by Ron Richard
(Paramount owns all the rights to the Star Trek universe; we just play for free. The following story takes place five years after the events in ST:Nemesis.)
“Wheeeeeeee . . . EEEEEEEEEEE . . . HO!”
The piercing sound of the ancient Bosun’s whistle penetrated to every corner of the Ward Room. The several dozen dress-uniformed personnel quickly ceased their various conversations and turned their eyes to the dais, which was overflowing with Starfleet brass. The never-to-get-old sight of Earth from orbit filled the windows behind them.
“Attention to orders!” bellowed a young Commander, the lowest ranking officer on the platform. She handed a Padd to a Captain who was somehow managing to look bold, confident and dashing and, at the same time, frightened, timid and embarrassed.
Picard stood slightly behind him and scrutinized the four stripes on the man’s sleeve as he took the Padd. Starfleet had, for the umpteenth time, changed uniform styles yet again. Old-time officers refer to the unending search for the perfect uniform as, ‘The Not Quite Final Frontier.’ He was glad to see bloused trousers were back in use.
“To Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, Commanding Officer U.S.S Albatross, Stardate 61838.5.” Thorpe was doing his best to appear dignified, but despite his splendid record, he couldn’t but feel extremely intimidated by present company. He continued his soliloquy. “You are Hereby Requested and Required to take command of NCC-1701E, Federation Starship Enterprise as of this date. Signed, Vice-Admiral Kathryn Janeway, Starfleet Command.”
Picard stepped forward and his stentorian voice announced, “Computer, transfer all command codes to Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, voice authorization, Picard, Epsilon Six.”
The main computer’s timeless voice answered, almost sadly, “Transfer complete. U.S.S Enterprise now under command of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe.”
The young man offered his hand to the old man. “I relieve you, Sir.”
“I stand relieved.” The old man returned the firm grip and looked his successor in the eye. In the eternity that passed, (precisely zero point six eight seconds) Thorpe read in Picard’s final gaze: support, trust, envy, pride, relief, sadness and the threat of annihilation if he ever failed to treat Enterprise like a lady.
The eternity ended. They parted hands.
The other officers in the room began vying for position to shake hands with their new and old Captains. Admiral Janeway naturally took the point.
“Congratulations, Captain Thorpe. I have to admit to being a closet follower of your career, just like everyone else in the Federation. Stories of your exploits make for . . . gripping reading. Your boarding and taking control of the Breen frigate at the Battle of Minos Korva was quite brilliant. This promotion is well deserved, sir.”
“Thank you, Admiral. I’ve been extremely lucky over the years.”
“And extremely modest. But I daresay even the legendary Captain Thorpe will have some big shoes to fill on this ship.”
“No doubt, Admiral. All I can do is take over for Captain Picard. I could never replace him.”
As Picard watched and only half listened to the torrent of praise being indirectly thrown his way by the two officers, he began to wish the festivities were over. Compliments made him uncomfortable these days. As he saw the crowd of expectant faces peering his way, he realized with a mental sigh that there were a lot of hands to shake before he could work his way to the door. He was examining the intervening ground, planning his attack strategy, when he was outflanked.
“Congratulations, Jean-Luc. Sixty-three years of Starfleet service; over twenty of those in command of the Federation Flagship.”
Picard accepted Janeway’s handshake with a smile. “Thank you, Admiral. It was a remarkable experience.”
The two chatted about fabulous interstellar adventures and made it sound like small talk. The subject turned to Janeway’s record of being the youngest officer in Starfleet history to reach her rank. Her expression acquired just a touch of seriousness. “Tell me something, you must have been offered promotion countless times over the years. Why did you never accept?” The Admiral’s question would have been a bit too direct, coming from anyone else. Her natural charm made it acceptable.
“A very knowledgeable person once told me not to let them promote me.”
“And who was that?”
“Captain James T. Kirk, in fact,” Picard replied with a glint in his eye.
The Admiral’s expression remained deadpan. “Indeed. You know, I once flew on a homemade glider with Leonardo DaVinci.”
“Well, once again, congratulations on your retirement.”
This time, Picard’s expression hardened slightly. “I may be retiring from Starfleet, Admiral, but I won’t exactly be confined to a porch swing.”
“Of course, Ambassador to the Dominion. That’s quite a change of career. I heard that Ambassador Satalk is going back to Vulcan to uh, what was it; spend more time with his family? The rumor I’ve heard is that it’s a late life recurrence of Pon Farr. When do you leave?”
Picard started getting uncomfortable again and he fidgeted. “Ahh, tomorrow, the sloop departs for Starbase 375 for a final briefing, then a day’s travel to the Bajoran system. A quick trip through the wormhole, then I gain a Dominion escort at New Bajor for the final leg to the embassy on Tamaran, in the Gamma Quadrant; a long way from home. Of course you would know all about being on the other side of the Galaxy, wouldn’t you, Admiral?”
Janeway flashed her famous smile and replied, “The Delta and Gamma Quadrants are very different places, Jean-Luc. I hope you don’t run into as many problems. Good luck, Captain . . . I’m sorry, I mean Mister Picard.”
The last person to call him that had been his old mentor, Professor Galen. He had considered resigning back then. This time it was already done and real. The transfer of command was Jean-Luc’s last official act. His retirement would become official at 1800 hours today. As of that time, he would cease to be a member of Starfleet and become an official representative of the Federation Diplomatic Corps.
Forty minutes later, Picard had already spoken to more people than he would have thought the Ward Room would hold. They must be shuffling officers in and out; providing Picard with an infinite number of appendages to shake. There were Captains and Commanders; Counselors and caterers. Will and Deanna were there; Captain LaForge, Captain Vigo, Captain Shelby, Commander Barclay and a host of other officers that Picard had served with at one time or another.
He had made it about two thirds of the way through the room. The door was in sight. The hoped-for break in conversation that he had been waiting for occurred. His opportunity to make a run for it was at hand. He was betrayed by his own hesitation, however. The once-in-a-lifetime sight of Geordi LaForge, Reg Barclay, Miles O’Brien and Montgomery Scott talking transwarp theory was too fascinating to pass up. If he hadn’t taken the few seconds to view this historic sight, he might have made it out the door and into his new life. But, in one of those focal points in time that one always hears of, his destiny changed radically.
“Leaving so soon, Jean-Luc?”
* * * * * * * * *
Enterprise slipped into warp smoother than any other ship in the fleet. That was the official opinion of one of the best warp field engineers in Starfleet. That it belonged to Chief Engineer Commander Geordi LaForge of the Starship Enterprise was completely unrelated. He was monitoring the engine power readouts as she came up to speed and caught his reflection in the panel. This wasn’t the first time in the last hour he caught himself grinning like an ape. It was good to be getting back to exploration, again.
Captain Picard had announced over the com that Enterprise was on her way to the distant Lynaran Sector. An unmanned Federation deep space probe called Cook 9 had reported some disturbing findings. The probe had scanned several dozen systems on the fringes of a star desert. There were a total of thirteen planetary bodies catalogued as “showing evidence of intelligent habitation.” The probe’s sensors could detect no subspace signals or generated energy anywhere in the region, however. The planets in question were emissions quiet and no other ships were in the area. Cook’s onboard artificial intelligence then made the decision to penetrate further into unknown space. The star desert was crossed and the Lynaran Sector lay beyond.
