So what exactly is this?
Some years ago, I found myself on the Paramount lot going into a pitch meeting with the writing staff of Star Trek: The Next Generation. How I got there is a bit of a convoluted story, but suffice it to say that I wrote a script that got the attention of a person on the production staff–and although they didn’t want to buy it, they thought my chops were good enough to invite me in to try out a few more ideas. One of them got the interest of Ronald D. Moore–who later went on to create SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, and is currently at the helm of the Apple TV series For All Mankind–so he ran it up the flagpole to Trek exec Rick Berman who took his own sweet time in finally shooting me down about a year later.
In the meanwhile, though, I developed the idea into a rather lengthy novel under what I considered an intriguing conceit: What if somebody did up Star Trek in the vein of a modern techno-thriller? The result is what follows here. I did some revising and pitched the manuscript to Simon & Schuster some years later when my novella Revenant was published as part of the Star Trek anthology Seven Deadly Sins, but sadly the editorial staff got fired as part of a corporate restructure and it ended up on a slush pile somewhere, never to be heard from again. And since Star Trek is licensed content, there really wasn’t much else I could do with it other than publish on my own for free.
Which brings us to the pages of the NOQ Report. J.D. Rucker has kindly allowed me to publish here–both as a fun experiment, and as a little break from the usual politics and current events.
Anyway, if you’re so inclined, I’d love it if you gave it a read and let me know what you think. And, if you’d like to see more of it in print, perhaps you might consider nudging Simon & Schuster on social media to see if they might consider it for publication.
Over the next 15 weeks, I’ll be posting one chapter at a time every Monday–so be sure to tune in regularly for new installments.
Thanks, and keep on boldly going!
STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION
SHADOW PRIME BOOK I:
ARC OF THE SENTINEL
Under ordinary circumstances, I would not be so arrogant as to honor myself with the title of historian. Although my interest in the past runs wide and deep within my heart, my actual experiences in dabbling with history have been amateurish at best, positively clumsy at worst. Those who prepared this chronicle, however, insisted I assume a different stance on this one occasion, and because they are the professionals–because they have made history a living, breathing part of their lives–I have chosen not to debate their choice.
That choice, however, has weighed heavily on my conscience. I will not defend, nor will I deny, my role, as it was played, in the Bezzeret Affair, of which you will read in the following pages. However, the mere fact that I was there, that I played both witness and perpetrator, was not a matter of choice: the tides and currents which carry us to these vital junctures during our lives are almost never left to our own devices; we are left only to deal with them to the best of our abilities after they have occurred.
And so these historians have my pity, as much as my envy. They are the ones who are called upon to hear the whispered words of the past and to make sense of them, so that the rest of us might learn from our own errors. Shakespeare once wrote, “If you die, King, I will have the garland and trust to keep it with the sword against all mine enemies, as you have done.” My enemies are time and forgetfulness; my garland and sword are memory and word. So as the King shall pass his throne to his son, so must someone bear the burden of making certain that we do not forget the events which have brought us to this day.
For this reason and this reason alone have I agreed to relate this tale in such a dramatized fashion. I have read through its pages, and am assured that it represents all of the facts to the best of my knowledge. My own depositions have figured prominently in this story, as of those of Captain Rixx, Commander Riker, Doctor Beverly Crusher, and the rest of the senior staff of USS Enterprise. With the exception of Lieutenant Commander Data, it would be only proper to note that our memories may well have been tinged to an extent by the passage of time. In addition, there is no one who was involved in the Bezzeret Affair who was not affected emotionally by what happened; indeed, an entire galaxy has been moved by these events, and caused each of us to perhaps wonder about ourselves. Any errors as a result of these failings should not be forgiven, but merely understood.
What is also missing is the Bezzeret side of the story. The only facts we can assemble come from after their society chose to become a part of the United Federation of Planets. What happened before then we can only speculate; that we may know one day for certain we can only hope. In the meanwhile, there is only confusion.
Lastly, I wish to make it known that because of the nature of this text–and because of its obvious political ramifications throughout the Federation–it is not likely that many eyes will befall it. All materials relating to the Bezzeret Affair are still classified, along with the logs of USS Enterprise and USS Thomas Paine. But a secret cannot be kept indefinitely, and it very well may come to pass, perhaps in my own lifetime, that what happened may be allowed to see the light of day.
When that happens, history will need a place to look for the truth.
It is my intention to give it that place.
Captain, USS Enterprise
“Look to the future, and turn your head from the past:
Let there be nothing in your mind to keep your eyes
From seeing where you are going, rather than where you have been.”
–From Ursad Ton’cha’lee
the Bezzeret Modern Dogma
“Perhaps he loves you now,
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will. But you must fear,
His greatness weighed, his will is not his own,
For he himself is subject to his birth.”
Act I, Scene III
C A S T I S
He stretched his arms out and greeted the wind like a man about to take wing. It was a fierce thing, this current of air that churned coarse particles around him in swirls and eddies, starting them on a journey that would carry them perhaps from one end of this barren world to the other. Fierce enough to make him believe that he might be able to ride it, if only he could keep himself from coming to close to the sun.
Like getting burned ever stopped you before.
Removing his visor and breathing gear, he took in the stark vista with his own eyes. Plumes came off from the dunes beyond a vast, arid expanse, whipped into little vortices that made the great drifts of sand that covered the landscape appear like volcanoes in the distance. From orbit, none of this had been apparent—and one might have passed by this moon thinking it to be little more than a featureless rock drifting through space, with nothing to distinguish it from the myriad other bodies in the Castis system. Yet something about it was different: an almost imperceptible trait that neither sensors nor reason could explain. For that, he could only rely on his intuition, and a faith that had—up until recently, at least—been unwavering.
And that’s the trick, isn’t it? This has never been about what you can prove. It’s about how long you can keep up the show.
Turning his gaze downward, he followed the perimeter around a small encampment nestled between the dunes. With the sun going down, lanterns snapped on to beat back the encroaching dark, illuminating the dozen or so pods from within. He watched as the movements of people—his people—played out in pantomime against translucent walls, shadows augmenting their every action. They were purposeful, this group—and spirited, in spite of everything. No matter where he dragged them on this mad quest of his, they never stopped believing in him. But they were young, and such things came easily to them.
But how much more disappointment can they take?
The question dredged his own doubts to the surface, in a sudden, forceful outburst that demanded release. He threw his head back and shouted into the wind, which swallowed his words and cast them across the valley—echo upon dying echo, which finally settled in the encampment below:
“For the love of God, where ARE you?”
The sands answered only with a hiss.
Jennifer heard, as she slipped out of her tent and into the cool of the evening. She wore a loose tunic and a pair of non-regulation shorts, a welcome change from the body suit that had protected her from the brutality of the sun during the height of the day. Her eyes scanned the horizon, searching for the source of that sound—a kind of mournful cry, yet defiant at the same time. It didn’t take long for her to find the man standing at the top of the dune, much as she had expected.
