Welcome to the next exciting installment of Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I. If you’ve ever wondered what Star Trek would be like as a modern, Tom Clancy-esque techno-thriller, you’ve come to the right place. Just in case you’ve missed the previous installments, you can find them here:
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Prologue
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 1
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 2
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 3
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 4
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 5
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 6
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 7
Fleet Command Headquarters
San Francisco, Planet Earth
Terrence Blake took measure of his reflection in the glass of his office window, the one that looked out over the bay from the cliffs high above it. Beyond that the moon still hung low in the sky, shining in full during this early part of the evening, while the waters below were mostly empty, save for the occasional private vessel that ducked under the Golden Gate on its way back into port. Blake smiled at that much, enjoying the reminder of the way a sailor’s life used to be. He often thought he might have been happier then—a time to match his spirit, such as it was, free from the absurdity of modern dictates. To his mind, the world could have used far more assertiveness and far less of the posturing that passed for strategy these days.
In the present, however, Blake had to content himself with savoring the dark. He preferred nights at the Quarry; even though duty shifts went around the clock, third watch was different all around. The pace was slower after the sun went down, the blood thicker—and the secrecy of the work performed here more palpable. It infused the atmosphere like a phantom stalking the dim corridors and locked offices, jealously guarding its realm against intruders. Indeed, that was the way Blake often viewed himself: forever on guard against the threats most people could never even imagine.
Zeus, watching from his Olympus…
The door chime interrupted his moment of introspection. “Come,” he answered formally, and a female visitor walked in. She was a young lieutenant, blond and quite striking, though her face always seemed to be set in a hard and determined way. Like Blake, she dressed up her uniform with multiple decorations to give it a classic military appearance. She came to attention, remaining silent until the admiral addressed her.
“At ease,” Blake said, uncharacteristically gentle. “Working a little late tonight, aren’t we, lieutenant?”
Kara Marillon relaxed a little. “I’ve always found sleep to be overrated, sir.” She handed Blake a decoder interface, a Starfleet crest emblazoned on its screen. “Transmission for you coming in over courier subspace. High priority, on scramble.”
He took the device from her. “Active message?”
“Yes, admiral. The sender is awaiting a reply as we speak.”
“Any idea who it is?”
Kara smiled a little, but only at the corners of her mouth. He liked her, if only because she reminded Blake of himself as a junior officer: all business, with ambition bordering on the obsessive. More than once, he had seriously considered bringing Kara into his operation—but prudence demanded that he wait until he was absolutely certain of her loyalties. Perhaps when this business with the Bezzeret was finished…
“I’ll leave that to you, sir,” she replied, with just a slight bit of casual familiarity. Blake found that he didn’t mind it one bit. “Will you require anything else?”
“Thank you, lieutenant. I believe that will be all.”
“Very well, sir. I’ll be outside if you need me.”
Kara turned sharply on her heel and left. Blake gave it a minute after the door closed behind her, making certain he was completely alone before returning to his desk. He then touched a button hidden beneath one corner, activating a series of countermeasures that clicked into place one by one. An electromagnetic seal eliminated any possibility of eavesdropping, while the windows frosted to an opaque black and cut off the rest of the outside world. Encased in this sphere of security, Blake prepared himself for the one thing that still scared him.
Just please God, don’t let it fall apart.
Blake connected the interface to his desk terminal, pale light from its display casting his features in shadow. The terminal then linked with Fleet Command’s central communications network, an artificial voice prompting him for identification. He spoke his name and manually entered his own personal code. After a few seconds, satisfied by the match, the interface beeped agreeably and started to process the scrambled signal.
Out of the bits of code, the image of an alien face assembled on his screen: female, eyes blazing as she regarded Blake, clearly not happy. She came straight to the point.
“They know about Castis,” Darelian said.
Blake froze—a momentary lapse, though for him it seemed a lifetime.
“It’s Dalton’s word,” he assured her. “And we’ve cast more than enough doubt on him.”
“It’s not that simple. Picard had his counselor interview him—a Betazoid.”
Blake’s fingernails bit into his palms, focusing a rage he dared not show her. Even so, he couldn’t hold back his incredulity.