For an unknown reason, contact was abruptly lost. It was theorized that the probe encountered an ion storm, which is not uncommon in densely packed stellar regions. The technicians back at Deep Space Four who were monitoring the probe’s telemetry relayed the information to Starfleet Command. Multiple attempts were made to re-establish contact, but Cook 9 stayed forever silent.
Analysis showed the general area that the probe had been headed towards to be densely populated with stable G-type stars. The potential for Class M planets was thought to be high. Enterprise was to make the first manned survey of the area and, as always, to seek out new life and new civilizations. It was a mission close to Geordi’s heart and a very appropriate way to say good-bye to all this.
Picard had hoped to avoid this, although subconsciously he had known it was inevitable. As though they had been directed on a stage, both he and Beverly said in unison, and completely untruthfully, “I was just coming to congratulate you.”
“I’m sorry.” “After you.”
After two or three rounds of mutual polite deferment, the floor was finally granted to Jean-Luc.
“How’s the fitting-out proceeding?”
Beverly’s expression seemed to indicate that she had expected a different question, but after a moment, she pulled it together.
“Um, just waiting for the shield grid calibration. As you know, multi-phasics can be cranky.”
“I understand the Mercy’s transporters can operate even through intense areas of gravimetric distortion.”
Beverly responded with a touch of pride, “And radiation fields. There are still a lot of former battle sites with dangerous areas of antimatter radiation and even undetonated warheads floating around. With Federation shipping increasing all the time, someone’s always drifting into somewhere they don’t belong. Mercy has to be able to respond anywhere. She’s designed as a rescue ship.”
“An ambulance,” Picard replied, remaining stoic.
“Nightingale-class ships are a bit more sophisticated than that.” Beverly’s voice began to rise in pitch. “She has full hospital facilities capable of handling over thirty trauma patients, each with full bio-bed support. She can operate in dark matter nebulae and spatial anomaly fields. She can deploy anywhere within twenty light years in under a day. As far as speed, Mercy could run circles around this bucket that you used to command …”
Jean-Luc’s eyes glistened with success at the trap that he had laid. Beverly realized that he had baited her and she had fallen for it.
“Very funny. I guess I’m a bit preoccupied with all the hustle and bustle lately.”
Picard smiled. “I know very well what you’re going through. Twenty years ago I was doing much the same thing.”
Beverly straightened ever so slightly, “Well, Mercy isn’t the Flagship, but she’s . . .”
Captain Crusher couldn’t deny that, but somehow it seemed inappropriate to acknowledge it, given recent events. Instead, she went on a different tack.
“Jean-Luc, I want you to know that . . .”
* * * * * * * * *
The last few years had been anything but uneventful, but the majority of the ship’s assignments were relief missions. The Dominion War had left dozens of bases and colonies, even entire worlds scarred and damaged. Infrastructure taken for granted for decades or even centuries had to be redesigned and replaced. A large part of Geordi’s work on the Enterprise over the past few years had been supervising the installation of industrial replication technology on several battle damaged planets so they could rebuild. It was satisfying work. LaForge always felt uncomfortable in the presence of damaged machinery. Even as a child, blind and all, he couldn’t help fixing his toys when they broke. Leaving a functional colony behind him felt good, but there was always another on the spatial horizon.
Now it was ten years since the end of the war. The Federation was stable. The Romulan Alliance was holding. There had been no Borg sightings since the return of Voyager. Even the Breen Confederacy was an accepted member of the interstellar community, if not the Federation. It had been a difficult recovery, but at last there was relative peace in the Alpha Quadrant. It was time to explore, again.
* * * * * * * * *
“Jean-Luc, I want you to know that . . . if it hadn’t been for . . . I mean, without you, I wouldn’t have . . . couldn’t have . . . What I mean is, well . . .”
Beverly went to evasive maneuvers and incorporated a light-hearted tone to her voice, “Everything I know about command I learned from Jean-Luc Picard. My promotion is because of you.”
Picard heard a hundred shades of meaning in every hesitation. His close relationship with Beverly over the years allowed him to read her every nuance. He knew exactly what she was actually . . . Mon Dieu, Jean-Luc, can you still be such a fool even at this age? Remember Kesprytt III? Remember the Drakans? You should have learned by now to steer well clear of such assumptions. You think you know what Beverly is thinking? Go ahead, Jean-Luc. Open your mouth and spew out some platitude that will do nothing but enrage her and embarrass you. Think first. THINK!
“No, Beverly. This is because of you. It was your quick thinking, your expertise that saved the day. You know that, I know that, and most importantly, Starfleet Command knows that.” Good recovery. She can’t deny official computer records. “Although I’m not sure they know how to use the assets they have.” Yellow alert, Jean-Luc, don’t blurt anything out. Just because it’s your opinion doesn’t mean you have to say it out loud.
“What do you mean?” There was the minutest edge to her voice.
Her shields are going up. But she really needs to reconsider this decision. I’m sure Beverly would appreciate some objective advice from me . . .
“Beverly, not to put too fine a point on it, but . . .” Her nostrils are flaring. She’s charging weapons! Must reverse course before it’s too late . . .
“You were once head of Starfleet Medical.”
Too late . . .
“And now . . . ?”
Red Alert! Red Alert! Mouth control has been compromised! One hundred and eighty degrees, hard about!
“And now you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing.” Control re-established, Captain. The ship has been thrown clear . . . “Congratulations, Captain. I’m envious.” A lie.
Beverly secured from General Quarters and took his hand. “Congratulations yourself, Ambassador. This is quite a feather in your cap. What’s next, the Federation Council?”
A stalemate. The battle avoided due to Mutual Assured Destruction.
“Believe me, this job is quite challenging enough. The Vorta will be difficult to deal with. It’s the genetically designed superiority trait. It will make it difficult to . . . but I learned that from the woman now approaching with her husband . . . Deanna, Will.”
The graceful Betazoid was skillfully navigating the crowd with her characteristic bouncing gait. Captain Riker followed, looking like a steam locomotive plowing through a herd of bison.
“Captain . . .”
“Captain . . .”
“Captain . . .”
“Captain . . .”
Deanna was the one to put a stop to it. “All right, enough already. Starfleet formality is for officers who just serve together.”
Picard spoke up. “I couldn’t agree more. We’re among family here. Deanna, I was just telling Beverly what you once told me about the Vorta . . .”
* * * * * * * * *
The area specified in the mission orders was on the outer edge of the distant Kinjari Arm of the galaxy. Its relative nearness (15,000 light years) to Shapely Center made it densely packed with star systems. The area where was the Federation probe was last heard from was in open space almost half a light year from the nearest star. There was no trace of Cook, other ships, or anything else of interest.
The first two weeks of the survey were disturbing, but intriguing. Cook 9’s report was correct. There were several star systems between the outer fringes of explored space and Lynara that had once been inhabited by intelligent beings. There were the remains of cities and roads on some of the planets. Others had been so reclaimed by the local ecosystems as to make it difficult to even find any ruins at all above ground. Enterprise’s sociologists and archaeologists dated some of the civilizations to be well over twenty-five million years old. Others had been extinct for a mere few hundred thousand. On some of the planets with younger extinct cultures, the environment was still contaminated with nuclear and antimatter waste that had gone untended over the centuries after the builders had long since departed into oblivion.
