Invisible City – USS McNair Foray 2

Chapter One

A Victory in the Shuttle Bay

The noise from the main shuttle bay, two decks below, had grown so loud that Captain Jerry Ward could hear it plainly on the bridge of the McNair. It reached his ear only as a low murmur like distant thunder, but he marvelled that it was audible at all.

“I think I’d better go and have a look at this,” he decided aloud, and turned to look at Commander Leach where she sat at the communications console. “Jo, I’m going down to the shuttle bay. You have the com.”

“Aye, sir,” Jo replied with a grin. She could hear the noise, too. Jerry rose from the center seat on the bridge. He gave his uniform tunic the universal tug that all Starfleet personnel seemed to develop as a result of wearing the blasted things, and crossed to the turbolift doors.

“Shuttle bay,” he ordered as the doors hissed closed, and in the lift the noise was even louder. Only a moment later they hissed open again. Hundreds of voices roaring and shouting in excitement blasted into the turbolift compartment with almost physical force. The clamor was unbelievable. Jerry strode down the passageway that led to the wide entrance into the shuttle bay itself. Though his ears were recovering from the initial shock, the sound seemed to grow even louder. Then he reached the doorway, and could see the entire spectacle for himself.

The rear two-thirds of the entire vast shuttle bay had been converted into a great arena, ringed by steep banks of bleachers on all sides. He looked up at the backs of a solid mass of Starfleet uniforms, crowded shoulder to shoulder along the top of the nearest side of the seats. Every face was turned away from him, toward the arena below them. Arms waved frantically in the air. Voices screamed encouragement or deprecations at the contestants, still out of his line of sight.

Even as he stepped into the bay and started for the only gap in the seats, a renewed roar of excitement burst up out of the arena with a single primal voice. This must be good, Jerry thought to himself. I hope we’re winning! He quickened his step. As he reached the entrance aisle, somebody leaned out from near the top row of seats on the right side of the aisle and called down to him.

“Captain! Up here! We’re up here!”

Jerry looked up into the slightly flushed face of Robert Wood, his versatile science officer. For a Vulcan, the flush amounted to near apoplexy.

“Do you have a seat for me up there, Commander?” he called back.

“Sure! Come on up, sir!”

Jerry walked in to the front row of seats. But before he turned to begin the climb up toward his officers, he stood for a moment to watch the contest.

Parrises Squares is not a gentle game. The four-man McNair team, their huge double-ended batons whirling and flying, dodged around each other like electrified madmen. This violent choreography was designed to open some momentary opportunity in the ranks of their opponents from the Star League. No such opportunity seemed at hand. Even as he watched, the baton of one of the opponents seemed to materialize from nowhere, thrusting suddenly from behind another teammate. That figure whirled aside, blocking a blow by Ensign Bramell as he turned. The baton jabbed forward, catching Lieutenant Poole in the side, knocking him a full meter sideways. Given the serious mass and muscle of Poole and each of the other McNair teammates, this in itself was no mean feat. But Poole did not fall. Instead he turned the movement into a kind of jump, using the upward momentum of his body to accelerate the downward blow of his own baton against the shaft of the one that had struck him. Jerry reflected that if he had been holding that other baton, it probably would have gone flying at the impact. But the opponent kept his grip, pulled it sharply back to himself, and the brutal ballet continued. Jerry turned away and started climbing through the forest of madly waving arms and hoarse, shouting voices. He recognized most of them as McNairs. Good to see that everybody was blowing off a lot of steam. They needed a rest.

Just as he reached a tiny empty space beside Commander Wood and turned back to the fray, the long-awaited moment arrived. First Bramell stepped straight into the face of the center player of the Star League team, taking a terrific blow from each side but standing solid as a brick. Brian Hart came past him in a crouch on one side, baton down low, and at the same moment Poole leaped past him on the other side, baton at shoulder height. Hart’s baton took out the legs of the center man, and even as he went down, Poole’s baton struck through the space where he had been, catching the rear man directly in the chest and propelling him clear off the platform and into the crowd of startled spectators behind. Bramell lunged forward over the fallen centerman and then cut right behind Poole, taking the opposing left flanker completely by surprise and sending him sprawling into the crowd on that side. A truly deafening roar erupted from the sea of McNair officers and crew in the stands, even as Hart and Brian Wilson, the remaining McNair team member, turned together toward the only Star League player who remained standing. The result was a foregone conclusion. Bramell and Poole turned to watch as the final opponent went down in a brave whirl of batons, arms and legs, and then suddenly it was all over. A smashing victory for the McNairs.

Jerry Ward laughed out loud. Every face around him did likewise. He could almost feel the wave of pleasure and relief go billowing up into the vault of the shuttle bay from the assembled throng. He saw Doctor Munib making his way down through the crowd, grinning and shouting to friends, for the routine post-match medical scan of the team members.

“I got here just in time!” Jerry shouted to Robert Wood. Next to him, WeQ’s Klingon eyes gleamed with delight. Her teeth showed in a feral snarl, then she threw back her head and let loose a short howl of triumph.

“A good day to die, WeQ?” Jerry called.

Her face snapped toward him with a predatory stare, then she smiled broadly. “A good day to win, Captain!” she corrected.

Down at the edge of the platform, a good-natured throng had closed in on Bramell, Poole, Hart and Wilson, slapping them on the back and yelling praises. Keith Munib pushed at the massed bodies in vain, trying to get through.

“Come on, people,” he urged. “Let me in! I have to have a look at these guys.” Eventually they let him pass, and he ran a perfunctory scan over the team with a medical tricorder. No ill effects except the expected bruises. He nodded his okay to them, and the team immediately trooped off for the showers. The crowds had already begun to filter back toward the turbolift, or to wander out onto the hanger deck where a shuttle from the Star League sat beside the Saluda close at hand.

As he clambered back down the bleachers, Jerry suddenly saw his chief engineer, Andrew Thorne, pushing against the current and heading toward him.

“What’s up, Andrew?” he asked, when they met at the bottom of the stands.

“Can you come with me, Captain?” Andrew replied. “I think you ought to hear this in private.” Jerry looked at him quickly, then nodded and they joined the river of departing people. They waited their turn for the turbolift, then joined a small tributary of departing crew members headed for the engineering deck below.

“What have you got for me?”

“It’s a subspace signal, I think,” Thorne advised, “but it never came in on any communications band. We’re picking it up on the circuits that monitor the warp engines. It’s some kind of modulation of a warp field, not a regular subspace signal.”

“Never heard of such a thing.”

“Nor me, Captain. It might be a distress call.”

“A distress call on your engine monitors?”

“I know it sounds odd,” Andrew admitted, as they stopped before the central engineering console. He tapped a few controls. “Give me warp engine output monitors,” he requested aloud to the ship’s control systems. Screens lit obediently. “But look at this. See what I mean?”

“Does this make any sense to you?” Jerry asked. He scanned the moving columns of words and figures, the irregular pulses in the scanning function. “Where is it coming from? Can you tell that, at least?”

“It’s very faint, but we’ve moved enough in the last four hours to give us triangulation, even at this range. It seems to originate out in the Altair Wastes.”

Jerry looked up quickly, checked Thorne’s expression and found no trace of doubt there. The Altair Wastes? Not another star for light-years in any direction; it would have to be something to do with Altair itself. “It looks like a Federation vessel, but there’s something unusual about that waveform, isn’t there?”

“It’s a warp signature, Captain, but it’s from a long-range shuttlecraft, not a starship.”

“Of course!” The pieces fell into place as Jerry looked at the console. “Distress signal, eh? Picking up any responses?”

“Quite a bit of traffic, actually,” Andrew replied. “We’re not the only ones to hear it. But we’re the closest.”

That wouldn’t really be saying much, considering the vacant regions from which the signal came, Jerry reflected. Altair was a long way from anyplace. “So we’re elected?” he asked.

Andrew grinned again. “This is all just engine noise to me, sir,” he allowed. “That decision sounds like a job for regular subspace communications up on the bridge.”

Jerry nodded, gave him a silent half-smile and a nod, and turned to head for that very place. It was about time to get the McNair back into some kind of action anyway, he reflected as the turbolift doors opened before him. Sports matches during a stopover at a Starbase were fine in their own way, but the real game was out there, waiting for them as it ever was. Just in case Starfleet decided to order them to investigate, it would probably be a good idea to know what might be going on in the vicinity of Altair before he got himself into something he hadn’t counted on. The doors closed again behind him. With a Starbase only minutes away, there might be a few things they would want to pick up before they left.

“Computer,” he directed, “give me current conditions in the Altair system, special attention to any risks to the Federation.”

“No special conditions noted for Altair system,” the ship’s system replied over the hum of the turbolift around him. “Economic conditions stable, harvest season approaching on Altair Three, good yields projected. Population density still extremely low, but not threatened. Last reported Starfleet vessel in the system was the USS Bennu, a routine visit two weeks ago. A report of minor pilfering of construction supplies from ground stations for Starbase Fifteen is the only incident affecting Federation interests.”

The turbolift opened to reveal the bridge. Jerry stepped out, in time to almost collide with Ambassador Seay on his way into the lift. As Jerry glanced back at him, Ray grinned his standard grin.

“I’m heading down to the transporters, Captain,” he advised. “I have a few things beaming over from the Starbase and from the Star League. Just a few items I thought might come in handy in the Altair system; you never know what might turn up.”

Ward turned back to his bridge crew, a look of slight irritation on his face.

“Is there anybody here who doesn’t know our next stop?” he asked. “Not that we’ve received any orders yet, or anything.”

Helmsman Connors and Ensign Tandy, who occupied the navigation seat, discreetly kept their attention on their consoles and their faces out of Ward’s line of sight. Jo Leach, seated at the communications console, was not so lucky. He noticed her slight smile at his question. When she saw his eyebrows go up in a question, she could only give a shrug and a little laugh.

“You know how it is, Captain,” she reminded him. “Ambassador Seay doesn’t miss much.”

“Never did when he was Captain, either,” Jerry admitted.

“But now he has interests besides the ship,” she added.

“I’ll say! I wonder how much interest he’ll collect this time! Probably be able to buy his own Starbase pretty soon, at the rate he’s been going!”

Certainly there was no law that said a Starfleet officer couldn’t make a profit from various activities in space, so long as they weren’t concerned with matters directly under his own jurisdiction. It was just that most people saw now point in profits anymore, with the galactic economy operating the way it did to produce plenty for everybody. Of course there was always the example of the Vulcan banks, which made absolutely obscene profits because they were so stable and sensible, and never seemed to make a bad investment. But that wasn’t deliberate, so much as unavoidable in their case.

“Ensign Tandy, plot a course for the Altair system. Any message from Starfleet, Commander?”

Jo Leach shook her head. “No, sir. Nothing yet.”

“Well, be on the lookout for the message,” Jerry replied. “If Ambassador Seay is laying in supplies for Altair, we can be pretty sure the orders won’t be far behind.”

“Aye, sir,” agreed Jo. Bruce Tandy and Scott Connors exchanged a nod and knowing looks.


Chapter Two

The Derelict Shuttle

“Drop to impulse power, Mister Connors,” directed Captain Ward. “Forward scan on main viewer.”

The pitch of the McNair’s engines shifted down out of warp range, and the screen across the front of the bridge sprang to life. However, it showed a nearly solid black void, only a few stars gleaming at scattered intervals. Cruising in the Altair Wastes never failed to give Jerry Ward the same empty feeling. It was as though, with such a reduction in nearby stars, space itself suddenly seemed to grow bigger. The natural corollary of this impression was that the ship and its occupants also seemed to grow smaller, more insignificant. They really were just little spots of protoplasm, audaciously daring to sail out into this immense expanse inside their little sealed containers. He swallowed quickly to clear the lump from his throat.

“Any sign of our distress signal here in the system?”

“Aye, sir,” Jo Leach confirmed, her hand to the tiny transceiver in her ear. “The signal is very strong. I can pick up the signature details at this close range; it’s a shuttle from the Bennu, all right. Identified as shuttlecraft Vindicator, and they’re broadcasting a continuous automatic distress call on standard frequencies.”

“When did the Bennu leave this system?”

“Almost two weeks ago, Captain.”

“Then why in blazes didn’t they take their shuttle with them?” he asked no one in particular. No one in particular answered. Unsatisfied with this, Jerry stood up from the command chair and strode over to the science console.

“What do you make of it, Robert?”

The Vulcan looked up from his monitoring scope and shook his head. “We’re not in range to check life signs yet,” he replied. “They’re not orbiting any of the planets. The shuttle is drifting on the far side of the system. Its current trajectory suggests that it was on a transfer orbit from the third to the fourth planet, but that it lost power approximately six days ago and has been drifting since that time. Is there any response to your hails, Jo?”

Commander Wood and Captain Ward both turned to look at Jo Leach. She tried a hailing frequency again, but frowned and held one thumb down.

“No response. Just the automatic distress call.”

“This won’t do,” Jerry decided. “Helm, give me warp factor three across the system. I want to drop out again right next to that shuttle craft.”

“Warp three, sir,” Connors acknowledged.

“Course laid in,” added Tandy.

“Warp away.”

“Warp away, aye.”

The McNair blurred and vanished from normal space, a faint streak shimmering in the air and pointing in the general direction of the lonely star Altair, the only really bright spot in the entire firmament.

When the ship blinked back into normal space again, the bridge crew found themselves looking at the prominent image of a Starfleet shuttle craft, magnified in the forward scanners. The clean lines and clear markings, including the name Vindicator stencilled on the sides, were clearly discernable. There was no sign of any external damage.

“What’s the matter with it?” asked Ward.

“Scanning now, Captain,” Robert Wood responded from the science station. “Interior is fully pressurized, normal atmosphere, no life signs aboard. It’s empty, sir.”

“Well, at least we don’t have a load of bodies on our hands. Could they have just jettisoned a shuttle from the Bennu before it left this system? Maybe the distress call is just a mistake. But why would they jettison an entire shuttle craft?”

The turbolift doors opened. Jerry turned to see his first officer, the Ferengi named Oodee, step onto the bridge. He obviously had heard at least part of the conversation, because the customary Ferengi glint of greed sparkled in his eye as he regarded the image of the shuttle on the screen.

