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
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 8
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 9
- Star Trek: Shadow Prime Book I – Chapter 10
Jerarche (The Bezzeret Capital City)
Bezzeret Home World
The small patch of real estate carved out of the south side of the metroplex had been set aside by the Bezzeret as the Federation’s operational zone (called OZ on the official maps), but to the small community of scientists and support personnel who lived there it was known as Skid Row—a modest collection of modular buildings, each one indistinguishable from the others, deposited there by the Starfleet Corps of Engineers when they cobbled the facilities together eight years ago. In that time they had not aged well, taking on the characteristics of the surrounding neighborhood—a rather seedy part of town as those things went in this day and age, populated by the lower-caste types that always seemed to exist at the fringes of an industrial society, doing the menial jobs that the upper caste would just as soon forget. Flanked by distribution hubs and warehouses, the place didn’t have much going for it—just a few shops that sold cheap knock-off goods to offworlders and a dive bar that passed itself off as an exotic cabaret; but the Bezzeret allowed the Federation to conduct itself there more or less autonomously, and the locals—grateful for the influx of business—rarely made trouble for their guests.
Will Riker sensed it even before he materialized inside the zone, like a heat wave of raw emotion spilling over the border that marked the edge of friendly territory. So did Bev Crusher, who tensed the moment she came out of the matter stream, both of them taking in their surroundings to pinpoint the source. It wasn’t hard to find. An angry native crowd, milling about outside the compound, bristled at the sight of them—two more invaders to complement the dozens of others who had beamed down ahead of them as part of the advance team.
“Warm welcome,” Bev Crusher remarked, having dropped in next to him. “Think they’ll ask us to stay for dinner?”
Riker looked the crowd over, searching for signs of real danger. The gathering was hardly what he would have called a riot, but he could see the hate in their eyes nonetheless.
“Don’t plan on being here that long,” he replied. “Come on.”
The two of them made their way through a flurry of activity, toward the center of the compound where most of the action was taking place. Uniformed crewmen from Enterprise pitched in with the resident civilian researchers, taking down what was left of the complex. They loaded everything they could into the large transport containers that Riker had sent down, battering most of the equipment in their haste—not that the commander took issue. His orders on the matter had been very clear: Get in, get out, do it fast. All other considerations secondary. The only exception were the Level 5 biologicals, which Beverly was here to handle. Bad as things were, an accident involving some nasty pathogen would only make things worse—and the captain had been quite specific about not making things worse.
He and Beverly turned in the direction of a harried but booming voice, belonging to what could have been the fattest man Riker had ever seen. He bounded toward them faster than what should have been possible, so epic in girth that it seemed he couldn’t be human; but as he finally arrived, the man revealed himself to be just that—genteel and with a good humor that made Riker take an instant liking to him.
“Welcome to Skid Row,” the man huffed, his face beet red but managing to squeeze out a smile between rivulets of sweat. “Or at least what’s left of it. Your people came ready to party, I’ll hand you that.”
“We aim to please,” Riker said, shaking his hand. “Are you Dr. Morton?”
“Resident xenosociologist,” Morton replied, “which is a fancy way of saying I don’t work for a living. Please call me Alex.” He then turned to Beverly. “Now I know what you’re thinking, Dr. Crusher—so before you whip out that tricorder, I’ll have you know that I’ve actually lost over twenty kilos since getting marooned on this rock. Check my file if you don’t believe me.”
Beverly laughed. “The food here must be terrible.”
“One of the many things I won’t miss,” he affirmed, motioning toward their growing audience outside the compound. “You get a chance to meet the neighbors? They’ve been a bit frisky as of late.”
“We noticed that,” Riker said.
“They’re mostly good people,” Morton continued, “but with a few professional agitators thrown in the mix. The government likes to keep things stirred up, if you know what I mean. Makes it easier to blame outsiders for all their problems.”
“So we’ve seen,” Beverly said, zipping up her jacket to ward off the early morning desert chill—but not before Morton noticed the Type II phaser holstered underneath. He didn’t appear surprised, just mildly amused.
“Sure your last name ain’t Holliday?” he asked.
“You ought to see the rest of her kit,” Riker said drily. “Are any of your people armed?”
“Against the law,” Morton replied, “even for citizens. The government also likes to keep everyone on a short leash.”
“Still, it might be a good idea,” Riker decided. “I’d feel a lot better knowing we had an edge, especially if things get out of hand.”
“The local constabulary might take issue with that.”
“Frag ‘em. The Bezzeret don’t get to make all the rules.”
Morton grinned. “Glad to have you on our side, commander.”
“Likewise—” Riker began, but got cut off by a piercing shriek that stabbed across the grounds. He reacted instantly, turning in the direction of the sound—knowing on an instinctive level that it wasn’t human, but recognizing the rage contained within just the same. Beverly did the same, hand dropping to her weapon as she looked back toward the entrance of the compound, where they saw a throng of Bezzeret protestors now pouring through. Riker had no idea what set them off, but at least as many Federation personnel surged in to meet them. With the two waves fast converging, God only knew what would happen when they hit.
“Dammit,” Riker seethed, heading straight into the fracas with Beverly on his six. Morton did his best to keep up, but quickly fell behind in the swell of bodies as the two officers pushed their way through. “Make a hole!” Riker shouted, barely able to hear himself over the crowd, which only grew louder and more rambunctious the deeper he went. By now, everyone was itching for a fight—himself included, even though he didn’t quite know why.
Then he reached the center of the storm, and saw for himself.