Apparently, all these species of intelligent beings, humanoid and non alike, died out sometime over the last thirty million years, although not all at the same time. Experts would say this is not unusual at all. Life is hard in the galaxy and is by no means guaranteed to last.
The curious item though, the one to buck the odds, was the fact that apparently thirteen civilizations spread out over half a sector all died out not at the same time, but at the same stage of development. Analysis showed that each culture had achieved warp drive and shortly thereafter, became extinct.
Several teams of archaeologists remained behind for voluntary extended field research, while the ship continued on the path of the still missing Cook 9. The star desert was crossed quickly. The Kinjari Arm stretched across the forward viewscreen like a band of diamonds.
Riker hadn’t changed. He had a few years under his belt as a starship captain now, but still wasn’t exactly a people person. He was easy going and quick with a joke with someone he liked. Someone he didn’t was still treated rudely. Starfleet tended to steer him away from diplomatic missions ever since he yelled at the Romulan Proconsul. Deanna had managed to soften him a bit, though.
“Well Jean-Luc, the Federation could have done worse. The Dominion needs a tough ambassador, and you’re tougher than any Vulcan I ever met. Good luck . . . and say hello to the wormhole aliens on your way to the Gamma Quadrant.” Riker shook Picard’s hand.
Deanna said, “Yes, they say that in the Celestial Temple, there are infinite paths to take, but only the Prophets know the correct one.” She kissed Picard on the cheek, “Good-bye. Be well.”
As the two retreated, Picard perused Deanna’s posterior. He always did find it fascinating. He knew that, as an empath, she was aware of his interest. But then all Betazoids knew what others thought of them. She was well aware that a good many crewmembers had found her sexually attractive, including the Captain. Her senses told her it was harmless though, and in no way interfered with his duties.
Picard’s many years as a ship captain had denied him the right to pursue any relationship with a subordinate. As a result, he had developed a useful ability to ogle females without outwardly appearing to do so. There was no fooling Deanna, but happily, there was no need to try.
The one exception to Picard’s self-imposed fraternization rule occurred years before on the Enterprise-D. Commander Daren’s brush with death had reaffirmed that rule with a vicious slap in Picard’s emotional face. He vowed never to let that occur again. But maintaining objectivity and control around attractive women was a damned difficult vow to keep, especially when it came to Beverly. As he had told her son years before, he always had to work at that. The incident with Neela, more than any other now, was one to rudely intrude into Jean-Luc’s mind whenever his private thoughts turned to pursuing an on-board relationship.
Or at least any serious thoughts . . . There were always the hidden fantasies that he had harbored about the good doctor for what . . . forty-some years? Occasionally, whenever the need “arose,” Jean-Luc satisfied himself in the privacy of his own bunk. In most of these instances, his motivational thoughts turned to various Beverly-related scenarios. But while she served on his ship, acting on these thoughts was forever out of the question for him. There was always a “someday” in the back of his mind, though.
LaForge’s innovative techniques for custom designing and installing the self-sustaining industrial replication equipment on war-scarred planets earned him distinction and honors. While he believed it to be far from true, Geordi had earned the reputation of being, “The Man Who Rebuilt the Federation.” To his dismay, he learned just how much of a public figure he had become when the subspace messages started flowing in. There were requests for speaking engagements and offers to chair seminars. These he wouldn’t have minded so much, but for every one of those, there were ten requests for Federation News Service interviews, public appearances at parades and celebrations and even invitations to the private homes of important officials and popular celebrities. He politely ignored these and tried to focus on his job, until one day there was a decision to make.
Captain Picard himself came to him with the news. Starfleet had made the offer of a lifetime to LaForge; promotion to the rank of Captain and the title of Director of Starfleet Engineering Research at the Daystrom Institute on Rigel III. This new position would become effective as soon as Enterprise came back within range of any transport ships that could shuttle Geordi to his new post . . . if he accepted. It was the hardest decision of his life. Leaving the Enterprise was not something to be taken lightly. One particular selling point was that he would be working two buildings away from Leah Brahms. According to Geordi’s research, she no longer seemed to have a husband these days . . .
“Beverly, I know that things didn’t exactly . . .”
“C-Congratulations, Captain . . . Sir . . . I mean Ambassador! I’m . . . I’m sure your . . . you will . . . I hope you have a nice time in the Gamma Quadrant!”
Picard answered the sudden interruption, “Thank you, Mr. Barclay. I’m . . . I’m sure I will . . . yes . . .”
Reg’s eyes sparkled with panic, “Yes. Yes. Well . . . Thank you, Sir . . . I have to . . . excuse me . . .” Commander Barclay spun on a heel and managed to spray half of his Synthale across Commodore Pulaski’s back. The resulting tumult provided Picard with the diversion that he needed.
“Beverly, why don’t we go somewhere . . . quieter? If you wouldn’t mind.” Now that he had the momentum, this was as good a time as any to get these things said before he left for the far side of the galaxy.
Without hesitation, Captain Crusher agreed fully by grasping Ambassador Picard’s hand and steering unerringly for the door. As it whispered shut behind them, the two realized that they were still not totally alone. There were at least a dozen people up both sides of the corridor engaged in either ship’s business or private conversations. All heads turned toward them when they came out of the room. Beverly dropped Jean-Luc’s hand a little too abruptly. Thinking quickly, before anyone could initiate more congratulations, Beverly announced, “This way Captain, I’d like to show you some scan results,” and started purposely and very professionally down the hall. Picard took her lead and followed in step, giving quick, curt nods to the others as he passed them.
Enterprise’s probes and sensors recorded a multitude of habitable worlds. There were forest planets, desert planets, ocean planets; carbon cycle life forms abounded in every shape, kind and color. There was an ocean world with several varieties of enormous marine animals that looked to be nothing more than acre-sized pieces of brightly colored plastic sheeting floating in the water. In actuality they were complex organisms living in family groups and traveling the currents of their respective globe, absorbing solar energy and harming nothing else.
There were flying creatures of all sizes and startling colors. One world with an especially dense atmosphere was populated with elephant-sized, winged quadrupeds. Billions of these creatures filled the skies of their mountainous planet, swooping through canyons in the thousands, literally brushing wings as they traveled in flocks hundreds of square kilometers in size.
There was reptilian life, mammalian life and microscopic life. There were fish, fowls, flora and fauna of all kinds. Every conceivable combination of proteins and amino acids was represented in this stellar vicinity. There was one exception: sentience. Every Class M planet that was surveyed showed no sign of civilization, past or present. There were no alloys, no ruins and no answers. Laws of averages that were developed by the best Vulcan statisticians were broken by the strange lack of intelligence.
The turbolift doors had never taken so long to close. Once they finally did, both Jean-Luc and Beverly looked embarrassingly at each other. Neither was sure who was to give the computer a destination. Beverly offered a suggestion, “Well, I don’t have quarters on board anymore . . .” She somehow batted her eyes without actually doing so, “The conference room on deck six?”
The computer, notorious for not knowing such subtleties, began moving the lift toward the conference room. Picard made a silent decision; a big one, “Computer belay that . . . Captain’s Quarters.” The turbolift hum changed in pitch and lights on the panel changed direction, but the two occupants felt no motion change thanks to the built-in inertial dampeners.