“The charges against him were supposed to prevent that,” he growled. “Since when are political prisoners allowed visitors?”
Darelian matched his anger with her own. “Study our laws, Admiral,” she snapped. “Dalton is not a native Bezzeret. Picard was apparently shrewd enough to discover that he had a right to invoke counsel of his peers.”
“And you couldn’t find a way around that?”
“Don’t blame me for your own shortsightedness,” Darelian said, seething now. “This fiction of espionage was your idea. If we had simply done things my way, Dalton would already be dead!”
“Casting you as the villain and leaving too many questions that we can’t answer,” Blake shot back. “You know as well as I do that this only works if everyone sees the Bezzeret as the wounded party. Otherwise, a hundred more Daltons will rise to take his place—and you’ll never keep a lid on what he discovered.”
Blake’s words seemed to take the wind out of her. She reverted to an uneasy calm, though the panic in her eyes still lurked just beneath he surface.
“It may be too late for that, Terrence.”
“Only if Dalton knows what he saw,” Blake told her. “To him, the ruins on Castis are nothing more than relics. He has no idea of their true significance—which means that Picard doesn’t either. And if anyone does go out there again, all they’ll find is a hole in the ground.” He gave her a moment for his assurances to sink in. “It’s your word against his, prime minister. The story will hold—but only if you keep selling it.”
She took a breath and nodded.
“Very well,” she agreed. “I won’t alter the plan—for now. This matter with Picard, however—it needs to be addressed. A man who cannot be swayed or intimidated will most certainly become a problem.”
Blake thought about it. Darelian was right, of course, which was why Carlton Morrow had had outflanked him. The old man knew he couldn’t win in a straight-up fight—but having Picard on the scene acting as his proxy was the next best thing.
“Picard also knows that his counselor’s empathic impressions aren’t admissible in court,” he said derisively. “It doesn’t matter what Dalton told her.”
“But it can point him in the right direction. I don’t need to remind you what will happen if the truth gets out, Terrence.”
“I know,” Blake admitted, softening his tone. As much as he had riding on this, Darelian had so much more. “You don’t need to worry, prime minister. I promised that I would protect you. My word stands.”
Darelian nodded, smiling weakly. “So what do we do?”
“Exactly what you’ve been doing. Proceed with your preparations for the trial. Make as much noise as you can. Just make sure you hold Picard at bay.”
“That won’t be for long. I’m already running out of excuses.”
“It doesn’t need to be.”
The Bezzeret frowned curiously.
“Quintax,” Blake told her. “He’ll be there soon.”
“He’ll do what it takes.”
Blake revealed nothing more. Darelian seemed to understand, though, and nodded once more—this time in resignation. This was nowhere near as clean as either of them wanted, but the time for that was long past.
“Thank you, admiral,” she said, and closed the transmission.
Blake watched as the screen went black. He then unplugged the decoder interface, noting the time logged by the small device: just over three minutes. Such an insignificant period, and yet so much could happen in that space. It had taken the Borg less time than that to cut Amstar to shreds before moving on to the next ship: little more than an afterthought, really.
But the scars—and the rage—had lasted so much longer.
Blake smashed the interface against the floor.
Jean-Luc Picard was in his ready room when the yellow alert sounded. He didn’t even give Lieutenant Worf a chance to summon him to the bridge, storming through the entry hatch less than two seconds later.
“Status!” he snapped the moment he walked in.
“Long range sensors have detected a vessel dropping out of warp at the edge of the Bezzeret system,” the Klingon reported from his tactical station. “Now approaching the home world at three-quarters light speed—estimated arrival two minutes, ten seconds.”
“Identification,” Picard ordered, keeping his eyes on the viewscreen as he walked down to the center seat. “What do you make of her?”
“Scans are inconclusive, but the vessel appears to be Starfleet configuration.”
“Starfleet?” Will Riker asked in surprise, moving aside for his captain. “Isn’t she transmitting a call signal?”
“Negative, Commander. And no response to hails so far.”
“Precautionary, Mister Worf,” Picard said. “Raise shields.”
“Extreme mag on viewer.”
