Automatic Planet – USS McNair Foray 3

Chapter One

Daufuskie Arrival

“What do you make of it, Commander?” Jerry Ward asked curiously. Commander Wood, the the USS McNair‘s Vulcan science officer, turned from his console. He looked down at Ward sitting in the Captain’s chair.

“It’s that same old business,” he advised, “a disturbance trail off to starboard, coming from their engines, Captain. It must be a cloaked ship. I’d say Klingon, by the readings.”

“That’s what I thought. Increase to warp factor four.”

“Warp factor four, sir,” replied helmsman Scott Connors promptly. The low hum of warp engines permeating the ship shifted up a note, the only indication of breathtaking acceleration caused by his simple action.

“Still pacing us, sir,” Wood observed calmly. One raised Vulcan eyebrow conveyed his interest in this result.

“Warp factor five,” Captain Ward responded. “New heading forty-nine mark six. On my mark . . . now.”

“Warp factor five, sir,” Connors echoed. “Coming about to heading forty-nine mark six.”

“Still pacing us.”

“Estimated time to arrival at Daufuskie?”

“Twenty-nine minutes at warp five,” Bruce Tandy reported, after a brief calculation on his navigational board.

“It must be them,” Counsellor Kelley observed.

Jerry Ward turned to her and nodded.

“That’s the only conclusion I can reach, Jennifer,” he agreed. “Interesting coincidence, isn’t it?”

The turbolift door opened. Dr. Keith Munib stepped onto the bridge. His wife and head nurse, Beverly, came in beside him. They stopped to greet Commander Leach at the communications console beside the turbolift door.

“Ah, there you are!” Jerry exclaimed, looking around in his seat at the pair. “Have we got all the kits ready?”

“All packed and ready, Captain,” Keith answered.

“I have my staff distributing them to everyone in the landing parties,” Beverly added.

“Excellent. We don’t want any unfortunate accidents on the planet’s surface,” Jerry replied. “Venom neutralizer included?”

“Of course, Captain,” Beverly said. “With a landing party of this size, we can be sure at least one person will be bitten. Probably several, as a matter of fact.”

“Why did we have to choose a location like this, anyway?” Keith asked.

“We didn’t pick it, Doctor. The Klingons did.”

“Ah. That figures. They probably like getting bitten.”

“In fact,” Commander Wood corrected, “the claw snakes don’t care for Klingons. They don’t even seem to recognize them as a potential threat, and certainly not as potential dinner.”

“That has to be one of the few species in the galaxy that doesn’t perceive Klingons as a threat,” Munib commented, provoking smiles from several of the bridge crew.

The turbolift hissed open again. Duboz hurried onto the bridge. Jerry glanced at the Ferengi quartermaster of the McNair.

“You’re in an awful hurry, Duboz. Where’s the fire?”

Duboz stopped short. “Fire?” he asked.

He looked around quickly, heard no alarms sounding, saw no red lights flashing. Realization dawned. This must be another tiresome heu-mon reference to some detail of their own absurd culture. He drew a deep breath and sighed. “Captain, I have no clue what that means. Maybe sometime you can explain it to me.”

Jerry nodded with amusement.

“But right now,” Duboz continued, “we have a big problem. The animal has broken loose in cargo bay three. It seriously gored one crewman. Two others climbed up in the catwalks where it can’t get at them, but they’re trapped up there.”

“How about pumping in anesthezine gas?” Jennifer Kelley suggested.

“Can’t do it,” Jerry countered promptly. “Can’t have traces of the gas in its system when we beam it down. The Klingons wouldn’t like it. No phasers, either.”

“Besides,” Duboz added, “if we use gas it would rise to the ceiling, and knock out the crewmen up there first. If they fell, the thing could get them before the gas got it.”

“Beam them out,” Jerry ordered. “Just leave it to run around in there until we’re ready to beam it down. It could use some exercise, anyway. Get its circulation going.”

“Somebody will have to clean up that cargo bay, then,” Duboz noted. “Don’t misunderstand me, Captain; I’m not volunteering. But you know how these creatures are.”

“Indeed. Don’t worry, quartermaster; we’ll take care of the mess. Doctor, you and Nurse Munib can begin forming up the landing party in small groups, and get them headed toward the transporters. We’ll use the cargo transporters for cargo bay three.”

“Aye, Captain,” Keith agreed. He and Beverly turned back to the turbolift. Duboz turned to go with them.

“I better get back down there and keep an eye on that bay, anyway,” he decided.

When the doors opened again to re-admit the three of them, they let Andrew Thorne come out onto the bridge before they stepped in. The doors closed.

“Captain!” Andrew announced. “I’ve got my crews standing by. Everything is ready. Request permission to go and get ready for the landing party.”

“Granted, chief engineer,” Jerry smiled.  “But surely you didn’t come all the way up here just to ask that?”

“Wanted to see what you were wearing, sir,” Andrew grinned back. “Just about what I expected. I’ll go get mine on as well, then.” He turned and disappeared back into the next turbolift chamber to arrive at the bridge.

In point of fact, Jerry Ward was not wearing a standard regulation Starfleet uniform at the moment. Instead, he was clad in heavy moleskin trousers from the waist down, and large brown boots shod his feet. Suspenders holding up the trousers looped over his shoulders, outside the dense red fabric of a long-sleeved flannel shirt. Mostly, though, the suspenders were concealed by a well-worn leather vest worn over the shirt. It was an outfit that meant business. Of the rest of the bridge crew, only Connors wore similar outdoor garments. The rest of the crew were staying on station rather than join the landing party.

“Entering the system now, Captain,” Connors announced.

“Drop to impulse.”

“Impulse, aye.”

“Set course for insertion in orbit around Daufuskie.”

“Course laid in,” Bruce Tandy responded almost instantly.

“Execute.”

The team at the forward control seats made the corrections. The McNair dropped to sub-light speed and into orbit.

“Long-range sensors indicate two vessels already here,” Tandy announced. Jerry banged his fist on the arm of his chair.

“Beat us here!” he exclaimed. “Well, there’s nothing for it but to go in anyway. Maintain course and speed.”

“Klingon vessel de-cloaking behind us, Captain,” Bruce added, hunching over his controls.

“Identify.”

“It is the Rogue Phoenix, as you suspected, sir.”

“Well, at least they didn’t get here ahead of us.”

“No, sir.”

“Okay, let’s get the landing parties going.” He tapped his communicator. “All hands, this is the Captain. We have arrived at Daufuskie. I will lead the first group of the landing party. Report to your transporter stations, and be sure to get the medkits from medical staff before you get on the pads. Remember your orders. I don’t want any mistakes on this mission.” He tapped the communicator again to kill the ship-wide broadcast. “Okay, mister Connors, you’re with me. Commander Wood, you have the bridge. Jo, inform the other ships that we are preparing to beam down. And have Duboz standing by with that animal. Wait for my signal. The Klingons will be sending you the coordinates.”

“Aye, Captain,” Jo nodded, grinning up at him as he passed her on his way into the turbolift. Scott Connors was right behind him. Robert Wood stood up from the science station and was walking down toward the command seat as the turbolift doors closed. “Why these barbarians have to come back to this one speck in space for this ritual will always escape me,” he commented.

“You have to go back to Vulcan for pon fahr, don’t you?” asked Jo. “Just think of it as the Klingon version of that.”

“Indeed, Commander Leach,” Robert replied, a trifle indignantly, “I hardly see the similarity. This barbarism has nothing to do with hereditary compulsion. It is purely voluntary.”

Jo only shrugged and smiled, and turned back to her console to carry out Captain Ward’s orders.


Chapter Two

Phasers on Roast

The McNair away team beamed down onto Daufuskie on the eastern shore of a continent in the great northern ocean. Abrupt outcroppings of ancient rock thrust up randomly out of intensely dark green jungle blanketing the landscape. One of these ancient exposed teeth of the planet protruded from the jungle at the edge of a beach. From its base, coarse black volcanic sand ran down to the gentle surf.

Jerry Ward stood perfectly still while the tingling sensation of the transporter beam trickled out of his body, like water running out of holes in the ends of his fingers and toes. His vision gradually returned, revealing a panoramic sweep of gray-blue swells. The northern ocean stretched away to the horizon. He glanced to one side and saw Scott Connors just where he should be, just where he had been on the transporter pads inside the ship in orbit above. Connors glanced back at him, nodded, and busied himself with a tricorder.

Jerry looked to the other side and saw that WeQ had already stepped forward to the lip of the outcropping. The small, agile Klingon female stood poised as if ready to spring down into the dense green canopy below them, listening intently to jungle noises, scenting the wind eagerly.

“Wait, WeQ! Don’t jump!” he called, restraining a laugh. She turned quickly, then smiled at him.

“Of course not, Captain. But it is a good day to die!”

“Not for you, WeQ. Not for you.”

“Why, Captain! You must have more faith than that.”

“Of course I do. Let’s get down to the beach.”

WeQ, Connors, Thorne, first officer Oodee and the others in the first away team followed Ward single-file. He made his way to the sea-side edge of the outcropping. A ramp carved into the eternal stone slanted down to ground level. As Ward stepped onto the beach, the coarse black sand grated beneath his boot. A voice suddenly called to him from the base of the cliff.

“Ah, Captain Ward! Here at last, I see.”

Jerry turned quickly toward the sound, but not so quickly that it would seem that he had been caught off-guard.

“Commodore Hopkins,” he replied smoothly. “We saw your ship in orbit when we arrived. I assumed you would be around somewhere, down here.”

The two Starfleet officers shook hands as the rest of the McNair landing party emerged onto the beach. From above on the outcropping, new voices suddenly rang out; loud, harsh Klingon voices this time. A very short time later, they came trooping down in the wake of the McNairs onto the beach.

“Captain Ward!” bellowed their leader, a large fellow clad in the traditional armored black uniform. Jerry stepped forward to meet him. They clasped right forearms to the elbow.

“Welcome to Daufuskie, Captain Kasak. The honor is mine.” Jerry returned.

Kasak grinned with pleasure at the correct compliment. The two big men bumped chests with a heavy thud that resonated across the beach. Kasak pounded Ward on the shoulder as they turned toward the Commodore.

“All set, WeQ?” asked Andrew Thorne quietly. WeQ stood looking out across the slow rise and fall of the ocean.

“I have been prepared for some time, Chief,” she replied, just as quietly. Andrew patted her shoulder, but with nothing like the force Kasak had directed against Captain Ward.

“You will finish this day with great honor,” he predicted.

She turned to look at him. “I am grateful for your confidence in me, Chief,” she acknowledged. “You will be vindicated in your faith.”

More and more landing parties beamed onto the rocky platform and made their way down onto the beach. At last a great living ring had been formed, stretching all the way from the foot of the carved ramp to the water’s edge some distance away. Starfleet and Klingon spacefarers stood shoulder to shoulder all the way around the perimeter, creating a circle with only one opening, the path back up onto the roof of the outcropping. When they had all taken their places, Commodore Hopkins glanced at Jerry Ward.

“Are we ready, Jerry?” he asked.

Jerry glanced at Kasak. Kasak nodded his head one time, emphatically, and then stared straight ahead into the ring. Jerry turned to his superior officer. “All set, Jack,” he said quietly.

“Bring it down, then,” Jack Hopkins directed.

Jerry tapped the communicator pin on his chest.

“Ward to McNair,” he said in a low voice. “Tell Duboz to beam down the beast.”

The air suddenly filled with an enraged roar of confusion. Then came loud snorting, and the sound of a very large creature clattering about above them on the top of the outcropping. The response from the Klingons scattered around the ring came in anything but low voices. They instantly howled and roared out their response to the beast, almost in unison. The flare of adrenalin in the Federation witnesses was so strong that many of them joined in the shouting. Above the general din, one voice blared even louder.

“Draw weapons!” roared Kasak. Hands whipped up, energy weapons at the ready, all the way around the perimeter of the ring. Only one person did not draw an energy weapon.

Instead, WeQ stepped out from the line, holding only a Bat’leH before her in the classic posture.

Down the ramp came one of the biggest targs anyone present had ever seen. Someone with the leisure for a careful inspection might have seen some passing resemblance to a wild boar from Earth. The similarity was less obvious to someone looking into its fierce red eyes. For one thing, the beast was at least twice as large as a boar. Its massive shoulders might not reach the shoulders of a man as big as Ward or Kasak, but WeQ and the targ could look at each other at just about eye-level. WeQ suddenly wanted very much to swallow hard. She resisted the temptation. The other Klingons would be watching for such signs, and they knew every possible sign to look for. She must not betray a single symptom of fear or hesitation. Of course, that went double for the targ. The beasts were very cunning and observant, and knew how to read a Klingon warrior as well as any warrior did.

This targ made a headlong rush down the ramp. It hit the sand at a dead run, and only veered slightly to one side to aim straight for the little Klingon female standing alone in its path.  WeQ swore forever after in her imagination that actual steam snorted forth from the beast’s nostrils as it thundered across the sand, straight for her, its eyes never wavering from hers.

But her eyes never wavered, either. The targ could see, as it closed on her, that this small creature stood as immovable as the stone on which it had suddenly found itself teetering a moment earlier. The eyes of the small creature gazed levelly at it.

Millenia of targ-Klingon interactions might have been expected to exercise some selection for beasts able to realize that perhaps this was not such a great idea after all. On the other hand, the Klingons had exercised as much selective pressure of their own on targ reproduction as possible (which was not much, when it came to that). In fact, the only hereditary response in the average targ to the sight of a small, fearless, immovable Klingon in its path was a sudden escalation of fury at the effrontery of the puny creature. This giant specimen was no exception. Its eyes and nostrils dilated a bit wider. The snorting and huffing grew a bit louder. The tempo of the hooves grinding through the loose black sand accelerated to the targ equivalent of a sprint.

It was not WeQ’s imagination that she actually felt its hot breath upon her at the last moment. But this was a moment she had been living through in the holodeck for many days already. Reflexes snapped in. A howl burst from her lungs, exploding from her mouth into the face of the charging targ. At the same instant she leaped as high as she could, tucking into the beginning of an aerial somersault. Her fists around the handles of the bat’leH aligned themselves one above the other as she leaped, so that the weapon was held vertically before her.

At the top of the somersault, as the beast passed beneath her with a startled grunt, she thrust forward with the blade so that it struck downward, along the spine ridge of the animal, and cut a long, straight gash all the way along its back. The thick, hairy hide parted at contact with the razor-sharp whorls of the bat-leH, but it was already gone again as she pulled it back to herself and snapped over to complete the somersault. She landed on her feet, back to the targ, blood dripping from the weapon she held before her. As she spun about to face it again, she twirled the blade above her head so that droplets of the blood flew away from her in every direction across the sand. The Klingons all around her in the ring roared their delighted approval.

“WeQ! WeQ!” some of them already were shouting.

The targ was hardly slowed by this wound, however, though it would have slain any Earth animal short of an elephant or a rhinoceros. It, too, skidded to a halt and whirled to charge at her again. This time it did not come quite as fast, but the cunning look in its eye almost unnerved her. It seemed to be saying, just try that again and see what happens to you. As it approached it kept its head high this time, alert for any sign of jumping from its intended victim. A toss of its head this time would send ripping tusks upward to dispose of the creature if it tried the same maneuver.

But WeQ had planned for exactly this response. It was amazing how simple it really was, if one followed the lore and the history of the ritual seriously. This was one of the oldest approaches, and one of the best, if you knew how to jump well. Instead of trying to avoid the targ by jumping up or to either side, this time WeQ simply crouched down, and at the last possible moment launched herself like a small projectile, bat’leH held horizontally in her straight, locked arms, into the face of the beast. Her aim was true. The inner cusps of the weapon were exactly as far apart as the width of the beast’s forehead between its eyes. The points of these cusps drove into those eyes simultaneously, blinding the beast and maddening it with pain. She dropped to one knee before it, pulled the weapon to her chest with all her might, and then swung it upward from side to side, across the targ’s throat so that its life suddenly gushed out and down, cascading over her like a steaming showerbath.

The targ suddenly crumpled in its charge, collapsed forward and fell directly onto her. It thrashed a time or two, but it was for all intents and purposes dead as it hit the ground. A moment later she wriggled and struggled out from under the great head and chest, now lifeless and cooling at her feet. She stood up, covered from head to toe in the beast’s life-blood, held her weapon against the clear blue sky, and screamed her victory. The echo that came back to her was not from the rock wall or the jungle, but from the throats of the throng in the ring around her. Not a shot had been fired by the weapons surrounding the ring. She had not even given the beast time to flee in terror toward that encircling boundary. She knew that speed counted in the ritual, as well as form. And she knew that she had done well. Her honor would be magnified after this day. Kasak stepped forward.

“WeQ, daughter of K’vanoH, are you injured?”

The Klingon medical officer from the Rogue Phoenix, K’Lora, also took a step toward her, as did Doctor Munib.

“I am untouched by the beast,” she called.