Beverly smirked for a moment and she knew it, so she put all efforts into maintaining her best poker face. It was entirely unnecessary as Jean-Luc’s stoic gaze was rigidly fixed on the featureless door panel ahead of him as if the secrets of the universe were written there. The lift continued to its destination. The doors opened to an empty corridor. Jean-Luc was grateful for that.
Picard’s quarters looked nothing like what they had over the last several years. The bulk of his possessions were already packed and stowed away. The layout and basic furniture of course remained unchanged, but with his collection of antiques and books gone, it was nothing more a ship’s suite. In two days, Captain Thorpe would begin making his own decorating mark on this cabin. As soon as the two entered, Jean-Luc spoke to the replicator.
“A glass of Aldebaran Whiskey and a glass of Jack Iron Rum, both neat, both non-Synthehol.” If the computer was surprised that the order was not Earl Grey tea, it didn’t say so. Two glasses of liquid, one green and one brown, materialized. Jean-Luc handed the brown one to Beverly. “I believe neither of us is on duty at the moment.”
“Doctor Crusher, report to Main Bridge immediately.” The computer’s voice was the one unchanging constant in a dynamic universe. Beverly had always thought it sounded a bit like Lwaxana Troi.
“Acknowledged.” She glanced once more at the acetylcholine study she had been perusing, then put it aside and headed out of Sickbay. There was something bothering her about this mission. There was a prodigious amount of data pouring in from several sources about life in this region of space. It all seemed very routine. Preliminary reports indicated so far that all of the surveyed planets had come by their biospheres in the usual fashion. Billions of years ago, proteins and amino acids combined with the energy from the strong cosmic rays coming from Shapely Center and life was born. Federation scientists had studied this process for centuries and had found that the natural formation of simple life on any particular planetary body is even more common than the appearance of dilithium ore. It wasn’t just the fact that the last planet surveyed was a perfect textbook case that was nagging at Beverly. All of these planets were turning out to be textbook cases. Beverly was so preoccupied with the problem that she almost didn’t notice the turbolift doors open onto the Bridge. The familiar background sound shook her out of her reverie.
“Doctor, you may find this interesting.” Picard was at Science Station Two, looking over the shoulder of Ensign Spengler from Botany. “Report, Ensign.”
“Aye, sir. This is an area near the equatorial region on planet designated R172.” He indicated a landscape on the screen overlain with topographic lines. “It’s a desert ecosystem with sparse water, but abundant plant and animal life forms.”
Spengler was a specialist in spores, molds and fungi and thus did not make it up to the bridge very often. Many of the more experienced officers in the Botany Department were away on extended field missions. Still, the young officer seemed at ease and gave a concise, efficient report. Picard was pleased and made a mental note of his professionalism as he addressed his superiors. He also noted however, that the man needed to go see Mr. Mott soon.
“This specimen right here,” Spengler changed the view to a blotch of purple and green on the landscape, “is a variety of lichen, which is common enough in the galaxy, but this one is a bit on the aggressive side. It produces certain amino acids that are lethal to the local plant and animal life. Contact with the lichen can cause mutations in some of the enzymes present in the other plant life, killing it. It’s also highly poisonous to most animal life; alkali based, very nasty.”
Doctor Crusher interrupted, “There’s something similar to that on Tiburon. They call it ‘Death Tide’ or something; a kind of poisonous mold that spreads very quickly if not kept in check.”
“Bingo, Sir. This is very similar to that life form. As you know, lichen is a fungus that lives symbiotically with algae. Neither is harmful by itself. But the result of this particular union is a toxic lichen that aggressively seeks out any and all carbon-based life, destroys it and draws nutrients from the remains. Perhaps ‘seeks out’ is a bad phrase. There is no mind at all here. The attraction is strictly chemical. But the potential is astounding. If this life form were brought to say, the Sonoran Desert on Earth, it would destroy the first piece of living tissue it came into contact with, whether it were a bird landing on it or a barrel cactus that happened to be next to it. The dead bird or cactus would be quickly consumed, broken down into simpler compounds and ingested by the lichen as nutrients. This would trigger an exponential growth spurt in the lichen, allowing it to grow by the same amount of mass that it consumed. Large, contiguous life forms like grasslands or forests would be especially susceptible. It would spread like wildfire.”
Beverly saw the point he was pedantically leading up to, “So what is keeping this from spreading like wildfire on this planet?”
Spengler was now getting warmed up, “Well sir, that’s the interesting part! In addition to oxygen, the local plant life produces another gas as part of waste exhalation process. It’s a simple, methane mix, but it keeps the lichen at bay. The gas doesn’t appear to harm the lichen, just discourages it from growing and assimilating anything else. But the thing is, how do the plants know to release it? There is no mechanism to recognize the proximity of the lichen or any kind of stimulus at all. It’s like a motor with no ‘on’ switch. The plants appear to be defenseless, but nonetheless when the lichen gets too close to these sagebrush-like forms here, for example, the gas is released and the lichen stays put and advances no further.”
Beverly’s brow wrinkled, “So what tells the plants to release the gas?”
Spengler’s tone got spooky, as though there was a conspiracy among plants, “Nothing, Sir. There’s nothing present that could do that.”
Jean-Luc and Beverly clinked their glasses together and took respective sips while looking in each other’s eyes. The Caribbean distillate of sugar cane filled Beverly’s mouth with a fiery satisfaction, caressing her tongue and flowing down to fill her belly with warmth and courage. Good stuff. She had first tasted it on the island of Grenada, years before. It did tend to make her eyes water, though.
Jean-Luc automatically started to throw back the whole shot, but checked himself. He sipped his whiskey and swirled it around in his mouth before swallowing. He wanted to remember every tiny detail about the next few hours, if all went as he hoped. He steeled himself for the opening move.
“Beverly I want you to know . . . before I leave . . . just in case there is any misunderstanding at all, that I completely understand your decision. If I were in your situation, I would . . . well let’s just say that I do understand, and that there are no hard feelings. In fact, I’m happy for you.”
Beverly’s eyes were filled with both sadness and gratitude, “I know you are, because you’ve been there before.” She raised her glass for another sip of rum. “Being given a command of your own is . . . exhilarating to say the least. There’s something almost sexual about it.” Beverly didn’t mean for it to happen, but the mention of this word caused both of them to halt their glasses in mid-raise.
Beverly took a healthy slug of rum, “And now you need to know something. When you told me about the ambassadorship and asked me to go with you . . . if . . . if it weren’t for . . . You have the worst timing of anyone I’ve ever known!”
Picard replied, “What you’re trying to say is if you hadn’t been promoted and offered the Mercy, you would have accepted my offer, resigned from Starfleet and gone to the Gamma Quadrant along with me. I know that and say once again that I understand. There’s nothing to explain.”
Beverly looked relieved, but still seemed to have something bottled up within her. “What you may not understand is just how tough a choice that was. We’ve both known for years now that there is an attraction between us. This was a chance for both of us to act on it at last.”
“Beverly . . .”
She waved him off, “No let me finish both my drink and my speech.” Beverly threw back the rest of the rum with a determined flourish. She winced with the burn. “As you know, there would be little for me to do on Tamaran. Dominion medical science is highly advanced. I would be a competent doctor among thousands. About all I could do would be to become some kind of medical consultant or maybe do some research. Not that exciting a life compared to being CMO on a starship; but you know what . . ?”