Worf pushed the imaging sensors as far as they would go, resulting in a grainy image distorted by pixilation. Picard frowned as he watched it, finally picking out a hint of movement at the edge of the frame. The object glinted in the light from the Bezzeret sun, quickly crossing into Enterprise’s field of view: the telltale shape of a disc trailed by dual nacelles. The captain could tell already that it was a smaller ship—possibly a medium cruiser, the kind usually assigned to patrol routes.
“Fleet Command didn’t mention anything about another ship,” Riker intoned darkly. “Think they’re running some kind of game on us?”
“I’d be surprised if they weren’t,” Picard replied. “Mister Worf, any signs of Bezzeret interceptors?”
The Klingon checked his panel. “Negative.”
“The plot thickens,” Picard mused. “Whoever they are, Darelian obviously doesn’t see them as a threat.”
“Which means she knew they were coming,” Riker finished. “I’m starting to wonder who’s side we’re supposed to be on.”
With little else he could do, the captain waited. Worf, meanwhile, kept a tight lock on the incoming vessel—along with a firing solution—while she finally drew close enough for everyone to get a better look. “Attempting a visual identification,” the Klingon said, as he grabbed a still image from his tactical monitor and put it up on the viewscreen. He then zoomed in on the underside of the primary hull, cleaning up the image so that her markings became clearly visible. “NCC-2577,” he read aloud as the ship’s registry information poured in. “USS Dauntless. Old Excelsior-style battle frame, recommissioned to serve as a reconnaissance platform.”
Riker scowled. “What’s she doing all the way out here?”
Worf tried to access the information, but his panel buzzed with a stop notification.
“Information on current assignment is restricted.”
Picard shook his head, watching as Dauntless swung around in a wide arc and fell into an escort formation with Enterprise. “This is damned odd,” he muttered. “Those recon sorties go out into deep space and disappear for months at a time. For one to leave its designated patrol area is an extraordinary breach of secrecy.”
“Somebody’s been pulling some strings,” Riker agreed. “The question is, why now?”
“Obviously we struck a nerve.”
Riker turned a curious glance on him, but didn’t have a chance to pursue the question. Worf’s panel interrupted, finally announcing a hail with a high-pitched tone.
“Commander Dauntless is signaling.”
Picard straightened his jacket. “Put it on screen.”
The image cut over to a view of the other ship’s bridge, tightly focused on the man in the center seat. For a brief moment, his face appeared cold and hard, an expression that changed to an approximation of a smile when he looked up in greeting, perhaps his idea of an easy charm. Picard disliked him instantly.
“Hello, captain,” the man said. “My apologies for the cloak and dagger, but Starfleet thought it would be better not to stir things up more than we already have.”
Picard’s didn’t miss the thinly veiled insult.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” he replied. “Captain…?”
“Steven Quintax, at your service.”
“You’ve strayed a long way from your path, Captain Quintax.”
“Yes, I know it seems quite irregular,” Quintax assured him, in a way that sounded more patronizing than anything else. “However, when you work the outer rim like we do, you learn that it’s best not to question your deployments.”
“Would you care to elaborate?”
“Nothing that complicated. We are to assist in your evacuation of Federation personnel from this planet. The Bezzeret ambassador has expressed concern that the process isn’t going as quickly as it could. I’m here to move things along.”
“Is that a fact?” Riker interjected. “With the entire system under a state of quarantine, the last thing the Bezzeret want is another Federation starship orbiting their home world. What makes you so special?”
Quintax chafed under Riker’s outburst, refusing to even look at him.
“Tell your XO he needs to learn some manners,” he said to Picard. “He’s been serving on a Galaxy-class for too long.”
“He doesn’t like mysteries,” Picard shot back. “Neither do I.”
Quintax weighed his options, deciding whether or not to back down. He relented after a moment—just a little, enough to give himself some maneuvering room—though far short of surrendering entirely.
And that’s when Picard realized: He wants something from us.
“I have personal experience with the prime minister,” Quintax explained. “I spent several months as a liaison between her and my former CO.”
“What ship?” Riker demanded.
Picard exchanged a secretive glance with his XO.
“That was Terrence Blake’s command,” Riker intoned.
