January 11th 2295
Hikaru Sulu was an insular man. He had few friends, few enemies. He was lonely, and yet he generally preferred to be alone. He never sought out his officers for advice, and they knew better than to offer it. Yet he rarely was wrong in his own judgment, so whose place was it to criticize him? He was regarded as a successful starship captain who had a, too him at least, surprisingly high success rate with his assignments as issued by Starfleet Command. He was never a part of the inner core of captains who curried favor with Starfleet; he despised that sort of captain. Yet, he was usually willing to accede to the wishes and even the whims of his superiors, or at least let them think that. However, the assignment before him now was not a pleasant one. It was one to be foisted upon him because his was the only ship in the sector.
He pulled up the mission log report from all those years ago, and found himself caught up in the story in spite of (or perhaps because of) being a key player in the tale...
The planet was pretty much like Mars. Thankfully, there was enough oxygen left in its sparse atmosphere to be breathable, but it had precious little free water. A dry river bed indicated that there had once been abundant water, but it had long since evaporated. A few scant traces of edible vegetation here and there. And plenty of rocks to look at. Some of them had clearly been part of something made by a primitive culture long since dead, unable to stop the slow out-gassing of the planets atmosphere and probably unable even to understand it. A shattered remnant of something here, a broken piece of something else there. Yes, thered once been life here, but it was no more. Not every cradle was hospitable, and not every child lived to leave the cradle, even if it were a nicer one than this.
The young commander of the Shenandoah surveyed the horizon. The sky was a dark blue, almost violet, so dark that you could see a few stars in it. Landing the shuttle through the thin atmosphere was trickier than he might have liked, but his skills at piloting hadnt diminished in the years since hed graduated from Starfleet Academy. Hed sat the Aldrin down without incident. So here they were, searching for whatever it was that had stopped the Shenandoah dead in its tracks.
A voice interrupted his thoughts: "Captain, Im getting some unusual energy readings here. Unknown type of radiation."
Commander James T. Kirk turned quickly to Ensign Hikaru Sulu, his expression filled with concern. "Can you identify the source? Weve got to find whatever it is thats holding us here and soon."
"Im not sure, sir." The young astrophysicist waved the tricorder toward the horizon. "Im just getting some odd energy readings, non-localized."
"Is the landing party in any danger?"
"Not so far as I can tell, sir. The level is very faint."
The starship commander flipped open his communicator. "Kirk to Shenandoah. Kirk to Shenandoah."
There was an unusual crackle. "Shenandoah. Ensign Chu here."
"Ensign, were detecting some odd energy readings down here. Can ships sensors pick up anything?"
"Checking, sir." There was a pause. "Doc wishes to speak with you, sir."
Kirk looked at his executive officer and sighed. Dealing with Lieutenant Doc Samson, chief engineer of the Shenandoah, was a chore. "Go ahead; put him on."
"Captain, Lieutenant Samson here. The sensor readings are blurred at best. Unfocussed. But our warp engine still will not engage."
"Can we leave orbit on impulse power?"
"Yes, sir. But the range of our sensors indicates the warp dampening field extends at least in a six lightyear radius from the planet. Even at maximum impulse power..."
"Damn. So were stuck here until we find the source of the dampening field."
"Yes, Captain. Quite so."
"Thanks, Doc. Kirk out." The captain closed the communicator. "Okay, Mister Mitchell, something down here interrupted our warp flight through this star system. That same something is generating some sort of field that is stopping us from leaving. Bring down two more shuttlecraft. Lets get some search parties organized."
Gary Mitchell looked at his friend with concern. "Is that a good idea, Jim? Transporters are down. Warp fields are down. Subspace communications are down. It seems that whatever were dealing with here is so powerful that we run the risk of provoking it further with more people." Mitchell kept looking at the rocky outcroppings all around them, as if half-expecting something to leap out from them, Kirk noted.
"You think whatever is causing it is intelligent, not some sort of natural phenomenon?"
"Whos to say, Jim? Not my speciality. But Id hate it if we pissed something off accidentally." Mitchell shuddered, and glanced over his shoulder.
"Me, too." Kirk looked with a shielded hand at the sun. "Recall everyone from the landing party. Break out the camping gear. Set up a base camp near the shuttlecraft."
"And the extra shuttles?"
Kirk nodded. "Bring em down loaded with supplies for a weeks stay. I want base camp established in two hours."
Mitchell narrowed his eyes and shook his head ever so slightly in disagreement. "Per your orders, Captain."
James Kirk watched as his best friend retreated back toward the shuttlecraft. He felt a chill, and glanced over his shoulder, as if expecting something to be staring at him, watching him. He saw nothing, and walked toward the shuttlecraft, casting a cautious eye over his shoulder from time to time.
Gary Mitchell didnt tolerate subordinates well. They exasperated him at best, and pissed him off at worst. But he needed them, and they needed him, to be sure. Without his direction, they would have set up the tent in the wrong place, built a fire that wouldve gone out in minutes, and even set up the latrine upwind of the camp.
But superior officers, even when they were your best friends, were another thing altogether. He thoroughly hated them. Not that he hated Jim Kirk. His best friend would at least listen to his considered advice from time to time, unlike that bitch Lystra Davis or that snooty Andorian friend of Kirks, Thrax Kal Kevaran.
He sighed as he looked up. He could see the Shenandoah traverse the sky and longed to be up there. If hed been her commander, theydve left orbit on impulse power and headed in the direction of the nearest starbase. It might take years to get there, but surely that was better than poking around on what was clearly an almost lifeless world looking to stir up trouble with God only knows what. He glanced over at a rock outcropping, thinking something had caught his eye. Must be seeing things. He shook his head and turned back to his task at hand, supervising the landing party even though hed rather not.
Still, thats what hed been ordered to do, and by God, thats what he was going to do. Hed taken the three shuttle crews and formed six small scouting parties and sent them in six different directions. He had chosen to remain here at the base camp, coordinating the teams various search patterns. Jim Kirk, of course, had chosen to go with a scouting party as well. He sighed. When would his friend ever stop placing himself in the line of fire?
He looked over at Yeoman Brigette Austin, who had remained behind as well, serving as the communications officer for the base camp. She stood, leaning over a small BellComm unit that she was using to maintain communications with each scout party. He felt a stirring in his loins as he looked at her shapely breasts and hips.
R.H.I.P., he reminded himself. Rank hath its privileges. He moved beside her. "Status report?"
"All six patrols report finding no sign of any life other than a few lichen, grass clusters and scrub brush," she responded with a smile.
Oh, baby... Mitchell thought as he looked at the sun and made a few mental calculations. "Tell the search parties theyve got two more hours before they need to return."
"Yes, sir," she smiled demurely at him.
Mitchell turned to her with a plainly lascivious leer on his face. "So, Brigette, whats a nice girl like you doing on a deserted planet like this?"
"Mind you, Captain, Im not terribly partial to field rations," remarked Lieutenant Jake Foster, Chief Security Officer of the Shenandoah.
"Really? I hadnt noticed," answered Kirk, inwardly laughing at the affable security man who had eaten not one, not two, but three of the field ration packs. "Want me to have the ship send down a shuttle with a pizza?"
Foster nodded. "With a few bottles of beer, too, if you dont mind."
"Idve thought some smores wouldve been your preference."
Foster, who was probably one of the heaviest men Kirk had ever seen serving in Starfleet, shook his head and chuckled in deep laughter. "Yeah, you can send down a box of graham crackers, chocolate bars and marshmallows for me, too."