There, in the no man’s land between the two opposing factions, one of Morton’s people —a woman, no less—faced off against a Bezzeret. The two circled each other, already dusted up and bloodied from more than a few traded blows. Morton’s girl held her own, though, getting some jabs in as her much taller opponent swung at her.
“Come on, you stringy bastard,” she taunted. “That the best you got?”
The Bezzeret bared his teeth, emitting a low growl—the same bestial tone Riker had heard before. The sound of it made his blood run cold, almost as much as the dull glow behind the Bezzeret’s eyes.
And Riker knew: He’ll kill her if he gets the chance.
The woman, agile as she was, didn’t fully realize the danger. Dropping her guard only for a second, she gave the Bezzeret the opening he needed. He lunged, moving unbelievably fast, fingers hooked into claws and reaching for her neck. Somehow the woman saw it coming, and pivoted her body to the left to avoid what would have been a fatal strike. But her shoulder took the brunt instead, the impact spinning her around and stuffing her face-first into the ground. She pushed herself up, scrambling to get clear, but the Bezzeret grabbed her by the sides of the head—his powerful hands squeezing her skull, determined to crush it.
Riker tackled him.
Both men went flying, a tangle of limbs thrashing against one another. Riker held the advantage, though, rolling away and jumping up before the dazed Bezzeret knew what was happening. He then crouched, ready to go on offense again as the Bezzeret clambered back to his feet. This time the alien hissed, an altogether demonic sound, and Riker saw the hell fire behind those eyes directed at him. Clearly, this wasn’t going to end until one of them was dead—and the crowd, now worked to an absolute frenzy, expected nothing less.
Until the scream of a phaser silenced them.
The beam struck the Bezzeret squarely in the chest, so hard that it knocked him back several meters. He crumpled to the ground a twitching mass, his body racked by stray electrical impulses, though his moans left no doubt that he was still alive. The phaser had only been set to stun—but jacked to a high enough level to hurt. Riker had to admire the shooter’s style.
The crowd parting, he saw Beverly level her weapon at the other protesters.
“Cool off,” she warned them.
Something in her tone made the Bezzeret take heed. They retreated a few steps, helping their comrade up, but then regained enough courage to stand their ground. That was when Morton arrived, even more winded than before, and sized up the situation in that canny way of his. Kneeling down to assist the woman from his team, he looked up at Beverly and then towards Riker.
“Is this what you meant by out of hand?” he asked.
The Bezzeret also waited on Riker’s answer. He could tell that they were on the edge, and that the slightest push could nudge them either way. He thought about drawing his own phaser, matching Beverly’s show of force, but instinct made him reconsider. This was a brawl, not a battle—and he had already seized the initiative with his fists.
“I will have order!” he shouted, in a voice that would have made his drill instructor at the Academy proud. “You people will disperse immediately so we can finish our work. Anybody who interferes,” he trailed off, leveling an acid scowl at the stunned Bezzeret. “You’ve already seen what happens.”
The Bezzeret chattered amongst themselves, still uncertain.
“Make it hard on us,” Riker prodded, “we’ll make it even harder on you.”
They exchanged a few glances, searching for a leader. None arose.
“So what’s it going to be?”
The heat that fed the Bezzeret frenzy settled into a slow burn. Gradually, they began to disperse—including the one Beverly shot, who hobbled away with the aid of his friends, his pride wounded more than anything else. He spat at Riker’s feet as he went past, muttering something in his native language that cast a ripple of assent among the others.
“What the hell does that mean?” Riker asked.
“Humans go home,” Morton translated, dusting off his knees as he and Beverly came over. They watched the Bezzeret retreat, which extended back to the compound’s perimeter, but went no farther. There they remained, like a storm hanging just off shore, replenishing their fury for next time. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like like to grant their wish. The best view of this place will be in the rear view mirror—preferably with a beer in hand.”
“I heard that,” Riker agreed, and started to walk with Beverly and Morton toward the operations shack. Enterprise had already started beaming cargo up, the large carriers dematerializing in the courtyard as they went by. “We got the manifest for all your gear, but I’m thinking we ought to prioritize. As long as we get the vital stuff first, we can leave the rest of it behind if things deteriorate any more than they already have.”
“The Federation paid good money for that,” Morton said.
“They can bill me,” the commander retorted, turning to Beverly. “What’s our time frame for securing the biologicals?”
“Three hours,” she answered. “Two if we really push it.”
“Two hours,” Riker grumbled. “Not even enough time for a poker game.” It was, however, a lot more time than he wanted to spend here, with all those Bezzeret eyes watching. And the protestors outside the grounds were only the beginning. There might well be even more of them, staring down from the ramshackle buildings of Skid Row, waiting for some signal to attack. Plenty of places to hide in there, Riker thought, feeling more vulnerable than ever before. If it came down to actually defending this place, he had no idea how the hell to do it.
“Move like you got a purpose,” he ordered.
The volume of computer activity that takes place on board starship is considerable. In fact, the burden placed on its computer cores are of such magnitude and importance that the use of conventional processing elements is impossible—they are simply too slow. To answer these demands, a network which makes use of optical transtator clusters made up of thousands of faster than light nanoprocessor units was developed to become the “nervous system” of a starship. In essence, the same theory which made warp drive a working reality was applied to generating a subspace field within this network, thus allowing the ship’s computer to process information at faster than light speeds. Not only did this arrangement free the designers from the confines of real space processing, it also saved a lot of headaches by eliminating the need to support the almost absolute-zero temperatures required by conventional superconductors.
The principle was efficient, stable and had been in use for nearly 200 years. From an engineering standpoint, there was virtually no downside—except for one possibility that nearly everyone had overlooked.
