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Deja Vu Past and present collide for Captain Nathan Cross and the former pilots of Banshee Squadron when eerily similar distress signals pull them into confrontations with an unthinkable enemy. What really happened to Matthew Cross? Who is really to blame? And is it happening again?

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Q'THALAS STAR TREK: BANSHEE SQUADRON

Richard A. Merk

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


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Table of Contents Q'THALAS............................................................................3 TABLE OF CONTENTS ..........................................................5 INTRODUCTION ...................................................................7 1 - THE PRESENT .................................................................8 2 - THE PRESENT ...............................................................14 3 - THE PAST .....................................................................19 4 - THE PAST .....................................................................23 5 - THE PRESENT ...............................................................32 6 - THE PAST .....................................................................37 7 - THE PRESENT ...............................................................43 8 - THE PAST .....................................................................52 9 - THE PRESENT ...............................................................58 10 - THE PRESENT .............................................................65 11 - THE PRESENT .............................................................76 12 - THE DEEP PAST..........................................................80

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Introduction Story segments set in "The Present" take place in June of 2384, a few weeks after the premier Eon & Eternity story Eternity, and seven months after the conclusion of the Banshee Squadron stories. "The Past" segments are set six months prior, in December of 2383, in the interim between the Banshee Squadron and Eon & Eternity stories, three weeks after the events of Voice of a Silent Planet.

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1 - The Present Captain's log stardate 64207.14. The USS Eternity is continuing her temporary security patrol along the edge of the Briar Patch until the frigate Renegade arrives to relieve us in three days. All is quiet. Chief Science Officer Schmidt has requested extra sensor time to study an unusual, undocumented emission nebula about two parsecs from our planned route, apparently an outlying streamer of the larger Briar Patch Nebula, and I have granted as much time as the sensors can spare from their security vigil. In three weeks we are scheduled to rendezvous with Captain Riker and the Titan. Meanwhile, I and the crew are enjoying the peace and quiet, something we sorely need after the ... adventure ... of our maiden voyage out from Earth. Captain Nathan J. Cross let himself slouch in the command chair just a little now that the camera was off. He silently wished he didn't always have to act the part of the 'brave starship captain', but knew that it was part of the game. 8


No, scratch that, he berated himself. It was no game. His responsibility was frighteningly real, and if he ever let himself really think about its full implications, it would probably paralyze him. Three hundred sixty men and women depended on him to keep them alive and safe in a hostile galaxy, and looked up to his sterling example. The millions of citizens living on the colonies and planets here in the Serenity sector depended on him for their livelihood; to keep their trade routes open, to defend them against aggression, to render aid in instances of natural disaster. The billions in the United Federation of Planets depended on him to not get in a shooting war with the Breen or the Son'a, to negotiate universally beneficial new agreements with all the strange new worlds, new life and new civilizations he discovered. Sometimes he thought it was far too much responsibility to be entrusted to any one man. Sometimes he even thought about resigning his commission and finding some nice civilian job on a nice quiet agrarian colony somewhere, or maybe even going back home to California. Someplace where he wouldn't have to bear the weight of the known universe on his shoulders. Someplace where lives didn't depend on his every decision. Space was an unforgiving place, and sometimes exacted a heavy toll from those brave enough to swim too far past the shoals of their home solar systems. His brother Matthew had paid the ultimate price when the spaceliner he'd been on was attacked and destroyed by unknown raiders six months ago, though the blame for that, at least in Cross' mind, lay heavily on the starfighter pilots who had been sworn to protect them. The Starfleet Board of Inquiry had exonerated them after the incident, but he considered that decision a shameful travesty of justice. Cross frowned and angrily thrust the unwelcome memories from his thoughts. Those events, however tragic, had until recently belonged in the past, forever unchangeable. That had 9


recently changed, however, with the arrival of his XO and Chief Science Officer. He glanced sideways at his faithful yeoman Jamie Piper and suddenly remembered why he was out here doing what he did. For the young. For the future. If Piper sensed his self-tortured scrutiny, she gave no indication, content to stare at the swirling, hypnotic patterns of Lieutenant Schmidt's newly-discovered emission nebula on the main viewscreen as she patiently waited for her captain's next orders.

Cross had to admire the young woman. Barely out of the Academy but recommended by both Admirals Pike and Xultok, the young blonde was a ray of pure sunshine wherever she went, and, contrary to the popular clichĂŠ about blondes, had an encyclopedic mind that could keep track of a hundred different tasks simultaneously. It never mattered what Cross needed or what obscure bit of information he was after; she was always ready with precisely what was required at precisely the right moment. Sometimes -- often, actually -- she seemed almost 10


psychic in her ability to anticipate his needs. He considered her an absolutely indispensable part of his command, and knew he could never do his job nearly as well without her. He idly wondered if she was even human. Just then, as if again anticipating his unvoicable needs, Piper shook her hair out and let it resettle naturally on her shoulders in a cascade of soft gold waves reflecting the multicolored lights around the bridge. If only she were twenty years older, he thought. Or better, that he were twenty years younger. He forced his attention away towards the main viewer in front of him. It was still displaying the nebula. "It's very green," he said with exaggerated casualness to cover a myriad of inappropriate emotions. "I'd call it 'jade', Captain," was Piper's offhand reply. Cross swiveled his command chair in the direction of the main science station on the upper level of the bridge to his left. A young Andorian was in the chair. "What about it, Ensign?" he asked. "Shall we call Lieutenant Schmidt's discovery the 'Jade Nebula'?" Ensign Thule, Assistant Science Officer of the USS Eternity, straightened from where he'd been bent over the readouts and said, "If I were a Vulcan I'd say, 'Not a very technical description, yet accurate enough, I surmise from what I have observed of human behavior, to adequately label the phenomenon.'" He finished with his best imitation of a Vulcan eyebrow-arch, although his crooked smirk and twitching antennae completely ruined the illusion. Cross internally translated his statement as, 'Close enough'. He wondered at the young Andorian's odd sense of humor, and made a mental note to remind the Ensign of proper bridge protocol later. Again. The young man, while possessed of an impressive scientific intellect, was far too impressionable for his own good, and was assimilating all of Josephine Schmidt's 11


annoying, irreverent, bad-for-your-Starfleet-career habits and personality traits. Cross wondered if there was perhaps something more between his Chief Science Officer and her assistant than a mere professional working relationship, but quickly reminded himself that it was none of his business. As long as the two of them continued doing their jobs well and kept the jokes to a minimum. "'Jade Nebula' it is then," he announced. "Log it in the Federation database, Ensign." "Yes, Captain." Thule played his console like a virtuoso pianist for half a minute, then, after receiving confirmation from the computer, said, "The update will arrive at the main repository on Memory Prime in three weeks, sir." "Very good. Thank you, Ensign." Cross swiveled his chair back around to face front. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Piper smiling, and against all reason it made him happy. "Rrr, Captain." Cross turned his chair again to face the security station. Lieutenant M'rowan's Caitian face was distorted into a frown of concentration. His right hand twisted the receiver in his twitching ear while his left worked the controls. "I'm rreceiving a brroadcast..." The feline's frown deepened. "It's verry faint. It sounds like a distrress signal. I'm having trrouble brringing it in." Cross turned towards the science station, but saw that Thule was already working on the problem. He turned back to M'rowan. The Caitian's face relaxed somewhat. His eyes were closed as he listened to the broken but now mostly-readable message. After a few moments, he thumbed a switch on his console, and the bridge's speakers crackled to life. ...ayday! Mayday! This is the Federation freighter Nkiru, three days out from Serenity. We have ...een attacked by an . . . nknown warship. Life suppo... failing. Require immedia... 12


assi...tance! Repeat...! Mayday! Mayday! This is the Federation freighter Nkiru, three-The message started to loop, but Cross savagely signaled M'rowan to cut the loudspeakers. The unknown alien warship again. It had been attacking ships in this sector for several years, and now they were back again‌ just like they had attacked a civilian spaceliner six months ago. Turning, trying to control sudden rage, he barked at the woman at the Conn. "Ensign Chen. Triangulate on the Nkiru's transmission and plot a course. Warp thirteen!" The young oriental worked furiously at her console, sensing her captain's volatile mood, pulled in comm signals from several widely placed relay buoys, then reported smartly: "Distance, three point eleven parsecs, bearing 342 mark 12, sir. ETA, fiftyfour minutes at warp thirteen." "Execute!" Fifty-four minutes wasn't nearly fast enough for Cross; too much could happen. He cursed the inadequacy of human technology, but the universe was big beyond imagination, and the destabilizing effects of the Briar Patch were an added hindrance to velocity he really didn't need right now. The Eternity's engines flared to life, and the gleaming starship pivoted in the direction of danger and disappeared in a flash of accelerating tachyons and gamma radiation. "Sound red alert!" Cross gripped the armrests of his command chair, though he was scarcely aware of it. His thoughts were consumed by smoldering images of his brother's ravaged spaceliner and her hundreds of other crew and passengers, technically alive but horribly brain-dead, and the squadron of female starfighters pilots that had been sworn to protect it.