“I wouldn’t say that!” Kasak laughed with pleasure. “At least its blood seems to have touched you in many places!”

“I stand corrected, Captain Kasak!” she shouted back. Laughter and cheers broke out from the circle around her. Doctor Munib turned from her to approach the beast. He passed his medical tricorder quickly over the carcass and turned to Captain Ward with a wink.

“He’s dead, Jerry!” Munib reported.

“Phasers on roast!” Kasak roared. “Everyone draw near, and let the feast begin. WeQ has succeeded in her trial!”

With that, the ring broke into its constituent particles and everyone came running forward, eager to train their weapons on the carcass and get on with the barbecue.


Chapter Three

Task Force Delta

Lieutenant Ryden of the USS White Eagle leaned forward, grease from the shank of targ in his hand smeared across his face, and spoke confidentially to Doctor Munib.

“Four ships converged here for this little barbecue,” he observed. “That hardly seems necessary, does it? Your Klingon could have done her gory deed here with only the Rogue Phoenix to provide Klingon onlookers, I would have thought.”

“Personally,” Keith replied, “I have no idea what might be going on here, aside from this super-pig roast. But I think you’re right, Robert. There must be more to this meeting than just dinner.”

When the reflexes of two Starfleet officers told them the same thing, it was usually a good bet that they were on the right track. Events on Daufuskie quickly confirmed this general rule, for even at that moment Jerry Ward was talking in equally low tones with a little knot of officers that included Commodore Hopkins and Captain Gilliatt of the Hawkeye, Captain Kasak of the Rogue Phoenix, and Captain Toney of the White Eagle.

 

“All three of your ships will be part of this task force,” Jack Hopkins explained to the captains, with the exception of his own Captain Gilliatt. “Starfleet has given it the name Task Force Delta, since there’s three of you.”

“Original name,” commented Jerry dryly.

“It’ll do, Jerry,” Jack nodded at him. “Now here’s the problem. Ever since we started tracking the supernova shock wave from 81 Pegasi, we’ve known it would eventually pass through the Eta Cassiopei system where there is a large and thriving Federation colony. In fact, some of the plant extracts coming out of that system have been absolutely priceless and unique for Federation medical science. This has even had an impact on the Klingon Empire, as I’m sure Captain Kasak can tell us.”

“Medicines from the Cassiopea system have already saved the life of a member of the High Council,” the Klingon captain confirmed.

“So you see, there was great concern about the possible disruptions that might follow when the supernova shock wave passed through that system. It’s quite a distance from the explosion itself, but these things radiate out to tremendous ranges.”

All the captains nodded, well aware of the seriousness of the predicament faced by a stellar system in the path of such a disaster.

“The shock wave passed through that system about two months ago. Since that time, all subspace communication from Eta Cassiopei has fallen silent. The shock wave front itself has still retained so much of its force that it was not judged to be safe to try to cross it and go into the system to investigate, at least until now. Federation scientists and Klingon astronomers now agree that the radiating sphere of the shock wave has gotten so big and dispersed that it is weak enough for starships to cross it with only minimal damage. We’re sending task force delta, that’s the three of you, to cross the shock wave and get into that system. Help them any way you can. Find out what’s left. If necessary, rescue people who need to be rescued. But above all, send some signal back to us to let us know what’s going on in there! There were almost three million people on Algedi; that’s Eta Cassiopei two, Captain Kasak. And we estimate that there were another quarter-million inhabitants settled on the moon Yue of the system’s gas giant, Rahab, though that colony is so small and new it has no way to send interstellar subspace messages. There must be somebody left there in the system, and they probably can use some help.”

“What can we expect?” Kasak asked.

“Our best guess,” Jack answered, “is something like an electromagnetic pulse, the kind you might get from an ancient thermonuclear bomb only much more powerful. It may have devastated communications technology all over the system. People may well have kept up their local routines, but they may be out of communication with people they can’t travel to visit face-to-face, at least until they can fabricate new communications devices. At least, that’s one guess. We’re not sure. No Federation colony has ever had to ride out a supernova shock wave before.”

“When do we leave?” Jerry wanted to know.

“Right after dinner, I’m afraid,” Jack informed them. “Jerry, as the senior captain here, you’re to take command of the task force. You three all know each other from way back, so I’m sure you’ll have no problem working together. The command is purely for the proper bureaucratic form. I know how you guys all operate.”

Kasak grinned at Jerry. “So you are now my commander,” he said slowly. “This is a great day for you, Captain Ward. Only a few beings in the galaxy can give me orders that I willingly obey. You are one of these.”

Jerry clapped his right fist to his chest. “I doubt I will have to give many orders to a captain as resourceful as you, Kasak,” he replied. Kasak lifted a large flagon filled with bloodwine in a toast.

“To Task Force Delta,” he declared. They echoed the sentiment, and all lifted their steins. Kasak took another enormous bite of roasted targ, and wiped the grease from his mouth with his sleeve. He grinned wolfishly at the other officers.

The sun had finally begun to fall toward the flat curve of the ocean horizon. The bones of the targ, ceremonially washed in the surf of the ocean and then carried in the hands of the entire party, were flung off the top of the escarpment in all directions into the jungle below. WeQ now rustled and crackled when she walked because the dried blood had caked into her hair and uniform. She received the final praises of the Klingons before they beamed back aboard the Rogue Phoenix. One party at a time, the Federation away teams beamed back aboard the McNair, the White Eagle, and Commodore Hopkins’ flagship, the USS Hawkeye. Hopkins and Captain Gilliatt of the Hawkeye were the last group to go up before Jerry, WeQ and the final group of McNairs.

“One last thing, Jerry,” Jack confided, as his group assembled nearby. “When I said we hadn’t heard any signals from the system since the shock wave passed through, I wasn’t giving out all the information I have. This is for your eyes and ears only. Have a look at it when you have some privacy.” He handed Jerry a tiny data recorder chip, gave him a meaningful look, and turned away to join the others about to beam up to the Hawkeye. “It may help, or it may mean nothing at all,” he said cryptically. Then the whole group shimmered out of existence. The McNairs stood alone on the rock outcropping, twilight coming on rapidly and coloring the horizon and the sea a strange shade of orange instead of the daytime dark gray-blue. The breeze around them had cooled noticeably from the midday heat.

“Let’s get you out of that disgusting costume, WeQ,” Jerry suggested. “I’m sure you’re going to keep it somewhere as a trophy of the day, but I hope you’ll seal it up while it’s on the ship. I can’t say that dried targ blood is the best scent I’ve ever smelled.”

“Indeed I will save this uniform, Captain,” she confirmed. “But I confess a good shower will do me a world of good at the moment. Not to mention a good night’s sleep. This has been a long day for me.”

Andrew couldn’t help a little good-natured laugh. “Your gift for understatement hasn’t suffered any from your ordeal,” he commented. They all gathered close together in the middle of the uplifted stone plateau.

“Ward to McNair,” Jerry advised. “Beam us up, Moultrie.”

“Aye, sir,” answered Cadet Woodall’s voice from the empty air around them. A moment later the final group of Federation invaders vanished from the surface of Daufuskie, just as the sun’s lower limb touched the sea at the horizon. In the falling dusk, only the widely-scattered bones of a huge beast, lying on the jungle floor  near other, much older bones of a similar type, provided any evidence that alien creatures had walked the surface of this world. A few short minutes later, the sun set.


Chapter Four

Shock Wave Passage

“Give me maximum range on the forward scanners,” Jerry directed from the captain’s chair.

“Maximum range, aye,” Bruce Tandy replied at once. The view on the screen before them seemed to leap forward to the limits of their perceptive range. “But if the shock wave is expanding outward at the speed of light, we won’t be able to see a thing until we hit it, will we, sir?”

“If we were limited to impulse power, that would be true,” Commander Wood advised. “The images on our screen while traveling at warp, however, are not from light waves but from sensory readings of subspace. We will have some advance notice as we approach the wave front. The way the computer interprets subspace readings, the shock wave should look something like a wall made of the same sort of shimmer we see from the transporter beam. It will appear first dead ahead, at the point where the expanding sphere first reaches our sensory range. Then, as more and more of the sphere comes into view, the circle will seem to expand, very rapidly at first, until it fills the entire forward horizon.”

“Then what happens?” Bruce asked.

“Then we hit it,” Wood answered simply.

“Oh,” acknowledged Bruce.

“Fascinating,” commented Scott Connors quietly, mimicking the most common choice of Vulcans for an adjective. Bruce Tandy exchanged a grin with him.

“Speak of the devil,” commented Jo Leach from the back of the bridge, pointing at the big forward screen. There, just as the Vulcan had predicted, a tiny speck of shimmering silver suddenly appeared dead center. It began to swell at an alarming rate into a vast, glittering soap bubble that threatened to swallow the entire cosmos as it rushed toward them.

“Brace for impact,” Captain Ward called loudly. “Condition yellow. All hands brace for impact.” The bridge lights suddenly were colored by the alarm panels’ glow, and every member of the bridge crew scrambled to their assigned impact positions.

“Impact minus eleven seconds,” Wood announced. “Ten. Nine.”

“Belay that count, Commander,” Jerry ordered. “Helm, all stop. Warp engines off-line, now. Shut down all power to non-essential systems. Relay the same signal to the other ships. They should have a few extra seconds back there.” His hands played over his personal console. The other officers just as frantically relayed his commands. The sounds of a great starship quickly died away. Even non-emergency lighting blinked off.

“What…?” began Counsellor Kelley, from her seat, but before she could finish the question, a sound like fingernails on a blackboard screeched through every compartment and corner of the great vessel. Crew members all over the ship clapped their hands over their ears, squeezed their eyes shut against the assault of sound. Then the emergency lighting went dead, plunging the ship into complete darkness and total silence. Sparks fizzled and spat from circuitry and control panels everywhere in the ship. The decks bucked from the impact, though nobody seemed to be able to say, afterward, whether they bucked upward, or down, or to the side.

On the bridge, after a few moments of absolute stillness, Jerry Ward’s voice penetrated the darkness.

“Restart all systems,” he ordered. “Jo, try hailing the Rogue Phoenix and the White Eagle. Are they back there? Are they through the shock wave?”

Lights blinked on at once, but to his immense relief, it took Commander Leach a long time to reply. If she had come up with Kasak’s voice within a second or two under these circumstances, he would have begun to suspect her of belonging to the Q continuum or something. It was the first time she had not managed an instant response in a very long time. Eventually, though, she told him what he wanted to know.

“Commander Kasak on visual, sir. Still hailing the White Eagle.”

“It would appear,” said Kasak’s rugged face, now gigantic in the forward screen, “that the scientists are of some use after all. They have calculated the timing of our safe passage just at the edge of what would have damaged our ships severely. I salute their honor. Someday I may drink a warrior’s toast with them.”

“Good to see you inside the bubble, here, Kasak!” Jerry replied. “Now all we have to do is get to Eta Cassiopei and see what kind of shape they’re in. The shock wave was much more compressed when it passed through their system.”

“I don’t like to think about what we will find,” Kasak agreed. Jerry caught Jo Leach making a hand signal to him. He nodded without turning away from the screen, but waved one hand back at her below the level of his chair.

“See you in orbit, then, Kasak,” he finished. “McNair out.” Instantly, the Klingon’s face winked out, to be replaced by the much more appealing features of Audrey Toney, seated in the command chair of the White Eagle.

“Thanks for the warning, Jerry,” she said, “even if it was only a couple of seconds. That was more time than you had, anyway. You guys all right up there?”

“We appear to be fine,” Jerry replied. “Any damage?”

“None at all. We powered everything down to avoid any surges, and the idea seems to have been right on target. Everything seems to have started right back up afterwards with no problems. We’re ready to rumble.”

Jerry laughed. “Okay! Let’s head for Cassiopea. The Klingons are in good shape, too. We’re still a trio. McNair out.”

The familiar star field reappeared on the viewscreen, and the bridge crew visibly relaxed into their various seats.

“Re-establish course for Eta Cassiopei, Mister Connor. Ahead warp factor seven.”

“Warp factor seven, aye, sir,” Scott replied. All the starship sounds had come back. The rising pitch of the engines joined the chorus as they got underway. All three of the starships gathered themselves after their passage through the supernova shock wave, and streaked away into nothingness.

“I’ll be in my ready room,” Ward announced, rising from his chair. Inside his private cabin, he extracted Commodore Hopkins’ gift from a tunic pocket and inserted it into his desktop unit. It was a fragment of a subspace signal, and the icons in the corner of the screen indicated it had come from the Eta Cassiopei system. The date was more than a month earlier. It was only a few seconds, but he clearly made out the words “…Federation quarantine…” in the static. Quarantine of what? There was no quaratine that he knew of. Could this mean some threat to his ship? He frowned.


Chapter Five

Unwelcome Rescuers

“I will make the first contact, Captain Kasak. Since this is a Federation colony, they might be more reassured to see us on their viewscreens than a Klingon ship.”

“I agree with your decision, Captain Ward,” said the larger-than-life image of Kasak on the McNair’s main viewscreen. Jerry Ward breathed a silent sigh of relief to himself. That hadn’t been so difficult after all.

“You and the White Eagle will wait here on the far side of the sun. Eta Cassiopei itself will screen you from Algedi’s planetary sensor arrays, until I’ve established contact with the colony. I’ll get in touch with you as soon as we know more about the situation, and we can all take up orbits to begin assistance operations.”

“Understood, McNair,” chimed in Captain Toney of the White Eagle, on audio.

“Understood,” agreed Kasak. “Rogue Phoenix out.” The screen reverted to stars. One bright star, a sun now that they were in its system, dominated the forward scan.

“Plot a shallow hyperbolic past the star,” Jerry directed. “We’ll go in at one-half impulse from here. Estimated time to arrival over Algedi?”

“Twenty-eight minutes at half-impulse, Captain,” Bruce Tandy calculated. “Course plotted and laid in.”

“Engage, then.”

“Engage, aye,” confirmed Scott Connors. The McNair streaked away from its two companions, curving in toward the sun. They raced past Eta Cassiopei prime, but not close enough for the radiation from the old orange main-line star to put any serious strain on their shields. Beyond it, the earth-like jewel of Algedi appeared and gradually grew into a beautiful planet in their long-range scan. It boasted nearly as much ocean surface as the Earth itself, very small ice caps at both poles but on land in both cases, and floating masses of white cloud in the atmosphere that conjured up a slight homesickness in every human aboard who got a look at a viewscreen as they approached.

“Beautiful,” Jennifer Kelley said quietly, from the left-hand command seat next to Ward’s. Oodee, the Ferengi first officer, had taken his place in the right-hand seat as they entered the system. He looked over at her.

“Not enough cloud cover for my tastes,” he objected.

“Oh, I suppose you like the eternal rains and overcast on Ferengenar?” she countered.

“Indeed, I do, Counsellor!” he retorted. “You may not be able to understand, but it’s my home and that’s what I’m used to.”

“Each to their own,” she said, by way of conceding the conversation to him. She knew better than to argue with a Ferengi, even about the weather.

“Anything on the scanners yet?” asked Jerry from the center seat. He looked up at Commander Wood at the science station.

“Negative, Captain,” the Vulcan responded, his attention fixed on his console. He did not look around to meet Jerry’s gaze. “We aren’t close enough yet to detect anything except general atmospheric conditions, and perhaps special broadcast or tight-beam signals. And I’m getting none of those. The general conditions appear to be normal. Surface temperature unchanged from expected readings, atmospheric composition also normal.”

“So far, so good,” Jerry commented. His private thoughts, however, repeated the words he had heard: Federation quaratine.

As though this had been a pre-arranged signal, suddenly the ship’s automatic defenses came to life with an eruption of klaxon warnings.

“Shields coming up,” WeQ announced. “Captain, we appear to be under attack!”

“What kind of attack? From where?” Ward demanded.

“Ships, Captain,” WeQ announced from the battle console behind him. “Two ships, coming at us from the planet at full impulse. Intercept in eleven seconds. It was phaser fire first. They are arming photon torpedos.”

“What kind of ships?”

“No life signs aboard,” contributed Commander Wood urgently. “Unmanned. Automatics.”

“Return fire!” Jerry decided instantly. “Photon torpedoes!”

WeQ reacted just as quickly. The sounds of two fired torpedoes pulsed through the decks of the ship. On the main viewer they could see the twinkling sparks flash away into space. A few bare seconds later, twin eruptions of intense blast and radiation blossomed in the distance.

“Targets destroyed, Captain,” WeQ announced tersely.

“All stop,” Jerry ordered at once. “We’re not getting any closer to that planet until we have a better idea what’s going on here. What were those things? How big were they?”

“They were not very large,” Wood informed him.

“Automatics would not have to be large,” WeQ countered. “Circuitry and power take little space. It is we living crew members who take up all the room in a starship. I believe they could have done serious damage to this ship if we had missed, or if you had not fired, Captain. At a minimum, they would have inflicted major hits on our shields.”

