choices: to step into the current, as it were, allowing myself to be carried along with the current, or to do nothing.’
‘Then I’d say “do nothing”’, Geordi said without hesitation.
‘Unfortunately, that does not appear to be an option,’ Data told his companion. ‘Because it is not entirely certain than the entity and its world can be destroyed, and because we do not know the consequences of such an act if we were to prove successful, and because only by establishing some sort of meaningful communication with the entity can we hope to gain some form of control over its actions, I would say that there is but one option: to do as I am doing and hope for the best.’
‘Data . . .’
‘I know, Geordi. There is a good chance that something, perhaps everything, may go wrong with this attempt. That as a result, we may never see each other again. I will say goodbye now, just in case. Goodbye, Geordi.’
La Forge was about to speak when he realised that the essential being that was Data had withdrawn and no longer lay behind those yellow eyes, which had become as lifeless and blank as a child’s marbles.
In the same instant, the entity seemed to come sharply into focus and took on recognisable features, thought they were as black as obsidian-
‘Data ’
No, not Data. It was something else entirely. Something monstrous.

‘Q  What are you doing here?’ Captain Picard demanded as his away team materialised within the gigantic pyramid.
‘I can’t have you thinking that I’m a complete coward, now can I?’ the troublesome being said with his habitual insolent insouciance. ‘The fate of all of existence lies here within these walls. How can I not at least watch?’
As he spoke, the beasts from Seagram’s planet materialised out of the transporter shimmer. As Picard had hoped, they seemed to know exactly what to do, where to go.
The captain almost groaned out loud as Q now appeared in African safari garb. He was saved the trouble of commenting on the inappropriateness of such childish behaviour when the great animals surged forward, glowing sensory organs in their heads dimly illuminating what appeared to be a tunnel.
‘Whoa  I didn’t know they could do that,’ Seagram said as he, Raya and little Sunshine hurried to keep up. ‘They’re lighting the way for our benefit. They can see in complete darkness.’
Worf and Commander Riker exchanged a look. Both were carrying light beacons.
‘I will bring mine along, just in case,’ the big Klingon rumbled mistrustfully, clipping his to his belt.
‘I think I will too,’ Riker echoed, doing the same.
‘Me three,’ Beverly quipped.
‘I guess it would be pretty lame if I were to say “me four”,’ Deanna added with an attempt at a smirk that didn’t work very well to conceal her fear.
‘This place is ancient . . . extremely ancient,’ the captain muttered, taking the time to scan their surroundings with his tricorder.
‘The all-seeing, all-knowing Q is at a loss to explain its history to you,’ Q muttered with uncharacteristic wonder in his voice, ‘because this place has been around since before there was an all-seeing, all-knowing Q. I’ve never encountered a real enigma before. It had better be worth the suspense.’
Riker was stopped from making a sarcastic response by the very real fear his saw on Q’s face.
Just then, the little company came to an abrupt halt, startled by the sudden oppressive silence that seemed to beat on the air around them. Then, a sound reached their ears, an echo of something far-off.
‘Why have we stopped?’ Worf muttered after several long angst-filled moments.
‘Because,’ Q answered in a voice full of dread, ‘whatever is down there is coming this way, and it doesn’t sound like it will be happy to see us.’

‘What the hell ’
Geordi was abruptly thrown to his feet as the artifact vanished around them, leaving him alone with the glistening black thing that looked like a grotesquely muscular parody of Data, except that it was several times larger than the yellow-eyed android. La Forge found that the air was suddenly cool and smelt of stone, as though they were inside a great mountain, except . . . upon closer inspection, in the dim light which seemed to issue from nowhere, his visor picked up the unmistakable outline of massive stone blocks. They seemed to be within a chamber of some sort.
‘Free . . .’ the entity said in an powerfully echoing, yet strangely distant and somehow disembodied voice, a voice that was thin, yet deep and resonant. ‘No more prison  At long last . . . I am free . . .’
‘Prison?’ Geordi echoed, a cold feeling hitting the pit of his stomach. ‘Why does something tells me this is not good?’
‘My jailers are near ’ the Data-Entity said, its eyes nailing Geordi to where he stood. ‘You have brought them here ’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ Geordi blurted in dismay.
‘My people,’ hissed the malignant being, ‘thought to lock me away in a remnant of the old universe until the end of time.’
‘Your people?’ Geordi echoed.
‘They did not wish for me to join with their new collective,’ the ancient being told him, taking a step forward. ‘I alone of all my people was outcast for all eternity ’
‘The creatures on Seagram’s planet are your people?’ Geordi said, stalling for time, though now he knew with dread certainty what the entity was talking about. The creatures on Seagram’s planet had evolved from whatever they had been in the old universe, while the being moving menacingly towards him had not.
The “new collective” La Forge mulled to himself, thinking fast as he backed away. The being before him must have been part of the collective mind of its species as it was in the old universe. With cold realisation he surmised that as such, it was the collective ill of its kind, all the darkness and evil, and until now an impotent, incomplete thing that was not a whole being, but rather was nothing more than the black shadow left behind as everything good moved bodily into the light of the new universe.
‘Data ’
In that moment La Forge could not have explained why he suddenly called the android’s name. Distantly he was aware of the sound of his own voice. More than a plea, it was as though he meant to summon Data’s soul, invoke the light of his consciousness into this dark place.
The entity halted its forward advancement. It frowned . . .
‘Data  Can you hear me?’
The being’s grotesquely muscular features seemed to ripple, strangely.
‘Data, we need your help  The entity is using you to break through into our universe ’
At that, the being began to seethe, to melt and writhe in and out of itself. Data’s features were pulled into the black mass by the grappling arms of Valgoroth, only to reappear as the arms reformed themselves as the android’s face.
‘Run, Geordi ’ came the unmistakable sound of Data’s voice. ‘I will delay the entity for as long as I am able ’
‘Hold on, Data  I’m going for help ’ La Forge yelled as he turned and fled. ‘Don’t stop fighting ’ Geordi ran for all he was worth, and prayed Data was strong enough to withstand the entity’s attempts to erase him from existence.