“Yes,” Picard replied in kind. “And now we know what we’re dealing with.” Turning back to the viewscreen, he ratcheted up the pressure a bit. “While we appreciate the offer of assistance, captain, Admiral Morrow was quite specific that Enterprise take the lead on the Bezzeret situation.”
“And nothing about that has changed,” Quintax said. “My resources are available to you strictly in a support capacity.”
“Strange, then, that Fleet Command didn’t see fit to inform us about you.”
“That’s a little difficult when nobody wants their fingerprints on the actual order.”
Picard raised an eyebrow. “Indeed?”
“Let’s just say the matter is now being handled through unofficial channels.”
Picard was stunned that Quintax would admit as much—but then again, it made a twisted kind of sense. Morrow had also reached out through back channels, which meant that both Dauntless and Enterprise were operating without any real Starfleet sanction. It also meant that Picard had no reliable way of checking his story. Quintax, it seemed, was a lot more clever than he looked.
And that only made Picard trust him less.
“So where does that leave us?” he asked.
“Hopefully in a position to help one another,” Quintax said, “although I’d rather not discuss this in front of our bridge crews. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to meet face to face so we can coordinate strategies.”
“Of course,” Picard agreed. “We would be pleased to have you as our guest.”
“If it’s all the same, I’d rather have you beam over here.”
Picard frowned, betraying more that he had wanted to.
“Of course,” he said. “One hour from now?”
“I look forward to it.”
Quintax nodded curtly, and ended the transmission.
“With friends like that,” Worf grumbled, “who needs Romulans?”
“That has got to be the strangest exchange I’ve ever seen,” Riker added, turning to the captain. “Any idea what he’s up to?”
“Quintax is here for the same reason we are,” Picard said. “To be the eyes and ears of the man who sent him.”
Riker’s eyes narrowed. “You mean Terrence Blake.”
“I don’t much like being a pawn in a political game,” the XO said. “They’re usually the first to get mowed down.”
“Trust me, Number One, that battle is already well underway.” The captain then motioned for Riker to follow him to the back of the bridge, where both men stood by the turbolift, out of earshot from the rest of the crew. “We don’t have much time. I want you to see to it that Counselor Troi keeps her meeting with this Bezzeret, Maurian. Make sure she gets off the ship before Quintax arrives.”
Riker blinked in surprise. “You’re authorizing the mission?”
“We don’t have much of a choice,” Picard said sternly, seeing the flash of concern—and anger—in Riker’s eyes. “The counselor has made it clear that she wants to go—and at this point, her contact with Maurian is the only lead we have.”
“We don’t even know what he wants,” Riker pressed, having trouble keeping his voice down. “The Bezzeret could be baiting a trap—trying to provoke another incident they can use to derail negotiations, or even start an all-out war. Sending Deanna down under those circumstances is a huge gamble.”
“I’m aware of the risks,” Picard snapped. “Do whatever you need to do to minimize them. Send her armed if you must—but get her down to that planet by 2300 hours.”
Riker glared at him for a few moments, searching for some kind of indication that the captain would reconsider. Picard, however, returned his stare with even greater intensity—sympathetic because he understood his XO’s reaction, though he had no intention of changing his mind. Sending Troi was the right call, plain and simple—his only call, with the limited options he now had. Knowing that, however, only made the decision harder.
“Make it so, commander.”
Riker backed away a step, the turbolift doors opening behind him.
“Aye, sir,” he said, before the doors closed again.
Releasing a breath, Picard walked the long path back to his chair. Along the way, he noticed the crew looking at him—sideways glances all, a turn of the head and then gone, that mix of curious and fearful expressions that always happened in the face of unknowns. Even Data seemed expectant, as if he sensed a change in the balance of loyalty between the captain and his XO. Sitting down, Picard did the only thing he could: assert a façade of authority so that everyone would keep believing that he had it all was under control.
“Stand down from alert,” he said.