Beverly rose and went to the replicator, “Computer another rum . . .” She glanced at Jean-Luc’s now empty glass, “And another whiskey.”
She handed the green inhibition remover to her former captain, “I would have done it.”
Enterprise spent more than seven weeks charting the Lynaran Sector. This place was a zoologist’s dream. The ship’s scanners and probes recorded vast amounts of information, enough to keep analysts busy for years. The field teams began to report in. Nearly all of them requested extra time to remain on their respective study planets. Unfortunately, that time couldn’t be granted. One by one, Enterprise’s small fleet of shuttlecraft bearing the field researchers began returning to the nest. The survey was complete, at least as far as the mission orders. It would soon be time to return to Federation space. A final meeting was held with the department heads.
Jean-Luc and Beverly were each on their third glass of spirits. The heavy-duty, ‘must get this off my chest’ conversation had all been said. Now they were in a giggly phase, reminiscing about old times and enjoying each other’s company more and more. Beverly’s boots were off and her feet were curled under her on the sofa. Jean-Luc was seated at the other end. They were each more than a little tipsy and the conversation was getting less and less professional.
Beverly snickered, “Earth tones. You always would dress in earth tones when you went on leave. You have something against color?”
“Natural tones, no. Some of those fluorescent colors you wear off-duty hurt my eyes. That reminds me, Computer, what is the time?”
“Eighteen-hundred eleven hours.”
“That’s it then. I’ve now been a civilian for eleven minutes.” Jean-Luc rose from his chair and headed for the bedroom.
“Beverly looked at him through eyes of rum, “And where are you going?”
“I have to get out of this Starfleet uniform. It’s not appropriate any more. I’ll just change into something more comfortable, if that’s alright with you.”
Picard pulled at his collar. “That is, if I can figure out this new style of dress uniform. It’s more complicated than a warp core. Excuse me.”
While he was in the other room, Beverly took the opportunity to neaten her hair and check her breath by blowing into the palm of her hand. Several minutes later, Picard re-emerged wearing light slacks and a loose-fitting wrap around shirt that exposed plenty of white chest hairs.
Beverly’s eyes did a very obvious up and down appraisal of Jean-Luc’s appearance. “Very nice. It took you long enough. Couldn’t decide what to wear, hmm?”
“These are the only clothes that aren’t packed. Truthfully, I really did have trouble with the uniform. I discovered a trick though. You have to remove it in the correct order.”
Beverly snickered, “You mean there is an established Starfleet protocol for uniform removal? Why am I not surprised?”
Smiling, Picard said, “Actually I discovered that if you start with that clasp at the back of the neck, the rest of it is fairly easy.”
Beverly’s hand went behind her head, “Clasp? No wonder I had such trouble getting into this thing. I didn’t know there was a clasp back here. Where?”
Picard now realized that he had the weather gauge. He went for the opportunity like a Ferengi at a clearance sale.
He stepped behind Beverly and moved her Titian hair out of the way. “This one right here . . .”
REPORT TO STARFLEET ON CONDITIONS
IN SECTOR 38525 A.K.A. LYNARA
SUBMITTED BY FEDERATION STARSHIP ENTERPRISE NCC-1701E
CAPTAIN JEAN-LUC PICARD, COMMANDING
The area of space known as the Lynaran Sector has been fully charted and recorded. Studies show multiple carbon cycle life forms consistent with standard observed evolutionary processes. Twenty-two planetary bodies were discovered with conditions that can sustain humanoid life. No sign of civilization past or present was detected within the perimeter of the sector. The remains of several extinct ancient cultures were confirmed to exist on nearby worlds in Sector 38523. Cause of their demise is unknown at present.
- Fully equipped archaeological expeditions to further study the extinct cultures.
- Consideration for future colonization in Lynaran Sector.
DETAILED REPORT TO FOLLOW . . .
Even though it was referred to as a door ‘chime’, Picard always thought it was more of a ‘chirp.’
Doctor Crusher entered the Captain’s Ready Room with a handful of Padds.
“Do you have a minute, Captain?”
Picard glanced at the load in her hands. “This looks like it might take a bit longer than that, but alright.”
Beverly smiled and said, “I’ll try to keep it to an hour or less. Remember the Lynaran Sector class M planets?”
The question was a bit rhetorical, since they had just left two weeks earlier, but he played along, “Of course. My particular favorite was, I believe, R176, the one with the high mountain lake serpents.”
“An excellent example.” She chose one of the Padds and called up some information. “Those reptiles are over thirty meters long and need to consume about seven hundred kilograms of food every day to maintain their high metabolism. Ordinarily they would exhaust the limited food supply in the small lakes that they live in. As they seem to have no natural enemies, the serpents should eventually devour every other animal life form around them . . .”
Picard’s eyebrows went up a bit, “But . . .?”
“But they don’t. Every single one of those mountain lakes supports both serpents and the fish they feed on.”
Picard asked, “But isn’t this Nature’s way of keeping balance in any ecosystem?”
“That’s a kind of human way of anthropomorphizing it. There really is no such thing as ‘Nature’ so to speak, as far as a guiding force. Ecosystems develop from natural selection, like everything else. And an ecosystem is never in perfect balance. They change constantly over time. Life is a constant struggle to get ahead of the other guy, or other species. It doesn’t matter if you are a human, a lake serpent, a lichen or a sparrow. All life forms have an instinctual need to reproduce and grow, at the expense of others, if necessary. And there will always be winners and losers.
“Your point, Doctor.”
Beverly leaned forward, “That doesn’t happen here. And I don’t mean on just R176. If this were an isolated incident, I would put it down as just a small environmental mystery that hasn’t been solved yet. But on every planet we surveyed in that sector, predation among plants and animals is completely balanced. There are no areas that have an overabundance of prey or predators. No plants or animals on any of these worlds seem to be in any kind of environmental or evolutionary danger. There are no species with dangerously few numbers, or any whose habitat is threatened by anything, although it’s difficult to be sure as these are unfamiliar worlds.”
Picard narrowed his eyes, “Are you saying it’s too good to be true?”
Beverly replied, “I’m saying that area of space reminds me of the shore leave that we all took on Earth in about . . . ’51, I think?”
Picard thought, “ ’51? Let’s see . . . that must have been . . . ahh, yes. That was when Walker and Anne and Melissa and you and Jack and I . . . my God, Wesley was just a toddler. That was when we all spent that week camping while Stargazer was refitting.”
Beverly pressed, “Do you remember where we camped?”
“Of course . . . Yellowstone Park.”
Jean-Luc woke in the dark, which disoriented him briefly. As he made to roll over, he found himself restrained in some way. In a moment, he realized the cause of both his problems. It wasn’t really dark; his face, his right arm and shoulder were covered by a mass of red hair. His chest and legs were being held down by a silky arm and leg. He began to remember just where he was and his stirrings caused a small sigh of satisfaction to come from the still sleeping Beverly, who snuggled up closer to him. He then realized just what it was that woke him. He had to pee; he had to pee badly. He also seemed to have just a touch of a headache and a small hangover, which told him he had been sleeping for some time.