‘Well, this is certainly anticlimactic,’ Q quipped with relief as Geordi emerged at a run from the gloom of the tunnel. ‘We were expecting something a lot more dangerous than a blind man running from the bogeyman.’
‘It’s got Data ’ La Forge blurted, trying to catch his breath and ignoring the safari-clad Q. ‘He merged with the entity, and now he’s fighting for his life ’
‘Merged how?’ Q demanded, stopping Geordi with a hand on his chest. The sudden unaccustomed sharpness of his voice stopped the engineer, making everyone aware that his question was no laughing matter.
‘I created an interface so that he could access the entity’s data stream,’ La Forge told him. ‘Only, when he opened himself fully to it, the entity must’ve become aware of him and took over.’
‘You bumbling idiot ’ Q yelled, his face white with fear and rage. ‘Do you have any idea what you’ve done?’
Geordi shook his head. ‘We were trying to communicate-’
‘There was nothing there to communicate with ’ Q shouted. ‘It was pre-life, pre-consciousness, pre-existence, and most importantly, it was made up of some rather nasty elements the ancestors of the creatures you see here had deemed to be too dangerous to be part of their collective, so they locked it away in a little corner of our present-day universe to keep it that way ’
‘Q, what are you saying?’ captain Picard demanded. It was almost a plea.
‘I’m saying,’ Q replied acidly in a more calm tone, ‘that before, the devil was literally in the details. But now, thanks to some misguided meddling, the devil is here, and it’s real.’
‘You’re not saying that this thing is literally the Devil?’ Riker asked sceptically.
‘If it wasn’t before, it is now,’ Q rejoined meaningly. ‘In the meantime, you’d better pray that your yellow-eyed android friend is able to hold out long enough for us to come up with the means to exorcise a thing powerful enough to make all of existence a living hell.’

At that very moment, the android in question was engaged in a battle unlike anything his positronic brain could ever have imagined. The entity was forcing a bizarre series of incomprehensible equations upon his neural matrix, and because he couldn’t understand their meaning, he was unable to respond, except by doing nothing. This in turn had the equally incomprehensible effect upon the entity of causing it to renew its attack with redoubled fury.
Dimly, in the remotest background of his electronic consciousness, he was aware of the entity’s mind, and its growing awareness of the presence of ancient beings that approached and formed a circle around this bizarre spectacle. Beyond these beings, moving like shadows in the background of his thoughts, were his friends.

