Occultus Ora, Stardate 58358.1
The Starship Titanrolled slowly in the dark, dancing between the invisible jetsam, the ethereal flotsam, like some graceful leviathan swimming a terrestrial sea. All around it the other occupants of this region, the inspiration for the ship's lingering ballet, also pitched and spun in apparent counterpoint to the vessel's motion.
Titan's astronomers had dubbed the region Occultus Ora for some reason known only to them. The physicists called the things residing hereexotic matter plasmidsbut, lately, those who'd been tasked with ferreting out their secrets had taken to referring to the strange objects simply as darklings.
The image came from a myth Dr. Celenthe had heard on its homeworld of Syrath, something about the Catalysts of creation hiding in the dark.
The name fit the new objects well. They were invisible to every naked eye, irrespective of species, untouchable by all but the most specifically calibrated sensors, intangible by nearly every measure, yet here they were, in the lee of the Gum Nebula, performing their tandem pirouette, bending gravity into knots in complete defiance of their supposed nonexistence.
It was sheer luck thatTitanhad happened upon them at all even with the fantastic array of devices it sported to facilitate its explorations.
A weird but consistent spike in one of the lower EM bands during a routine sensor sweep had drawn the attention of the senior science officer and subsequently that of his captain. Another ship would have missed even that.
"Absolutely, Mr. Jaza," Captain Riker had said, a broad grin cutting a canyon in the dark hair of his beard as he perused the younger man's data. "Let's have a closer look."
Jaza had never worked under a commander with as acute an appreciation for the beauty of the unknown as William Riker, never encountered anyone, scientist or artist, soldier or civilian, who had as pure a love for discovery. There was a free-form quality to the way Riker directedTitan's missions that kept everyone on their toes without giving them all over to chaos. There was always reason guiding Riker's rhyme, even when it wasn't readily apparent.
Over weeks and with much rewriting of code and re-tasking of systems, the darklings came into sharper and sharper relief. To everyone's delight, they also brought along more mysteries to solve. Days became weeks. A couple of re-tasked systems became a score and soon a good portion ofTitan's crew was focused in one way or another on the strange cosmic formation onto which they had luckily stumbled.
They were a strain of so-called dark matter, that was obvious, but, unlike the garden variety of the stuff, the darklings' existence was apparently extremely organized. They were set in a massive ring, evenly distributed and collectively spinning in orbit around a neutron star.
How had this happened? What sustained the effect? What properties set this form of exotic matter outside the normal bestiary? These questions and hundreds more were asked by Jaza and his staff over the weeksTitan, now rigged essentially for silent running to avoid any stray homegrown rads cluttering their survey, spent sliding between the massive invisible pips.
It was a good time, the perfect expression of their collective raison d'être.
Which, of course, meant it couldn't last.
The day began badly for him: a fitful sleep full of powerful and unsettling dreams, followed by a return to consciousness that put him in mind of the time he'd escaped drowning.
Caught in a river whose current he had misjudged, he found himself both falling and being swept forward by the pull of something he could neither see nor fight. It had been terrifying then and, even though his father had pulled him out only a few seconds after he'd tumbled from the boat, his time in the water had felt like eternity.
The dream, what he could remember of it, wasn't truly terrifying in that way. There was no risk of death, obviously, and he wasn't drenched or shivering cold. Yet there was the same power in the thing, the same inexorable pull from something invisible and powerful and impossible to touch.
There had been new elements this time, he thought -- a flash of vegetation he hadn't noticed in previous bouts, the sound of a female voice screaming his name, something about a crash.
Once a strange and even mystical experience for him, especially the first few times, the dream had mostly become little more than an occasional and occasionally unpleasant puzzle, cut into billions of obscure pieces of which he only had access to portions at a time.
He would solve it one day, he knew. In fact he knew considerably more about the puzzle and its solution than he usually admitted even to himself. But one day was not today.
And, of course, the dream was also a kind of promise, one he'd tested over time and found to be true.
He'd been here before and would come again he knew, but each time he returned from the dream, whether he remembered every detail or not, he was forced to take moments to remind himself who he was, where he was and that, so far at least, he was still alive.