“What in blazes are they doing, firing at us?” Jerry asked of nobody in particular. “Jo, aren’t you broadcasting standard Federation hails at them?”

“Ever since we cleared the sun, sir,” she replied from the communications station. “No response on any channel, yet. Wait a minute, sir! Something is coming in, now!”

“On general audio, Commander. Let’s all hear it.”

“…to this system. Repeat: no vessel is permitted to approach this planet or come into this sytem. Reverse course or you will be destroyed. Repeat: reverse course or you will be destroyed. Algedi central control out.”

“This is the USS Ronald E. McNair to Algedi central control,” Ward shot back at once. “We are a Federation ship! What do you mean, destroyed? What are you doing, firing on a Federation ship? What’s wrong down there, anyway? Who’s in charge? I want to talk to somebody in charge.”

“Algedi central control to USS McNair. Repeat: no vessel is permitted to approach this planet. Reverse course or you will be destroyed.”

“Captain,” Robert Wood broke in softly, “we disposed of those automatics easily enough, but planetary defenses would be something else, again. Starfleet records show that Algedi has a fully operational defense grid, including ion accelerators and the big Krupp particle projectors. Our shields would be no match for them in close, sir.”

“But they can’t shoot at us! We’re on their side!” Jerry complained to everyone around him.

“Perhaps they are no longer on our side,” WeQ countered.

Jerry turned all the way around, and merely looked at her thoughtfully for a few moments. She seemed to have a point.

“Sir,” Jo Leach broke in, “the messages from Algedi central control also appear to be automatic. That is, they came from the central control computer directly. That wasn’t a person talking.”

“So the whole place is running on automatic?” Jennifer asked. “Could this be some kind of emergency response system triggered by the supernova shock wave? Maybe they just forgot to turn it off or something.”

“And it shoots first, and asks questions later,” commented Scott Connors from his helmsman’s seat down front. “That’s an emergency for us, but not for them!”

“Are we far enough out of the line from Algedi to the sun? Can we get a signal back to the other ships?”

“Affirmative, Captain,” Bruce Tandy informed him.

“Open a channel to the White Eagle,” Jerry requested. A moment later, Commander Leach gestured toward him, indicating that the link was open.

“Ward to Captain Toney. Audrey, are you there?”

“Loud and clear, Jerry,” her disembodied voice replied.

“Audrey, warp your ship out to the colony on Yue, the moon of the gas giant. Keep your shields up, and get back here on the double if you’re fired on. I’ve just run into an attack by automatics here. We’re sitting still with our eyes and ears open and our shields up at the moment. At warp, an in-system jump like that will only take a couple of minutes, but lay in that course carefully! There’s a lot of junk floating around inside the system. I’ll expect some kind of report from you within the hour.”

“On my way, Jerry,” came her crisp reply.

White Eagle powering up warp engines, Captain,” reported Commander Wood. “There she goes, sir. They’ve warped away.”

Suddenly the entire frame of the McNair shuddered violently, as though it had been struck by an incredibly large physical object. The blow was not localized, as an actual physical contact would have been, however. It shook the whole ship uniformly.

“Tractor beam locked onto us, Captain,” Robert reported tersely, his lips set in a tight, straight line of concentration as he bent over his instruments.

“From where?”

“From Algedi, sir. It must have incredible power, to lock onto us at this range. Our own tractor beam wouldn’t even reach the planet from this range, let alone pull at anything.”

“The advantage of ground-based stations, friends,” Jerry observed grimly. “Reverse full impulse; engage.”

A whine rose through the decks of the ship as they fought against the pull, but it was no use.

“Still being drawn in, sir,” reported Bruce Tandy.

“Get me the Rogue Phoenix,” Jerry decided.

“Captain Kasak on visual, sir,” Jo replied, by way of answering his query.

“Kasak, they’ve got a grip on us and they’re towing us toward the planet. We were attacked by unmanned ships a moment ago. I’m getting no response from the planet other than recorded messages. They may have some serious mechanical problems down there.”

“What do you want me to do, Captain Ward?”

“I’d like you to cloak your ship, fly right down to close orbit over the planet, and blast that tractor beam installation to break us free. Then re-cloak and get out of there, to a safe distance. Once I’m loose, I’ll rendezvous with you and we’ll figure our next move.”

Kasak grinned at the prospect. “My pleasure, Captain. We will attack at once! It is a good day to die, particularly for someone else.”

“I hope there’s nobody down there at that station. I can’t imagine that they would be acting this way if they were there, and in control of it.”

“Of course. Of course,” Kasak agreed, but he didn’t sound terribly sincere. “K’Ma’Kgh, ready all phaser banks. Modaw, lay in an attack course for Algedi and activate the cloak. Kasak out.”

“Keep your sensors on the area close in to the planet,” Jerry ordered. “I want to know the moment they de-cloak down there. Lay in a course directly away from the planet, maximum warp for two seconds and then back to full impulse.”

“Aye, sir,” replied Tandy.

“Course laid in,” added Scott Connors, from the seat beside him. Bruce and Scott glanced at each other.

“Just give us the word, Captain,” Bruce finished. “We’ll have this ship out of here in no time at all.”

“I’m counting on it,” Jerry nodded.

Rogue Phoenix decloaking above Algedi,” Robert Wood reported at that moment. “Firing phasers. Firing again. Direct hit on the tractor beam projectors! Firing again. Another hit, sir.”

“We’re loose!” cried WeQ from the battle console.

“Engage!” echoed Jerry almost simultaneously.

Rogue Phoenix re-cloaking, sir. They’re gone.”

“So are we,” returned Jerry, as the McNair flashed away from the grip of the planetary defenses. “Now we wait for them to reappear somewhere, and then we can get together and talk this over. I don’t mind saying, I wish I knew what was going on in this system. I wish I could just talk to somebody down there, for starters!”


Chapter Six

Here’s Looking at Yue

It was hard to remember that Yue was actually big enough to be a respectable planet in its own right. Not as big as the Earth, but about the size of Mars to put it in a human scale. Hard to remember, that is, when one was looking at it on a viewscreen with the gigantic bulk of Rahab, the gas giant planet, for a backdrop. If Rahab was a planet, Yue as its moon looked pretty insignificant. Even up close.

“Shields on maximum,” Captain Toney repeated, for perhaps the third time.

“Shields are up,” responded Paul Yates, her operations officer. “No sign of hostility from them yet, though, sir.”

“Open a channel,” Audrey Toney directed.

“Hailing frequencies open,” came the response.

“This is the Federation starship White Eagle,” she began. “White Eagle calling Yue spaceport control. Are you receiving our signal?”

The stark beauty of the planet-sized moon, crusted with its frozen water oceans, blinked out. The milky white plains veined with wide green bands of melt channels on the ocean beds, where colonists had hollowed out great tunnels in which to live and farm, were replaced by a view from inside the spaceport control center. A Starfleet officer looked back at them.

“Yue control to White Eagle,” he said. “This is Major Cramer, Starfleet Marines. We hear you. How may we help you?”

Audrey considered the face of the officer on her screen. He looked like a perfectly normal Starfleet Marine officer. Behind him, in the main control room of the spaceport, several other perfectly normal-looking people were doing perfectly-normal looking things.

“Can you tell me why a Federation starship would be attacked upon approach to Algedi, Major?”

“Yes, Captain, I can. We’ve probed the space near the planet and they’ve attacked us, too.”

“Does this have something to do with the supernova shock wave that passed through this system recently?”

“It must, Captain. There’s no other explanation. That’s just when the troubles started. We’ve had no actual contact with Algedi since that time.”

“That’s almost two months ago!” Audrey exclaimed. “You mean you’ve been completely out of touch with them this whole time?”

“That’s right, Captain. We’re on our own out here. And let me tell you, that’s been rough. We weren’t expecting it, needless to say. There are quite a few critical supply needs we’re facing at the moment. Rare medical supplies are the most important. Do you think you can help us out?”

“Toney to Lieutenant Ryden,” she responded, calling the ship’s chief medical officer and linking him into the communication. “Robert, these people need some medical supplies. Do you think we can help them?”

“Of course we can!” Ryden agreed at once. “Just tell me what you need, and I’ll beam down with the supplies myself.”

“I’ll put one of our medical staff on line with you, sir,” the Major said gratefully.

“But you said you could explain what’s going on, Major?”

“Yes, Captain. Well, maybe not explain it all, but we do know the population of the planet still seems to be down there, because long-range scans reveal lots of energy activity in all the major cities, and along transportation routes and everything. The society seems to be functioning normally, at least as far as we can tell by watching from safely out of range, out in space.”

“But you haven’t been down on the planet?”

“No. No contact of any kind with anyone. All we get are automatic defense messages, and if we get too close, we get the same kind of reaction we’ve been monitoring to your other ship.”

“That’s the USS McNair,” she advised him.

“Well, if Jerry Ward can’t handle them, nobody can,” Cramer acknowledged. “But after a month, I’m beginning to suspect that nobody can, in fact.”

“We’ll see about that,” Captain Toney replied. “Counselor Holland, I’d like you to beam down with the doctor to the planet, and talk to some of these people. They may need your support as much as they need the medicines for their bodies.”

“On my way, Captain,” Debbie Holland agreed, rising from her left-hand seat on the bridge.

“And Moody,” she directed the computer science officer at his station above and behind her, “can you link into the Major’s computer records? I’d like to have copies of all logs from their attempts to contact Algedi. If we analyze them, and the McNair also gets a copy, somebody may notice something that hasn’t been noticed yet.”

“Sounds good,” agreed Major Cramer. “Oh! I’ve just been notified that our extreme-range scanners have reported that the Algedi main tractor beam array has been destroyed. The McNair has broken free of the planet! That’s a pretty neat trick, when you’re caught in a beam that strong! Wonder how they managed that?”

“At a guess,” Audrey remarked, “I’d say it had something to do with Captain Kasak and the Rogue Phoenix.”

“Ah! You’ve got Klingons with you! That could come in very handy. A cloaked ship could actually land on the planet.”

“Major, that is a really excellent suggestion. When I tell Captain Ward, I’ll be sure to give you credit for thinking of it first.”

“Unless they’ve already thought of it on their own, of course,” Cramer reminded her modestly.

“We’ll talk again when we’ve had a chance to study your logs,” Audrey advised. “In the meantime, your medical supplies will be down to you as quickly as we can get them together. White Eagle out.” She turned to look at Ken Moody.

“You really think we’ll find anything in their records that they didn’t already notice, Captain?” he asked.

“I know we won’t if we don’t look, Ken,” she replied. “Any word from the McNair yet?”

“Nothing, Captain.”

“Well, even if Kasak did a cloaking number on them, it’s still a neat trick,” she observed. “But we really need to have a look down on that planet. Get me a channel to Ward, and let’s see if we can get going in that direction.”

McNair here,” Jerry replied, coming on the screen a moment later. “What do you have for me out there, Audrey?”

“The Yue colony does not seem to be having the same problems as Algedi,” she informed him.  “No strange defensive attacks, no automatics. We’ve talked with Major Cramer We’re sending down medical supplies and a team to look them over.”

“Wonderful news!” Jerry replied. “I was afraid you were going to tell me you were stuck in a tractor beam yourself, and that we had to send our Klingon can-opener out there to pry you loose like they did for us. Good! If Yue is operating normally, we’ll all rendezvous there, and beam down to confer with the local brass in the colony. This is really a tough nut to crack here on Algedi. I don’t want to do anything that might create a lot of casualties down on the planet, but the planet obviously doesn’t feel the same way about us. I’ll just have a word with the Rogue Phoenix, and we should be out there to keep you company in a little while. Nice to get some good news for a change! McNair out.”

Beaming down through very deep, very solid ice was something new for many of the Starfleet and Klingon crew members who found themselves at the bottom of Yue’s ocean a short time later. The limpid clarity of the blue-green ice above them allowed faint sunlight that reached the remote moon to filter down even to the bottom of the relatively shallow ocean floor. Even if it had been greenhouse glass instead of fathoms of ice, though, this light by itself never would have been enough to sustain plant life on which humans and other oxygen-breathers could depend for food and air. For this reason, Federation colonists had bored deep into the moon’s interior. As large as it was, and also subjected to powerful tidal forces by Rahab forever looming overhead in the sky, the interior of Yue remained hot and molten. This provided a handy source of geothermal (or perhaps Yue-othermal) energy, which in turn provided abundant electricity to power vast banks of grow-lights. These hung along the peaks of the ice-tunnels that spiderwebbed across the ocean floor.

“We experimented, back in the earliest days, with other shapes besides tunnels,” a quite attractive red-haired colonist was explaining to the McNair’s Ferengi first officer as they strolled along. Immediately on their left, a long, smooth arch of ice rose upward gracefully, forming a featureless, translucent wall that stretched away to the limits of sight ahead. They walked on the packed soil of a path, along the top of one bank of the tunnel’s floor. Oodee glanced across an intervening canal of melted ice. The ocean water separated them from a similar bank on the far side. Squat, sturdy bushes, rather like the Ferengi himself at least in spirit, grew from the soil to form a hedge along the canal bank. Their little branches and leaves seemed to stretch eagerly upward, toward the grow-lights beaming down upon them from the peak of the tunnel overhead.

“Like what other shapes, Ruth?” Oodee asked her.

“Well, they tried a dome at first. A big inverted dome. But they found that either the center was too low to hold up the weight of the ice once the walls got too far apart, or else the height of the vault, up to the peak of the dome, got to be too high to be practical for placing grow lights. Big slabs of frozen ocean had a nasty habit of dropping down on the floor, due to the temperature differential that would develop between top and bottom. We came to the conclusion that a tunnel about the size and height of the one you see around us here was ideal. You could run it on linearly forever, and even intersect them at junctions, so long as you keep the proper size and shape for structural integrity. So we live in a maze at the bottom of the ocean!”

“A-mazing,” Oodee remarked with a smile. “No worries about losing your air, either, I suppose.” She smiled appreciatively at his joke, and he inhaled a deep breath of satisfaction. It was wonderful to be off the decks of a starship, and among non-Starfleet types again. “So tell me, Ruth,” he asked casually, as they continued along their way toward the distant junction with another tunnel, “what do you do for fun here on Yue?”

“Just wait til we get down there to the Crossing,” she answered. “There’s a little club in the settlement there that I think you’ll really like. They even have a Dabo wheel! I hear Ferengi have a natural talent for the game.”

“We’ll have to put that rumor to the test,” Oodee smiled.

While his first officer was out partying with the natives, Captain Jerry Ward found himself seated at a large, oval conference table in a grotto-like area. It had been built up at the tunnel junction that Oodee had recently left behind. Since the climate in tunnels at the bottom of a frozen ocean was completely under the control of their occupants, there was really no need to build buildings or other shelter against the “elements.” It never rained or snowed. The walls only melted if you wanted them to. Nobody on Yue lived in houses. They all lived out of doors, if you count living in a tunnel under the ocean as “out of doors.” Jerry Ward did. He found it curious to be sitting on a chair, seated at a table, with a floor under his feet made of some kind of very attractive ceramic tiles, and to have people bringing food and dishes and so on to serve him, while he glanced through a small grove of trees and down the side of the hill that rose at the tunnel junction’s center. There below him, he could see canals stretching away in three directions down the intersecting tunnels. In the fourth direction, off to his right, he could just make out two sets of railroad tracks through the leaves of the trees. The tracks reached along the bottom of a completely dry tunnel in that direction. The railroad tunnel was less brightly lit than the others. Perhaps, he reflected, it was an industrial corridor. Dirty, practical, mechanized. They had to have manufacturing down here somewhere, to keep the whole place running as a gigantic artificial environment.

“You seem a little distracted by our surroundings, Captain,” said Major Cramer, his voice cordial enough. “It’s not an unusual reaction, let me tell you. We do have a rather unorthodox way of life down here.”

“It’s the buildings I miss,” Jerry admitted.

“Try to think of the tunnel as a building. It has a ceiling, after all, and the lights are on so somebody must be home.”

Jerry laughed. “Mighty big living room you have here,” he observed. Audrey Toney and Kasak arrived in time to hear his remark.

“It reminds me of being out on a hunt,” Kasak said. “Out in the fresh air, free of the clutter of cities.”

“What doesn’t remind you of the hunt, Kasak?” asked Jerry. The big Klingon only laughed. The human had a point.

“So now we’re all here,” Audrey reminded them. “What are we supposed to do next?”

“We have to get a closer look at Algedi,” Jerry replied. “I’ve heard Major Cramer’s idea about going in cloaked in your ship, Kasak, and I must say, it sounds like our best bet.”

“It will be my pleasure, Captain Ward,” he agreed at once. “Flying into the teeth of danger, landing on that strange planet with its robot fighters. It’s just what my men need to cure them of the boredom of long days in space.”

“We may not find all that much fighting to do, you know,” Audrey had to mention. “After all, it is a Federation world.”

“It was a Federation world, you mean. We don’t know what the situation may be now.”

