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Genocide! The USS Eternity embarks on a simple shakedown cruise from Earth to the Briar Patch Sector, but her maiden voyage turns into a desperate fight for survival when the most wanted criminal in the Alpha Quadrant threatens the extinction of an entire sentient species! Now Captain Nathan J. Cross and the crew of the Eternity must save a dying race without violating the Prime Directive!

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St^r Trek: B^nshee Squ^dron

ETERNITY Richard A. Merk

An "Inimitably Superfluous" Publication Temecula, California Visit us on the web at: banshees.merknet.com 3


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T^ble of Contents Eternity........................................................................... 3 Table of Contents ....................................................... 5 Part I ........................................................................... 6 Chapter 1 ................................................................ 6 Chapter 2 .............................................................. 16 Chapter 3 .............................................................. 21 Chapter 4 .............................................................. 26 Chapter 5 .............................................................. 37 Part II........................................................................ 42 Chapter 6 .............................................................. 42 Chapter 7 .............................................................. 49 Chapter 8 .............................................................. 57 Chapter 9 .............................................................. 70 Chapter 10 ............................................................ 79 Epilogue ................................................................... 88

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P^rt I

Ch^pter 1 Captain Nathan Cross's booted footfalls echoed through the halls of Starfleet Command in rhythm with the pounding of his heartbeats. He willed himself to be calm and chided himself for his lack of self-control. He had faced Jem'Hadar in battle during the Dominion War and squared off against countless posturing Cardassian Guls during the uneasy peacetimes before and after. Surely he could face up to one lone Starfleet Admiral without breaking into a cold sweat. He knew why this situation was different of course. When up against the Jem'Hadar, or Cardassians, or whoever else happened to be threatening his ship that particular day, his fate was always in his own hands. His future was determined by his own actions and decisions, and he had no one else to blame if things turned out badly. 6


But not now. His fate was in Admiral Pike's hands, and there was nothing he could do about it. A truly spectacular view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge opened up to Captain Cross as he passed by a series of long windows, but the glittering blue waves, the sun dappled sky, and the inspiring feat of ancient human engineering went unheeded this day. Cross swept into the transporter terminal serving the East Wing of Starfleet Command. The lighting was subdued and the soft, almost-subsonic thrum of the transport equipment made itself felt through the soles of his boots. Under these conditions he could almost forgive the young ensign for dozing in his chair behind the main control console. Almost. Cross cleared his throat noisily, and the poor ensign woke with such a start that Cross thought for a second that he was having some sort of seizure. "Captain Cross!" stammered the young man. He windmilled his arms wildly to keep from tumbling over backwards chair and all. "I wasn't expecting you until 1430 hours!" "Obviously," replied Cross without mirth. "Do you have the office coordinates set?" "Yes, sir!" snapped the ensign, glad that he had done at least one thing right. "Very good." Cross stepped up onto the transporter platform. "Energize." =/\= 7


The dazzling transporter effect subsided and Cross's vision cleared. He saw stars. It was a panorama that rivaled the view of the Golden Gate he had ignored just moments before. The stars of the galaxy above and the gentle curve of the blue Earth below were seemingly just beyond the glass of the big window, but as before, all went unappreciated. Cross stepped off the transport pad and into the security vestibule of the orbiting office complex. He nodded a curt greeting to the officer manning the security desk and passed by the large window without even the briefest sideways glance. His eyes were focused on the large door at the end of the connecting tunnel between this module and the next -- the door to Admiral Pike's office. He suddenly felt like a poor supplicant seeking admittance to a celestial deity's holy temple, fearful that he would be found unworthy and cast back to Earth. Cross fought back feelings of guilt and self-torture. After what had happened to the Elsinore and her crew, he didn't expect his meeting with the Admiral to be especially positive. All that blood... on his conscience. And he had had the bad luck to survive the disaster. With that sentiment in mind, he reached for the ornate doorknob and went into Pike's office. The lighting was dim and the furnishing very plush and expensive looking. Thick carpeting underfoot and textured paneling on the walls gave the space a distinct anechoic quality very different from a typical room on a metal space station. To one side of the office in a circle of soft light seemingly of her own manufacture stood a sunny blonde woman wearing a style of uniform Cross didn't recognize. 8


The Admiral himself stood silhouetted against floor-toceiling windows with his hands clasped behind his back staring at the incredible starscape outside. When he heard the door open he turned.

"Ah, Captain Cross. You're early." "Yes sir. "I'm anxious to hear the decision of the Board of Inquiry," lied Cross. "Mmm, yes, of course," replied Pike thoughtfully. He retreated from the window and the room's A.I. automatically readjusted the lighting to a brighter setting. He stopped behind his huge oaken desk and picked up a PADD. "I have their report here," he said. His facial expression was unreadable, but Cross felt the Admiral's eyes scrutinizing him in minute detail. Nathan Cross imagined the worst, though he managed to keep his own facial expression frozen. He just knew the Board of Inquiry had decided against him. Well, it was 9


what he deserved after all. A starship captain who loses his ship shouldn't expect anything else. He resigned himself to serving out the remainder of his service flying a desk or manning a one-man listening post on Pluto. Admiral Pike continued. "The Board was going to recommend that you be--" Cross didn't want to hear the rest. He interrupted the Admiral. "I understand, sir. I--" "As I was saying, Captain!" snapped Pike impatiently and with a dark frown creasing his forehead, but quickly relented. "As I was saying," he repeated in a gentler tone, "The Board has gone over the incident with the Elsinore and has come to the decision that you acted properly and are innocent of any negligence or wrongdoing." It took several long seconds for the meaning of those words to seep into Cross's consciousness, but slowly a glimmer of renewed optimism built up. "The Admiralty decided in my favor? After I destroyed my ship and got all those people hurt?" Pike smiled kindly. "It's true that you deliberately destroyed your ship, the USS Elsinore, but the other details of the event are much more important," explained Pike. "You were up against seemingly insurmountable odds: two Breen warships against one Norway class vessel, a class never intended for combat situations in the first place. Yet you managed to destroy both Breen vessels while incurring no casualties among your own crew." "No fatalities, sir. We had plenty of casualties," said Cross. He still had nightmares of the incident, of the burned and critically injured men and women under his command, of his first officer lying in a pool of his own blood waiting 10


for the medics to get to him, of half a dozen engineering crew doused with crippling Delta rays. "We were lucky, that's all." Admiral Pike shook his head in disagreement. "It was more than luck, Captain. It was your decisive action to abandon your ship and blow it up inside that dilithium-rich asteroid field that saved your crew. That's one of the hardest decisions a starship captain ever has to make, and it's usually the last. The Breen would surely have destroyed the Elsinore if you hadn't acted as swiftly as you did. You're just the sort of man I can use." Cross had no immediate response. He didn't want the Admiral's congratulations. He had lost his ship and several of his crew were still in the hospital. His former first officer would never walk again without cybernetic help. Those who had been irradiated would suffer through months of reconstructive surgery. And he was pretty sure he didn't like the way the Admiral had said the word 'use'. "What do you mean, sir?" "You're familiar with the Briar Patch." Cross nodded. "Yes sir. My brother was stationed in the New Canada system, on Serenity. He was a recon pilot and Mission Commander of the Banshee Squadron, at least until‌" "Yes. Matthew Cross. He was a good officer," said Pike. "I assigned him there myself. The Banshees flew during the Mulluran Wars, and under Matthew Cross's leadership, did a lot to help bring order to the trans-Briar Patch sectors afterwards. They also made several discoveries of scientific importance that could potentially be of great use -- or threat -- to the Federation. Big things are afoot there, and I'll be 11


damned if I don't make sure Starfleet isn't ready for whatever happens. That's where you come in." Admiral Pike motioned for the young blonde to step forward. She did so. The pool of light surrounding her seemed to follow her. She smiled at Cross. His heart skipped a beat. She's less than half your age, man. Get a grip! He nodded politely to her.

This is Ensign Jamie Piper," said the Admiral. "She's been assigned as your new yeoman. There isn't a more efficient assistant anywhere in the entire Federation." "Yeoman? Where?" "The USS Eternity. Your new command," replied the Admiral, a small smile playing on his lips. He touched a contact on the desk. The room darkened again and a holographic display sprang into being above the polished wooden surface. It was a slowly rotating diagram of a starship. 12


Cross stared at the display and frowned slightly, though it was an expression of concentration and not displeasure. "It looks almost like a Miranda class, but I don't recognize this," he said, pointing at the large elongated pod mounted on the ship's rollbar where the photon torpedo launcher should have been. To Cross's surprise, it was Yeoman Piper who answered. "The pod contains the latest in cutting-edge sensor technology. Much of it is still experimental and utilizes coherent solanagen waveguides to penetrate into the tertiary subspace manifold resulting in a tremendous increase in range and sensitivity as well as the ability to scan in both Euclidian space and deep subspace domains." Admiral Pike chuckled softly at Cross's befuddled expression and his belated attempt to disguise the fact that he had no idea what Piper had just said. "Like I said, the best assistant you'll find anywhere." He explained further. "The Eternity is a newly constructed vessel. R&D decided to base it on the Miranda spaceframe because of its reliability, but the insides are all new, especially the sensor systems. She's been undergoing shakedown for the past year and is finally ready to begin her first real mission. "As I said before, your brother and the Banshee Squadron cleaned up the Serenity Sector. Now it's your job to take the Eternity out there and have a look around. A very close look. The Briar Patch should afford you plenty of opportunity to test the new equipment to its limits." Nathan Cross could scarcely believe it. Instead of getting canned like he was sure was going to happen, he'd been given command of a science vessel headed out to the 13


edge of the unknown. He felt a growing urge to grin like an idiot. "Thank you, Admiral! I won't let you down!" "I know you won't, Nathan." Pike touched another contact on his desk and the spinning diagram of the Eternity flickered back into nothingness. "Most of your crew is already aboard making preparations for launch. Miss Piper can fill you in on the details and who is still missing. As for your mission orders, you'll find the complete file waiting for you in your personal terminal once you're aboard." Admiral Pike stepped around the large desk and clasped Nathan Cross's hand. "Congratulations, Captain, and good luck!" "Thank you, Admiral." =/\= After Nathan Cross and Jamie Piper left Admiral Pike's office, a side door swung silently open and an austere Vulcan dressed in science blue stepped into the room. He stopped at Pike's side and joined the Admiral in staring at the closed door through which the two other officers had just gone. "I am not certain if I am pursuing the wisest course of action in assuming you know what you are doing, Jeffrey." Admiral Pike turned to his lifelong friend and smiled. "Nathan Cross has a grand destiny before him, Xultok. I can't explain it, but I feel it in my bones. I have to give him 14


the opportunity to fulfill whatever it is that Fate has in store for him. And for the Federation." Xultok had never understood his friend's mysticism. It was illogical, it had no basis in reality, and it violated any number of Vulcan philosophical tenets. An arched eyebrow and a sideways glance was the outward extent of his reaction. "We shall see."