When the subject of catastrophic failure came up at the original project meetings, only one scientist—a multidimensional physicist named David Zeen—pointed out that there indeed was an Achilles Heel hidden within the system. A theoretician with an obsessive-compulsive streak, Zeen worried about everything—including the possibility that a subspace pulse of a certain magnitude could wreak havoc with the isolinear processors that were central to the core’s design. If the pulse were especially strong, it could effectively wipe them clean, like an eraser being dragged across a chalkboard.
By this time, of course, a great deal of time and money had already been spent on the original design. Implementing safeguards against the kind of event Zeen postulated would have set the project back by several months, if not a year or more. Further undermining his argument was the simple fact that freak subspace pulses were almost unheard of in nature, outside of a supernova or the event horizon of a black hole—and if a starship ever got close enough to one of those, a computer failure would be the least of its problems. Accordingly, in true bureaucratic fashion, Zeen’s opinion was carefully noted and summarily discarded. Work proceeded on schedule and everyone went their separate ways.
Except that somewhere along the line, word trickled back to Starfleet Tactical. The rocket boys there had already been working on ways to screw with an enemy vessel’s warp drive by subjecting it to intense subspace fields, an effort that had yielded mixed results at best. The revelation that they could apply the same techniques more effectively to screwing with an enemy vessel’s computer—well, that seemed like the next best thing. And seeing as the department had already budgeted for the research, they didn’t need to go to the Federation for additional funding. Not only was this cost-conscious, it also allowed the admiral in charge to keep any new weapons that resulted off the books.
So began the development of what would become the Localized Conductive Subspace Interference Generator—LoConSIG for short, a rather clunky acronym that no one would ever use. In more vicious circles (and there were many), it was known as the Starship Killer. Euphemistically, it was called the Black Box—an overtly descriptive name, but like Pandora’s Box, one that gave no clue as to the deadly contents inside.
It is not a bomb, though it could be categorized as a weapon of mass destruction. A small, rectangular object, it measures 50cm by 30cm with no visible controls aside from a small programming pad on the topmost surface. The components are divided into two sub-systems: one is capable of rerouting computer systems and executing commands, while the other is a tiny but lethal static subspace field generator capable of delivering a whopping burst of 4500 millocochranes. In real time, the length of this burst is less than one-thousandth of a second—but it is enough to inflict fatal damage on a faster-than-light computer system.
What David Zeen had envisioned as his worst nightmare, Tactical had made a working reality. Frightening as it was, though, the Black Box ultimately didn’t find much of a place for itself among the arsenal of more conventional weapons. Commonplace as they were, phasers and photon torpedoes could be used at a distance—you simply aimed at fired. Using the Black Box was a bit more complex, because it worked from the inside out. It had to be tied directly to a ship’s core interface, which meant someone had to beam aboard an enemy vessel to deploy it—and that, as they say, is easier said than done under combat conditions.
What the Black Box could do effectively, however, was destroy a ship without leaving a trace of itself. With all of its other limitations, that left the weapon but with one real use: sabotage. Given the state of affairs in the Federation, though, and the Council’s general reluctance to authorize covert actions, that meant in all likelihood that the Black Box would spend its life gathering dust in some vault—an interesting proof of concept, but little more.
Still, there were those who thought it wasn’t a bad thing to have around. Terrence Blake was such a man. From the moment he first saw the Black Box, he understood its potential. In fact, he had been so impressed with the device that he arranged to have several of them deployed in the field, each one in the hands of a trusted ally. It was a proactive move on his part—highly illegal, given the lack of Starfleet sanction, but a wise one nonetheless. Blake hadn’t risen up the chain of command by being caught unprepared, and the Black Box gave him an edge that nobody else had.
Because you never knew when you would have to destroy a ship in secret.
Especially one of your own.
Steven Quintax felt strange, staring down into his empty hands. Only moments before, he had held the Black Box in them, pondering the sheer power and naked potential contained in such an innocuous package. Stranger still, he had handed it off without any hesitation at all—a transaction, more or less, like contraband between pirates, conducted in the secrecy of his quarters. Only now, left alone with his thoughts, did he begin to realize the magnitude of what he had set into motion.
The admiral would have done the same thing, Quintax kept telling himself. He always made the tough decisions. When he gets wind of this, he’ll know I did the right thing.
So why did his hands shake so badly?
He balled them into fists, trying to quell his angst, rocking back and forth but finding no peace in repetition. His conscience would simply not allow it—a conscience that had been notably absent in the presence of the Ponsak, who had taken the box from him and disappeared. Quintax knew where the creature was by now, though he could never fathom how; it was one of those things he chose not to question, for fear of where the answer might lead. He only knew that what he had started could not be stopped.
And he would most certainly be damned for it.
Quintax rocked some more, that thought actually giving him some measure of comfort. Perhaps hell wouldn’t be such a bad place after all—and there was a certain solace in knowing that it was his final destination. Still, Quintax couldn’t shake the image of Blake looking down at him, in pitiful disappointment: Zeus, with his all to familiar contempt for the weakness of mere mortals. Enterprise would make a fine enough burnt offering, wouldn’t she?
Quintax, praying to his jealous god, begged for the strength to see it through.
“Thy will be done,” he whispered. “Thy will be done.”
There was once a philosopher, not from Earth, who speculated that the nature of evil is not so much that which opposes good, but a void in which good cannot exist. Only within such a space is there room for evil, which itself is a vacuum. That which is nothingness appears from nothingness, and can thus become anything it wants to be—imparting to evil a remarkable flexibility, because it can assume any form that it wants. Good suffers from pretensions; evil does not. Accordingly, it is easy for evil to slip on past, unnoticed by human eyes, in willful blindness.