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2 - The Present "The human race has 5000 years to live." Commander Lee Carter looked up from the PADD she was reading and cast a cockeyed glance across the coffee table at the short-haired blonde doomsayer carelessly sprawled in one of the other chairs. Beside Carter on the sofa, Doctor Sam Beckett cast a similar glance and raised an eyebrow, looking suddenly worried. Jo Schmidt smiled mischievously at her two friends and shipmates, formerly of Banshee Squadron, now of the USS Eternity. "Or 7.8 million... depending," she finished, deliberately teasing. Carter rolled her eyes with practiced longsuffering and switched off the PADD. "All right. I'll play along. What the hell are you talking about?" "The Copernican Principle," replied Jo, as though she was of the opinion that her audience should know what she meant. At Carter's and Sam's blank stares, she made a face and explained. "It's named after Nicolaus Copernicus. He's the one who figured out that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe -well, most recently anyway. Aristarchus figured that out like a thousand years earlier, but nobody believed him. The Copernican 14


Principle basically states that one's position in space-time is not special in any way." "Okay... So?" "Since there's nothing special about our place in time, there's a 95 percent probability that we are living sometime within the middle 95 percent of humanity's existence rather than the first or last 2.5 percent, because living at the very beginning or end would be special. The human species has existed for about 200,000 years so far, so depending on if we happen to be at the beginning or end of that 95 percent time period, we've got anywhere from 5100 to 7.8 million years left." Jo looked from Carter to Sam and back, waiting for some kind of reaction from them. "Get it?" she prodded hopefully. Sam stood and stretched her long limbs luxuriously. "I have to go check something in sickbay," she said, and made a hasty exit from Carter's quarters. Jo looked to Carter. Carter just shrugged. "You must be a blast at parties," she said. Jo sighed and gave up. "You people just have no appreciation for science." "Not to mention hokey pseudo-science." Jo riposted by sticking out her tongue. She got up and stepped over to the small kitchenette to refresh her coffee from the coffee maker while Carter got back to her PADD. The replicator in the wall could have made coffee that tasted just as good or even better, but there was just something comforting and relaxing about hearing the machine gurgle and hiss as it brewed the replicated 'mountain grown' beans. "Speaking of parties," said Jo while heading back to her comfy chair, steaming mug in hand, "why don't you throw one and invite every single person on the crew -- look at the size of this place!" 15


Smiling without lifting her eyes from the PADD, Carter said, "Do I detect a hint of jealousy?" "No, you detect a raging hissy fit of jealousy. All I've got is the standard dinky officer's quarters plus a tiny office underneath the stairs leading up to the main gangway on deck five. You've got an upstairs and a downstairs! Why do you think me and Sam never go to our own cabins?" "The ship's servos keep cleaning up the breadcrumb trails you leave to find your way back?" "No." "Forgot your keycode again?" "No." "Claustrophobia?" Jo snorted. "Could be." "Poor Jo. Not enough room for all her science toys." Carter set her PADD down again and looked around her spacious quarters, wondering again what cosmic deity she had amused to find herself rewarded with such a cushy assignment. "The original design of this class ship included two VIP quarters," she said. "We won't be ferrying any VIPs around the Briar Patch so we don't need them, but we couldn't just let the space go to waste now, could we? The Captain and the Executive Officer get to live in them, but there's a high price to pay for the little bit of extra space." "Oh?" asked Jo, her tone making it clear what she thought of that statement. "Oh yeah, definitely. I've got to put up with the Chief Science Officer and Chief Medical Officer spending all their off-duty time here." "Very funny." Jo's sardonic smile faded, and she grew suddenly quiet, and her expression became one of somber deliberation. She sat, sipping furtively at her coffee for a few minutes. 16


It was clear to Carter that something else was on her friend's mind, and that all that silliness about the end of humanity had just been a stalling tactic to put off what she had really wanted to say. Carter also knew that it was unnecessary to press Jo about it. Jo had never been shy about sharing her thoughts and feelings of the moment, sometimes to her embarrassment even. The others jokingly referred to such incidents as her 'blonde moments'. Carter pretended to resume reading her PADD, but kept a surreptitious eye on Jo. Jo opened and closed her mouth a few times in abortive attempts to say something, but the words were stuck. Finally, she just blurted, "What do you think of Captain Cross?" Carter was momentarily stymied by the sudden non sequitur. "That's what you've been burning to ask me?" She brushed an errant lock of brown hair out of her eyes, and considered her thoughts for a few seconds. "Well, we've only been here a few weeks, but he seems a very competent officer. Maybe a little stiff and by-the-book for my taste, but aside from that he seems to know what he's doing." Jo shook her head. "Uh‌ no‌" That wasn't quite what she'd been fishing for. She tried to figure out how best to broach an impossible subject. "I mean... doesn't it feel weird serving under Matthew Cross' brother...? I mean... don't you feel... bad?" It was like a slap in the face for Carter. "Why would I?" she snapped defensively, but she knew precisely what Jo was talking about. She'd simply been pretending the terrible guilt and awkwardness didn't exist. If she ignored it, it would go away. The truth was, her nightmares were populated by the angry, rebuking specters of those who had depended on her to save them only to have her fail them utterly when it had counted the most, and Matthew Cross was right in the forefront of the crowd. Jo was frowning and searching for the right words. "I mean... We served under Captain Matthew Cross while we were in 17


Banshee Squadron. We were there when he... Well, you know... When those unknown aliens... Plus the way you felt about him. Now we're here on the Eternity serving under Captain Nathan Cross, Matthew's younger brother. Doesn't that make you feel seriously uncomfortable?"

Carter remained stubbornly silent, but the taught lines on her face and averted eyes told Jo enough. "I mean..." continued Jo, determined to get an answer, or at least to vent her own feelings, "after what happened to Matthew... Do you think Nathan Cross blames us?" Carter turned her head away from her friend and stared out the windows at the stars streaking by. Outlying streamers of the Briar Patch Nebula could just be seen to the portside, and ahead was a bright jade nebula. And somewhere out there... well, the Great Bird of the Galaxy had been kind to her, but had laid Matthew Cross a very different egg. The ship's red alert klaxon prevented any further self-torture, however. As one, Carter and Jo sprang from their seats and ran for the bridge. 18


3 - The Past In the center of the noisy departure terminal in Serenity's orbital spaceport, Lee Carter and Jo Schmidt stood as an island of purposeful calmness amidst a sea of civilian chaos, color, and movement. "So‌ why are we waiting here?" asked Jo, doing her best not to get dragged away by the tide of hurrying tourists washing around them. "I've got things to do, you know." "I just wanted to say goodbye in person before he gets on the starliner. You and me are getting reassigned, and Max, Sam, Alex, and Dexter are already gone. Banshee Squadron is over so he's taking a long leave. We'll probably never see him again." Jo thought about it for a few seconds. "Yeah, you're right. I'm sure it's got nothing to do with the fact that you've had the hots for him ever since the Black Gate." Carter snorted at the sheer absurdity of the notion and paused in her search of all the passing heads long enough to favor her friend with a sour face. "I do not have the hots for Matthew Cross!" 19


"Yuh-huh. The others told me all about what happened back on that prison planet on the other side of the Black Gate, when he got injured. How you got all moony-eyed and wouldn't leave his bedside…" "He was dying! I was just trying to comfort him." "And wasn't his hand all over your ass on Gaia?" "His hand on my ass, not the other way around," emphasized Carter. "And it wasn't like that. He was just being a gentleman giving me a boost out of the lake." "Yuh-huh. He left me treading water, the big gentleman." "You were fine. And besides, that was months ago." "Try weeks ago." Jo lapsed into silence and regarded her friend for a few moments, wondering what was going on inside her head. Lee's feelings were clear, but Jo was afraid for her friend that she would never act on them. She decided to get to the point. "So what the hell are you waiting for?" "What?" "What do you think?! A little R&R!" "Rest and Relaxation?" "Roses and Romance." "Don't be ridiculous! I can't ask my commanding officer out on a date!" But Jo wouldn't back down. "Nice try. Matthew isn't your CO anymore. You said it yourself. He's going on a long vacation and we're getting reassigned. You'll probably never see him again, so it's now or never. —— Or were you just gonna stand here and politely wave bye-bye while he flies out of your life forever?" 20


Carter had never seriously thought about it, but now that she was she realized Jo was right. But still‌ should she ask the captain out? Could she? That was the real reason she was standing here after all, wasn't it? Yes. She would do it. She'd ask Matthew Cross if he'd like to go have a drink or something. Maybe go to a club down in The Zone in Serenity City. She'd heard the Klingon Kantina was romantic. Yes, that sounded like a good plan. She'd do it. No! That was a terrible plan! It wouldn't work at all! Matthew Cross was leaving on his starliner in a few minutes and she'd never see him again! This was terrible! What could she do?

Carter was so distracted by her dilemma that she didn't see the unsuspecting cause of her predicament emerge from the crowd and stop right behind her. She finally noticed Jo's comically frantic semaphoring and turned around. "Captain! I‌" 21


"Hello, Lee," said Matthew Cross. Carter had never seen such a relaxed smile on his face as the one he wore now. And he had called her by her first name. She decided she liked it and it filled her with hope. "How nice of you to see us off like this." "It was no trouble, Captain— Uh‌ see 'us' off?" A striking blonde woman emerged from behind Cross and smiled at Carter. "Yes," replied Matthew Cross. He put his arm around the blonde woman's shapely hips. "I'd like you to meet my wife."

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4 - The Past What an epic fool she'd been. The umber and gold outlying streamers of the famous Briar Patch Nebula slowly made their way to the aft of Commander Lee Carter's cockpit window as her squadron of Banshee-class starfighters flew in loose formation around the SS Alpha Quietis one week out from the frontier planet Serenity. Ahead, a small, jade patch glowed brightly. All was quiet. For a change. Which suited Carter just fine. The last thing she wanted to see while escorting a civilian passenger liner full of drunken space tourists, not to mention her own boss and his wife on their holiday, was the silhouette of a charging Breen bioship on her targeting scope. She shook her head. What a fool she'd been. How could she ever have let herself develop feelings for Matthew Cross. It was so unprofessional of her. He'd never even shown any interest in her. She hadn't known anything about him outside of work, not even whether or not he was married. 23


Itching for something, anything, to distract her, Carter announced into her neurohelmet's mic: "Sound off by the numbers." It was an absurd command considering that her entire squad now consisted of only Jo and herself, but it was one of the oldest Banshee shticks, and so an old habit hard to break. There was a respectful silence during which the absent Banshees Two and Three would have chimed in before Jo Schmidt finally recited, "Banshee Four, ready for more." To Carter's infinite surprise, the comm officer aboard the spaceliner Quietis added his own humble addendum to the Banshees' routine litany into her ear. "Alpha Quietis, still in one piece," he said in a very British accent. Carter smiled. She appreciated the subtlety of a mind capable of airy levity while simultaneously maintaining an ironclad vigil against the ever-present danger of horrible death out here on the frontier. If the rest of the Quietis' 24


crew were as capable as the comm officer, Captain Grimes was one lucky man. "Roger that, Quietis," said Carter. She checked her flight map. The Quietis, a White Star spaceliner carrying over a thousand happy tourists on a slow, romantic sightseeing trip around the edges of the breathtaking Briar Patch and to the exclusive twelve-star health resort on Ba'ku, was right on course and precisely on schedule, as all White Star spaceliners always were. Ahead was a typically bizarre, trans-Briar Patch stellar phenomenon, a blazing white dwarf star accompanied by a single class-U ultra-giant planet almost as large as its primary, in a tight orbit. A sweeping bridge of sub-stellar material stretched between the two bodies, seeming to tie them together like a giant curving shoestring.