As he came fully awake, Jean-Luc remembered all the details of night’s activities. As had been the case in a few other midnight awakenings in his past, this time there was not only no regrets, but a sense of having never done so right in his life. This feeling, wonderful as it was, still didn’t empty his bladder. He reached for Beverly’s wrist with his free hand and gently lifted it. After a small struggle, she relaxed her coils and rolled off his shoulder, making little satisfied noises.
Jean-Luc finished in the bathroom and took a last look at his still smiling reflection. This night, he did not feel eighty years old. In fact, he hadn’t felt this kind of adolescent giddiness for more decades than he cared to remember. With a small flourish, he spun and flicked open the door. Beverly’s blue eyes met his as she stood leaning against the door frame. She was wearing no more than he was.
“Good evening, Jean-Luc, come here often?”
“As often as needed.”
“Me too. Excuse me.”
She slipped past him into the bathroom, copping a quick feel on the way by.
Jean-Luc returned to the bed. He checked the time. There were still a few hours before his ship was due to depart and the bed was still warm and inviting. It was even more so when Beverly returned and joined him. The next two hours were devoted to cuddling and dozing.
“Are you saying that an entire sector of space is one huge nature park?”
“I’m saying that two dozen planets in perfect environmental balance is not natural, as strange as that might sound. It just reminded me of the carefully maintained conditions in a national park or wildlife preserve.”
Picard’s love of a mystery drove him to discover whodunit. “If that’s true, then someone or something is maintaining it.”
Beverly responded, “If that is true, then it’s something that won’t show itself; and it’s something that’s been around for a while. According to our studies, there has been no major environmental change on any of these planets for at least thirty million years.”
Picard had to be the pragmatic Captain, “We spent two months probing each planet with scanner beams down to their very cores. We had people on the surface of every one of them. If there is any kind of intelligence or controlling force in those systems, nothing showed on any sensors.”
Beverly nodded, “I know, I’ve been over every one of those sensor logs looking for . . . I don’t know what I’m looking for; my funny feeling, I guess.”
“If I run across it, I’ll have it sent to Sickbay. In the meantime, are you suggesting a course of action?”
“Actually, I was really hoping that you would have an instant answer to this, so I can stop tossing and turning at night. Even your Aunt Adele’s Sleepytime Tea isn’t working.”
Picard smiled, “Try using that along with counting the stars outside your window. Works every time. I’m sorry, that’s my only suggestion.”
“I do have one more avenue to try, but it’s probably a long shot. What’s next on our itinerary?”
“We’re scheduled to make a sensor pass of the binary pulsar in Sector 38517 before we head back toward Federation space. Then we rendezvous with the transport ship Thresher to drop off Mr. LaForge.”
Beverly seemed to make up her mind. “Good that gives me a little time, but I’ll need one more miracle from Geordi before he leaves, it that’s alright.”
The next morning’s breakfast was much like countless other shared ones before that, with the exception of the footsy being conducted under the table. Jean-Luc and Beverly finished their food in silence, glancing at each other and smiling when their looks coincided. There were still no regrets from either side. Both had volumes they wanted to say . . .
“This time you go first,” Jean-Luc said.
“I was just going to repeat, in case you didn’t get it, that last night was incredible . . . amazing. Thank you so much. Your turn.” Beverly reached out and held his hand.
Jean-Luc squeezed back, “You took the words right out of my mouth. And I also wanted to make sure you didn’t think of me as some kind of rake, ravishing you and flying off across the galaxy.”
“No, I don’t think that if you don’t. I did enough of my own ‘ravishing’ last night, so we’re even . . . You know that you didn’t have to say that. We both know we’ve wanted to jump each other’s bones for years.”
“I know, just making sure.” Jean-Luc dabbed his mouth with his napkin, then sat back and looked about him at the empty quarters. “This will take some getting used to. Ordinarily, I would be heading for the Bridge at this time. Now I have nothing to do until I depart this afternoon.”
Beverly was just finishing wolfing down her scone. “I, on the other hand have a million things to do. Mercy’s shield calibration should be done within the hour. Once that’s finished, I take her out of Spacedock to Sagan Station. I’ve got to get her settled into her new berth and get the crew started on training schedules; the new subspace relay alert system has still to be tested, and then after lunch . . .”
Jean-Luc interjected, “Well, it sounds like you’ve got a full day planned. I was hoping to beg another half-hour of your time, if you can find it.”
“I’m booked pretty solid, but with you leaving this afternoon, I have to scrounge all the time I can with you.” Slyly, Beverly asked, “Did you have something specific in mind?”
“I’d like to show you my ship.”
“A J9 multi-phasic electron resonance scanner.” Geordi’s artificial pupils contracted in answer to Doctor Crusher’s question.
“That’s what I thought, but I need something with a greater magnification.”
Geordi’s eyebrows went up, “Greater? But with a J9, you can see the individual atomic structure.”
“I need more. I need to scan beyond the subatomic movement.”
Geordi began to employ the same, soft persuasive tone that he had learned to use with starship captains who wanted the impossible. “Even with Heisenberg compensation, anything beyond the subatomic is indefinable. It’s thought that there is some kind of sub-dimension of reality, but it can’t be accessed or even scientifically proven from this universe.”
The doctor persisted, “There are some species that claim to be able to perceive and actually manipulate the lower universe; Okampans, Metrons and a few others. If that’s true, then there is a way to access it. Let me know when it’s done.” Beverly turned and threw a, “Thanks, Geordi,” over her shoulder and left Engineering.
“But . . .”
It was raining in Paris. Water was drumming on the windows of the Federation Diplomatic Corps Headquarters. The ambassador placed his palm on a security pad, “Picard, access.” The door recognized him and opened.
The vessel sat in a launch bay. Beverly’s recently acquired eye for ship design ran over her appreciatively; more than twice the size of a runabout; wide bodied, but sleek; flush mounted warp nacelles and atmospheric capable.
“This is my Federation-issued transportation. She’s the Mistral. They call it an executive sloop. It’s actually a modified Independence-class ship with a few luxury amenities added. These sloops are designed for comfort and . . . entertainment value. They were specially ordered from Utopia Planitia by the Diplomatic Corps. They’re meant not only for ambassadors’ personal use, but also as a potential negotiations platform in the event a neutral site is needed. They’re roomy, comfortable and capable of extended use.”
Jean-Luc circled the ship, pointing out various features. Beverly listened with interest. “She’s not as fast or as large as Mercy, but she can sustain a warp 9.2 cruising speed. There are replicators, antimatter and deuterium reserves, armor skin technology, even a small holosuite. I look forward to piloting her. Actually I don’t expect to get much use out of it aside from the trip there. I’ll spend most of my time in the embassy on Tamaran.”
“You’ll be piloting it? And how did it happen that an ambassador of your stature doesn’t have private pilots?”
He smiled, “Actually, I ordered them to stay behind. I am a perfectly capable pilot, after all.”
“That sounds rather demanding, Ambassador.”
“I’ve dealt with my share of temperamental ambassadors over the years. Now it’s my turn to be demanding. Rank has to have some privilege, after all.”
“Beverly looked back at the sloop, “Very nice. I could see taking a ship like this on a luxury cruise; like say, the Risa to Casperia to Argelius loop.”