He railed against his surroundings, appearing almost intoxicated, his body little more than a tiny silhouette matted against an amber sky. The thought that he might lose himself and come tumbling down passed through Jennifer’s mind briefly, stirring a little fear. She knew him better than the rest of the team—better than any other person, for that matter—and knew the pressures he put himself under, all for the sake of the project. As hard as it had been to hear his theories dismissed by the Federation Science Council, it was harder still that he hadn’t been able to deliver on a promise to his own people. And though nobody spoke of it openly, it was now only a matter of time before they had to abandon their search once and for all.
After a little while, the man stopped and sank to the ground, exhausted. He sat and stared in silence, and even from a distance Jennifer knew what he was thinking.
Castis Minor was their last hope—the last hope of many last hopes.
“Dalton,” she whispered, though nobody could hear: “You’re such a fool.”
But she smiled as she said it.
The climb was a short one, but the long day’s work had taken its toll on Jennifer, making her hike up to Dalton a chore even in reduced gravity. Along the way, her bare feet sank into the sand—still warm from the afternoon sun, cascading around her ankles like the tepid waters of the Gulf of Mexico back home on Earth. Except that this was no beach, and no matter how hard she wished there was no surge of inviting ocean on the other side of the dune. Only kilometer after kilometer of sameness, drawing the essence out of her with each step.
Jennifer collapsed in a soft heap as she reached the summit. Breathing hard, she tasted the grit of metallic dust at the back of her throat—an alien thing, swirling around her in microscopic particles that stuck to the fresh sweat on her skin. She grabbed a portable filter from her pocket and took several gulps, before opening her eyes and finding Dalton standing over her.
Taking the filter from her lips, she flashed him a smile. “You rang?”
Dalton regarded her with a mixture of amusement and affection.
“You need to take it easy,” he said, helping Jennifer up into a sitting position. He dropped down next to her, unscrewing the cap on his canteen and handing it over. “There’s a reason folks don’t take vacations here.”
“Now he tells me,” she replied, taking a few swallows before handing the water back. “Guess I got a little too used to Plaktau IV. It’s not half as bad there, or half as hot.”
“Ten months in a place can do that to you.”
“Was it that long?”
“Pearson counted the days until we left,” Dalton said, followed by a light chuckle. “Might have changed his tune if he knew we’d end up here. Still,” he went on, assuming a philosophical tone. “Plauktau was all clouds and rain. It didn’t have the beauty this place does.”
Jennifer looked around them, trying to see what Dalton saw. Nightfall was nearly complete, the ghostly light of Castis VII just now starting to trace the contours of the surrounding dunes. Soon, planetrise would cast the entire desert in streaks of luminescence, forming serpentine lines that would shift and writhe at the urging of a constant wind: a simulacrum of life in a lifeless place.
“It’s harsh,” she observed. “Cruel, unforgiving—why anyone would build a settlement here…”
“All part of the mystery, Jen.”
“Which you managed to put together,” she said, nestling in his arms as the two of them watched the sky. The breeze blew cooler now, with an edge that warned of a deeper plunge to come, but for now it felt good to share Dalton’s warmth. “I still don’t know how you followed their trail. Plauktau was a swamp, this place a desert—hell, Berengerius was practically an ice cube. Everywhere we’ve been, it’s something different.” Jennifer turned to him, brushing a stray lock of hair from his forehead. “And yet you saw the same thing in all of them.”
An ember of doubt flickered in Dalton’s eyes.
“Two plus two still makes four,” he said. “Even all the way out here.”
Jennifer had seen that fear before. It was a habit of his as of late.
“You keep saying that like you’re trying to convince yourself.”
Dalton smiled grimly. “Am I that obvious?”
“Only to me,” she assured him. “Everyone else is too busy planning out their fame and fortune.”
“That’s why I love students,” Dalton said, standing up and dusting himself off. “You don’t complicate things.”
“Maybe you should give it a try.”
“It’s my job. Besides, I’m older than you.”
“Now you sound like a college professor.”
“I am a college professor—or at least I was in another life.”
“Which you traded in for lush locales and high adventure.”
“Jesus,” Dalton said, shaking his head. “Is that how I sold this thing to you?”
Jennifer shrugged. “What can I say? You’re cute when you beg.”
Dalton leaned over and kissed her on the top of her head. With a squeeze of her shoulder, he then withdrew a short distance, his back turned to her as he leveled a hard stare across the wastelands. A while ago, Jennifer could have only wondered what might be going through that mind of his. All the plans, the figures, the encyclopedic knowledge of xenoarchaeology—things far beyond her contemplation—came so easily to him at the beginning. But now he looked tired. The change had come by degrees, but it was unmistakable.
“We beat them this time, Jeff,” she said. “No way they found this place before we did.”
Dalton turned around, hoping to draw her strength.
“How do you know for sure?”
“Because,” Jennifer began, rising to her feet and walking toward him. She draped her arms around his neck, feeling the response of his quickened heartbeat. “The Federation has been riding a lucky streak for way too long. They’re about due for a change. And besides,” she finished, drawing him deep into her eyes, “we’re smarter than they are.”
Dalton moved in, just as she wanted him to, and brushed his lips against hers.
“You’re the smart one,” he said.
“Don’t forget that,” Jennifer replied, and took him by the hand. She started to lead him down the side of the dune, back to camp where the others waited with food and a range of homemade spirits, but stopped when he tugged at her in resistance. Frowning curiously, she studied Dalton for a moment. “What is it?”
He took a breath, hesitating. “I just keep asking myself why.”
Jennifer opened her mouth to answer—until she realized he was asking an entirely different question.
“Everywhere we’ve been,” he continued, “all the sites we found—scrubbed clean, like they never existed. Why would the Federation want to erase a whole civilization?”
Jennifer didn’t know. Everyone had avoided the subject assiduously, because it stirred the darkest of possibilities. The United Federation of Planets wasn’t in the business of cover-ups, or it wasn’t supposed to be—and up until now, they had been two steps ahead of Dalton, thwarting him at every juncture. If that changed—if there was a real chance that some disgraced scientist might unveil their secret—what might the Federation do to protect it?
Jennifer shuddered at the notion.
And for the first time, she understood: There is real danger here.
The truth of it hung between them, unspoken and tangible. And it haunted them both, long past the hours of night.
Dalton’s eyes flew open to the sounds of an explosion.
“What the…?” he started, bolting up from his sleeping bag and reaching for the closest weapon: a flashlight that broke apart as he fumbled with it. Gradually, the confines of the real world around him fell into focus—including the familiar face of his tormentor, who grinned ruthlessly down at him.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Dalton grumbled, and rubbed his eyes.
“Quite an example from our fearless leader,” Pearson taunted, in a jovial tone that revealed even more of a character than his Outback accent. He then returned to his business of smashing a hammer against a compactor lid, the sound echoing off rocky walls like artillery fire. “Rise and shine, ladies,” he shouted cheerfully, making the rounds with anyone else who might still be asleep. “Unless you’d like me to crawl in there with you.”
“Wouldn’t want you to lose your cherry, Pearson,” someone groaned.
“Ah, you haven’t lived until you’ve made it with an antimatter injector,” Pearson countered. “Just got to make damned sure the plasma balance is right.”