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Ch^pter 2 Nathan Cross held the door open and followed his new yeoman into the travel pod. The big rear doors slid closed with a solid thump and the vehicle detached itself from the orbital office complex and vectored away on autopilot. There was nothing especially interesting to see outside the window yet, so Cross focused his attention on the prim woman inside the cabin with him. "The Admiral mentioned there were a few key personnel still missing, Yeoman?" "Yes sir. Specifically, your First Officer and Chief Science Officer. They are currently on the planet Serenity in the New Canada system in the Briar Patch sector. They will join the ship there." "Where my brother was stationed," said Cross to himself. 16


"Correct, sir," replied Piper, either not realizing Cross had been speaking to himself or else choosing to ignore the fact. "In fact, they both served under the other Captain Cross." Cross frowned. "The only people who served under my brother were the fighter pilots of Banshee Squadron. Are you saying my XO and Chief Science Officer are fighter pilots?!" Piper was unperturbed. "Commander Lee Carter, former wing commander of Banshee Squadron, has been assigned as your Executive Officer. She is a career-oriented individual and comes from a long line of Starfleet officers going all the way back to the Earth-Romulan Wars. She has extensive command training and experience, and is extremely familiar with the Briar Patch sector. "Lieutenant Josephine Schmidt, also formerly of Banshee Squadron, began her Starfleet career in the science division. It was her high flight scores during her time with the Academy's Nova Squadron that earned her a position as a fighter pilot during the Dominion War. She has a very broad base of scientific knowledge ranging from archaeology to xenobiology and holds a class-A4 computer rating. After the Dominion War when Banshee Squadron was briefly disbanded, she served as a science officer aboard a long-range galaxy explorer. ...She has an IQ of 195." "Oh." Cross seemed surprised. Schmidt's profile didn't fit his image of a 'fighter jock'. "In that case I guess they'll do," he said. "But they'll have to prove themselves to me. Let's hope they serve me better than they served my brother." 17


=/\= As the myriad of man-made orbital structures continued their eternal carousel about the Earth, Drydock #5 rose out of the planet's umbra and into the brilliant light of the sun. Inside its steel webbing lay a thing of beauty, shining and new, a birthday present waiting to be taken out of the box and played with. The starship Eternity.

There was the telltale Starfleet saucer section with the bridge module sitting squarely on top. Twin warp engine nacelles depended from stubby pylons below and trailing to the rear of the main hull. Above the saucer and also trailing rearward was a huge elongated pod that looked like an upside-down canoe, attached by two curving wings to the top of the main hull. 18


She was a vision of grace and beauty, but also one of strength and boldness. Captain Nathan Cross's travel pod swung around and among the girders following some invisible preprogrammed flight plan, and eventually buzzed through the atmospheric containment field across the entrance of Landing Bay One and landed on the broad deck. Through the pod's large front window, Cross could see his officers assembled, waiting for their new commanding officer. Not being a big fan of pomp and formality, he was eager to get this part over with. The travel pod doors slid open. Piper stepped out and to the side, stood at attention and snapped in her official voice, "Commanding officer, USS Eternity, arriving." Cross stepped out of the pod and walked around to the front. He felt an electric thrill as his boot touched the deck for the first time. The bosun's whistle piped him aboard. Assembled before him were most of the ship's senior personnel, arrayed in their sharp white dress uniforms. There was a podium set up for him beside the travel pod. He stepped up to it and offered his credentials to the ship's computer mind by inserting an isolinear chip into the data slot at the top. He looked out over the assembled men and women for a moment, then read from the screen embedded in the podium surface. "To Captain Nathan J. Cross, stardate 64007.62. You are hereby requested and required to take command of the USS Eternity as of this stardate. Signed, Admiral Jeffrey H. Pike, Starfleet Command R&D." 19


Cross looked up. "I am Captain Nathan Cross," he began. "I'll be your commanding officer. I don't know you all individually yet, but I guarantee you I will before too long." At this a few in the assembled group glanced sideways at each other. They didn't know quite how to take that coming from such a stiff commanding officer. Cross relaxed his stance and let his pleasure show. "That wasn't a threat. The Eternity is a small community -- a family -- after all." That was all Cross had to say; he wasn't keen on long speeches. He strode forward to meet his new crew.

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Ch^pter 3 It was late in the evening, ship's time. Nathan Cross entered his quarters. They were located on deck five at the leading edge of the engineering section. He took a moment to look about. The rooms were luxurious. He had never seen a two-story suite aboard a starship before, but that's what his quarters were. He was intrigued. What other surprises did this ship have in store for him? His personal effects had been neatly stacked in the center of the downstairs living room, no doubt under Yeoman Piper's strict supervision, but he didn't have time to unpack yet. There was still much work to be done. The official introductions to the senior staff in the hangar deck had gone well. They struck him as a competent group of people, and he was sure he would come to like them all in short order. The reception party in the large 21


forward port lounge had been a boisterous affair, all the crew laughing and talking and getting to know each other. The USS Eternity would launch tomorrow. Cross wandered into the office that adjoined the living room and sat down behind his desk, let the computer identify him, then called up his mission orders. The holo-emitter in the desktop whirred to life and words started scrolling by in midair before him. Stardate 61456.12 I.

II.

III.

IV.

The Office of Starfleet Research and Development has reviewed and considered your actions and performance aboard the USS Elsinore, and effective this stardate you are transferred under the direct command of Admiral Jeffrey H. Pike, Head of Starfleet R&D. You are therefore posted, effective immediately, to command the following: USS ETERNITY NCC-127194, Lang Class Crew Complement - 360 persons Drive - Space Warp Range - 20 years Registry - United Federation of Planets, NCC-127194 Nature and duration of mission: a. Galaxy exploration and investigation: b. 5 years Where possible, you will confine your landings and contacts to Class "M" planets approximating Earth-Mars conditions.

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V.

VI.

VII.

You will conduct this patrol to accomplish primarily: a. United Federation of Planets security, via explorations of intelligence and civilizations capable of a galactic threat b. Scientific investigation to add to the UFP's body of knowledge of alien life forms and civilizations c. Any required assistance to UFP colonists and terraformers, and the enforcement of appropriate statutes affecting Federation commerce vessels and traders as you may encounter in the course of your mission After assuming command, proceed immediately to Starbase 901, New Canada System, Briar Patch Sector for final equipment loading and personnel transfers prior to the start of your mission. Your first assignment shall be the following: a. Conduct ship's final shakedown enroute to Briar Patch. b. Survey probe beyond the limits of Federation space; thorough investigation of all unusual phenomena related to the Briar Patch Nebula. Admiral Jeffrey H. Pike Starfleet Command R&D

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Cross finished reading and switched off the holo. The ship still needed her final shakedown, which meant that there were probably still a few things that would need to be ironed out before she was 100 percent, which had the potential of making the journey out to the Briar Patch 'interesting'. Or not, depending on how much trouble the new systems felt like causing. "Computer, forward a copy of the ship's orders to the personal terminals of all the senior staff." Acknowledged. Having done that, Cross decided to turn in. Unpacking his stuff could wait. Despite the excitement he felt, he was comfortable and at home already. He climbed the stairs to the bedroom, and sleep was not long in coming. No sooner had he drifted off, however, than the nightmares started. It was the same recurring nightmare he had been having ever since that terrible day aboard the Elsinore so many weeks ago -- the Elsinore's bridge bathed in blood-red light from the red alert, the burning, the screaming, and himself at the epicenter, single-handedly responsible for all the destruction and suffering. The dream seemed utterly real, as it always did. It was as though he were actually there again, wrenched back through time and space into the thick of the hopeless battle against the Breen. But this time, unlike all the previous times he had lived this nightmare, Cross felt himself receding from the scene, as though he had suddenly become a disembodied spirit looking down on the Elsinore's bridge from the astral plane. His fear and pain receded as well, becoming dull echoes of distant past events, indistinct and harmless. Gentle waves of tranquility from an ocean of calm lapped 24


softly on the shores of his consciousness, pulling his fear away with the tide. The explosions and screaming faded, the dark Elsinore bridge dissolved to featureless hazy white. The white fog blew away before a powerful gust of wind and Cross found himself standing on a grassy moor under a gray overcast, surrounded by fragrant purple heather that swayed in a light breeze. He was encircled on all sides by immense gray stone monoliths that towered a dozen feet above his head. They reminded him of Stonehenge on Earth or the giant tufa near T'Karath on Vulcan. He couldn't tell if the monoliths were carved or natural. A strange voice whispered in his mind, but Cross couldn't make out the words, or even if they were English. The meaning remained tantalizingly beyond the edge of understanding, but the emotion behind the words was clear -- intense curiosity mingled with the pervading tranquility. Cross felt no fear from the strange alien communication, but try as he might he could get no closer to the source, whatever it was. The last thing he remembered was drifting away from the peaceful scene towards darkness and real sleep.

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Ch^pter 4 The next morning, Cross awoke before the alarm clock went off. The visions of the previous night had been forgotten like most dreams were. He downed a quick cup of coffee and headed for the shower. When he went back out into his bedroom, he found that a crisp new uniform had been laid out on his bed for him -- no doubt the everefficient Yeoman Piper at work again. He'd have to speak to her about sneaking around his quarters while he was in the shower. He noted the uniform's new styling, the clean white shoulders atop a dark gray body with red trimming across the chest and back and at each cuff. He put it on along with the red-trimmed dark gray pants and shiny black boots and admired himself in the mirror. Lastly he clipped on the new style insignia pin, a golden oval with a familiarly shaped 26


Starfleet delta cutout in the middle surmounted by an elongated silver star. Pretty sharp, he thought with approval.