So it was from nothingness that the creature appeared—the same one that would haunt Steven Quintax in the few dreams that he had left, like a nightmare fringe that leaves no trace of itself in the morning, save a tingling, barely palpable sense of fear; the same creature which, because of its nature, was the perfect warrior—a thing with no name and no face and no identity, only a singularity of purpose. Like a distillation of evil, it held no pretense. And like an incarnation of evil, it walked the vessel’s corridors at the border between reality and terror, where no eye could see nor any sensor detect.
It heard the voices and felt the heartbeats of those it passed, taking in a brief taste of life with every encounter, watching them with a curiosity that wasn’t so much alive as it was existent. It brushed by a few of them, some even close enough to touch, perhaps stirring a detached sort of dread easily dismissed as nerves or fatigue, before moving on to its objective. Because nothing would keep it from its objective.
Relentless precision. Eyes without a face.
The creature was Ponsak, and this was its duty.
The information systems architecture of a Galaxy-class starship consists of three computer cores, two of which are located on the port and starboard sides of the primary hull, while the third resides deep within the secondary. Each provides load balancing and redundancy for its counterparts, the split arrangement also allowing the two hulls to operate independently of one another during separated flight. Although largely automated, the cores are constantly monitored by specialists posted in an adjoining substation known as Subspace Field System Access—or SFSA—which is designated as a vaulted area because of its critical importance to shipboard operations. Aside from the captain and the XO, only those assigned to SFSA are permitted to enter.
Duty there isn’t considered the worst on board, but it comes close. The gray walls, dark lighting, mazes of isolinear chips, and the sparse interfaces don’t present a warm and welcome sight (someone once observed that the designers had hired the same interior decorator as the Borg). Coupled with the constant, semi-sentient hum radiating from the core chamber, the atmosphere seems to actively loathe any living thing that enters it. This effect is, of course, entirely psychological, but it manifests itself consistently enough so that shifts are rotated out every four hours—the shortest duration of any on board. Because of this, the rest of the crew tends to view SFSA specialists as a little squirrel y, better at talking to machines than to other human beings. The specialists, for their part, think even less of outsiders in return—but they know how to keep things running, so they rarely get asked any questions.
Under non-combat conditions, the job of monitoring the cores is the responsibility of a two-person team. The lead position is held by a commissioned officer, typically a lieutenant junior-grade, assisted by a petty officer second-class. Their routine is a simple one, consisting primarily of fine tuning, maintenance and watching a diagnostic feed—monkey work, as the hardcore systems jockeys liked to call it, but demanded under regulations. The rest of the time, the team functions as a backstop against any possible contingency. That’s a fancy way of saying they sit around waiting for something to go wrong—and even then, they’re a superfluous component at best. If one of the cores goes down, the others kick in automatically to take up the slack; and beyond that, if the unthinkable happened, a system of dedicated subprocessors could take over minimal operations in the event of a multiple core failure. In essence, the emergency would have occurred, been isolated, and addressed before the crew could even hit the alert button.
But protocol was protocol, and if it was anything that Jean-Luc Picard impressed upon his people it was the human factor involved in all phases of ship’s operations. No matter how well the engineers had designed her, Enterprise was not perfect, and it was up to her crew to remain sharp when the vessel herself couldn’t. Sure, it was a platitude—but it was an effective one, and kept people from going going batshit when it seemed like duty consisted solely of staring at a screen of endless figures and waiting for the chimes to ring so you could go up to Ten Forward and be glad that it was someone else’s turn.
Sometimes, though, it wore thin. With the skipper acting beyond strange and a general pall of tension hanging over the ship, it was easy to glance up at the clock and think an hour had passed and find that it had only been five minutes. Specialist Divers had seen more than his share of that lately, with the in-betweens stretching out so long that he had started giving serious thought to another line of work. For most crewmen, that wouldn’t have been such a big deal; griping was practically a job requirement for the enlisted man, and Divers was no exception. But he was also a console cowboy through and through, having spent his entire life immersed in the obscure digital rhythms of every computer system he could get his hands on. Hell, the reason he had joined Starfleet in the first place was to get up close and personal with heavy tech. If that particular thrill was gone then there wasn’t a hell of a lot left for him, and more than one woman on board lived in fear of where his attentions might turn next.
Lieutenant Marksen wasn’t one of them, though. A stint in security meant she knew how to put the hurt on him, so Divers knew better than to mess with her. He barely even acknowledged Marksen as she climbed up a ladder from the lower decks and slid into the chair next to him, his eyes never leaving the bank of virtual screens that hovered over his station.
“You’re early,” she said, firing up her own set of screens.
“Got tired of the movie they were running in the mess club.”
“Is it that Klingon musical again?”
“Couldn’t tell. They all kind of look the same.”
“Sailor’s lament,” she sighed, hitting a button to record for the log. “Marksen, Karen J. Assuming watch, 1200 hours. Divers, Bryan T. attending. Request identity confirmation.”
“I do so confirm,” Divers said.
“Thank God for that,” Marksen said, closing out the entry. “For a second there, I thought I might have to shoot you.”
“Anything to break up the routine.”
“So nothing to write home about?”
“Number three just completed a self-diagnostic,” Divers told her, his hands a blur as they moved across his console. “Chip alpha-tango-seven-niner in array fourteen reports an impending fail and will need replacing. Oh, and there was a minor interference pattern that briefly triggered a breach mode before the core figured out what was going on and corrected itself.”