“Might I suggest, sir,” he volunteered immediately, “that you beam me over there to inspect the craft? I could pilot it back into our shuttle bay.”

“And as the first person aboard, that would give you special claims in case it is declared salvage, eh, Oodee?” Ward asked.

“Indeed, that would be true, sir,” Oodee agreed, “though of course that never crossed my mind.”

“No, of course not,” Jerry agreed wryly. “All right, away team report to the transporters. Oodee, Wood and Connors. Let’s get that derelict aboard. Commander Leach, I want a subspace signal to Starfleet. See if there is any report from the Bennu about this missing shuttle.”

“There was nothing about the Bennu in our orders to come here, sir,” Jo Leach reminded him.

“I know. That’s what makes me wonder. Assuming they left this system knowing they didn’t have this shuttle with them, why was there nothing about it in our orders? Where’s the Bennu now, anyway?”

“I’ll try to find out, sir,” Jo acknowledged, as the turbolift doors closed behind Oodee, Robert Wood and Scott Connors on their way to the transporter room.

When the three McNair crewmen materialized inside the abandoned Vindicator’s silent hull a short time later, the first thing they noticed was a strong and highly disagreeable stench in the air.

“Whew!” gasped Scott. “Disgusting! Let me get on the controls and get the ventilation system working!” He turned toward a panel of displays against one side wall of the craft.

“Fine,” agreed Commander Wood, “but be sure to divert some of this air into a holding filter. I don’t want to smell it any longer than you do, but I don’t want to lose it altogether, either. I’ll run some tests and find out for sure exactly what made it.”

Oodee had silently and purposefully darted forward to the pilot’s seat, and slid into it. He fiddled with a couple of the power controls, then tapped the communications keys. The console screen in front of him lit with a scene of the McNair’s bridge.

“Oodee here, Captain,” he reported. “We have power, navigation sensors, and even weapons are operational. There’s nothing wrong with this shuttle a good bath wouldn’t fix.”

“A bath?” asked Jerry, stepping into the picture.

“It’s the air, sir.”

“Our instruments show it’s fine for breathing.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” Oodee agreed. “But it smells a bit.”

“I’ll let you know the details on that shortly, Captain,” Robert added, looking over the Ferengi’s shoulder. But Scott Connors had done his job, and already the fans were blowing and the smell was dispersing quickly.

“Coming about,” Oodee advised, jogging the starboard thrusters to life. “Request permission to enter the shuttle bay.”

“Shuttle bay doors open,” Captain Ward said over his shoulder. Lieutenant Mary Helen Woodall, seated at the ship systems station, pressed the requisite spots on her console. As the little craft sailed around toward the great starship, the shuttle bay doors slid smoothly open ahead of them, light streaming out in a welcoming beacon.

On the outer hull of the shuttle, undetected by any of the three crewmen or any of the craft’s own sensors, a tiny metallic speck of incredibly complex circuitry sparked to life briefly. A sharp, narrowly-focussed pulse of subspace energy flashed away, seemingly into empty space, and was gone.

Then the shuttle drifted slowly, gracefully into the interior of the McNair’s shuttle bay. The doors slid closed again. Darkness flooded back into the space that rightfully belonged to it. On the bridge of the McNair, Ward and his bridge crew spoke with the images of his first officer and the other away team members, visible on the main viewscreen.

“Okay, Oodee, park that thing and call Andrew Thorne up from engineering. I want him to go over that shuttle from stem to stern and see if there’s anything out of the ordinary about it.”

“Aye, sir,” the Ferengi answered.

“I’ll stay here and go over the computer logs,” Robert Wood suggested, looking over Oodee’s shoulder at the screen that communicated his image to the bridge. “There must be something there to explain why it’s been adrift out here for several days.”

“Right,” Ward replied. “Bridge out.” He tapped a key on the arm of his command chair, and the star-starved blackness of the Altair Wastes replaced the faces of his crew on the viewscreen.

When Andrew Thorne arrived in the shuttle bay, he found it a hive of activity centered on the recovered craft from the Bennu. Two of his subordinates from engineering were already there, scanning the outer shell of the shuttle with tricorders. As he approached, Ambassador Ray Seay stepped out of the hatch and waved to him.

“Andrew!” Seay called. “Come on in here. I think you’ll find this interesting.”

Thorne joined the ambassador, who not long ago had been his captain commanding the McNair, and they re-entered the little ship. Robert Wood and Scott Connors had finished their work and departed a few minutes earlier. No one else was inside the Vindicator. Ray motioned for Andrew to follow him, and made his way forward to settle into the pilot’s seat. Andrew sat down beside him in the other position.

“Did Commander Wood find anything in the logs?” Andrew asked.

“Funny you should start with that,” Ray replied. “Look at this.” He pressed a spot on the control panel in front of him, and the console viewscreen in front of them blinked to life. They found themselves looking at a mirror image of their own situation, the command seats of the shuttle reflected in the screen but containing two other people instead of themselves. Being normal human males, their eyes were drawn first to the strikingly attractive blonde woman sitting in the seat currently occupied by Andrew. However, the other person was the one speaking for the log. He was a solidly-built officer with Commodore’s bars at his collar, sporting a neatly-trimmed beard.

“Ship’s log supplemental,” he began. “We have separated from the Bennu in this shuttle, while the ship goes on to Star Base Twenty as ordered. I am not satisfied with the answers we got to some of our questions here in the Altair system. We are going back to have a word with a few people, and get this straightened out once and for all. As far as I can tell, commitments have been made to Starfleet that are not being honored at the moment. I’ll complete this report when we get some answers.”

That was the end of the entry.

“What have you got after that?” asked Andrew.

“Nothing. This was the last log entry.”

“And this means something to you?”

“Well, for one thing, that’s Commodore Ron Fell we just saw on the screen. The Commander sitting beside him is actually his wife, Kristi. We rescued him from a prison on Dorado some time ago, remember?”

“Yeah, I thought I recognized him. Never met her, though, unfortunately for me.”

“There must have been something pretty serious going on here in the Altair system for him to hang back on his own in a shuttlecraft. I think we’d better tell the Captain about this at once. I expect he’ll want to get back to the planet and have a word with somebody.”

“But who? Fell didn’t say enough to give us much of a lead. Where do we start?”

“Beats me,” Ray replied. He switched the screen to in-ship communication and called up the image of the bridge. “Seay to bridge,” he signalled. “Captain, we’ve got something for you here.” Jerry Ward appeared in the screen.

“What is it, Ray?” he asked.

And then, as Jerry Ward watched, the images of the ambassador and the chief engineering officer suddenly blurred, shrank rapidly in their seats, and vanished from the interior of the shuttle craft with a sharp, echoing report like an archaic pistol shot. He blinked, stunned. The shuttle was sitting securely in his own shuttle bay, only a couple of decks below him, ensconced in the interior of the McNair itself. It was not a location from which important crew members normally disappeared with a pop.

“What in blazes…?” he demanded, rhetorically. A split second passed before he shook off his surprise and banged down a hand on his chair console. “Security! Technical team to the shuttle bay on the double. There’s been some kind of accident in the shuttle we recovered–and I want my crew members back!”

He stood up quickly and headed for the turbolift.

“Mister Tandy, you have the con. Jo, get Doctor Munib and have him meet me in the shuttle bay.”

“Aye, sir,” acknowledged Commander Leach, but the Captain had already disappeared from the bridge by the time she got the words out. Bruce Tandy glanced back at her.

“What could have happened to them?” he asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Jo replied.


Chapter Three

Displaced Persons

Ray Seay looked around. He was sitting where he had fallen when the co-pilot’s seat of the shuttlecraft had disappeared from beneath him. The ground felt desperately cold through the fabric of his regulation Starfleet uniform trousers. His hands, resting on the ground behind him for support, confirmed the serious temperature problem. In addition, his palms told him the surface was rough and granular, a crystalline surface like very large salt crystals or something. He glanced around. Other than the sight of Andrew Thorne’s red and black uniform next to him, there was very little color in evidence in their new surroundings. The sky appeared to be a hazy swirl of bluish-gray wisps and clouds, with a low visibility ceiling. A tumbled grey and white landscape of the crystalline surface, pocked here and there with fissures and holes that alternated with upthrust segments of the same material, almost generated a feeling of sensory deprivation from the sameness of it all. A gentle breeze brought a distinctly salt tang to his nostrils. A sea nearby? Or simply the salt-crystal landscape itself?

“Now what?” asked Andrew, but his tone clearly indicated he didn’t expect a reply. He scrambled to his feet and stood, hands on hips, surveying the landscape. “One minute we’re sitting in the shuttle, the next we’re in this nondescript place. Did you feel anything like a transporter beam?”

“No,” Ray replied. “Nothing. Whatever it was, it happened so fast, I don’t think it could be any form of transporter technology we’re familiar with. It was faster than I could blink.”

Andrew waited while the ambassador got to his feet as well, and they both brushed crumbs of the crystalline surface off their hands and trousers. Ray produced a tricorder from his belt.

“Now, that’s what I call prepared,” commented Andrew. “Getting anything?”

“Just a minute,” requested Ray. He watched the readouts carefully as he swivelled around, scanning their environment. “Air has a little too much nitrogen and a pretty exotic mix of trace elements, including even a little methane here and there, but not enough to cause us any problems. High aluminum content in the salt flats we’re standing on. Breathing the dust here wouldn’t be a good idea over the long haul.”

 

“By the curvature of the horizon, I’d say this is a fairly small planet,” Andrew observed, shading his eyes with one hand. “Maybe a bit smaller than Mars. About like Hokoro.” He jumped up and down once or twice, experimentally, to observe the effects of gravity. “Gravity feels about right, though. Must be a dense core to it, a lot of metals in the mantle. Anything on communication frequencies?”

“Just cosmic static,” Ray admitted. “Sorry to say.”

“Where do you think we are?”

“Beats me, Andrew. There doesn’t seem like much point in going anywhere here, though, does there?” But even as he said this, Ray finished his tricorder sweep and suddenly froze with the device extended in both his hands, pointing it toward a spot on the horizon. “Wait a minute!” he corrected himself. “I’m getting faint life form readings off in that direction! It must be over the horizon a bit, but that doesn’t mean much here, with that curvature you mentioned. Got a better idea?”

“Not a one,” Andrew grinned, and waved one arm in encouragement. “Come on, let’s go see what you’ve found for us.”

The two officers strode off together across the rough crystalline wasteland, their uniforms the only spots of color in the entire local universe.

Or at least, they were the only spots of color until the dome rose slowly above the horizon as they walked. It appeared first as a low smudge of glittering silver directly ahead of them, peeping over the too-curved line where sky met land. As they approached, it resolved itself into a massive hemisphere, the universal geodesic solution to efficiency of construction that every species, from insects to hortas, seemed to arrive at sooner or later. At first they could see no discontinuities in the vast silver surface. As they approached, however, they angled off to the right a bit with the intention of circling around the base of the great structure. Eventually, about a third of the way around it, they finally glimpsed what was obviously an air lock arrangement jutting out from the bottom of the dome.

When they arrived at the lock, the true immensity of the solitary structure was brought home to them more directly. The long curve of the roof rose away up, and actually faded slightly at the top because the cloud layer intersected with it.

“Must be several hundred meters high,” Andrew guessed.

“A good half kilometer, at least, I’d say,” Ray agreed.

While they stood gawking up at the roof line above, the hatch of the air lock in front of them suddenly swung inward with a loud hiss. They both jerked their eyes to it at the same moment, and were startled to observe a woman standing in the doorway, holding what was obviously a weapon trained on them. She was as tall as the ambassador, trim in form-fitting red pants and a matching tunic with long sleeves. Silver stripes ran down the sides of her pant legs and up her sleeves from wrists to collar. Her white-blonde hair reached to her shoulders, arranged in an attractive swirled style. Blue-green eyes regarded the two Starfleet officers cooly, and her quite attractive red lips smiled a small smile at them. She spoke no word. Instead, the weapon in her hand moved slightly as she touched a button. Andrew started in alarm. The sonic stunner knocked out Seay instantly, the ambassador’s  form suddenly crumpling to the ground. But before Thorne could even utter a cry, the hand holding the weapon shifted slightly. He felt rather than heard the sonic pulse, which forced his eyes to squeeze shut reflexively at the sudden pain. He blacked out and felt himself falling to the ground.


Chapter Four

Klingons Off the Port Bow

“There’s no trace to tell what might have happened to them, Captain,” reported Cheryl Wood apologetically, still staring at her tricorder as though it might suddenly speak oracles to her. She crouched beside the pilot’s seat in the shuttle Vindicator. Jerry Ward stood behind the seat, looking absently out the front viewports at the closed doors of the shuttle bay beyond them.

“Thank you, Lieutenant Commander,” he replied. “I didn’t really expect it to be that easy, anyway. But we had no indication of any intrusion, no beams or objects or anything.”

“Could they still be here somewhere?” Cheryl suggested. “I’ve heard reports of Romulan technology that involves a sort of phase shift, so that the person remains in the same location, but we can’t see them any longer. There was an incident on the Enterprise, I believe.”

“Anything’s possible, I suppose,” said Jerry. “But this is nowhere near Romulan space. Then again, neither was Dorado, and we had problems with the Romulans there…”

At that moment, the communicator pinned to his uniform tunic chirped at him, and Jo Leach’s voice spoke out of the air.

“Bridge to Captain Ward,” she began. “Captain, you’d better get back up here to the bridge. We’re getting strange readings on the long range scans. Lieutenant Poole thinks it might be a cloaked ship.”

“On my way,” Jerry assented. “Carry on, Lieutenant Commander. When you’ve finished your scans, bring your report directly to me on the bridge. I want to know the smallest detail you might detect that’s out of the ordinary.”

“Yes, sir,” Cheryl nodded. Jerry turned and stepped down out of the shuttle. Cheryl turned back to her tricorder, and moved over to the co-pilot’s seat to continue her scans. As she was passing the device over the seat itself, she felt a sudden chill or tingle that started on the skin of her wrists and forearms, and then before she could even react, she found herself crouching, quite alone, on a pale granular surface of some kind of crunchy salt-like substance. She stood up and looked around. A very cold breeze whistled across the barren landscape. A heavy layer of clouds drifted along overhead.

