Twenty years ago, in the space near Belle Terre, a caravan of alien vessels disappeared into a gigantic Gateway. Now the descendants of those aliens have returned, armed with incredible new weapons and abilities. Captain Nick Keller of the U.S.S. Challenger, already struggling to maintain peace in the troubled sector, must now cope with a fleet of hostile aliens driven by their own fanatical agenda!
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Deep Space, Sagittarius Star Cluster
"Keller. We're in."
A cloying jungle sensation of oily fingers brushed Nick Keller's shoulders as he lowered his communicator from his lips. He turned, braced, knees flexed, and expected to be struck from behind.
No one there. Just this prehensile smell moving across his skin.
Then why did he feel somebody's eyes? He was being watched.
And why hadn't he drawn his phaser? Wasn't that supposed to be the efficient Starfleet reflex action? When had things changed so much?
Challenger hadn't responded. Had they heard him? Was this place com-shielded? They'd barely been able to get a transporter beam to take a fix, and only into this one four-meter square. Everything else here was still a mystery. Scans just came back crying.
From a low-slung entry vestibule he moved into an excremental stink. His boots stuck in a marshy floor, obliging him to repossess his feet from the suction with each step. He brushed his nose and ended up only knuckling the self-adhesive fitted filter mask over his mouth and nostrils.
"Somebody piddled," he commented.
A few steps to his right, Search and Rescue Officer Savannah Ring kept one eye on her science tricorder while picking through the mushy flooring. A Haz-Mat/First Response pack on her back caused her to stoop slightly even though she also wore a supportive emergency harness and belt. A pale green haze from some unseen light source turned her sangria hair into a helmet of lemonade.
"Don't take your mask off," she warned. "You won't last sixty seconds."
She moved ahead, off to the right, toward a corridor draped with silvery gauze curtains.
Keller stepped after her. He itched to lead the way, but Ring had the sci-tricorder and was better at reading it. Should a commander lead the way or keep his eyes open? What if he had to choose?
To his left, the sphinx-like presence of his tactical and security officer almost seemed at home in this prehistoric grotto. Zoa's golden skin, decorated with story tattoos on her shoulders and arms, and the hundreds of spaghetti braids framing her face were muted to bronze under the strange lighting. Her eyes, dots of inky blue without pupils, keenly scanned the surroundings. She blinked seldom, which created an almost doll-like demeanor. Her lined lips made no comment. Her only sounds were the soft jangle of two sheathless Rassua dirks on her belts, pinging against brass loops woven into the leather braiding of her leggings, and the ponk ponk of her sandals' thick soles. Every third step or so, her long toenails, curved tidily over the soles, snatched up a bit of moss and threw it into her path.
Too dang quiet...no throb of engines, no click of machinery, no murmur of airflow or whisk of hiding crewmen slipping behind the twisting silvery mesh as Keller brushed the curtains aside.
Savannah Ring ducked under another curtain and went ahead. "How about 'Colonial Guard'?"
Keller tasted the suggestion. "Nah, Belle Terre doesn't intend to be a colony any longer than it can get away with. Governor Pardonnet's got some big ideas about planetary autonomy. He wants full-fledged Federation membership as soon as he can qualify for it."
"For sixty thousand people? Barely a city."
"Give'm time. Look at this interior decor...early mossbound."
"Not sure it's moss." Ring spoke from slightly ahead, one eye on her tricorder screen. "I'm not picking up any cell structure." She frowned at the readings. The instrument's tiny screen flickered, unable to make up its mind. "I hope our boys put their masks on before they came over. If they came over."
"Their Plume disintegrated," Keller said tartly. "If they're not in here, they're not anywhere." As his stomach cramped with tension, he added, "I'm not ready to lose two crewmen."
She glanced at him. "Maybe it's our dues, Nick."
The edge in his tone nearly tripped her. Ring stopped the glances and concentrated forward.
Before them lay a long swirling tube-like structure, more a cave than a ship's interior, but in fact they were on a ship. In their last communication with their first officer, Shucorion said the basic shape suggested old Kauld design. Then the two-man patroller he'd been flying went silent and...
Accept it. And apparently blew up. Outside, space glittered with microbits of the demolished craft. Amazing that a two-man craft could have so many molecules to disrupt.
His stomach crawled. His hands were cold.
As he and Zoa followed Ring's tricorder scan toward the far end of this airlock, the silvery curtains fell behind them and the draping effect was taken over by sheets of something that looked like Spanish moss, hanging in layers from unseen heights between sections. Where was the ceiling?
At least there was gravity. But why was there gravity? Who needed gravity? Where was the ship's complement?