All this took place in the space of fifteen minutes, and then was on his way to the bridge. This was the big day. Halfway to the turbolift, he was joined by a tall, willowy blonde in a blue uniform. Cross recognized her from the party last night. "Doctor Beckett. Nice to see you this morning. How are things coming together down in sickbay?" Doctor Samantha Beckett smiled timidly. She had a hard time meeting his eyes. "Good morning, Captain. Ah... yes, we've finished stowing the last shipment of medical supplies. The medical staff is ready to go." Cross wondered briefly about the shyness, but marveled at the woman nonetheless. According to her record, she was only thirty-eight years old, but had extensive medical 27


knowledge that should have taken her three times as long to accumulate. Guess that's why she's Chief Medical Officer. Beckett was advertised as yet another of the 'experimental components' of this experimental ship of his. He had no idea what that meant, and had had no opportunity during the festivities last night to ask about it. He made a mental note to stop by sickbay at the first opportunity and have a little chat with the good doctor about it. "You have an appointment in sickbay later this morning, Captain." "Uh... What?" Had she been reading his mind? "Your physical," explained Beckett. "All the crew are required to take a physical exam at the beginning of an extended mission. Ah... yours is scheduled for 0900 hours." Beckett sounded almost apologetic. "I don't have time for that, today of all days!" began Cross, but the doctor cut him off. "You will have the time, Captain. Starfleet regulations say you will!" Suddenly gone was the timid woman who had been walking a half step behind Cross, replaced by a determined professional who knew she had the winning hand. Cross knew when he was beat. He sighed grumpily. "Okay, fine, Doctor. I'll be there." At least it would give them a chance to have their little chat. The pair arrived at the turbolift shaft. The doors slid open. "After you," said Cross. =/\= 28


Thirty seconds later and after the turbolift had deposited Doctor Beckett at her own separate destination, Captain Cross stepped off the turbolift onto his bridge. An attentive blue-skinned young ensign snapped to attention. Even his antennas stood up straight. "Captain on the bridge!" he recited. "Belay that, Ensign," Cross snapped. "But sir...! Regulations require--" "I doubt the Federation will crumble if we forget about this one particularly annoying protocol, Ensign, uh--" "Ensign Thule, sir. Yes sir." Thule's antennas drooped. "Very good, Ensign Thule. Carry on." That business taken care of, Cross drank in his first view of the ship's nerve center. Most noticeable -- alarming actually -- was the huge hole in the wall at the front of the room exposing the bridge to open space. No one seemed worried about it, and Cross realized with a measure of embarrassment that he was looking at a hologram. A holotank occupied the space usually occupied by the main viewscreen. Cross looked closer. The starry scene looked absolutely real. That was going to take some getting used to. The rest of the bridge was considerably more traditional, even a little old-fashioned: a round room with duty stations around the perimeter, the conn/ops console in a shallow well at the center, and his command chair behind that. The communications station was to his immediate left at the far aft of the bridge, unmanned, beyond which was the door to the ready room. On the other side of that was a wide bank of science stations, manned at the moment by the eager Andorian Ensign Thule, though there were 29


enough chairs for three more science officers. A fierce looking Caitian sat at the tactical station at the rear starboard to Cross's right. At the forward starboard of the bridge were engineering and damage control, all presently untended. Conn and ops were manned by a pair of darkhaired humans, both with oriental features, a man and a woman. Cross stepped the rest of the way onto the bridge and stopped beside his chair. He'd made it a point to memorize the names of his bridge crew. Well, except for Ensign Thule... "Ensign Tanaka," he said, addressing the man at ops. "Status report." "All departments have reported in and are ready for departure, sir," replied the young Japanese native. "Umbilicals have been retracted and the ship is on internal power. Gangways are stowed and all airlocks are secure." From the conn station at Tanaka's right, Ensign Chen said, "The dockmaster has signaled all clear, Captain." "Very well, Ensign," replied Cross. He sat down in his command chair, relishing the thrill but refusing to let his boyish enthusiasm show through his stoic veneer for fear he wouldn't be able to reign it back in once it had gotten free. The cool fabric of the cushions felt glorious. He never thought he'd sit in the center seat again after the Elsinore disaster, but fate had managed to surprise him. Addressing the ceiling so the computer would pipe his voice throughout the entire ship, he said, "Attention all hands. This is Captain Cross. Prepare to get under way." Then, turning to Chen, he said, "Signal the dockmaster - we're leaving. Ahead, full thrusters." 30


"Aye, sir!" Slowly at first but with ever increasing speed, the USS Eternity slid from its berth in Drydock #5 and lifted itself out of Earth's orbit. The impulse engines flared to life as soon as the vessel was at a safe enough distance, and Earth was left behind at almost one quarter the speed of light. On the bridge, the vibrations caused by the impulse engines was unexpectedly rough. Cross frowned, not pleased that there was something not perfect aboard his new ship. "Sounds like the injectors aren't set right," he said. "Well, this is the final shakedown cruise after all, and it's a long trip out to the frontier. Time enough to shake out the bugs." He got out of his chair. "Miss Chen, plot a direct course to the Briar Patch. As soon as we're beyond the marker buoys, take us to warp 6. Keep an eye on the engines; make sure nothing redlines. I'll be in engineering to see how Chief Lang is coming along with the fine-tuning. Cross turned to the Caitian at tactical. "Lieutenant M'rowan, you have the bridge." =/\= The turbolift sped Cross on his way towards engineering. Around him, the ship creaked, and he could feel the rough vibration of the impulse engines through the soles of his boots even here in the turbo tube. Halfway to 31


his destination, he heard the warp drive kick in. It sounded even worse than the impulse drive. His combadge chirped. Brridge to Captain Crross. It was M'rowan's growly voice. "Cross here." Sirr, we have engaged the warrp drrive, but the ship will only make warrp thrree. Rrr. Ensign Chen does not recommend going any fasterr. "Understood. Take it back down to warp one just to be on the safe side. I'm almost at engineering. We'll find out what's wrong." Aye. The lift doors slid open to chaos. Cross blinked in surprise. Engineers were running every which way, most carrying tools, all looking stressed. The powerful thrum of the warp drive was loud here, the annihilation of matter and antimatter and the release of cosmic amounts of energy taking place inside the tall shimmering structure that dominated the center of the room, but it didn't sound right, and the raucous vibration that rattled its way up through the soles of his boots all the way to his teeth had grown worse. Something was seriously wrong. Cross ventured further, frowning, wondering at the lack of orchestration among a group of supposedly highly trained specialists. He dodged a crewman carrying a coil of ODN fiber over his shoulder and sought his Chief Engineer. He couldn't see him. He grabbed the arm of the next crewman to scurry past him. "Crewman, what's the problem here? Where is Lieutenant Commander Lang?" demanded Cross. 32


The hapless crewman seemed torn between his urgent need to continue his work and answering his commanding officer's questions. "We're having a hard time keeping the matter/antimatter reaction balanced, sir," he said hurriedly, clearly hoping to keep this delay as short as possible. "The injectors are sticky. The last-minute software update we uploaded into the engineering computer yesterday seems to be the cause. I'm not sure where Doctor Lang is." Doctor Lang? thought Cross. And why isn't the Chief Engineer in engineering at a time like this?!? As if in answer to his unspoken question, the main doors hissed open and in walked a tall lanky man wearing an overflowing utility belt over a gold uniform. "Gott im Himmel!" he shouted upon seeing the mess in the engine room. Cross released his captive crewman and intercepted Lang. "Commander Lang! What the hell is going on here? The ship is practically shaking itself apart! We can barely maintain warp three, and if what I've just learned is true, we'll be lucky not to get sucked into a warp-imbalance wormhole!" "Ah, Captain. Guten Morgen. It's truly a pleasure to meet you. I apologize for not being at the welcoming party last night. I was busy. But please, I prefer to be addressed as 'Doctor' Lang." To Cross's growing consternation, Lang was calm to the point of seeming oblivious to what was going on around him. It only added to his confusion when Lang, seemingly out of the blue, snagged a crewman whirling by with an induction coil slung under one arm and pointed him in a 33


different direction saying, "This should go over there, Menrath." "Commander-- uh, Doctor Lang!" said Cross, letting some of his exasperation show. "Please tell me we're not all about to die in a warp core breach!" Now it was Lang's turn to look confused. "Of course not, Captain! Just a few Kleinigkeiten to iron out." He turned aside and shouted another technical command to a passing crewman. "So may I ask where you've been instead of doing the ironing?" demanded Cross, ignoring the interruption. "I've been up in the sensor pod, Captain. The new systems are very sensitive to warp fields, as you might imagine. Or maybe you can't, not being an engineer. The side-harmonics needed second-by-second adjustment to keep them in phase with the new warp drive programming." Cross was incredulous. "You've been adjusting sensors while the ship is tearing itself apart?" Then he remembered. Lang was the inventor of most of the devices up in the sensor pod. Of course he'd feel proprietary towards them. That was no excuse for endangering the ship, however. Before Cross could drag Doctor Lang aside into a private corner and launch into a scathing reprimand, Lang strode past the captain to the master systems display console and began running his fingers over the controls. The status displays updated too fast for Cross to follow. The Chief Engineer shouted over his shoulder at one of his assistants. "Menrath! Activate the standby D-47 routine!" Across the wide room, Menrath entered a short series of commands into the station where he stood, and five seconds 34


later the vibrating deck plates under Cross's feet stopped shaking, the complaining warp core commenced a contented humming, and the harried engineering crew breathed a collective sigh of relief. Lang turned away from the MSD and faced his captain with a confident smile. "You see, Captain?" he said. "Only minor adjustments." With a stormier expression, he turned to Menrath. "You Dummkopf however, need to work on your organizational skills! We can't have the department fall into chaos whenever I step out of the room!" Cross detected no smugness or outright arrogance in the man, just the supreme self-assurance of someone unshakably confident in his own rightness. He was going to have to keep an eye on this guy. Cross addressed the ceiling. "Captain to bridge. Ensign Chen, accelerate to warp 6." Aye, sir. The vertical tower in the center of the engine room that was the warp core began pulsing faster and faster as the now-adjusted injectors fed carefully measured and increasing amounts of matter and antimatter into the reaction chamber. Cross could feel the warp drive cycle up through each velocity plateau until the Eternity reached warp 6. The ride was as smooth as a Talarian silkworm at a Jazz festival. Beside him, Doctor Lang was beaming proudly. Even the chastised Menrath was looking pleased. "Excellent work, Doctor Lang," said Cross. "I admit I had my doubts at first, but I have renewed confidence that my ship is in good hands. I think I'll leave you to carry on." "As you say, Captain," replied Lang. 35


As the door to engineering slid shut behind Cross, he could hear Lang shouting German imperatives at his underlings. He smiled and walked on.