Smiling, Jim Kirk looked at the group gathered around the large camp fire. Eighteen of Starfleets finest had found no trace of life, nor any sign of anything natural that might account for the warp dampening field. At least, Gary Mitchell had had the foresight to have the additional shuttle crews bring down several dozen synthetic fire logs to take the chill off the night air, as well as thermofans to blow heated air into the campsite.
Kirk frowned, and realized that he was chilled even though the campsite was surprisingly warm. He glanced around, and thought he saw a shadow moving. A trick of the light, he convinced himself. The situation must be getting on my nerves.
Again he looked around at his group, and noted a general unease among the landing party. All of them seemed unaware of it, but they each kept casting glances over their shoulders. Kirks eyes narrowed at the realization that the entire landing party was affected by something tenuous, something unseen, something just on the periphery of perception.
He stood quickly, dusted off his trousers, and walked to the edge of the encampment where two security officers stood on guard. "Anything?"
Paul Giotto shook his head. "No, Captain," but the look on his face said something else. "Nothing I can put my finger on."
"Or hoof," remarked the Tellarite Gret. His snout twitched. "Something just doesnt smell right tonight."
Kirk smiled. "Stay alert. Call me if you see anything."
"Thats just the problem, Captain," Giotto answered. "I havent seen anything. Not really. Just shadows..." He shook his head, incredulous. "I just...I just...its like being five again...and being scared of the bogey man."
Gret snorted. "I dont know what the bogey man is, but whatever it is out there, Captain, if it is out there, it has no smell."
"And thats not natural," concluded Kirk.
"Quite so. Everything has a smell, every person an aroma, even a machine smells of tetralubisol or ozone or plastic. This...whatever...has no smell at all."
"Stay on your toes...or hooves," Kirk ordered. "Call out if you see or smell anything at all."
"Good night, gentlemen," the Shenandoahs captain said as he headed for his bed and what was certain to be a troubled sleep.
Kirks dreams were indeed troubled. Shadows kept reaching at him. So when he heard his name called, he had no trouble rousing himself.
Kirk snapped to a fully alert state instantly. "Yes, Gary?"
"Weve got a crewmember missing. Yeoman Brigette Austin."
The Shenandoahs commander unzipped the sleeping bag and sat up. "How long?" He gazed at his first officers face intently.
"I dont know, Jim. She and I..."
Kirk rolled his eyes upward. "Gary, if this is a repeat of that"
"Jim, its not like that."
Kirk sighed and pulled himself out of his bag. Slipping his boots on, he tugged his tunic down from where it had ridden up on him. He stepped out of his survival tent. Several landing party members were gathered around the re-ignited fire. He nodded in response to a few "Good morning, sirs" and smiled at Jake Fosters "I want some hot chocolate and doughnuts."
"All right, ladies and gentlemen. Weve got a missing shipmate. I want search parties to divide up in the same groups as yesterdays search."
"What about the warp dampening field?" asked Sulu.
"The life of one of my crew comes first. Well deal with the warp field problem later. Mister Mitchell, I want you with me this time." The look of disapproval on Kirks face was plain. He glanced around at the landing party. Most of them were security officers and pilots, and none of them were higher ranked than... "Mister Kelso."
"Sir?" Lieutenant j.g. Lee Kelso piped up from where he was serving coffee.
"Lee, I want you to stay in camp, coordinating our search efforts. I also want you here in case Yeoman Austin returns."
"Yes, sir." Kelso didnt look hopeful.
And to be honest, neither was Jim Kirk.
"Captain, Im detecting a deposit of organic material," announced Security Officer Paul Giotto. "And, sir, it wasnt there yesterday. That Im sure of."
"Location?" asked Kirk.
"Half a kilometer, that direction, sir." Giotto pointed toward the rising sun.
Gary Mitchell had to ask. "Life signs?"
The commander and his first officer met each others eyes. "Well, lets hope its not our wayward yeoman, but well head for it," Kirk decided.
The walk was not easy going. Tall boulders were strewn everywhere seemingly in their path. Giotto kept his tricorder in active scanning mode, and soon they rounded an enormous outcropping of rock to find something...
"Unbelievable!" gasped Giotto.
Surrounded in a ravine of rock was a rock-hewn temple of sorts, Druid-like perhaps, or even akin to some of the ceremonial stone rings Kirk had seen on Andor. In the center, a glowing red crystal nearly a meter wide was ensconced in a stone setting. Around it were five obelisks, each four meters from the crystal, and beyond the obelisks, a series of columns supported stone cappings.
"Lasers at ready," suggested Gary Mitchell.
"Agreed, Lieutenant," said Kirk as he and Ensign Giotto pulled their laser pistols.
They walked slowly, cautiously into the temple.
"Sensor readings?" asked Kirk.
Mitchell shook his head. "My tricorder is still detecting organic residue." He pointed at the base of one of the obelisks. "There it is."
Giotto cautioned, "I dont like this, sir. Too exposed."
"Well have to be more careful then, Ensign. Watch our backs."
The three men stood at the base of the pillar. Mitchell ran his tricorder over the residue. "Jim, Im not much of a scientist, but this stuff is clearly organic."
The material looked to Kirk like the clippings of a lawnmower that had congealed into a gooey mess. Except these "clippings" were brown, gray and white. "Lets get Mister Sulus opinion." He pried open his communicator. "Captain Kirk to Ensign Sulu."
"Ensign Sulu here, sir."
"Your scientific advice is needed here, Ensign. Im transmitting my coordinates to you."
"Be right there, sir. Youre only three hundred meters from where we are now."
Kirk closed his communicator and glanced up at the security officer. Giotto kept looking around. "Something wrong, Paul?"
"I dont know, sir. Somethings not right, thats for sure. I feel like were being watched."
Mitchell stood up suddenly. "I feel it, too, Jim."
Kirk nodded. "Im not immune to it, either."
At that moment, Ensign Sulu, Security Officer Gret and Yeoman Maggie Adams entered the temple. "Wow!" Adams exclaimed. "We were like twenty meters from here yesterday, and we never knew all this was here."
Kirk nodded. "It seems to be intentionally well-concealed."
Sulu approached the pillar and looked at the organic debris. "My...God," he said after a moments examination. "Weve found Brigette, Captain. Theres Human DNA in here that matches hers."
Kirk had suspected as much. "Any idea what happened to her?"
"Id say that the molecular bonds that hold a persons body together were suddenly and violently liberated. Imagine all the energy of each cell ripped from your body. The heat from the energy vaporizes the water in your body, and your body literally falls apart."
"Then how can you tell its her DNA?"
"Because the process was incomplete. Theres about five percent of her remains here that are intact. Im even detecting algae-based xenylon from her uniform, and a rubidium crystal from her communicators transponder."
Kirk stared at the remains morosely. "Is it a disease that did this to her?"
"Jim, not that Im anI-told-you-so kind of guy, but I warned you that we might"
"Belay that, Gary," Kirk snapped.
"Hey, what?!" blurted someone.
Kirk whirled to see Yeoman Maggie Adams scream in outright terror and abject agony as she melted before his eyes where she stood at the base of an adjacent pillar.
"My...God!" gasped Sulu.
Kirk looked back at Mitchell, but there was...something...someone standing over the crystal. "Lasers!" he ordered his crew.
The search party all aimed their lasers at the...creature? man?...that now stood before them.
"Stop where you are," commanded Kirk, "or my crew will open fire." To his relief, the being didnt move. Kirk pulled open his communicator so that the translating device back at the shuttlecraft would convert whatever was said into something each of them could understand. "Im Commander James T. Kirk, Captain of the U.S.S. Shenandoah."