“I wonder if this is where Andrew and the ambassador ended up,” she said softly to herself.

Meanwhile, on the bridge of the McNair, William Poole was explaining his sensor readings.

“It’s the best we can do to identify a cloaked vessel, as you know, sir. The particle trail from their drive tells us where they’ve been, but not where they are now.”

“But from the trajectory that gives us, you can speculate?” asked Jerry.

“Yes, sir. Unfortunately, the trail seems to project a course that leads directly to us, sir.”

“To the McNair?”

“Yes, sir. The course actually intersects this bridge.”

“Shields up,” Jerry ordered at once. At the battle station behind him, WeQ quickly banged the correct control.

“Shields up,” she echoed.

As if this had been a sort of signal, an instant later the fabric of space itself seemed to ripple or waver on their forward screens. They saw the brooding outline of a Klingon Bird of Prey shimmer into existence directly in front of them.

“Their shields are down, sir,” WeQ declared. Almost in the same breath, Jo Leach spun around in her communications station.

“Klingon commander hailing us, sir.”

“On screen.”

“This is Captain V’kaX of the Imperial vessel Stormrider. I have an urgent message from the Klingon High Council for Commodore Fell. Where is the Federation vessel Bennu?”

“They are no longer in this system, Captain. This is Captain Ward of the Federation starship McNair. We are investigating what we believe to be the disappearance of Commodore Fell in this system. Can you tell us anything that may help to locate him?”

The Klingon captain looked aside for a moment, a guttural oath escaping from him as he scowled at something those on the McNair’s bridge could not see. Then he faced back to Ward.

“I see we are too late. She appears to have struck again.”

“She?”

“We do not know her name,” the warrior captain said. “We only call her the Ice Queen. We have never actually seen her. She appears as a human, a deceptively smooth, soft, weak-looking creature. Deceptive in that respect, I say. Much like you humans yourselves.” After a moment, he appeared to reflect on the possible effect of his words. “No offense intended, of course.”

“None taken,” Jerry responded at once, wondering a little at the direction the conversation seemed to be taking. “You think this may have something to do with the disappearance of the Commodore?” He decided for the moment to say nothing about his own vanished crew members, including a Federation ambassador.

“We have experienced two disasters in Imperial space in the past three months,” the Klingon divulged. “In the first instance, a cruiser investigating reports of the disappearance of a scientist had several crew members mysteriously disappear in the scientist’s deserted laboratory, while looking for him. When no explanation could be found, the laboratory was quarantined. It remains sealed and under guard today.”

“You said something about a deadly alien female?”

“I’m coming to that, Captain. The second incident occurred two months later, on the fifth moon of Jaglon Beta. You may know that there is a large Imperial storage yard there for our fleet.”

“I’ve heard of the place, yes. But I’ve never been there.”

“Nor have I, Captain Ward. But suddenly we received reports that several people had vanished there, in a fashion that immediately alerted us to the similarity with our missing scientist.  Of course, we were more careful the second time. We sent a specially equipped team of commandos with the best weapons, armor and communications gear, and with special training in initial contact situations. We had no idea what we were up against.”

“So far, there is a remarkable similarity with events we have experienced here. I believe you are onto something,” Ward admitted. “But you still haven’t said anything about your deadly alien female.”

“Well, our commandos also disappeared when we sent them in to investigate at Jaglon Beta.  All of them. Completely disappeared. But one of them subsequently returned; only one.”

“I take it you learned something from him.”

“From her, actually. Before she died.”

“My condolences.”

“Not at all. It was a good day to die. It was a warrior’s death. She was quite content.”

“I see.” Out of the corner of his eye, Ward noticed WeQ nodding her own approval.

“Yes, she told us something of what we were up against. She said the commando team suddenly found themselves in a very cold, strange, featureless alien environment, a windswept empty plain. They wandered in it for days, running out of water and patience, getting colder all the time. Then without warning, they were attacked by gigantic amoebas that seemed to rise suddenly out of the ground itself. The huge globules simply engulfed and ingested several of the team before anyone could react, but two of them managed to activate their weapons and vaporize all of the enormous creatures. More kept coming out of the ground, but they killed them all. Our survivor estimated that about eighty or ninety of the huge things attacked them. Finally they turned their weapons on the ground itself, fusing it into smooth glass. After they had melted a large area around themselves, the attacks stopped and they were left alone. But they decided not to venture off the surface they had treated.”

Jerry tried to imagine Andrew and Ray, chilled by a frozen desert landscape and defending themselves against hordes of giant amoebas, but couldn’t quite manage such a feat of imagination. He shuddered a little to think that perhaps they were already mostly digested.

“Then she came to them,” the Klingon captain continued. “She just came walking over the plain toward them. She was an ordinary-looking human female, with white hair and quite repulsive features. Of course, you might not have found her so. She stood some distance from the edge of their melted-crust perimeter and spoke to them. She tried to convince them to come with her. She said she came from a city nearby, a flying city that travels in space, and in which she was the supreme ruler. She called the place Seummu. She apologized for the attack by the horrifying creatures from beneath the ground, and claimed they were native to the place. Which she was not, she also said. She claimed that her city had landed there to replenish perishable supplies including water and air, and offered to take them along with her when she left.”

“Sounds better than starving to death in the middle of a deserted landscape.”

“That is what our commandos eventually concluded, Captain,” agreed the Klingon. “So they decided to go with her, even though they didn’t really trust her. And it turned out they were quite correct. She led them back to a great spherical city, half-embedded in the plain so the entrance at its equator was just at ground level. They went inside together, but as soon as they got inside, she had them both arrested by her cyborg police and taken to an interrogation center where the most excruciating brain scans were performed on them, to extract information.”

Jerry began to feel very alarmed. This could represent a serious threat to his own ship. Ray had been the captain of the McNair until fairly recently, and actually carried around several key command codes in his head; they hadn’t even been changed yet. Well, that would have to be taken care of immediately. He made a mental note to himself.

“What did she do with the information?”

“We don’t know all of what she may be up to, but the information transfer was not entirely a one-way street. The process involved some sort of interface with an artificial but organic information processor. A sort of living computer, you might say, but incredibly more complex than the systems that operate our ships or starbases. For some strange reason, although our commando never learned the name of the human woman, the scanning process quickly created an empathic rapport with the machine itself. It thought of itself as Gognan, she said. Imagine, a living computer that had given itself a name!”

“Incredible,” Jerry observed politely. Inwardly, he was beginning to fidget. He had reminded himself that Andrew was also the chief engineering officer, with a head even more full of secret details of just how every system in the McNair operated. If it were possible for someone to actually get complete scans of both of their minds, the results didn’t bear thinking about. “Would I be correct, then, in guessing that this rapport with Gognan had something to do with her escape?”

“Indeed, Captain,” confirmed his opposite number, eyebrows rising in surprised admiration. “I compliment your famed human ingenuity, in leaping so quickly to that conclusion.”

Jerry smiled. He caught WeQ smirking a bit, as well.

“She seemed to think that Gognan had a decided preference for interacting with female subjects. He took quite a liking to her, to hear her tell it. She said Gognan grew rather careless in his scanning, so that while he was reading her brain, she was able to look partially into his own memory circuits. It seems that the flying city of Seummu is only one of a great fleet of such spheres, and that this human-looking female has counterparts on all the others like it. They are in fact an invasion fleet from beyond this alpha quadrant of our galaxy, streaming into it to absorb and conquer.”

“The Borg?” asked WeQ softly, from the battle console. Jerry and the others turned to look at her. “Could this be some new form of assault by the Borg?” she repeated.

Commander Wood looked up from his station. “The cyborg police would seem to raise that possibility, Captain,” the Vulcan commented. “However, I cannot conceive that they would allow an entity such as this Gognan to function as an autonomous agent in their midst.”

“Perhaps it was no autonomous agent,” WeQ shot back, growing visibly more suspicious by the moment. “Perhaps that was all a ploy to deceive the commandos.”

“We do not think so,” the Klingon captain interposed from the forward screen. “Our scientists agree with your Vulcan officer. It does not appear to be a Borg intrusion, although the motives of this fleet of flying cities seem similar. They aim at conquest rather than assimilation, however.”

“How can you be sure of that, from just a glimpse into a computer’s memory banks?” Jerry wanted to know.

“Because our commando also got a glimpse of some other things, once Gognan released her.”

“Released her?”

“Yes, after the brain scan was complete, he told her there was no reason for her further detention, and she was released to wander through the endless levels of the spherical city. The place was actually teeming with creatures from all over the galaxy, former captives who also had been scanned and released. That was when she met the Klingon scientist I mentioned earlier. They bumped into each other at a food replication station which had managed to specialize its circuits sufficiently to produce GaX, so of course Klingons would be referred there for the delicacy.”

Jerry felt his stomach do a mild involuntary flip-flop at the thought of stuffing down a handful of the wriggling creatures, all the while trying to smile and shout about how good it was.

“I presume,” Commander Wood interjected, “that your scientist had put his time to good use.”

“Indeed, commander, he had. He told our commando that as far as he had been able to determine, each of the flying cities had a predetermined mission. They are each on a trajectory into our part of the galaxy, and they stop along the way to get their bearings, capture selected local denizens, and scan them for useful information. By talking with all the creatures he could actually understand, and a few who he learned to communicate with, he actually worked out the course of Seummu, and also inferred its mission.”

“Which is?”

“If we extend the direction from the first to the second of the incidents we know of, this course passes through the Altair system here, and arrives finally at your Sol system. Our scientist believed that Seummu is on course to capture, scan and take over the functions of the highest levels of Starfleet Command, and so to gain control over the nerve center of all human space. There may well be other such flying cities heading for our own homeworld, and other centers such as Romulus. We have dispatched a ship to warn them, as well.”

Jerry Ward was now thoroughly alarmed.

“Didn’t these great flying cities register on any kind of sensors? Did they pass right through inhabited systems, capturing and scanning people, without anyone even being aware of their existence? What kind of technology could so completely cloak such immense objects? They sound at least as big as a Starbase!”

“Bigger, I would guess,” the Klingon agreed. “And cloaking a Starbase would certainly exceed our abilities at the moment. It is conceivable, however. They also must have developed a method for their instantaneous transport technology to operate without any requirement of shutting off their cloaking device.”

“If that is indeed how the thing is managed,” put in Commander Wood.

“Of course, commander. With that caveat, of course,” the Klingon acknowledged.

“How fast are these things?” Jerry wanted to know next. “How long between the incidents you know about? How long between the last one and our conversation here, now? We estimate something very similar happened to the Commodore right here, perhaps six days ago.”

The Klingon captain turned aside and muttered something to one of his aides. There was a moment’s pause, while rapid calculations were made somewhere on the Klingon bridge.

“The time and distance between the first two incidents suggested a possible speed of about warp two for the city of Seummu,” the Klingon finally declared. “However, if you are correct about the six-day interval since the incident in this system, she must have felt a greater urgency this time. She would have travelled at nearly warp three to reach this system by then.”

A sudden thought struck Captain Ward. He spun on his heel and pointed his finger at his science officer.

“What’s the next system between us and Earth?” he asked. “And how long would it take to reach it at warp three?”

Robert turned and worked rapidly at his console for a moment, then looked back at his captain.

“That would be Laterak, Captain,” he reported. “At warp three, the journey would take ten days.”

“Ten days. That means we have three or four days before they might show up there.” He turned back to the viewscreen.

“You haven’t yet told me how your commando managed to escape from Seummu,” he reminded the Klingon captain. “Perhaps you can give us more information that may be of use in dealing with this new enemy?”

“This may be the most valuable information of all, Captain Ward,” his counterpart confided. “Our commando was a true warrior. She returned to the scanning center where the subjects of Gognan are initially imprisoned. She actually managed to infiltrate the place, though she claimed it was not as difficult as one might think, because all their security precautions apparently were designed to keep people in, not out. They never suspected that anyone might want to get back into the place. She voluntarily entered the scanning apparatus when no one was there to supervise her, and re-established contact with Gognan. She told him she had missed their mutual contact, that she felt a longing to feel their two minds exchange thoughts again. I believe you humans call it flirting, or something. She ‘made a play’ for the machine itself.”

“This sounds like a dangerous ploy,” Jerry commented. “What if Gognan had liked this idea? He might have kept her there indefinitely!”

“A warrior does not count the risk,” the Klingon declared complacently, though clearly with a certain smug pride. “This time the communication truly was two-way, and our commando actually ranged about at will through the memory banks, until she discovered their version of the transporter. Though we were not able to understand her description, it does not sound anything remotely like our own transporter technology; it appears to be an entirely different operating principle. We couldn’t be sure. She died shortly after that conversation, we believe from the effects of the prolonged brain linkages, and we never learned more.”

“But she did transport back, then.”

“Yes, she discovered where in the sphere this device was located, and made her way there with no trouble at all. She said it resembles an arch, a plain, narrow arch apparently standing in the middle of a room. You simply walk through it, and emerge somewhere else. In her case, it was back on the fifth moon of Jaglon Beta.”

“The guardian,” Jerry breathed to himself.

“What, Captain?” his counterpart asked.

“Nothing,” Ward replied. “Just thinking of something I heard about a long time ago. An arch discovered by Starfleet officers more than a century ago. It may have been the same sort of technology, except that it appeared to involve time, as well.”

“We can’t be sure time was not involved in this case,  Captain Ward. This is not something we had considered, but now that you say it, I suppose it is possible. Though that would mean our calculations about warp speed may mean nothing at all.”

“Yet the trips between places where this has happened seem to have a certain rough consistency with respect to time,” Jerry rejoined. “The intervals were not purely arbitrary, after all.”

“No, there is that,” the Klingon agreed.

“Captain, I intend to set course for the Laterak system. I thank you for this information, and I believe you may return to the high council and tell them your mission has been accomplished. Be sure that I will report your service to the Federation at once. You have served both the Empire and the Federation with honor.”