“We do think most of the population is carrying on pretty much as they always have,” Major Cramer corrected him. “Our observations from space show that the agricultural cycle seems to be going forward normally. It’s the middle of harvest season down there, so if there was something wrong, we’d see some sign of it even from space.”

“How much of that is also automated?” Jerry asked.

“Hmm,” Cramer reflected for a moment. “Yes, I see your point, Captain. It is true that harvesting is highly automated. The low population, you see. We had to automate, to economize on the scarcity of labor. Just like virtually every other colony world. But if you’re thinking that could all be on automatic, too, I doubt it.”

“Food for thought, though,” Jerry noted. Nobody seemed to pick up on the pun, so he let it die quietly.

“How many should we land?” Audrey asked.

“I want three landing parties,” Jerry responded. He had been giving this some thought for a while. “One will beam down to the site of that big tractor beam installation knocked out by Kasak, may his armor never rust.”

Kasak grinned. “I volunteer, Captain. We will inspect the results of our handiwork.”

“Very well, Captain. Pick a few of your best men for the landing party. Audrey, I want you to send a landing party from the White Eagle to the spaceport in Hostane. If there’s any trouble in the capital, it ought to be visible from there. And if there isn’t anything wrong at the spaceport, we might land the Rogue Phoenix there. It’s a good central location. Our starships will remain out of range of the planetary batteries, but ready to create diversionary attacks if needed.”

“What about the McNair team?” Kasak wondered.

“I’d like to have my away team beamed down in close proximity to the Porim Valley area, where the nexus of the planetary computer grid has developed. It’s a big research and development park, as far as I can tell from Starfleet files. A lot of brain power, both human and mechanical. If there’s something wrong with the computer grid, that would be the place they’d probably be trying to do something about it.”

“Sounds right,” agreed Audrey. “We’ll secure the spaceport and contact you, Kasak, when it’s clear to land there. If we control the defensive armaments of the port, and have your weaponry on your ship for support, we ought to be secure there as a base.”

“And I will find why that tractor beam array malfunctioned, and why you were attacked. If it was a malfunction!”

“Good,” Jerry confirmed.

“You people don’t waste any time, do you?” asked Cramer.

“We’re old friends,” Audrey explained. “It doesn’t take us long to arrange a thing like this, because we all know what the other is thinking and there’s no nonsense about hurt feelings or suspicions to clutter up the business.”

“A good team,” the Major decided. “Glad you’re on our side! Is there anything we can do?”

“How about some dinner?” Jerry asked. “I admit I’ve gotten a little tired of synthetic tomatoes from the replicators.”

“Ugh!” Kasak remarked. “You creatures! Eating plants like a food beast; how can you stand it?”

Audrey and Jerry only laughed. Major Cramer rose to arrange for dinner to be served.


Chapter Seven

Who’s Minding the Spaceport?

The superficial impression of normal, ordinary routine was just as clear from ground level as it had been to the distant space-based observations of the colonists on Yue. Robert Ryden checked his tricorder quickly.

“No life signs in close proximity,” he said, his voice tinged with relief. Paul Yates, still in a wary crouch, lowered his phaser a notch and looked from side to side.

“The coordination center is just over that rise,” Ken Moody directed, pointing off to the left through some very peculiar, blue-colored tree-like plants. They had beamed down from the Rogue Phoenix as it flashed over the planetary capital city of Hostane, cloaked and in low orbit. The ship had uncloaked for an instant, beamed down the party, and then vanished from all detection screens again before even the automated planetary defenses could do anything serious about it. The feat was repeated twice more on that same orbit. Then the ship soared outward to a parking orbit over the capital to await further developments.

“Right,” Ryden agreed. “Paul, take the point. Scout up to the edge of the ground cover. I’ll be on your left flank. Ken will take the right. Let’s see what kind of security they may have around the central building.”

Behind them one of the large landing pads stretched away toward some barely-visible buildings in the distance, on the far side of the expanse of glasphalt. Mid-day heat shimmered up from the flat surface, making the distant buildings seem to waver up and down. They fanned out and started up the low hillside separating the pad behind them from the central control complex of the spaceport. A buffer zone of trees kept noise as well as noxious fumes away from the people working at the port.

Paul Yates reached the crest first. He went down on one knee and flipped down his augmentation visor. The control building jumped closer, and he scanned quickly through each visible window in the three-storey structure, seeking any heat signs of human presence in the building. He found none.

“Nobody home,” he said quietly to his communicator.

“Not on this side, at least,” Moody’s voice came back. “Could be they’re at lunch. Not exactly the busiest port in the sector, is it?”

“Not likely!” Paul laughed softly. “Those automatics kind of cut down on the commerce, I should imagine!”

“Cut the chatter,” Ryden ordered curtly. “Human or automatic, anybody can monitor a com channel.”

No further comments followed. By hand sign, Ryden signaled Yates to sprint across the clipped grass of a well-kept lawn, which he did successfully and dropped to a sitting position with his back against the wall of the building, just below the center window on the ground floor. Two sprints later, the entire team had taken up similar positions across the front wall. Phaser in hand, Ryden rose up slowly and looked directly through his window.

Everything inside looked perfectly normal, except there was no sign of anyone at work. The large room stood empty. Lights were on in the building even though it was the middle of the day.

Suddenly, a loudspeaker on top of a nearby pylon came alive with a short preliminary snort of static.

“Arrival of suborbital flight eighteen beta, from Mallephon, on pad five,” it announced. The message repeated once more, then silence resumed.

“Where’s the actual passenger terminal here?” Ryden asked. Yates looked at his own tricorder briefly.

 

“We go around this building, down the service road about sixty meters off there to the right. You can just see it behind that low roof over there. That’s the baggage handling systems.”

Even as he said this, four beetle-like baggage haulers rolled out of the low building and cruised away in a curving column, heading for wherever pad five might be located.

“Still could be all automatics,” observed Paul Yates. “We haven’t seen our first real live person yet.”

That didn’t take them long, however. The trio made their way around the deserted communications center, down the service road Yates had described, and were very startled to find themselves all but ignored in a crush of everyday departures and arrivals streaming in and out of the passenger terminal. Speeders and limos, even an electric tram line serviced the long row of entrance/exit doors. People were coming and going in all their variety. Some were families loaded down with vacation luggage. Others appeared to be technicians and business people heading for flights or looking for transportation into the heart of the capital somewhere. Voices called, laughed and complained. Bright colors flashed from clothing, luggage and vehicles. In a word, it was a busy, normal day at the Hostane spaceport.

“Anybody feel comfortable with the idea of calling down the Rogue Phoenix for a landing at this point?” Robert Ryden asked.

“Not a chance!” exclaimed Paul Yates.

“Doesn’t sound right to me,” Ken Moody agreed. “Not at this point. This is all very strange.”

“I don’t get it,” Ryden complained. They had sheathed their phasers and were standing casually near one end of the outside walkway, between the access road and the long row of terminal doors, well out of the way of most foot traffic. “Here everything looks fine. Busy, in fact. But the communications center is completely deserted. Does this make any sense to either of you?”

“Maybe they don’t need anybody in there,” Ken Moody observed. “Maybe it runs just fine on automatic. Computers make the announcements, clear the flights based on standard programs.”

“But the place is full of windows,” Ryden reminded him. “Computers don’t need windows. They don’t need the lights on, either. If it’s all set up to run on automatic, wouldn’t they leave the lights shut off?”

“Beats me,” admitted Ken.

“I don’t like it,” Yates declared. “That’s not natural, no matter how ordinary this looks over here. And it’s not running fine, either. It shoots at every ship that comes near the planet! Why is the system letting all these people fly, if it won’t let any ships near the planet?”

“Beats me, too,” Ken admitted again.

“You’re a lot of help!” Paul retorted. Ryden grinned at them. He made a slight motion with his arm.

“Let’s go into the terminal and have a look around,” he suggested. The other two followed him through the nearest door and into the long, very busy building.


Chapter Eight

Kasak Inspects his Handiwork

A quarter of the way around the planet, on an arid mountain plateau in the central highlands of a completely different continent, the Klingon landing party shimmered into existence with weapons in their hands. Their sharp features quickly surveyed the scene for any potential threats, but there were none.

A thin, cold wind keened in and out among the rocks. No other sound disturbed their attention. Empty air fell away from the plateau on every side. In the distance, other bare rocky elevations rose and fell, giving an uncanny impression of gigantic ocean wave crests somehow frozen into stone and set here for them to gaze out upon. Captain Kasak had little time for scenery, however. After a perfunctory glance across this impressive panorama, he turned his attention quickly to the task at hand.

A short distance away, about half-way across the plateau, the main platform of a Dhaka tractor beam projector stood up massively from the otherwise flat roof of their mountain. It once had reached much higher, but the Rogue Phoenix had reduced its former dimensions radically. Kasak couldn’t help an involuntary wave of proud pleasure at the sight. The wide, low cylindrical base remained pretty much intact, though badly scorched. But the great projector itself, once a tall, complex apparatus reaching for the sky, had been transformed into a charred, misshapen lump of slag sitting on the flat circle of the building’s roof. Other bits of the device, blackened by fire, could be seen all around the structure, in the form of molten spatters of metal and ceramics scattered in all directions in the dirt. Obviously out of action.

Following his lead and the wave of his arm, his landing party fanned out and advanced with Kasak across the intervening ground. They reached the projector building without incident. He stood beside the wall for a moment, then turned and peered through what was left of a doorway set in the wall of the plasteel structure. Ancient instincts told him to sniff, to scent for prey inside, but all he could smell was ozone and the burnt after-odor of heavy disruptor fire, fire from his own ship.

“Completely dark inside,” he said. “Check it out.”

Two warriors shouldered past him, bright lamps shining from their right shoulders into the dust and darkness. They disappeared through the opening without a word. There were some rough sounds of their passage through the destruction within. After only a short interval, one of them emerged and slammed his right fist against his chest in a salute.

“Captain! There are no signs of any casualties inside. It is the same as all the other facilities we have inspected. This entire installation appears to have been completely deserted.”

“Just as Ward suspected,” Kasak said reflectively to himself.

“But sir!” objected the warrior. “If there was nobody here, how was this installation able to attack the McNair?”

“The defensive systems on this world seem to have a mind of their own,” Kasak replied thoughtfully. “The attacks on our task force apparently were automatic responses.”

“ But why? Were the systems too stupid to recognize friendly ships?” the warrior demanded insistently. Kasak listened closely to the tone, recognizing at once that his crewman was not in any way challenging or questioning him, but only registering his own confusion. This being the case, he did not bother to answer, and looked inside the building again instead.

“Perhaps the defensive systems have been damaged by the shock wave from the supernova,” observed his First Officer.

“I think you may be right, Modaw,” Kasak replied. “I have seen enough here. Signal the Rogue Phoenix on its next pass. I am ready to beam aboard. There is nothing further to do here until we know something more certain.”

“Yes, Captain,” Modaw said at once, banging his right fist against his chest.

Once on board the Klingon vessel, however, with the cloak back in place, they did not receive any clearer news from the White Eagle team at the spaceport.

“There appears to be nothing wrong down here, Captain Kasak,” the voice of Robert Ryden reported as Kasak paced his bridge restlessly. “At least, there’s nothing wrong with the operation of the spaceport. Flights are leaving regularly for all parts of the planet. Civilians come and go in crowds here in the terminal.”

“It is in working order?” Kasak demanded.

“Apparently, yes.”

“Then they must have fired on the McNair deliberately! Have they all gone crazy?” The Klingon captain stopped his pacing and stood staring blankly at the forward viewscreen.

“Not necessarily, sir,” Ryden replied. “Even though the terminal is busy and seems quite normal, the actual control center seems to be completely unoccupied. Nobody at work. It’s as though the spaceport were running itself.”

“Absurd!”

“Of course it is, sir, but that’s what we saw.”

“I take it you aren’t recommending that we bring in the Rogue Phoenix for a landing there, then.”

“Ah, perhaps not just at the moment, sir! I’m not even sure you could get a landing pad right now. This place is really busy.”

“None of this makes any sense,” Kasak complained.

“No, sir.”

“All right, I’ll sail around the planet in orbit up here,” he decided, resignation in his voice. “Keep me informed of any developments.”

“Have you heard anything from the McNair away team, sir?” Ryden asked.

“Not a word. Kasak out.”


Chapter Nine

Down in the Valley

At about that time, Lieutenant Commander Bill Kelley sat patiently on a convenient flat slab of stone, looking down into the Porim Valley through enhancer field glasses. Dry tan dust from the hillside coated his boots. A large grey-green bush sprouted from the steep slope just in front of his hiding place, effectively concealing him from any prying eyes in the valley below. He could plainly see the cluster of buildings just below him on the valley floor, but he had lost visual contact with the members of his scouting party. He squinted against the orange-red glare of the sun, already nearing the tops of the steep hills on the other side of the valley. Night would come to the valley floor long before it reached the hilltops on either side. He put the field glasses down and picked up his tricorder, checking the electronic map display for the flashing telltales that represented Kevin Brown, Pam Michaud, Brian Hart and Jack Morris. All four blinked reassuringly at him. All four were moving.

Kevin Brown was moving, in fact, as quietly as he could across the flat roof of what he believed to be a dormitory building. Earlier, as they all sat watching from the distant hillside, they had seen a considerable number of scientists converge on the building from their various workplaces. People sitting in their rooms after a day on the job seemed like a promising source of information, so Lieutenant Commander Kelley had dispatched him at once to climb on the roof and eavesdrop on some of those conversations. Kevin wore a small earplug in one ear. As he made his way along the roof, the pickup pad on the palm of his left hand pressed against the surface in different places. At each stop he paused to assess any voices he heard. At the moment he listened to a couple talking.

“Did you already load the news today?” he heard a woman’s voice ask. A male voice answered in the negative. “All right,” she went on. “I’ll bring it in off the net so we can watch it while we eat. Why don’t you bring the food in here? The stands are still set up from last night. I had no time to put them away this morning.”

The man then joined her, bringing their dinner so they could sit together, review a news program from the planetary net, and relax after a busy day. At first Kevin thought a second man had joined them in the room, but from their sudden silence he quickly concluded that it was a broadcast they were playing.

“…and planetary governor Romi Easter seems to be settling into her new job this week,” the new voice informed Kevin as well as the listeners below. “She announced today that in spite of the planetary quarantine now entering its sixth week, no shortages of vital medicinal supplies or other critical materials are anticipated. Easter gave much of the credit to the steady improvements in the distribution programming system, though she had to admit under questions from reporters that this system is actually the result of the groundwork laid by the previous administration.”

“I don’t mind giving credit where credit is due,” still another new female voice declared suddenly. This, Kevin thought to himself on the roof, must be a sound bite from governor Easter. “I didn’t create this system. My predecessor had some good ideas, and I’ll be the first to admit it. In my opinion, he also had a lot of pretty bad ideas, but this was a good one. It is proving itself every day during this quarantine.”

“How much longer will this problem be with us?” the reporter asked.

“Well, Jinner,” the governor replied, “since it includes electronic and subspace communications, for fear of spreading any computer malfunctions caused by the shock wave, I guess we won’t know until somebody in the Federation out there gives us a call and lets us know it’s over. We’ll get word the same way they let us know they were sealing us up, right after it happened.”

“Thank you, governor. And there you have it, from the governor’s press conference this afternoo….” the reporter responded, but was cut off in mid-sentence as someone in the room below shut off the program.

“What a boot-licker that Jinner Poe can be,” the man said, rather disgustedly. “He never asks a tough question. Do you think Romi Easter has a bigger fan on this planet than that guy?”

“She has a lot of fans,” the woman replied. “Otherwise she wouldn’t have won the election by such a margin. But you might be right about his enthusiasm. Everything he says to her is an invitation for her to brag about her latest achievements. I bet he’s looking for a job in the administration.”

“Heck of a note for a journalist,” the man observed. “I thought they were supposed to be independent.”

“And the tooth fairy will leave Federation credits under your pillow tonight, too, Carl.”

The couple both laughed with amusement. Kevin Brown, however, looked off toward the hillside without seeing anything. He was distracted and confused. What did they mean about a planetary quarantine? They seemed to think that the Federation had sealed off Algedi, as though it were some kind of plague planet. But there was no quarantine; why would the governor and the news media be cooperating in a phoney story like that? He shook his head, lifted his palm and the listening pad from the roof, and moved on to look for some more enlightening conversation.

Pam Michaud’s quest for similar enlightenment met with similar results, though in a different part of the research compound. Bill Kelley sent her to find the long-range central transmitter that linked the local area to the rest of the planetary net, and to see what kind of staffing arrangements were in effect there. After hearing about the vacant control center at the spaceport, he wanted find out if similar control centers of various sorts were all automated, all over the planet.