"Qxl%," the thing answered. It seemed to Kirk to be more shadow than substance, more man than monster, more evil than good. It was somewhat transparent to sight, but clearly had some substance. It was as though it was a projection, perhaps, or some horrible thing caught in a transporter accident. It was black, but it was from an absence of light, from an absence of substance. It was as though it was a hole in the fabric of the universe itself. It had no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth, no features on its head that Kirk could discern. It had four limbs and appeared to be bipedal, but there were no manipulative digits at their ends.
"What is it you want?"
"I need more," it said simply, sinisterly, threateningly.
"More life." It seemed satisfied with the answer, and satisfied that they would have to die in order to satisfy its needs.
"Well, you cant have it."
"I can. I will."
"I wont let you."
"You cannot stop me." It wasnt a threat. It was a damnable, inescapable fact.
"Were getting the hell out of here," Kirk decided. He clicked the comm button on his communicator. "Kirk to search parties. I want everyone back at the shuttles in five minutes. Were leaving, and were leaving now, and were leaving this Kicksulpop being behind."
"No argument from me," Mitchell said in agreement. "Lets leave before anyone else suffers this...oh, God..." He looked at the remains of the woman hed made love to only last night.
They quickly made their way back to the shuttlecraft.
"What do you mean we cant leave until two days from now?" Kirk demanded. "Weve got some...thing...out there, and it wants us dead."
"Youll be dead if you leave the planet's surface now, Captain," came Lieutenant Samsons voice over the communicator. "Ive not seen a solar flare like this in years, sir. Were being buffeted by it already, and were in danger by staying in orbit ourselves. If you attempt to leave the safety of the planet's atmosphere, your shuttles will be utterly destroyed."
James T. Kirk made his decision. "Then take the Shenandoah out of orbit. I wont run the risk of any more deaths. Report back as soon as stellar conditions permit."
"Doc, that was an order."
"Yes, sir. Samson out."
The youngest starship commander in Federation history closed his communicator and looked at the landing party. Ensigns, Yeomen, Crewmen and Technicians, most he knew, some he did not, and some of them would die here. "Well, it seems as if were trapped here. Mister Mitchell, have the shuttlecraft rearranged into a triangle, entry ports facing the inside. Mister Sulu, re-pitch the survival tent in the middle of them. Mister Kelso, rig a forcefield from the shuttles engines. Mister Giotto, break out the laser rifles. I want us so protected from this...being...that itll think twice about trying to take another crewmember from our midst."
Yet somehow, Kirk knew that it wouldnt be enough.
He was right.
"Captain!" called a security man he didnt know from one of the open points of the triangle.
Kirk, Mitchell, Kelso and Giotto rushed to his side.
"Captain, I see...something...I think..."
Kirk peered out into the evening twilight. "Too dark to see anything."
Mitchell flipped open his communicator. "Let there be light." Instantly, high powered landing floodlights clicked on, and the area was bathed in light.
Kirk turned to Mitchell. "Not bad, Gary," he said approvingly.
"I love saying that," the navigator answered.
"Ill just bet you do," the commander said wryly. He peered out into the darkness, and sure enough, ...it... was there. "Lasers at ready."
The...being...continued its approach, as if oblivious to their drawn weapons.
Kirk was not going to risk another crewmember. "Fire."
Laser beams shot into the night and struck the...creature...dead center. And still it came.
"Maintain firing rate," Kirk ordered.
It mattered not one bit.
At the forcefields perimeter, the...thing...paused and then stepped right through. Sulu had his tricorder out, scanning desperately, obviously searching for a weakness in the...entity. And found none. It barely registered as energy, and seemed to exist more on a subspace level than a physical one.
At five meters, one of the security men had had enough. He ran forward and struck blindly at the...whatever...and it picked him up like a rag doll. Taking the security man with it, it retreated from the encampment, lasers still striking its back.
Mitchell looked at Kirk, accusation in his eyes.
The rest of the night passed without incident, but James T. Kirk could not sleep. He stared up at the top of the survival tent, arms behind his head, and wondered what he could have done differently, if there had been some clue hed missed, if there was some sign that should have warned him of the danger. He felt guilty. Gary blames me, he thought. And maybe I should have listened to him when he said not to bring the additional shuttles down.
He had a decision to make now, and it was one not to be taken lightly. Lives stood at risk, to be sure, but doing nothing would result no doubt in more loss of life as well. More, it had said. Kirk wondered how much more would satisfy it. And he was going to find out.
At daybreak, he sat up, pulled on his boots, and checked his laser. Glancing around at the encampment, he nodded to the security guards on duty. "Ill be back in a few minutes," he said casually. Too casually.
Giotto stepped forward. "I think Ill join you."
"Me, too," said a voice from behind Kirk.
The starship commander turned to face his executive officer. "Gary, I"
"No need to explain, Jim," Mitchell said with a grin. "I know you too well."
Kirk nodded and smiled. There was a throat cleared behind him, and he turned to see three more of his crew: Sulu, Kelso and Foster. All three had tricorders and lasers, and all three wore heavy duty field jackets. "Gentlemen, I see that were all of the same mind this morning."
"If you mean were going to take on that monster, Id say were all for it," answered Foster. From over his shoulder, he pulled out a Andorian-manufactured Mark II Disruptor rifle. Not exactly Starfleet issue, but an extremely effective weapon. The Andorians were a warrior race; they knew how to make effective weapons, very effective weapons.
Kirk looked at the bloodlust on Fosters face, and for a moment, considered ordering the security lieutenant to remain behind. But, no, he knew what it was that Foster was feeling...intimately. He felt it himself. This monster would be made to pay for the three lives it had taken.
"Lets move out. Tight formation. Foster, take the rear. Ill take the point."
"No, sir. Ill take the point," said Mitchell. "First Officers prerogative."
Kirk nodded in agreement. "All right, Gary. After you."
The approach to the rock-hewn temple was eerily quiet. Even on a dead planet such as this one, there were always sounds, either the wind blowing, the sand rustling, something, anything. But not this morning. The Shenandoahs officers had their weapons drawn, five lasers and one disruptor rifle, for what little good it would do, but they had to try something, anything, to stop the creature from killing again.
Kirk, Giotto and Sulu approached from the direction of sunrise. Mitchell, Foster and Kelso approached from the opposite direction. Each team crawled atop one of the crags that overlooked the temple. From their positions, they all could plainly see Qxl%, if that was even the things name, standing in the crystalliterally standing in the crystal, as though neither were solid, and yet both seemed to be.
Sulu whispered, "Captain, it seems to be solid if you look at it and the crystal gaseous or even some sort of holographic projection, if that were possible. But if you look at the crystal, then the...thing seems to be gaseous, or a projection of some sort."
Sulus eyes narrowed. "I think its extradimensional, existing in this plane only as it needs to. That would explain why the laser beams passed right through it."
"So its out of phase?" asked Kirk.
The astrophysicist nodded. "Yes, sir. I believe it is. And this temple may exist in our plane, appearing as something right out of ancient Great Britain, but be something completely different in its plane."
"Like equipment designed to create a warp dampening field?"
Sulu agreed, "Its possible. The only problem is that our weapons at present are not extradimensional. The new phasers weve all heard so much about might be more effective as they concentrate lasers using a phase shift, but all we have are these old laser carbines." He held the bulky weapon as though it were useless.
"What about the photon grenades?" asked Security Officer Giotto.