‘Impossible,’ Q muttered in unaccustomed astonishment as they stared in wonder at the writhing ebon form, across whose surfaced rippled Data’s features, which surfaced and resurfaced despite the frenetic grapplings of Valgoroth arms that worked to drag him under, and out of existence for good. And then, as the plight of the android sank in, Q turned to the ancient creatures that surveyed this spectacle with apparent dispassion. ‘For pity’s sake, do something ’
‘What, there’s actually some real feeling in that twisted soul of yours?’ Riker spat sarcastically.
‘Whatever else you may think of me, the android is my friend,’ Q replied, unable to tear his gaze from Data’s plight. ‘He once saved my life, counting no cost to his own, which is more than I can say for you.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Seagram said, almost to himself. ‘Why aren’t they doing anything?’
At last, comprehension dawned on captain Picard’s face. ‘That’s what this is about . . . they had this planned from the very beginning. The entity being part of them, they knew exactly what it was doing. And all this time they were planning to use Data as a trap from which the entity could never escape.’ He turned to the largest of the creatures which stood nearby. ‘You knew that the entity would attempt to dominate the android, in order to use his computer capabilities to its advantage. But in order to take him over without damage, which would render him useless, the entity could rely only on fear in order to manipulate him into relinquishing reason.
‘You knew that this would never work, that the entity never counted on Data’s lack of emotion. Which in turn would leave it, and him, locked in an eternal battle for the rest of time.’
‘Maybe they had no other choice,’ Seagram said, though it was clear he doubted his own words. It was almost a question. ‘Maybe they judged that this was the only way to save the universe.’
The group stood by in silence for several long moments, unable to tear their eyes away from Data’s plight.
At last, captain Picard said in a quiet, resigned voice, ‘We could expend the remainder of our lives confronting this dilemma, yet it is extremely doubtful we could come up with an alternative solution. If any of you have any ideas, I am open to suggestion.’
‘The entity was bottled up before,’ Riker said. ‘Why can’t we find a way to do it again?’
‘That’s not quite true,’ Geordi responded quietly. ‘The entity was tied to the artifact, and it was the artifact that was bottled up. The entity is out now, in our universe.’
‘I fail to understand why these creatures allowed the entity to leave the artifact,’ Worf growled.
‘Perhaps because trapping it was not a permanent solution,’ the captain responded. ‘Given the evidence found on the Romulan asteroid, it would seem that the entity managed to escape on more than one occasion.’
‘So that’s it?’ Riker demanded. ‘We’re just going to leave him here?’
‘I’m sorry, Data,’ Geordi said, stepping near to the writhing Data-Entity. ‘This is all my fault . . . what the hell?’ He stepped back, having noticed something odd about what he was seeing.
‘You must leave this place immediately, Geordi,’ came a familiar voice.
‘Data?’
‘There is no time to explain. You and the others must leave the pyramid as soon as you are able.’
‘Understood,’ the captain snapped, taking Geordi by the arm. ‘Enterprise, this is the captain. Beam us out of the pyramid-structure immediately, if not sooner. Set us down before the sentinels, as before.’
‘Aye, sir.’
Almost at once, through the transporter shimmer their vision bifurcated between the interior of the pyramid and the sunlight-drenched square. In an instant, the dark interior and its close ambience dissipated from their vision.
‘Enterprise to captain Picard ’
‘Picard here,’ the captain responded, tapping his communicator.
‘Sir, we are unable to transport those creatures from Seagram’s planet  Something’s blocking the transporter beam.’
‘Q ’ Picard demanded, ‘Are you responsible for this?’
‘Why am I always your first suspect when something bad happens?’ Q replied, then added as an afterthought, ‘No need to answer that. But, no, this is not my doing. They have elected to remain behind to deal with . . . whatever is going on inside, there.’
A concussion shook the ground. All eyes turned to the great pyramid, from which dust was beginning to rise.
‘And just what is going on inside that thing?’ Picard asked him as another concussion shook the ground.
‘I would say . . . the opposite of deus ex machina,’ Q quipped.
Riker gave the troublesome being a look. ‘Are you saying that Data is trying to get free of the entity?’
‘More like the entity can’t bear his presence, and is trying to give him the old heave-ho.’
‘But that would mean-’ Picard stopped himself and stared at the pyramid, shocked by the realisation.
‘Tearing itself apart because without the android it will no longer be complete,’ Q finished for him.
‘What will that do?’ Riker asked, his own gaze clenched to the pyramid in dread.
‘Who knows?’ Q replied with maddening nonchalance. ‘Such a thing has never happened before. Although in theory, it might succeed in starting a chain-reaction that will end up tearing the whole universe apart.’
‘So the creatures have remained behind to prevent this from happening?’ Worf said, images of heroic self-sacrifice playing across his imagination.
‘Nothing so graphically noble, I’m afraid,’ Q replied as he too began watching the pyramid with interest or dread as another concussion shook the ground. ‘No, they know there’s nothing they can do to prevent the entity from doing what it’s doing, so they are about to attempt an alternative solution.’
‘Which is?’ the captain demanded.
‘You know, I have no idea,’ Q replied with relish. ‘Whatever happens will be something new that even I have not been witness to before. Either that,’ he added more soberly, ‘or we’ll all be blown to bits.’
‘Whoa  My visor’s picking up something from inside the pyramid,’ Geordi said.
The captain frowned. ‘I’m not seeing anything.’
‘I’m not either,’ Riker seconded.
‘That’s because it’s some sort of intense energy buildup,’ Geordi told them.
‘Perhaps we should get back to the ship,’ Worf cautioned.
‘That wouldn’t do any good,’ Q told him. ‘If there’s an explosion, there will be no running away from it, no matter how far you go-’
All at once, there was an eruption of debris from the front of the pyramid. The dust had no sooner begun to settle when the cat-like creatures burst from the newly formed hole. But they were not alone  Behind them ran-
‘Look  It’s Data ’ Geordi shouted.
‘Captain,’ the android called, ‘you would do well to beam everyone back to the ship.’
At the same instant, the giant sentinels came to life and surged forward.
‘Enterprise, get us out of here ’ Picard barked into his intercom badge.
They were just disappearing into the transporter shimmer when something powerful and black burst from the pyramid and confronted the sentinels with a roar.