One day that would not be true. One day there would be no waking and no reassurances. One day the dream would not be a dream.
But that day was also not today.
It wasn't until after he'd stumbled to the wash basin and splashed cool water on his face (sonic showers would never do for something like this) that he felt almost like himself again. Almost, but not quite. The dream, even the sparse fragments of it that he could usually remember, was always unsettling in a way that he had yet to find words to describe.
Looking in the mirror he studied the details of his face and found them just very slightly alien. The eyes were the right color gray; the ridges across his nose were properly deep and defined; his skin was the same brown and the few flecks of gray that had begun to appear in the black of his hair had not multiplied, and yet there was something unrecognizable about the man staring back at him. It was as if he was looking into the face of some acquaintance, a colleague he might see occasionally in passing or a classmate from long ago. Not quite a stranger but not a face he found entirely familiar.
"You're Najem," he told himself. "You're Jaza Najem."
The computer told him that he was about an hour ahead of his duty shift; his subordinates would wonder why he had shown up so early and perhaps consider it a negative mark against their own abilities. So he decided to dress, get a snack, and take a short walk before heading up.
The galley wasn't quite empty when he arrived. Little clusters of chatting people had gathered at a few of the tables, while others had chosen quiet solitude in the hall's more secluded corners.
"Greetings, Mr. Jaza," said Chordys, the Bolian who ran the place from the closing hours of gamma shift through most of alpha. She was a cheery little thing whose round blue body seemed to be little more than life support for her smile. "You're up early. Getting a jump on the day?"
He managed a smile of his own, nowhere near as bright, mumbled something that she pretended was coherent as he pointed to the pitcher of protolact on the shelf behind her.
"Upset stomach?" she intuited. He nodded. It was close enough to how he felt though not truly accurate. Upset soul, perhaps? What was the cure for that?
"Dr. Ree usually comes along in the next half an hour or so," said Chordys, going on without him. "He's on the coldblood cycle, you know. Only up during the 'day.' You can probably catch a word with him before his shift begins."
"No," said Jaza, as she reached for the jar of blue liquid. "It's just bad sleep. I'll be fine in a few minutes."
She beamed back at him good-naturedly and handed off the protolact. He drank as he walked, taking swigs between steps and feeling progressively more like himself. He decided to swing by the forward observation area and collect his thoughts there before going up to the pod.
The odd clusters of darklings did obscure most of normal space, making Occultus Ora an almost totally black void, but, sometimes, the light from a nearby star could cut through.
As much as he loved plumbing the secrets of this region -- just thinking of it sent a thrill through him -- it was nice to see the stars from time to time. It settled his mind to see them out there, perhaps not as eternal as they had seemed to him as a child but permanent enough for all practical purposes. As much as he loved pushing the edges, there was something to be said for that stability, even if it was only an illusion supported by his limited perceptions.
Bajor was out there somewhere, far beyond the range of evenTitan's sensors. It was strange how little he actually thought of home these days. There was always so much to see and do that the day-to-day life of Bajor, how his father was, what his children were up to, only floated like buoys on the vast surface of his mind.
Somehow, whenever the dream resurfaced, his mind swam home as fast as it could. It wasn't really homesickness, he had reasons for not spending too much time there, but whenever the dream recurred, there was always that strange hollow ache afterward.
He made a mental note to record a message to his family as soon as this business with Occultus Ora was complete.
Hello to all. Yes, we're all still fine out here. Still alive. Only a few more years to go...The message would take weeks to arrive and be necessarily brief but they expected that from him by now. He'd never been good at verbally expressing the amazing things he'd witnessed in his travels and so had forced himself to become adept at holography. The actual image of a dying pulsar spoke it with far more eloquence than any words he might put around it. Of course, there would be no pictures of Occultus Ora, none that a lay person would find interesting at any rate. Only black, black, black.
Still, on this occasion, he would be forced to try to put it all into words and he would certainly have the time to do it. There was no way to get a signal out now. The darklings' gravity wells and particle discharges made normal communications dicey at best.