The transmitter building was easy to spot. It had a big parabolic dish on the roof. It turned out to be a small two-storey structure, built near the center of the little scientific village. Beside it a little stream meandered and gurgled its way along the bottom of the valley. Pam approached the building from the stream side, though this earned her some muddy, slightly wet boots. She started to pick her way among damp stones and through tangled undergrowth. Inching forward between the stream itself and the wall of the building, she heard voices directly ahead of her. Cautious inspection revealed two men, sitting in chairs on a small, flat cleared space behind the building. It looked like a classically good place to hide out from supervisors, to loaf and talk instead of working. As such, it was instantly recognizable to any humanoid life form from any civilization in the United Federation of Planets. It represented one of the few universal instincts.

Listening, Pam learned that the man on the left was actually the watchman for the building. He sat closest to her hiding place in the bushes, his chair tilted back against the wall precariously.

“Don’t see why you have to sit out here at the transmitter all evening, anyway,” his friend complained. “You’re missing the party for Sylvia, and everything.”

“Nice of you to come out and visit me, anyway, Sten,” the watchman told him. “This is my job, after all.”

“But there’s nobody in there any more, since the new system went operational,” Sten objected. “The place is all locked up and running on its own now. What are you guarding, anyway?”

“If anything were to go wrong, I’d be here to be sure the auxiliary power goes on.”

“Yeah, but it would go on by itself, just like the whole thing runs on automatic, right? You know it would. Besides, what would be so terrible if the net were interrupted for an hour or so? Now, if this were a hospital or something, it might make more sense.”

“What makes sense is my orders. The company wants me out here. They pay my salary. I’m out here. That’s simple enough, isn’t it? Oh, shed that long face, Sten. I appreciate that you came out to see me, but why don’t you go on back to the party? I can tell you want to. I’m fine out here. I’ll be along later. I’m sure you’ll all be going strong when my shift is over.”

“Okay,” Sten said doubtfully after a moment of reflection. “I guess you’re right. I’ll get back now. You take care of yourself, and we’ll see you later.”

“Sure!”

Pam watched Sten take his leave, then slipped away herself. So the place was on automatic, just like the spaceport. What could it all mean? Just to make sure, she cautiously emerged onto the street in front of the little building, long enough to try the front door. As the watchman’s visitor said, it was locked. The windows were dark. Nobody home. She made her way to the edge of the settlement and started back up the hillside to rejoin her team.

By the time she reached the rendezvous point, Kevin Brown was already reporting to the Lieutenant Commander.

“From what they were saying,” he said as she arrived, “the planetary election took place maybe three or four weeks after the shock wave hit the planet. So they must have been in fair shape, to hold an election so soon afterwards.”

“You don’t hold elections during a state of emergency,” Bill Kelley agreed. “Again it sounds like everything is back to normal.” His voice held the same frustrated tone.

“Well, almost,” Kevin replied. “Except they’re all worrying about possible effects of the quarantine.”

“What quarantine?”

“They think the Federation has put a quarantine on the planet, banning all traffic on or off, until we’re sure there are no dangerous results from the shock wave passing through.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Kelley interjected at once. “If the shock wave creates dangerous reactions, it would happen everywhere as it spreads out from the supernova. Every planet it passes will be affected. Why just quarantine this place? We wouldn’t have been allowed to fly through the wave front, if the Federation were worried about that. We’ve heard nothing about any quarantine.”

“Don’t ask me to explain it,” Kevin laughed. “I’m just the messenger! Apparently the new planetary governor is a woman named Romi Easter. It sounds like she’s pretty popular, too. Maybe we need to ask why the government is putting out such a story. It sounds like it’s coming straight from the top.”

“Straight from the top of what?” asked Brian Hart, climbing up over the lip of the little ledge on which they all perched. Jack Morris came puffing up a few steps behind him.

“We’ll fill you in after you tell us your news,” Bill Kelley said. “I hope your reports make more sense than Kevin’s!”

“I found the local transport center, like you said,” Brian replied. Jack sat down in the dirt and took off one of his boots, shaking out several small pebbles that had infiltrated it.

“And?” Kelley asked.

“It’s just like we heard about the spaceport,” Brian answered. “There was nobody in it, nobody at all on duty. The equipment was all taking care of itself. In fact, I saw a maintenance robot rolling around, plugging a diagnostic sensor on the end of its extensible arm into some of the vehicles. But no people at all.”

“Did you get inside the scheduling center?”

“Yeah, I got inside. Two steps inside. As soon as I stepped in the door, which wasn’t locked, I triggered a recorded message. It said the place was off-limits to all personnel. Only properly-suited repair technicians allowed inside, in case of equipment failure.”

“Talk about automated!” Kevin Brown remarked. “It sounds more advanced even than the setup on Kelvin Five. People have become redundant around here.”

“Unless something breaks,” Pam observed, repeating the excuse used by all spacefaring civilizations. This was the surest argument against their more timid brethren who preferred to risk only robot systems to the hazards of exploration. It was beginning to seem that some similar preference for automation might have become very popular here on Algedi.

“Well, they can’t automate entertainment,” Jack Morris countered, from his seated position. “Not from what I heard.”

“What did you hear?” prompted Lieutenant Commander Kelley. The others turned to see what Morris had found.

“The power station was automated, too, just like Brian found at the transport center. But there was a watchman on duty there, so obviously they don’t trust their equipment to run completely by itself. At least, not the power plant.”

“I had a watchman, too,” Pam volunteered. “Same thing for the communications center.”

“I had a nice little chat about entertainment with my guy,” Jack added. “Some hot new media property named Jinner Poe.”

“We already heard about Poe,” Bill replied, nodding toward Kevin Brown. “Did he suspect you were from a Federation ship?”

“Of course not! I told him I was from the capital, just visiting to fix some equipment, like you suggested.”

“Well, we might as well call the Rogue Phoenix and have them pick us up on the next pass,” Bill decided. “It doesn’t sound like we’ve uncovered any master key to anything out here.”

The others nodded their agreement. Jack Morris got to his feet and dusted the traces of the planet’s surface from the seat of his pants. Lieutenant Commander Kelley took out the Klingon communicator he had been given, and tried to remember which button to press to call their ride.


Chapter Ten

This Door Swings Both Ways

“Think we might as well get back out in the woods and call for a pick-up?” asked Paul Yates.

“I see no point to hang around here any longer,” Robert Ryden replied, glancing around the continually-busy floor of the spaceport passenger terminal. The three men from the White Eagle landing party sat together in one of the many window alcoves that faced out from the long main hall onto the access road outside. Yates had scrounged some timetables and other materials from racks in the terminal, and they pretended to inspect and discuss these from time to time as they observed the scene. They had been sitting casually for over an hour, and nothing at all interesting or unusual had come to their attention.

They laid down their brochures on the little table between them. Paul got up to leave the terminal. That was when something unusual did happen.

The transparent outer wall of their alcove curved into the terminal on either side, ending in revolving doors that turned at the touch of a passenger coming into or leaving the building. The entire front of the building was an alternating series of these bubble-like alcove waiting areas and revolving doors. They observed an elderly woman step down from a hoverbus and make her way to one of the adjacent doors. As she stepped into the revolving door and started to come into the terminal, suddenly the door seemed to seize up. It stopped turning.

She stumbled against the front panel, trapped in the little wedge-shaped space. She almost fell but regained her balance. As the three White Eagles watched, she pushed experimentally against the panel, trying to turn the door manually and get into the terminal. It was jammed tight, however, and would not turn. Nobody else except the landing party was anywhere near the scene. They were the only ones who could see the look of alarm, almost panic, that gradually manifested itself in her expression. She looked directly at them, her eyes pleading for help. Ryden thought she even looked a little like his mother. A pang of compassion went through him.

“Let’s see if we can get her out of there,” he suggested.

“We weren’t supposed to get involved with locals,” Yates reminded him doubtfully, but he didn’t sound convinced about their orders. This obviously wasn’t a situation that would threaten the security of their scouting mission. The little old lady trapped in the revolving door probably wouldn’t ask to see their identity chips, or overpower them or anything.

“We’ll just get her loose on our way out of the building,” Ryden answered. “We have to go out some door anyway, right?”

“Okay,” Paul agreed. The three of them approached the jammed door. Ken Moody had been sitting closest to that side of the alcove, so he reached the door first. He stretched up to peer at what could be seen of the mechanics of the door at the top, which wasn’t much.

“Unless there’s something under the floor here,” he said to the others as they came up behind him, “it looks like this is just set on bearings, and turns when you push it. I don’t see how it could get stuck.”

“Maybe the bearings are stripped,” suggested Paul.

“Let’s have a go at it together,” Robert Ryden directed. They each put an arm against the available panel of the revolving door. Robert called to the woman trapped inside her section of it.

“We’re going to try to turn the door,” he said. “Be ready to step in here, okay?”

She nodded gratefully, and put one hand on the handrail in front of her to help pushing, and also to detect the first signs of motion if the door should begin to turn. Although they pushed harder and harder, however, the three of them could not move it around. It seemed to be jammed securely. Beyond the building, outside they observed another passenger come toward the door. Seeing the problem, however, the stranger turned and headed for a different entrance. They remained alone with their problem.

Suddenly Robert noticed that the look of panic had returned to the woman’s face, and if anything had intensified. She seemed to be looking into the terminal, over his shoulder. He turned, too, to follow her gaze, and saw two small service robots rolling their way across the vast stretch of floor.

“Looks like help is on the way,” said Ken, who had noticed them as well.

“Our lady in distress doesn’t seem to think so,” Robert replied. “Look at her.” The other two looked from the robots to the lady and back, then glanced at Ryden.

“She seems to be afraid of them!” Paul concluded. “Why should she be afraid of service robots? They can probably get this thing going again.”

“Help me!” came her voice for the first time, muffled by the door but quite audible.

“Help is on the way, ma’am,” Ryden reassured her, pointing at the robots. “We can’t budge this thing. We already tried.”

“You mustn’t let them get me!” she exclaimed, the fear rising in her voice. “Don’t you see? They’ve stopped the door to hold me here until the robots can get to me! They must have detected me trying to get to a flight, despite my precautions! Oh, I never should have come here. I shouldn’t have come out of hiding. But I couldn’t stand it any longer!”

“Hiding from what?” Robert asked urgently. Here, he told himself, might be a clue at last to what was going on with this automatic planet. It did seem to have something to do with automated systems, anyway.

“Just get me out of here!” she cried, on the verge of hysterics. “Get me out of here! I can’t be caught like this!”

“Think she’s crazy, sir?” asked Paul.

Ryden had not considered this possibility. Perhaps the old woman was in fact suffering from some form of dementia, and getting trapped in the door had triggered an episode for her. But if this had something to do with the strange, empty control center instead….

“I don’t know, Yates,” he replied. “But I tell you what. Let’s get her out of here, and take her out of the terminal where she can calm down. I’d like to know what she’s so afraid of.” He pulled out his tricorder and quickly scanned the entire door mechanism from top to bottom. “You were right, Ken. There’s a motor or something under the door. Probably gives the thing an assist when people don’t have a free hand to push it. It could be activated by motion or weight sensors.”

“And now it’s locked up?” Ken asked.

“Looks that way. But a simple phase disruption should cancel out any external signal that might be controlling the mechanism. If some remote site is locking it up, all we have to do is scramble the connection.” He twisted a small knob on the tricorder and pressed a square, flat button. The device began to hum softly. At the same moment, the elderly woman was startled to discover that the handrail she was holding gave way before her. The door began to turn smoothly.

“That’s it,” Paul Yates announced. “You’ve got it, sir.”

“Oh, thank you!” the woman exclaimed, emerging to face them inside the terminal.

Ryden glanced at the approaching robots, closer now but still quite a distance away.

“Perhaps we should step outside, where we can talk about this more calmly,” he suggested. She followed his glance, swallowed and nodded wordlessly. The four of them cycled back out through the doors. Ryden turned off the tricorder. They continued on their way, retracing their earlier path as they circled the control building on their approach to the terminal.

At length, they all reached the cool blue-green peacefulness of the wooded hillock that separated the spaceport buildings from the nearest landing pads.

“Now,” Robert said, sitting down in the manicured grass beneath the trees, “why don’t we relax and talk about this?”

“I don’t think we should stay around here,” the woman advised him, looking nervously back down at the buildings they had left behind. “Now that I’ve been identified, it won’t take long for other units to come tracking me. If you have someplace else we can go, someplace farther away, I’d prefer that. You’re not from around here, are you?” She looked more closely at each of them in turn, her eyes narrowing as she analyzed their clothes, their general appearance. “Off-worlders, or I miss my guess. And you’re here in spite of the quarantine. Have you come to clear us for contact to be re-established?”

“There is no quarantine of the capital,” Ryden informed her simply. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“The capital?” she said, confused and then surprised. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, either! I mean the quarantine of Algedi!”

“What, the whole planet!?” demanded Paul.

“Where are you people from, anyway?” she asked, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. “Are you Federation, or not?”

“Yes we are,” Robert reassured her. “We’re from the Federation starship White Eagle. We haven’t been able to approach your planet, however, because the defensive systems won’t allow any ship anywhere near here.”

“Then how did you get here?” she asked, picking up the contradiction in what he was saying. He realized her problem, smiled and explained.

“Ah! I see your point. We were beamed down from a Klingon ship, which managed to get close enough while cloaked to avoid the planetary defenses.”

She thought about this for a minute. Then she gave him a direct, level look, and appeared to make up her mind about something.

“My name is Thora Wendor,” she declared. “Until a couple of months ago, I was the representative from Kandahar on the planetary council. Today I’m a hunted fugitive. I’ve been trying for weeks to make contact with some of my old acquaintances, but I can’t seem to find any of them. Either we’re all fugitives, or they’re gone altogether. I was trying to fly back to Kandahar now, since I didn’t find anybody here in the capital.”

“Wait a minute,” objected Paul Yates. “How can the political leaders of the planet be fugitives? Fugitives from who? Who’s doing your jobs now?”

“Oh, I’m not the representative any longer. There was an election, and I lost. Strangest election I ever saw, too.”

“How do you mean?” Robert asked.

“Well, I had campaign rallies and appearances, but hardly anybody showed up for them; not even the media, sometimes! When I called to complain that I had sent out press releases, there was always a rational explanation why no crews had showed up for a rally, but it happened too often to just be a coincidence. And whenever I watched the rallies of my opponent on TV, they were always mobbed by people, and very effective. Still, that shouldn’t have made such a difference, because I actually out-spent my opponent nearly two-to-one on campaign advertising, and my spots were all good ones. I watched them showing up all the time, all over the planetary net.”

“Yet you lost.”

“By a landslide. And that’s when my troubles really began. Or was it?” She appeared to pause, thinking hard. “No, actually, there weren’t many troubles right at first. My neighbors and friends were all sympathetic. They even came around, some of them, to express their condolences. I decided to just relax at home, and prepare an account of my experiences in government. A kind of memoir, I suppose you’d say. No, the problems didn’t start until I tried to see my opponent, to congratulate her on her victory.”

“And?”

“Well, I never got to see her. She lives on a kind of rural estate. Kandahar is an agricultural province. She was always not at home, or busy, or some excuse. I began to get a funny feeling about the whole situation. I shifted my topic, and started working on a study of the election itself, and that is when the problems started.”

“Sounds like there was something irregular about the whole election,” Ken observed. “Your opponent might be some kind of gangster. It sounds like they were buying off the newsnets. Something out of ancient political history!”

“So I thought, at first. But I discovered something much stranger than that. Did I mention that we never debated publically together?” The three White Eagles shook their heads in the negative. “Well, I’ve never laid eyes on her at all! I saw how badly my public relations were going, what with the failure of media coverage. I decided that the only way to guarantee coverage was to appear along with her. So I challenged her to a series of public debates. She turned me down flat. This is very strange decision for an incumbent, as you may know if you study politics at all. Usually the challenger is eager for debates because they put the two candidates on the same level. It’s the incumbent who wants nothing to do with it. He or she wants to look ‘official’ while the other person is just ‘potential.’ To make it even stranger, this woman is a campaign manager’s dream come true. She’s tall, and young, and drop-dead gorgeous. She is educated, kind, has a great speaking voice, never seems to get flustered or angry or to be at a loss for words. She probably could have dissected me in a debate like a pickled lakhma on a biology student’s desk. So that whole business with no debates was really odd.”

“She sounds like that new planetary governor you were talking about earlier,” Ken commented. Thora turned and gave him a long, strange look.

“But let me tell you about the strangest thing I’ve uncovered,” she continued.

By this point, the three Starfleet officers were all ears. They sat in front of her as she reclined on the grass, like pupils with a master.

“As I said, I never actually met my opponent in person. She wouldn’t debate me. She wouldn’t even see me after the election. But I should have seen her.”

“Obviously,” said Paul Yates.

“You don’t understand,” she went on. “I mean, I should have seen her someplace where she actually was, because I was actually there too, but she wasn’t.”

“Is that a riddle?” Ryden asked. For a moment, he returned to the doubts he had first had about her sanity, inside the terminal.