A few laughs echoed through the cave as the last of the stragglers crawled out of their bags and started to collect their gear. Pearson moved things along with more banter, the kind of thing he had picked up from years aboard ships with names like Bucket of Blood and Donovan’s Fury. That experience had given him an almost uncanny ability to improvise anything—a necessary art, given that their equipment wasn’t even up to Ferengi standards.
“Anybody know where I can get some decent grub around here?” Pearson bellowed, cackling as he ripped an MRE open with his teeth. The others didn’t share his enthusiasm, most of them trading epithets while they broke open their own meager rations. They had moved out of the open air encampment and into the caverns five days ago, and it was beginning to take a toll. Day and night had blurred into one meaningless, incoherent timeline as they ventured deeper, sunlight fading into some distant memory.
Dalton glanced over them, this collection of tired and dirty faces. Through it all, they had yet to lose their determination—just the opposite, in fact. Like climbers with a case of summit fever, the more they suffered the more they wanted to press on.
But what if they reach the end and there’s nothing there?
He dismissed the thought, turning over and expecting to find Jennifer next to him. Instead, he only found a rumpled, empty sleeping bag—the same as most mornings, except that now her absence seemed more foreboding. Pulling himself up, Dalton peered through the fray of artificial lights and movement until he saw her, gearing up with the rest of the crew. She stood under an archway that led into an unexplored network of tunnels—passages that went so deep that even tricorders couldn’t probe them. Seeing Jennifer there was like seeing her poised at the edge of a black hole, defying its gravity before she plunged headlong into it. More than ever, he wondered if this wasn’t just some tremendous mistake.
Jennifer quickly noticed his stare. She conveyed her understanding, but shook her head slightly—a gesture so subtle that nobody else would notice. There’s no turning back, it told him. Not now, not ever. With that, she motioned for him to get going.
“All right, people!” Dalton shouted, clapping his hands together loudly. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little tired of eating dust and having nothing to show for it. So what do you say we find something so we can get the hell out of here—and maybe show those Federation bastards a thing or two about archaeology?”
A resounding call of approval echoed through the chamber.
“You heard the man!” Pearson added, hoisting a phaser torch in the air. “You just going to stand there, or are you gonna bust some boulders with me?”
The clamor rose to an even louder pitch, like troops girding themselves for battle. They clapped each other on the shoulders as they filed past Dalton, ready to give whatever it took. And as they went to work, Dalton couldn’t remember a moment when he had been any more proud of them.
Or any more scared.
From the other side, no one could have imagined the accumulation of fifty thousand years: the opaque blackness, the stifled atmosphere, an extreme quiet so profound that it spawned an all-consuming nothingness which time itself could not penetrate. Beyond the wall, evolution and history had proceeded apace—wars won and lost, civilizations rising and falling, a procession of lives and names and events mostly forgotten—while all here had remained utterly still, lost even to the oldest intelligences that happened across this realm.
Until, in a single splinter of light, the darkness yielded.
Energy lanced the stony barrier with a high-pitched whine, melting rock into lava flecks that spilled across the floor of the inner chamber, lighting up the tight space like flashes of orange lightning. Taking its time, the beam carved a nearly perfect circle—millimeter by millimeter, until it finally met itself back at its point of origin.
“Shut it off!”
The whining stopped as a phaser torch powered down. For a moment there was an expectant silence, punctuated only by the sound of heavy breathing—a disconcerted harmony dispelled by the buzz of multiple tricorders probing the cavern. Soon after, a chattering mix of human voices added even more to the clamor, increasing in volume and apprehension as they shot back and forth.
“Two of them are working. I wouldn’t trust the other one.”
“Dammit. Think it’ll be enough?”
“It better be.”
The voices died down to a murmur, as the people on the other side went to work. Slowly, the circular boulder that had been carved out of the wall began to shift—tentatively at first, groaning as a field of artificial gravity enveloped its entire mass. With twenty metric tons neutralized, the boulder then began to float, scraping against the hewn opening as it rolled from side to side, eliciting a slew of curses from the people guiding it. After several more tries, the thing finally stabilized and started to slide down its center axis. The boulder barely cleared the opening before the antigravs gave out and dropped it with a booming thud.
Dust kicked up by the impact choked the entire chamber, along with a shower of pebbles shaken loose from the ceiling. The avalanche was brief, however, and stopped just as the last echo of the disturbance retreated into the caverns. Sporadic coughing arose as the dust began to clear, jagged flashlight beams cutting the air like dueling blades. And soon after, the first of many curious faces appeared in the opening.
“Nice hole in the ground,” someone observed.
“What is this place?” another replied.
“I don’t know,” Pearson remarked, “but I’d pay you blokes real money to get this goddamned rock off my foot.”
A nervous round of laughter broke the suspense of the moment. Pearson then wedged himself in through the narrow passage, following Dalton and Jennifer, who had already made their way inside. Jennifer ran a hand across the surface of the wall, supplementing the touch with her flashlight, while she searched for even a hint of markings.
“I don’t see any inscriptions,” she said. “No sign that our elusive friends ever had a settlement here.”
“Better look again,” Pearson countered, taking a few more steps into the chamber, illuminating the floor and then working his way up to the ceiling. The craggy, irregular cave quickly tapered into a smooth, cylindrical tunnel. “That’s some neat work, if you ask me.”
“Any chance it could be geological?” Jennifer asked. “A lava tube?”
Dalton shook his head. “Castis isn’t seismically active.”
“Then we have ourselves a find.”
“Better make sure,” Dalton said, brandishing his tricorder. “If this place is like the others, you’ll find evidence that things have been removed.”
“Not this time,” Jennifer intoned, running her own scan as the rest of the team started to come in. “Negative on resonance patterns in the surrounding ore, so that rules out heavy transporter activity. Same on chemical trace—nothing to indicate molecular acid wash or the other cleansing agents we found at previous sites.”
An instant rush surged through Dalton’s veins, though he dared not allow his hope to go any father than that. Even as his tricorder confirmed all of Jennifer’s readings, he remained outwardly skeptical, trying to contain the building excitement around him. Putting the tricorder down, he turned to Pearson. “What do you think?”
“Speculation ain’t my game, Doc,” Pearson replied with a shrug. “But we won’t find a bloody lot just standing around here, will we?”
Dalton turned to Jennifer. She squeezed his hand and nodded in agreement.
“Wait for my call,” he told them, and headed down.
Dalton went slowly, one foot in front of the other, while the others watched. Glancing over his shoulder every few steps, he kept the group in view for as long as he could, their anxious faces a severe contrast of light and shadow, curiosity and fear. He lost sight of them as the tunnel made a sharp turn to the right, the grade becoming steeper and forcing him to shuffle from side to side. Pebbles loosened underfoot, sliding away into a darkness beyond the range of his flashlight beam, even as it slashed the heavy air.
“You see anything?” Jennifer called out, her voice seeming to echo out of nowhere.
“Not yet,” Dalton answered. “If I could get an accurate sounding, I might be able to find out how deep this goes—”
The words cut off in his throat.