Fax chaNan (The Nameless Place)
Bezzeret Home World
Maurian checked his chronometer. Less than a minute had passed since the last time he had looked at it, the passage of time marked by his insistent heartbeat. She wasn’t late—not yet, in any case, though Maurian had no way of knowing if Counselor Troi had even deciphered his invitation. Now that he was on the outside, alone in an oppressive dark, he found himself wondering if it would be better if she hadn’t. The whole thing had been thrown together much too quickly, which didn’t leave time for the extra precautions that he normally took—but Griff had insisted, of course, not wanting to let such an opportunity slip away.
Easy for him to say. He’s not the one out in the open with a target painted on his back.
That notion gave him a start, making him search the murky horizon of his vision, if only to assuage his fears. The capital city glowed off in the distance, a collection of bright amber spires muted by low-hanging clouds and a moonless sky, flashes of heat lightning in quiet cascade topping off the hilly landscape—beautiful, had Maurian chosen to see it that way. As it stood, he was more concerned with a sudden arrival of Ponsak, finding cold comfort in the certainty that if they were hunting him, he would never see them coming. Beyond that, his one hope was that the end would be as swift as it was brutal.
He checked is chronometer again, counting down the seconds until arrival. For good measure, Maurian retreated a few more steps from the exact coordinates, already resolving not to wait past the appointed time. The Earthers, however, were nothing if not punctual—and as the clock ticked on 2300 hours, the telltale hum of a transporter beam filled the air, kicking up a swirl of dust that dispersed on a breeze that caressed the narrow ridge. A liquid heaven of blue light then appeared, fading just as quickly as it deposited a humanoid form where once there was nothing.
“Hello, Deanna,” Maurian said. “I’m glad you got my message.”
Troi smiled at him, stepping forward so they could see each other in the dark. She appeared different from the last time he saw her, with her hair pulled back into a functional pony tail and her features almost ghostly atop the black fabric of a camouflage suit. He also observed the Type II phaser slung on one hip, which made her look more like a commando than a ship’s counselor.
“Strictly a precaution,” Troi said, reading his reaction. “Captain’s orders.”
He then motioned to a combat knife sheathed on her other hip.
“That one was my idea,” she told him, with the hint of a smile. “Where I come from, you can never be too careful.”
“What a coincidence,” Maurian replied, pulling open his own jacket to reveal the assortment of close-quarter weapons he carried. “You’ll fit in fine around here.”
The two of them shared a quiet laugh.
“You do me a great honor with your courage,” he continued. “I understand what a terrible risk it is coming here—for both of us. Believe me, we wouldn’t have asked if it wasn’t absolutely vital for both of our peoples.”
Troi seized on the one word: “We?”
“Others who believe as I do,” Maurian explained, checking over his shoulder. “I’ll explain everything in due course, but for now we need to get moving. It wouldn’t do for us to get caught together like this.”
“Say no more,” the counselor agreed, starting to follow him as he led the way, shuffling over the treacherous terrain. “I have no desire to be the cause of another interstellar incident.”
“It’s much more than that, Deanna,” he emphasized. “If Darelian knew what I’m about to show you, she would kill us both without a second thought.”
Maurian took her down a ways, to an area where the ridge widened enough for them to get around more easily. There, he told Troi to wait while he scouted ahead—doubtless to inform whomever they were meeting that she had arrived. She didn’t much like the idea of being left alone, particularly where there was little in the way of cover, but her senses picked up no obvious sign of deception in him. Even so, Troi kept her fingers poised against her comm badge, ready to call for a beam out at the first sign of trouble.
A few minutes later, Maurian returned. His expression registered some concern, though he tried to downplay it as he climbed down from a rocky outcropping above her.
“They must have been delayed,” he apologized, brushing the dust off his clothes and sitting down next to her. “Things can get a little unpredictable down in the caverns. They shouldn’t be too much longer.”
“We can wait.” Troi wrapped her arms around her knees, casting her stare into the abyss of a valley below. From what she could see of the landscape it was brutal, but with twilight airbrushed against the surrounding mountains, it took on a surreal beauty. “From what you described, they sound pretty resilient.”
“They need to be. To be hunted day in and day out, called a traitor to your race for simply asking questions—it takes an uncommon resolve.”
“Kind of like what you do.”
“Hardly,” Maurian scoffed. “They do all the real work. I just sit in the prime minister’s office passing myself off as a loyalist.”