She turned down the inertial dampeners of her Banshee and directed it in a huge, lazy corkscrew around the Quietis, allowing herself the temporary luxury of feeling 25


centrifugal force pull on her arms and thighs as the gargantuan passenger ship slowly slipped past outside her canopy. Unbidden, her eyes ran the length and breadth of the starliner's golden, mile-long torpedo shape, searching for the particular porthole among the thousands of gleaming points, looking for the particular stateroom belonging to Matthew Cross and wife, though of course she had no way of telling one from the other. She shook her head angrily, causing a brunette lock of hair to slip out from under her neurohelmet and fall across her eyes. Why was she still looking for Cross? She may have felt the beginnings of ...some emotion... towards her commanding officer back in the underground prison of Kurnugi when Banshee Squadron had been trapped on the other side of the Black Gate. When Matthew had apparently died there, Carter's heart had died as well, and then promptly came back to life upon his subsequent miraculous resurrection. There had always been a tantalizing mystery about the man that intrigued her... His past, his personal life... That intricate scar on the small of his back she glimpsed once... But all that was a lifetime ago. Before she had learned that the man had a wife. Carter pressed her eyelids shut, savagely banishing the unwelcome emotions belonging to her life-that-could-havebeen fantasy if only time had played out differently. Her eyes opened to a blinking red light on the console before her. "Jo," said Carter into her helmet mic. Her plane's A.I. had detected an anomalous magnetic reading that was making it nervous, the reason for the alert signal. Carter was sure it was just a hiccup in the natural interaction 26


between the local system's two stellar bodies, but something at the back of her mind was nagging her, agreeing with the A.I.; something was just a little 'off', or perhaps strangely familiar somehow, and she had learned long ago to trust her intuition. "Run your plane out ahead and get me a reading on that solar system, will you?" "Roger roger." Banshee Four veered out of formation and shot ahead. Ten minutes later, from lightyears ahead, Jo's broken voice crackled in Carter's ear.

...etected three enemy vessels . . .nknown! Hiding in south magnetic pole! . . . Under fire! Returni... ull warp! Require assistance--!"

Through the garbled static, Carter understood enough, but she was uncharacteristically torn by indecision. The foremost rule of escort duty was 'never leave your charge', but the foremost rule of surviving in a fighter squadron was 'cover your wingman'. Jo was being shot at. The Quietis was safe for the moment with no enemies in scanner range. Carter made her decision. She set her course and lanced away from the White Star spaceliner. The aggrieved voice of Captain Grimes rang in Carter's ear, but she ignored him for the time being. The White Star captain would undoubtedly file a formal protest with Starfleet later, but she would deal with that when the time came. Right now her attention was focused on more immediate matters. She linked her tactical map to the sensor feed coming from the hi-resolution scans on Jo's Banshee. Suddenly, the scope lit up with half a dozen red blips closing on the green dot that represented Jo's plane. The range was 27


almost three light-years. Would she leave the undefended Quietis three lightyears behind while she engaged the enemy ahead? What if more hostiles appeared closer? In response to that thought, her neurohelmet automatically displayed the local tactical map in her HUD. Still all clear. "Warp burst," she told her plane's A.I. The machine performed the calculations, and dumped all the quantum generator's stored energy into her warp coils at once. Forty-five seconds later, her screaming Banshee blasted out of deep subspace into the fire zone and dropped to impulse speed. The beleaguered Jo Schmidt looped her plane in a tight Immelmann and seamlessly joined formation right beside Carter, and as a single unit the two starfighters loosed a hail of phaser fire and quantum bolts at the swooping alien attackers before peeling apart again in a dazzling evasive maneuver. Carter's inertial dampeners were still turned down, which pinned her to her flight couch, but she managed to roll her helmeted head enough to catch some of the action out of the corner of her eye. The alien craft, which her neurohelmet informed her were completely unknown to Starfleet, Klingon, and Cardassian Intel — twisted, obscene, organic, squid shapes — jinked and zagged wildly to avoid the devastating Banshee strike, but two of the quantum bolts hit their targets, birthing blinding orange fireballs and expanding debris fields. Carter noted that the alien craft were agile to the point of defying the laws of physics, but were fragile to the point of near helplessness in the face of concentrated resistance. Apparently they had no defensive shields, and that would 28


be their downfall, because the Banshees were fast too, but could take a licking. There were four invaders left. Carter directed her neurohelmet to execute a workable battle strategy for the two Banshees, and watched with satisfaction as her plane and Jo's coordinated another devastating attack. The bizarre alien craft did their best to evade, pulling ever back towards the star/planet binary and away from the Alpha Quietis. Through surgical phaser fire and brutal quantum bolts, another of the enemy was quickly slagged by the Banshees. The remaining two bogies however, using their comrades' sacrifice, managed short warp jumps to yet further increase the separation between themselves and the buzzing Banshee starfighters. Carter and Jo rejoined formation to take out the last two enemies, and at Carter's signal, let fly another devastating volley. Carter watched the crackling energy globes scream away, mentally counting off the seconds until impact... ...but was ultimately denied the satisfaction of watching her enemies transform to hot plasma. Instead, the two remaining squid-ships flashed in their direction in a sudden, unexpected warp maneuver and disappeared behind them in a stunning double backwash of liberated tachyons. It took only a split second for Carter to recognize the terrible significance of the aliens' strategy and the irreversible folly of her own decisions. Even as she shouted her new orders into her helmet mic, she knew she and Banshee Four had absolutely no chance of saving the Alpha Quietis. She had let herself be drawn away tiny warp 29


hop by tiny warp hop. Their warp burst capacitors were not recharged, and the nimble alien ships were too fast and had too long a head start on them. Endless minutes later, her Banshee fighter burst back into normal space in the vicinity of the Quietis' last known location, and Carter's worst fears proved pathetically inadequate.

The mile-long White Star spaceliner was reduced to insignificance by an enormous alien spacecraft the likes of which Carter had never seen even in her worst nightmares. Writhing metallic trunks and tentacles extruded from a knobby, bulbous central nexus, coiling around and caressing the passenger ship in an obscene embrace. Green energy discharges arced between the tentacles and the metal hull of the Quietis. The passenger ship's lights flickered a few times and then stayed dark, her portholes like a thousand dead eyes staring blankly into oblivion. 30


On the Banshees' arrival, the monstrous alien ship's tentacles suddenly whipped open, releasing their prey. The huge ship backed away a few hundred yards and then disappeared into subspace amidst a swirl of dark energy. The Alpha Quietis drifted slowly end-over-end, dead.

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5 - The Present "Time to intercept!" snapped Captain Cross. "Ten seconds to visual range," reported Miki Chen. "Maximum magnification."

The ultra-real image of streaking stars in the giant holotank at the front of the bridge wavered like a desert mirage, and a few seconds later, a bright elongated smudge in the exact center could be discerned. It grew quickly into an irregular, broken line of small cargo ships of various types – a convoy. A few empty 32


sections in the line were filled instead with indistinct clouds. Debris fields. "Raise shields. Charge phasers," said Cross. The door at the rear of the bridge opened, dispensing Commanders Carter and Schmidt. Carter took up station beside Cross at the command chair, while Ensign Thule gave up his seat at the main science station for Jo. Neither saw the captain's expression darken on their arrival. Jo was working furiously at the sensor controls. "Two of the convoy's ships have been completely destroyed. Judging by the debris fields, it looks like conventional explosions from inside the cargo pods and not weapons fire or core breaches. Probably whatever volatiles they were hauling got accidentally set off during whatever happened here. The nearest ships to those two are heavily damaged. The others seem intact, but are not generating any power. The ship that sent the distress signal, the Nkiru, is on low battery power. Scans are picking up a few extremely weak bio signs on some of the ships. Difficult to localize. There are some stronger life signs on the Nkiru, but not many. Also difficult to localize." Jo frowned as she tried to coax more information from the Eternity's advanced sensor pod. "There seems to be some sort of interference. I'm trying to find the source." "Who did this?" demanded Cross. "The sensors are picking up M-band neurogenic radiation in the whole area," continued Jo. She studied the readings further. "It's on an unusual wavelength and our shields aren't stopping it, but I think I've‌" Suddenly, an elongated shape slid out from the shadow of one of the larger cargo ships and accelerated directly away from the Eternity at an impressive rate. Its sinister organic shape grew rapidly smaller in the main holoviewer. Cross spotted it and almost launched himself out of his chair in pursuit. "Tractor beam!" 33


Behind him, Lieutenant M'Rowan tried his best, but the alien vessel eluded his grasp. "Sorry, Captain," the feline growled. "The trractor just seemed to slide off the ship's hull." "Helm, pursuit course!" "Aye, sir," replied Ryo Tanaka. The Eternity banked around the drifting convoy and gave chase. "Captain, wait!" exclaimed Jo. "I recognize the radiation signature. It's the same as—" "Not now, Schmidt," snapped Cross. "But—!" But Cross didn't hear her. All he could think of was his brother's helpless starliner held in the grip of a giant alien octopus-ship, dead, drained of all life, and the dozens of other Starfleet and civilian ships ruthlessly attacked over the years in the Trans-Briar Patch Sectors by these same mysterious, monstrous aliens. Now he had one in his sights. He wouldn't let it get away. He was leaning forward in his chair and gripping the armrests so hard he was in danger of leaving permanent finger indentations, urging the Eternity to greater speed by sheer force of will. He couldn't let the squid-ship in the holotank escape, no matter how far it ran. "Tactical, target their engines and fire." Orange beams flicked out from the Eternity towards the fleeing alien vessel, but the tiny squid-like craft was so agile, none of the shots even came close to connecting. Commander Carter took a step closer to the command chair. She'd played no part in the unfolding drama up to this point. She was tormented by conflicting powerful emotions. Despite the fact that she had been exonerated of misconduct by the subsequent board of inquiry, she still felt guilt for what she had let happen to Matthew Cross months before. And Jo's suggestion that maybe the Captain harbored resentment towards them, or even continued to blame them for his brother's death, was 34


making her uncharacteristically cautious around him. But the Captain's actions were worrying her. He was breaking some fairly major Starfleet protocols. Duty compelled her. She leaned closer and in a low voice so the others wouldn't hear, she said, "Captain, shouldn't we take care of the survivors on the Nkiru first? Some might still be alive and need medical help. Besides, the Eternity isn't well armed. We could call for—" But Cross ignored her just as completely as he had ignored Jo. "Helm, stay on their tail. M'Rowan, ready the photon torpedo tube. Fire!" A brilliant orange starburst sped away from the Eternity and began matching the alien squid-ship move for move, steadily gaining ground on its target, even as the raider continued to pull the Eternity farther and farther away from the stricken convoy. The torpedo locked on its target and closed the last few miles. Just before impact, the writhing squid-ship released a trailing cloud of inky blackness, and vanished into subspace in a swirl of dark energy. The Eternity was left chasing nothing and Captain Cross was left staring at an empty holotank. A horrible feeling of dread was rapidly growing in his gut. He flashed a venomous look at Carter as if daring her to say 'I told you so', hating her for having been right and hating himself for having known it. "Helm, reverse course. Take us back to the convoy, maximum speed." But they were lightyears away by now. He knew they'd be too late. The Eternity got back to the ravaged convoy just in time to see another of the alien squid-ships detach itself from the Nkiru's hull, turn, and disappear in a dark cloud into subspace. The Nkiru somersaulted lazily end-over-end, lights out, dead. The only sound on the bridge was the hum and whir of the machinery. No one could believe their eyes. Such wanton destruction was beyond everyday experience for most of them. Finally, in a rough low voice, Captain Cross broke the silence. 35


"Commander Carter, take an away team over to the N'kiru and look for survivors." Carter nodded and hurried for the turbolift, silently collecting Schmidt and M'Rowan with her eyes. But she already knew what they'd find.