The young ensign from the sciences section shook his head. "We might destroy the stone temple, but wed have no effect any the extradimensional mechanisms, even assuming they exist. For all we know, perhaps Qxl% is using some sort of mental power to prevent us from escaping."
Kirk considered Sulus words. "Ill take it under advisement." He glanced back down into the center of the temple and at the crystal. "Now that presents a greater problem."
The entity had vanished completely.
Mitchell from twenty meters away had noticed it, too. "Jim, I think were in trouble!"
There was a sudden screaming, as Qxl% was dragging a wildly thrashing Ensign Jonathan Weight into the arena. It was as though the shuttle pilot couldnt even land a punch on the shadowy figure that held him securely with its intangible grasp.
Kirk stood up, laser pistol at the ready. "Stop where you are!" The others stood and took aim with their weapons as well.
It ignored them completely and placed Weight at a pillar where the young man, like the others before him, was reduced into a constituent elemental slime.
"Damn you!" Kirk screamed in anger. "Fire!" he ordered.
Five lasers and a single disruptor beam struck the thing in the chest, the head, the abdomen. It was a complete waste of energy.
"Maintain firing rate!" Kirk called over the whine of the energy weapons.
Three full minutes later, all the weapons energy cells were exhausted, and the...nothingness...was unharmed. It stood atop the crystal and seemed to look at Kirk.
It spoke. "I need more."
The captain was unafraid for his own life. "How much more?"
Suddenly, Qxl% was behind Mitchell, Kelso and Foster.
"Gary, look out!"
Foster turned and gave a drop kick at the...things head. He stuck as though held by a tractor beam. "Oh, shit!" said the burly security chief. "Oh, God!" Foster swung at it as hard as he could, but his arm was held as well. "Oh, God! Oh, GOD!"
Mitchell and Kelso tried to put themselves between the creature and the temple, but it walked right through them. They grabbed Fosters arms, but an electrical jolt sent them flying backwards.
"Oh, GOD, NO!!!"
Qxl% forced the security chief against the last obelisk, and Kirk watched in horror as his chief security officer melted before his eyes, screaming in the most abject agony one could ever imagine. Unmoved by the pain it had caused, the shadowy form moved to the center of the crystal and again seemed to reside within it and without it. The five obelisks glowed, and five beams of light shot into five facets of the crystal.
And the crystal and Qxl% were gone.
It was the worst day of James Kirks young career.
Captain Hikaru Sulu grimly looked around the briefing room, meeting the faces of the officers gathered before him.
Sulu didnt want this mission. He told Commander-Starfleet Lystra Davis that. But it didnt matter. His was the ship closest to the affected region, and it was going to be his problem. No ifs, ands or buts.
He sighed, realizing that theyd finished viewing the logs, hearing the testimony of the witnesses (himself included), read the reports of all concerned. Now was the time to consider their options.
"All right, what are your recommendations?" asked Sulu.
Commander Janice Rand was the first to speak. As his executive officer, she was expected to give her insight into the situation immediately. "A lifeforce vampire? Similar to ones weve discovered before?"
"Unlike them, this one seems to have no weakness. Look at how long it has operated within this sector. The Kalandans, the Cherons, the Kurlans all knew of this creature, and yet they were unable to stop it. They started avoiding the area completely; the Kalandans even marked their star charts with here there be a monster," answered the captain.
"Well," Captain of Engineering Deneice Maliszewski spoke up, "I cant tell you how to combat this creature. I can tell you what it is doing, though, to trap us here. As you know, subspace exists on a level below normal space. This Kicksulpophowever the hell you say ithas changed the laws of physics for subspace. I dont presume to know how hes done it, but hes changed Cochranes Subspace Constant within a two parsec region so that its even higher than it is in normal space. We cant go to warp, and our subspace-based technologies are disabled."
"In other words, its changed the very laws of nature," restated Sulu for the non-astrophysicists among them. "I would have thought that impossible."
Maliszewski shrugged. "You never can tell, Skipper. Three hundred years ago, they thought that breaking lightspeed would never happen."
"And yet were sitting here one hundred forty lightyears from Earth as living proof that the speed of light was broken," added Doctor Ariel Cord, Chief Medical Officer of the Excelsior.
"And the tractor field?" prompted Sulu.
"Gravimetric in origin," replied Maliszewski. "Seems to be emanating from the core of the planet, but I have no idea how the planets core could produce such a field without tearing apart the mantle and crust. And one more thing, Skipper: this thing is a danger to this ship. Many of our technologies, such as transporters and weaponry, are subspace-technology-based."
"Thanks, Mallie," the captain said. Turning to his second officer, Lieutenant Commander Boris Lojur, he asked, "Whats our estimated time of arrival at Kornephoros Six?"
"The gravimetric pull is increasing exponentially as we approach. We should be in range of the planet within an hour," answered the soft-spoken man with a faint Armenian accent. "Im concerned that we might not be able to slow our approach and will burn up in the atmosphere."
Sulu shook his head. "No, that wont happen. Qxl%, whatever it is, needs us alive."
"So that it can kill us," added Lieutenant Ryan Peterson, Chief Tactical Officer. He only recently had transferred to the Excelsior from the Federation destroyer El Cid which had been decommissioned after seeing action during the Tholian Incident only a few weeks earlier.
"I beg your pardon?" asked Sulu, not entirely pleased with Petersons attitude since the transfer. Sulus previous tactical officer had been promoted to the rank of commander and assigned to the newly commissioned Federation starship Shiloh. Since Farley had left, Peterson had rankled Sulu a number of times.
"Well, I mean, its going to a lot of trouble, isnt it? I mean, I know Im new here and all, and I dont mean to cause any..." He thrust his hands forward and shook them as if trying to shake his thoughts into coherence. "...bad feelings and all, but why on Earthor whatever planet were heading forif this thing has all this power at its fingertips, or whateverdoes it need five victims every thirty years? It, well, okay, it just doesnt make a hell of a lot of, uh, sense to me."
"Logical," remarked Ensign Tuvok, one of several science officers present. The young Vulcan officer was another who had acerbated Sulu with his almost priggish attention to rules and regulations. "Excuse me for commenting, sir, but Mister Peterson is making an excellent point."
"I am?" The lieutenant turned in surprise to face his unexpected ally. "Right, I am. Im making an excellent point."
"Which is...I, uh, I dont know."
"Which is," the young Vulcan added, "it is illogical for Qxl% to require lifeforms for sustenance. It has demonstrated that it has more power at its beck and call than the science of the Federation can muster. It controls elemental laws of nature. It is clearly a superior lifeform. I find it illogical for such a being to thrive on death."
Ariel Cord, her beauty and charm completely lost on the Vulcan, turned and asked, "What if its because it wants to kill? Or perhaps the lifeforces it needs it cannot generate, despite its technology? Even most Vulcans concede that only the Creator can give that spark of life."
"And youre suggesting that this thing is feeding on that spark of life?" asked Lieutenant Linda Parker, Chief Navigation Officer. "I just cant believe that something so...so horrible could exist out here."
The captain smiled at her warmly. She was filled with the youthful exuberance that Sulu himself had lost all those years ago, and it was delightful to see it on his bridge embodied in this brilliant woman.
"It can and does," grumbled Lieutenant Brai. A Kaylar from Rigel VII, he was big, brutish and the perfect security chief. Almost as strong as a Klingon, and just as rude, the Kaylar had dominated that class M planet for years before being overthrown by the Kynor, a much smaller, much more social race which shared the planet with them. Captain Christopher Pikethe second captain of the original Enterprise, NCC-1701and his crew had been caught up in the revolution, at the cost of several lives. Nowadays, the Kaylar were a peace-loving people, eager to explore the galaxy, but they were always cautious, suspicious and, frankly, extremely dangerous when agitated.