“Which in many ways is even harder,” Troi said. “I’ve worked with people who spend long periods of time under deep cover. It wears you down. I honestly don’t know how you’ve managed it for so long.”
“By staying focused on the objective. At least that’s what Griff says.”
“He’s your leader?”
“The closest thing we have to one. He didn’t want the job—but has this way of making people believe in him. If not for him, this movement of ours would probably have fallen apart a long time ago.” He paused for a moment to reflect. “That was the real reason Darelian went after him. She couldn’t just dismiss him as a lunatic—and she knew that eventually, Griff would become so well-known that she couldn’t touch him anymore. That’s when she had him declared a heretic and drove him underground.”
“Change can be very frightening,” Troi said to him. “But it can also be liberating. A wise Earth man once said that a little revolution, every now and then, is a good thing.”
“That man never lived on this planet,” Maurian sneered. “The idea of legalizing belief was always hateful to me—even though it took me years to finally admit it. But we’ve been living with this grandiose fiction for so long, most of us can’t imagine anything else.”
“You mean the Modern Dogma.”
“The embodiment of perfection in a hopelessly flawed universe,” he said. “Once you’ve elevated yourself to godlike status, it’s difficult to come back down.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Troi mused. “Some might actually find that a relief.”
“Good luck convincing Darelian of that.”
Pebbles and dust trickled down through the rocks above. Maurian quickly took her by the arm and ducked back toward the wall behind them, taking shelter in the deepest shadows while both of them looked up in the direction of the disturbance. For Troi it was useless, her eyes detecting little outside her gloomy hiding place, though Maurian seemed more attuned. Gesturing for her to remain silent, he listened intently—his gaze following a sound that Troi could barely hear, made even more confusing by a random echo smothered by the wind.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“Someone’s here,” he answered. “Close—not more than a few dozen meters.”
“Probably,” Maurian admitted, “but I’m not too crazy about poking my head up there to find out.”
“Maybe there’s another way,” Troi said, putting a hand on his shoulder. She closed her eyes and took in as much of Maurian as she could, absorbing the rhythms of his body and how they intertwined with his conscious thought, sketching a species blueprint in her mind. She then dethatched from him and reached out as far as she could, carrying the memory of those impressions with her, searching the darkness for a similar signature—which she finally found at the far edge of her empathic range.
“Yes,” she breathed. “I can feel them—two distinct patterns.”
“Griff?” Maurian asked, his voice anxious. “And Rylian?”
Troi shook her head slowly, frowning.
“Conflicted emotions,” she said, and looked at him. “Almost like an angry logic.”
Maurian smiled. “That sounds like Rylian,” he pronounced, losing whatever fear he might have had—prematurely, in Troi’s view. “I’ll head up and give them the all-clear, then let you know when it’s safe to join me.”
“Perhaps we should wait,” Troi warned him. “Just until we’re sure.”
“I don’t want them to get spooked and leave,” he countered, making Troi almost wince as he stepped back out into the open. “Don’t worry—I’ll make it fast.” Maurian then headed back to the craggy steps he had climbed before, reaching into a seam to haul himself up. Going too fast, he scarcely touched the rock before his foot slipped, his chest scraping against stone as he hugged the wall and tried stop himself.
Until the air turned to flame, detonating the spot where Maurian’s head had been less than a second before.
Troi screamed, the hard slap of an explosive concussion pushing her back. Instinctively, she threw an arm up in front of her face as a blinding flash followed, its impact magnified by an almost unimaginable heat. Somehow Troi managed to pin herself against the wall, just before an avalanche of debris rained down past her, a deep rumble making it seem as if the entire mountain was crumbling. Then the wave passed, sliding with the boulders and rocks into the valley below, leaving behind a dust cloud and an echo like distant thunder. Troi could hardly believe that she had survived it, that so much damage could be wrought by a single blast.
Then she remembered Maurian, directly in the line of fire.
Troi dropped to her knees, choking on the grit that flooded her lungs. Wiping her eyes, it was only then that she noticed her own blood seeping from a gash in her forehead. She flicked it aside without thinking, reaching for her phaser as she peered through the spots floating in front of her vision. It was impossible to see more than a couple of meters, making her even more certain that Maurian was dead—until she caught a hint of movement low to the ground, slow and unsteady.