36


6 - The Past The immense hull of the Alpha Quietis hung like an infinite wall before Carter and Jo. After sending an emergency distress signal to Serenity, the pair had hardened their flight suits, snapped on the forcefield bubbles around their heads, and cracked open the canopies of their starfighters. They now drifted in front of a small access hatch somewhere along the titanic spaceliner's port side.

37


"Power's completely out here," said Jo over the commlink. "Trying the manual release." She slid open a magnetic lock beside the hatch, reached inside, and pulled a silver handle. The hatch sprang open enough for her to wedge her body in and shove it open the rest of the way. She drifted inside with Carter close on her heels. They were in a small airlock. Luckily, the controls on the inside were still on emergency power. Jo cycled the atmosphere and opened the interior door. Their flightsuits sensed the darkness inside and automatically phosphoresced the white shoulder areas of their uniforms. The cold light lent the hallway beyond the airlock a deathly pallor. A limp body drifted about fifty feet farther down, bumped against a wall, and moved in incredible slow motion off in the opposite direction. Jo was consulting her tricorder. "There's some weird residual radiation here. M-band neurogenic. I don't think it's directly harmful in these dosages and our suits should protect us, but I think we should probably make our stay as short as possible just to be on the safe side. I've never seen anything quite like this before." "Any life signs?" asked Carter. Jo knew the real question behind the safely neutral one Carter had verbalized. "I'm picking up extremely diffuse life readings, but it's impossible to locate specific individuals. There should be a passenger manifest on the ship's bridge‌" "This doesn't make any sense," said Carter angrily. "What purpose could killing a thousand innocent 38


passengers on an unarmed civilian spaceliner possibly serve?" Jo shrugged. "Maybe someone thinks we're encroaching on their space and figured this would be a clear message." Carter shook her head. "No, it's more than just that. I can feel it." She tried to come up with a reason for such senseless slaughter, but the enormity of the crime made it impossible. "Come on, let's go." The trip to the bridge was horrific. The Banshee quantum-computerized flightsuits made navigating the zero-gravity corridors trivial, but having to push aside a floating body every dozen or so yards was quickly becoming more gruesome than Carter could bear. Every male corpse was Matthew Cross in her overworked imagination until it rotated to face her and she saw it wasn't. The bridge itself was no less sepulchral. Captain Grimes still stood resolutely at the ornate (but purely decorative) ship's wheel, his boots hooked under the null-gee rungs, his dead eyes staring defiantly out the forward viewports towards an enemy that he had no chance of defeating or resisting. The rest of his bridge crew were buckled into their chairs. Their limp arms floated purposelessly around them, their lifeless eyes still looked into the depths of hell and their open mouths screamed out in silent horror. There was a mess floating near the aft end of the bridge where someone had vomited. Jo found the crew manifest and downloaded it. They left as quickly as they could. The way down the many dark levels to the passenger decks was a thousand times more gruesome. Bodies 39


clogged the hallways and recreation areas. Hawaiian shirts and garlands, sun hats, sandals, Bermuda shorts and sun cream-smeared noses, arms that had only hours before been holding loved ones enjoying their lives‌ now deathly-gray corpses all reaching out longingly for the two living interlopers to entangle them in their morbid embrace as they passed through. "Risa Deck, cabin 29-D7," said Jo in front one stateroom door. She stood aside. Carter stepped forward. Her hand hovered above the door release, but her finger refused to press the 'Open' button. What would she find inside? The odds were that she'd find nothing at all. Matthew and his wife were probably somewhere out on the rec decks or one of the hundred restaurants. The door opened. There were two bodies floating together in the center of the room. Carter squeezed her eyes shut and turned her back to the tragic scene. Jo lingered in the hallway, giving Carter her space. Carter pulled herself together and forced herself to step back into the room. She covered her tumultuous emotions by sticking strictly to business. "Maybe we can find some clue about what the aliens were after," she said softly. She took another step closer to where Matthew Cross and his wife floated. His positioning suddenly struck her as somehow odd. She pushed back her discomfort and other emotions and took a closer look. Matthew's left foot was wedged underneath a large plant pot. Deliberately? To keep himself from floating away when the gravity went out? Why? To help his wife who was still floating free? No, his limp outstretched arm was 40


reaching in the wrong direction, pointing instead towards a mess of melted ice cream on the table's glass top. He had written something in the smeared brown mess with his finger. She bent closer to let the light from her luminescent uniform fall across the smear. Disappointingly, whatever clue Matthew had been trying to leave, it looked like he had only had time to scrawl the first letter. It was the letter 'Q'. Across the room, Jo was once again frowning at her tricorder, but her eyebrows suddenly shot upwards. "Lee! Look at this!" The excitement in her friend's voice made Carter momentarily forget the riddle in chocolate. "What is it?" "The dim life readings I've been getting‌ They're not dim because they're from a just few scattered survivors like I first thought. They're dim because they're so weak and unusual, but they're coming from almost everyone on board!" Carter's eyes snapped back to Matthew Cross' immobile form. Hope burned anew. Jo directed her scan in that direction. "He's not dead! Neither is his wife. In fact, most of the people in the adjoining cabins are still alive, but they won't be for long." "Are you sure? They look deathly pale and I can't see any breathing or feel a pulse. What's wrong with them?" she asked. She couldn't bring herself to look at their faces. Matthew's unseeing eyes stared at her accusingly, condemning her for letting herself be so easily lured away by the aliens, placing full blame squarely on her for letting this horrible fate befall over a thousand innocent people. 41


He was so disappointed in her. He had had such high hopes. His beautiful blonde wife silently blamed her as well. Blamed her for trying to steal her husband. Called her a hussy. Carter felt the guilt. She took gentle hold of Matthew's shoulders and floated his body down to settle on the sofa, then did the same for his wife, placing them side by side. It was the least she could do. Jo's frown had returned, but was immediately replaced by a look of panic. "I recognize these readings now! Matthew Cross… his wife… all the people on the Alpha Quietis… they've had their minds – their neural energy – drained! We've seen it before…" Carter's blood ran cold. Yes, she's seen it before, deep in the dilithium mines under Rostella IV where Jazz had died, and again a thousand fathoms beneath the waves of Blue Lake on Serenity. She saw it in her worst nightmares. "The Jelly Brains."

42


7 - The Present The lights were dim, the air was stale, and the pallor of death was everywhere. Bodies were slumped over consoles and sprawled across the deck, screaming silently at the horrible fate that had overtaken them and ripped their minds from them. Jo was stepping gingerly between the victims. "It's what I was trying to warn the Captain about on the bridge," she said. "This was a textbook Jelly Brain attack, but he wouldn't listen." "Over here," called Doctor Sam Beckett. Commander Carter, Lieutenant Schmidt, and Lieutenant M'Rowan stepped around the nav console on the small bridge of the Nkiru to where Beckett was crouching and waving her cybernetic hand with its built-in tricorder functions over one of the comatose bodies. "This one is still alive," said Beckett, addressing Carter. "It's just like you expected. Mental attack. But for some reason, his neural energy wasn't completely drained." Carter stood aside to let Jo kneel beside Beckett. Jo lifted the limp, dark-skinned Tellarite to a reclining position and laid his big hairy head on her leg while Beckett continued to minister to him. "He looks like the captain," commented M'rowan, noting the extra fringe on his extravagant epaulettes. 43


Jo nodded. "Can you bring him around?" asked Carter. "I don't recommend it, Lee," said Beckett. "He's extremely weak. He might only have minutes. We should get him to the Eternity's sickbay." "Will he recover enough to be safely questioned once we get him there?" asked Carter. It was a hard stance, but her priority had to be the mission. It was doubtful the Nkiru's captain would survive, and if he could tell them something about the attackers, it was worth the risk. It obviously pained Sam to admit it, but finally she looked down and shook her head. Carter put a comforting hand on Sam's shoulder. "Wake him." Sam wordlessly slipped the hypo from her hip pouch, set the dosage, and pressed it to the Tellarite's leathery neck. Two seconds later, the porcine alien grunted and shifted uncomfortably, and tried ineffectually to sit up. M'Rowan helped Jo lever him to a less embarrassing position than in Jo's lap.