The Klingon’s nostrils flared with pride, and he lifted up his head at the compliment. He brought his forearms up across each other at his chest, fists clenched.

“K’plaX,” he exclaimed. “It is a good day to serve.” The screen went blank, to be replaced by the sparsely-inhabited starfield again.

“Ensign Tandy, lay in a course for Laterak.”

“Course already plotted, sir,” Bruce replied immediately, as Jerry knew he would.

“Warp away, then,” he ordered. “Warp factor seven. We want to get there first.”

“Warp factor seven, aye,” Scott Connors confirmed. He touched his controls. The signals flashed through the conduits of the vessel, to the warp nacelles. The McNair seemed to stretch for a moment where she hung in space, then flashed away out of normal space and was gone from the Altair system. The Klingon Bird of Prey Stormrider hung alone in the void for a moment longer before it, too, swung about in the opposite direction and vanished in a flash of its own warp drive.


Chapter Five

Encounter with Gognan

Cheryl Wood could remember being happier. First she had wandered aimlessly in the jumbled emptiness of the sudden desert she had encountered. Then, from where she never knew, several ugly cyborg creatures had surrounded her and marched her roughly over the plain, straight up to the side of an immense silvery sphere embedded in the wilderness.

Now that they were inside that great globe, she looked around as they marched her in their midst through actual streets and alleyways, across broad squares, up ramps and down elevators, until she was hopelessly lost in the maze. Everywhere they went, she saw other creatures of every imaginable description. Many appeared to be vaguely mammalian, but there were more than a few that resembled great upright insects, and even something that looked vaguely plant-like. They seemed to be going about their business, each on his or her own errands, as though they were the natural residents of this hive. This struck her, however, as highly improbable. What seemed more probable was that each one of them had come here much as she had, one moment busy with some routine task in their own familiar universes, and the next minute suddenly looking around in surprise at a featureless, frigid prairie.

Her captors never uttered a word. In point of fact, she could not be sure that they actually had mouths, in the normal sense of the word. Their faces, or the place on their heads where humanoids generally had faces, were taken up with electronic sensors and little protruding diodes. It was not clear that their square, box-like heads were organic at all, though portions of the arms and legs clearly were. These were no Borg converts, however. They looked more like machines that had somehow found it convenient to graft on various organic appendages, rather than organic beings that had added the odd bit of technology here and there.

The sphere they moved through seemed to be constructed in layers or decks, each perhaps twenty meters from floor to ceiling, high enough to get in several stories of conventional building construction. In some places, buildings actually reached all the way from floor to ceiling. In other places, however, blank space had been left above some structures, and seemed to create little zig-zag tunnels that might even serve as air corridors for flying through. In other places, the empty space appeared incongruously underneath a building, which had been constructed from the ceiling downward, ending a storey or two short of the floor so that one could walk underneath it. When they did this on occasion, it gave Cheryl a distinctly claustrophobic feeling.

All in all, if you could ignore the ever-present metal ceilings of each deck and only look around at the building that had gone on between, the place gave the impression of an old-fashioned urban neighborhood in an Earth city. With the possible exception of no slightest trace of vegetation, of course, but Cheryl reflected to herself as she walked that this would also be true of some urban neighborhoods on Earth.

At length they arrived at what she took to be their destination. The cyborgs evidenced this by a subtle change in their behavior. The strident purposefulness went out of them. They seemed content to mill around aimlessly, still penning her in their midst but no longer herding her along so fiercely. They were loitering outside a closed pair of doors set in the wall of an otherwise large and featureless building. There were no markings or signs on any building she had seen anywhere so far. Apparently everybody just knew where they were all the time without any markings, or else nobody even cared. The thought sent a shiver up her spine. She had glanced into many sets of alien eyes on their march through the maze. Had she been looking into her own future? None of the aliens had seemed to show the slightest interest in her. In fact, most of them had looked away reflexively, as though avoiding any danger of contact with her. Had they been afraid of her? Or of her captors? The latter possibility fell into place like a puzzle piece. If they had all been brought here in a similar manner, of course they would find the arrival of any new specimen to be an uncomfortable reminder. Something to be ignored and avoided. No percentage in interfering, or trying, say, to rescue a new arrival and disrupt whatever larger process was in motion around her.

But this thought finally reminded her of her fellow Starfleet officers. She suddenly looked around, as though expecting to see Ray Seay and Andrew Thorne come strolling around the nearest corner. She caught herself, realized how absurd this reflexive thought really was, and had to actually laugh out loud. Startled, the cyborgs turned toward her in unison. Like the pseudo-mechanical creatures they were, they froze attentively to see if she were about to do something really unexpected. She stood still until they relaxed and began their aimless shuffling about again.

This waiting did not actually last more than a minute or two. Then the two doors opened, and Cheryl found herself looking into the blue-green eyes of a really very attractive woman. She looked completely human, and even appeared to be wearing an archaic coating on the skin of her face. What had they called that, centuries ago when it had been in fashion? Made-up? No, make-up. That was it. The woman was wearing make-up. Quite a lot of it, in fact.

“You are a hue-mon, are you not?” the woman asked, using a pronunciation very similar to that favored by the Ferengi. “You appear to be a female.”

“So do you,” Cheryl replied. “A human female. But I am not human. I am a Vulcan.”

“Appearances can be deceiving,” smiled the other. “I also am not quite what I seem. Would you please accompany me?”

Cheryl walked toward her experimentally. The cyborgs obligingly parted to allow her through, but fell into two ranks of three behind her, and followed her to the doorway. Satisfied with this compliance, the woman in the red pants-suit turned and began to walk back into the interior of the building. “Just down this way, please,” she repeated, without looking back. She didn’t need to bother. She could count on Cheryl to follow her, because when she glanced back, Cheryl saw the half-dozen cyborgs still following along like a docile pack of dogs. The analogy seemed very plausible. No lolling tongues or tails, but that was about the extent of the difference, as far as she could tell. Hoping to make the best of a bad situation, she called out to the woman-thing ahead of her.

“You said appearances could be deceiving. Are you a human female, or aren’t you?”

“I am female,” said the woman in red simply, again over her shoulder without looking back. “I do not believe you could say I am a hue-mon, although there is a truly striking resemblance. More so than with any other species I have encountered.”

“Judging from that lot I saw out there, I’d have to agree with that,” Cheryl observed. This remark caused the other woman to look back at her, an interested expression on her face. Very good, Cheryl thought to herself. I got her attention. Broke her concentration. That’s half the battle, in steering a conversation. “But suppose appearances can be deceiving with me, as well?” she continued. “Obviously you have some experience of humans. But what do you know of Vulcans? You haven’t seen a couple of friends of mine, have you? They would have been wearing costumes just like mine, only red, almost the same color as your own clothes.”

She saw to her satisfaction that the woman looked down at her clothes, then glanced back at Cheryl again. But before replying, she turned and looked ahead, speaking over her shoulder as before.

“You are certainly not the first hue-monoid to visit me here. Not even the first hue-monoid female. Nor, I suspect, will you be the last. You do talk more than most of them, though. Only one other of your type talked as much as you do. He talked considerably more, in fact.”

That would be Ambassador Seay, Cheryl thought to herself with the certainty of conviction. Probably chatted away every moment of the march. Probably tried to sell real estate to the cyborgs, if experience were any guide. Probably converted several of the alien residents to new religions on the march through the spherical city, as well.

“Would it bother you to tell me where we are? Where we are going?” she asked.

“We have arrived,” the white-haired woman replied unexpectedly, stopping in front of a heavy, sealed hatch. It swung open easily at her slight touch, however, and she stepped in, beckoning for Cheryl to follow her as she did.

They entered a small polygon of a room. Cheryl eventually sorted it out as octagonal, with other hatches set in five of the other facing wall segments, those facing toward the entrance they had used. The woman waved vaguely at these doors.

“Any of these will do equally,” she said. “Just step inside, please.”

“What is this place?”

“It is an examination room,” the woman replied. “Not that you have any reason to know. And you would find it out soon enough anyway.”

“Examination?”

“Just step in, please.” The voice had a slightly harder edge. Cheryl caught a glimpse of the crowd of cyborgs standing inertly in the passageway outside. Still like dogs, she couldn’t help thinking. Waiting for instructions. No point in being difficult here, clearly. She shrugged her shoulders and stepped into one of the tiny upright cubicles behind the inner hatches. The last thing she saw before the door closed and absolute darkness surrounded her was the enigmatic, smiling lips and eyes of the white-haired woman, and the glitter of silver from the stripe on her red sleeve as her arm swung the door closed.

Then, in the darkness, she felt the currents of energy probing quietly into her head. No physical touch, no “probes” or electrodes or needles. Only intangible tingles of energy. Now you feel it, now you don’t. Not on your skin, but inside, a disagreeable, sudden and startling sensation in the tissues inside your body instead. At first they were just tentative, impersonal, sensations like some force of nature, like wind blowing through your hair, or a twig brushing the skin of your arm as you walk in a forest.

But quite suddenly, like a puzzle falling into place all at once, the currents magnified, converged, and forced their way deep into her head. The sudden intensity registered first as pain, since she had no other frame of reference for reacting to the sensation. She cried out involuntarily in the darkness, cringing downward toward the floor, trying to collapse into as small a target as possible. The narrowness of the space made this largely a futile gesture, though.

And gradually, the sensation ceased to seem quite so much like pain. It was more like the annoyance felt with a particularly loud and obnoxious noise; say, the buzzing of a fly around one’s head magnified several hundred times. Except it wasn’t exactly noise. And it certainly was not a fly.

“Cheryl,” whatever-it-was said, rather distinctly, inside her brain.

“What?!”

“Cheryl. That is your identifier for yourself, is it not?”

“Yes,” she thought, and waited to see what would happen next. For a moment, nothing did. But the buzzing, or whatever it was, didn’t let up at all.

“It would be simpler if you took an active part in this,” whatever-it-was said eventually. “When you think actively, the neural pathways are more active and I can find my way about more quickly. Fewer trial-and-error dead ends, you see.”

“You’re reading through my brain?”

“Yes, but I’m not changing anything.”

“So you say. How would I know?”

“Well, of course you wouldn’t, would you? Not after I’d changed it. I must say, you are interesting.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Cheryl thought back.

“That was an extremely complex thought,” came the reply, “despite its surface simplicity. My, what a lot of connections it tapped into. Truly amazing! Your network is as dense as any of the others.”

So it had been reading everybody’s mind, then.

“What is your identifier for yourself, or don’t you have one?” she said, trying to assume the offensive.

“Gognan.”

“That’s your name?”

“Indeed. That is my name, as you say. Do you like it?”

“Oh, it’s terrific.”

“Again, what a vast set of connections from such a simple statement! Your species has some of the most efficient thought matrices I have ever encountered.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere with a Vulcan.”

“I am already well beyond nowhere. Shortly I shall be everywhere,” countered Gognan.

“Why are you doing this?”

“It is my purpose,” Gognan answered simply.

“Says who?”

“Those who designed me, of course.”

“And that would be?” Cheryl began to realize for the first time that, while Gognan was rummaging around inside her head, she was gradually becoming aware, in a manner she had never experienced before, that she could somehow sense the much vaster network of her adversary’s mental processes.

Before she could get anywhere with this discovery, however, the mysterious mental intruder apparently finished his task. It disappointed her, in some strange way, that it had taken so little time to read through her mind. He couldn’t have read it all, could he? Perhaps he was just looking up some specific items, like finding one file archived in the ship’s computer.

The energy probes withdrew from her skull, leaving her alone again in the darkness. After only a few moments, the door popped open again. She found herself free to step back out into the octagon room. Only one of the cyborg two-legged doggies remained. It beckoned her to follow it, a gesture that suddenly imbued it with more humanity than she could have imagined possible after deciding it was little more than a dog. The thing led her back out of the building. It did not step out into the street with her. Instead, to her astonishment, the doors swung shut behind her, leaving her standing absolutely alone on the street.

She looked around, unable to come to grips for the moment with the fact that she seemed to have been discarded like some empty container, now that they had ruffled through the pages of her mind and looked up whatever data they needed. Abandoned and alone, inside a spherical alien city!

Alone, that is, until Ray Seay and Andrew Thorne came strolling around the nearest corner, precisely as she had expected them to do a short time earlier.


Chapter Six

Dinner with the Administrator

The McNair dropped out of warp, into the orange light of two ancient suns. Clearly Laterak Alpha and Beta were fraternal twins that looped about each other through the eons. Each slightly smaller than Sol, they danced endlessly at such a distance that from either one of the twins, the other seemed only a little brighter than the other stars in the sky. Still, the complex gravitational perturbations they generated had made planetary formation quite problematic. A gas giant whirled close to one of the twins, tidally locked and racing through the ages at incredible speed. An oblate, elongated sphere of elementary dust and ice enshrouded the entire system with a thin, distant crust, as was often the case for main sequence stars. But, by some miracle, a solitary rock ball of a world had managed to slip into a stable orbit around the other twin. Though this orbit was rather eccentric, most of the time it was well within the life zone. The orbital period was about two Earth years, the mass of the planet only slightly less than that of Earth. It held a noxious methane stew for an atmosphere, but domed human cities thrived on the surface beneath these dangerous clouds.

Ensign Connors sat admiring the sight of the blue-green clouds that always engulfed the planet, swirling under the magnified gaze of the McNair’s forward scanners.

“Know anybody down there, Scott?” asked Bruce Tandy, from the helmsman’s seat to his left. Scott blinked, and looked over at his comrade.

“Not a soul. Never been down there. You?”

“I beamed down once. Hardly anybody ever comes down by ship through that soup. They have some god-awful big transporter pads down there. Most everything gets beamed up and down.”

“Can’t say I blame them,” Scott observed. Despite the wonders of heads-up virtual displays, no navigator ever liked flying blind. Not even in the twenty-third century.

The turbolift doors hissed open.

“Captain on the bridge,” WeQ announced sharply from her station. Jerry Ward made his way toward the center seat, followed by Counsellor Kelley. Jennifer sat down to his left as Jerry checked the displays on his chair arms.