Dalton didn’t know what caused him to halt—only that it was real, though in a subliminal way, a mélange of sensations conveyed with great power but even greater subtlety. It set his body alight with neurological impulses, none of them from within, for this was an assault, a reaction—as if his very presence had activated something in the cavern.
“My God,” Dalton whispered, dropping his flashlight. It tumbled away, unheeded, clacking against hard stone until it finally disappeared into the void. That all-consuming void, which devoured the light so greedily, the same way it would devour him—he could see himself drifting in it, immersed in it, drowning in it.
And he would allow it. He would welcome it—
“Jeff, what’s happening?”
—he would deliver them, all of them, willingly—
The image of Jennifer rushing down after him yanked Dalton back. By the time he regained his senses, he had his back against the wall with sweat racing down his forehead, his breaths coming hard and fast. In pitch black, he had lumbered several more meters into the tunnel without realizing it. Even now, he felt the damn thing drawing him like a powerful magnet.
“I’m okay,” Dalton forced out, while from behind he heard the sound of the others scrambling to reach him. He climbed back up a few steps, his legs weak but steadying, shaking his head to clear a dizziness that lingered on.
Pearson reached him first, and held a hand out to assist. Jennifer was a close second, her expression a mask of panic—until she came up against the same force that had infected Dalton, and her face melted into a blank stare.
“Can you—” she began. Dalton could tell that she sensed the exact same thing, but with nowhere near the same intensity. Instead, it had ebbed to a low thrum, which seemed to radiate from everywhere at the same time. “Can you feel that?”
Dalton smiled. “I’ll fill you in on that later.”
“Must’ve rung the doorbell, Doc,” Pearson said, a current of amazement running beneath his craggy features. “Could be a sentry field, triggered when you got close.”
“Got close to what?” Jennifer asked.
“That’s the question,” Dalton replied, opening up his tricorder. He did a close proximity scan, limiting the range to focus sensors as accurately as possible—but even that returned a null reading, as if the energy pulses existed only as illusion. “I got nothing—zero across the whole spectrum.”
Jennifer checked the tiny screen herself. “That’s impossible.”
“Call me fig jam, but I’m with Miss Jenny,” Pearson agreed. “Whatever’s pumping that out is kicking more terajoules than a starship power plant.”
“Then this is obviously something new,” Dalton pondered, trailing into a tense silence as he weighed what few options they had. In truth, he hadn’t known what to expect—and now that the moment had arrived, the excitement of discovery was overshadowed by the gut realities of survival. Turn and run or keep going: the equation was that simple.
Looking at Pearson, he asked gravely, “You think this could be dangerous?”
“Anything can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Pearson said. “And let’s face it, Doc—we have no idea what the bloody hell we’re doing. You just have to ask yourself, are you ready to take a punt?”
Dalton looked at Jennifer. She didn’t hesitate.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” she said. “This is our time.”
Dalton drew a deep breath—and for the first time, made a decision that directly contradicted his instincts.
“Inform the team that we’re moving in.”
Jennifer nodded briefly, though inside she could barely contain herself. She climbed back up the tunnel to gather the others, along with whatever equipment they could haul the rest of the way down. Pearson started after her—but Dalton took him by the arm and pulled him aside, speaking to him in a low, conspirational tone.
“Just answer me one question,” he said. “If something goes wrong, if we need to evacuate in a hurry—can the transporter on board the shuttle beam us out of here?”
“You got my word on it, Doc.”
“Trust me,” Pearson assured him, pulling a communicator from his pocket and showing it off to Dalton. “One push of the button and it’s done.”
“You’re not worried about interference?”
“I’ve got transporter frequencies channeled through the subspace field coils,” Pearson said, adding a cocksure grin for good measure. “That’s enough to punch all the way through this rock and deposit you half a parsec away. I’ve left nothing to chance.”
He then patted Dalton on the shoulder, leaving him to get his own gear. Dalton remained, staring down into the black hole of his own destiny—and for a moment, it seemed absurd that something so tempting should be so threatening.
I’ve left nothing to chance.
Pearson’s words, not his. Dalton, for his part, had nothing.
You should go alone.
But Dalton didn’t want to. Worse than anything that could happen down there was the idea of it happening to him alone. He would have sold his soul to perdition before submitting himself to that.
If he hadn’t already struck that bargain.
At one with the dark, they waited.
None spoke, but each of them understood the others: individuals capable of operating as a single unit, without the need for words or orders to give them guidance. That discipline had been at the heart of their training—though not one of them, even their leader, understood precisely how they had been so conditioned. To them, memory was meaningless. There was no past, no future—only the objective. Nothing mattered outside the scope of their mission. And their lives began and ended with that single imperative.
They remained utterly still, invisible even to one another, spread out across regular intervals in an ambush formation. How long they had been here none of them knew. A day or a century, to them time was relative. In the ethereal flicker of intelligence that passed between them, there was no sense of self—only a tenebrous connection to a half life in some other realm of being, existing in this dimensional plane but forever apart from it. It was from there they received their instructions, spoken as a deity to his subjects: no question of free will, no room for disobedience. This was their purpose, this was their design. And for that, to the scant few who knew of them and knew their nature, they were the Terror.
The senior, who controlled the flow of information, was the first to detect the aliens as they entered the proximity sphere. He waited a moment before alerting the others—a delay of less than a second in real time, a veritable eternity to their reckoning—absorbing the ebb and flow of their biometric patterns, dissecting every signature for himself. The aliens had actually arrived sooner than anticipated, by as much as two lunar cycles, an unfortunate development that necessitated this confrontation. Had their leaders, in all their planning and machinations, taken the threat seriously enough, the unit would have been able to erase the premises as they had all the others; but the aliens—human beings all—had proven more resourceful than that, using their past failures to their advantage. Where the leaders became complacent, the humans seized the initiative. Now they were here, triggering an unprecedented contingency.
The leader processed this, noting the contradiction with the Seniors and their self-professed infallibility. It did not, however, change his directive. Disseminating his data to the others, he prepared the final strategy with efficiency and detachment—a weapon locked and loaded and ready to fire.
The targets numbered few: a pitiful ten, with little defensive capability, not even small arms. The leader mapped their positions with utmost precision, assigning each to a member of his unit—one for one, with the remainder cutting off any possible avenues of escape. Their signatures stood out like flares in an endless night, blurs of motion and heat that cautiously entered from the antechamber above. Life, for the first time in fifty centuries, had arrived—life, totally different from the ghosts that haunted this ground.
Trespassing where no being ever should.
And because of that, there would be blood.
Gradually, the walls parted.
It was subtle at first, only a whispered suggestion of a wider space, like a void opening up around Dalton and his team. Then his people began to spread out, instinctively seeking their boundaries, the air growing colder as their breaths dissipated into the space between them. “Stay tight,” he reminded everyone, drawing them back into a cluster of random, jousting lights—but soon enough, the chamber became so big that even the ceiling retreated beyond the range of illumination.
Jennifer remained next to him, more felt than seen, holding his hand.
“How far does this go?” she wondered out loud.