44


He was only semi-lucid, and was obviously suffering from the lingering effects of the alien mental attack. He muttered incoherently, rolling his head loosely from side to side. Jo bent closer. The captain's face contorted but his eyes remained open, desperate. His lips moved. Jo turned her head, pushed her hair back, and put her ear right against his mouth, listening. His lips moved. Jo straightened, with a troubled look on her face. The Nkiru's captain knew he had seconds. His last act was to look straight into Jo's eyes, having imparted his last words to someone he hoped could act on them. Then he was gone. There was dead silence on the Nkiru's bridge. "What did he say?" asked M'Rowan finally. Jo eased the lifeless body to the deck. "Nothing. Gibberish. A nonsense word." She passed her hand across the captain's face closing his eyes. "It sounded like he said 'Q'Thalas'. His mind must have been completely gone." "Download the ship's logs and sensor records. Let's get back to the Eternity," said Carter. "For some R&R," said Jo. M'Rowan, who didn't know Jo as well as Carter and Sam did, looked at her in disbelief. He had never pegged her as being so callous. Jo noticed his wide eyes. "Retreat and regret," she amended, finishing the age-old Banshee Squadron joke. --------------Captain Nathan Cross stood beside the wide holo-wall in the main conference room one deck below the Eternity's bridge staring out into simulated space. The unease he usually felt around these new ultra-real viewports was completely forgotten, buried underneath a ton of anger and frustration. 45


In the distance drifted the dead Nkiru and her convoy of smaller vessels. The marauding aliens had struck, this time right under his nose, just like they had done so many times before in the local sectors. Like they had done six months ago when the Banshee Squadron had failed to protect the starliner Quietis. His brother had died because those hot-shot pilots had ignored regulations and gone chasing after decoys instead. Now he had those same former Banshees on his own command crew, and yet another innocent ship and crew had perished. Carter and Schmidt were clearly proving to be more of a liability than a benefit to the Eternity. The door of the conference room slid open and Cross' senior officers filed in. Even Doctor Lang had been pulled away from his precious engines and sensor suites. He and Jo Schmidt settled into seats next to each other. Carter took the seat at the opposite end of the table from the captain. M'Rowan found his place. Last in was Doctor Beckett. She sat down heavily beside the captain. Cross turned away from the cold vista of the holo-wall and made his way to his own seat. He refused to meet the gazes of Carter and Jo. Uncharacteristically, it was Sam Beckett who broke the silence. "We beamed all the convoy personnel over to the Eternity after the away team returned," she said to no one in particular, "but there was nothing we could really do for any of them. None of them ever regained consciousness, and the last one died fifteen minutes ago. I've set up a temporary morgue next door to sickbay in cargo hold 5." Cross' glower darkened. "And on that happy note, let's hear your report, Commander." "The aliens did a thorough job, Captain." Carter sounded bitter, and delivered her report without looking at the captain. "Out of two large Manno class ships, one Antares class, and a dozen small container ships in the convoy, only the captain of the Nkiru was still conscious when we found him, barely. I 46


suspect that was only because his mind drain was interrupted when we returned after our fruitless pursuit of the decoy alien ship. Sir." "That was my decision." "I'm aware of that, sir." "It was necessary for the good of the mission," replied Cross adamantly. "We couldn't risk the aliens getting away and calling for reinforcements." Now Carter did look at Cross, and her expression was not amicable. "But they did get away! And while we were chasing them, the convoy we were trying to save died!" Cross' voice was stone. "By your disapproving tone, I assume you would have done otherwise, Commander." From the other side of the table, Jo hurriedly cleared her throat and said, "Sir, I have an explanation for—" Carter bulldozed right over Jo's attempted explanation. "Yes, sir, I would have done otherwise! Starfleet General Order 4 clearly and unambiguously states, and I quote—" "Don't quote regulations to me, Commander," warned Cross. "—'The request for emergency assistance from Federation citizenry or non-aligned persons demands unconditional priority from Starfleet personnel. Such personnel shall immediately respond to said request, postponing all other—'" "That’s enough, Commander!" retorted Cross. His voice had risen to match Carter's. Jo tried again to interrupt the growing hostility between the captain and the XO, with the same level of success as before. "If I can just mention—" The other officers around the table were looking on in growing disbelief, confused and dismayed that two career Starfleet officers were behaving in such a manner. "No, I don't think it's enough, sir!" answered Carter banging her fists on the tabletop. "Not even close! I should have you 47


relieved of duty the second you ordered us to abandon the convoy!" "Relieve yourself while you're at it!" barked Cross. "Six months ago when you and your squad of glory-seeking hotshots were assigned to protect the Alpha Quietis, you decided to fly off chasing bogeys instead!" Carter's face reddened. "The Article 32 hearings afterwards—" Cross bolted out of his chair sending it toppling over backwards. "I don't give a damn about the hearings!" he roared. "Their conclusions were wrong! You were responsible for the deaths of thousands including my brother. Now you and your cronies are here on my ship and the deaths continue!" "EVERYONE SHUT UP!" yelled Jo. All heads snapped around. "I mean… uh… please, uh, sir," she quickly amended, suddenly very self-conscious and desperate to cover over her gross insubordination and save her career. "What the hell is it, Lieutenant Commander?" demanded Cross. "I can explain what's been going on, sir." "Don't bother. I'm finally starting to see exactly what's going on, Lieutenant Commander. You and Commander Carter are in league with the aliens that have been killing innocent people and destroying ships. The Nkiru, the Alpha Quietis… How many others?" He glared at Carter and Jo, daring them to deny his accusation, but he didn't give them any time. Turning to M'Rowan, he said, "Lieutenant, take Commander Carter and Lieutenant Commander Schmidt into custody as enemies of every sentient being in the galaxy!" "What?!" exclaimed Carter. M'Rowan looked confused. "Sirrr?" he growled. "Wait, Captain," pleaded Jo. 48


"I gave you a direct order, Lieutenant," Cross said to M'Rowan. "Carry it out!" Thus compelled but obviously still reluctant, M'Rowan started to stand. Jo looked sideways at Doctor Lang. "Now!" The Chief Engineer pressed a contact on the small PADD on the table before him, and the conference room was plunged into darkness. Pandemonium ensued. Everyone was shouting at once. There was a lot of blind bumping, pushing and groping as everyone sprang to his or her feet. M'Rowan was trying to carry out his last order. Carter and Jo were trying to avoid him. Everyone else was getting in an awkward tangle trying not to get in between. Moments later, however, the darkness was dispelled by an eerie, lurid, unnatural un-light, and the mayhem and cacophony were instantly choked off. Cross and Carter were caught in midattack, each gripping the other tightly by the collar with one fist, the other fist raised to strike a blow. Their vicious snarls turned into expressions of horror at what they saw.

49


In the eerie otherworldly blacklight, they were both covered in brilliantly glowing green splotches. Every exposed area of skin was covered with the cancerous growth. Their hands, and more horribly, their faces and hair. Parts of their uniform sleeves and leg bottoms. There were even traces on the conference room tabletop where they had leaned their elbows and banged their angry fists. "What the hell!" demanded Carter. She yanked her hands free of Cross' uniform and started frantically trying to wipe the stuff off, but it was useless. Jo stepped forward and gave the signal to Doctor Lang. Lang nodded and pressed another contact on his PADD, which he had somehow kept a grip on through all the turmoil. The eerie blacklight switched to angry red. A tortured keening sound grew in the room, seemingly coming from nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. It rapidly increased in volume and pitch. Carter and Cross pressed their hands over their ears to block the painful noise, but it did no good. The sound was in their heads and couldn't be silenced. At the same time, the malignant green growths on their skin began to darken and lose their luster. As everyone in the room looked on, the splotches shriveled up and flaked away until almost none were left anywhere. As the last bit of green crumbled and vanished into the air, the shrill keening crescendoed into a heartbreakingly plaintive wail of inconsolable anguish and frustration that was frighteningly human sounding. Then there was silence. The conference room lights came back on dispelling the fear and horror, and everything seemed completely normal, yet no one moved or made a sound. They just stood looking at each other in shock, as if expecting something else to happen, unable to believe that it was actually over. 50


Finally, Captain Cross cleared his throat and tugged on his uniform shirt to straighten it. "I believe Lieutenant Commander Schmidt was saying something about having an explanation for everything. Now is probably a good time for that." Jo forced a sheepish smile. "Captain, allow me to introduce the Smelly Jelly."

51


8 - The Past Lee Carter sat alone. In a room full of people. She saw nothing but the stars up in the nighttime sky outside the large window. Heard nothing. Felt nothing but the beating of her heart in her chest. She had made a horrible mistake, despite what the Starfleet Board of Inquiry had concluded. She had let herself be ruled by her emotions instead of her mind, her professionalism, and a thousand people had paid the ultimate price. He had paid the price of her foolish indulgence. She felt as dead inside as Matthew Cross was in reality. A body sat down at her small table. She knew who it was without turning away from the starry sky. "You haven't touched your drink, Lee," said Jo Schmidt. Carter didn't move. "Not in the mood for R&R?" Jo paused for the punchline. "You know‌ 'rum and regurgitation'?" When that garnered no reaction whatsoever, Jo realized her friend was in a deeper depression than she had thought. 52


"It wasn't your fault, Lee." Jo tried to think of something wise and profound to say, or at least something comforting, something that she hadn't already said a dozen times since they got back to Serenity from their disastrous escort of the Alpha Quietis three weeks ago. But in the end all she could think of was to repeat, "It wasn't your fault," as sincerely as she could and hope this time Lee believed her. At least it got a reaction. Carter took a deep breath and finally moved her gaze away from the nighttime view out the window. She looked down at her untouched drink on the table like she had never seen it before, and then up at her friend. "I was in command, Jo. That makes it my fault." Jo sighed. The burden of command. How could one argue against that? Yet for the sake of her friend she had to. "You made all the right decisions based on all the information you had available to you at the time. No one 53


could have foreseen what would happen. No one expected such a direct and overwhelming attack or they would have sent a starship and not the two of us in starfighters. In the end, we were outnumbered and outclassed. Plain and simple." "Jo, I know what you're trying to do and I don't want—" "What you're feeling is soldier's guilt. The guilt any soldier on the battlefield feels when civilians are killed. It's a normal reaction. That makes you human." "I should have known." "Last time I checked, you weren't the Space Pope. You've got no claim on infallibility." Carter looked down at her glass again, and swirled the oily black liquid around. "It's more than just that." Jo relented. "I know… I'm so sorry. It's terrible about Matthew. I know how you felt about him." Carter shook her head. "It was completely inappropriate, Jo. He was married." "You didn't know that." "I never bothered to ask, did I?" Jo shrugged. "You would have. You never had the chance. Things never got that far." Carter looked down at her glass again. "No, they didn't. And now they never will." She finally took a sip of her drink, then on impulse downed the entire contents of her glass. She squeezed her eyes shut as the incendiary liquid – not synthahol – burned its way down her throat and settled in the pit of her stomach. "The whole thing started so innocently… just a silly crush… How could it have ended so horribly?" she muttered. She wasn't used to drinking, and the sudden 54


influx of so much strong, genuine alcohol was quickly supplanting reason. "I'm no counselor, but I can give you my two cents for whatever it's worth," replied Jo. Carter smiled lopsidedly at her friend. She reached out and patted her arm. "Your stupid opinions are worth more than a thousand counselors psychobabbling at me." Jo took it for the silly, inebriated, affectionate compliment it was, but remained serious. "This is something you're going to have to come to terms and learn to live with, Lee," she said, "because it's going to be with you a long time. You can take some comfort in the fact that we were there to pick up the pieces so quickly after the attack. Thanks to your quick actions afterwards, some families were able to say goodbyes and there were even a few katras recovered. That's worth something. A lot, actually." Carter's eyes were out of sync and drifting closed. "Yer a goo frien', Jos'phine," she slurred. "Jeez, what the heck was in that drink?" asked Jo. "You're acting like you've been on a week-long bender, not had one glass." She picked up the empty glass and sniffed, and made a sour face. Carter shrugged. "S'nothin'. I jus' asked th' bartender fer a Black Hole, 'cept without th' prune juice an' schplict." She smiled ingenuously. Jo rolled her eyes. "That's called a Naked Singularity, you knucklehead. It's 300 proof. No wonder you're instantly annihilated." Carter tried to muster indignation, but the effect was ruined when her elbow slipped off the table almost toppling her off her chair. "I um nit drunk," she declared 55