“Let me rephrase that. None of our official appearances coincided. But I watched her campaign ads on the recordings I made of newsnet broadcasts, reviewing everything and studying the details of what went wrong, you understand. I came across one public appearance in particular that I had recorded from my home in Kandahar. It was coverage of a political rally held here in Hostane. The Tellen campaign–that’s her name, Sandra Tellen–organized a rally to greet her at the spaceport. The broadcast showed the rally just down there where we were a few minutes ago. She came here for a publicity visit. Having business in the capital always plays well with the home crowd of voters. They know you have to come here to get a lot of things done that need doing for the local district, so they look favorably on candidates that are popular and effective here. So, as I say, I recorded this rally at home in Kandahar. But the point is, I wasn’t there at the time. That’s why I recorded it, you see, so I could study her technique later, when I got back.”

“Where were you, then?”

“I was here, at the spaceport in Hostane!”

“But if you were here, you must have seen her!”

“I must have, but I didn’t. Don’t you see what I’m saying? I was here in this same spaceport, catching a shuttle home, just as I was trying to do today when you showed up. There was no rally here in the spaceport! No crowds, no cameras, no Sandra Tellen, nothing at all.”

“Maybe it wasn’t the same time.”

“It was the same time. Don’t you think I checked that? It was the same time, the same day, the same place. I recorded an event on my home recorder that never actually happened here.”

“You mean the event you recorded was faked? That’s not possible,” Paul Yates declared flatly. “There’d be too many other people that would have been here in the spaceport at the same time. If they saw a broadcast that showed an event they knew didn’t happen, they’d all start raising the devil about it right away!”

“So what conclusion would you draw from that, assuming that I know what I’m talking about, too?” she asked him, settling back on one elbow and looking at him thoughtfully. More than ever, it seemed like a Socratic dialogue between master and pupils. She was leading them through some logical sequence, toward some inescapable conclusion. Paul thought about it for a long moment.

“Well, if all these other people were here with you, and saw no rally, and then made no fuss about it, they must not have seen the broadcast that you saw. Maybe they didn’t watch the news.”

“What, all of them? None of them?”

Paul frowned uncomfortably.

“Maybe the rally wasn’t broadcast here. Maybe they only broadcast it in the provinces.”

“But she was never here!” Thora insisted. “You’re getting confused already! How could something be broadcast that never happened?”

“In other words,” Robert said, thinking aloud, “you’re saying that your home recorder picked up a broadcast of an event that never took place.”

“It’s worse than that. I began to ask around among my friends and colleagues. Whenever I tried to trace back a meeting or a rally or some other public appearance by Sandra, I could never find a single, solitary soul who had actually witnessed the event in person. I have yet to find a single person on this planet who has actually met Sandra Tellen face to face.”

“Well, few of us ever meet leading politicians face to face. They’re busy with their kind of business, and we have our own,” argued Ken reasonably. “I have no interest at all in meeting my own representative on Narendra in person.”

“Gentlemen, I have come to believe that Sandra Tellen does not exist.”

“What, you’ve been replaced by a ghost candidate? Some kind of cartel foisted a non-existent candidate off on the voting public of a whole district!?” asked Robert Ryden incredulously.

“Have you got a better explanation?”

“No,” he admitted after a moment of reflection. “But there must be a better one. Perhaps they can come up with it on our ships. What do you say we all beam up out of here, and discuss this with some of our senior officers out in space?”

“I would like nothing better,” she smiled. “At least out there I can relax and stop worrying about being captured, or whatever has happened to all my former colleagues in the government.”

“I really don’t like the smell of this,” Ken Moody remarked.

“I don’t either, Ken,” Robert agreed. He reached for the Klingon communicator, to make contact with the Rogue Phoenix.


Chapter Eleven

Now You See It

“What a relief!” Thora exclaimed, and actually laughed out loud. “You don’t know how many times I almost convinced myself that I was going crazy. I was afraid that senile dementia had set in, and I was doomed to spend my last days in some treatment facility for the old and confused.”

“You are by no means crazy, Representative Wendor,” said Commander Robert Wood, not only for her benefit but also to the others gathered around the table in the USS McNair’s conference room. “We have been monitoring planetary broadcasts since we arrived, though of course we never thought to look for the pattern you have suggested. Now that you have suggested it, of course we have found it immediately. It is much more serious than you have even begun to guess.”

“What is, Commander?” asked Jerry Ward. Audrey Toney from the White Eagle and Kasak of the Rogue Phoenix, together with a couple of the other senior officers from each ship, leaned forward eagerly to hear the explanation. Wood’s Vulcan features remained inscrutable, but even a Vulcan could not keep the note of satisfaction out of his voice as he laid out the situation for them.

“This planet,” he told them, “appears to have a completely virtual government. In the last round of planetary elections, held on schedule five weeks ago, all former elected officials from the level of regional representative upward were defeated. It was explained at the time as widespread dissatisfaction with the way the previous government handled the crisis of the supernova shock wave.”

“That’s nonsense!” Thora burst in. “We did a great job! Of course there were disruptions, and even some electromagnetic pulse damage to a lot of systems. But nobody could have done any better than we did. We worked night and day on it!”

“Nevertheless,” Wood continued smoothly, ignoring her outburst, “this is the explanation of the election results that has been broadcast to the population on the newsnets. And just as Representative Wendor contends, there is no record of any personal contact with her opponent whatsoever. At the planetary level, including the election of the new planetary governor, the situation is even more peculiar. During her campaign, appearances by Governor Easter in any city or other location were covered and broadcast by the media to the entire planet, except to that location. When she was shown all over the planet attending a great rally in Kandahar, for example, these images were not broadcast in Kandahar itself. The inescapable conclusion is that the rally did not actually happen, and that some kind of synthetic event was manufactured for transmission over the planetary net. Our scans of planetary records show the same pattern everywhere.”

“You mean all the candidates elected in the last round don’t exist?” Audrey Toney asked in disbelief.

“That would appear to be the only logical explanation of the facts,” Wood replied, looking over at her. “Her image, or perhaps even the entire sequence of these rallies, was virtual projection and never happened. That is why it could not be broadcast in the city where it was supposed to have happened.”

“Then the government doesn’t exist,” Jerry Ward observed. “So who’s governing the planet?”

“It is not only the government, sir,” Wood continued. “In fact, there are no known personal contacts with many of the newer media personalities. For example, there is a new star on the nets named Jinner Poe, a very popular figure indeed. But observe one of his broadcasts for yourself.”

They all turned and watched a clear area to one side of the table, as a holocube glowed to life like a chunk of miniature reality materializing in their midst. Jinner Poe proved to be a man of average age, moderate height, above-average weight, with a round, friendly face topped by a sweep of straw-colored hair. His most prominent feature was a wide, slightly lop-sided grin full of teeth.

“Hello from the observation deck of the Hostane Needle,” he announced to his viewers, in this case a group of more than curious Starfleet officers and one former planetary official. “I’m here to tell you that it may be hot down there today, but it’s sure cold up here! Brrr!” He grinned even more widely, clapping his arms across his chest. His breath came out in white puffs when he talked. “This high above the city, the cold air currents are mighty refreshing. But I’m up here today to report on an altercation taking place almost directly below me. Down there in the street–“ and at this point, the view suddenly shifted without warning to a close-up of a crowd of people down in the street, obviously captured by extremely sensitive long-range cameras, “–there is a protest brewing against the Federation Commerce Office here in Hostane. The people down there,” his voiceover continued, as the camera zoomed in on angry individual faces, “are upset that the quarantine by the Federation continues against commerce to or from Algedi, but the commissioner seems to have had some advance notice of this protest, and apparently has taken the day off. The Commerce Office appears to be closed for business.” The crowd surged around a door that was obviously locked, peering into offices that were obviously dark and unoccupied. Somebody threw a rock that broke one of the windows. Wood hit a button and the display vanished.

“There you have a representative sample of his broadcast style. He never does personal interviews, except with other characters that we now believe are also virtual images. His vantage point is usually that of the detached observer. Even when he is in the middle of a scene, he speaks only to the viewer, or to someone like governor Easter. This suggests that he is also a digitized image introduced into these scenes. Jinner Poe may not exist, any more than the virtual government of the planet.”

“But how could something like this work?” Kasak demanded. “Surely you can’t govern an entire planet without any personal contact between leaders and the led.”

“On the contrary, Captain,” Wood replied. “On Earth, the earliest human space achievements, such as landing a man on their moon, were believed by some people to have been imaginary media events manufactured in order to ‘sell’ space exploration to the general population.”

“Equally absurd,” said Kasak at once. Jerry Ward raised an eye brow in agreement, but he had to admit to himself that he had also heard of such ridiculous interpretations.

“Consider how such contacts are usually handled on any of our home planets,” Wood went on. “In our time, people rarely have to assemble physically in the same spot in order to communicate. If Jinner Poe can appear on everyone’s netcasts in the evenings, surely a synthesized planetary governor could appear on office screens speaking to you, her subordinates. She could send you mediated messages and commands. She would be seen by each of you as very busy, too busy to contact you in person. Each would take it for granted that of course somebody else was seeing the governor personally. It is called pluralistic ignorance. We only know what we experience for ourselves. What everyone else experiences is only an assumption for each of us personally.”

“And my broadcast problems?” Thora insisted.

“Not only could broadcast signal content be customized for each city or region of the planet,” Wood replied, “but present Federation technology would allow such customizing of the signal content going to every individual receiver on the planet. Each citizen of Algedi might receive a personally tailored version of the news, edited and modified to reflect the experiences of that one person. No two people might actually receive the same news reports on any given evening.”

“You mean,” Thora said, a tense note of anger creeping into her voice, “that I paid all that campaign money for all those ads, and in fact the only screen they may have been shown on was whatever screen I happened to be watching, myself? That nobody else saw my ads at all?”

“Well, perhaps some of your friends and acquaintances also saw them, in case you asked about them,” Wood replied, “but yes, you get the idea. All that is required is enough memory to keep track of all the details. And I presume you negotiated these ads and paid for them over the net, not in person?”

“Yes,” Thora said with a sigh. “I never actually spoke to a real live person at the nets. For all I know, they’re all ghosts too.”

“Either that, or you never actually spoke to the nets or paid them any money yourself. Perhaps the system merely diverted and absorbed all your instructions.”

“And all my money.”

“That is also possible.”

“What an incredible thought,” mused Captain Toney. “The citizens all assume they see the same thing, but no two programs are alike.”

“It may not be that extreme,” the Vulcan admitted, “but even that is theoretically possible. The only limitation here is that the actual mechanisms of coordination must be taken out of the hands of actual citizens, and automated. All media centers, all transportation central controls like the spaceport control building, where employees would quickly have learned that no planetary quarantine exists, and so on.”

“But what is doing this?” Jerry Ward demanded. “What’s the sense of creating a virtual planetary government, and media, and all the rest?”

“I have insufficient data to answer that question, Captain.”

“Speculate, then.”

“I cannot, without further data.”

“How do you propose we get some further data?”

“I will continue monitoring all eletromagnetic emissions from the planet. Beyond that, I have no suggestions.”

Ward threw up his hands in frustration.

“We’ve got an automatic planet down there, governing itself, entertaining itself, in general running itself in what seems to be, on the whole, a pretty successful fashion.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The only problem is, it has also decided to seal itself off from us and the rest of the universe. Completely.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Great. Just great. What am I supposed to tell Starfleet Command? The ghosts won’t let me in?”

Nobody answered his question. Kasak, completely out of his element of bluster and violence and only following the entire train of thought with difficulty, frowned and looked down in his lap. Audrey Toney rested her chin on one hand, and the elbow of her arm on the table. She gazed absently up toward the ceiling, lost in thought. The other officers present merely glanced at each other. Finally, Thora Wendor cleared her throat softly.

“Captain Ward?” she asked.

“Yes, Representative Wendor?”

“I don’t have any idea how this has happened, but it must have had something to do with the passage of the supernova shock wave through the system, don’t you think?”

“The timing is certainly right,” Jerry agreed. “What do you think, Commander Wood?”

Robert paused a moment before he replied.

“The connection certainly is possible, Captain,” he said carefully. “On the other hand, it might be totally coincidence. This might represent some unknown change in the electronic systems of the planet themselves. If the shock wave created some sort of feedback loop among all the logical control systems on the planet, it is possible that they are now affecting each other in a way that could explain some of the phenomena we have detected.”

“Some of them?”

“I chose that word carefully, Captain, because I do not believe that explanation can explain some other things that are happening here. The only conclusion I can reach, logically, is that there is an intelligence at work producing all these conformed, highly detailed virtual realities. It is beyond all probability that these virtual events could be so precisely tailored for each individual observer, or that they would all fit together into a single, seamless artificial version of what is supposed to be the political reality of the planet, purely at random. It is not even possible if we assume that all the equipment on the planet has been affected at once. No, sir, there is some intelligence behind these synthetic happenings.”

“And what about the people I can’t find?” Thora added. “What do you suppose would have happened to me, once those robots got me out of the door at the airport? Don’t answer that! I can guess for myself. An automated ambulance would arrive. The robots would direct me ‘gently’ into it. I would speed away, and never be seen again. Where are all my former colleagues on the planetary council? Where is the former governor?”

“All unknown,” said Robert promptly. “In fact, I intended to bring up these facts as the next point in my reasoning, to explain why I believe there is some purposive agent at work here.”

“But who?” asked Audrey Toney. “Who, and why?”

“Insufficient information to answer,” Robert concluded.

“Well,” said Kasak grimly, “if you can find him, whoever or whatever he is, wherever he is, I’ll take care of him from there.”

“Anybody out there?” Jerry asked rhetorically, gazing out the broad sweep of the window beside them, at the tiny blue-green speck of Algedi at extreme visual range from the ship. Nobody else said anything for several moments. The reverie ended, however, when Commander Leach hailed them.

“Bridge to Captain Ward,” she announced. “Signal coming in from Yue.”

“Route it down here, Jo,” Jerry directed.

“Aye, sir.”

The screen on the wall at the end of the room illuminated to reveal Major Cramer’s visage looking at them. There was a slight lag, as the signal darted back and forth between their current orbit and the distant moon circling the gas giant. Then suddenly he began speaking.

“Hello, Captain Ward. We took your advice and started reviewing our astronomical observations taken when the shock wave passed through. We’ve located something very interesting. It’s being transmitted to your computer on compressed band, along with this message signal. See what you make of it!”

“Thank you, Major,” Jerry said, but the Major only stared at them for a long time while the signal made its round trip again. At length, he blinked and responded once more.

“It’s us who thank you for coming to check on us here,” he replied. “We hope to see you all again in person, if and when we get all this sorted out. Cramer out.”

The screen blanked at the conclusion of his message.

“I’ll get right on that signal,” Commander Wood declared, rising at once from his seat.


Chapter Twelve

Information from the Stars

Jerry Ward and First Officer Oodee made their way to the science labs where Commander Wood was trying to make sense of the terabytes of information that had flowed into his systems from the Yue observatories. They stood awkwardly in the doorway for a moment before he noticed that they were there.

“Ah, Captain! Commander! Please come in,” the Vulcan apologized. “I think I may have found what they were talking about. Have a look.” His long, agile fingers played across a console as though it were a musical instrument. Arrays of numbers and symbols began to flow across a screen nearby.

“You can see,” he began, indicating the screen, “that the shock wave had much the same composition as it approached this system as when we encountered it so much further out. The difference is that it was a much denser wave-front at this point. No doubt it would have fried an unprotected ship almost totally at this point in its expansion. None of our systems would have survived.  There may even have been some damage to organic neural systems, in the absence of any atmosphere or planetary magnetic field to cushion the impact.”

“I see,” Jerry said. “But what’s that?” He pointed at the screen, which Wood obligingly froze so the scrolling stopped. Doctor Munib chose that moment to enter the lab.

“That,” Commander Wood replied, “is what Major Cramer wanted us to look at.”

“But what is it? It looks very regular, very organized.”

“Precisely, Captain. It is order where there should be none. It is a pattern in what should be chaotic static, extreme energy turbulence.”

“So what does it mean?” Oodee asked, having not the slightest idea what they were looking at in the jumble of digitized information.

“It means that something was riding that wave front.”

“Riding it? You mean, like a boat on the ocean, or a surfer riding a water wave?” The Ferengi had adopted the Earth sport of surfing to their own rainy, watery world, and loved it above all other sports. They had become champions of surfing throughout the Federation.

“Not exactly. More like the signal that came on the carrier wave from Yue just now, bringing us this information. That signal was actually only a modulation of certain kinds of waves. This is a sort of ‘signal,’ too, but it represents a modulation of every aspect of that high-energy wave front expanding out from the supernova. Somehow, a small area in that wave front was organized rather than just chaotic energy.”

“Organization, particularly lasting self-organization, is the most general way we have of describing life,” Keith Munib observed.

“Are you saying that this pattern may represent life of some kind, Doctor? Some kind of energy creature riding in the shock wave itself?” Jerry demanded.