“Forever, it seems,” Pearson said from behind them. “Wouldn’t be surprised if the devil himself was hiding out here.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in the devil.”
“Only in the light of day, Miss Jenny. Only in the light of day.”
Dalton knew what Pearson meant. His own trepidation welled up inside, like high pressure seeking a way out, while outside the assault on his senses continued. Those pulses of unknown origin, so powerful when he first encountered them, now danced fleetingly at the edge of perception—toying with him, deliberately, or so it seemed. Every time Dalton thought he could get a handle on them, the manifestation would suddenly change: audio to visual, visual to tactile, sometimes bending reality into something else altogether. It was like deep immersion in a deprivation tank, with his mind supplying what his nerve endings couldn’t. How long any of them could remain sane under these conditions was anybody’s guess.
“Tricorder,” he told Jennifer.
She flipped the case open. The screen engaged, but only for a split second, shorting out in a white pinprick burst. She shook the device, even slapping it a few times, but go no response.
“It’s dead,” Jennifer replied, anxiously looking to the rest of the team. They tried to get their own instruments to work, but only shook their heads as they got the same result. The alarm in her voice was evident when she turned back to Dalton. “They’re all dead.”
“No need to worry,” Pearson said. “A strong enough EMP can really scramble the logic board on these things. A quick hard boot of the unit should—”
Then pitch black descended, engulfing them all.
The last thing Dalton saw before the lights went out was an afterimage of Jennifer, her face frozen in terror. That visage mirrored his own, the pounding of her heart in perfect sync with the roar of blood in his ears. In that one endless moment, the fear between them became legion—a lethal, malevolent thing with a presence and will all its own, a beast of their own making. Somehow Dalton resisted its lure, for if he allowed it to devour him the others would surely follow. Instead, he started barking out orders in a hasty attempt to assert control.
“Everybody quiet!” he shouted.
The cacophony of voices, united in panic, quickly died down to a murmur. No one was more surprised than Dalton, who was grateful nobody could actually see him. Group psychology, he reminded himself. They need to know somebody’s in charge.
“Stay where you are,” he continued, struggling to keep a hard edge in his tone. “We keep our heads, we make it out of here. It’s that simple.”
No one objected. Taking a breath, he reached into his pack and fumbled around for the Lumistick he knew was there. He eventually found it tucked away in the front pocket, and with trembling hands removed the thing as if it were a piece of dynamite. Snapping it down the middle, he shook the stick until it glowed a bright green.
The trickle of light drew everyone in, as they followed suit and cracked open their own sticks. Jennifer, meanwhile, tried her flashlight again—but like her tricorder, it just wouldn’t work. “I don’t understand this,” she said. “I charged the batteries myself. We should have enough juice to run for days.”
“We’re not gonna stick around long enough to find out why,” Dalton countered, zipping up his pack and tossing it back over his shoulder. “Forget the heavy gear. We’re turning around right this minute.”
Pearson, however, barely heard them. The shadows playing across his face only augmented the confused vacancy of his expression, which grew as he rose to his full height to stare over Dalton’s shoulder.
“You might want to reconsider that, Doc,” Pearson said blankly.
By now, the rest of the team faced the same direction—looking into the abyss at Dalton’s back, their faces bathed in chemical light. Except it was more than that: a rushing undertow of virtual light, flooding the tunnel like water filling the corridors of a sinking ship. Slowly, Dalton himself turned around to confront the source—and found himself gazing into the brute force of singularity, like the entire universe opening before him.
And the glory of God shone upon him.
Dalton held his lumistick aloft and walked toward the source. At first it was a discrete point, like a neutron star pulsing from light years away, but gradually it spread to engulf the entire cavern. Dalton kept going until he reached the edge of a precipice, beyond which lay the end of the inner chamber—a space about the size and dimensions of a large arena. Holding a hand up to shield his eyes, he looked up to make certain that they hadn’t wandered through some massive opening to the moon’s surface—but there was no sun nor any sky. Only the ceiling of this hollow world, sparkling from the mineral crystals embedded within.
“Sweet Jesus,” he heard Pearson whisper, as he and Jennifer slipped in next to him.
They stood less than a meter from the edge, which dropped off at a steep enough grade to make Dalton want to take a step back. Hewn into the rock, a staircase led all the way down to the floor, much like the stairs of a Mayan temple—except that here, there remained so much more than the ruins of an ancient civilization. It was that spectacle that enthralled Jennifer and Pearson, who looked down upon it with wonder and amazement. Dalton followed their stares, afraid to take it in all at once, feeling disconnected from his body as he finally realized the culmination of his life’s work.
And it was beautiful. More beautiful than he could have imagined.
He counted two dozen monoliths, each perhaps five meters tall, arranged in concentric circles around a large block at the center. Their compositions appeared identical, smooth and metallic—yet fluid, like liquid mercury, with no apertures or markings that might hint at their function. But they remained active, of that Dalton was absolutely certain. Extending outward from the center block, like spokes on a wheel, lighted conduits ran along the floor and bisected each of the monoliths—feeding them power, for some vast, unknown purpose. The conduits held Dalton transfixed, their cyan radiance flowing into blue and then yellow and then a heavenly white, before starting over and repeating the cycle.
“Well,” Pearson deadpanned, the first to break a stunned silence. “I can see what all the fuss is about.”
Jennifer took Dalton’s arm and pulled him close. “Can this be real?”
“If it isn’t,” Dalton replied, “I don’t want to know.”
That inspired a cheer from the others, who took turns patting Dalton on the back. The last was Pearson, who shook his hand vigorously and gave him a knowing smile. “Still want to turn back?” he quipped. “I’ll race you back up to the top.”
“Not on your life,” Dalton said with a grin. “Now the fun really begins.”
Jennifer walked with him, side by side all the way down. She stopped, however, just short of that last step—allowing Dalton the honor of being the first. She didn’t need to say anything to him about it. It was all right there in his expression, the same boyish enthusiasm that had drawn her along on his quest. With a single nod, she told him this piece of history was his for the taking. Anything less just wouldn’t have been right.
“Go on,” she said. “You’ve earned it.”
“We all have,” Dalton replied, and put his boots on the ground.
He stood there for a moment, assimilating the scene like a narcotic, while Jennifer stood by and tried to imagine what he felt. To her, it seemed as if this place had been waiting for Dalton all along—that all of the theories and research that had led them across light-years of space had really been his answer to a call, whispered in a language only he could understand.
And when he turned back to her, all he could do was shake his head in astonishment.
“Wow,” he said.
“Not exactly, ‘One small step for a man,’” she said, descending the rest of the way herself, “but I guess it’ll have to do.” The two of them walked together, toward the perimeter of the monoliths, their reflections perfectly cast in the fascia of flawless quicksilver. “It reminds me of Stonehenge in a way,” Jennifer observed, marveling at the absolute symmetry of the construction. “So beautiful. Yet so…mystifying.”
“And no way to analyze it,” Dalton added, tooling around with his tricorder. Jennifer leaned over and saw the screen flicker in fits and starts, but never long enough to get a coherent reading. “Finally get around to making a find, and we’re reduced to eyeballing it.”