carefully. "I am spinning without moving." She chuckled quietly at her own cleverness. "Ho'kay‌ Time to get you home." Jo hoisted Carter's arm over her shoulder, levered her up, and half-walked-half-carried her friend out of the nightclub down to street level of downtown Serenity City. She hailed an auto-taxi and tumbled her nearly comatose friend into the back seat, and climbed in after. As the automated vehicle headed off towards the Starfleet Quarter, Carter's limp head lolled from side to side as the cab negotiated traffic. She was mumbling happily to herself. Her eyes opened briefly and she caught sight of Jo in the seat beside her. "Iz funny," she mumbled. "What is?" "How um Jelly Brains sheem t' pick on us." "What do you mean?" "When they attack, we're always somewhere 'round. Why d'you 'spose that ish?" Jo got a sudden chill. She was about to question Lee further, but her commanding officer and last friend in the world was softly snoring and drooling on the car seat. With a start, she realized that Carter was right. Her marinated condition had obviously opened the door to her subconscious and allowed one of the deep insights always lurking there to escape all the way past her lips. All the recent Jelly Brain attacks she was aware of had indeed occurred directly against Banshee Squadron, or when at least one of their number was present. A Starfleet supply ship had been attacked while Dexter Gray had been aboard. Banshee Squadron had been attacked deep in the mines of Rostella IV where Jazz had died. The second 56


time. Sam Beckett had been targeted for brain-drain by Vincent Kelly and his pirates deep under Blue Lake on Serenity. The Alpha Quietis had been attacked with Matthew Cross aboard. She didn't know of any recent attacks aside from those. It had to be more than coincidence. She mentally filed it for future use.

57


9 - The Present The Eternity's command staff was once again seated around the conference room table, this time without the veiled looks and smoldering hostility. "So we were under the effects of alien mind control all this time," began Cross. "How could the Commander and myself have been covered in that stuff without even knowing?" "We theorize that the Smelly Jelly is a lifeform that exists in subspace and manifests itself in our reality as green empathic slime," answered Jo. "It can remain unnoticed by dipping back into subspace. That's why we didn't detect it on you and Commander Carter. At rest it has a literally unbearable odor, but become odorless when it's feeding. We didn't smell anything, meaning it was feeding on you and Lee pretty intensely. It can cause a lot of damage and chaos by twisting people's thoughts and enhancing strong emotions, as we've just experienced." Cross looked across the table at his First Officer. The events of the last ten minutes had suggested worrisome new possibilities. How much had the Smelly Jelly been influencing his thoughts, and for how long? Had his anger and‌ yes, he had to admit it to himself now, festering hatred of Banshee Squadron, been his own, or caused by the Jelly? Had the Jelly infected him since the Alpha Quietis and his brother's and wife's deaths? How, 58


where, and when had he been exposed to it? Could it really be possible he'd been under alien mind control for six months? Thinking back over the last six months, he realized that he did suddenly feel different somehow. Lighter, like he'd just been unearthed from under a suffocating mountain of wet sand. He thought back to his first meeting with Admiral Pike right before getting the Eternity, how impulsive and moody he'd acted. He remembered his rash decision to chase after Vincent Kelly personally instead of letting his security team do their job, and how incredibly annoyed and angry he'd felt when Carter and Schmidt had come aboard at planet Serenity. He realized and understood the full truth now. Commander Carter and her squadron weren't responsible for abandoning the Quietis or even Matthew's death. Carter had made a judgement call which had been influenced by the Smelly Jelly just like his own disastrous decisions regarding the N'kiru's convoy had been. He caught Carter's eye across the table and saw the same troubling thoughts and realizations scrolling past there. "Under these circumstances I think we can forego filing assault charges against each other," he said. "What do you think, Commander?" Carter managed a small contrite smile. "Or charges of violating General Orders." Her expression darkened. "Still, our actions caused the deaths of hundreds, both today‌ and six months ago." "Not our actions, Commander," replied Cross with renewed confidence. "The Smelly Jelly's. We were just unwitting pawns. But that stops now that we've regained our humanity." He noted with immense gratification his own resolve reflected in Carter's face and the faces of everyone else around the conference room table. "Unfortunately, we're dealing with more than just Smelly Jelly, sir," said Jo. "It's clear the attack on the N'kiru was made by a Jelly Brain. 59


"I've read the reports on Smelly Jelly, but I'm not familiar with the Jelly Brains," said Captain Cross. "Why do I get the feeling you had a hand in naming all these things?" Jo smiled sheepishly. "Sam helped," was her lame excuse. "But you're right. Presumably the Jelly Brains have a name they call themselves. We've just never had the opportunity to ask, what with them always trying to suck out your brains right away when you meet one. "As for what we know about them, Smelly Jelly is bad enough all on its own, but that's nothing compared to what it can do when controlled by a Jelly Brain. When a Brain is nearby, the Jelly gains powerful telekinetic abilities and becomes much more violent and direct. Victims' neural energy is actually drained away, leaving him or her a mindless brain-dead shell. They are extremely intelligent and focused. Where a Smelly Jelly will simply infiltrate an area and start feeding on any neural energy available, the Jelly Brains seem to have an agenda. They are more selective. Sometimes they pick specific victims. They methodically store up stolen minds in crystal banks. They hire minions to collect minds for them." At the table beside Jo, Sam shuddered involuntarily, no doubt reliving her own experiences in having her mind ripped from her body by the Jelly Brains. "You ladies seem to be the only people to ever have met one and lived to tell about it," replied Cross. It was not an accusation, just a statement of fact. "We've encountered two Brains," said Carter, "and seen evidence of their activities numerous times. Starbase 901 was infested with Smelly Jelly for a time, so we've met it countless times." Jo picked up the thread again. "After I discovered that we were dealing with the Brains on the N'Kiru, I knew the Jelly would make an appearance before the story was over, so I paid 60


Doctor Lang a visit in Engineering and we concocted our little light show." Helmut Lang cleared his throat. "I reconfigured my sensor pod to project a focused tetryon field into this room. The tetryon radiation naturally inverted when it entered normal space, causing severe disruptions to anything existing in subspace, namely the verdammt Smelly Jelly. The resulting anti-tachyons caused it to lose subatomic cohesion and disintegrate." "It sounds like you two have come up with a defense against this threat," said Cross. "We can scour the ship with tetryon beams to clean off any more Smelly Jelly, if there is any," replied Lang. "How long will that take?" "Approximately an hour, Herr Kapit채n, but we will need to remain in position while we do so." "Do it," said Cross. "Meanwhile, we need to figure out a way to communicate with the Jelly Brains. What do they want? Why are they attacking ships and colonies? It can't be simply to feed on neural energy. There must be more to this story than just that." He looked around the table. Four faces looked back. The fifth was looking straight down at the tabletop in front of her, shivering. "Doctor Beckett? Is there something you'd like to share?" But Sam Beckett had retreated back into her catatonic shell, the one she had grown as a result of her horrible accident years ago when she had been a test pilot. The delta rays had crippled her body, the doctors had repaired her physically, but the emotional scars remained and ran deep even after so many years. Jo pushed her chair close and put an arm around her friend. "It's all right, Sam. You're safe. Try to relax." But Beckett was shaking her head and mouthing a silent No No No over and over. "What's that? What are you trying to say, Sam?" 61


Beckett managed to pull herself together somewhat. "No, You're wrong," she said in a trembling voice. "We're not safe. None of us." "What are you talking about, Doctor?" asked Cross. "I know what the Jelly Brain wants, Captain." Beckett looked up from the table and recomposed herself. "It wants us." Cross was confused. "It wants 'us'? It wants people to feed on?" So much drama over something so obvious? "We already know that, Doctor." But Beckett was shaking her head again. "No, Captain. It wants Banshee Squadron. And it wants you." Now it was Carter's turn to look confused, not to mention skeptical. "That seems a little unlikely, Sam. How have you suddenly come by this information?" "I… I'm not sure." For a second, Beckett looked as if she was going to have a relapse, but she took a deep breath and pressed on. "I must have learned it when my mind was stolen by Vincent Kelly. Some bits of knowledge must have transferred into my own brain while my mind was being transferred out. I… probably repressed it until now…" Jo remembered her conversation with a drunken Carter six months ago, and the epiphany Carter had shared with her. "I think that's true, Lee," she said. "All the documented attacks over the past two years have been either directly against Banshees Squadron, or at least occurred when one of us was present. Dex's convoy, Rostella, the months of trouble we had with the Jelly on Starbase 901, the attack on Sam, the Alpha Quietis… And now this." "I still find this hard to believe," said Cross. "Why would the Jelly Brains be interested in us specifically? It's obvious they can overpower us, so they must want something from us, but what could we possibly have that a lifeform like that would want?" He looked to Beckett for an answer. 62


"I'm sorry, Captain. I don't know," she replied. "All I know for sure is that they are desperate for some piece of information they think we have, and they won't stop until they get it." The room was silent as that little bombshell detonated in everyone's brains. If everything was true, the Eternity was in jeopardy, and that was something Cross knew how to deal with. "All right, people. If the Jelly Brains really are after us, then they'll be back. And we'll be ready for them." No sooner had those words left Cross' mouth than the red alert blared, freezing everyone cold. Here in relatively safe space at this particular moment in time, there could only be one reason for an alarm. The klaxon was accompanied moments later by a shuddering in the deck plates under Cross' boots, which grew steadily more pronounced. A harmonic resonance thrummed through the Eternity's metal bones, escalating in pitch and volume. Suddenly the deck pitched violently sideways and a deafening booming assailed his ears. Cross clung desperately to the bulkhead beside him as the floor under his feet became a 45 degree slope first in one direction and then the opposite. He craned his neck to look at the conference room's panoramic holo-window. Adrenaline flooded his body, intensifying every sensation and reflex, strengthening his grip, readying him for the inevitable confrontation with what he saw there. The Jelly Brains had found them. The nightmare alien vessel was all around them faster than the laws of physics should have allowed, almost as if it had solidified from the vacuum itself. Twisted limbs extended in a radial pattern from a bulging central node, arced across space, and encircled the Eternity in a writhing embrace, for all the world like a giant cephalopod from Earth's oceans engulfing and getting ready to devour a helpless minnow. Huge discharges of energy arced between the coiled tentacles and the Eternity's hull. 63


The deck leveled as the gigantic alien vessel began pulling the Eternity in. "Everyone, man your stations," said Cross.