36


Ch^pter 5 Doctor Samantha Beckett waved her right hand, palm downward and fingers splayed, slowly back and forth over the supine shirtless man on the examination table. Her eyes were closed, and a look of intense concentration lined her lovely face. Captain Nathan Cross felt foolish. He was at the mercy of a witch doctor. He could see the clock on the wall behind Beckett -- 0915. He'd arrived promptly at 9. How much longer was this 'examination' going to go on? "So, doctor..." he ventured after another minute of enduring Beckett's mystical hand-waving. "You some kind of faith healer or something?" "Sshh!" Cross's eyebrows shot up in surprise at being shushed so abruptly, but his mouth reflexively clamped shut. He 37


resigned himself to sulking in silence until the doctor was finished with her rituals. Luckily, it didn't take long. Beckett opened her eyes, stepped back and took a deep breath. "We're finished," she told the Captain. "You can get dressed. And to answer your question, No. I'm a doctor, not a magician." "Then what's with the--" Cross pulled his arm through the shirt sleeve and waved it around vaguely in the air in front of him in imitation of Beckett. The doctor held her right hand up in front of face and looked at it as if seeing it for the first time ever. She seemed lost in thought, but she snapped out of her trance a moment later and smiled and wriggled her fingers. "It's prosthetic," she said. "I've had it for years, but the built-in tricorder functions are new. It's meant for field use mainly, but I need the practice. It feeds the data to my eyes." Cross squinted and looked closer. The hand looked absolutely real, but now that the doctor had mentioned it, he could just make out the telltale glint of microcircuitry in her right eye. The instant Beckett noticed his scrutiny she spun away and hid her face. Clearly upset but trying to hide it with forced cheerfulness, she said, "Your test results are all fine, Captain! We should all be so healthy!" She fussed desperately with a set of hypo-capsules on the countertop before her, but her fingers fumbled the cylinders and they rolled off the counter with a clatter onto the floor. She crouched down and began retrieving them. Cross suddenly felt terribly guilty, though he had absolutely no idea what he had done to cause so much distress to the woman. "Doctor... I..." he began, not even 38


knowing where to begin, but Beckett stood abruptly and spun back around to face him. Cross could see iron determination struggling valiantly to oust the mortification she was feeling. "No... don't apologize. It's my fault, Captain," she began hesitantly. "I... well... I sort of have a little difficulty around people..." Cross still didn't know how to respond. "You have difficulty around people? But... you're a doctor! You deal with people every day. Sick people! I don't understand." Beckett gathered herself, took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. "I started my Starfleet career as a test pilot at the Triton test range," she began. "I was flying a testbed vehicle for a new engine configuration, but the baffle plates were defective and I was doused with Delta rays." A cold chill swept through Cross. Delta rays were a byproduct of matter-antimatter reactors, so every spaceman knew what the effects of Delta radiation poisoning were: horrible disfigurement, tissue disintegration, crippling muscular atrophy, painful calcification, death. But the doctor looked perfectly normal... "I was rushed to Starfleet Medical," continued Beckett. "It was touch and go, but the doctors managed to pull me through. Half of me anyway..." Beckett looked at her prosthetic hand again, but this time Cross saw longstanding loathing in her eyes. "More than 25 percent of my body was destroyed by the radiation and had to be replaced by mechanical substitutes. My right arm, both legs, some internal organs, my face... My senses are cybernetic: vision, hearing, smell -- all artificial. I've got brain implants that keep everything coordinated with my natural body, plus 39


they also function as accelerated learning tools. Sort of like having a database in my head. "It took me almost a year of physical therapy before I could function normally again. But ever since then I've been nervous around people. I always imaging everyone's staring at me. The freak. Not human anymore. I know it's irrational, but..." Beckett's voice trailed off. Cross could see it had taken a lot for her to open up to him like that, and it meant a lot to him. "Well, if it's any consolation, Doctor, I would never have noticed anything out of the ordinary, and I certainly would never think of you as less than human." That seemed to bring a measure of relief and comfort to the doctor. The edges of her mouth moved slightly upward. "So... can you leap tall buildings in a single bound?" asked Cross, an impish glint in his eye.

40


At that, Beckett actually had to laugh. "No! I'm a doctor, not a superhero!" Cross smiled and walked to the sickbay door. It slid open and he stepped halfway out into the corridor, but then turned back to the doctor and said, "You could have fooled me."

41


P^rt II

Ch^pter 6 The next ten days passed without incident. The Eternity cruised outwards from the core worlds at a steady warp 6. Apparently, Doctor Lang and his team of experts had solved the little programming bug that had caused so much trouble the first day. The crew had settled into a routine, and Captain Nathan Cross was mostly comfortable with his new ship and had spent a lot of time familiarizing himself with the details. Much of the Eternity's floorspace was occupied by science labs. Social science labs and the astronomy section took up much of the upper saucer. High energy physics labs were relegated to the outer areas of the lower saucer where there was less danger of catastrophic damage or contamination in case someone's lab experiment went horribly wrong. The enormous U-shaped hangar deck at the 42


ship's rear hosted an impressive array of scientific and support craft, and engineering labs dotted the landscape surrounding engineering. And for a smallish vessel, the Eternity boasted a surprising number of creature comforts, including a lush botanical garden, a swimming pool, and quiet libraries. Cross had enjoyed exploring it all during his off hours. In the meantime, it was a little inconvenient running things without his executive officer to cover a duty shift, but since nothing interesting was happening it wasn't really a problem. Commander Lee Carter would be aboard in another ten days when they reached the Briar Patch sector, along with the ship's Chief Science Officer, Lieutenant Josephine Schmidt, and then their real mission of exploration could begin. Cross often wondered how a pair of ex-fight jocks could wind up in such high-ranking starship positions, and what cruel twist of fate had gotten these particular two assigned to his ship. He told himself he'd treat them fairly though. The bridge was quiet. The senior bridge staff was on duty. Cross sat in the command chair daydreaming. He'd learned a long time ago that the secret to being a good captain was the ability to look awake and alert while dozing in the center seat. In another few minutes he'd move into his ready room and take a real nap, but for now he was content just to watch the ultra-real stars streak by inside the big holotank at the front of the bridge. He heard the turbolift doors behind him hiss open and the sound of high heels walking the two steps down to the bridge's central well. He turned his head and beheld Sam 43


Beckett. She had stopped just behind his seat and had joined him in staring at the hypnotic starfield. A subtle smirk tugged at the corner of Cross's mouth. "So Doctor... Are you going to be one of those Chief Medical Officers who spends most of his or her time on the bridge getting underfoot and making acerbic comments?" "Yes, Captain," replied Beckett without taking her eyes off the starfield, but Cross could see his smirk reciprocated by a cheerful glint in her eye. Just behind the cheer, however, he could see the ever-present nervousness Beckett felt whenever surrounded by people. Cross sympathized, and hoped for everyone's sakes she'd be able to get it under control soon. "Okay. Just checking," he said. "Captain," called Ryo Tanaka from the ops station in front of Cross. Cross sighed inwardly. Playtime was over. He became all business. "Yes, Mister Tanaka, what is it?" "Long range sensors are picking up a rogue cometary body bearing 350 mark 347, sir. Class two. It's not on the charts." "Well, our first scientific discovery," remarked Cross. Space was so big that even here in the middle of the Federation there were still plenty of things to be discovered. "I guess that means we're off to a successful start. How far away is the comet?" Tanaka checked his readings. "One point twelve lightyears, sir. It is almost equidistant between two star systems -- P329 and P415B. Extrapolating its course... it was ejected from the P329 system more than 40,000 years 44


ago, and it will enter the P415B system 38,000 years from now after having traveled 4.68 lightyears." That struck Cross as a little odd. "It just happens to be on a direct course for the nearest system?" Apparently the doctor felt the same way. "I'm no astrophysicist, but that's an awfully big coincidence," she commented softly from her spot behind Cross. Cross frowned and muttered, "I don't like coincidences, even ones about something as seemingly trivial as a rogue comet lightyears from anywhere." He swiveled his chair to face the wide bank of science stations on the left of the bridge and the young Andorian sitting there. "What is the science department's opinion, Mister Thule?" Ensign Thule turned from his console and cocked his head at a thoughtful angle as he addressed the captain. "Sir, it may very well be a simple coincidence. Every star in the Milky Way expels up to a thousand Earth masses of cometary material from its Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belts into interstellar space every 4.5 billion years. There is the equivalent of the mass of a hundred million suns floating as comets between the stars. Given the sheer numbers, it is inevitable that many of them just happen to be aimed at nearby star systems purely by random chance." That wasn't quite the answer Cross had been hoping for. He paused thoughtfully, and a new line of inquiry occurred to him. Leaning forward in his chair, he asked, "Mister Thule, what do we know about those two star systems?" Ensign Thule consulted the library computer, and a few seconds later, summarized for the Captain. "System P329 45


has one planet that is marginally class M. It is uninhabited by anything besides extremeophile microbes, but there is inconclusive evidence to suggest that until about 35,000 years ago it was home to abundant higher forms including an intelligent species, nature unknown. System P415B is young and contains two primitive class M planets, no higher life forms yet evolved." Cross leaned back in his chair and weighed everything he'd heard. It would require only a very small course change to intercept the mystery comet. The impact on their schedule would be minimal. It might turn out to be nothing more than a cosmic coincidence, or there might be something interesting to learn. The decision wasn't a difficult one. Swiveling back around to face front, he said, "Miss Chen, alter course to rendezvous with the comet. Maintain speed." "Aye, sir. Coming around on bearing 350 mark 347. ETA, three hours thirty-one minutes," answered Miki Chen from the conn. "Very good." He turned back to his left. "Mister Thule, get that fancy new sensor pod fired up. As I understand it, Doctor Lang's new systems should be able to give us clear readings even at this distance." "Already working, Captain," answered Thule. Cross waited patiently while Thule brought the Eternity's sensors to bear. Finally, after a few minutes of playing the controls, the Andorian had something to report. "Sir, the comet's readings are very unusual. It is extremely large, on the order of 250 miles in diameter, but extremely diffuse. And despite its size, its mass is that of a 46


comet only ten miles across. Detailed scans are in progress and will take a few more minutes for the computer to process." Thule's brow furrowed suddenly. He was clearly unsure of how to interpret a certain reading. "I'm... picking up a small metallic mass..." An insistent shrill beeping issued from the tactical station at the right side of the bridge causing Cross to spin in that direction. Lieutenant M'rowan sprang instantly into action. "Rrr, sirr! I'm picking up a small vessel. It seems to be embedded severral miles beneath the comet's surrface." "Can you identify?" asked Cross. He got out of the command chair and moved up the steps to the bridge's upper deck to stand behind the Caitian security chief. M'rowan made adjustments to his instruments. "Yellowstone class vessel... The IFF trransponderr is not trransmitting..." His displeased snarl revealed pointed teeth. From across the bridge, Ensign Thule said, "I'm running a deep scan." He worked his controls furiously for a few seconds. "The unique quantum dislocation pattern of its warp trail identifies the vessel as the USS Bonaparte." Now the ball was back in M'rowan's court. Cross's head was on a swivel, as was Doctor Beckett's, who had been following the conversation with mild interest. "Sirr, the Bonaparte was rreported stolen eight days ago," said M'rowan. "Frrom the Elba II penal colony. Seven guarrds werre killed and two dozen morre serriously wounded when a prrisoner escaped the maximum securrity dome. The rreport says he is crriminally insane beyond even neurral neutrralizerr trreatment. His name is Vincent Kelly." 47


Cross heard a strangled scream of "no!!" behind him, and turned just in time to see Doctor Beckett slump to the deck unconscious.