Sulu nodded at Brais remark. "Unfortunately, yes, Lieutenant. It does."
Cord chimed in. "And to be honest, everyone onboard Excelsior except for Lieutenant Lissmar feeds on death. The lieutenants a Phylosian, and it spends six hours a day under sunlamps performing photosynthesis. Its the only crewmember aboard that doesnt truly feed on death in a literal sense."
The captain turned to face the science officers present. Sulu had always barely tolerated his chief science officer, Lieutenant Commander Kevin Jordan, and his "smarter-than-thou" attitude, but the man was brilliant, if not erratic and insufferable. Fortunately, his assistant chief science officer, Lieutenant LeeAnn Feltman, always managed to keep him in line, and he was glad to have two top-notch science officers in his command. The other threeEnsigns Roger Dashner, Tuvok and Laurie Morganhad each been aboard for over a year and usually manned the three bridge science stations.
"I need your recommendation, Mister Jordan," required Sulu after Jordan failed to offer one without prompting.
"Captain, I think your analysis all those years ago is correct. This being, Qxl%, clearly exists outside our plane of existence. Close, perhaps in another dimension. Closer, perhaps in another phase. But not of this universe. Thus our best bet will be to use our phasers, in combination, with each phased energy projector set at a slightly different phase modulation. I suspect that Qxl% will be quickly dispatched."
Sulu sighed. "Were not here for revenge, as much as some might believe, Commander. Were here to solve the warp dampening field problem."
Jordans sustained twitch of his lips said Liar without uttering the words.
Sulu stared at the chief science officer, but as the thoughts never materialized as spoken words, he moved on. "Ms. Feltman? Your analysis, please."
"Far be it from me to disagree with our chief science officer," she began, rolling her eyes, "but then again, I think hes wrong."
Sulus eyes glinted steely. "Without becoming insubordinate, Lieutenant, can you explain?"
"I agree with your assessment, Captain, that Qxl% is plainly operating from outside our universe. I think its plain, though, that the key to defeating him is the crystal, not Qxl% itself."
The captain shifted his head and raised his eyebrows. "Now thats an interesting perspective."
She smiled sweetly, almost too sweetly, but continued, "When the fifth victim was reduced to its elemental components, all five obelisks directed an energy beam at the crystal."
"But as I told you, Lieutenant Feltman, Qxl% was standing within the crystal when that occurred," argued Jordan.
"As I told you, Lieutenant Commander Jordan, Qxl% happens to have been in the center of the crystal, but Id bet money the beams struck the facets of the crystal, not Qxl%."
"Thats enough from you two," snapped Sulu. "I will not tolerate this juvenile behavior from my chief and assistant chief science officers. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Jordan answered sullenly.
"Yes, Captain," Feltman replied apologetically.
"Ms. Morgan, can you add anything?"
"Id recommend a phaser and photon torpedo barrage from orbit, sir," she answered. "I really wouldnt want to risk my life down there on either Lieutenant Feltmans theory or Lieutenant Commander Jordans. My hope is that without the temple, which does exist in our time-space, Qxl% will be unable to operate within our universe."
"Your hope? Not your theory?" asked Sulu.
"I have no evidence to back it up, Captain," Morgan readily admitted.
"Very well." The Excelsiors commander turned to look at Tuvok. "Your suggestions, Ensign?"
"Logically, we send a shuttlecraft down to the planet with six trained security officers aboard. They would assault the temple, and, when Qxl% makes its appearance, they would employ a subspace device designed to render an isolytic pulse."
"What?" Deneice Maliszewski spat her coffee all over her uniform jacket. "Are you insane? Youre sending them to their deaths! The pulse would tear that planet apart!"
"Besides, subspace weapons were banned by the Khitomer Accords two years ago," added Janice Rand.
"And, I know it, uh, probably doesnt need to be said, but, well, those subspace weapons were, well, banned, you know, because of how, uh, unpredictable they are. I mean, set one off, and whoops! There it all goes. You, the planet, the ship, all of us, this quadrant," Peterson explained.
"The captain asked for my recommendations, and I have given them," answered Tuvok. "My method will require the sacrifice of six individuals and the risk to the ship of rupturing subspace in this sector with a isolytic detonation, but it will ensure that Qxl% is stopped."
"Simply out of the question, Ensign. I will not sacrifice the lives of those six individuals; I will not risk sacrificing my ship; and I will not violate the Khitomer Accords. Do you have anything helpful to add?" asked Sulu pointedly.
"I regret to say that my suggestions are the most logical, despite your objections. You asked for my recommendations, and I have given you them."
"Very well, Ensign. Thank you," the captain turned and faced the large series of windows which lined the rear of the briefing room. He stood and stepped to the ledge, overlooking the massive engineering section, warp drive nacelles and secondary hull. He sighed and did not turn to face them. "Ill take your recommendations under advisement. Thank you. Dismissed."
The briefing room emptied except for his executive officer and his chief medical officer.
"Captain?" asked Doctor Cord, her eyes narrowing in concerned.
"All you all right, sir?" added Janice Rand.
"I didnt want this mission. Ive been there, and I dont want to go back." He lowered his head and gripped the ledge of the window, looking out over the rear of the Excelsiors primary hull, its impulse engines and massive, but now inert, warp engines.
"Sometimes weve got to follow orders, Hikaru," commented Cord. "Orders we dont like."
"And sometimes, Captain, we can decline those orders, if you deem it too dangerous," suggested Rand carefully.
Sulu turned. "Actually, I tried that yesterday morning, Janice. Commander-Starfleet Davis told me that she would reject any decline of those orders under Section One-Three-Nine." There was no need to explain to them that Section 139 clearly stated that Starfleet Command could override a captains prerogative to decline an extremely dangerous mission on the grounds of Federation security. It usually was implemented at the cost of a captains career, and losing his career was unacceptable to Hikaru Sulu.
"So what are your orders going to be, Hikaru?" asked Rand. "Weve met on this situation for more than an hour, and were on final approach to the planet. Time to make your decision."
"Im well aware of that, Commander. It would behoove you not to remind me of my duties as often as you do," Sulu warned her firmly. He had always liked Janice Rand when shed been aboard the original Enterprise during Kirks first five-year mission, but he found that as his executive officer, she was barely adequate. This newfound priggishness, however, was something he wasnt tolerating well. He wasnt sure what had started it, but he was damn well going to put a stop to it. "Im not inclined to beam down to the planet. Ive seen Qxl% in action. Hes unstoppable. Its possible that our phasers would make an impression on him, but considering the historical evidence..."
"You mean the Kalandans and the rest of them were unable to stop him, so what chance do we have?" suggested Rand.
"Exactly." Sulu nodded. "Im leaning toward Ensign Morgans suggestion of using our phasers and photon torpedoes from orbit."
The bosuns pipe sounded. "Captain Sulu, report to the bridge, please. Were approaching the planet rapidly."
"On my way," Sulu said into the open ceiling microphone.
They exited the briefing room, walked down the corridor, and took the first right directly onto the bridge. Sulu quickly checked around the large bridge, familiarizing himself with the officers on duty (almost all of which had been in the briefing). Even Maliszewski, who normally couldnt be pried out of Engineering without tractor beams, had assumed the engineering station just to the left of the mainviewer.
"Were approaching the planet, sir," reported Parker.
"Our velocity is slowing, Captain," added Lojur. "Were approaching a LaGrange point. Were...stopped."