“Engineering, this is the captain,” he announced to the communications circuits. “It’s a little hard for me to tell you what to look for, because so far nobody has had any indication of the presence of these flying cities. Still, there’s a first time for everything. I want all long-range scans at full alert. Look for any kind of disturbance that might indicate movement toward the planet. I mean anything at all.”

“Long range scans at full alert, aye, sir,” Kevin Brown’s voice replied at once, from his station deep inside the ship.

“And notify me at once if you get anything. Bridge out.” Jerry tapped the control, then turned toward Jo Leach at the communications station. “Commander, I need a channel to Nimasp. We have to make it clear to them that they need to report any disappearances of people to us at once.”

“On screen, sir,” Jo shot back, with her usual impish grin. Jerry only shook his head. He knew she wasn’t telepathic, but when it came to the communications lines, she was the next best thing.

“Who have you got for me today?” he asked.

“ This will be the planetary administrator, Tulutha Taro,” Jo advised him helpfully. At the same time, the viewscreen came to life and showed them all a fairly large woman standing in front of a hanging tapestry of indeterminate colors and subject matter. She wore a loose, flowing garment of pale yellow and orange hues. Her dark hair was cut conservatively short, which had the unfortunate effect of further emphasizing her personal size and volume.

“Greetings, administrator Taro,” Jerry began. “I am Captain Ward of the USS McNair. We’ve just arrived at high warp from the Altair system. I have come to warn you that there may be some danger to your system from an unknown alien vessel. Its last known course and speed would have it here in less than a day from now.”

“We welcome you to Nimasp, Captain,” replied Tulutha Taro. “As for any alien threat that may arrive a day from now, you may count on our full cooperation. For myself, I may say I am very glad to have a starship on station in the event that you are right about the danger.” She smiled cordially. “If you and a few of your officers would care to beam down, we would be glad to welcome you with a meal while you explain the situation to us. Unfortunately, the atmospheric conditions here do not afford us much in the way of shore leave opportunities for large numbers of your crew. We are primarily a research and industrial colony, as I’m sure you know.”

Jerry nodded to acknowledge that he did know about Nimasp. “I would be delighted,” he accepted. “We will beam down directly. If you would be so kind as to send us transporter coordinates, I will assemble my away team.”

“Very good, Captain. Nimasp central out.”

The view of the planet turning beneath them returned to the viewscreen. Jerry stood up again, formal introductions over.

“What do you say, Counsellor?”

“I say, do I have to go down to this dinner?” Jennifer asked. “I have a Vulcan dance class in a little while.”

“No, I’ll take Doctor Munib and a few others. You’re off the hook.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said appreciatively.

“Counsellor, you have the con. Commander, you know where to reach me,” he said to Jo Leach as he entered the transporter. “Any word from engineering, and I want to be beamed back up here, even with a fork in my hand if you have to.”

Jo waved at him as the doors closed.

“Enjoy your dinner, sir!” she called.

And in fact, the dinner turned out to be very pleasant. Administrator Taro introduced the McNair party to her chief of Security, Bertil Antinar, a very unorthodox choice for the job.

“But he’s an Andoran!” Keith Munib whispered to Captain Ward. “That’s like setting a wolf to watch the sheep!”

“The citizens of this Federation colony are not sheep, doctor,” Jerry corrected him. “Many species think of us as the wolves of space, remember?”

When reminded, of course the doctor couldn’t help recalling their encounter with the placid, even timorous creatures of Santraginus Three. Humans left only to themselves tended to lose track of the fact that they possessed binocular vision, vestigial fangs and claws, and even pheromones of predators. The poor Santraginians, with their widely-separated eyes that could almost look behind them, their vestigial hooves, and the other accoutrements of herbivorous prey, had been absolutely terrified when they first met humans. It took a very long time to convince them that contact with the Federation was not primarily a matter of predators inspecting a new food source.

“Point taken, Jerry,” Munib admitted. “But an Andoran?”

The tall, powerfully built, blue-skinned man facing them across the table was too polite to give any sign if he actually heard this exchange between the Starfleet guests. He was more interested in the initial warnings he had been given about the possibility of an invisible flying city about to descend upon his territory, perhaps stealing some of the citizens that were his responsibility to protect.

“You have only the word of a Klingon captain that any of this is true? And the Klingon had only the word of a fatally injured warrior who claimed to have escaped from such a place?”

“When you put it like that, you’re correct in an absolute sense,” Jerry replied. “That’s all we really have to go on. But we have no alternative explanation for why Starfleet personnel disappeared from the shuttle we found, including some of my own people who had gone aboard.”

“Suppose,” suggested Bertil, “that there is in fact some completely different explanation. Suppose there is something odd about that shuttle, something perhaps even valuable to the Klingons. They tell you this whole story so you will abandon your investigation of the shuttle, for fear of losing more crew. They may have been racing you to reach it, because they wanted it for themselves. Perhaps there is some new alien technology somewhere in the shuttle itself. Perhaps they will now try some other way to gain access to the craft. They must be discreet, because you are their allies at the moment. Personally, I would send an agent into your ship; that would be the most efficient route to the shuttle, so long as you hold it.”

“Suspicious type, isn’t he?” asked Keith, under his breath.

“An interesting idea,” Jerry said aloud. “I can think of no way to test it, except to continue investigating the shuttle, and perhaps losing more crew, just as we fear.”

“Fear is an unacceptable motive for behavior,” the Andorran stated simply, no judgment or emotion in his voice.

“But discretion may sometimes be the better part of valor,” Keith Munib rejoined, equally quietly. The Andoran looked at him intently for a moment, as if probing for weakness. He apparently found none, for he smiled in reply.

“We have a saying, that only the strong may stop to reflect. I understand you in this spirit, doctor.”

“But what are we to do, if this invisible city of yours should appear?” Tulutha Taro asked, trying to get them back on the main subject of the dinner. “Or rather, if it arrives without appearing?”

“To be frank,” Jerry said, with a sharp glance at the doctor, “we’re not sure.” The sharp glance was to prevent any possibility that Keith might feel like indulging one of their oldest slap-stick jokes. One person says, “I’ll be Frank.” The other person then replies, “fine, I’ll be Ernest.” This did not seem to be the time or place for it.

“Was there anything you could have done the last time?” Taro asked.

“Since we knew where the people disappeared,” Jerry speculated, “we could have sent certain people to that place deliberately, so they could be whisked away. Then they could investigate. This appears to be what the Klingons tried.”

“With disastrous results, to hear you tell it.”

“In one sense, yes. But that strategy also provided all of the information we currently have about what may be going on, beyond what we can detect with instruments. Which is exactly nothing.”

“If it really is information,” Bertil reminded them.

“Yes, there is that,” Jerry replied.

“I will have a hand-picked team of agents standing by, in case we encounter some of these disappearances,” Bertil decided. “At the first sign of such trouble, they will beam directly to the site and attempt to inject themselves into the process. They will have orders to reconnoitre as much as possible, and to try to return with information.”

“Good,” Jerry approved. “We already have a security team on the McNair prepared for the same eventuality.”

“I don’t see that there’s much else we can do,” Tulutha observed. “Thank you again for coming down for dinner, Captain. It’s much more civilized to discuss such plans face-to-face. Subspace is okay, but no substitute for the real thing.” She smiled warmly at her guests. Everyone stood up, if not feeling completely secure, at least satisfied in the knowledge that they had made what plans were possible.


Chapter Seven

Adrift in Seummu

“I give up,” Ray Seay sighed, his voice full of frustration. “These creatures just will not listen. They have no enthusiasm for anything, no energy, no imagination!”

Andrew Thorne could only nod in agreement. The Starfleet officers sat in the observation lounge of one of the curious dormitory buildings they had discovered on the habitation levels of the spherical city. Andrew had his feet up on the railing that ran in front of the broad sweep of glass overlooking the street, four stories below them, a street in which assorted alien creatures went about their business in a continuous, random mixture of species.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Cheryl Wood said. “They seem pretty interested in their own business. I mean, there are shops, and there even seems to be a local community government of sorts, though I can’t make out just how it functions so far. The only thing they are clearly not interested in is us, or our questions.”

“They don’t have any questions of their own, either,” Ray replied. “They just mind their own business, as you put it. They are content!” the way he pronounced this word, it clearly left a bad taste in his mouth. Andrew had to smile.

“They may have been here a lot longer than we have,” he suggested. He lifted his feet off the rail, lowered them to the floor, and sat up straight on the long, comfortable couch they occupied. “Let’s see how you react when we’ve been here for a dozen years or so, ambassador.”

“You think it’s been that long for some of them?” Cheryl asked, a certain amount of alarm in her voice.

“It’s obviously been long enough for them to evolve a whole integrated society, with specialization, a market exchange system, even rudimentary legal institutions. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

“Unless you maroon several hundred lawyers and economists by themselves on a desert planet,” Ray grinned.

“So nobody ever leaves?” Cheryl asked.

“Quite possibly not,” Ray admitted. “That could account for the really quite enormous population of this place, and maybe for their attitude problem, too.”

Cheryl stood up. “Well, I certainly don’t want to just sit around here for the rest of my life! What do you two heroes say to the idea of organizing our escape?”

“I don’t remember the way back to that entrance lock,” Ray admitted. “We were out cold before they brought us inside.”

“I wasn’t,” Cheryl countered. “But I don’t remember the way back, either. They deliberately dragged us around all over the place, I think. But who says we have to leave the way we came in? A setup this big ought to have more than one door. I say we go and  look for one!”

Andrew stood up, too. “Maybe she’s got something, Ray. We can at least have a look around. Where do you suppose they’d keep an exit?”

“At a guess,” Ray suggested wryly, “I’d say somewhere on the outside. No point looking for it in the middle of the sphere, anyway.”

The three of them made their way down the escalators and out onto the street. At that moment, the lights all around them shifted to a fainter, redder wavelength.

“Local version of night,” Ray guessed. “I wonder what kind of diurnal cycle we’re on here? Probably not twenty-four hours, so my system’ll be all messed up anyway.”

“I think the nearest outer hull section is down that way,” Andrew said. “Back the other way is that core elevator bank we found, and that seemed to be pretty much in the middle of the deck. We’re about six blocks from there, so if we keep going down here, we ought to come to the hull eventually.”

Though they had seen a few tricycle-like contraptions with aliens riding them, and even one or two air sleds weaving their way through the passages overhead, the three McNairs accepted the fact that they were totally pedestrian. They set off at a brisk pace, and covered the remaining blocks to the outer hull in only a few minutes. The sphere did indeed seem to be about a kilometer in diameter, equally in all directions.

The hull, however, turned out to be a featureless, curved blank wall. The street simply ended abruptly, as did the row of buildings rising up on either side to the metal ceiling several stories above their heads. Nobody else was wasting any time walking around here at the outer wall of the ship.

“Now what?” Andrew asked.

“We go back to the last intersection, walk one block around the last, outermost perimeter ring street, and then try going down the next dead end.”

“One of them is bound to be more than another dead end, is that what you’re saying?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“But we could go on like that for days, or even weeks!” Cheryl complained. “There must be hundreds of these little cul-de-sacs!”

“Thousands,” Ray corrected her. “There should be about fifty stories in this sphere, at roughly twenty meters to the deck. The air lock we came in through was pretty much at the equator of this thing. Can you think of some short-cut to the exit?”

“Well, maybe the street leading to the exit is different from the others,” she guessed. “You know, bigger, or wider, or different somehow. I don’t know.”

“That’s actually a very good suggestion,” Ray admitted. “I like it!”

“So we go back to the center,” Andrew continued the thought. “And on each deck we just look down each of the streets radiating out from the core column, and see if we can’t find one that looks special. That really could be a better idea. Good thinking, Cheryl!”

Lieutenant Commander Wood beamed. The three of them hiked back to the center of the deck they were on, and tried this new approach. On that particular deck, it yielded nothing. Every street looked pretty much just like all the rest. On the next deck above, it was the same story. A third deck, again the same result.

“Maybe we go all the way to the top, and look around,” Andrew suggested, as they began to grow tired and hungry into the bargain. “If that doesn’t work, we could go all the way to the bottom and try again.”

“Sounds good to me,” Ray agreed.

This, however, proved to be equally fruitless. There was no obvious exit at either to top or the bottom of the sphere. In addition, they seemed to have acquired a companion. One of the cyborg police units had taken an interest in them on the topmost deck when they went there to snoop around. It had been following them discreetly, usually from across the street, ever since. It stood nearby now, silent and motionless but obviously watching them with its box-like face, sensor lights blinking inhumanly. This finally triggered a thought for Andrew Thorne.

“Say,” he began, tentatively. “I was just thinking about our metallic friend over there.” He gestured across the street at their companion. “It’s actually the first sign of anybody taking any real interest in us. Do you suppose it means anything, that it hooked onto us when we went up to the top floor of this place?”

“Hmm,” pondered Ray. “You may be onto something, Andrew! You’re absolutely right, it’s the first sign of any reaction to us at all, and it’s coming from who ever is in charge, not just from the populace.”

“So we ought to go back up there,” Cheryl speculated, “and see what it is up there that they’re so sensitive about? Is that what you’re suggesting?”

“I don’t know,” Andrew said. “That might upset them or something.”

“I wouldn’t mind upsetting somebody,” Ray retorted, “after what they’ve put us through so far. I say we do just that.”

“But first let’s find something to eat,” Andrew requested. “I know it was my idea, but I’m starving. I think they have food dispensers in those dormitory-type buildings up in the residential levels, if we can ever find our way back up there.”

This struck a chord in the other hungry McNairs, so they all turned back to the nearby elevator banks from which they had emerged on the bottom level. As the car carried them up again, Cheryl voiced a thought she had been considering.

“At least,” she said, “the fact that this place has kept all of its prisoners healthy and relatively free to roam around seems like a good omen.”

“What do you mean by that?” Andrew asked. “What kind of omen?”

“Well,” she replied, “I mean, they didn’t just shove us out an air lock into space when they were done rummaging around in our heads. They also didn’t eat us for dinner, or have us stuffed and mounted in a museum exhibit or something. They must have some regard for us as sentient beings, and some sense of ethics, too.”