“When did that happen?”
“About fifteen minutes ago.”
Marksen called up the event on her console and studied the figures for a moment.
“Were you able to pinpoint the exact source?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Divers replied. “Deck 31, section twelve.”
The lieutenant frowned. “That’s pretty close.”
“Close enough to make it an easy call. It’s probably just a feedback surge coming off the pings from our own substation. Back at tech we used to call it a curly ghost. We’d see them pop off from time to time.”
“Hmm,” Marksen mused. She didn’t really sound concerned—just bored and like she was looking for any kind of relief. “What was the duration of the breach?”
“Around 1.2257853 nanoseconds—or thereabouts.” He smiled a bit, amused at the mountain she was building out of this molehill. “It really was no big deal, lieutenant. We flood the system with maintenance traffic all the time. Some of it just came back on us and got mistaken for an outside incursion, that’s all.”
“I’d still feel better if one of us checked it out,” she said, hopping out of her chair. “I’ll take a tricorder with me just to make sure it isn’t something that could turn into a persistent leak. Could be we’ve got some bad shielding down there.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Divers pointed out. “The kind of surge we’re talking about doesn’t pack enough juice to cook popcorn.”
“Then humor me,” Marksen ordered, heading for the hatch. It opened with a little hiss as the self-contained atmosphere depressurized with the rest of the cabin. “Besides, it’s not like we have anything better to do.”
“You have a point.”
“Since you’re going down there anyway, should I alert engineering so that you guys can replace that faulty chip?”
“Might as well,” Marksen agreed. “Why should we have all the fun?”
And with a friendly salute, the lieutenant was on her way. Divers shook his head, but consoled himself knowing that at least the exercise wasn’t a complete waste of time. He rang up engineering, expecting to hear some tool pusher on the other end. Instead he got Commander La Forge, who apparently had the nasty habit of answering his own calls. Divers gave him a rundown of the situation, which actually intrigued the chief engineer—although God only knew why. La Forge got so worked up he even volunteered to meet Marksen in SFSA himself. After all, it wasn’t every day he got to play detective with a curly ghost.
Closing out, Divers sank bank into his chair and sighed.
Officers, he lamented. What can you do?
But he had no idea of the chain of events he had just set into motion.
The Ponsak swam in the liquid darkness that enveloped the computer core. In complete isolation, possessing a singularity of purpose, the creature might have felt completely alone in the universe—supposing that it had the capacity to feel anything. As it was, the Ponsak merely existed as a force without reason: action and reaction, driven by pure instinct, its directives hard-coded in its DNA. It never even occurred to the creature that its appearance might have created an infinitesimal distortion in the subspace field generated by the core, or that such a disturbance could have been detected. It merely proceeded, like a virus attacking its host, aware of nothing that didn’t immediately stand in its way.
The core itself was mammoth, rising a full two decks from base to apex. The Ponsak circled around the cylindrical face until it found a hard-link access panel, precisely where the starship’s schematics said it would be. Opening a compartment in its body armor, the Ponsak then retrieved the small device given to it by Captain Quintax. The creature had only a rudimentary understanding of how the Black Box worked, but had memorized every detail of its deployment. As the Ponsak affixed the device to the access panel, a tiny control pad appeared on its face. With a single touch, it engaged—and began the delicate process of inserting itself through the optical interface, the very gateway into the wider network.
The Ponsak, for its part, waited.
A progress indicator ticked away the seconds, rising steadily until it completed the interface. The Ponsak then drilled down through the almost endless layers of information manipulated by the core, finally locating the controls for the ship’s orbital maneuvering system. Using a preprogrammed routine, it tied the box into those controls. All that remained was to lock everything down with a complex code series—
The Ponsak stopped, its movements frozen to absolute zero. Senses deviating from its immediate task, the creature expanded its sphere of awareness outward in circles until it detected the source of this new threat.
Single life form. Human. Distance twenty meters.
It waited to see if the human would go past, but calculated the odds as being unlikely. This area of the ship was restricted, and those who entered had a specific reason to be here. True to logic, the human stopped outside the access hatch and dialed in a key code. The hatch then popped open with a soft hiss—but the sound may as well have been a bullet, for all the potential violence it summoned.
Retreating farther into the shadows, the Ponsak made like a hole in the dark.
And prepared its butcher’s tools for work.
Marksen watched the hatch slide open, light spilling into the core from behind her.
Her own shadow fell across the floor, the shape of her body elongating to ghastly proportions as it mirrored her movements—a disconcerting effect that set her nerves on edge, though she couldn’t quite fathom why. Marksen had been here dozens of times and never paid it much mind, but all of a sudden she realized how isolated this place was. A person could scream and there wouldn’t be another soul to hear it—only the stark, imposing face of the core itself, which neither understood or cared. A person could die down here, and nobody would know it for hours or even days.
Marksen chided herself for even thinking it, but still had to suppress a shudder before she could even walk inside. The atmosphere was frigid and dry, like nighttime in the desert, except for the utter sterility of the elements therein. They seemed to draw the life from her as she breathed them in, the core responding with quickening pulses of pseudolight that coursed through its stacks of isolinear chips. The sight of it filled Marksen with a vague dread of being watched, even beckoned, while her instincts pleaded with her to go the other way.
Get a hold of yourself.
Only then did Marksen realize that she had been standing by the open doorway, no more than two steps in, steadying herself against the closest bulkhead. The droning of the ship filled her ears, giving her a handle on reality, and Marksen allowed it to clear her head. Reminding herself why she was here, she then reached for the tricorder she had picked up on her way down, peeling it off her belt and feeling the weight of it in her hands. It felt good and solid—a simple piece of tech, which answered with an affirmative tone as she flipped open the cover.