48


Ch^pter 7 "Medical team to the bridge!" snapped Captain Cross at the ceiling knowing his order would be instantly relayed to sickbay by the ship's computer. He quickly stepped down to where Doctor Beckett lay crumpled on the deck behind the command chair and knelt beside her. He was loathe to move her, but even as he watched, her eyelids fluttered open and her eyes slowly came around and focused on his face. "Wha-- What happened?" she mumbled with thick lips. She struggled weakly to sit upright, and Cross put his arm behind her back to help her. "I don't know," said Cross. "You just screamed and fainted." "Oh--!" gasped Beckett. "I remember. When I heard that name..." She visibly shuddered. 49


"Are you okay?" asked Cross. "Sit tight. The medics are on their way." "No, I'm all right, Captain." Beckett made to stand, and Cross again lent a helping hand. He was momentarily surprised at how heavy she was, but then remembered she was almost twenty-five percent cybernetic. He led her over to the vacant seat at the engineering station and sat her down. Some healthy color was returning to her ghostly pallid complexion. Cross began to turn away, but in a brazen, atypical move the normally inhibited Doctor grabbed tight hold of his arm. Surprised, Cross turned back and arched a quizzical eyebrow. "If it is Vincent Kelly in that runabout, you have to capture him," said Beckett in a near whisper. The haunted look in her eyes spoke of dark secrets and made Cross wonder at its source. Beckett lowered her head hiding her face behind her long blonde hair, and her whispers became even softer so that Cross had to strain to hear her above the hum of the bridge instruments. In a tremulous voice brimming with nightmarish memories almost too agonizing to recall, she said, "It was when I still flew with Banshee Squadron, after the Second Mulluran War -- during 'The Mind Rippers' episode. We were on leave on Serenity when I..." Her voice faltered. She swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and resumed the narrative. "Vincent Kelly was leading a smuggling ring then. They dealt in stolen human minds and sold them on the black market as psionic entertainment, but they also sold some to a race of alien creatures so evil and monstrous you couldn't even begin to imagine. 50


"I was kidnapped, and my essence -- my soul -- was extracted from my body and put in a living crystal. In my disembodied state I was alert and aware the entire time. Vincent Kelly was going to sell my living essence to these creatures to be eaten! I was rescued by my friends and eventually restored, but the horrible memory of that experience will be with me forever." Sam Beckett suddenly looked up into Cross's eyes. With more fervor than Cross had heard from anyone in a long time, she said, "Kelly was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment on Elba II. I thought that would be the last I'd ever see or hear of that evil madman, but now here he is again! Don't let him get away, Captain. Please!" "Of course not, Doctor," said Cross. He put his hand on her shoulder and tried to sound as reassuring as he could. "Don't worry." The turbolift doors slid open and a pair of medics rushed onto the bridge with medkits in hand ready to inflict their care on whoever needed it. Cross pointed to the sitting Doctor, and as soon as the medics had her in hand, he returned to his command chair. "Mister Tanaka, sound red alert. Miss Chen, increase speed to warp 11 and bring us in on the opposite side of the comet from the Bonaparte. Lieutenant M'rowan, engage the refractive shielding and start charging the phasers." A chorus of acknowledgements answered Cross and his crew set to work. Cross swiveled back to the science station. "Ensign Thule, what else can you tell us?" "The entire comet is suffused with trace amounts of kelbanite, which interferes with any normal sensors. That's 51


probably the reason Kelly chose this comet to hide on. The sensors on the Bonaparte are also blinded, but our new sensor pod can penetrate the interference." "So Kelly won't be able to see us coming," said Cross. "He's been undone by his own cleverness." "Correct, sir. However, the kelbanite will also render our transporters useless," said Thule. We will have to send down a shuttle to retrieve him, if that is your intention." "Seems like we don't have a choice," said Cross, not happy that he'd have to risk his people instead of just beaming the escaped criminal straight up to the brig. He turned his chair back to the front of the bridge. In the front holotank, a fuzzy dot in the center of the starfield was growing steadily larger as the Eternity sped towards it at warp 11. It was the cometary core. At this distance from the nearest star, there was no solar wind to blow out a tail. "Chen, how much time until we reach the comet?" "Thirty-four minutes, twenty-eight seconds, sir." "Okay." Cross addressed the ceiling. "Commander Lang, please have one of the Mustangs prepped and ready for launch in thirty minutes. Then report to the bridge. You're in command while I take the runabout." Yes, sir. Cross got up from the command chair and headed for the turbolift. He was intercepted by a query from the young Andorian science officer. "Sir, should you be leading a dangerous away mission yourself? Starfleet regulations--" "If we had a First Officer your objection would be valid, Ensign, but since Commander Carter isn't aboard yet I'll have to do it." Cross knew he was twisting the rules a little, 52


but he'd have little opportunity to lead away missions himself after his XO arrived. He was no fool -- he had no great fondness for putting himself in harm's way, but he had even less fondness for sending other people into danger while he stayed behind. As he passed the tactical station on the way to the turbolift, he said, "Lieutenant "M'rowan, you're with me." Together, the two men stepped into the lift. As the doors slid shut, Cross said, "Hangar deck." =/\= Captain Cross and M'rowan stopped by Security on deck 7 to pick up a trio of guards. By the time they got to the Eternity's enormous U-shaped hangar, Doctor Beckett was waiting for them. She stood beside the waiting Mustang class runabout shuffling her feet and looking apologetic. "Doctor?" asked Cross as he strode up at the head of the column of armed men. "Did you forget to tell me something?" Beckett stopped her nervous shuffling and simply said, "I'm coming with you." Cross shook his head. "I don't think so, Doctor. This is probably going to be very dangerous. Besides, given your past experience with Vincent Kelly and your reaction up on the bridge not fifteen minutes ago to just hearing his name, I'm not sure you'd be any use to us if push comes to shove. You might wind up getting yourself killed." 53


Beckett looked away in embarrassment, but only for a moment. "It caught me by surprise, sir. But I know Vincent Kelly. He won't come quietly. Push will come to shove, and that's why I have to come with you, sir. You'll need a doctor. I guarantee it." Cross eyed the woman carefully, trying to gauge her motives. That she needed to confront her demon was clear, but why in this way? Couldn't she do the same from the other side of a brig forcefield once they'd caught Kelly and locked him up? Or was that too easy? Did she need to face him on even terms in order to exorcise him once and for all? Or was it something different altogether? Was she planning revenge? "What if your patient turns out to be Vincent Kelly?" he asked. "Like you said, he most likely won't come with us peacefully. Odds are we'll have to shoot him." "Then I'll do my job, Captain," was Beckett's steady answer. That was good enough for Cross. "Fine. Get in," he said, motioning towards the door in the rear of the shuttle. "But try and keep yourself out of the line of fire..." =/\= Runabout 2, the USS Palomino, buzzed out through the hangar bay's atmospheric containment field, swung around in a tight loop, and rocketed off towards the mysterious comet. 54


The frozen snowball was much larger by now, visible to unaided human senses. Cross's eyes narrowed as he tried to make out more details, then widened in astonishment as he realized what he was seeing. "What the hell is that thing?" he uttered. "Is it covered in... trees?!?"

Close up, the comet revealed itself to be anything but ordinary. The icy core of the comet was only a tiny spherical anchor at the center of an immense grove of towering arbors growing a hundred miles outward in all directions, brachiating in intricate fractal patterns until the outermost branches formed an englobing canopy. From a distance, it looked like a giant dandelion, but Cross knew the whole thing was more than 250 miles across and the trunks of those mighty trees were fifty feet thick. The leaves sprouting from the branches were each more than 55


twenty feet across, yet still dwarfed by the sheer scale of the trees. And somewhere deep within that tangle of alien graygreen foliage was Vincent Kelly's stolen runabout. In the pilot's chair, Lieutenant M'rowan studied the sensor readout. "Those grrowths don't just look like trrees, they actually arre living strructures. I've spotted the Bonaparrte. It's 5.5 miles below the trreetops on the farr side of the comet." "Take us in. full impulse," ordered Cross.

56


Ch^pter 8 The crowd pressed all around him, milling restlessly and jostling each other and him. They kept insisting that he restart the engines and leave this place, but Vincent Kelly knew there was a starship out there. He couldn't see it but he felt its presence. It was a predatory beast that stalked him, never seen but always felt just beyond the edges of his senses, obscured by the bizarre jungle foliage in which he had buried himself, waiting to spring at him like a tiger springs out of the tall savannah grasses at an unsuspecting gazelle. But Vincent Kelly was not unsuspecting. He knew! "What are you waiting for?" demanded a particularly insistent voice. Kelly had grown to hate that one in particular, a tall willowy blonde woman wearing Starfleet colors. "Are you going to cower here like a frightened rabbit for the rest of your life?" she badgered. "Until they 57


finally find you and drag you back to that place like the miserable worm you are?" "Shut up!" yelled Kelly. He didn't look up from the Bonaparte's control console where he sat. He knew the faces in the crowd by heart. His associates. His victims. There was little difference. He couldn't shake them. They had followed him into imprisonment on Elba II. Now they had followed him into deep space aboard his stolen runabout. No matter how far Kelly ran, there was no escaping the crowds that haunted him. There was no second of the day or night when they weren't pressing all around him -touching, brushing against him, shoving, whispering in his ears from behind his back -- not when he was alone in his cell on Elba II, not when he was in the commons with the other prisoners, not even when he was sleeping. Especially not when he was sleeping. When had these crowds of specters first latched themselves to him? Kelly couldn't recall the past very clearly anymore. He had a vague recollection of making a deal with the devil -- a monstrous disembodied brain oozing smelly jelly and dripping with pure evil -- for the promise of wealth and power. Had he lost his soul? Was this hell? "Come on..." whispered the insistent voice Kelly loathed so. "There's no one here to see you. There's no tiger waiting in the jungle for you. Betazed is only a few sectors away. We can be there in a few weeks in this ship. Imagine the havoc we could create there! A wolf among sheep... and telepaths all of them. More minds for us to devour." 58


Vincent Kelly felt himself weakening. The loathsome voice was right. What was he waiting for? His escape had been more than a week ago -- hadn't it? Time's passage was hazy and uncertain in his fevered mind. Yes, he was sure it had been more than a week. No one had found him yet. They never would! He was the great criminal mastermind Vincent Kelly, the most wanted man in the entire Alpha Quadrant! All the forces of the pathetic Federation was powerless to stop him! His hand inched sideways across the runabout's control board almost without Kelly realizing it. His reaching fingers touched the engine startup buttons. Kelly hesitated. Doubt, fear, and the vestiges of his tattered individuality warred in his mind against the insistent voices relentlessly egging him on with their insidious promises and lies. No! He wasn't their slave! He wouldn't cave in to their demands! Not this time! But the voices kept on, neverending, droning on and on for him to take them someplace where he could sow chaos and destruction. Deep in his black heart he knew he would do what they wanted eventually. Vincent Kelly felt the owner of the loathsome voice standing nearby, smug and gloating. A single tear ran down his cheek. His finger moved the final inch and pressed the ignition. =/\=