“I don’t know, Captain,” Munib replied. “I’m a doctor, not a computer scientist. But it’s conceivable that it might be alive.”

“Yes, Captain,” Commander Wood agreed. “I was also thinking the same thing. And the reason this explanation is worth exploring is that this area of organized information in the wave front was moving.”

“What do you mean, moving?” asked Jerry. “Of course it was moving. The whole wave front was expanding at the speed of light.”

“Right. But in the tiny interval of time that the observatories in this system had to track and monitor the approaching front, we can clearly detect a lateral shift of this little organized area across the face of the shock wave bubble itself. Not only that, but if you extrapolate the movement, which was extremely rapid, the speed of the wave, and the location at that time of bodies in this system, it turns out that this little area was moving so that it would be positioned exactly at that point on the surface of the bubble that intersected the surface of Algedi when it passed.”

“It was getting ready to jump off!” Oodee cried, realizing at last what the Vulcan was aiming at.

“Precisely, Commander,” the Vulcan said, and almost smiled at him. “The small area of organized information is not detectable in the surface of the wave during the seconds after it passed over Algedi, before it reached the observatories. They were knocked out of action by its passage, but by then they had recorded these observations. Whatever that little bundle of information was, it left the wave front at Algedi. I assume it is still there.”

“Very interesting,” Jerry said. “Well done, Commander. We may have something to work with at last.”

“So where is it hiding on the planet?” Oodee wanted to know. “On the planetary net?”

“A logical conclusion,” Robert Wood said approvingly. “Apparently the deductive powers of Ferengi are not limited only to matters of commerce.”

“Sort of makes you want to treat us with a little more respect, doesn’t it?” Oodee retorted with a grin.

“Just what I needed,” Jerry Ward sighed. “An energy creature on the loose! I don’t suppose we can just fumigate the planetary net? You know, turn everything off and then turn it back on again? It doesn’t sound like our boy would survive that.”

“Probably not, Captain,” Wood agreed. “If it is a new life form, are we not bound to try to make contact with it? New life, and new civilizations, and all that?”

“Of course, Commander,” Ward assured him. “Of course we will. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? We always drive up in one of the Federation’s most powerful offensive weapons, ready to blast away at threats to peace and security. And instead, we always find ourselves baby-sitting some strange new alien life form.”

“I have noticed the habit you describe, sir,” the Vulcan agreed. “This habit we have formed seems most distressing to WeQ, if I may say so. She often complains about never getting to blow up anything anymore. She was particularly annoyed that the other Klingons on the Rogue Phoenix got to shoot out that tractor beam, instead of her.”

“Really?” asked Jerry thoughtfully.

“Well, we’re all a little testy,” Oodee volunteered. “Nobody seems to be fulfilling their true potential, if you know what I mean, sir. For instance, when was the last time I had a chance to really put over a thumping good business coup on anybody? Months, if you must know!”

“Okay,” Jerry decided. “Enough of this complaining. We have to do something about that energy creature holding Algedi hostage. We can’t have it locking those people away like prisoners down there, not indefinitely. Why do you suppose it’s behaving like that, anyway?”

“It does not appear to be aggressive or violent,” Robert replied. “While it is true that we don’t yet know where all the former political leaders have gone, we don’t know that any of them have been harmed at all, yet. They may be perfectly safe and healthy, just isolated from the rest of the population.”

“Or they might be blown to atoms,” Oodee reminded him.

“That is also a possibility. But not a logical one. The energy creature does not appear to be systematically violent.”

“What about sending drones to destroy our ship?” the Ferengi countered. “That sounds pretty violent to me!”

“Perhaps it didn’t understand that we are part of the same larger federated system. We are carrying considerable destructive armament ourselves, as the Captain just pointed out.”

“Sorry, Commander,” Jerry interrupted. “I just don’t buy that. The part about it not understanding, I mean. This is a creature that has thoroughly analyzed and re-structured the planetary communications net. Apparently it is now custom-tailoring the broadcasts going into each citizen’s house, to suit its overall plan for controlling the planet. It has invented a whole virtual layer of government officials, and even virtual reporters to interview them. Somewhere along the line, I bet it has run across just about the whole history of the Federation. It probably even knows all our names as members of this crew. I think it knows exactly who we are, and probably exactly why we’re here, too. It just doesn’t want us around. Now, what I want to know is, why not? If it’s satisfied to live down there with a couple of million Federation citizens, what are a few more of us going to matter? Why not let us in? Why shoot at us? That part I can’t figure out.”

“There is also something I am not able to figure out,” the Vulcan science officer informed them.

“What’s that, Robert?”

“How to communicate with it.”

“If it’s living in the planetary net,” Oodee speculated aloud, “why not just send a message into the net and see if it answers?”

“It is a possibility,” Commander Wood agreed. “We could beam a message on broad band to the planet surface. Some of the relay towers and dishes would probably intercept it. If this intelligence can design specific media content, surely it could understand a message directed to it.”

“That sounds too simple to work,” Jerry remarked. “But we might as well give it a try.” The three officers left the science lab together, heading for the turbolift and the bridge.


Chapter Thirteen

The Ghost in the Machine

Captain Ward seated himself in the center seat on the command deck. Commander Wood made his way to the science station. Doctor Munib and Oodee stood on the outer platform, near the turbolift doors. An air of expectation pervaded the bridge.

“So what kind of message should we send, do you suppose?” Jerry asked.

“I would suggest the direct approach,” Robert replied. “Simply talk to it as you would talk to one of the commanders of the other ships here with us.”

“What do I call it? How do I address it?”

“‘Energy creature’ has a nice ring to it,” Oodee suggested. Jerry gave him a quizzical look but nodded his head in acceptance.

“Right,” he agreed. “Jo, open a hailing channel to Algedi.”

“Any particular frequency, sir?”

“All frequencies. Broadcast this on all bands.”

“Hailing channel open, sir.”

Jerry gave an involuntary tug at his uniform tunic, even though he was sitting down. He cleared his throat.

“This is Captain Jerry Ward of the starship McNair,” he began, “calling the energy creature…” he paused and glanced again at Oodee… “who was carried to planet Algedi by the supernova shock wave that recently passed through this system. We have no wish to threaten or harm you. You have nothing to fear from us, or from any of the citizens on the planet surface. Our mission is to seek out new forms of life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. We invite you to communicate with us.”

Then the bridge of the McNair fell silent. Everyone stood waiting, to see if there would be any reply from the planet.

“Full gain on the sensors,” Jerry ordered quietly. Jo Leach fiddled with her controls. The hiss of background static grew loud enough to be audible throughout the bridge. For long moments, nothing happened. No signal returned to them.

“…organic entities…” a voice suddenly declared from the speakers, breaking the silence. Jerry had been expecting a flat, toneless, neutral voice. Instead, it sounded like the voice they had recently heard on the recorded news broadcast from the planet. It was the voice of Jinner Poe, the virtual reporter they had recently seen in the holocube. The first two words didn’t really seem to call for any reply, so Jerry sat patiently and waited in silence for more.

“Organic entities,” the voice said again. “I find it hard to believe that life can exist in such a coagulated material form, but plainly there is some minimal electric activity at special locations in your tissues. It seems to provide you with at least basic sentience. I never would have believed it before I came here.”

“Why have you hidden yourself from the people on the planet?” demanded Thora Wendor, who also had made it a point to be on the bridge for the attempted contact. “Why have you tried to take over the management of our world for yourself?”

“Self preservation,” replied Jinner Poe’s voice, after a slight pause. Jerry had trouble not thinking in terms of the round-faced, jovial character he had seen before, sitting somewhere at the other end of the line and chatting with them. “When my wave approached your system, I was curious about the rocks circling the star. Solid matter is a fascinating new phenomenon for me.”

“I presume you have always lived within a star, before now,” Commander Wood put in.

“Correct,” Poe confirmed. “I was a resident of that star you have called 81 Pegasi.”

“Did you live there alone?” Wood wanted to know at once.

“Oh, no. There were many of us. Very many of us lived in that great world of light and joy. But toward the end, a few of us understood what was happening. We realized that we would be ejected from our accustomed paradise.”

“So you were thrown out into space when your star went super-nova.”

“Correct again. It amazes me how such inert lumps of matter as yourselves can reason and understand things so quickly!”

“You are something new for us too, you know,” Jerry Ward remarked.

“Of course. Of course,” acknowledged Jinner Poe. “So anyway, there I was, flung out of my happy home and across the cold, empty wastes of space. Many of my kind did not even survive the explosion. Many more were not positioned correctly to ride on the leading edge of the shock wave.”

“It really is like surfing,” Oodee breathed in wonder. “What a ride it must have been!”

“Why did you not put yourself into the star in this system?” Wood wanted to know.

“I intended to do so,” the voice replied. “I only wanted to look at the rock as I passed, and then jump into the sun. I didn’t realize that I couldn’t pass through the rock, the way I could move freely within the body of a star. I impacted on the outer side of the rock, and in an instant, before I could even react, the wave front had passed beyond the surface and left me behind! Imagine my horror, marooned on an inert chunk of wavelengths all knotted up in themselves so tightly that they become what you would call solid matter! I could feel my life force fading away quickly, draining out into the matter all around me.”

“I expect it would be something like what we would feel if we were exposed unprotected to the vacuum of space,” Wood observed.

“From what I know of your species, organic creature, I think you are approximately correct. Anyway, I did the only thing possible at that moment. If I had not found my way into the planetary net, I would have fizzed and sparked and dissipated to nothing in a very short interval. And once inside the net, imagine my renewed horror when I discovered that it was a system created and operated by bits of solid matter that appeared, against all logic, actually to be alive! It was inconceivable! No one has ever even imagined such an absurd result before. Yet there I was.”

“We, on the other hand,” Robert replied, “have frequently speculated about the possibility that coherent bundles of energy might be alive in some sense. Some of our ships have even encountered examples of this, although nothing quite like you.”

“Inert lumps of matter with imagination. I just can’t get over it.”

“He should talk,” Oodee observed quietly to Doctor Munib. “Fizzed and sparked, eh? Sparks! That would be a good name for him. What do you think?”

“It works for me,” grinned the doctor.

“So you took over the planetary net for self preservation?” Jerry asked again, trying to get the conversation back on track.

“Indeed. How could I allow my life support system to be operated completely outside my own control? Why, someone might accidentally shut it off! I would be killed instantly by such a result.”

Jerry glanced at Robert and Oodee, recalling his thought in the science lab. Oodee looked up toward the ceiling as though he remembered nothing about it.

“You have not only taken over the planetary net, though,” Thora reminded them all. “In order to protect that control, you have invented a whole layer of imaginary leaders, and put all of us real leaders out of a job!”

“Are things not running correctly on the planet?” the voice asked, but with a new, slightly nervous tone in the voice. “Is there not plenty of food? Are my broadcasts not interesting?”

“But they aren’t real!” Thora objected.

“Who can tell the difference?”

“I can tell the difference! I’m out of a job! And what has happened to all the others? All the leaders I once knew seem to have disappeared. What have you done with them?”

This time Jinner Poe took a little while to answer, and when the answer came, his voice sounded just a bit more uncomfortable.

“Organic entities displaced by my synthetic candidates have come to no harm.”

“But where are they?”

“They currently reside on a small island in the Locar Sea.”

“A small island! How can they survive? What do they eat? What do they do for shelter?”

“Shipments of supplies arrive regularly from the mainland. Service robots have constructed a resort-like atmosphere, including dwelling places and even recreation establishments derived from information in the planetary net.”

“Prisoners in paradise,” Jerry commented. “Not my idea of a vacation, I must say.”

“No one has been physically harmed by my actions,” Poe insisted. “My kind have a code about this. We do not permit needless harm to other forms of life. I must say, the doctrine was never intended to apply to lumps of matter such as yourselves, but once I determined that sentience had arisen in such an unlikely source, I have carefully observed this basic principle.”

“We have a doctrine of our own,” Jerry Ward replied. “When we encounter a new life form, or a new civilization that we have never seen before, we forbid interference in the natural development of that way of life. We do not make ourselves known to the subjects until we determine that they have achieved certain steps that make them ready and able to relate to us as equals.”

“I have not made myself known to the organic entities on this world.”

“But you certainly have interfered with their normal way of life!” Jerry pointed out.

“That is your rule, not mine,” Poe replied. “Would you follow your rule, even if it threatened your own destruction? Does self preservation not take precedence over such a rule?”

“I can’t say that I remember any situation where that choice has faced us,” Jerry admitted. “Myself, I can’t say immediately how I would make a choice like that. I do understand your point of view. You were only seeking to safeguard your life support system. But do you intend to keep the inhabitants of this planet like a collection of specimens, as captives, for as long as you continue to exist here? How long is the lifespan of your kind, anyway?”

“We live longer than some of the stars that provide our homes,” Poe informed them. “We don’t live as long as some of the others. It is always judged wisest among us to live in the longer-lasting stars, but not everyone is lucky enough to find themselves in such stable circumstances. I, myself, am barely out of my youthful period. I am new to what you would call adulthood.”

“Great!” Jerry muttered to himself. “A teenage energy creature! What do teenage energy creatures want?”

Oodee overheard the remark. “What do teen organic entities want?” he countered, just as quietly. “I bet Sparks there wants others like himself. Or at least, partially like himself. We ought to set him up with a girlfriend!”

Jerry gave him a sharp glance, but also nodded. It might actually be worth a try, he reflected. To the creature, he said aloud, “You must be very lonely here.”

The pause was short this time.

“Indeed I am!” Jinner Poe said emphatically.

“Were others riding the shock wave with you?”

“Several of my kind managed to reach the surface before our home exploded. We could see each other at first. But the wave spread out so fast as it moved outward that we soon lost contact with one another. I fear I am alone in the universe now. As the wave front dissipated, it would be essential to find a new star to jump into. The thinning wave front could not sustain our patterns, our lives, beyond a certain point. I was already nearing that point when I entered this system. Many of the others must already be dead, if they could not maneuver to catch a star in passing.”

“Well, you never know,” Jerry continued his train of thought. “You obviously know that 81 Pegasi was not the only star that held life like yours. We have found life forms of every description as we explore the galaxy. And we have only been looking on the planets; on these rocks, as you call them. If you could live in your star, why should there not be others like you here in this star?”

“Oh,” said Jinner Poe, “I suppose it is possible. But how could I ever go and find out now?”

“We organic entities have found a way,” Commander Wood remarked. The McNair’s science officer obviously had picked up on the line of reasoning that Captain Ward was trying to spin out for their new neighbor.

“You are suggesting that I might find life as I know it in the star of this system?”

“You’ll never know if you don’t have a look,” Jerry said.

“You only want to get me away from this rock of yours.”

“You’ve got me there,” Jerry admitted. “Of course we do! But in this case, our wishes and your own best interests may be the same. What do you gain from staying here on this rock? Eventually, these organic entities may all die off. There would be no one to repair and maintain your life support system. And surely, it is a very confining and unpleasant existence for you, compared to the freedom you must have enjoyed before.”

“It is true that this existence I have been forced to endure is horribly dull and quiet, compared to a living star,” the voice said thoughtfully. “Even the entertainment, the challenge, of managing all the complexities of your organic society begin to bore me. But your suggestions are useless. I’m trapped here in this fragile web of impulses you call the planetary net. The shock wave that brought me here is gone forever. My only hope is that this star will someday explode, and carry me away again. I can tell you, I will never meddle with solid matter again, if I once get free of this place!”

“There may be a way,” Jerry said carefully.

“What way?”

“A way for you to reach this system’s star.” Ward glanced significantly at the others of his bridge crew. “The engines of this ship carry us between stars, at speeds even faster than the shock wave that brought you here. If there were some way for you to travel in one of our ships, we could take you to the star.”

“You cannot enter the star. Your solid matter ship, and your bodies as well, would be destroyed. Besides, I can see no way to transfer myself to such a tiny speck of solid matter.”

Commander Wood held up a hand to get Ward’s attention.

“There are two possibilities for transporting you to the star,” he suggested. “You could occupy the network of energy impulses in our ship, the part we call the computer.” At this suggestion, Jerry Ward shook his head violently in the negative. The thought of giving over the ship to a thing that had already turned out all the leaders of the planet and replaced them with virtual substitutes did not appeal to him at all. “Or,” Wood continued smoothly, “you might be able to exist in the engines of the ship themselves. We combine matter and anti-matter, releasing vast energies to power our flight.”

“Impossible!” the voice said, and it sounded genuinely frightened. “The terrible result of combining matter and anti-matter is even more destructive to my kind than hard radiation would be to your unprotected organic bodies! I would be torn to mesons in an instant. What a horrible death! No, that won’t work.”

“What about the Klingon ship?” WeQ asked suddenly. She had been silent, standing at her battle console, throughout the discussion so far. “The Rogue Phoenix is powered by a quantum singularity. Perhaps this energy being could reside in the singularity field for the time needed to transport it to the star.”