“You don’t need that thing,” Jennifer told him. “Just open yourself up.”
With that she approached the cluster, cautiously paralleling the outermost conduit. It grew brighter when she drew closer, with streaks of energy that matched her step for step: soothing, welcoming pulses that imbued the entire site with a life of its own. And there she stood, drinking in all the sensations for herself, her body conducting the power that coursed through the monoliths, making it her own.
She looked back at Dalton and smiled.
“Jenny, wait—” he began.
And stepped over the boundary to frolic with the gods.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said.
“Not as unbelievable as you two,” Pearson interjected. He arrived with the rest of the team, a phaser torch hoisted over one shoulder. He lowered the bulky thing to the ground and stretched his back, popping a few joints in the process. “Nothing like young love to make a bloke remember his age.”
Dalton smiled gamely, showing off his own creases as if to say: I’m not as young as I used to be, either. Jennifer, though, didn’t buy it. As the others fanned out in pairs to explore the site, he admonished them to follow all the correct protocols—catalog this, document that—but she could tell such things were farthest from his mind. Like the rest of them, he only wanted to touch and see and experience—everything they had been denied up until now.
“So what do you think?” he asked Pearson.
“I’d find out what it is before I let anyone name it after me,” Pearson replied. “For all we know, the damn thing could be some backwater alien rest stop.”
“If my research bears out,” Dalton explained, “and that’s a big if, we’re probably looking at a relay station—a direct communications link between this far point and its planet of origin. At one time, there could have been hundreds of these. Maybe even thousands.”
“Including the ones destroyed by the Federation,” Jennifer added, not disguising her contempt. “But they won’t get away with it, Jeff. Now we have all the proof we need.”
“Not quite,” Dalton said, his eyes narrowing as he stared into the ruins. “Obviously, the civilization that built this is way ahead of us on the technology curve—but we still need to find something that ties them to ours. A glyph, a marking—anything that could provide clues to the etymology of their language. I just wish we had sensors.”
“Give me a few minutes,” Pearson said. “I’ll see what I can do with the tricorders.”
But Jennifer wasn’t about to wait that long.
“I say we do it the old-fashioned way,” she told them, with a mischievous grin to match her spirit. “Last one inside gets the bar tab.”
With that, she took off like a shot. Jennifer heard the two men calling out from behind, pleading with her to stop, but she paid them no mind—other than to laugh, playfully and pure, the joy bursting out because she could not contain it. And as she suspected, Dalton himself soon joined in, his protests breaking down into laughter of his own. When Jennifer glanced over her shoulder, she saw him giving chase—not quite able to match her stride, but giving it his best.
“Come on!” she yelled.
Fast approaching the inner circle of monoliths, Jennifer rounded one of them and hid. Dalton appeared a few seconds later, staggering around the same corner in search of her. Suppressing a giggle, Jennifer slipped back behind the monolith and waited—finally pouncing when he crossed her line of sight again.
Dalton jumped as her fingers sank into his arm. In all, his reaction was priceless.
“That’s not very professional,” he groused.
“You’re the one with the PhD,” Jennifer retorted, then sighed with a great deal of satisfaction. She also realized that she had led Dalton almost all the way to the center of the ruins, with the monoliths now clustered so tightly that they seemed like the walls of a maze. Their singsong resonance made the air shimmer like liquid, which only intensified her euphoric state. “We should sell tickets to this place.”
Dalton nodded, but that was the most he could muster. When Pearson slipped in beside them, both of them barely noticed. The same happened with the rest of the team, who drifted in on their own time, moving in slow motion like something out of a dream. Their faces indicated that they all felt the same, contradictory impulses: a fragmented logic that took their senses apart and then reassembled them slightly out of phase. It built to a high crescendo, the conduits beneath them pumping faster and harder, until it seemed that nothing was even real.
And then, in the space of an instant, it stopped.
“What the hell?” Pearson intoned.
After that, the cavern lapsed into an abject silence. It seemed to constrict the space, making Jennifer realize how deep they all were, buried under so much rock and sand—but she wasn’t afraid. Instead, liberated, she wandered past the inner circle, toward the large obelisk that stood at the center of the ruins. There, a slick onyx façade glinted purposefully as Jennifer approached, its composition dynamic and morphing under the pseudolight that led them here. From her vantage point, the obelisk was no longer even a solid object. More than anything, it reminded her of a large holographic display.
And embedded inside, streaming like a waterfall, she saw everything.
“My God,” she whispered.
Jennifer turned her head and found Dalton next to her, absorbed by the very same vision. Line after line of characters and symbols, random and yet somehow coherent, scrolled down the surface of the obelisk—arrangements so dense that they seemed to have their own mass. They poured out like a wellspring of information, infinite and unyielding. She could easily see Dalton losing himself in there.
“Is this what you meant by clues?” Pearson asked.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Dalton spoke, his tone hollow and distant. “Just imagine—these words first appeared here centuries before mankind emerged from its Neanderthal beginnings. Think about what they could tell us.”
“Assuming you can read this stuff,” Pearson added, slowly pacing around the obelisk while he studied its design. “I can’t decide if this thing is a computer core or a power core. From an engineering standpoint, she’s one odd piece of work.”
“It probably has elements of both,” Jennifer said, getting a closer look at the symbols, trying to pick out bits and pieces among the torrent. “We’ve seen composite technologies like this before—the Gateway civilization, V’Ger. But this…” she began, but never finished. Instead she trailed off into an uneasy quiet, the first manifestation of a fear that stirred within.
Her reaction infected Dalton, who noticed immediately.
“What is it?” he asked, following her stare.
“I know this,” Jennifer drew out, pointing to one of the many lines of text. “See how the syntax forms a precursor to the modern variant? No way that can be coincidence.” She cast a worried look at Dalton, who nodded slowly in agreement—but even then, his expression made a turn into stark disbelief. “Do you have any idea what this means, Jeff?”
“Yes,” Dalton answered, hitching up his pack. “Now I know why the Federation tried so hard to bury this place. Come on.” He then grabbed her by the hand and started to pull her away, raising his voice to alert the others. “Everybody assume positions for beam out! We’re evacuating this moon!”
The rest of the team traded nervous glances, balking at this new order.
“I said move it!”
Dalton’s sudden outburst made Jennifer wince—but it sparked everyone into action. They quickly rallied together while Dalton made a straight line for Pearson, handing Jennifer off to the others as he went. He never even noticed a flurry of motion behind one of the monoliths—though Jennifer caught a peripheral view in his wake, so fleeting that she almost dismissed it. A mere suggestion of movement, it seemed more like a trick of the light and shadow than a portent of substance—until she sensed the wave of dread that accompanied it, a naked malevolence that infused the air like dark matter.
No actual words came out. Just the slow motion mime of nightmares, taunting and useless. She could only watch as the unspeakable materialized in humanoid form, because her mind could not accept it as anything else. Even now, the thing only seemed to exist at the fringes, phasing in and out of reality with each blink of her eyes.