59


The runabout Palomino skimmed just above the unearthly treetops of the comet-forest. Ahead, a silvery shape emerged from the enormous foliage, angling away towards deep space. "Target his warp drive!" snapped Cross. "But make sure you don't kill Kelly. We want him alive." He could hear Doctor Beckett squirming anxiously in the back seat probably wishing she had never even heard of the Hippocratic Oath. M'rowan bared his fangs and ran his furred fingers over the targeting controls. A second later, a brilliant orange beam connected the Palomino's forward phaser array to the Bonaparte's starboard warp nacelle. A Mustang class runabout packed a respectable punch for a small ship, demonstrated now by the shower of nova-white sparks that blew from the Bonaparte's engine and briefly illuminated the frosty gray treetops. Vincent Kelly's stricken runabout careened out of control and crashed back down through the branches toward the comet core a hundred miles below. Cross winced every time the spiraling Bonaparte snapped another massive limb, as though he were feeling the pain himself. Disabling Kelly's warp drive was supposed to have rendered the villain harmless, not cause so much more destruction. That certainly had not been his intention. This comet forest was a unique environment. He and his crew were out here to study such things, to preserve them, not to smash them to bits. M'rowan sent the Palomino on a steep pursuit dive. The little ship dodged and weaved as M'rowan maneuvered it at breakneck speed through the dense tangle of tree branches, but through skill and luck he managed to avoid any 60


collisions. Despite his fearsome appearance, the Caitian held to the enlightened and non-violent nature of his race, and shared the Captain's unspoken sentiment regarding the sanctity of life. They didn't have far to follow before the Bonaparte, robbed of its momentum from bulldozing its way through a mile of lumber, finally stopped, wedged in the fork of a titanic tree trunk a mere ten miles below the treetops and still ninety miles from the snowy comet below. A tiny spacesuited figure emerged from the side hatch, pointed a hand weapon at the swiftly falling Federation ship and squeezed off a few ineffectual shots. Seeing the beams scatter against the shields, he kicked off from the hull of his immobile ship and flew into the dense graygreen forest cover. M'rowan quickly brought the runabout to a stop beside another impossibly thick branch and dropped anchor. "Phasers on heavy stun," said Cross to the trio of lanky security men filling up the back seats. "Vincent Kelly is extremely intelligent, extremely dangerous, and extremely insane, which is a deadly combination, so don't take any chances, but we want him alive if at all possible." The runabout's six passengers activated their life support belts, encasing themselves in air and warmth inside softly glowing forcefields. The cabin's air cycled out, the rear exit opened, and Lieutenant M'rowan led his crack team out. Cross floated out the door next, followed by Beckett. Directed by hand signals from the security chief, the three guards fanned out in the general direction Kelly had gone, their phasers held at the ready and their eyes open and alert. 61


Cross took a second to absorb the incredible beauty of this bizarre landscape. He was standing on a tree limb as wide as a football field ninety miles above 'ground' level yet still ten miles from the treetops overhead. Beyond the gargantuan leaves, the familiar stars shone cheerfully, unimpeded by any atmosphere, unaware of the human drama unfolding out here in their cold airless realm. There was light here under the treetops, but the source was less than definite. They were too far from the nearest star for that to be the source. It seemed to come from all around as though the living tree itself was glowing... a greenish luminescence that rendered the great limbs and foliage in eerie shades of avocado and slate. He felt suddenly exposed, despite the white nimbus of his life support belt's form-fitting forcefield reminding him that he was anything but. He pulled his phaser and checked the setting. Floating a few yards behind him, Doctor Beckett was checking her tricorder and frowning darkly. "The kelbanite is all through the plant fiber. It's bouncing my tricorder signal in a million different directions. I can't get a definite fix on Kelly. He seems to be all over the place," she said. "But I'm getting a reading on something else now. It's hard to pick it out of all the interference, but it's definitely another lifeform." "What, here? Where?" asked Cross. His eyes darted from shadow to shadow, suddenly imagining he saw peeping eyes in every tree knot and dark void. "There's nothing like it on record. I can't even tell if it's plant or animal, but it's big. It's coming towards us from 62


below, and it's moving incredibly fast. It'll be here in under ten minutes!" "Damn," muttered Cross. "That's just what we need..." "What do you mean?" asked Beckett. "I mean we have to be gone by the time whatever it is gets here, and that includes us and Kelly," replied Cross testily. "The Prime Directive. Maybe you've heard of it." He could see Beckett working herself up to an indignant protest, but he didn't have time for arguments. His hand was reaching for his combadge so he could alert M'rowan and the security team of the new time constraint, when a suggestion of movement in the corner of his eye demanded his attention. A spacesuited figure coalesced from out of the dark shadow behind the runabout near where the Doctor floated. The second the wild eyes behind the helmet glass encountered the tall willowy blonde, a look of pure, unreasoning hatred distorted the man's scar-lined face. "You!!!" he shrieked. An insane, incoherent animal roar tore itself from his throat, and with complete disregard for anything else -- like getting caught, or the fact that he still had a phaser in his hand -- he threw himself bodily through space at Beckett. Sam Beckett saw her own personal demon hurling towards her with murderous abandon in his eyes and screamed. Caught off guard, Cross turned himself as quickly as he could in the null gravity and fired his phaser, but the beam speared the empty space behind his speeding target and disappeared into the impenetrable distance. 63


Vincent Kelly slammed his spacesuit-armored shoulder into Beckett's midsection, and hooked an arm around her waist, yanking them both into a slow zero-gee spin. He used her weight as leverage to maneuver himself behind her back while keeping her off balance, made all the easier because Beckett had apparently gone numb. Being so precipitously and forcefully confronted by the worst nightmare from her past had rendered the woman almost catatonic. From four different directions, Lieutenant M'rowan and the security squad appeared, breathing heavily from the chase, and quickly surrounded Kelly and Beckett with phasers drawn and aimed. Kelly saw them, and with one gloved hand he gripped Beckett's right wrist and twisted her arm viciously up behind her back, and with his other hand, pressed his phaser against her forcefield cocoon directly above her right temple. 64


"Stay back!" he screamed across the general comlink. "I'll kill her! I swear!" Beckett cried out in pain and struggled feebly, unable to gain any advantage in the zero gravity. Her legs thrashed futilely in mid-air, unable to make contact with the tree branch. Kelly twisted her arm harder the more she squirmed. M'rowan and one of the other security men had clear shots, but they held their fire. Phaser stun effect usually caused muscle spasms. With Kelly's finger hovering over the trigger, there was too great a risk of his phaser going off and killing the Doctor if they shot him now. They'd wait for a better opportunity, or until the situation became a lot more desperate than it was now. Captain Cross tapped his toe against the giant tree branch, nudging himself towards Kelly and the Doctor, though slowly so as not to alarm the madman. Like the security team, his phaser never wavered from the bulls-eye he was imagining tattooed on Vincent Kelly's forehead. "Take it easy, Kelly. We can work something out. Why don't you let her go and we'll talk." "Stay back I said!" screamed Kelly. He was pressing the emitter of his phaser against Beckett's temple so hard, the forcefield protecting her shimmered and flared at the point of contact. Cross killed his forward momentum with another toe tap on the tree branch. Vincent Kelly's voice had taken on a hysterical quiver, and his eyes darted back and forth between Cross and the security men in spastic twitches. Cross could see the beads of sweat running down the criminal's face inside his space helmet. 65


The slightest mistake now would end with Sam Beckett dead. Not even her life support field could protect her from a full-power phaser blast at point-blank range. Cross spared a sideways glare in Lieutenant M'rowan's direction. "What happened?" he demanded. "We werre closing in on him when he doubled back on us, sirr," replied the Caitian. "We almost had him. Therre's no excuse." "We'll discuss your team's shortcomings later, Lieutenant. Right now we--" "Shut up!" shouted Kelly, interrupting Cross. He manhandled Doctor Beckett a few steps forward, making sure to keep her between himself and the Captain. "Move aside! I'm taking your ship! And you better not try and stop me, or your precious lady here gets it!" Cross grudgingly gave way before the madman, if only to buy some time before he came up with a plan, though he knew he only had a few minutes left before the unknown lifeform arrived on the scene. He hated being brilliant on a deadline. "You can't escape, Kelly," he said. "The Eternity will follow you wherever you go. We'll blow you right out of the skies if you force us to." "Ha! Not as long as I have my hostage!" crowed Kelly triumphantly. He continued shoving Beckett ahead of him as he made his way towards the parked Palomino. As the pair bustled past Cross, the Doctor raised her eyes and flashed the Captain a lightning-quick look. Cross tried to suppress the shocked expression on his face lest Kelly spot it and suspect something was up. He suddenly realized that somewhere along the line Beckett 66


had recovered from her catatonia and wasn't incapacitated at all! She was faking her continued flaccid submission in order to-- what? Before Kelly shoved her out of direct eye contact with the captain, Beckett surreptitiously directed Cross's gaze down to her left hand, which hovered right over the medikit at her hip. Cross understood. He nodded imperceptibly and steeled himself for instant action. He watched the Doctor ease open the medikit's flap and slip the hypo from its sleeve. Her fingers twisted the drug vial to a new setting, then she turned the hypo around in her hand so she was holding it like a dagger. She took a deep breath and jabbed the hypo hard against Kelly's leg, emptying every last drop of the selected vial's contents through the spacesuit's membrane into the madman's bloodstream. Kelly roared with unrestrained rage and frustration. Beckett twisted her right arm -- her cybernetic arm -- easily out of Kelly's grip and spun in the zero-gee to face her personal demon. "Damn you, bitch!" howled Vincent Kelly. His face was a mask of pure violence, devoid of even the slightest trace of humanity. He raised his phaser to kill Beckett, but the sedative she'd pumped into him was fast acting. He fought it, but his arm grew heavy, and wavered sluggishly off target. It looked like the confrontation would come to a peaceful conclusion after all, when all hell broke loose. A huge, dark blur shot from out of the thick foliage between Beckett and Kelly. It was the unknown lifeform. From Cross's point of view, it was all leather, horns, hooks, 67


claws and fangs. In a massive swipe, the creature slapped Beckett aside, sending her careening off into the depths of the comet-forest, and with the other giant claw, raked a jagged bloody gash across Vincent Kelly's spacesuited chest. In a spasm of pain and shock, Kelly's trigger finger twitched, and as he flailed his arms, a full power phaser beam cut a swath of destruction, severed tree limbs and charred foliage across the landscape.

Ignoring Kelly, knowing it had dealt him a fatal blow, the creature dug its taloned feet into the hard wood of the giant tree branch, coiled its sinuous body, and sprang at its next victim, Captain Cross. Lieutenant M'rowan and his team were ready though. Four phaser beams intercepted the creature in mid-lunge before Cross even had a chance to flinch. The creature yowled silently in the vacuum, went rigid as its muscles 68


fought the heavy stun effect, then limp. Its momentum carried it on, and it bowled solidly into Cross like a giant hunk of driftwood. He was pushed back into a tree branch, but his life support field kept him from harm. "Swell..." he muttered, shoving the inert creature off of himself. How was he supposed to uphold the Prime Directive now? The only thing that could possibly save him now was if this strange creature wasn't intelligent. But first things first. They had to get Vincent Kelly back to the Eternity before he died.