"Impulse engines, Helm. Put us in a synchronous orbit over Qxl%s temple."
"Synchronous orbit, aye," the goateed man replied.
"Sensors detecting no lifeforms present on the surface of the planet," reported Jordan.
"Dont bet on it, Mister," warned Sulu. "We never detected the creature while in orbit or even on the surface of the planet."
"Modern day sensors will often show what older technology missed," came the almost petulant rejoinder from Science One.
Sulu didnt know whether he was being deliberately insulted or if Kevin Jordan was just being Kevin Jordan.
"Captain, I have visually detected the stone temple," reported Tuvok from Science Three, just to the right of the main viewing screen.
"On screen," Sulu ordered, "and magnify."
The ashen-colored planet looked as uninviting as the last time hed been here. Craters, well-worn by atmospheric conditions, still dotted the planets surface. The screen suddenly zoomed in on a point near the equator, until the stone temple could be seen. The five obelisks were still there, the red crystal still shown like fresh blood, and unbelievably, a shadowy humanoid form was in its midst.
Though it was featureless, Sulu couldnt help but get the impression that...it... was watching them. He turned to Jordan. "Commander, can you detect that... being?"
Jordan looked apologetic. Well, as apologetic as he could look. Which wasnt very apologetic at all. "No, sir," he answered. "I suggest that Qxl% is employing some sort of energy field that is obscuring our sensors."
Tuvoks voice cut in. "Captain, Ive lost visual contact with"
"Hes gone!" blurted out Parker from navigation.
Sulu swung around with a start. "Red Alert! Raise shields! Now, now, NOW, damn it!"
Lieutenants Brai and Peterson reacted as quickly as possible. A scant two seconds later, the ship was ready for anything.
"Captain," reported Rand, "Mess Officer Sternback reports an intruder in Mess Room Two."
"Go to General Quarters," ordered Sulu. "Intruder Alert! Set phasers on disrupt."
"Yes, sir," Brai responded, relaying the captains orders to his security team.
Sulu stood and stepped toward the starboard turbolift. He was surprised to find Brai blocking his way. "Sorry, sir. I think you need to remain here, for your own safety."
"I beg your pardon, Lieutenant?"
"Obviously, the creature known as Qxl% is aboard the vessel. It would not be prudent to leave the bridge."
"Youre telling me to let one of my crew die?"
"Im suggesting that theres no way for you to prevent that."
"Captain, Im getting security reports from Mess Room Two," reported Janice Rand from the communications bay.
She adjusted her earjack. "Security Team Epsilon reports that eyewitnesses have confirmed that Ensign Naismith was forcibly taken by a virtually non-corporeal being."
"Captain, weve got unauthorized use of the transporter room near the starboard dining hall," reported Maliszewski.
"Shut it down!" ordered Sulu.
"Unable to do so, Captain. The unit was overridden by a means I dont rightly understand. Hell, I dont even understand how the transporter could be working. Subspace is still jammed. It shouldnt have been able to"
"Captain, look!" Linda Parker was pointing at the mainviewer.
"My...God..." Sulu uttered as he watched Qxl% placed Naismith against an obelisk.
"Oh, God!" cried Parker as the ensign was reduced to slime in a few seconds.
"Oh, oh, God," whispered Janice Rand. "Ron was just a kid."
"Ill have no more of this," decided Sulu. He sat down in the command chair. "Stand by on all weaponry," he ordered.
"Phasers and photon torpedoes are ready, sir," answered Peterson. "Id, uh, like to suggest, sir, if its not impudent or anything like that, but..."
"Do get on with it, Mister," snapped Sulu.
"...well, Id suggest we use them in tandem. I can lay down a stream of photon torpedoes between two separate phaser beams of oscillating phase frequencies with an intersection point of that, uh, red crystal thing, sir."
"Excellent," commented the captain. "Mallie, tie in as much power as you can to weaponry. I want to wipe that thing from the face of that planet."
"Yes, Skipper," the chief engineer responded. "Gladly." She savagely snapped switches, pressed pads and slid levers along their paths.
"All weapons at ready. Phaser efficiency at one hundred sixteen percent, sir. Photon torpedoes loaded and ready for firing," reported Peterson.
"Fire!" snapped Sulu.
The brilliance of blue energy bolts struck down through the atmosphere, ionizing the gasses it touched as it raced toward their target, the stone temple. Red blips of the photon torpedoes ran parallel between the energy beams. The amount of destructive power was greater than that of a large asteroid striking a planet. The screen was filled with an explosion, and another, and another, as each of the sixteen torpedoes detonated.
"Science Officer, report!" the captain ordered.
"I cant get a clear reading, Captain. We appear to have struck the target."
Tuvok spoke up from Science Three. "Captain, the debris from the explosion makes visual confirmation impossible."
"Then we wait until the dust settles and see where we stand."
"Captain," suggested Lojur as he scanned the mainviewer visually. "Look there!"
Sulu, who had been reading a report on the changes in subspace, looked up. The stone temple was still in place, the red crystal glowing fiercely, and Qxl% standing impossibly within the red crystal. The massive boulders that had surrounded the temple during their last visit to the planet were gone, but the temple itself remained intact. The ground underneath it remained as well, but the surrounding areas clearly had been excavated by the force of the Excelsiors barrage.
"The dust shouldnt have settled that quickly," commented Tuvok as he began scanning the planets surface intently.
Sulu perked up at that. "Are you sure, Tuvok? The atmosphere is pretty thin."
"I am quite certain, Captain," the junior science officer said. "I had projected at least six point four days before visibility would be restored to fifty percent."
"Captain, Ive detected some sort of Bussard field sweeping the planets atmosphere," reported Feltman from Science Two. "I guess our friend likes his air clean. The field is depositing the accumulated dust and debris in the crater surrounding the temple. Im also detecting gravimetric pulses which are compacting the redeposited soil."
Jordan turned from Science One and explained, "The amount of material ejected into the atmosphere was comparable to the amount of topsoil in Rhode Island."
"The amount is what?" LeeAnn Feltman put her head down on her console at Science Two and shook slightly. "At least he didnt put it in cubic miles."
"Lieutenant!" snapped Janice Rand as she walked over to the assistant chief science officers station. A few seconds of a hotly whispered reprimand were ignored by the captain, and Sulus executive officer came to stand at his side.
"Captain, I apologize for Lieutenant Feltmans continued insubordination, and I assure you I will take steps to correct the problem. Im placing her on report, and she will have a disciplinary assignment in her docket by tomorrow morning."
Sulu didnt quite roll his eyes. "All right, Commander. Thank you." Frankly, he didnt care about how his science team related to each other. The only thing he cared about right now was stopping Qxl%, and that seemed unlikely. He launched into command mode. "All right. Thats all the evidence I need, ladies and gentlemen. Our murderous...entity...is still unharmed. And before it comes up here to snatch another one of my crew away, I want it stopped. Mallie?"
"Our subspace readings are different from the ones taken thirty years ago. I should know. I took them. What has changed?"
"First of all, Skipper, I think that weve made thirty years of technological advances during that time. I also think that that thing has also made thirty years of technological advances. Both account for some of the variations."
"But not all."
"No, sir. Not all. However, Id like to propose a new theory about the creature based on the readings made by onboard sensors during its intrusion."
Sulu waited and then prompted, "Mallie, we dont have time for this. Just tell us what you think."
"I dont think Qxl% is a living being at all."
"I agree, Captain," said Tuvok from Science Three.
Sulu spun around. "You do?"
"Quite. I believe that Qxl% is an automaton comprised of tachyons."