Jean-Luc looked into her eyes. There was a lot to think about in that statement. “I don’t think that’s what she was designed for, but you’re right.” There was a pause as he thought, “I don’t suppose you would consider accompanying me to DS9 to see me off.”
The two gazed at each other until reality took over. Captain Crusher broke the spell, “That has got to be the most tempting offer anyone could ever get, but . . . I think you know that isn’t possible.” There was longing in both of their eyes, but understanding as well, “Well this was fun, but I’m afraid I really need to get going. This day won’t wait.”
“I understand. I hope everything goes well with you, Beverly.”
“Thank you, Jean-Luc. I know that . . .”
“Utopia Planitia Operations to Captain Crusher.”
Beverly slapped her combadge, “Crusher here, go ahead.”
The com-distorted voice on the other end replied, “Commander Cheng, Refit Section here, Captain. I’m afraid I have to report a problem with Mercy’s shield generators.”
Her brow furrowed, “What kind of problem, Commander?”
“There were microfractures found in the mercassium housing. I’m afraid a whole new assembly will have to be fabricated.”
“And how long will that take?”
There was a touch of fear in the disembodied voice, “A minimum of two weeks.”
“Contact with a vessel, bearing one-two-one, mark four seven, distance two point zero two light years. It’s on an intercept course.”
“Can you identify?”
“Transponder confirmed. It’s the S.S. Thresher, Federation registry.”
“Time to intercept?”
“Three hours, seventeen minutes.”
“Right on schedule. Bridge to Captain Picard . . .”
The rays of the Caribbean sun felt wonderful on Beverly’s back. Her skin was at the same time cooled by the fresh ocean breeze blowing up from the surf. She lay in the hot sand with her cheek resting on her crossed arms. Far down the beach, a steel drum band played a cheerful tune. Jean-Luc lay next to her on his elbow, intent on an old hardbound biography of Captain Cook. A voice spoke from the sky.
“Attention: warp drive disengaged, approaching destination.”
Jean-Luc read one more paragraph, and then snapped his book shut, “I believe it’s time to go.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Beverly stretched languorously and rose, brushing loose sand off of her naked breasts as she did. This had the effect of jiggling them in the most delightful way.
Jean-Luc took one more look around at the tiny island of Mayreau and sighed, “Computer end program and exit.”
Paradise morphed into a small chamber crisscrossed with grid lines. The door in one wall slid open. Jean-Luc exited and headed forward. Beverly scooped up her swimsuit top that lay on the deck and followed.
Through the command cockpit windows of the sloop, the still distant form of Deep Space Nine grew larger. Jean-Luc slid into the left hand seat and started approach procedures. Beverly stood before the windows with one hand on the back of his pilot seat, the other with her bra slung over one shoulder.
Little did Beverly know that among the civilian population on board DS9, there was a small group whose hobby was monitoring and recording ship traffic coming and going from the station. It was a kind of scavenger hunt that they played with similar groups at other Federation spaceports. At least a dozen optical scanners and telescopes routinely perused all incoming ships. More than one photographic image was snapped of the incoming luxury sloop with the nearly naked redheaded figurehead at the prow.
“I suppose I should get into uniform before we dock.”
“I’ll buy you dinner on the Promenade tonight. I’ve been looking forward to some real Bajoran food.”
Beverly retreated to the sleeping compartment and called over her shoulder, “When do we enter the wormhole?”
“Tomorrow at oh-eight-hundred. Then we travel to New Bajor where the Dominion delegation will arrive with my aides. That’s when I begin the final trip to Tamaran.”
Beverly called out from the bedroom, “And that’s when I have to say good-bye to you, get onto the return transport and make that long trip right back to Earth again.” She returned to the command cabin, pulling on the rest of her Starfleet uniform. She walked over to Jean-Luc in the pilot’s seat and kissed the top of his head, “But it sure was worth it.”
The resolution was astounding. Doctor Crusher had never seen a strand of DNA in this detail before. Geordi had outdone himself. This kind of observational power could prove to be a breakthrough with any number of diagnostic uses. But for the moment, she was concentrating on the tissue sample that the archaeologists had retrieved from R144, one of the planets with a dead civilization. Since this was alien DNA, the computer was not completely familiar with it, but the basic structure seemed sound. The nucleotide bonds were strong. She did note that this species had seemed to be at an evolutionary dead end at the time of its death. None of the base pair sequences had any kind of potential for change. There was literally nowhere for this species to go. Something about the exactitude bothered her. An examination of the other samples showed this same mathematical precision in the placement of the subatomic particles making up the atoms in the DNA molecule. It was after she had the computer do a computational analysis that the truth dawned on her. As she contemplated the fragility of life, a sudden horrible though struck her. She immediately called up recent mission logs, concentrating on personnel.
After an hour of checking blood and skin samples of several crewmembers, the doctor factored the results into her analysis. Upon receiving the results, she immediately hit a security companel, “Computer, initiate a shipwide Code 13; authorization Crusher, Sigma seven. Shut down all transporters, lock down all shuttlecraft and seal off all docking ports.”
“DS9 Ops, this is the Federation ship Mistral, requesting clearance for the wormhole.”
“Mistral this is Ops. You are cleared to depart Upper Pylon Three. Good luck in the Gamma Quadrant, Ambassador.” And in a softer tone, one probably not meant to be heard, the Bajoran accented voice added a quiet, “May the Prophets guide you.”
The going away party for Geordi lasted well past the night and into the next morning. Nearly every member of the crew and their family members stopped by to wish him well; with one notable absence.
“Where’s Doctor Crusher?” Geordi asked a group of medics.
Crewman Sanchez responded, “Locked in the science lab for the last several hours. I think she has a new toy of some kind.”
Geordi grinned to himself. He had completed her new ‘toy’ yesterday afternoon. The subatomic scanner may not be quite as powerful as she had hoped, but he was still proud of his gadget. Geordi checked the clock for the third time in the last five minutes. He was quickly running out of time. Thresher was due to rendezvous any minute and he had to be ready to transfer. Fortunately, he was already packed. It finally came to the point where he literally went from hugging and handshaking to running for the transporter room. He said his final goodbyes to Chief Murphy then gave the command to energize. Murphy’s hands began to play over the console. The familiar sound of energy building in the phase coils suddenly aborted and all status lights in the console went out, indicating total transporter power failure . . .
Gerhardt Fettmeister, helmsman on the Thresher, whistled through his teeth, “Damn. Quite a ship, isn’t she Skipper?”
Captain Threlka aimed his blue antennae at the main viewscreen that was showing the approaching Enterprise. “Pride of the fleet. Try not to run into her, Gerhardt. Do we have their transporter signal?”
Another merchant spacer on the bridge replied, “Signal interlocked. Standing by to energize.”
Threlka started to say, “Whenever you’re ready,” but was interrupted by an incessant and urgent signal that suddenly emanated from the approaching starship and issued from every speaker on Thresher.
“Extreme caution: The U.S.S. Enterprise is a quarantined vessel by order of Starfleet Command. Do not board . . . Extreme caution: The U.S.S. Enterprise is a quarantined vessel by order of Starfleet Command. Do not board . . .
The wormhole event horizon exploded in a swirl of spectacular energy. Mistral was smoothly pulled into the psychedelic maw. Strange, amorphous shapes of color and light surrounded the graceful little sloop as she traveled through the artificially constructed violation of space/time.