“Maurian!” she shouted.
A pained moan came in reply.
Troi crawled in the direction of that sound, finding Maurian on his back. His face was a mask of cuts and bruises, rivulets of copper pulsing from a dozen open wounds, though his eyes seemed awake and aware. He clutched his right hand to his chest, shaking terribly from the shock that was already setting in. Looking down, Troi could see why. What remained of the hand was little more than a grisly pulp, probably crushed when a boulder had rolled over it.
“My God,” she whispered. “Maurian, we need to get you out of here.” Practically tearing at her comm badge, she tried to open a channel. “Troi to Enterprise. Two to beam up.”
Static was the only response.
“Come in, Enterprise! I need an emergency beam out!”
“Dammit,” Troi cursed, looking at Maurian again. “There’s too much interference here. Can you move?”
The Bezzeret hitched himself up, nodding.
“Let’s go, then.”
But before she could help him up, Maurian pulled her in close.
“They won’t miss again,” he rasped.
Troi didn’t argue. With a cry, she hauled up his dead weight and started dragging him. After a few false starts, Maurian finally found his legs and started helping. Clumsily, he tried to match her stride, stumbling several times along the way. All the while, Troi searched for a place where she could find a strong enough signal—until Maurian tripped over a fissure in their path, going down hard as he slipped out of the counselor’s arms.
Doubled over, laying on his side, the Bezzeret groaned. Troi knelt down and turned him over gently, taking him by the shoulders to help him get up again. Maurian grabbed her by the wrist, staying her effort as he forced himself to breathe through clenched teeth.
“This isn’t going to work,” he grimaced.
“You don’t get to quit, Maurian,” Troi snapped. “This was your idea, remember? I’m counting on you to get me out of here.”
“They’re aiming with sensors,” Maurian said, swallowing hard. “Just waiting for a clean shot. The second you get clear of the dust cloud, it’s over.”
“Then we draw them in and fight,” she replied, stunned at her own resolve. “Take them down before they can take us.”
“The Ponsak are ghosts. You can’t possibly win.” As an unnatural calm descended upon him, Maurian heaved himself into an unsteady crouch. He quickly surveyed the way ahead and the way behind, pointing through the haze toward a protected alcove about a dozen meters off. “That’s your spot,” he told her. “You should be able to punch through the comm noise from there.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll draw their fire. With any luck, I can buy you enough time to reach your ship.”
“Maurian, that’s suicide.”
“It’s a sensible trade,” he countered. “Griff and his people need you, Deanna. I’m no good to them now—and you have to stay alive if you’re going to help them.”
Troi drew in a breath to protest, but nothing came out. Maurian’s expression only sealed the awful truth of his words, of how this was the only way. And as he steeled himself to make a final run, she could see there was no talking him out of it.
“As fast as you can,” he finished, “and don’t look back.”
She touched the side of his face, caressing his torn cheek.
“I won’t let you down,” Troi said. “I promise.”
Maurian nodded. “Go.”
Tearing herself away, Troi broke into a dead run. She didn’t even think about where she was going, her legs working of their own accord while her heart kept pumping faster and faster. Even as the path in front of her narrowed, she never slowed down, the rock wall to one side looming over her with sinister intent, the vast chasm on the other beckoning death on the jagged floor below. Then she heard the shriek of more phaser fire, and the pounding explosions that followed in their dreadful wake—a track that seemed to follow her and draw closer, begging for her to look back. But Troi knew those were false echoes, because she sensed Maurian’s terror like an electrical charge between them. True to his word, he had made himself the target, keeping the Ponsak’s fury off of her as she exited the protective cloud.
With open sky around her, Troi leaped for the alcove.
She hit the ground hard, landing painfully on her shoulder and then rolling back into the shadows. Scrambling backward, she kept going until she backed herself against the wall, adrenaline shakes racking her limbs so badly that she could barely reach for her comm badge. It chirped as she fumbled with it, static still crackling over its tiny speaker.