It moved on all fours, crawling across the monolith like some giant insect. Arms and legs tapered into a gaunt, sinewy body, with contours so highly defined that they gave the impression of muscle without skin—but utterly featureless, covered in an artificial membrane that meshed like armor plating struck from a single piece. A large head perched on narrow shoulders, though there was no discernable face: just a blank, vacant mask that concealed whatever visage might be hiding beneath. It arced back and forth, seeking with rapacious intent—and in that instant, Jennifer knew the creature’s purpose.
It was a predator.
And it meant to have its prey.
The thing descended and moved in on Pearson. Dalton froze when he saw it, mesmerized as it rose to a height of nearly two meters. Pearson, meanwhile, sensed a danger he couldn’t possibly understand—and spun around to find himself standing before the devil. It studied him for a moment, then extended a hand as if in greeting, producing a small device that could only be a weapon. Pearson, too stunned to react, just stood there as the creature leveled it directly in front of his face.
And with a brief flash of light, Pearson’s head exploded.
About three seconds passed before the rest of his body realized it was dead, and finally slumped forward into a steaming, cauterized heap. Jennifer screamed, a primal sound that caught in her throat and sent her into a paroxysm of panic. Time and space compressed around her in a dizzying fugue, with only Dalton’s voice somehow getting through.
“For God’s sake, Jennifer! Get down!”
She heard, but didn’t listen. There was only muscle memory and flight, her arms and legs finding their own kinetics. She hurled herself at Dalton, wanting only to wrap herself around him, to protect him, to get him away from this place—just as the thing that took Pearson’s life fired again, this time in her direction.
Jennifer never saw the flash—but she felt the heat, like the very fires of hell. Then the curious sensation of losing half of herself, as if that part had suddenly ceased to exit. The world around her turned in a million directions at once, the screams her friends echoing down an unfathomable distance as they scattered to the four winds.
But there was no pain. There was only falling.
The last thing she felt before darkness was hitting the ground.
The humans fled. The senior did not pursue them.
There was no need. Even though the slaughter had only begun, the senior knew it would be over in moments. Through the blackness of his visor, he could see the naked terror on their faces—and knew that the humans recognized their impending doom as well.
They ran amok, with no concept of where they could go or what they could do, the chemistry of their fear nearly overwhelming the sensors that mechanically determined the senior’s orientation in this world. The sheer intensity of it stirred a vestigial part of himself that once experienced emotions, but now only processed them as data—and though it happened only for a moment, the senior found in the humans something even more profound than their terror.
They simply could not understand.
Had he the capacity, the senior might have felt pity. His homeworld would exact a terrible cost today.
Instead he raised his weapon and killed one human—and then another, and then another.
Dalton cried out her name until his voice went raw, the sound buried among the screams of his own people. The blast from the alien weapon had struck her squarely in the chest, carving its way through her body and exiting her back before the brute force of impact knocked her through the air. She then crashed and fell limp, a loose bag of flesh and bones.
Without thinking, Dalton dove toward her. In that half second, he held out hope that he could somehow save her, somehow protect her—but as he hit the dirt, his senses told him what his mind refused to accept: the sickly smell of burning flesh, the searing heat.
He reached for her arm, but instantly recoiled from her boiling skin.
“No, no, no, NO!” Dalton wailed, pounding his fists against the ground. From there his words became indistinguishable, a slew of curses spewing out of his mouth like molten lava, his body racked with sobs and adrenal tremens. Eyes squeezed shut, he finally rolled onto his back, spending the last of what made him feel alive—and in its place, rushing in to fill the void, came the purest hatred Dalton had ever known.
He then opened his eyes, to find death staring back at him.
The creature hovered over Dalton, almost passive. It still held the weapon that killed Pearson and Jennifer, which it now pointed at him. Paying no mind to the fading carnage around them, it studied Dalton for a moment, its head cocking to one side in an approximation of curiosity. On some wavelength, it seemed to be communicating.
You should not have come.
“What are you?” Dalton croaked, dragging himself away. “A machine?”
You were warned. Now it is too late.
“You killed them!”
We destroyed you because you would destroy us.
“You son of a bitch!”
The creature fired.
Dalton would never know how he dodged that fatal shot, but somehow he managed to scramble away. Instead of cutting him in half the beam spiked into the ground, fusing sand and rock into glass before blasting it into a million shards. Dalton lost himself in the cloud of debris, leaving behind an afterimage of dust and ozone that obscured the area for a precious few seconds. But instead of attempting an escape, Dalton reached for the one thing that would give him release. Even if it cost him his life, the hate surging in his veins would settle for nothing less.
From outside, one last human voice shrieked and fell silent. The creature, distracted, fired once in that direction, quickly turning its aim back toward where Dalton had been. But Dalton circled around, flanking the creature before it could draw another bead on him. By the time it ascertained his true position, Dalton had the advantage.
And a phaser torch locked and loaded.
“My turn,” Dalton said, and squeezed the trigger.
The torch kicked hard, throwing him back, but caught its mark just below the creature’s left shoulder. The beam sliced clean through its armor, separating the creature from its left arm—as well as its weapon. Dalton expected the thing to drop and writhe in agony, but the hit barely even slowed it down. Instead it closed in on him at bezerker speed, reaching for him to finish the job with its bare right hand. Bracing himself, Dalton fired again—this time directly into the creature’s visor. Its head disappeared in a halo of scorching plasma, its death conveyed with an inhuman screech.
Dalton spit on the corpse as it rolled to a stop at his feet.
He then dropped the torch and ran, adrenaline cross circuiting his brain into survival mode. Routing only the most basic of thoughts, it turned his attention to the prone body of Pearson, which lay headless with its arms spread out, palms facing the ceiling. What remained of Dalton’s rational mind was repulsed by the grisly sight—but the part of him in control knew exactly what he had to do.
He dashed toward the body.
The senior lost the readings from one of his warriors. It was all the confirmation he needed to know that one of his own had been killed. The development inspired no regrets in him—it only meant that one of the humans had acquired a weapon and was capable of using it.
And that now there was a very real danger that their mission could fail.
Stop, the senior commanded, and instantaneously his team ceased their firing.
In the hush that descended, the cavern assumed a deadly calm. The senior scanned the area briefly, taking inventory of the number of humans they had neutralized. They lay tossed about the space like rag dolls, some face down, some slumped against the monoliths, some with eyes wide open even though they were beyond seeing.
All clearly dead—but only seven of them.
The senior spotted two more humans in short order. They were twelve meters away from his position, splayed across the ground in a slowly dissipating cloud of dust. Through that cloud he also found his own warrior, laying dead like the others, missing the better part of his head and shoulders. A phaser torch near the warrior’s remains told the tale of what happened—and for the first time, the outcome of this engagement was uncertain.
Search, the senior commanded, and his team flooded the chamber with active sensor waves. They picked up a single life form and triangulated its location to within millimeters—although it wasn’t in hiding, as the senior expected. Instead, the last surviving human hovered over one of the dead, on his knees as if in prayer.
The senior ordered his team to advance on that human. In complete unison, they started to walk toward him.