Just get it done, she thought, and started scanning.
The tiny screen bathed her face in a pale green glow, the readings that appeared there strangely comforting. They didn’t show her much that she didn’t already know: the strong, proximal curve of a subspace field, modulations of energy states that propagated data along FTL routes—but all of it was neatly contained, with not a stray impulse to be found. Not a single sign of the “curly ghost” Divers had described.
The voice jolted Marksen so hard she nearly dropped the tricorder. Clutching the device to her chest, she abruptly turned to see Commander La Forge approaching from the outside corridor. He ran to her side and took her by the arm, the concern on his face apparent even behind the VISOR that covered his eyes.
“Take it easy there,” he said. “You okay?”
“Yes,” she blurted, still catching her breath. “Sorry about that, commander. I must be a little jumpy today.”
“I have that affect on people.”
Marksen laughed. Aside from Divers, Geordi La Forge was probably the least threatening man she knew—a fact only underscored by the warm smile he showed her. “Talk about weird,” she said, her fear dissipating to a tingle now that she was no longer alone. “You ever walk into a room and just get the creeps?”
“You are ghost hunting,” La Forge told her, putting down a tool box that he had brought with him. “And let’s just say that I’ve seen a few corners of this ship that would make a great spot for a Halloween party.”
“Count me in on the next one.”
“Just don’t tell the captain,” he joked. “So did you find anything?”
“Not a whole a lot,” Marksen replied, handing him the tricorder. “Shielding looks good, though we might be getting sporadic leaks off that faulty chip.”
“Good an explanation as any,” the chief engineer agreed, handing the device back. “Still, the tricorder can miss readings at the extreme ends of the subspace spectrum.” He tapped the side of his VISOR. “That’s why I like to eyeball it.”
Marksen smiled, and watched curiously as La Forge did his own scan of the area around the core. Methodically, he turned his gaze from one end to the other, moving in sweeps so that he could take it all in. “So far so good,” he observed. “Which array was giving you a problem?”
“That’s topside,” La Forge said, craning to get a look near the ceiling. “If that is the source, then it should stand out pretty clear against the conventional EM—”
He stopped cold.
The pause was unnatural. It filled the space between them with a mounting silence, building on an exponential curve. Marksen felt a stab of terror, sudden and irresistible—but not from within. This time it was real, and coming from the direction of La Forge’s stare.
The engineer frowned. “What the hell is that?”
And with blinding speed, the terror fell upon them.
La Forge heard himself shout a warning out to Marksen, right before something savage clawed at him from out of the dark. The impact struck him squarely in the side of the head, reanimating his optic nerves with a bloom of stars and pain as it ripped his VISOR loose. He felt his forehead opening up like a seam, blood pouring into his useless eyes, his hands going up in front of his face in a useless attempt to protect himself. By, then, however, his attacker had moved on to other targets. Two quick jabs to his abdomen made him double over, gasping for breath, before another blow knocked his legs out from under him. La Forge crumpled, crashing into the deck so hard he could hear his bones rattle.
“Marksen—” he cried out.
The attacker yanked La Forge back up.
The most amazing force clamped down on the sides of his head. La Forge felt fingers digging into his skull, though it seemed impossible that anyone could be that strong. Fresh pain seeped into his brain like a hot flood, the rest of his body trivial by comparison. Unable to think, he reacted on instinct, tearing at the hands that held him—but then recoiled against them, so violently that he gagged. The touch was so monstrous, so reptilian, it branded him as unclean even as it squeezed the life out of him.
Pressure building, his brain cavity splintering.
oh god oh dear god this thing’s not alive
Consciousness fading, panic still growing.
this thing holding me touching me is not alive it’s dead
A woman’s voice: “Divers! Emergency! We have an intruder—”
The hands let go, dropping him to the floor.
La Forge heaved, spitting out blood as he rolled onto his side. Conscious thought pierced his mind like a hot lance, matching the agony that his body felt. Why hadn’t his attacker killed him? It would have been so easy, and La Forge would have welcomed it.
Then he heard Marksen screaming, and the reason because crystal.
He groped for the device in a clumsy stupor, fingers dragging across the deck and tearing out his nails. La Forge paid it no heed. The only thing worse than facing the walking dead was facing it in blindness—and knowing that it had dispensed with him only to go after Marksen. The nightmare of having to sit and listen while that thing did to her what it did to him swelled up in his imagination like a tsunami rolling into shore, because in his mind’s eye he wouldn’t be blind at all. Because in his mind’s eye his imagination would see everything—
It was sudden. Brutal. Final.
Then a slow, gurgling sound. The snapping of wet twigs.
La Forge froze. The silence of the grave descended upon him.
“Lieutenant?” he called, reaching a hand out into the void.
A blast of warm, viscous droplets sprayed La Forge in the face. He didn’t need to see it or taste it to know what it was. The sound of Marksen’s body, collapsing in a heap next to him, only confirmed that this blood was not his own.
But it would be soon enough. The walking dead would see to that.
La Forge opened up his soul and screamed.
Security got the call from a frantic crewman. The ship’s computer routed it to the nearest standby team, where a master chief by the name of Costa answered. He listened closely, trying hard just to make out the crewman’s name—Danvers or something like that—but the voice on the other end was terrified beyond comprehension, babbling so fast that the chief barely understood. He only managed to pick out bits and pieces, fragmented by the sound of a battering ram against a steel door—until a loud screech burst in, and the voice shouted for the last time.