He tried to recall a few sonnets to go along with his descriptions of this place; perhaps a line or two from Erish Elo'sFlames of Darknesswould be apropos.
The observation deck was even more devoid of people than the galley had been. With only two stars visible through the massive plexi wall the only available illumination came from the light strips that ran the length of the ceiling, kept intentionally dimmer than the norm to facilitate tranquility of thought. There was always a somber, contemplative feel to the place and that was precisely what he needed on mornings after the dream's reappearance.
Aside from himself only two other beings, two female ensigns, shared the space. They were both essentially humanoid. One was an Antaran, you could tell by the massive V-shaped cranial ridge dominating her forehead. The other was a member of some species he couldn't readily identify. She was tallish, slender, longer of limb than the average human or Bajoran with a coating on her skin that glinted vaguely metallic in the low light.
Her hair, a thicket of long, ropelike braids, extended to the small of her back, where it was held in a loose bunch by a single regulation blue band.
They nodded professionally at his arrival but, when it was clear he meant to keep to himself, went back to their previous conversation, speaking in intentionally hushed tones so as not to be overheard.
He did his best not to listen, he had no wish to intrude, but the unfortunate acoustics of the place made eavesdropping inevitable.
There was something about a coworker being unreasonable, another about the unreliability of that person's work and the general consensus that, were it not for their commander's personal affection for the buffoon, he would spend the bulk of his on-duty time scrubbing plasma conduits. It soon became clear that the subject of their discussion had been romantically involved with the Antaran and now was very much not.
Titanmight be home to the most diverse crew in Starfleet but there was surprisingly little variation when it came to mating rituals. People of every social and biological distinction generally managed to make a hash of love as often as not. He had long since learned the lesson that shipboard relationships were best kept casual and short in duration.
Now this ensign, Loolooa he thought, remembering her name suddenly, was getting the news. She was young. She would likely beliasingwith someone new in the next few weeks. It was the nature of life on a starship.
The other female said little during their exchange, confining most of her responses to semi-audible murmurs of agreement and support.
He found her fascinating for some reason, despite the fact that her back was too him most of the time. Something about her, the contours of her shape, perhaps, or the way her hair bounced slightly with each of her nods, reminded her of his wife.
She would have hated all this, he thought.All this quiet, painstaking creeping into the unknown quarters of the galaxy. Sumari could scarcely conceive of traveling offworld, much less the long-term deep exploration that now defined his life.
"There's too much on Bajor to work out," she would always say. "Too much that needs doing here."
Of course those had been in their days in the resistance, in the time before her death.
It had taken years for the thought of her to come to him as something other than a cold, serrated ache in his chest and years more for him to take any joy in his memories of her, but he had eventually learned to accept the loss of her as another stone on the path he was destined to walk.
"And, anyway," said Ensign Loolooa. "I much prefer your company to his." She ran fingers softly along her companion's cheek, eliciting a sharp exhalation from that quarter.
The other female took Loolooa's hand gently and leaned close enough to her that, at first, Jaza thought they might kiss. He was suddenly self-conscious at the turn of events and, not wishing to intrude on their privacy further, swallowed the last of his protolact and made for the exit.
Only the other female did not kiss Loolooa. Instead, as he passed them on the way to the door, he saw her whispering something to her friend, directly into her aural cavity.
Whatever she said caused Loolooa to draw back sharply and bolt from the room, unmindful of the superior officer occupying the space between her and the exit. She collided with him, even as he moved to get out of her way and sent the two of them sprawling to the floor.
She was up instantly, terribly flustered and full of apologies for which he assured her there was no reason. When she had expressed enough contrition to satisfy her personal sense of decorum, she quickly exited the observation area.
"I'm sorry about that, sir," said the other ensign placidly. "Loo can be excitable."
"So I see," said Jaza.
"She's," the ensign seemed to be searching for the right word. "She requires companionship. I believe her people are not well suited for solitary life."
"I'm guessing yours are?" said Jaza, looking at her fully for the first time. She wasn't wearing a metallic skin tint; her sheen seemed to be the natural look of her flesh. If not for her occasional movement and the size and contours of her eyes, she could have been the sculpture of a humanoid woman cast in copper or gold. Fascinating.