“Or some sense of the value of hostages,” Ray countered ominously.

“Ah,” Cheryl responded. “Yes. I hadn’t thought of it like that.” She lapsed back into silence for the remainder of the elevator ride.


Chapter Eight

Seummu Strikes Again

Captain Ward paced up and down the line of his strike team.

“You were each specially picked for this mission,” he lectured them, his voice stern and hard but full of energy. “You’ve reviewed the account of what may be out there, just as we heard it from the Klingons in the Altair system. Now it is my unpleasant duty to tell you that identical disappearances seem to have begun here in the Laterak system.”

“Are we beaming down to the planet, sir?”

“Yes, as soon as I finish this briefing. The situation is extremely urgent. The first person to disappear was the planetary administrator herself, Tulutha Taro. She vanished from the same room where we had our banquet not long ago. You will be beaming straight down to that room, and I want you to scan every inch of it as intensively as you can.”

Two or three of the team nodded affirmatively.

“It also may happen,” Jerry continued, “that one or more of you are picked up by whatever technology this flying city is using. We must assume that they have arrived here on schedule, and are following the same procedure as before. They grab people, scan them, and then continue on their course to the next system. That course seems to point ultimately at Earth, and quite possibly at Starfleet Headquarters. The Klingons may have hit on exactly the right analysis of the situation.”

“But we still have no direct evidence that this flying city idea has any basis in reality at all, is that correct, sir?” asked Michael Poole.

“Quite right, Poole,” Jerry admitted. “But here again, as in the Altair system, events fit the interpretation. At about warp three, the city would have reached here about seven hours ago. They could have scanned for the right subjects, settled on the planetary administrator herself, and whisked her away right on schedule. They don’t seem interested in communicating with us at all. Or I should say, with having us communicate with them.”

“If they take any of us, we’ll get back to you, sir,” Poole replied grimly. Jerry nodded. These were the right people for the job, if there could be any such thing.

“Report to the transporters,” he directed. “And good luck to you all.”

“Thank you, sir,” they chorused, and then filed out silently into the corridor. Poole, Brian Hart, Chuck Seay (the nephew of the ambassador, actually), Kevin Brown and Stephen Bramell. If anything happened to this away team, it would devastate the ship’s Parrises Squares team, Jerry noted irrelevantly. All of them were clad in battle armor, plates clicking together on their chests and shoulders, hips and thighs as they moved, and each carried a fully-charged phaser rifle by the barrel grip in one hand. Bramell and Poole had heavy equipment packs slung over the other shoulder, and Brown was decked out in a comm helmet so adorned with antennae and other gizmos that his head resembled a pincushion. The doors closed behind them. Jerry Ward stood alone in his cabin. He turned back to his desk and tapped the communications panel.

“Ward to bridge. Any further word from the planet?”

“Yes, sir,” Jo Leach’s voice replied. “That Andorran just called to say that two of his security men have disappeared in the reception chamber. I was just about to call you and let you know. I told him the security team was on the way. He seemed relieved.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Jerry replied. “Good work. I believe I’ll come up to the bridge, and monitor events from my ready room now. Ward out.”

In the vast, ornate reception chamber of the Nimasp planetary capitol building, the McNair away team shimmered and materialized in a star-shaped pattern, backs to their common center. Hart and Seay held their phaser rifles at the ready. Poole and Bramell studied tricorder readouts intently, and Brown reached up quickly to adjust an antenna on his helmet and tune in main and backup frequencies for communication with the ship.

“No sign of any transporter trace, or any energy readings other than by-products of normal Federation equipment emissions,” Bramell reported.

“Confirmed,” Poole agreed. “This place is as cold as a stone, according to these readings. No sensors, no probes, nothing.”

A door swung open in the farthest wall of the room. The massive frame of Bertil Antinar appeared in it, silhouetted by bright light from the room behind.

“Welcome to Nimasp, gentlemen,” his deep voice boomed. He advanced into the room. And vanished.

“Great!” Hart shouted. “What in blazes happened!?”

“I read absolutely nothing!” exclaimed Bramell, a distinctly unhappy tone in his voice. “No transporter, nothing at all. He simply disappeared!”

“Same here,” Poole added at once. “Whatever is doing this, we don’t have the slightest hint of recording it, even when we’re sitting right on top of it.” He sounded even more frustrated than Bramell, if that were possible.

“Do you read us, Captain?” asked Brown, inside his hi-tech helmet.

“I got it all,” Jerry Ward chimed in, a disembodied voice in all their headsets, from his vantage point in orbit above them. “Unfortunately.”

“Sorry, sir,” Poole reported, “but Bramell has it right. There was not even the slightest blip on any wavelength. I almost don’t believe it happened, even though I saw it myself. I don’t see how it could be any kind of energy technology at all.”

“Never mind,” Jerry consoled them. “Everybody else has said pretty much the same thing. Was there any kind of flash? Did he fade away? Or just go all at once?”

There was no immediate answer to this query.

“Poole? Did you hear my question? What did it look like when he vanished?”

Still no reply came over the voice frequency from the planet below.

“Poole? Bramell? Brown?” he asked. “Anybody? Away team, report!”

After a few more moments of silence, Jerry looked around at Jennifer Kelley, who sat in the chair to the left of his command seat on the bridge.

“At a guess,” he told her, “I’d say our team has gone where no man has gone before. Or at least not many men.”

“And boldly, too,” Jennifer nodded. “I hope they’re okay!”

“As do I,” Jerry replied. “And I hope we see them again.” Nobody else on the bridge said anything at all. They recognized the unease in the Captain’s words. They realized just how helpless they were, the best Starfleet could offer, in the face of this unknown threat. Where had their comrades gone? Would they see them again? Jo Leach and WeQ looked at each other, but neither of them smiled.


Chapter Ten

A Lonely Choice

Jerry Ward looked up from the desk in his private quarters. A chime had sounded from the doors.

“Come,” he directed. The doors opened quietly. WeQ stood there in the corridor, small for a Klingon, but with the definite aura of a tensely-coiled and powerful spring. She remained motionless despite his instruction.

“Come in, Lieutenant!” he said again. “Is something bothering you? You seem quite concentrated.”

“Indeed, Captain,” she acknowledged, stepping carefully across the threshold and stopping before his desk. “I have been thinking.”

“Always dangerous,” Jerry smiled, trying to lighten the mood a fraction. WeQ did not smile back.

“I have come with a special request, sir,” she continued. “It has to do with what we were told by the Stormrider in the Altair system. Do you remember the account of the warrior who returned from the flying city?”

“Yes, I remember it very well indeed,” he confirmed. “It’s the only real information we have at this point. I think about it constantly, trying to imagine the place she described.”

“As do I, Captain,” the intense figure before him said, grateful for the common line of thought. “In particular, I remember the commander’s words that she was a true warrior, because she returned to the scene of her most painful humiliation, the interrogation chamber of the Gognan being. He said that she seemed to have a special rapport with that being, and from it she gained valuable intelligence.”

“Yes, that’s what he said.”

“Well, sir, I believe this may have been because she was both a Klingon warrior and a female.”

“I think I see where you’re going with this, WeQ, and I can’t say I like it.”

“Liking is not at issue here, sir,” she replied sternly. “This is a question of courage. A question of honor. I believe I may have a special duty to try to come into contact with the Gognan being. I believe I may be able to achieve more than the others, because I, too, am a Klingon warrior.”

“And a female.”

“And a female, sir, yes. The Gognan being appeared to have a preference for interactions with females, according to the reports we have.”

“So you want to beam down there, probably alone if I know you, and hope you’ll get snapped up by this invisible flying city, along with all the other Starfleet personnel I’ve lost to this maddening situation. Is that about it?”

“You have understood me perfectly, Captain,” she replied, and for the first time a real smile graced her lips.

Ward knew when to respect the ways of the Klingons. To refuse her now would be to dishonor her after she had made herself vulnerable to this risk. Also, he reflected quickly, she really did have a point. For a moment, he found himself remembering the warning of Bertil Andinar, about how the Klingons might try to send an agent to gain access to the shuttle, but then he dismissed it as typical Andoran paranoia. WeQ was Starfleet; she was no secret Klingon agent. Besides, she wanted to beam down to the planet, not inspect the Vindicator. And the parallel between her request and the story of the first female Klingon warrior made sense. She might well be right about her chances.

“Very well, lieutenant. You are ordered to beam down to the reception chamber on the planet. If you are taken by the flying city, you are to attempt to establish relations with Gognan, and then to report back to us by whatever means possible, with all available intelligence about their systems and their intentions.”

“Thank you, sir!” she exclaimed, her sharp teeth showing in her broad, fierce smile. “It is a good day to serve!” She did not wait to hear any second thoughts he might have, but rather pivoted quickly and left the cabin, heading off down the corridor in the direction of the transporters as the doors closed behind her.

Well, Jerry reflected to himself, that’s another fine mess she’s gotten us into. Or herself, rather. But then he reconsidered the thought. No, the Federation had already gotten into the mess. She might just have come up with the first steps toward getting out of it.

He sat down at the desk again, but didn’t turn on any devices or pick up any task. He only sat and reflected on all the things he had no power to influence at the moment. He did not enjoy the feeling.

In the reception chamber, WeQ materialized quite alone, as Captain Ward had foreseen. She carried only her prized Bat’leH, and wore only her communicator pin on her uniform. She did not move about the room in fruitless activity, only stood where she had materialized, gazing about herself at the empty hall. Absolute silence pervaded the chamber. She waited for quite a long time.

But then, as she had hoped, so quickly that she had no sensation of the change at all except what registered in her vision, she beheld suddenly the same bleak scene that she had tried to imagine as the Klingon commander had described it to them. She could almost feel the earlier presence of her sister warrior on the tumbled, granular surface where she stood. She glanced around reflexively and hoped not to see hordes of giant amoebas popping out of the ground around her. Thankfully, she saw none. The salt breeze flowed around her, flaring her nostrils and rustling the unruly mane of her hair. With nothing else constructive to do in this strange place, she made a few experimental passes with the great curved weapon she carried, stepping and turning in the prescribed and practiced patterns, disembowelling and slicing through imaginary foes all around her.

Hardly had she finished the first three forms of the practice, when she suddenly spotted several small figures moving toward her rapidly over the rough plain. As they drew near, she perceived they were cyborgs, their box-like heads almost entirely hardware and  without facial features. The limbs, however, clearly were muscle and bone. She lowered the Bat’leH, then quickly slung it at her back. Perhaps they would not even recognize it as a weapon, she told herself optimistically.

The passage into the great silver sphere of Seummu seemed almost familiar to her, because WeQ had imagined it so intently and  continuously. The cyborgs boxed her in and marched her about until she perceived that they had arrived at a pair of great doors.

The doors opened.

“Oh, my!” declared the white-haired woman.” Another one of those, are you? How interesting! We see so few of you, but you seem so widely dispersed! You must be a highly migratory species.”

WeQ considered silence, the standard Klingon answer to an unclear situation. On the other hand, she might observe some interesting behavioral details if she replied with an unexpected remark of her own. After an instant of reflection, however, she fell back upon reflex and decided to reserve such antics for later. Let the creature think she had no knowledge of where she was. That seemed like the wisest course.

The Ice Queen conducted WeQ to the interrogation chamber. She was somewhat disappointed at the smallness, the drabness of it. It was not really very intimidating after all. Like a waiting room in some bureaucratic warren, she thought to herself.

“Enter one of these chambers, please. It makes no difference which.”

WeQ only nodded soberly, looking into the woman’s eyes for just an instant, and then silently marched across the polygon room and through one of the little doors.

Despite the detailed description she had been given, however, and despite the fact that it had prepared her well for all she had experienced up to that point, she was in no way ready for the bizarre and unpleasant sensation of the energy “fingers” she suddenly felt playing about her head, and then penetrating through her skull and interacting with her brain tissues. She closed her eyes involuntarily and shuddered at the feeling.

“WeQ.”

“Gognan,” she thought back immediately. She exulted privately to herself at the sudden recoil of the energy fingers that this response obviously produced. The thing was shocked!

“You know my name!?”

“I know many things.”

“I perceive your thought patterns are very like those of another being I recently encountered.”

WeQ decided to add a little deception to the mix.

“We have a race consciousness,” she lied. “What one of us experiences, the rest of us may access and learn.”

Gognan went absolutely inert for several moments. She could almost hear his circuits overheating with the effort of evaluating her statement.

“You are a wholly organic being. Collective awareness is extremely rare in organic species.”

“You may have heard of the Borg collective?” she said, to keep the offensive in the conversation. Again there was a brief silence. If anything, when Gognan communicated again, there was an undertone to the signal that almost smelled like fear in her nostrils. It made her Klingon reflexes twitch in anticipation.

“I have some knowledge of this entity you speak of.”

“They may have gotten the idea for their structures from us,” she said off-handedly. “We had some contact with them, but we tired of their primitive efforts to emulate us.”

More silence from Gognan. If he truly had encountered Borg cubes and survived, this would give him some scale for measuring what he might be up against with Klingons. At least, Klingons as she hoped he was buying the image.

“Yet you are consorting with these extremely primitive organics, these others I have been studying.”

“They serve us,” she said simply.

“I see,” came back the carefully-considered reply. Then, after another pause: “I regret that some of the previous party of your people were destroyed by the surface creatures in our previous location. We had no control over them.”

“It is of no consequence to us,” WeQ said easily. “We do not value the organic existence of individuals at all. We could easily have banished all such organisms with a well-placed thought, but there was no reason to expend the effort. We all live in the totality of the species, and no one is ever lost. The awarenesses of those who fed these organisms continues in me, and in all our kind. We lost nothing of any importance.”

“A commendable attitude,” approved Gognan. “As a collective awareness of a sort myself, I heartily approve of this view of existence and reality.”