Then the channel cut out. Static and then silence.
Costa jumped onto a nearby console, tracing the call to its point of origin. His display highlighted a small area on Deck 31, identifying the section: Subspace Field Systems Access. He tried to raise the crewman again, but nobody answered. That was all Costa needed to know.
Alerting the squad on duty, he went over to the armory and punched an access code into the electronic lock. The door slid open as his people arrived, all ten of them filing in one at a time and outfitting themselves with the required equipment: Type II handheld phasers for everyone, with a Type I for use as a backup. Costa did the same, strapping the weapons to his belt and heading out after them—but then stopped when something else caught his eye.
There, bolted to the wall, was a heavy phaser rifle. The chief thought about it for a moment, remembering the sheer terror he heard in that voice.
“Screw it,” he said, and grabbed the rifle.
As Costa walked back into the security station, the others noticed the firepower he had slung over his shoulder. They all exchanged the same look, and knew it was bad.
“Time to earn that paycheck,” the chief said, and led them out to fight.
The Ponsak ran like the devil, no longer concerned with remaining invisible. Anyone it encountered now would be killed—the equation was as simple as that. Its first priority had been to neutralize the crewman in SFSA. The woman in the core had managed to warn him before the Ponsak disposed of her, creating the very real danger that the core would be taken offline before the Black Box could be fully activated. With SFSA secured, that was no longer a possibility. But there was still the matter of the Box itself, which was not yet ready. With security on the way, the Ponsak had only minutes to complete its mission. After that, it had only to defend its position—which it would do to the death.
As it reckoned death…
It slipped back into the confines of the core, bypassing the human who still lived. The Ponsak had quickly decided that the human was a minimal threat at this point, and that even the scant few seconds required to finish him off was too much of a delay. Instead, it bounded up the side of the wall like a gigantic insect, once more up toward the ceiling where the Black Box waited. Only a few more keystrokes and its very existence would be complete.
And it would have all the time in the world to kill.
Lieutenant Worf routed an Enterprise schematic to the bridge’s main viewscreen, which showed the engineering core flashing in red. Immediately around it, section dividers also flashed yellow, showing the areas being secured by approaching forces. The Klingon had wasted no time assigning full complements—not after hearing the distress call. Captain Picard, for his part, hadn’t argued with him.
“All security teams reporting in,” Worf said, reading off his panel. “Decks 30 through 37 have been evacuated to within five sections of the computer core.”
Picard walked up the ramp that led to the rear of the bridge, joining Worf at the tactical station. The captain watched as moving green dots, which represented each member of the teams, approached the core from both fore and aft on all seven decks. They formed a perimeter around the evacuated sections and then stopped.
“Anyone unaccounted for?” Picard asked.
“Yes. Specialist David Divers, the one who made the call to security—and Lieutenant Sharon Marksen, who was also on the core duty roster.” Worf paused for a long moment, and then finally added, “Engineering reports that Lieutenant Commander La Forge went there ten minutes ago. He is not responding to calls.”
My God, Picard thought, but kept it to himself. He ran over the scenarios, none of them good. Sensors were useless around the core because the shielding there was too thick, so there was no way to tell if any of them were alive; and even if they were, beaming them out of there was out of the question for the very same reason. Picard shuddered at the thought of what he had to do next—but as captain, he knew there was no other way to protect the safety of his ship.
At least until we know what the hell is going on.
“Engage the emergency doors,” he ordered. “Seal off all sections within the evacuation perimeter. Nobody but the security teams goes in or out.”
Worf nodded slowly. “Aye, sir.”
Picard then released a long, tense breath.
“Tell them to proceed.”
COMPUTER CORE FACILITY
Costa read the words stenciled into the bulkhead, the stark, bold lettering that he had seen a hundred times before now conveying the malevolence of the unknown. He signaled for his people to stop, then leveled the sights of his phaser rifle down the short distance that remained between him and SFSA. Tight sweeps on the infra-red detected nothing but empty space, the motion sensor keyed to his spyglass totally still. Even so, the sensor on the back of Costa’s neck tingled—and he trusted that a hell of a lot more than any electronic gear. Something was out there, taunting him and daring him to enter.
That’s right. I can see you but you can’t see me.
He took a step forward, clinging as close as he could to the wall. Out in front of him, the corridor bent to the left, cutting off his line of sight just short of the hatch that marked his objective.
I could be anywhere. Maybe right next to you.
“Dammit,” Costa swore under his breath. He repositioned himself, rifle trained on the kill zone in front of him, but there was no way of seeing without sticking his head out. After that, it was all or nothing.
If you make it that far. If I don’t take your head off first…
The chief blinked the sweat from his eyes. Behind him, spaced about two meters apart, the other members of his team took cover behind the archways that led back toward the turbolift. All of them stood at the ready, their bodies like tight coils poised to strike, phasers leveled to give maximum protection to the man walking point. Costa trusted them with his life, and knew they would take down any threat before it could get close to him—but still, this felt like something else. This felt like something different.
This feels totally wrong.
The team stood by, waiting for Costa to make a decision.
Steeling his will, the chief thrust himself out in the open. He already had a heavy pull on his rifle’s trigger, imagining the hell of phaser fire he would unleash on the first thing that twitched—but when nothing materialized, he gave the rest of the team the signal to go in. Moving in two-by-two formations, they quickly followed Costa’s lead and closed the last few meters to SFSA. There, they formed a tight cordon, weapons leveled at the entrance.
Costa didn’t even need to look back at his team to know they were ready.