Beverly was enthralled, “Beautiful . . . beautiful.”
Jean-Luc was equally humbled, “Spectacular. It certainly is different from the other wormhole phenomena we’ve experienced.” He added lightly, “Perhaps we have the Prophets to thank.”
Before he finished his sentence, Jean-Luc realized that his seat was beginning to vibrate. The computer spoke, “Warning, attitude instability.”
“A destabilization of verteron field density, bearing zero zero one, mark zero one.” The vibration at this point had turned to sharp, violent jolts. The computer spoke again, “Warning, stresses exceeding inertial dampener tolerance levels.”
Beverly was working at the other console. “I’m reading something strange ahead. Two verteron nodes have intersected at a right angle, creating an area of instability. It reads as a rift in the lateral structure of the wormhole . . . and it’s expanding.”
Jean-Luc calmly stated, “I’ve lost helm control; impulse engines have stalled. I can’t stop our forward momentum. We’re heading right for that anomaly. Transfer emergency power to the lateral thrusters.”
“It’s not enough. We don’t have room to maneuver anyway. Structural integrity is failing.”
“The anomaly is filling the entire interior of the wormhole.” Beverly’s voice had a touch of awe, “We’re not going to be able to avoid it. Impact in fifteen seconds.”
Jean-Luc agreed, “All right . . . transfer all power to the defense systems.”
“I don’t understand . . . oh, now I do. Transferring emergency power to the shield generators.” Beverly’s hands made a few high speed moves across the console. “Ready.”
“Deploy armor.” With a final exertion, Mistral forced every last gigawatt of power into the sophisticated armor technology. The sloop enveloped itself in a dense coating of steel grey energy. An impossibly bright light and impossibly loud noise filled both the cabin and their heads . . . and all was silent.
Captain’s log, Stardate 61641.2: Enterprise remains under quarantine while Doctor Crusher works to eliminate the subatomic algorithms apparently written into the very fabric of our DNA. I am told that when affected personnel come into contact with others of the same species, the encoding is transferred from person to person in the form of a subatomic dust. The program was coded to lie dormant for six to eight generations until activating and dooming our species to extinction by rewriting our DNA. Why any intelligence would do this is a mystery.
As several members of the Lynaran away teams were of non-Human races, Doctor Crusher is to be credited with the potential saving not only of Humanity, but also the Vulcan, Bajoran, Bolian, and Deltan races. Her actions in this matter have been reported to Starfleet Command with the recommendation for the highest honors.
“Computer. Croissant with plum jam, coffee black . . . Beverly?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
The replicator did its job and Jean-Luc carried his breakfast over to where Beverly was sitting and perusing a Padd.
“What’s so fascinating this morning?”
Doctor Crusher replied, “I’m just reviewing the transporter schedule. We’re falling slightly behind, but nothing to worry about. Everyone should decontaminated by fourteen-thirty today.”
“Astonishing. The subatomic algorithms you showed me were incredibly sophisticated, well beyond anything Federation science could come up with. And yet, they can be disrupted by a simple trip through the transporter.”
Beverly replied, “That was its weakness. While it was nearly undetectable, its subtlety and its complexity are what made it vulnerable. The transporter reassembles matter down to the last atom, but the subatomic mathematical potential couldn’t survive the reintegration. It was like erasing data on a chip.”
Jean-Luc said, “We’re still faced with a mystery. Who or what did this . . . and why?”
“We may never know. As far as we can tell, those planets have been held in environmental stasis for millions of years, using subatomic manipulation of the atmosphere, the life forms, the very space itself. Perhaps the intelligence responsible doesn’t even exist anymore and the whole process is automatic.”
“If that is the case, then the extinction causing program is a . . . defense mechanism, perhaps. Maybe intruders are simply recognized as anomalies or foreign bodies.”
“Maybe . . . maybe.” Beverly considered that. “Maybe whatever protects the ecosystems on these planets recognized our presence as a threat to be dealt with . . . like an antibody response to disease.”
Jean-Luc was somber, “The people on the solar systems in close proximity to Lynara must have thought they had found Paradise on their first ventures to other worlds. Little did they know they were bringing back their own doom.” A voice from the ceiling interrupted him.
“Bridge to Captain Picard.”
“We are receiving an incoming subspace communications packet, Captain. There is a message included for you from the Federation Diplomatic Corps that’s coded personal.”
“Thank you, route it to my Ready Room. I’ll be there presently.” The Captain rose and was about to thank the doctor for a lovely breakfast when the same voice interrupted him again.
“Bridge to Doctor Crusher.”
“An incoming message from Starfleet Command for you, Doctor; ‘Office of Vice-Admiral Janeway.’ It’s coded personal.”
“Thank you. Could you route it to my office in Sickbay, please?”
Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher glanced at each other, smiled and together said, “I wonder what they want.”
“Jean-Luc, are you in there? Can you hear me?”
The voice was coming from somewhere in the darkness. It was a familiar voice. Jean-Luc thought it best to respond to it. “Beverly. . . what happened?”
When he remembered he had eyelids, he opened them. He was still in the pilot’s seat. Beverly was kneeling next to him with a medical tricorder.
“You . . . we . . . were exposed to a system shock of some kind. We’re both OK and the ship seems to be in one piece.”
Jean-Luc’s senses were returning quickly, “Computer, status.” There was no answer. He tried again, “Computer, respond.”
There was a short pause. One by one, consoles and indicators in the cockpit started activating. The voice spoke, “Main Computer, standing by.”
“Computer, execute a full diagnostic of all key systems.”
“Diagnostics underway. Stand by . . .”
Beverly was consulting her tricorder, again. Jean-Luc took this moment to glance around. There was nothing to be seen outside the windows, but stationary, distant stars.
“We’ve exited the wormhole. Have you found out anything?”
Beverly said, “Apparently all systems on the ship, including our brains, were momentarily overloaded by a tri-phasic EM pulse.”
The computer spoke again, “Diagnostics complete.”
“Life support online; communications online; warp drive online; navigation and helm control online; all systems nominal.”
“Computer analyze; what caused the EM pulse?”
The expressionless voice replied, “Sensor logs indicate EM pulse was produced by feedback caused by an uncontrolled transition to normal space.”
Jean-Luc said, “We’ve been thrown out of the wormhole by the anomaly. Computer, are we in the Gamma Quadrant?”
“One, one, seven, six by seven, nine, four, nine by six, one, four, four; sector nine seven two zero five.”
Jean-Luc went white, “Computer, distance to nearest Starbase or Federation outpost?”
The computer responded as calmly as if it were giving a weather report, “Twelve thousand, three hundred, forty-seven point eight light years to Federation colony Cyrus Seven.”
“Minimum travel time?”
“At maximum warp, eight years, two hundred, twenty-six days.”
Beverly and Jean-Luc faced each other and joined hands. She spoke first, “Am I right in that there’s no way to re-enter the wormhole?”
He nodded, “We are thousands of light years from either terminus. The only way home is under our own power.”
“Well . . . shall we?”
Jean-Luc agreed, “Computer, lay in a course for Cyrus Seven, warp nine . . .”
Jean-Luc and Beverly gazed into each other’s eyes, contemplating the next eight years. In perfect harmony, together they said,