Pearson, like Jennifer, was still hot to the touch, his clothes charred and burned into his skin. Dalton rifled through the man’s jacket, not sure of where to find what he was looking for—or even if it would work when he found it. He felt a hideous urge to laugh, that after everything this little marvel of electronics would be the thing that brought him down.
Then he thought about it.
Oh God. . .not that.
Pearson probably kept it in his rear pocket.
Forgive me, Dalton pleaded, then reached under the body and flipped it over. Jamming his hand into one of the pockets, his fingers came back with an ace of spades playing card, a picture of some girl he’d never met, and a rabbit’s foot.
Hell of a lot of good it did him, Dalton thought bitterly, then reached into the other pocket. He found it there, scratched and caked with sand—but otherwise in good condition.
A quick tap on the device’s face rewarded him with a friendly beep. The Starfleet issue communicator had been one of the most expensive things he’d had to acquire—so much that he couldn’t afford to get one for everybody. Dalton had never even considered that an oversight like that might cost his people their lives.
But it had—including Jennifer.
And now, surrounded by an army of reapers, Dalton was about to pay the same price.
He realized their presence even before he looked up. They reeked of death, so much that they didn’t even seem to be living—though as Dalton rose to his feet, he at least had the satisfaction of knowing that he had killed one of them.
They circled Dalton like pallbearers at a funeral march, staring at him in silence. He stared right back, the communicator concealed in the palm of his right hand.
“I know what you are,” Dalton rasped. “You’re Bezzeret.”
The senior, who was closest, approached.
“Yes,” he replied in Standard.
Dalton knew the desperation he felt in his next question, but couldn’t find the voice to express it. His words came out flat and exhausted.
“Why are you doing this?”
The senior paused, almost regretfully. “It is necessary.”
Dalton’s eyes narrowed.
“We’ll see about that,” he said, and double-tapped the communicator.
His body awash in the soft blue of a transporter beam, Dalton steeled himself defiantly. In that gray time between matter and energy, he was certain they would open fire and that would be the end of it.
Instead, the senior only watched him dissolve into nothingness.
The others looked at him, neither curious nor shocked. Such things were beyond them, buried beneath far more than the blank visors that deprived them all of all expression. But they were creatures of duty—and the senior had committed an unprecedented act. He had hesitated, and in doing so had caused the rest of them to do the same.
The senior stopped momentarily to contemplate this. Surrounded by the death he had instigated, he understood that allowing the human to escape was a deliberate breach of orders. What he couldn’t understand was why he had done it. Perhaps on some level, as a warrior, the senior admired the human’s resiliency. Or perhaps, in the deep recesses of independent thought, he believed there had been enough killing today.
But he also knew the demands of his mission—and that someone would have to finish. Opening a channel on his comm link, he sent out the signal.
“Intruder on the surface. Deal with him.”
The senior did not wait for a reply. He knew that it would be done—and with a nod of his head, he gave his final order. Each member of his team complied by pointing their weapons at one another. They fired simultaneously, and the entire group disappeared in a blazing glory of light.
Their part of the mission was completed.
The dead watched on, disinterested.
Dalton imagined the ground would swallow him, reaching up from the sands like some giant hand to drag him back and drown him, leaving him to rest in the same grave as those he left behind. By now Castis had developed a taste for human flesh, and would not be satisfied until it devoured the very last morsel.
But his hand rammed the thruster controls anyway, antigravs lifting the shuttle effortlessly into the midmorning sky. Lighter of equipment and crew, there was little to hold the ship down—though as it gained altitude, he couldn’t help but be disappointed that the nightmare image hadn’t come to pass. It might have been easier that way. A fiery death on some forgotten moon would be better than the demons sure to follow.
But in spite of it all, Dalton wasn’t yet ready to die. Staring at his reflection in the cockpit window glass, he realized as much. If only for long enough to tell their story, he needed to live. He owed his people that.
The skies outside of his view port, however, offered no consolation. They only changed from scattered blue and white to purple, then finally to the twilight that marked the edge of space. Moments later, stars appeared over a receding blanket of atmosphere as the shuttle assumed orbit—beautiful but cold, indifferent to his presence.
He was safe now. He was away.
Dalton sank back in his chair, releasing a gasp of air that he had been holding since God knew when. He couldn’t recall breathing since the attack began—only the acrid smell of burning flesh, imprinted on him like a fresh tattoo. Looking down, he noticed the black patches on his own hands and arms, the skin burned and blistering. Battle scars—easily repaired in any star base clinic. He laughed at the absurdity of it.
Medals have been awarded for less, Dalton thought. What will they give you when you make it back?
A red light on the navigation panel started to beep. The shuttle’s computer automatically increased power to the deflectors, assuming a precautionary stance.
Hardly a scratch. Everyone’s dead, and you with hardly a scratch. Even if you told them what happened, they’d never believe you.
The main engines throttled up, maneuvering thrusters spitting bright plumes outside Dalton’s window. The shuttle, executing an evasive program, broke orbit and picked up speed, making the deck beneath him shudder.
I’m sorry, Jennifer. I never wanted this. Never wanted…
The cabin lights dimmed as more power diverted to the defensive systems. A cascade of alarms sounded off one at a time, finally breaking Dalton out of his stupor and turning his attention to the flight panel. Threat indicators were going crazy, relaying far too much information for him to decipher. With a trembling hand, he started scrolling through screens at random, the shuttle buffeting him back and forth as it engaged in a series of sharp turns.
Come on, he silently urged. Show me what’s out there.
Dalton quickly landed on a tactical display. There, off his starboard side, a single contact appeared. The computer relayed a distance of less than twenty thousand kilometers—and closing in fast on the shuttle’s position.
“Dammit,” he seethed, and buckled himself in.
Tactical identified the inbound as a scout class vessel. Dalton didn’t need confirmation to know it was Bezzeret, and had no intentions of waiting around to find out. Punching the engines up to full impulse, he blasted his way out of the Castis system at nine-tenths the speed of light. The universe outside of his window began to shimmer in reds and blues, real space distorting itself around the shuttle as it approached relativistic speeds.
“Just a little more,” Dalton whispered, calculating how long before he could make the jump into warp. The scout, meanwhile, countered his maneuver and matched the shuttle’s bearing, pouring on even more speed to close the remaining distance. Dalton’s eyes darted between the controls and the ship looming behind him, ticking off the kilometers until it moved into visual range.
Switching to a rear view, he saw the scout on his display. Its forward weapons port started to glow bright red, just as the shuttle’s sensors started screaming.
PHASER LOCK DETECTED.
Then the port erupted fire, and that fire moved in on him.
“Oh my God,” Dalton said, and reached for the warp drive controls. Dumping every last joule into the coils, he initiated a cold start. The shuttle’s frame groaned under the sudden strain, shaking from stem to stern, its engine protesting with a loud roar—while on the display, the countdown to impact and full power converged.
WARP SPEED IN FIVE. . .FOUR. . .
The window filled with the blinding light of a thousand suns.
. . .THREE. . .TWO. . .
ONE. . .
Dalton’s world exploded in a fury.