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10 - The Present Captain Nathan Cross stepped across the bridge turbolift threshold and out onto a grassy moor. Above was a steel gray overcast. Purple heather swayed all around him, despite the eerie absence of even the slightest breeze. Surprisingly, he found his shock at the impossible translocation assuaged by a strong sensation of intimate familiarity. He knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he had been in this place, in some way, countless times before. He could almost catch flashes of memories – or were they premonitions? – of himself and others standing on this very plain throughout the entire span of Time, and even perhaps beyond. Many of the others he glimpsed wore his own face, while some paradoxically had other faces though he knew they also embodied the essence of "Nathan Cross". A few wore recognizable Starfleet insignias, while others were completely alien. He felt neither hot nor cold. He could not feel the ground beneath his boots. There was no smell of growing things in the stagnant air. The light from the sky was completely undifferentiated, as if it emanated from the gray air itself and not from a sun hidden behind the leaden clouds. The absolutely flat horizon stretched away in all directions much farther than any normal planet's horizon should have been. 65


Everything was strangely familiar, yet he had a feeling something was terribly amiss this time. There was no sign of the Eternity's bridge before him, or the turbolift behind him, or any of his crew around him. He was alone. Or so he thought. Hints of voices whispered in his ears. He could almost make out words, but they remained just beyond understanding, and made him vaguely uneasy. He slowly turned around a full 360 degrees to see if he could locate the source, and when he returned to his original facing, he found he was no longer alone. Instead, he found himself face-to-face with yet another impossibility. "Matt!" "Hello, Nate," said Matthew Cross.

Cross fought to erase the surprise from his face after his initial exclamation and to erect instead a carefully neutral expression. "You're looking‌ well," he said cautiously after a moment. "Considering the fact that you're dead," he added in a 66


slightly challenging tone. No sense in beating around the bush with someone who was clearly not what he appeared to be. But instead of taking up the challenge, Matthew just smiled in that maddening, minimalist way he had and took a step closer to his brother. He was just as Nathan remembered him. Lanky frame, thinning, sandy hair, rock-steady, calculating gaze. Nathan could detect nothing anomalous that would give away the patently false nature of this person who had taken the form of his brother, dead these past six months, killed by the Jelly Brains. "I'm not dead, Nate," said Matthew. Then, as if reading Nathan's thoughts, "I was not killed by those you call 'Jelly Brains'. I really am who I seem to be." Nathan shook his head. "How can that be, Matt? Really. My First Officer found you on the Alpha Quietis after the attack... your neural energy almost completely drained. She took you back to Serenity. You were pronounced dead at Paladin Hospital a few hours later… We buried you!" "None of that matters, Nate," said Matthew. "Everything that happened… actually, everything that happens anywhere anytime… is just what you as a human see from your limited, three-dimensional point of view. The true reality is so much more." Matthew began to take another step towards his brother, but Nathan held out his hand to stop him. "'I as a human'? You're telling me you're no longer human." It was small comfort to have what he already knew confirmed by this ghost of Matthew. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Matt," Nathan said impatiently. "I'm a rational man. And I'm a Starfleet officer. We're taught to be open to new experiences… but this might be too much. I saw you dead, so what the hell kind of ghoulish trick is this? What do you want from me? Why are we in this place?" he demanded, indicating the purple moor 67


around him with a sweeping wave of his arm. "Why am I here? What's the point?!" "To save you." ---------------"Jazz!?" "Yeah, Carter. You can pick your jaw off the floor. It's me," replied Jasmine Phoenix. "But you died. Twice," said Lee Carter. "The Jelly Brains‌" Jazz shrugged noncommittally. "Guess third time's the charm." Carter looked around the gray, barren moor and frowned. Aside from herself and Jazz, no one was in sight. "Where are we?" Jazz shrugged again. "Don't ask me to explain it. It's some kind of psychic realm. One of those crazy 21-dimensional spacetime-thought continuities that Schmidt was always going on about. How is she, by the way?" "Uh, she's fine," replied Carter. The situation was quickly going from surreal to completely bizarre. "What are you doing here?" "I'm here to save you." ---------------"Save me from what?" asked Nathan Cross. "The coming war," said Matthew. That wasn't the answer Nathan had been expecting, and it set off all the alarms in his head. He was no longer dealing with just his own familial tragedy here. This illusion of Matthew had just upped the stakes.

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"What war, Matthew?" he asked. His goal now was to get as much information as he could from this imposter. "War with whom?" At that, a beatific light lit Matthew's face, and his tone became reverential. "They will wage war against their enemy. They fought the enemy before, more than two billion years ago, but they lost. They were ostracized. After an eternity in the cold dark, the time has finally come again. They have returned. They will finally bring the enemy to justice." "What does this have to do with us?" "The power that will be unleashed in that conflict will destroy lesser life, on a galactic scale." Matthew's expression took on a sad and pained aspect, as though he were truly concerned. "Your Federation… the Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians… the Alpha and Beta Quadrants… the Dominion, Borg, Hirogen, Groundskeepers… all the quadrants of the galaxy caught in the crossfire… You do not have the capacity to even imagine the true scale of such a conflict." Nathan ignored the slight. "Who is this 'they' you keep talking about?" "You know them, you've met them already." Understanding dawned on Captain Cross. "You're talking about the Jelly Brains, aren't you?" Matthew's nose wrinkled in distaste. "Such an absurd appellation, but then I'd expect nothing else from the former members of Banshee Squadron. They're the ones who came up with that if I recall. They have little respect for anything." ---------------"How do you plan on saving me?" asked Carter. "Not me. They want to save you," replied Jazz. "Who are 'they'?" 69


"They are those who were ostracized countless eons ago by their great enemy." "You're avoiding the question, Jazz." "You know them. You've met a few of them already." Realization dawned on Carter. "The Jelly Brains." ---------------"Their true name is the Q'Thalas," said Matthew. "That was the last word spoken by the captain of the N'kiru," said Nathan, "before your benevolent Q'Thalas killed him." "Nate, the captain of the N'kiru is as alive as I am." Matthew took a step forward. Nathan stepped back, not the least bit reassured. "Don't come any closer, Matt. Let's talk this through. The Q'Thalas obviously want something from me. Tell me what it is. Maybe I can help. I don't want to fight you, but I will if you force me to, and you never could beat me." Matthew shook his head. "I'm not going to fight you, Nate. Just the opposite. And you're right, the Q'Thalas do need something from you." He slowly raised his right arm and pointed at his brother. "It's time for you to join us and reveal all you know." ---------------"What could I possibly know that the Q'Thalas need, Jazz? Who's this enemy they're fighting?" To Lee Carter's relief, Jazz lowered her hand back to her side, though the move surprised her. The Jazz Phoenix she had known in life had never been one for protracted conversations. Jazz had always been a 'shoot first and sort out the bodies afterwards' kind of wing commander. Further evidence that the person standing before her was indeed a mere facsimile. The longer she could 70


keep this Jazz talking the longer she had to come up with the next brilliant plot twist. A shadow passed over Jazz's face and she looked towards the indeterminate horizon, deep in thought. She looked back to Carter with a wry smile on her lips. "Natural evolution is a funny thing, Lee," she began enigmatically. "A species – any species, no matter how great and powerful they think themselves to be – changes over the course of millions of years. Schisms occur, great divergences that grow ever wider, schisms within schisms‌ until nothing of the original species remains. Most of the divergent branches slide quickly down to dead ends and are snuffed out by their own inferior genetics. Most of the rest are, at best, brief flashes of futile promise, and in the end they too disappear either in a puff of quantum randomness or else are annihilated by that one in a billion evolutionary branch that is actually an improvement on the original species. "The Q'Thalas were born billions of years ago, the natural evolution of the great progenitor race in this galaxy, possessing an intellect far superior to those they supplanted. They were a brilliant new light shining in the darkness. They spread out into the universe, seeking to learn everything there was to know. But the progenitors also evolved into other species. And as siblings of any species will do, the children fought each other. "The enemy of the Q'Thalas has great power, though far short of the omnipotence they claim. That doesn't prevent them from playing god to lesser species. Their arrogance knows no bounds." Carter frowned. That sounded familiar. But Jazz was done talking. She was coming at Carter again, and it was clear there was no derailing her this time. Carter tried to turn and run, but a soft, seductive voice whispered in her mind, "Do not run. Join with us." Her body from the waist down was suddenly stone, completely inert and unresponsive, as if she no longer even had 71


legs. Carter's blood ran cold; she'd heard that alluring voice before and knew she was doomed. The Jelly Brains had her in their unbreakable velvet grip. Jazz reached her and gently placed her outstretched hands on either side of Carter's face. Carter struggled to twist away from her touch, but the rest of her body was becoming unresponsive and Jazz easily held her. "There is no need to fear. We will be one. Embrace the universe." Jazz was uncomfortably right in her face, pressing her thumbs painfully into her temples. Carter squeezed her eyes shut. She desperately tried to move, but she was no longer the master of her own body. She could sense the throbbing thoughts of the Jelly Brains, feel sinuous tendrils reaching out for her and caressing her consciousness with their chilling touch. "Tell us what we need to know." Pain exploded like a thousand fireworks behind her eyes, setting every nerve in her body on fire. She heard herself begin to scream. In between her incoherent shrieks of pure agony and choked-off cries to make it stop, she desperately gasped over and over, "I don't know what you want!" and "tell me what you want to know!" but no clarification was forthcoming from her tormentor. The gray moor suddenly heaved beneath her feet, and tilted crazily first one way then the other. A brilliant neon red light shone in her face, completely blinding her, and at the same time she felt Jazz's hands ripped from her temples. ---------------The pain at his temples where Matthew had gripped him was fading fast. Nathan Cross picked himself up from off his hands and knees. His muscles were sluggish, not yet fully back under his own control. The piercing ruby glare of Doctor Lang's 72