One step at a time, he inched over to the hatch—or what was left of it. Once a heavy, pressurized door, it had been dented inwards by some incredible force. Costa couldn’t spot any blast marks, which meant someone had gone in the hard way. He tried not to think about what could cause that kind of damage, though even his rifle now seemed like a piss poor defense against whatever it was. More than that, it would be a goddamn miracle if they could keep this thing contained.
Holding his breath, Costa reached out and gave the door a push.
It swung in, giving some resistance on the other side. He tried again, harder this time, but it still wouldn’t give way. Motioning to the others, Costa positioned two of them on both sides of the entryway. Then, stepping back with his weapon at the ready, he had one of them give the door a pull. It opened slowly with a long, mournful groan—a sound like the rusted hinges of a mausoleum, with the smell of death closely behind it.
And a body spilled out into the corridor.
Costa jumped back, as the corpse’s arm flopped down near his boots. It was the only part that still looked remotely human. The rest looked like it had gone through a shredder, the remains of its uniform sliced to ribbons along with the flesh beneath. What remained of the face was even less recognizable, having been pried off and leaving behind a mostly empty skull—as if some savage hand had simply reached in and scooped it out. Worse that that, however, was the utter lack of blood. All of the wounds had been neatly cauterized, adding an insane sterility to the unspeakable violence.
“Jesus,” Costa heard someone say.
Stepping over the body, the chief jammed the business end of his rifle into the confined space beyond the door. In less than two seconds, he confirmed that SFSA was secure. Whatever had carved up the poor bastard had moved on. He then went back and plucked the comm badge off the dead man’s chest, reading the name embossed on the device.
“Divers,” Costa said. “Must be the guy who phoned it in.”
“Got us a bad one,” someone else added. “What is this thing, chief?”
“I’m more worried about where it is.” Costa tried sensors again, picking up signatures on every member of his team, but beyond that only noise. Giving up on that line, he tuned his own senses to the air: electricity infused with fear, the kind of thing that made his hairs stand on end. It was still around—of that he was certain.
Costa also knew he had to draw it out.
Unless I draw you out first.
That voice again: taunting, beckoning.
And then, from a short distance away, something else.
Everyone tensed. Everyone heard it—but the words had been so weak, so ephemeral, that belief came hard. Only dead silence could coax that sound back from the deep, and when they heard it again there was no room for doubt.
“…help. . .please—”
Costa shot a glance down the corridor, in the direction of that plea. There was only one possible place from which it could have come.
“The core,” he told the others, and ran toward it.
Alert lights flashed above the entrance to the computer core, conspiring with the darkness inside to create a hellish red glow. Costa detected the smell of charred flesh as the team approached, a smoky haze still hanging heavy over the entirety of the section. Costa went in first, crouching in a defensive position while the others poured in behind him. And there, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he took in the full scale of what had happened.
The core was a veritable chamber of horrors.
Unlike the comparatively clean kill back in SFSA, this place had been rendered in an orgy of blood. Spatter was everywhere, forming helter-skelter patterns on the walls and chip arrays, more blood than seemed possible in a dozen human bodies. Costa swallowed his own gag reflex, trying to stay sharp as he swept the much larger space for signs of movement. He stopped suddenly on one area of the bulkhead, thinking he saw the outline of a person—until he realized with sickening clarity that the shape had been blasted there in an outline of gore and loose tissue. Beneath that, he found the source: two more corpses, laying in a viscous, spreading pool that appeared more black than red.
Except that one of them stirred.
“We got a live one!” Costa shouted.
The chief moved in. He checked the body that didn’t move—a woman laying face down on the deck—and quickly determined that she was dead. He then went to the other one—a man with an engineering insignia, the pins on his collar indicating a rank of lieutenant commander. Only when Costa turned him over did he see the milky white of the man’s eyes, his features bruised but unmistakable.
“Commander La Forge,” Costa told him. “It’s okay. We’ve got you.”
La Forge’s useless eyes fluttered, his head lolling back and forth.
“No, no, no,” the chief engineer babbled, half delirious. “No, it can’t be. This can’t be happening. Lieutenant Marksen—”
“We’re here to help,” Costa said, trying to calm him down. “But we need to get you out of here first.”
“You can’t. Nobody can.”
La Forge sounded like the damned.
And Costa had to know.
“What did this?” the chief asked.
La Forge slumped back, and spoke in a voice that was not his own.
The chief felt La Forge’s shock drain into him. From there it filled the entire core, like tentacles wrapping around each member of his team, the living only one heartbeat removed from the dead. Somehow, one of them found the commander’s VISOR and handed it to Costa. Turning the thing over in his hands, Costa could only imagine the horrors it had drilled into La Forge’s brain before coming off.
But La Forge wanted it back. He reached for it, knowing it was there.
Costa gave the VISOR to him. La Forge snapped it into place, and a moment rose to his own two feet. He refused help, instead steadying himself against the bulkhead until he regained some of his strength. No longer blind, no longer tentative, he then straightened himself out and took in everything around him.
The security team, watching him in trepidation.
The woman’s body, still in death but by no means peaceful.
And finally himself, his uniform soaked in blood.
But none of that could compare. Not to the realization of horror that dawned across La Forge’s face, manifesting itself in a slow, deliberate turn toward the doorway. Costa followed that gaze, as did the others, to find them all trapped—blocked by a figure more shadow than substance, but unquestionably real in its intentions. It appeared humanoid, but Costa knew better. This was the devil of which La Forge spoke, revealing itself in full.
“My God,” the chief whispered.
And pulled the trigger while he still could.
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