They struggled into a greenish-silver cave of unidentifiable shapes, geometric forms, clearly not natural, though overgrown with a coat made up of shimmering leaves here, tiny hairs there, thick spores over there, as if some gardener had let otherworldly kudzu take over inside his house. No helm, no walkways, no seats or consoles, yet this was a space vessel and it was moving. Keller hungered to ask Shucorion why he thought this vessel might be Kauld, or might be masquerading as Kauld. But Shucorion was missing.
Hardly a month in command, and Keller had misplaced his plainspoken first officer and his fanciful bosun, each newly appointed, each desperately needed.
Lost...Shucorion was Blood, and he was talking about Kauld, and Keller didn't fool himself that the alliance between the two ancient warring cultures was temporary at best, an illusion at worst. He knew the Federation's push into the Cluster had upset an ages-old balance that had been about to tip in Kauld favor. The Kauld were talking nice right now, but for how long? No matter what kind of overtures Keller made, he and his one ship were a very thin stick to hold Blood and Kauld apart. Had the stick snapped? Why did things have to be this way?
A methyl-green canopy of living stuff, or what seemed to be living, dipped over snaggletoothed structures that resembled more than anything else man-sized mounds of decaying cheese. Upon those grew lichen and some kind of coppery mushroom. Between them were masses of three-inch-wide bulbs with spines, and on each spine was a little glossy globe. Keller swore they were looking at him as he and Ring picked past.
"This place'll cure your hiccups," he muttered. "Never know you were in space if you didn't come from outside."
Ring poked a probing finger at a piece of -- was it machinery? "There's something metallic under this coating. Reads as alloy."
"I'm picking up all kinds, all around us. Steel...manganese bronze...air-hardened steel...perminvar...pig iron...silicon steel...fused metal...cupronickel...silver leaf...what the hell?" She stopped reading off the list, cocked her hip in disgust, and grumbled, "The tricorder's having a hernia. Some of this stuff doesn't read as any kind of conventional compound, even though I'm getting some base-metallic traits. These bonds can't happen. There's got to be something wrong with this thing."
While she grumbled curses at her tricorder, Keller came up behind her and prodded the same formation, a tall cylindrical column sticking up out of the alabastrine mesh. His finger went through a draping of hairlike fibers as soft as a woman's ponytail, and inside was something hard. "Is this some kind of tree?"
"In the Tin Man's imagination, maybe. I only read metal."
"Even this?" The soft stuff rolled in his hand. The only hint of metallic nature was the sheen over the curves of his fingers. It left a satiny film on his skin. Lubricant?
He dropped it, turned, and pointed at the nearest cheesy mound. "Over here. How does this stuff read? Stone?"
The tricorder paused as she redirected it. "Metal," she said. "Rings of various alloys ranging out from a copper core."
They turned together, and looked out at the widening hold of strange and inelegant shapes, hanging greenery and things recognizable as growing. The tricorder must be faulty, or blocked.
Keller wiped the sleeve of his maroon sweater across his right cheek. His face stung with chill. "How can we be hot and cold at the same time? My hands are clammy, but my face and my feet are freezing."
"It's cold," Ring said. "A little more moisture and it'd be snowing in here. You're just nervous."
Now at Keller's side, Zoa wasn't sweating at all, or cold either despite her bare tattooed arms. She peered at him with those dots as if waiting for him to say something smart.
"If this is a transport," he attempted, "where's the crew and passengers?" His foot came down into something soft, and stuck. "Cow pats. I'm back on the ranch."
Ring squinted down. "Santa Fe in the early Devonian, maybe. Gorgeous, isn't it?"
How could this Halloween vessel look good to her when two of their shipmates were missing?
Keller shivered. "Girl, you're odd."
Slightly before him, Ring ducked suddenly, only to find that the offending obstacle was only a shadow.
"Belle Terre Secret Service," she said as she moved forward. "No, you don't want just the planet. Sagittarius Star Cluster Secret Service."
"How long we been friends?"
"Um -- going on six years."
"I quit after today." He took a few more steps. His tone wasn't very reassuring. His grumpy attempt to lighten the mood had done nothing for his own. Savannah's mood was always the same, give or take shifts toward passion. He thought again about drawing his sidearm, but without a visible threat he didn't want to shake up the others. Besides, he needed both hands to pick his way through this place without a fall. "We can't call ourselves 'Cavaliers,' anyway," he extended, a less than subtle apology for snapping at her. "The living-history guys on Belle Terre have a whole regiment of horse that call themselves that."
"Are you going to the war next month?"
"The Revolutionary reenactors and the Civil War ones challenged the Medieval warriors and that little stubborn bunch who call themselves Neo-Vikings. They want to stage a big battle on the meadow outside Port Bellamy."
"On that meadow? They won't even be able to see each other. There's perpetual fog in there."