69


Ch^pter 9 Two runabouts buzzed back through the airshield covering the entrance of hangar bay one and touched down on the wide deck. Security details and medical personnel ran from side entrances to the hangar, having been alerted to the situation by Captain Cross during the flight back to the Eternity from the comet-forest. The doctors and nurses rushed to the Palomino and helped Doctor Beckett with the antigrav stretcher carrying the critically wounded Vincent Kelly. After making sure his vitals were stable, they rushed him out of the hangar to sickbay where they would try to save his life so he could be shipped back to Elba II.

70


The security detail meanwhile closed in on Kelly's stolen runabout Bonaparte. Back on the comet-forest, Beckett had determined that the quadruple dose of phaser stun had seriously injured the creature. Apparently the species was unusually sensitive to that particular form of energy. At Beckett's insistence, Captain Cross had agreed to bring it back to the ship to see if they could heal it despite his Prime Directive concerns. They had injured it, the doctor had argued -- they were responsible for what happened to it now. Since its natural environment was the airless cold of deep space, cargo hold 5, which was adjacent to sickbay, was emptied and opened to space, and the creature beamed there under heavy security until the doctor could treat it. Cross stood by and watched as the transporter's sparkles faded, then turned to Lieutenant M'rowan, who had stationed himself at the Captain's side during the transfer. He was pretty sure the Caitian could read human 71


expressions well enough to figure out that his commanding officer wasn't a happy man. "Lieutenant, I want to see you in my ready room in fifteen minutes." "Underrstood, sirr," replied the felinoid. Without another word, Cross stormed from the hangar deck. =/\= The turbolift deposited Cross on the bridge. The man in the center seat heard the doors swish open, and turning and seeing it was the captain, relinquished the chair, but Cross waved him down. "As you were, Commander. I'll be in my ready room." Lang looked like he had something he wanted to say, and he wasn't one to be denied normally, but the expression on Cross's face convinced him it would definitely be in his best interests to save it for later. Ten minutes later, Cross heard soft footfalls pad up the curved stairway leading to his ready room from the executive rooms down on deck 2. Lieutenant M'rowan stopped before his desk and stood at attention. Cross put down the PADD he was reading and subjected his Chief of Security to scathing scrutiny for several long seconds. "Your security team's performance in the comet-forest was unsatisfactory, Lieutenant," he said at last. "They let Vincent Kelly slip past them and take Doctor Beckett 72


hostage, which delayed us long enough for that space creature to attack us and almost get us all killed. You people are supposed to be highly trained. I don't mind telling you I'm very disappointed. Can you give me any reason I shouldn't drop you all off when we reach Serenity and hire a whole brand new security department?" If M'rowan was alarmed or distraught by the Captain's censure, his feline features showed no sign of it that Cross could discern. "As I starrted to say back in the forrest, sirr," began M'rowan, "I take full rresponsibility, and I stand behind my men's trraining -- as farr as it goes." Cross noted the qualifier in M'rowan's statement, and postponed any final assessment until he heard the details. "How do you propose to solve our little problem, Lieutenant?" he asked. "Securrity perrsonnel are trrained to handle many differrent situations, sirr, but therre arre still an infinite numberr of possibilities that no trraining prrogrram can addrress, like trracking an escaped crriminal thrrough a giant forrest in deep space surrrounded by kelbanite deposits which make trricorders useless. I would like to use the holodeck in the rrec area to conduct morre trraining exerrcises, ones suited specifically to ourr needs on this ship. We should also rrequisition some additional equipment. Non-standarrd weapons, cerramic arrmorr, tactical supporrt systems. The men underr my command arre already good, but they can and will become the best securrity unit in Starrfleet!" Cross smiled inwardly. He had gone through the same routine with his old Chief of Security shortly after taking command of his previous ship, the Elsinore. The security 73


personnel there had been capable men and women -- they would have washed out of the Academy otherwise -- but just because they had graduated didn't mean their learning days were over. And the exact same still applied here and now. "That's exactly what I wanted to hear, Lieutenant," he said. "And I'll hold you to your promise to make your men the best force in the Service. "Yes, sirr!" snapped M'rowan, clearly relishing the prospects that had just opened before him. The very tip of his tail twitched in anticipation. Cross could already see the devious wheels turning in the Caitian's mind as he began plotting what sorts of torture under the guise of 'training exercises' he could devise for the poor unfortunates under him. Cross was suddenly glad he wasn't one of them. At that moment, the red alert klaxon split the air. A harried voice came over the ship's intercom. Intruder alert! Intruder alert on deck six, cargo hold five! Cross was through the door and out on the bridge before the harried voice even finished, with M'rowan only a step behind. "Report!" snapped Cross. "The creature from the comet-forest woke up and started tearing up the cargo hold," reported Ryo Tanaka from Ops. "Security forces have it pinned down for the moment." Cross turned to M'rowan. "Come on!" Together, they dashed into the turbolift. =/\= 74


"Let me go in first, Captain," said Lieutenant M'rowan. Cross stepped aside to allow his Security Chief into the airlock between the corridor and cargo hold five. He'd be a fool not to let the Caitian do his job. He stepped through immediately after though. On the way here, they had both picked up life support belts, and would need them as protection against the vacuum, even if not against the creature itself. The hold was a wide area situated above the concave curvature of the underside of the Eternity's primary hull, so the floor bulged upwards towards the ceiling. The sides along the walls were almost full height, but in the center, barely four feet separated floor from ceiling. M'rowan and Cross penetrated further into the dimly lit chamber, staying close to the wall. Four feet to his left, naked stars shone through the open loading hatch. When they rounded a corner, they encountered the rest of the security team. The cumulative glow from their life support belts lit this part of the hold more brightly than the rest, so it was easy to spot the creature. It hunkered along the far wall looking tense and angry, though, Cross realized, he was probably just guilty of anthropomorphizing. Now that it was up and about and not comatose, the creature was truly terrifying. Nearly eight feet tall, it's elongated humanoid body bore only the most general resemblance to a human. Its skin was reddishbrown tree bark, and it was armed with claws and hooks at every body joint and extremity. It was clearly designed as a killing machine. The deep-set eyes in its enormous, horned, swept-back head glowed red as it sought escape. 75


Luckily, it had learned its lesson back at the cometforest, and the threat of being shot by the security guards surrounding it kept it at bay. That didn't stop it from making frequent threatening lunges and feints, always in the direction of the large cargo transporter along the wall to its left. "It wants to get to the transporter," said M'rowan. "That means it's intelligent," said Cross, crestfallen. M'rowan's observation obliterated his last hope of dodging the Prime Directive in regard to this species. Actually, now that he had the opportunity to take a better look at the creature without having to worry about the risk of being disemboweled, he noticed it was dressed in various leather straps and belts and small pouches, as well as a sort of loincloth covering. The brown, wrinkled material blended almost seamlessly into the creature's dark, bark-like skin, so it was easy to overlook. He walked forward until he was abreast of the line of security guards. The creature -- no, it wasn't a 'creature' anymore; it was a 'being' -- took notice of the newcomer to the ranks of its tormentors and fixed its baleful stare on the Captain. It stopped shuffling and pacing, instead standing perfectly still and leaning way forward. Its glowing red eyes intensified into twin laser-bright pinpoints. The guard to Cross's immediate left muttered an aside to his buddy. "Man, that thing is giving me the creeps." Cross was about to turn to the man and tactfully suggest where to stuff his xenophobia when he felt a tickle at the back of his head. The tickle escalated into a nagging itch, and then a prickling burn. 76


The cornered comet-forest being intensified its stare. Suddenly Cross dropped to his knees and clutched the sides of his head with both hands. His face contorted into a grimace of pain, his eyes screwed tightly shut, and an agonized grunt forced its way through clenched teeth. Lieutenant M'rowan didn't know exactly what was happening to the Captain, but it didn't take a highly evolved feline predatory instinct to realize the source of the danger He yanked his phaser off his hip. "Take it down, men!" "No! Wait!" Captain Cross, through the red haze of the pain in his head, had managed to raise himself up on one knee. "Wait...!" he rasped again. "It's trying to communicate with me... Too fast! Slow down!" he pleaded. He groaned again, but this time more with the effort of trying to understand than because of stabbing pain. He opened his eyes and stared into the red pinpoints of light in the comet-forest being's massive head and lost himself. The mystical communing went on for several long minutes, with each passing second seeing the tip of M'rowan's tail twitching more and more nervously as the alien held his captain in its thrall. Cross's whole body quivered, and rivers of sweat streamed down the sides of his face, but he remained upright by his own strength and withstood the alien's method of communication with squared jaw and clenched fists. A split second before M'rowan couldn't take it anymore, Cross's body sagged and he let out a long ragged breath. M'rowan grabbed his shoulder to keep him from toppling over sideways, and said, "Are you all right, sir?" The 77


security guards were keeping a close eye on the alien, which had adopted a wait-and-see posture. Cross managed to nod his head and whisper, "Assemble the senior staff in the main conference room in fifteen minutes."

78


Ch^pter 10 Captain Cross sat at the head of the long, curved conference room table. Chief Engineer Lang was standing, lecturing those in attendance as was his style. "We have run complete high-resolution scans with my new subspace sensor systems," he was saying. "The actual comet core is fairly normal. It is 10 miles in diameter, with a tightly compacted nucleus composed mostly of frozen water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, nitrogen, and trace volatiles. Around that is a differentiated mantle of rocky silicates, dust, and of course, the immer-verflixtes kelbanite. But that is where the normalcy ends.