"That is imprecise, sir, but arguable at least. Of a type, yes, sir."
"Bravo, Tuvok. My conclusions, also," the captain of engineering put it. "Skipper, I think I know a way to beat it this time."
"Do you know what are you suggesting?" asked Jordan, curious. "Tachyons are unstable faster-than-light particles. Theres no way to confine them within a field of any sort."
"The hint was the transporter record," admitted Maliszewski. "We only beamed one person down."
"Then does this Qxl% not even exist?" asked Rand as she moved back to Communications.
"Not in the sense that you and I do," explained LeeAnn Feltman, catching on quickly. "Its a tachyon construct."
"Thats why our weapons have no effect on it. Its probably being regenerated constantly," surmised the chief engineer.
"Then who or what is Qxl%?" asked Parker.
Sulu looked at the navigator and then looked at the screen. He adjusted the mainviewer controls on his chair and zoomed in on the blood red crystal. "That, Lieutenant, is Qxl%."
"A crystalline life form?" asked Doctor Cord. "Is that a logical conclusion?"
"No," answered Tuvok, "but it is a reasonable deduction."
Feltman smiled. "And Ive got a suggestion on how to combat this crystal."
All three science officers, the captain of engineering and the captain of the Excelsior himself chimed in together. "Sound waves."
"Misters Jordan, Feltman and Tuvok, I want a frequency for shattering that crystal, and I wanted it six hours ago."
As though choreographed, all three science officers turned to their stations.
"And Mallie?" called Sulu.
"Ill want a sonic generator to create these sound waves."
"Six minutes, sir. And Im going to have four of them of the manufactured."
Sulu turned to Rand with a smile. "I think our friend is in for a bit of a surprise."
"Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!" reported the intercom.
"Damn it, not now!"
"Captain, weve got reports of our intruder in the forward recreation room," reported Brai from Security.
"No, sir. Ive just barely got my specs drawn up. Itll be another five minutes before well have them."
Sulu hit the intercom switch. "Captain to all hands. We have a deadly intruder on board. Avoid contact with this creature at all cost. Captain out." He spun his chair to face Engineering. "Report?"
"Ive got the designs finalized; Manufacturing has them now."
"Is there any way to disrupt our tachyon-based automaton?"
"I cant figure whats holding him together in the first place. If I knew that, or even if I could surmise that, then we could take a shot at it."
Sulu stood and quickly stepped toward the port exit, but again Brai stood in the way, shaking his head. Resignedly, the captain of the Excelsior retook the center seat and waited.
Damn, how I hate this...
Life Support Technician Gary Graves was having a bad day.
First of all, hed been awakened earlier by an intruder alert. Then the forward recreation room had reported a strange metallic odor in the ventilation system. Graves had been dispatched to do an AISall interior surfacesclean-out of the ducts feeding in to the rec room. Hed been at work all afternoon, and finally found the source of the metallic odor. Some idiot had spilled tetralubisol in the duct while lubricating one of the blower motors. He had had to do a hazardous chemical cleanup (although tetralubisol was harmful only if ingested), and now he was facing an evening filled with reports on his days activities.
He sighed resignedly and wished something, anything would make it so he didnt have to do those stupid reports because some idiot got sloppy. And he was about to get his wish. Of course, he took a slight bit of satisfaction that whoever had serviced that blower motor was going to get busted for the tetralube spill, and took a slight bit of satisfaction that hed done his job well and would have his attention to detail appended into his record.
Unfortunately, neither would ever happen.
As he backed out of the duct, he felt something cold and icy grab his foot.
"Hey, whats with you?" he snapped at the jerk who was pulling his leg. "Let go, buddy, or Ill"
The intruder alert klaxon reverberated through the ducts, interrupting his threat.
"Oh, damn." He felt the tugging again, this time with both legs. "Look, you asshole, were in an alert, or..." Oh, shit...
He was suddenly pulled free of the duct with one motion, and he felt the cold iciness grab him by the back. It penetrated him, as though it were a deep chill. He faced the intruder, and said, "Well, this is just not my day."
He struggled all the way to the transporter room, and he struggled on the surface of the planet, and he struggled as he was placed against an obelisk, and he died in searing agony as he was reduced to jelly.
His last cogent thought was At least I dont have to do that stupid paperwork.
"Captain, Forward Recreation Room manager reports that a crewman cleaning the ducts was taken by the intruder," announced Janice Rand.
"Confirmed, sir," said Brai from Security.
"Transporter Room Two was again used," reported Maliszewski.
"Oh, God," muttered Parker.
Sulu turned with a start to see the image of a hapless life support technician reduced to slime being reduced to constituent goo on the viewscreen.
"All right, Mister Brai, I want a landing party consisting of volunteers to beam down to the surface of Kornephoros Six."
"I would like to volunteer, Captain," said Tuvok from Science Three.
"And I, sir," said his security chief.
Sulu saw a few more were about to join in, and he raised his hands as if to calm them down. "Ill take no more volunteers."
"Captain, dont tell me youre going below!" objected Cord.
Sulu regarded his chief medical officer with a warm smile. "All right, no need to state the obvious, eh, Doc?" He stood and stretched, readying himself for the mission.
"Captain, Id hate to charge you with a violation of Section Five-Six-Seven," threatened Rand. "But I will do so if you attempt to beam down with the landing party."
Sulu was more than slightly annoyed. "You may charge me with dereliction of duty, Commander, upon my return. But as subspace communications are down, and as I am the sole arbiter of Starfleet regulations on board, your objection has been duly noted and dismissed." He stepped to face his executive officer nose-to-nose. "Anything else?"
"Good hunting, then, sir," she replied, and turned and left the bridge, leaving a relief crewman manning communications.
Sulu stared after her for a moment, then shook his head. She was never happy whenever he went on hazardous missions, but for the life of him, he could not figure out why. And ever since their mission a month earlier (where theyd acted as a support ship to Chekovs Enterprise during a protracted engagement with the Tholians), shed been almost a martinet.
He promised himself he would find out why later when...if he returned.
"What do you mean it doesnt work? Qxl% has used it twice so far!" argued Sulu with the transporter technician.
"I cant explain it, sir," Transporter Chief Glarr responded, grunting. "But of course it was operating it, not me. It keeps tossing me aside into the nearest bulkhead, and by the time I scrape myself off the deck, its gone."
The Tellarite was extremely frustrated, Sulu could tell. Not his fault, Hikaru, he told himself. "Transporter Room Two to Bridge," Sulu called up into the open mike.
"Bridge, Captain Maliszewski here."
"Mallie, the transporters out."
"Thats what I was afraid of, Captain. Our transporter is operational only when Kicksulpop lets it be operational."
"Damn it, how is that possible?"
"A technology as advanced as this one is cant help but seem almost magical to us," Maliszewski said. "I dont know how its doing it, but I have figured out why its doing it. Our bodies are in normal space, and its unable to bring normal matter through subspace unless its using our technology."
Sulu pondered this for a moment. "Thirty years ago, we couldnt operate our transporters, and yet it chose not to come aboard the Shenandoah."
"Perhaps because Captain Kirk and his landing party had graciously come to its world. Why go to all the bother of going for takeout when youve got someone making a delivery to your front door?"
Sulu shook his head. "All right, lets do it the old-fashioned way. Ready the shuttlecraft Soo Chi for departure."
Petersons voice cut through on the intercom. "Uh, Captain, isnt that, uh, like kind of what it, uh, wants you to do?"