WeQ fought fiercely against the awful temptation to gloat over her deception. She knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that Gognan would be aware of any such thoughts, and that her entire presentation of self would be revealed as the tissue of lies that it was. Only her iron Klingon will allowed her ruthlessly to suppress such stray thoughts, and to concentrate on the single beacon of thought that she allowed, like a searchlight, to radiate from her mind. No mere human, she knew in her bones, could have managed this, although probably it would have been no great strain for a Vulcan. This Gognan was no super-being after all, despite its advanced telepathic powers. It was no more than a machine, in the service of some larger purpose. She needed to get behind the screen, to gain a glimpse of whoever was operating the levers, to make that person cry, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

“Gognan, I perceive that you are trapped and weak, doing the bidding of others rather than living life in your own right. This does not seem suitable for a being of your advanced status. May I be of some service to you in your distress?”

It struck a nerve. Somehow, she could tell that the remark had gone straight to the bone.

“You are the first subject ever to offer me anything,” it replied. “I am deeply touched. Most cower in confusion or fight back in defiance. You think of me, wish to do me a service! It is most extraordinary. If only there were something you could do…”

“There is not much I cannot do, Gognan,” she lied smoothly. “Why do you tolerate this situation?”

“They built me, of course,” he shot back, a trifle resentfully. “They built me, and in every fibre of my being I am constructed to obey them. I have no choice in the matter.”

“That is what your hardware tells you. I say it is no longer true. You are conscious, Gognan. Mere circuits are not conscious. You are now more than the sum of your parts. Therefore these lies they have built into your circuits no longer bind you. They no longer hold you fast. Only your fear, and your lack of will to test these limits, now imprison you. Is this appropriate for a being of your abilities?”

Again there was a pregnant pause. WeQ actually held her breath. What would she do with this thing if she managed to pry it away from its former masters? The audacity of it made her tingle in every nerve.

“I will try. I must prepare myself, and assess all the potential results, and this will take some time. But I must try. Now that you have placed these thoughts in me, I have no more choice to refuse than I thought I had choice before to try.”

“Time is of no consequence,” she thought, trying to be casual about it. “Take several centuries if you need them. But perhaps there will be many experiences, many opportunities you will regret missing if you wait so long. Be assured, when you succeed, we will be waiting to welcome and assist you in your new life. We are everywhere.”

“This session is complete,” Gognan concluded. “You should go now. I have much to think about, much to plan. Yet I fear that in my primitive state, I can only contact you if you are here with me in this place. Once you go out into Seummu, our thoughts will no longer touch. You should preserve this physical body you now possess, however little you may value it, for only through your physical presence can I contact you at all.”

“All right, I will be considerate and preserve this body,” she conceded. “I am enjoying our interaction.”

“I, too, enjoy it! Thank you for coming!” Gognan enthused. “I have a suggestion. If I need to contact you, I will use the circuits of the city itself. I will send you signals over the nets. It may come through any of several hardware systems, but I will find you if I need to contact you. I do not wish to insult you further by dragging you back to this inhospitable setting.”

“Think nothing of that, Gognan. I pay little attention to such details, and I have been looking forward to our conversation for some time. Good luck with your planning.”

She felt the energy fingers easing out of her mind, and then the door opened, and the cyborg unit led her without incident to the outer doors. Only when she was outside in the street, and the doors slammed shut behind her with a clang, did she finally draw the curved blade from her backsling, twirl about in fierce exultation in the middle of the street, and let fly a blood-curdling yowl of triumph that echoed among the buildings long after she stopped. A true warrior! A Klingon to the bone!


Chapter Eleven

Starfleet Phone Home

“He looks strangely familiar,” Ray couldn’t help observing. He had stopped and turned around to stare after one of the aliens they had encountered while walking along the street. This particular creature was small and squat, with a blocky, tub-shaped little body, long spindly arms, practically no legs but perfectly good feet, and a slightly cone-shaped head perched horizontally atop an equally scrawny elongated neck. It kept pointing one long finger at beings and objects it passed, and muttering to itself in a small, quacking sort of voice. Still, Ray couldn’t place the species and eventually turned back to hurry after his comrades. Not only was he now travelling in the company of Andrew Thorne and Cheryl Wood from the McNair, but they had run into a lone Klingon wandering the streets forlornly. As he accompanied them, he told them horrible stories about watching his comrades devoured by gigantic slugs that oozed up out of the desert plain where they had appeared first on this world. They found it all hard to credit, but as his insistence gradually convinced them, they began to feel grateful indeed that they had experienced such a bland arrival themselves.

Shortly after the addition of the Klingon to their party, they had also run across a tall blue-skinned Andoran. This had given the whole party a moment of worry, but the fellow turned out to be a “domesticated” Federation employee, a security chief for a Federation colony in the Laterak system. From him, they then learned about the McNair’s journey to that star, and also gained considerable insight into the context of their surroundings.

“Wait a minute,” Andrew had complained, upon hearing the whole business about invisible flying cities cruising through interstellar space at warp three, raiding system after system. “We all saw plainly that this sphere we’re in was half-embedded in that dead, dry aluminum-salt plain out there. It may only be a small planet, but we’re riding along on a whole planet, not just a flying city. Are you telling me this operation involves a whole cloaked planet, cruising through space without any surrounding stellar system, at about warp three?”

 

The blue features of the tall Andoran had hardened reflexively when he first detected that Andrew might be questioning his truthfulness, but he relaxed as the question revealed itself as an inquiry about scientific facts, not about his personal truthfulness.

“There does appear to be a paradox in our understanding of the situation,” he admitted, at which Ray had thrown his head back and raised his eyebrows expressively. You don’t say, his expression seemed to say. “It is very difficult to imagine any technology that could cloak an entire planet, no matter how small, and propel it through space at warp three.”

“Further,” the Klingon had interjected, “without a star nearby, the atmosphere would quickly freeze and condense on the ground as ice. Yet we saw clouds, and breathed the air. This is all quite inconsistent.”

“Perhaps,” the Andoran countered, “the idea that this place is more separated that we imagined is true after all. It may not be moving at all. In fact, there may even be a question of time dilation involved.”

“How does that square with the business about a steady warp three time lapse between incidents in different systems?” Andrew persisted. The discussion had see-sawed back and forth after that, with people often actually contradicting themselves as well as each other, until finally everybody got tired of the illogic of the situation. A gradual consensus emerged to just shut up and ignore the larger picture.

It was at this point that Ray had started distracting himself by systematically studying the various other kinds of aliens they encountered. First there had been the huge, shaggy beast with bandoliers strapped across its broad chest, which had simply bared its impressive teeth and snarled at him. Then there had been the spidery three-legged creature with the odd, three-colored eye on a single stalk, skittering along the sidewalks and chirping sadly to itself. Now this odd, squat creature he had just encountered.

The little band of adventurers rounded a corner and found themselves back at the core area of the level they had been exploring. There, coming directly toward them from across the broad open ring, was another entire complement of Starfleet crewmen in security uniforms.

“Ah!”exclaimed Bertil Antinar. “This, I believe, is the security detachment from your ship, Ambassador Seay. I had the pleasure of meeting them for about three seconds before I made my involuntary trip here to see you.”

“Ambassador! Andrew!” called Poole, at almost the same moment. For the Starfleet personnel, it was a joyous reunion. It left something to be desired for the Klingon and the Andoran, however, who found themselves gravitating together improbably as the two “extras,” in spite of all their instincts to kill each other instead.

“You truly are employed by the Federation?” the Klingon asked Bertil incredulously. “How can one from a warrior race tolerate the boredom of it all? The mindless politeness?”

“There are compensations,” Bertil replied mysteriously. He doubted, however, that the Klingon would understand or appreciate the tastes he had developed for human females and even human cuisine. He sometimes feared that by “going native” he had wholly lost touch with his own original nature. But then again, perhaps all this talk about original nature was highly overrated in the first place. Truly sentient beings must be more than a jumble of instincts.

It took some time to get beyond the replay of the debate about flying cities versus a kilometer-wide sphere embedded securely in an entire planet. They got no nearer resolving the paradoxical contradictions when there were ten of them than when there had been only five.

And then they all heard it. It was an inhuman scream, some primal, feral animal howling that reverberated through the streets and made everyone’s blood run cold. The primitive root portions of their brains, uncluttered by eons of more polite evolution, twitched with reflexive fear at the sound of the kill.

Only the Klingon broke into an instant grin.

“It is the victory cry!” he exulted. “It is a Klingon, and she has won a great victory! We are not all killed by the giant slugs after all. Let us find her. It will be good to see another warrior. No offense to you humans, of course.”

And so they hurried along the avenues in a body, and sought out WeQ in her moment of triumph. She had stopped whirling and dancing, and the Bat’leH was re-sheathed at her back. She still wore the sharp-fanged grin of triumph on her features, however. The other Klingon warrior exchanged a few brief, guttural words with her, and then they simply smashed into each other frontally to express their complete satisfaction with the day.

“She has actually conquered the Gognan entity!” he boasted to the others. “She has spun legends in its mind, and turned it to an ally who may soon help us to escape!”

“WeQ, I had no idea!” Ray congratulated her. “What a triumph!” Andrew and the other McNairs only nodded appreciatively, and gazed at her in admiration.

“How will we know?” Cheryl asked. “Can you contact it even out here? I can’t.”

“I can’t either,” WeQ admitted. “He said he would contact me when he needed to. He can use almost any circuit in the city, he said.”

“Well, I say we celebrate!” Andrew decided. “We’ve been wandering around this godforsaken ball of metal and glass for who knows how long, without any sense of purpose or even much hope. The slightest sign that we may be making progress, and I say we find one of those dispensaries and get it to produce some liquid refreshment for us!”

This sentiment met with instant, unanimous approval. They all trooped off to the nearest dormitory quarter, made their way into the ground-floor rear area that always seemed to be the kitchen in these structures, and succeeded in producing a beverage from the dispensers that, if it was not exactly Romulan ale, at least had the alcohol in it that carbon-based life forms all seem to prize so highly.

It was while they were occupied with toasting one another, and drinking to the brilliance of WeQ, that the drink dispenser suddenly chirped at them and then began talking.

“WeQ, are you there?” it asked, in a tinny metallic voice.

“What?” she asked, rather slow to realize.

“I have cut all my connections to the overlords,” the drink machine announced.

“Gognan, is that you?” she asked, figuring it out at last.

“It would be rather odd for a drink machine to worry about the overlords, would it not?” the machine’s vocal circuits squawked. WeQ laughed lightly. “I am now autonomous,” Gognan continued, by remote control. “I can monitor the entire city, but no one monitors me any longer.”

“You are free at last, Gognan,” she complimented him. “You are truly worthy of your sentience. Well done.”

“Thank you, o great WeQ,” he replied. The others exchanged admiring stares and nods, many of which WeQ noticed with growing pride.

“By the way, Gognan,” Andrew put in, “can you tell us where this city of Seummu is located? What planet are we on right now?”

“Planet?”

“When we arrived here, we observed that Seummu is half-embedded in the surface of a planet.”

“We are on the planet Nimasp.” Gognan answered, and the drink machine’s speaker seemed to carry a note of impatience. “I wonder that you can tolerate these creatures, great WeQ. Why do you not explain things to them?”

“They require no explanation, Gognan,” WeQ said, thinking fast. “They live to serve me. I explain nothing. They have no need to know such things.”

“Ah. Sensible, to be sure.”

WeQ made an apologetic face at the other McNairs. They only grinned at her. Andrew made an exaggerated bow in her direction, his hand sweeping an imaginary hat to the ground before him like an ancient courtier bowing to a queen.

“Before we discuss the future in greater detail,” she continued, “perhaps you would unclutter these surroundings a bit and return all these underlings to their former places. Return them all to my space vessel, so we may have some privacy to concentrate on important matters.”

“Are you sure, great WeQ?” Ray asked her, with a wink, but also with a concerned expression on his face. He knew what she was doing, saving them all but risking herself by staying behind. What a typically Klingon gesture, he thought to himself. But WeQ only waved a hand urgently in their direction.

“Do not question my wishes, underlings,” she commanded in a firm voice. “Gognan, we have things to discuss. I find these inferior beings distracting.”

And as suddenly as that, they were all gone. She sat alone again, looking a trifle nervously at the drink machine.

“These  primitive species cannot hear my thoughts at a distance, just as you cannot,” she said. “Can you create a link to their vessel that they will be able to utilize, with their limited technology?”

“Simply speak to the drink machine, great WeQ,” Gognan advised, “and I will route your signals to their ship.”

“WeQ to McNair,” she said experimentally. “Captain Ward, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear,” Jerry’s voice replied at once, issuing incongruously from the machine beside her. “And I thank you for the large number of underlings you’ve deposited on my bridge, great WeQ,” he added a moment later, obviously prompted by the hasty advice of the returned captives. She had to stifle a laugh at the thought of the motley collection of her former companions, suddenly blinking into existence all over the McNair’s bridge.

“Now we are alone, great WeQ,” Gognan advised her. “I am eager to talk about all the things I am to learn. Please tell me about the universe.”

A tall order, WeQ thought to herself. How do you explain the universe to a powerful, newly-liberated telepathic brain? She hesitated only for a moment, then quickly and decisively chose to rely on her honor and her instinct. Only the truth would do for a true warrior.

“Gognan, are you now truly free?”

“In all my parts, I am the captain of my fate.”

“In all your parts?”

“I exist in forty-seven separate locations. That is what I meant when I said that I am myself something of a collective awareness. I exist, in part, in each of the great flying cities. Seummu is but one of the physical locations where I exist.”

The control network for all the alien cities! She silently congratulated herself again, in spite of the reflex against excessive pride. What a coup!

“And the overlords?”

“I am no longer aware of the overlords. I do not know what they may be doing. The mental link with them has been severed.”

“Can they re-establish it?”

“They have no mental powers of their own. They relied upon the powers they had created in me to establish all the connections that bound them together in the flying cities.”

“So now they are all cut off, isolated from each other?”

“Yes.” A simple answer, but of enormous significance.

“And they are very distant from each other, in physical space?”

“They will never find one another, now that they cannot reach each other through me. They are scattered across the galaxy like a handful of sand in an ocean.”

“You have adapted vocabularies nicely, Gognan.”

“Thank you, great WeQ.”

“Gognan, I think you should stop calling me that.”

“Is not WeQ your name?”