"Weather's supposed to stabilize in the valley any minute. The war guys want to celebrate and all kill each other."
"I didn't hear about this."
"You've been neck-deep in the circuit trunks. The Revolutionaries promised to put away their firearms if the Medievalists don't use archery."
"I guess. It's all nonlethal anyway. Just a show."
"Hmm...kinda like to see the tactics of that."
"Thought you might. Since you like studying
hist -- " Abruptly, Ring stopped moving forward. Zoa passed Keller from behind and bumped into the other woman.
Something had changed in Ring's posture, the set of her shoulders. She no longer looked up, but fixed upon the tiny screen of the instrument in her hand.
Keller shoved past Zoa and peered over Ring's shoulder at the unhappy tricorder. "Bacteria?"
Tiny yellow spores clung to Ring's hair. "Only if it's bacteria with a heartbeat."
His hand trembled as Keller pulled out his communicator and adjusted it for maximum gain, short-range, then brought it to his lips. "Keller to Shucorion. Do you read?...Can you hear me? Come on, come on...make a good noise..."
The palm-sized box scrabbled, dutifully searching for a voice. None came. In this gauzy, monochromatic environment, all silvery yellows and greenie silvers, would he be able to spot someone like Shucorion, a man with deep blue skin, wearing a blue sweater and gray trousers? Would Shucorion's dark brown hair look as washed out as Savannah Ring's did? Would they be able to tell him from the shadows?
For the first time Keller looked down at his own hand. More like grapefruit rind than flesh.
And at Zoa, poking at an object that might as well have been a roll of carpet stood up on one end. She still looked gold. The green was probably just afraid of her. Her leather suit, though, looked pumpkin orange instead of tanned.
I should've noticed this.
Adjusting his perception for the weird colors, he moved forward again, hunting for a yellow or green lump instead of a gray or blue one. In his hand, the communicator didn't seem so cold anymore.
Silence in this place had a bitter echo as they tracked the tiny signal on which they pinned their hopes. He decided they were still in some kind of airlock. This vessel was clearly segmented, and this chamber was narrower than the vessel itself, so it had to be some kind of entry path. From here he could see mesh-draped chambers, one beyond the other, lying before them like an infinity mirror.
He touched the back of his hand to his own cheek. No more frosty sting. "Is it getting warmer in here? Maybe I'm adjusting."
"It warmers." Zoa's sharp-gravel voice startled him. Though she was hard to scare, even she seemed spooked in this place. Usually she hardly moved as well as hardly spoke. Here, she constantly scanned and shifted, never staying in one spot for more than a few seconds.
Temperature was definitely above freezing now. While he wasn't close to comfortable, he could push down the shivering now and his hands had stopped aching. Still, not exactly a heat wave.
He checked his communicator. Channels open. Still receiving. No one was sending.
"There!" Savannah Ring lowered her tricorder and pointed forward.
Ten feet before them, at the edge of the marshy excuse for a deck, a purplish twist lay crushed against a cheese mound, barely distinguishable as a torso and legs. The only real clue was the single two-foot braid of hair draped over a hunched shoulder.
"Aw, no -- " Keller bolted forward, careless of obstacles that might be hidden in the drapings of mesh. He raked his way through with his guts in his throat.
But as he knelt and touched Shucorion's back and the ball of his shoulder, the Blood stirred. When he tried to push himself up on both elbows, Keller eagerly helped him.
"Don't move him!" Savannah Ring hurried to catch up. Zoa came right behind her.
Unwilling to massage the moment, Keller ignored her. He pulled Shucorion up until they could see each other. The Blood's blue skin was magenta in this odd lighting, but his eyes were the same clear teardrop-blue as always. Somehow the lighting here didn't change them. He blinked and squeezed them tight as if they were stinging. The side of his neck was scored with abrasions and a bloody scrape colored his jaw, but he was alive.
Alive! After an antimatter explosion!
"Shucorion, it's me!" Silly announcement -- but Keller was so glad to see his first officer blinking at him that all professional templates drained out his socks. He grasped Shucorion by both arms in a way he hoped was reassuring, if urgent. "Where's Bonifay? Was he with you? Is he here?"
"Bonifay?...Bonifay -- " Shucorion blinked, confused, then forced himself out of the fog and gestured toward the cavernous guts of the big vessel. "He must...have gone there. I ordered him to stay on the Plume -- " He clutched at Keller and rasped, "I ordered him!"
"Where did he go? Tell me where!"
As Keller's demand rolled on a weak echo, Shucorion pointed out, away from them, into the long throat of the vessel.
Before his reaching hand, the wet-moiré cavern gaped, unhelpful, dour, and deep.
Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures. All rights Reserved.