‘That wasn’t quite the solution I was hoping for,’ Q said in disappointment as he prepared to leave. ‘I found it anticlimactic, to say the least.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Seagram said. ‘What exactly happened in there?’
‘I am at a loss to understand it, myself,’ Data said. ‘One moment I was locked in conflict with the entity, the next I found myself on the outside, facing a creature that seemed to appear from nowhere.’
‘What was that thing?’ Geordi asked him. ‘And what became of the entity?’
‘That was the entity,’ Q told him, ‘or what had become of it. It seems Seagram’s friends came to the rescue after all.’
‘What exactly did they do?’ Riker asked him. ‘I didn’t get a good look at that thing, but it looked just like one of them, except it was several times their size.’
‘Yes, and afflicted with a particularly nasty disposition,’ Q told him, ‘a flaw it will bear for all time.’
‘So that’s it?’ Seagram said, hoping he could allow himself to feel relief. ‘It’s over? We can go home now?’
‘What about the sentinels?’ Worf asked. ‘Will that creature destroy them? Or will they succeed in killing it?’
‘They are effectively out of a job,’ Q said with grating levity, ‘with nothing to guard against but boredom. The creature in question will roam free in all its ill-willed glory until the universe itself comes to its final end. In the meantime, if you young people and your friends want a ride home,’ he said to Seagram and Raya, ‘I will take you there directly.’ To Picard, he said, ‘Anything for another crack at participating in the collective.’
‘Don’t worry,’ captain Picard told Seagram just before he, Raya, little Sunshine and the others disappeared, ‘he won’t succeed.’
As they vanished, Seagram’s wincing reply barely impinged upon Picard’s hearing.
‘True. But he’ll try.’

‘Captain’s Log, Supplemental:

‘A scan of the creature the entity has become reveals nothing of the old universe. For their part, the ancient sentinels soon went back to guarding the empty pyramid, as trapped in their role as Data almost became. There is the temptation to attempt making contact with them in order to learn something of their being and their past, but I suspect that, like the collective consciousness of Seagram’s creatures, their secrets are their own and have nothing whatever to do with us.
‘It seems that there are answers out there which are not meant for us, that, though spoken in a clear and unambiguous manner, will nevertheless remain incomprehensible to our ears, like the language of space or the murmur of an ocean shore.
‘It could well be that we ourselves entail what is meaningful to us, that that which is enigmatic is everything we are not and never will be.
‘In any event, I am glad that Mr Data has been returned to us, and will not have the enigma forced upon him for all eternity.

‘Captain’s Log, Out.’

‘What the hell ’ Seagram stared in disbelief. ‘What happened to all the damage? I thought we’d have to start all over again.’
‘Let’s just call this my wedding present,’ Q said with a bow as he began leaving with the group of creatures, still dressed in his safari outfit. ‘And now, I must bid you adieu, as I leave with my new friends and try to talk them into allowing me into their private world.’
When he and the great creatures had gone, Seagram sighed and drank in the sight of his newly-restored world.
‘It’s funny, but even though it’s the same as before, everything feels . . . I don’t know . . . changed somehow.’
‘You mean, old and new at the same time?’ Raya said, observing the way little Sunshine took in their surroundings with eyeless interest.
Seagram nodded, then was silent for several long moments. At last, he said, ‘Let’s get out of here . . . pack some food, follow the stream south and hike out to the cabin. For some reason this place seems too big for me right now.’
Raya smiled at what she was seeing in him. ‘What, the idea of becoming a father is making for more humble dreams?’
He smiled at that but wisely said nothing.

The ancient being Seagram called Sunshine watched as the two began making their way toward the base of the promontory and the cave Seagram had called home. Its mission now complete, it contemplated returning to its people. There was no longer any reason to involve these humanoids with the destiny of his people.
And yet . . . the brief time he’d spent with these strange creatures had been eventful, and pleasant for the most part. And he knew how keenly the two would miss him, should he leave.
They saddened him, too. Their lives were so very short, a mere moment in the lives of his kind. They would be gone, almost before he had a chance to really know them.
The decision was made the instant Seagram and Raya stopped and turned to him, waiting expectantly. He would play the part of a young, cherished thing gladly. After all, it wouldn’t be for very long.
Besides, if he allowed himself to live in the moment, their time together would seem to last forever.

Here ends Star Trek- Enigma

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