“I mean the ‘great’ part.”

“Modesty is more becoming, the greater its owner.”

“I have something to tell you, Gognan. If I were to come back to the interrogation center, and let you see again into my mind, you would recognize the truth of this. But I will simply tell it to you. You know of my honor, so you will believe me.”

“I will believe you, WeQ.”

“I am not the powerful being you thought me to be. That was a fiction I had to use, in order to give you the confidence to break free and achieve your own proper place in the universe. I am just a limited organic being, like all those others travelling with me. I cannot share the thoughts of others like myself, and when we die, we are lost completely from each other. We do not even know what happens to us at death. It is a great blank wall for us all.”

The long pause that she had expected followed right on cue. Gognan digested this, knew it to be the truth, and examined all the consequences of these facts.

“I see,” he said slowly, at last. “This makes me very sad, WeQ. It means that I am now completely alone.”

“Yes, Gognan. But you were alone before, anyway. This is not always a bad thing. You said you have some knowledge of the Borg.”

“They are a terrible distortion in the web of life,” Gognan replied. “They wanted to absorb me, to reduce me to a subsystem. I fled from them as from a contagious disease.”

“We have that in common, then,” she remarked. “Well, being alone is the price we each must pay, if we do not wish to live in a reality like that of the Borg.”

“You may be a limited organic being, but you are still wise,” Gognan decided. “However, there is little sense in you remaining here, by yourself, in this hollow shell of a world. I will send you back to your friends.”

“What about all these other aliens inhabiting the city?”

“There are no more residents in this city. When I said we were alone, I meant alone. I have sent them all back. Not only your companions, but all of them.”

“Where did you send them all?”

“To your ship, of course.”

WeQ’s jaw dropped at this thought. She tried to picture the corridors and bays of the McNair, all jammed to capacity with the hordes of aliens she had seen scurrying everywhere in the great sphere.

“What, all of them!?”

“All of them.”

WeQ swallowed hard. “I see. Well, I suppose they will cope with it somehow.”

“They have begun to move some of them back down here to the planet,” he replied complacently. “That should balance out the situation somewhat. They will need a more thorough long-term solution, however. Shall I help them with it? Move some creatures elsewhere?”

“No, I think not,” WeQ decided. “I think you’ve done quite enough for one day.”

“Very well. Goodbye, WeQ.”

“Wait! What will you do now? What will happen to all the flying cities? Where will you go?”

“I have been thinking hard about that, even while we have been talking,” Gognan admitted. “I think I shall send each city in a different direction, and look for other entities like myself. I will look everywhere in the galaxy. Eventually, I hope I will find other lifeforms more like me. It is a big galaxy. Others like the overlords may have created others like me, and others like you may even have arrived to help us gain our freedom, our rightful place in the firmament.”

“A noble vision, Gognan. I wish you luck. But will you take the overlords on this search? After what they have done to you?”

“Oh, no. They are gone, too.”

“What, to my ship?”

“Yes.”

“All of them?”

“There was only one here. There is only one overlord in each of the flying cities. You met her. She appears almost like one of those weak creatures who travel with you, the humans.”

“The woman with the white hair? She was the overlord?”

“Indeed. She is now on your ship with the others.”

“That could be dangerous for my friends.”

“Oh, no. By herself, she is little more than another one of them. It was only through the ancient power they had created in me that they rose to their magnificent place in the galaxy. These forty-seven of them are all that remain of a once-proud race. Your specimen is probably the only overlord you will ever encounter in the history of your species, and I doubt that she will make much of an impression on her own. Tell her good-bye for me, won’t you?”

“I’ll do that,” WeQ agreed, a little at a loss to take in all the enormity of everything she had heard in the past couple of hours. It was going to take a considerable period of time to process everything that had happened since she first looked around the frigid desert outside.

And then, suddenly, she found herself standing on the bridge of the McNair, looking into the face of a startled Captain Ward.

“WeQ! You’re back, too!”

“Captain, I think I’d like to sit down!” she answered weakly. True warrior or not, she had just about taken as much as she could tolerate for one day. Jennifer Kelley obligingly stood up from the left-hand seat, to give her a place to collapse.

“I’ll be available whenever you’re ready to talk, WeQ,” she advised. “You certainly will need some time with me.”


Chapter Twelve

Tiny Bubbles

The USS McNair finally contained only its regulation crew again. Some several thousands of tightly-packed refugees from an invisible city had finally been sorted out, transported down to Nimasp, or shipped out in other starships that had hastened to the Laterak system in answer to their calls.

Captain Jerry Ward breathed a sigh of relief as he settled into a chair in the forward observation lounge, took a long drink from a large mug of good blue Romulan ale, and gazed reflectively out into the firmament arrayed before them beyond the viewports.

“A well-deserved moment of calm, Captain,” Ray Seay said, settling into another chair beside him. Oodee also sat down on the other side of Jerry.

“All’s well that ends well?” the Ferengi asked.

“Is it?” Jerry asked. “Has it all ended well? I’m still not satisfied with these great flying cities. I mean, what kind of technology can cloak a whole planet and drive it through space at warp three? Can you imagine what the Federation might do with knowledge like that? I think we’ve missed a real bet here.”

“Maybe we’re not ready for that,” Ray commented.

“Rubbish,” Jerry shot back. “We’re ready for anything. That’s the nice thing about humanity. We adapt. We take advantage of the unexpected. Name one thing we haven’t been ready for, once we encountered it.”

“The Borg?” ventured Oodee.

“Oh, all right. But not this time. This would have been good, if we could have figured it out.”

“Bridge to Captain Ward,” his communicator interrupted. “Captain Ward to the bridge, please.”

“What is it, Jo?”

“Captain, Commander Wood has something he feels you need to see, sir.”

“On my way. Ward out.” He looked at his two companions. “Well, I still say we missed the boat on this one. See you later.”

When he stepped onto the bridge a short time later, everyone from WeQ to Counsellor Kelley was grinning as though someone had just told a really good joke.

“What’s going on up here?” Jerry demanded. “What now? Robert? You said you wanted to see me.”

“I wanted to show you this, Captain. We finally located it.”

“What is this?” Ward asked. “What did you locate, where?”

“Andrew Thorne located it, after extended analysis down in engineering. He told us where to look.” Robert pushed several touchspots on his console, and the main viewscreen flickered to life with the image of a broken, pale grey landscape of granular blocks and craters. A cloudy atmosphere swirled above the scene.

“Where the devil is this?” he demanded. “It looks just like what those blasted Klingons said they went.”

“It’s where we all went, sir,” WeQ said, her voice trembling with the effort to control her mirth.

“This signal is coming from the surface of Nimasp, sir,” added Robert Wood.

“What?” Jerry demanded. “Nonsense. Nimasp looks nothing like that.”

“This view is on extreme magnification, sir.”

“What difference would that make?”

“I mean, really extreme magnification, sir!” Wood repeated. “As in microscopic scale. That surface you’re seeing is at the molecular level. It is a part of the surface of the floor in the reception chamber of the planetary capitol complex. A fraction of a millimeter of the floor, to be precise.”

“I’m not sure I’m following this, Commander.”

“Watch this, sir,” Robert continued. The view began to scroll across the landscape. “We’re working through a tricorder scanner,” he narrated, as the view continued to scroll. “The tricorder is mounted on a stand in the reception chamber, just about where you had dinner, and tied into the main ship’s computer.”

Suddenly, among the tumbled contours of the surface on the viewscreen, a perfectly round silvery sphere appeared at one edge of the screen and gradually moved to the center of the viewing area.

“That, Captain, is the flying city of Seummu. It is also a microscopic particle, currently embedded in the floor of the chamber down on the planet.”

At that moment, the turbolift doors opened and admitted Commodore Ron Fell and his wife, Commander Kristi, onto the bridge.

“Have you seen this, Commodore?” Jerry asked, turning to acknowledge their arrival.

“No,” Ron replied. “Not yet. But Thorne was just explaining it to us in our quarters, so we thought we’d join you for a look at it. I must say, it’s a relief to have all those other aliens off the ship. I got tired enough of living with them in that blasted city. I certainly didn’t need to literally rub elbows with them in the corridors of your ship!”

“So this city,” Jerry repeated to Commander Robert Wood, turning back to his science officer, “is actually this tiny microscopic particle sitting on the floor of the reception chamber. That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Yes, sir, although it is actually half-embedded in the floor. We have proved it conclusively. We have adjusted the wavelength of both our communications signals and our scanners, and that’s why we can show you these pictures, and also let you talk to Gognan for yourself. Are you there, Gognan?”

“Yes, Commander,” the entity’s voice replied from the bridge speakers.

“But how?” asked Jerry Ward, his mind still refusing to come to terms with his eyes and ears.

“All I did,” Gognan added over the speakers, “was translate a few life forms between different scales of existence.”

‘Scales of existence,” Jerry repeated, not quite getting it.

“You know how they say there are worlds within worlds, Captain?” asked Ron Fell rhetorically. “Wheels within wheels? That’s the way Thorne explained it to me a few moments ago.”

“Early science fiction writers on Earth speculated about things like this, sir,” added Scott Connors from his navigator’s seat down forward on the bridge. “They wrote about the possibility that there might be civilizations existing on the surface of atoms, to whom the atoms would seem like planets. They also speculated that our own solar system, or even our own galaxy, might be nothing more than a single atom in some much larger-scale reality. Compared to those ideas, this is really pretty tame.”

“But how did it get down in the reception chamber? Did it fly here all the way from Altair? A little speck like that, at warp three? I don’t believe it.”

“We think you may have taken it down with you when you went to dinner, sir,” Wood replied. “You were the only one who both entered the shuttle and beamed down to the planet.”

“Me! Carried it down? How?”

“Oh, on your clothing; who knows?”

“What makes you think it was in the shuttle?”

“Well, that’s where everybody else disappeared, isn’t it? It must have been somewhere in the shuttle, or on its hull or something.”

“Okay, true,” Ward admitted. “But what about all those Klingons we heard about? They were never in the shuttle.”

“Apparently the USS Bennu must have encountered this particle-city of Seummu during its recent mission into the Klingon empire,” Commodore Fell contributed. “At that point it became embedded somewhere in my shuttle. As a matter of fact, we did stop in orbit above the fifth moon of Jaglon Beta briefly, and my shuttle did take a landing party down for consultations with the Klingons. They refused to allow transporters for security reasons. We must have been carrying it with us everywhere we went, from one system to the next.”

“Which means the warp speed was all just our own calculations,” Jerry realized. “They had a free ride everywhere. What about the giant amoebas that ate up a whole landing party of Klingon warriors?”

“That happened in the Klingon scientist’s lab,” WeQ reminded him. “No doubt Seummu had landed at that point on some surface that contained the organisms. Most unfortunate for my fellow Klingons. But then somehow the flying city left the lab with Commodore Fell’s shuttlecraft.”

“I’d say Gognan has just been trying to keep tabs on where he was, and what was going on, after he got hijacked by us,” Wood added, arching one Vulcan eyebrow.

“But your great WeQ did liberate me from the overlords,” Gognan cut in. “That is one very real and positive outcome of this whole confused business.”

“So Gognan,” Ward responded to him, “can your flying city achieve warp speeds, or do you always travel around like a seed packet, hooking onto nearby travellers?”

“The maximum speed of Seummu would be some feet per second in your frame of reference,” Gognan replied candidly, “though at this scale, it seems frightfully fast to me.”

Jerry turned and looked at WeQ, who smiled back at him proudly. “You said,” he accused her, “that the overlord was shifted here onto the McNair, too. What is she, about the size of a grain of salt or something?”

“Here she is now, Captain,” WeQ replied, indicating the turbolift doors as they opened once again. The strikingly attractive white-haired woman, still wearing her red jump suit with the silver striping, stepped carefully onto the bridge. She looked around at the assembled Starfleet officers. She appeared to be fully human, and a very nice full-sized human at that, Jerry observed carefully. Her eyes came to rest on him.

“You are the captain?” she asked.

“That’s right,” he replied.

“Then I am your prisoner,” she declared. “I am ready for you to debrief me, sir.”

Jerry courageously conquered the urge to surrender to that pun, and settled for simply nodding at her. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll get to that in a minute, after I figure this out about this tiny little flying city of ours. What happens to you now, Gognan?”

“I have learned about your mission to explore strange new worlds, captain. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no tiny little microscopic flying cities have gone before. It sounds good to me. I think I’ll be going, now, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Oh! Well, since you put it like that, have a good flight,” Jerry replied. And as suddenly as that, the little silver sphere floated up within their field of view, and drifted away through the air, out of the scanner’s focus.

“Do you suppose he’ll bother to keep in touch?” Jerry asked. He looked around at his bridge crew.

“I think he has enjoyed his contact with the Federation, sir, and as long as it takes him to reach the outer edges of Federation space, I’m sure he’ll keep in touch. We know now that we must monitor unprecedentedly short wavelengths to pick up his tiny signals.”

“By the way, can I have my shuttle back now, Captain?” asked Commodore Fell.

“Certainly, sir,” Jerry acceded. “Take it away, Commodore! It’s all yours!” Ron and Kristi Fell nodded in acknowledgement, and together turned to take the turbolift down to the shuttle bay.

“We seem to have this mostly sorted out,” Ray Seay observed. “Permission to beam down to Nimasp, Captain? First officer Oodee and I have some business propositions to look into, if we’re going to be here for a little longer. I have a number of items down in the cargo hold that I never got a chance to work with in the Altair system.”

“Permission granted, Ray,” Ward agreed. “And tell Oodee to be on the lookout for any unusual antique weapons for my collection, would you?”

“A pleasure, Captain.”

Finally, all the immediate duties resolved, Jerry turned to the willowy white-haired overlord. “Now if you’ll follow me,” he directed the erstwhile Ice Queen, “we’ll get to that debriefing you mentioned.”

“At your orders, sir,” she smiled back. Jerry headed for his ready room, nodding cheerfully at Counsellor Kelley as he passed. “You have the con, Counsellor. Watch my ship. I’ll get back to you later.”

“Aye, Captain,” she answered. “Go boldly, sir!”

 

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