tetryon sweep was still present in the air, but reduced to an almost tolerable level. He could see Matthew tottering drunkenly a few paces away with his hands clapped to his ears, trying to keep out the horrible, high-pitched keening that was quickly building to a crescendo all around them. It was Matthew's turn to writhe in agony. As Nathan watched through squinted eyes, the grassy moor around them flickered and distorted like a scrambled video transmission, and each time it blinked momentarily out of existence, he could see the bridge of the Eternity and the rest of his bridge crew, all standing at their stations, staring blankly straight ahead as if hypnotized. The image of Matthew was experiencing similar indecisiveness regarding its existence, oscillating spastically between illusion and reality, only in Matthew's case, the reality was much, much more horrible. His surreal counterpart hovered a few feet above the moor/deck – a gigantic, disembodied brain. The pervading crimson light flared blindingly one more time and the ear-splitting keening almost did just that, and in a burst of static the faux moor was permanently banished. In a last spasm of agony, so was Matthew Cross. Nathan found himself once again on his bridge. Around him, his people were beginning to move, waking from their trances, and he felt his own muscle control returning. The painful red light continued, however, as did the terrible keening wail. He automatically sought out the source of the cry, and there it was at the front of the bridge in the main holoviewer alcove. The Jelly Brain. The Q'Thalas. The gigantic, pulsing, disembodied brain, sickly gray, dripping with green ooze, hovered a few feet above an unsightly green slimy mess. An almost unbearable stench now assailed Cross' nostrils. Glabrous tentacles extruded from the Brain's underside, whipped fitfully through the air, desperately seeking, 73


and were reabsorbed in a never-ending cycle. Nathan had to step back to avoid some of the longer extrusions. The Q'Thalas was clearly in severe distress. The red light seemed to focus on the Q'Thalas, and the terrible keening grew more plaintive. A massive shudder wracked the brain-mass, and the tentacles jerked in short stopand-go motions, and began to withdraw. The Q'Thalas tilted and sank closer to the deck. "Let us help you! Tell us what we need to know!" came the pleading words in Cross' mind. He felt the tendrils trying to reassert their control over his mind and body. Cross forced his legs to work and stepped forward to address the stricken being. "You don't seem to be aware of this, but we have no idea what it is you're looking for," he said. "Tell us what you need. We'll help you if we can. Give us a chance to help you voluntarily instead of always just trying to force whatever it is you need from us." The Q'Thalas was quivering continually now and moaning. Most of its tentacles were withdrawn almost all the way, but it had enough strength left for one last surprise. One tentacle shot out from the brain, wrapped itself around Cross' neck, and dragged him forward. "Let us‌! Tell us‌!" Pain exploded. Nathan saw stars and felt his free will evaporate despite any inner strength he could bring to bear. Then the red light flared. Where it touched the tentacle, it crumbled away. The Q'Thalas shook violently. Green flames burst forth and quickly consumed it. The conflagration was accompanied by a heartbreaking cry of frustration and despair, and then the bridge was clear and dead silent. On the main holoviewer, the gigantic Q'Thalas tentacle-ship jerked away from the Eternity. A dark shroud gathered around it, the starscape twisted in on itself and the vessel seemed to fall 74


through a rip into nothingness and was gone as though it had never existed. The sudden cessation of psychic pressure felt to Cross like emerging from underneath an event horizon. He looked around, and his eyes found those of his First Officer, Commander Carter. Her eyes told volumes. Now that he was back in his element on the bridge, he felt his natural confidence pour back into him from wherever the Q'Thalas had siphoned it. He stepped over to his command chair and said, "Good work, Doctor Lang. Stations, everyone." He sat in his chair and watched his crew move to obey. Carter took her place at his side. From tactical, M'Rowan announced, "Minimal damage reported, Captain." Jo Schmidt was consulting the master science console. "There's no sign of the Q'Thalas ship, Captain." Cross turned to Carter. "What the hell was all that, Commander?" he asked. "You have more experience with these beings that I do." Carter took a deep breath. "We have equal experience when it comes to encounters quite this intimate," she answered. "But one thing I do know." She paused for effect. "The Q'Thalas didn't get what they wanted from us, whatever that is." Cross nodded. "Which means that, unfortunately, we probably haven't seen the last of them."

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11 - The Present The warm summer breeze blew in from the bay and across the manicured lawn making the luxuriant grass stream in waves across the low hillsides. The branches of hoary old olive trees, planted hundreds of years ago by the original human settlers of planet Serenity, swayed back and forth, providing shifting islands of shade from the large orange sun above. The breeze tugged at the pants legs and gently tousled the short, brown hair of a lone woman standing beneath one of the trees. Beside one particular grave marker. Commander Lee Carter's melancholy thoughts were interrupted by the harmonics of a Starfleet transporter behind her, and she knew without turning who had beamed down. Footsteps approached and stopped beside her. The transporter cascade faded leaving Captain Nathan Cross standing before the cemetery gate. No one else was around except for a lone female figure standing beneath an old olive tree. He knew without seeing her face who it was. He walked down the narrow gravel path, stopped beside her, and just stood in silence for a while. Finally, without preamble, he said, "After I sent in my report on what we experienced, Starfleet transmitted a tactical update. It seems that Q'Thalas ships have started appearing all over 76


Federation space and beyond. They're all heading towards the Briar Patch." Carter nodded in acknowledgement, but remained silent. Cross joined her reverie for another little while, then asked, just as a way to break the silence since he could read the name on the marker himself, "Whose grave is this?" Without turning, Carter answered, "You never met her. It's Wing Commander Jasmine Phoenix. But she's not here. This is just a marker. Her body is buried under a mountain on Rostella IV." Cross grunted. "I've heard of her. By all accounts she was a formidable force. And a damn fine Wing Commander." Carter turned to face her captain, one eyebrow cocked in surprise. "Why would you have heard of Jazz? She was killed by the Jem'Hadar over ten years ago during the Dominion War. She was one pilot among hundreds." Cross smiled and admitted, "I've been studying up on Banshee Squadron." Carter's other eyebrow went up and she regarded her captain in a new light. She turned back to Jazz' grave marker. "Jazz was one of a kind. She was my mentor. She died fighting to save her squadron. Twice." "She was very important to you," said Cross. Carter nodded. "That's why the Q'Thalas appeared to you in her form." Carter turned back towards Cross. "How did you know that?" Cross shrugged. "Just a guess, but it makes sense seeing you standing here now. The Q'Thalas had access to our memories. They chose people that we implicitly trusted and have strong emotional ties to." He scratched his head and considered his next words. "I have to admit though‌" he began, "This isn't the grave I expected to see you at." Carter frowned. "What do you mean?" 77


In answer, Cross set out across the small cemetery. Carter followed a few steps behind. When she realized where he was headed, a mire of conflicting emotions dragged at her feet causing her to fall behind.

Cross stopped beside a fresh grave site. The grass had not yet even fully covered the rectangular plot. Carter finally caught up to Cross and favored him with a quizzical look, but Cross could see the anguish and hurt behind it. He decided to drop rank. "Matthew spoke of you often, Lee," he said. Carter wasn't sure what to make of that. "Uh‌ he did?" Cross nodded. "Yes. Well, maybe 'often' isn't quite the right word. He was a man of few words, a very private person, as you well know," he added mysteriously, but then grew more serious again. "He spoke very highly of you and your squad." "That's‌ ahh," started Carter, suddenly finding herself beginning to choke up. She cleared her throat and fought to master her feelings. After a second she managed a small smile 78


and said, "He managed to keep us on the straight and narrow." She sniffed. "Did he, uh, say anything else about me?" Cross smiled, and to Carter it was the same minimalist, enigmatic smile she'd seen on Matthew's face on those special rare occasions when he'd wanted to tease the Banshees with a glimpse that he actually liked and respected them. "Nothing important," said Nathan Cross, still smiling.

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12 - The Deep Past Savant Arli'Qati Meldana pondered the cold universe and was troubled. The fighting was beginning and would only get worse. The People were at a critical crossroads, split down political and philosophical lines that ran as deeply as their rapidly diverging DNA. That they were on the cusp of some great change was evident, but change into what was a matter of the greatest contention. "Marfat Muhana and Quetez are fools," she spat. "Why can they not see the truth?" Novitiate Pana Zaru looked down from the sequence coagulator. With great deference, she offered a possibility. "Each sees only part of the whole." Arli'Qati Meldana smiled gently at her eager and perceptive novitiate. At an encouraging nod from her mentor, Pana Zaru elaborated. "Deliberator Marfat Muhana promotes the technologically accelerated evolution of the humanoid body into a physical vessel capable of storing all the knowledge of the universe. But what he chooses not to consider are the ultimate limitations of a purely physical existence. Conversely, Curate Quetez and his followers preach the virtues of pure thought over corporeal matter. What they choose not to understand is that existence without form leads to ultimate stagnation. Both are potential evolutionary paths, but 80


neither addresses the truly fundamental issue of this great crisis facing the People." "Which is?" prompted the Savant. The Novitiate took a few moments to order her thoughts. "That nothing lasts forever," she replied. "It is true that divergence is inevitable and that the evolutionary process will continue. But natural processes can only take the People so far. Both the evolutionary paths endorsed by Deliberator Marfat Muhana and Curate Quetez have the potential to serve the People far into the distant future, yet both will ultimately also prove untenable." Arli'Qati Meldana nodded. "And so what is the solution?" Novitiate Pana Zaru shrugged and looked contrite. "Nothing lasts forever," she repeated. "The People are changing. Someday there will be none left to inhabit the galaxy. Even their evolutionary descendents, whichever path they take, will be too far removed to claim any connection, and then they also will fade away. Nothing will remain but an empty universe. Things will have come full circle. It is the nature of things." Saddened, Arli'Qati Meldana turned back to the central thinking machine to which she had been making the final adjustments. 'The nature of things'. The nothingness before the People and the nothingness after. In all the People's travels across the millennia, they had found no others beside themselves. They were alone. There had to be more. Something beside the twisted, self-serving evolutions proposed by Marfat Muhana and Quetez. There was a third option. She waved a hand over the proper locus and began dictating‌

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"You are wondering who we are. Why we have done this. The time has come that I stand before you, the image of a being from so long ago. Life evolved on my planet before all others in this part of the galaxy. We left our world, explored the stars and found none like ourselves. Our civilization thrived for ages, but what is the life of one race compared to the vast stretches of cosmic time. We knew that one day we would be gone, that nothing of us would survive. So, we left you."

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Q'Thalas  

Past and present collide for Captain Nathan Cross and the former pilots of Banshee Squadron when eerily similar distress signals pull them i...

Q'Thalas  

Past and present collide for Captain Nathan Cross and the former pilots of Banshee Squadron when eerily similar distress signals pull them i...

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