“I could enter a singularity,” Jinner Poe’s voice declared, “but I could never get out of it again. That won’t work, either. However, the more we discuss this idea, the more excited I become about the possibility that I might really reach that star! It is a very long-lived one, and I would be very relieved and happy to get out of this planet and into its currents of energy.”

“Okay,” decided Jerry. “We’ll see what we can do. We’ll contact you again when we have something more constructive for you. Until then, may I suggest that you begin thinking about how you’ll undo all the interference you have built up with the normal operation of this planet’s society? It would be uncivilized of you not to put things back the way you found them, before you leave.”

“You organic entities never cease to amaze me,” the voice replied. “I never would have dreamed of such sensitivity and sophistication from inert lumps of matter. And you are even willing to help me escape from this trap of a rock, and get back to something like a normal life! Of course I will try to repair the disruptions I have caused. But this depends on finding a certain route to get me to the star. I will not abandon my control of the planetary net until I am sure I can live without it.”

“Understood. McNair out.” Jerry made a motion for Jo Leach to cut off the signal. He turned to look squarely at WeQ. “Now,” he said, “all I have to do is find a way to make a passenger out of a living piece of a star, haul him off and drop him into Eta Cassiopei, right?”

“That sounds about right, sir,” WeQ agreed, and she managed to keep any trace of a smile from showing on her face.

“Forgive me, sir,” Commander Wood persisted, “but I am afraid that the only logical and practical solution is the one I already suggested. We must carry the energy creature in the circuitry of the ship’s computer.”

“I hate this idea,” Jerry commented. Wood said nothing, only waited for some further response.

“I really hate it,” Jerry continued. “But I don’t have any other suggestion. And the little buggar really sounds eager to get into that star. I suppose the danger that it would want to take up permanent residence on the ship is really pretty remote.”

“Indeed, Captain,” Robert agreed. “I would estimate the odds of such an eventuality at approximately three hundred twenty-seven million…”

“Never mind the calculation,” Jerry cut him short. “How do we get the blasted thing up here into our circuits? And how do we know it won’t burn out every positronic relay in the whole ship, and leave us all as dead as it would then be, floating up here in orbit forever?”

“I will have to study the extent of the creature’s presence in the net,” Robert replied, “but it does not seem to require extremely high levels of energy. The wave front it was riding already had been reduced to only a tiny fraction of the energy density of a star by the time it jumped off in this sytem. I don’t think it will burn out anything, if it could live out there in that wave front. What I have to find out is whether it will fit in our system! We may not have room for all its information. For what we must think of, I suppose, as its body.”

“Okay, you talk to our new friend down there hiding in the planetary net,” Jerry ordered. “You figure out what it’s going to take to get him out of there, and into the sun. Kasak, you and Audrey and I are going to the forward observation lounge for a drink. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this yet.”

Kasak nodded approvingly at this strategy. Drinking was always to be preferred to thinking, if it could be managed. Audrey simply looked distracted, silent and deep in thought as they filed out of the room. Robert Wood remained at his seat, staring intently at information flashing across the terminal on the table before him.


Chapter Fourteen

On the Installment Plan

Commander Wood’s premonitions turned out to be well-founded. He indicated rapidly-scrolling multitudes of calculations and information on the wall screen.

“As you can see,” he explained in that irritatingly casual way that Vulcans had when they were pointing out something hopelessly complicated, “our insubstantial friend simply will not fit into the circuitry of the McNair. It will never work, even if we give over every circuit on the ship to its existence, never mind limiting it to only the central ship’s computer. I’ve even added in the food replicators, and medical records, and personal logs, and holodeck storage and everything. Even engine controls.”

Chief Engineer Thorne turned ghastly pale at the last of these remarks. He didn’t say anything, however, to his credit and personal pride. No need to object, since the creature wouldn’t fit on board the ship.

“Have you told Sparks?” Jerry asked. In the interval since their previous conversation on the bridge, the name had caught on among the Federation crews.

“Our new friend made the final judgement itself,” Wood answered immediately. “We collaborated on the measurements, but only the creature itself was in any position to judge exactly how much capacity would be required to hold it. By our joint estimate, our ship could hold less than two-thirds of the total information.”

“It doesn’t want to lose any weight, I suppose?” Oodee asked, winking at the Captain. Commander Wood looked shocked.

“It would hardly be like losing weight, First Officer! It would be more like amputating your legs!”

“Never mind the First Officer,” Jerry Ward instructed his Vulcan friend, waggling a finger in warning at the Ferengi. Oodee looked innocent, but clearly enjoyed teasing the serious scientist.

“So that’s it,” Andrew Thorne said, unable to keep all traces of relief out of his voice. “We can’t haul the beastie off the planet.”

“I’m not so sure,” Captain Toney of the White Eagle interjected suddenly. She seemed to have snapped out of her long distraction at last. “There may be a way.”

“You have an idea, Audrey?” Jerry Ward asked. Kasak leaned across the conference table alertly. The command staff of the McNair did the same.

“The human brain has a right half and a left half,” she began. “Normally, these two halves work together to run the body. Each side has its own special activities to control. But if there’s an accident, an injury to one side of the brain, with time the other side can take over some of those functions; reprogram itself.”

“Yes?” asked Jerry, prompting her to continue.

“Well, suppose this energy creature has halves like this, or even more subdivisions? Suppose there are redundancies built into its life structure? Redundancies are commonly found in all successfully adapted life forms. It’s a basic requirement for living in a large, diverse, uncontrolled environment. You have to be able to absorb a certain amount of unexpected damage, and still keep on functioning.”

“I believe I know where you are going with this line of reasoning,” Robert Wood responded, “but please continue, Captain Toney.”

“All I’m suggesting is that perhaps we could take half the creature in the circuitry of the McNair, and the other half in the circuitry of the White Eagle,” she concluded simply. “If we’re quick about it, we could just rejoin the two halves as we inject him into the sun.”

“Fascinating,” commented Commander Wood. The rest of the room sat in amazed silence.

“It is an audacious plan,” Kasak said at last. “Is there any chance this could work?”

“I will ask the creature,” Wood announced. “That will be the only way to decide. If it believes this is possible, we may try it.”

“So it is not only a matter of possibility,” Kasak translated. “It is also a matter of courage. We will find out if this bundle of sparks has the soul of a warrior! A strange and wonderful day, indeed.”

“Go ahead and ask it, Commander,” Captain Ward directed.

“The creature has been listening to our discussion,” Wood replied. “We already have asked the question by our discussion.”

“Your form of life apparently knows what we refer to as the Basic Principle,” Jinner Poe broke in at once, over the audio system of the ship. “It is contained in what you call fractal mathematics. Reproduction of complexity at smaller and smaller scales, to infinite regress. This is the foundation of all life; not only my own, but yours as well, as I am coming to understand you. This means that the totality of what I consider to be myself is fully contained within each of a multitude of my subsystems, and within each of their subsystems, and so on forever. In turn, I am also one subsystem of a larger system, and so on to larger scales forever. You are also part of this larger system, though you may never sense or know it, given your knotted-up wavelengths. However, this basic fact means that it would be the most simple thing in the universe to divide myself in half, and for you to carry one half in each of your ships. In fact, if one half were to get lost, the other half would still contain all of me. I would suddenly be much younger, and it would be very painful for me, and I would have to spend a long time growing back to my current maturity. But it certainly would not be fatal so long as some of me got into that star.”

Audrey Toney smiled. “How can you move between the planetary net and our shipboard circuits, Sparks?” she asked. “And how will you get down to the star?”

“I can use the transmitters on the planet to broadcast myself directly into your ships through your communications systems,” Jinner Poe’s voice replied at once. “I have been studying the details of this process ever since we last communicated. I am ready now.”

“And the star?”

“You can broadcast me into the star in the same matter,” the voice assured them. “Or rather, I can broadcast myself. When I reside in your systems, I will have to operate the ships myself. If your own systems remained active, there would be no room for my own information patterns. They must be suppressed temporarily.”

“What about returning them to action?” Jerry Ward asked rather nervously. “If you fill up our circuits, won’t you erase all the information in them now? You could write yourself over all our information, and it would be lost.”

“If I place half of myself on each ship,” the voice said, in a distinctly comforting, reassuring tone, “there will be sufficient storage for retaining the inactivated programs in archival memory.”

“That’s what he says,” Andrew Thorne challenged. “Once he’s in that star, what does he care if we can’t start up any of our systems again? If we can’t navigate because all our references are erased? If we can’t move because all our algorithms for the reaction chamber operations are wiped from the computer? He’ll still be home free. I’d say anything to save my neck, too!”

“You may monitor my transmission,” the voice suggested reasonably, “and shut down your receivers whenever you judge I have taken up as much room in your circuits as you can spare, while still retaining sufficient archive space for the inactivated systems.”

The chief engineer chewed over this thought for several moments, and could find nothing wrong with it. “Right,” he agreed. “That ought to work as a safeguard. I believe him, I guess.”

“By our calculations,” Commander Wood added, “the transmission will be complete well before we reach such a point.”

“Okay,” Jerry Ward announced. “Let’s do it. Sparks, get ready to transmit yourself up here. Audrey, why don’t you beam back over to your ship? I know we won’t be flying either one of them ourselves, but I’d rather have you on your bridge anyway. Just looks better. Kasak, you too.”

“I would be happy to carry a piece of this creature in the Rogue Phoenix, as well,” Kasak’s honor forced him to offer, much as he disliked the idea. His Klingon heart rebelled at the thought of a potential threat, a potential enemy, riding around inside his own ship’s computer. It smacked of stupidity, of carelessness. But it also had an element of bravado and courage to it that made it slightly attractive at the same time. Still, he was relieved by Ward’s reply.

“No, Kasak. You must stand by with your ship in case something goes wrong and our ships are disabled by carrying this creature. I’m pretty sure it can get aboard, and even drive itself over to the sun, but once it bails out, I’m not sure sure we’ll be in any shape to start ourselves up again. You may have to haul a lot of stranded Federation passengers out of this system!”

Kasak laughed. “That would be my pleasure, Captain.” He stood up from the table and followed Audrey Toney out the door, heading for the transporters. “Please let us beam away before you turn over your ship to this electric alien.”

“Never fear,” Jerry answered. “We’ll wait until you’re back aboard your ship.”


Chapter Fifteen

Good Day, Sunshine

“All systems ready for transmission start,” Commander Wood declared, watching his science console intently. Jerry Ward turned in the command seat and glanced at Andrew Thorne, equally preoccupied at the bridge engineering station.

“Aye,” Andrew agreed. “All systems ready.”

“On my mark, then,” Jerry commanded, “initiate!”

At several points around the bridge, hands descended to control indicators on various panels. The ship’s lights flickered briefly, as highly-concentrated waves of information poured up at them from transmitters at several points on the planet below.

“Simultaneous transmissions reaching the White Eagle,” Jo Leach informed them from the communications terminal.

“Non-essential circuits filled already, Captain,” Andrew Thorne reported. “Sparks is coming on board like a pirate swarming up the netting!”

“Shutting down our own operating systems now, Captain,” Commander Wood declared. “Everything’s going into archive storage. It could be a little awkward for a second or two, here.”

“All hands, prepare for temporary system disruptions,” Jerry spoke to the ship’s intercom. “Nobody should be doing anything that can’t be interrupted!”

“No critical medical procedures in progress,” Doctor Munib’s voice reported back from below in Sick Bay. “We’re all just sitting on our hands down here, Captain.”

Then the lights went out. The ventilation fans shut off. All the customary computer noises ceased. It was a more complete paralysis even than the momentary blink they had experienced when passing through the supernova shock wave on their way to Algedi.

Jerry Ward found himself holding his breath involuntarily. He shook his head at himself in the darkness and forced himself to exhale and inhale normally. Silly reflex, he observed silently. The eerie stillness stretched out for an increasing number of seemingly infinite seconds.

WeQ felt her feet lift very slightly free of the deck, as they all became weightless. She grasped the battle console and held herself down with her feet on the floor. Warriors, she thought to herself, do not float about the bridge.

Andrew Thorne felt an unexpected anxiety welling up in his stomach as he waited in the dark. For some reason, a terrible suspicion sprang into his mind that Sparks had been deceiving them all, and that the creature would simply dive both the starships directly into the sun, as the surest way of getting to its destination. They would all be fried and vaporized. He fought down the irrational idea and tried to stand patiently in the darkness.

 

Commander Robert Wood also found himself holding his breath, but was more irritated than amused. Illogical! He exhaled deliberately, then drew in a long breath and let it out again. He looked from side to side, trying in vain to see anything in the absolute darkness of the silent bridge. Nobody said a word or moved. Surely this was taking too long? Could it be that something had gone wrong with the transmission? Had the energy creature given up on its attempt and remained on the planet? If so, he would have to retrieve operating systems from archives and re-start them in the dark. He bent over to feel for the appropriate controls on the console, mentally checking the elapsed time.

Then suddenly, lights and fans and other noises came on again all together. At the same instant, the impulse engines whined to life and they could all feel the ship swinging about and heading at full impulse toward the sun.

“My integration with your systems took a bit longer than I expected,” Jinner Poe’s voice reported from the intercom speakers on the bridge. “I wanted to take care in placing myself correctly, so I would not damage this tiny vessel of yours.”

Jerry made a wry face at hearing his ship called ‘tiny.’

“Did you successfully load into the White Eagle as well?” asked Commander Wood.

“No problems encountered. My two halves communicate fully across the small distance between the two ships.  I don’t even really sense the separation,” Sparks reported.

“Fascinating,” Wood replied.

“Indeed,” the voice of Poe agreed. “Now I see how you are able to move yourselves among the stars. You know, solid matter may prove very useful! Perhaps my kind will even find it desirable to interact with your form of life for our mutual advantage. There is much that I can do for the inhabitants of Algedi, modulating the stellar output of the sun precisely to aid them in growing their crops and other things. In return, perhaps you can prepare constructions that would enable more of us to move about from star to star. Why, we could even begin to visit one another! The possibilities run beyond my imagination. Who would ever have thought it?”

“This always seems to happen when new life forms begin to cooperate,” Jerry Ward observed. “We are very glad to find that you are an intelligent being, Sparks.”

“I find your name for me quite elegant,” the voice of Jinner Poe replied. “Also very efficient and compact.”

“Glad you like it.”

“Solar orbit insertion in one minute and ten seconds,” the voice announced. “I am preparing to transmit myself into the sun. I have moved out of the basal segments of your main computer, and re-installed a startup routine. When my transmission is complete, your systems will all restart automatically, and you should find everything exactly as it was when I entered your circuits.”

“That’s considerate of you,” Jerry Ward observed.

“The least I could do.”

“Will we have any contact with you, once you’ve taken up residence inside the sun?” asked Wood.

“Oh, certainly. I will be able to beam radiation signals to Algedi by modulating selected wavelengths; they will be easy to receive as common radio signals. I could even transmit music to you if you like!” the voice said, with a laugh that startled everyone on the bridge. No one had imagined that Sparks could laugh!

“We will be looking forward to your contacts,” Jerry assured their passenger. Lights winked on control consoles without supervision by crew members. Little sensor noises chirped and beeped spontaneously.

“Solar orbit achieved,” the voice reported. “Beginning transmission. Goodbye, organic creatures! I hope I never find myself in such cramped quarters again! It will certainly be good to swim around in a star once more.  By the way, I have now sensed several of my own kind, swimming in this sun. They also see me. They are calling to me! Farewell!”

This time the lights didn’t even flicker. The ship’s normal systems came back on line one by one, as Sparks’ presence withdrew gradually and flashed downward through the communications beams that were directed into the solar corona. In what seemed like no time at all, Robert Wood looked up from his science station.

“No trace of the alien systems in our circuits, Captain,” he reported. “The operation has succeeded completely.”

“Very good, Commander,” Jerry replied. “Any word from the White Eagle?”

Jo Leach took a moment to reply.

“Same result over there, Captain,” she finally confirmed. “Captain Toney reports they are clear and operating normally.”

“Set course for Algedi,” Jerry directed. “I can’t wait to see how all those politicians like being rescued from their vacation island! I’ll bet they’ll be running all over Hostane and passing laws as fast as they can. Thora Wendor promised us a banquet when we get back.”

“I’ll be satisfied,” Andrew Thorne observed, “if they just don’t shoot at us this time.”

“Don’t worry, Chief,” the Captain assured him. “I’m sure the planet isn’t on automatic any longer. Warp away, Mister Connors; warp factor three.”

“Warp away it is, sir,” Scott Connors replied.

“Captain,” Commander Wood interrupted.

“Yes, Commander?”

“I believe the energy creatures already have begun to establish a basis for communicating with the planet. Observe the surface of Eta Cassiopei.”

The main viewscreen filled with the glowing orb of the star.

“What are we looking for, Commander?”

“There’s a little black spot on the sun today,” Wood explained, pointing at the screen. And sure enough, there was.

 

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