“Troi to Enterprise—” she began.
And fell silent when she saw Maurian off in the distance.
He hobbled along, achingly slow, making his way down the mountain. A bright bolt of energy then seared the space in front of him, digging a crater in his path—but with nowhere near the force of before. Maurian fell to his knees and crawled in the other direction, until another burst cut off that avenue of escape. Boxed in on both sides, he staggered to his feet again and waited for the kill shot.
But it didn’t come.
And then Troi realized with horrifying clarity: They don’t mean to kill him.
They meant to capture him.
Maurian realized it too, when he spotted members of the Ponsak squad descending on his position. He then turned his face in Troi’s direction, though there was no way he could have seen her, and gave her a single nod: a simple gesture of resignation, and gratitude that the method of his death would be of his own choosing.
Arms outstretched, he cast himself into the valley.
Whether she screamed with her voice or her mind, Troi didn’t know. She could no longer sort rational thought from the sudden rage that flooded her consciousness: a malevolent thing, alien in the extreme, which she could neither control nor satisfy. But it remembered the phaser, holstered at her side—even as it ignored the bits and pieces of chatter finally breaking through on her comm badge.
Because the rage demanded vengeance.
Troi didn’t listen. She didn’t even care. Instead, she set her weapon to maximum power and pointed it out there, toward them—and in a voice not quite her own, released a guttural howl as she mashed down on the trigger.
Fire coursed through her veins, her hand, her fingers, finding release as a single powerful bolt erupted from the end of the phaser. The shot landed at the feet of the closest Ponsak, detonating the ground beneath him as if he had stepped on a land mine, blowing his armor apart before tossing his body off the side of the cliff. Not having another visible target, Troi then let off with several random shots, each one followed by a burst of tears that clouded her vision but cleared her mind. By the time she finished only seconds had passed, though the phaser was already drained—and in a fugue state somewhere between insanity and reason, she came to understand the reckoning of her actions.
Quickly gathering intensity, a series of explosions ripped across the mountainside: a wave, building on itself like some giant tsunami, closing in on her hiding place. Phaser fire, seemingly from every direction, electrified the air as if the gates of hell had opened. And basking in the incipient heat, Troi realized she had led them directly to her.
“…detecting…weapons discharge…for God’s sake, energize!”
Troi gave herself to the inferno.
From a nearby ridge, concealed in darkness, the two of them watched.
The salvos of phaser fire came one after the other, streaks of red lightning that cut the night wide open and pummeled the mountain without mercy. Billowing from a fresh crater, columns of ash and steam shot up into the sky like flows from an erupting volcano, a display of such ferocity that it seemed almost surreal. For a moment it took hold of the entire valley, pushing tremors beneath their feet and showering them with bits of molten rock, a wave of destruction that kept spreading outward as if it meant to consume everything; but then, gradually, it withdrew to its point of origin, abating to a dull echo that faded into a prevailing wind. Fury spent, the barrage subsided, an afterimage of dying embers casting an amber glow over a newly-minted wasteland.
It was over.
Rylian turned to her father. Griff held her arm right, though his eyes remained fixed on the sight before them, his face cast in utter despair. Only once before had she seen that expression, the night he received the news about her mother’s death. Griff had never fully recovered from that. Neither had she—but Rylian was much better at hiding it.
“Maurian’s a survivor,” she lied. “If anybody could make it out, it’s him.”
Griff shook his head.
“He was dead the moment he agreed to help us,” he said. “This is my doing.”
Rylian wanted to offer him some measure of comfort, but didn’t know how. Their nomadic life had taught her all too well the danger of forming attachments, even if the old man had never quite learned that lesson for himself.
“We should go,” she said. “The Ponsak will be hunting us.”
Griff went without resistance, allowing Rylian to lead him back down to the caverns. She pushed him on through the entrance, remaining behind for a moment to make sure they hadn’t been followed. Fires still burned off in the distance, though reduced to a dull flicker, the acrid smell of ozone descending on her like fallout. The smell of war, she reminded herself, knowing it would only get worse. Darelian had made that much patently clear.
“Damn fool, Maurian,” she muttered, then disappeared into the underground.
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