79


"Growing out from the mantle, and anchored deep within it are trees. Not restricted by their weight in the almost nil gravity of the comet, they can grow to a height of a hundred miles with no difficulty. They are genetically engineered to be completely heat insulated and to lose no gasses or moisture to the vacuum. Their leaves are up to twenty feet across in order to absorb the maximum amount of sunlight." "But what are the trees for?' asked Ryo Tanaka, the Ops officer. "Why plant a giant forest on a rogue comet lightyears from the nearest star? I doubt even leaves that big could collect enough sunlight." Cross already knew the answer, but he let Lang field the question since he was obviously enjoying his role of lecturer so much. To Cross's surprise, however, it was the young Andorian science officer who answered, stealing Lang's thunder. 80


"It's an interstellar transport," said Ensign Thule. "Deep scans show thousands of artificial crisscrossing tunnels and chambers throughout the mantle and nucleus, and by tracing concentrations of muons and Cherenkov radiation, we have pinpointed the location of a fusion reactor. "The comet was built and grown in the star system behind us 40,000 years ago. Then it was launched towards the star system ahead of us. The whole journey will take it about 78,000 years. Obviously, the people who built it didn't have warp capability. The giant trees gathered solar energy while it was still in its home system's Oort Cloud and stored it for the long journey. They'll be used again once it reaches the Oort Cloud at its destination. "Doctor Lang's sensors have detected millions of pods in the tunnels and chambers. We believe they are stasis pods. There are millions of people on that comet, all waiting to be born on a new world 38,000 years from now. "But why?" repeated Tanaka. That was Cross's cue to step in and share with the rest of his staff the information he had learned from his brief communication with the alien being down in the cargo hold. "The star system behind us is dead now, but it was once called Hrekka. The being recuperating down in the cargo hold is a Hrekkan, genetically altered to survive in the vacuum of space. "Forty thousand years ago, the Hrekkans had an industrial civilization, but they were careless. Some of them realized they were about to poison their planet beyond its capacity to sustain life, so they planned to move to a new planet. They didn't have warp technology, but they were 81


adept at genetic engineering. They built the comet forest and stocked it with millions of living specimens of all kinds and types, and launched it towards a neighboring star in the hopes of finding a new planet to live on. "It's like Noah's Ark," whispered Doctor Beckett, clearly awed by the sheer audacity of the ancient Hrekkans. "To undertake an 80,000-year-long engineering project, knowing there was no way they would ever know its outcome... No human society in history would ever have attempted anything so grandiose and long-sighted. "So we're dealing with an intelligent, pre-warp civilization," the Doctor continued. "You were worried about the Prime Directive before..." Cross nodded and looked grim. "Vincent Kelly's and our interference have done tremendous damage. The being that we brought back with us is the Caretaker/Protector of the comet. It tried to stop Kelly and us from causing damage, but it came too late." He looked across the table to Lang to pick up the thread. The engineer stood again and resumed lecturing. "Vincent Kelly crashed his runabout into the forest, and burned some of it with phaser fire. This has introduced a tiny but measurable new spin to the comet. We project that it will now miss its target star system entirely. The millions of people frozen in the stasis pods are now doomed to float through interstellar space forever." "We have to help them!" said Beckett, letting passion momentarily overcome timidity. "The Prime Directive has already been broken! We can't just leave them like this!" "Maybe we could nudge them back into position with the tractor beams?" suggested Tanaka. 82


Lang shook his head. "The forest is too fragile. At the strength we'd have to apply the tractor beams, the forest would be stripped." "Could we evacuate the stasis pods?" asked Miki Chen, speaking up for the first time. Ensign Thule had the numbers. Obviously he'd had the same thought earlier. "Sensors have scanned 875,825,766 pods. If we crammed all the Eternity's cargo holds, the hangars, the open recreation areas, and the ship's corridors full, we might be able to take 10,000 pods. That's only one onethousandth of one percent of the population! If we evacuated 10,000 pods per week nonstop, which we can't, it would take us 1,684 years to complete! Even if a taskforce of 100 starships was solely dedicated to the job, it would take them almost 17 years." "That's not the answer," snapped Lang impatiently. "We have to do something" said Beckett, looking directly at the Captain. Cross felt the weight of responsibility pressing on him. The Prime Directive forbade any interference with prewarp civilizations, no matter the circumstances, even if it meant the likely extinction of an entire species. It was a harsh law and often the most difficult regulation for a Starfleet officer to uphold, but Cross believed in it, in principle. Humanity was not nearly wise enough to be able to foresee the consequences of even the smallest and most well intentioned interference in a culture's natural development. On the other hand, as Doctor Beckett had already pointed out, Vincent Kelly's insane and reckless actions had 83


already contaminated the Hrekkans. Was it the Eternity's job now to somehow repair the Prime Directive violation? Or was that just more 'good intentions'? How could they possibly rescue the Hrekkans without contaminating them even further? Beckett's eyes continued to plead silently with him. He could imagine how the doctor felt. He wished he had a time machine. He would go back and stop Vincent Kelly from ever arriving at this virgin wilderness and ruining it. But wishing didn't make it so. "I want a solution to the comet course problem by the end of the day," he said to the table in general. Dismissed." The officers got up and started filing out of the conference room one by one to head off to their various departments and start working on a solution for the impossible. 875 million stasis pods! 875 million lives hanging in the balance, all waiting on what Nathan Cross would decide to do. How could any man make such a decision? =/\= Captain Cross once again stood sheathed in his life support field in the vacuum of cargo bay 5. Two short steps to his right, the Hrekkan Caretaker stood, towering above him with all those murderous claws and hooks, but the Captain felt no fear. Together, human and Hrekkan watched through the open cargo loading hatch as the 84


Eternity's twelve workbee craft buzzed past on their way to the comet-forest, visible against the night sky less than a kilometer from the ship. Cross pointed at the dozen swiftly moving pinpoints. "Those twelve workbees will attach themselves to key stress points around your giant trees and push -- very gently. Six hours from now, your comet-forest will be back on track towards the solar system ahead. All the damage we caused will be repaired, as far as we are able. You're free to go home whenever you like." You have sacrificed much to help my people, the alien thought at him without diverting its gaze from its cold faerie-land realm outside. While still uncomfortable, communication with the Caretaker no longer caused outright pain. Cross realized the alien could see in his mind the exact circumstances of his decision to help. He verbalized it anyway, if only to reassure himself that his decision had been the right one. "The Prime Directive is the highest law of Starfleet," said Cross, "but there are higher laws still, that transcend the laws of man. It was the right thing to do. It was also the only decision that would allow me to keep my sanity. I'll deal with the consequences, if any, later." The Caretaker nodded in understanding and agreement... and in thanks. You have no need to fear regarding your Prime Directive, thought the Hrekkan. My lifespan is many hundreds of years, but the journey will last many more thousands. The knowledge of your kind will die with me between the stars. My successor will be born as I was born 85


-- secure in the knowledge that Hrekkans are alone in the universe. Of this, I give you my solemn promise. Now it was Cross's turn to be grateful. Outside the open cargo hatch, the broad leaves of the hundred-mile-tall trees glinted delicately as the comet spun around catching the light of the distant stars, like a magical field of clovers glistening with dew in the frosty moonlight.

"Life is more abundant in the known universe than humans ever suspected," mused Cross. "It exists in endless proliferation and variation in every conceivable environment -- mountaintops, ocean floors, mantle rock, sulfur clouds, and hydrocarbon lakes... in nebulas, solar coronas, neutron stars, and Demon-class planets. Even on frozen comets drifting in the absolute zero of interstellar space." He looked sideways at the tall alien. 86


"But we've also learned yet again just how fragile life truly is. Your people learned that 40,000 years ago when they destroyed their own planet through their carelessness and apathy, and we learned it again today when, through our carelessness and ignorance, we almost destroyed your only hope for finding a new home."

87


Epilogue Two weeks later, the USS Eternity slid into standard parking orbit above the capital of the planet Serenity. A willowy blonde woman clad in medical-blue stood alone in the corridor outside the main brig cell staring through the forcefield barrier. Her state of mind was impossible to decipher, though not from lack of outward expressions. Quite the opposite, in fact. The emotions flashing through her eyes changed too rapidly, as though the woman herself had no idea how she felt. Her face registered determined stoicism one second, only to have it replaced by fire-and-brimstone anger the next, and undisguised pity the second after that. And so, round and round it went. 88


The object of Sam Beckett's whirling passions, the lone cell occupant, sat motionless on the hard bunk staring at a fixed spot on the wall behind her, but his eyes were dull and unfocused, unseeing. A small rivulet of spittle slithered from the left side of his mouth. His arms were securely fastened and held immovable at his sides by an invisible restraint field. A disembodied voice issued from the intercom on the wall. Transport to Paladin Hospital in three seconds... The silvery sparkle of the transporter enveloped Vincent Kelly and carried him away, but just before he faded completely, Beckett imagined she saw his cold, black eyes focus on her face and his lips twist into a hideous sneer as if to promise that this was not the last she had seen of Vincent Kelly. When he was gone, Beckett drew in a massive breath and let it out slowly, releasing her fears and demons along with it. She walked out of the brig. 89


=/\= Lieutenant Josephine Schmidt sat on the edge of her bed looking around at the room she had called home for almost a year. While that wouldn't seem a very long time to a normal person, to a Starfleet officer serving in a fighter wing out on the edge of the frontier it was almost forever. The apartment looked sad to her, but that was probably just a reflection of her own feelings at the moment. The shelves were bare of books and knickknacks, the closet was empty of clothes and shoes, the drawers were devoid of junk, the walls were stripped of pictures. Everything was carefully packed in a few smallish cases and one large duffel bag lying in the middle of the floor.

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Jo was very much looking forward to her new assignment, but she would miss this place a lot. The planet Serenity may be on the wrong side of the Briar Patch, but the sun was warm and the weather was nice. No... it was more than that, Jo realized. Much more. She would miss her friends and wingmates of so many years. Most had already left. Kimberly Tycho had gone off and gotten married. Maxine Vasser had quit Starfleet and joined an adventurer named West. Samantha Beckett had returned to Earth to study medicine. Alexandra Dalton and Dexter Gray were living on a sentient planet. Matthew Cross was gone. And Jazz... Well, Jazz had died a long time ago. Twice. That left only herself and her wing commander, Lee Carter, to carry on the proud legacy of the infamous Banshee Squadron, that elite Starfleet fighter wing that had been putting the fear of God into the hearts of evildoers for more than a decade. But that was the past. The present was peacetime. The Dominion had ceased to be a threat years ago. The Cardassian Union had lost its fangs. The Romulans were once again entrenched behind their Neutral Zone doing whatever it was they did back there. The Mullurans had returned to ways of peace with the death of their insane leader. The Klingons were... well, the Klingons were still Klingons. The only notable remaining threats were the Breen and the Tzenkethi, and they were so far away. The only immediate threats to life and limb nowadays were random pirate attacks and boredom it seemed. Starfleet had decided that the Banshee Squadron was obsolete. It was time to move on. 91


She and Lee had both been assigned to positions on the new USS Eternity, a science vessel that would be spending the next five years cruising around the Briar Patch Sectors exploring the unknown. Before the Dominion War, Jo had been a science officer, but her scientific career had been put on indefinite hold with the outbreak of hostilities. High scores on her flight training during her time with the Academy's Nova Squadron guaranteed her being drafted into one of the many fighter wings Starfleet was fielding to counter the Jem'Hadar battlebugs. Now, after almost fifteen years, she would be going back to her first calling -- being a scientist. Maybe this move wasn't a change for her after all. It was more of a coming full circle. Jo's daydreaming was interrupted by a shock of unruly brunette hair poking through the bedroom door followed by the rest of Lee Carter's head. There was a big smile on her friend's face. "Our ride's here," she said. Jo's melancholy dropped away like discarded ballast and she rose from the bed. She ran her fingers through her short blonde hair. "I'm ready," she replied with growing anticipation and excitement. Carter stepped the rest of the way into the room and tapped the communicator pin on her chest. "Eternity, this is Commander Carter. Two to beam up."

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Eternity  

The USS Eternity embarks on a simple shakedown cruise from Earth to the Briar Patch Sector, but her maiden voyage turns into a desperate fig...

Eternity  

The USS Eternity embarks on a simple shakedown cruise from Earth to the Briar Patch Sector, but her maiden voyage turns into a desperate fig...

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