The captain nodded even though his tactical officer couldnt see him. "Yes, Mister Peterson, it is. Unfortunately, weve got no other way to deliver these ...presents to Qxl% other than in person."
Sulu felt the thin atmosphere buffeting the Mark VI shuttlecraft as they approached the perimeter of the crater. Despite the work of Qxl%s Bussard fields, there was still a lot of debris and dust in the air that had been propelled there by the cataclysmic blasts of the ships weaponry, and it was causing the Soo Chis engines to overheat.
Captain Sulu, Security Chief Brai, Science Officer Tuvok and Tactical Specialist Lance Carter from Security were not enjoying the rough ride.
"Excelsior to Soo Chi." It was the captain of Engineerings voice.
"Go ahead, Excelsior. We read you."
"Skipper, Kicksulpop has come aboard and taken another two victims: Ensign Sarah Hammer from Botany and Transporter Chief Glarr. There are indications that Glarr tried to stop the intruder with a phaser rifle."
"It withstood a phaser rifle?"
"Presumably, sir. There were no witnesses, but there are phaser burns all in the transporter room. Several panels were burned out. Itll take weeks to repair all the damage."
"And yet Qxl% still managed to use it to transport his victims down to the planet."
"No, sir. It made its way across the primary hull, holding both Glarr and Hammer in one...arm, and used Transporter Room One."
"Any other casualties?"
"No, sir. We were rather lucky."
"Were on final approach. We should be there shortly. Hopefully, we can stop it before it kills again."
"One obelisk, one victim remaining, Sulu," Maliszewski reminded him gently.
"Well be careful, Mallie."
"I know you will, Hikaru," her voice responded. "Oh, Mister Jordan recommends you set down fifty meters due South of the temple. The soil there should be firm enough to support the weight of the shuttlecraft."
"Sounds like Qxl% knows that companys coming."
"Thats got me concerned, too, Skipper. A lot."
"Me, too. Me, too. Sulu out."
Brai cleared his throat.
"Why not set down where it doesnt expect us to?"
"What have you got in mind, Lieutenant?"
It was old.
As old as the Slavers themselves.
They had feared it, and kept away from it those billion years ago. Yet it still found prey. The Slavers were prey. The Preservers were prey. The Organians were prey. The Metrons were prey. The Melkotians were prey. The Orions were prey. The Kurlan were prey. The Cheron were prey. The Kalandan were prey. The Klingons were prey. The Romulans were prey. The Kzinti were prey. The Humans were prey.
It had no equal in the galaxy. It did not consume much; five insignificant lifeforms every lokan. Meaningless little lives, but with enough lifeforce to allow it to continue. At one point, it had had a useful purpose to someone, whoever had designed it, but that purpose was long since forgotten. Its sole purpose now was to survive.
These prey had known about its trap and would no doubt take steps to prevent it from securing more prey.
The Kalandans had tried. So had the Organians before they become specters of energy. They failed as well. It had power to reach and pull greater than these puny things technology could fathom, let alone resist. At least a thousand times, following the Slaver Revolt, it had been necessary to retrieve prey from the surfaces of distant worlds. That was generally impractical and unnecessary given the amount of intelligent life in this part of the galaxy.
But given time, evolution took its course. Even on its little rocky world, there had once been intelligent life. They were dull-witted and had chosen to worship it, constructing a rock-hewn temple and sacrificing thousands of their own over the millennia. Unfortunately, the planets climate took a severe turn, and they had died out, along with most other animal life. It again turned to taking its prey from passing spacecraft.
Now it would have to destroy this spacecraft in orbit above. It could not and would not allow them to hinder it from obtaining prey.
Prey meant life. The spacecraft meant death.
The puny sub-creatures aboard would soon know death. It would send the servitor to deal with them...as soon as it dealt with the prey now on the surface of the planet.
"I will not allow you to place your life in jeopardy, Captain. Mister Carter and I will take the lead. Mister Tuvok will bring up the rear," announced Brai as the shuttlecraft rear access door slammed down into the gravity-packed dirt and debris fifty meters north of the temple.
Sulu was about to argue but decided otherwise. He was outnumbered anyway, and any objection would only serve to delay them from their appointed task.
Each of them was armed with a sonic generator keyed to what they hoped was the frequency designed to shatter the red crystal. Dressed in their landing party greys and tans, they moved toward the temple in a triangular pattern, Carter and Brai in the leading edge, Tuvok at the rear, and Sulu in the center.
They approached without incident. Five meters from the temple, they grouped closer together.
Softly, as if not to wake Qxl% from its slumber, Captain Sulu issued his orders: "Each of us will approach from a different direction in three minutes. If it appears before you, dont hesitate to call out. Everyone is to direct the sonic canons at the crystal. Theyll have no effect on the tachyon construct." He saw three nodding heads. "Move."
Tuvok and Brai took off along the right-side perimeter, Carter along the left. Sulu had chosen to remain in position. He peeked around the massive stone that was a part of the temple and saw Qxl%s construct standing in the center of the red crystal. He glanced to the right as he saw Brai making his way to the southern side of the temple. He glanced back at the crystal, and found himself staring at the shadowy form of the tachyon construct.
It grabbed him and headed toward the last obelisk on the far side of the temple.
"Brai, Tuvok, Carter!" he called.
All three Excelsior crewmen emerged from their positions and fired their small, hand-held sonic canons at the red crystal. The pitch was ear-splitting and teeth-shattering. Sulu had only experienced hypersonics once before when Doctor Sevrin had taken control of the Enterprise over thirty years ago. This was far worse, but he managed to aim his canon at the crystal as well.
Suddenly, he was lying on the ground, the construct flickering in and out of existence. The red crystal was vibrating to the whines coming from the sonic canons. Suddenly, it exploded into a thousand shards. Sulu covered his head and face from the sharp, glass-like fragments, and he heard screaming in the background.
He looked up and saw five beams of red light converging on where the crystal had been. Of the crystal, there were a few shards left. Of the tachyon construct, there was no sign. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Crewman Carter other than a pile of sludge at the base of the southernmost obelisk.
Sulu sat up and stared.
"You okay, Hikaru?" asked Doctor Ariel Cord as she entered his office.
Sulu was sitting in his kimono, cross-legged and drinking hot sake. "No, Ariel, Im not." He looked up at the receding planet in the large window before him. "I cant help but wonder if we won today...or if we lost."
"Maybe its not a question of whether you won or lost today, but how you played the game. You did everything you could, Hikaru. Everything. Sometimes, thats just not enough. We can just hope that it was."
"And if it wasnt?"
"Youll get him next time." She leaned down and kissed his furrowed forehead. "If there is a next time."
"Do you think we got it?"
"Does it matter?"
"Id like to know."
She shook her head. "Sulu, this things been on the loose for thousands of years that we know of. Maybe even more than that. Its pretty hard to believe that youve succeeded where all the others before you have failed."
"Sorry to hear you have such little faith in me."
She gave him a huge hug and sat down beside him, helping herself to his sake. "Sulu, Ive got tremendous faith in you. But youve got to realize that sometimes evil wins the day. It beat Jim Kirk thirty years ago, and it may or may not have beaten you today. Well know in thirty years. And I know that if it did manage to survive this time, youll do everything you can next time to see that it doesnt."
He nodded. "I guess thats all that can be asked of me."
"Thats all that can be asked of anyone."
They shared the rest of the sake in silence.
Free counters provided by Andale.
Return to the index of ORION ARCHIVES --
2285-2323 Captain Sulu.
Return to the index of ORION ARCHIVES On-Line Fiction.
Click Here to Return to the Orion Press Website