"We are suited for many contingencies, sir," she said. "But I am not suited for Loo."
It was the same old story and he didn't press her for more details. In fact he felt a little odd standing there with her, especially as both of them had stopped talking and were just sort oflookingat each other.
It was impossible to read her expression; her wide turquoise eyes were like glass marbles and, though beautiful in their way, did not have pupils or lids. She didn't blink. He felt naked suddenly, scrutinized, and not a little bit panicked.
"Well," she said.
"Yes," he said.
"I am returning to duty now," she said. "Sir."
"I'm starting my shift as well."
There was another moment of awkward silence before she finally departed. He stood there alone for the next few minutes, his heart beating thunder inside him. He had again that same strange sensation of invisible hands taking hold of him and pulling that he'd felt from the dream -- the same sense of being drawn inexorably down.
For a second, he thought of chasing after her and asking if she had in fact intentionally inspired these feelings via some species-specific means. Such exchanges weren't unheard of.
The second passed however and the strange hot/cold pressure in his chest did as well. By the time he reached the turbolift he'd forgotten he'd experienced those feelings at all.
"Begin final phase," said Mr. Jaza from the coordination dais. Had any of his subordinates been capable of tearing themselves from their work to look his way, they would have seen what appeared to be the shadow of a humanoid figure standing in the center of a ring of floating disks of light, the coordination display.
The silhouetting effect was the result of low ambient light settings in effect during this mission. Jaza actually found the perpetual twilight relaxing.
Jaza's position at the base level gave him a clear view of the upper tiers -- three segmented decks outfitted with control nodes for the most powerful sensor array Starfleet technology had ever produced.
All around him, hidden beneath the deck and beyond the bulkheads, that array focused itself entirely on piercing the secrets of the surrounding ring of exotic matter.
Ordinarily automated, the Titan's dorsally-mounted sensor pod was configured for temporary manned operation at the discretion of the ship's senior science officer when a less orthodox and more hands-on approach to an investigation was deemed appropriate. On this occasion, the Occultus Ora had pushed Jaza's buttons in all the rights ways.
"Probe three, returning to dock," said a voice from above.
Scattered among the many consoles were other shadows, the members of his research team -- Hsuuri, Polan, Fell, Roakn, aMershik, the two Benzites whose names he could never keep straight: Berias and Voris, and the young Cardassian cadet, Dakal.
The other members of the group, Bralik and Pazlar, were cloistered down in the astrometrics lab, analyzing the massive holographic simulations translated from the collated probe data.
Jaza confirmed the arrival on his own display but still asked for a verbal report from Dakal. The young Cardassian had the makings of a good scientist, despite his protestations to the contrary.
"Probe Four, away," said Dakal, somewhat mechanically. "Preparing for sensor sweep, series omega." He was bent over a viewing node in the upper tier of theStarship Titan's dedicated sensor module instead of availing himself of the view from the thick forward viewport that was normally shuttered when the pod was unmanned.
There really wasn't much point in looking out the window. Thanks to the darklings that surrounded them, all he would see that way was endless black. Through his little viewer he could see the real target of his team's investigation.
"Probe Four, accelerating to plus-two ionic," said Ensign Hsuuri in a voice that managed to be equal parts purr and snarl. Only a meter or so away, she too was hunched over an observation node, focused entirely on its readouts, completely ignoring the panorama outside the plexi.
Hsuuri was a Caitian, a feline species from a world Dakal had only read about and in whose existence he hadn't quite believed until he found himself working with actual representatives. There were three others like Hsuuri onTitan -- another female, Hriss, and two males. All the others occupied positions in Starfleet security. Dakal found the species arresting.
Hriss was covered with fine auburn fur, broken here and there with white speckles about the size of Dakal's thumbprint. She was thick bodied, somewhat imposing -- a good quality for someone making a career in security. Hsuuri was smaller, slighter, and curvier, with a coat that looked like an arctic forest set ablaze. The lower part of her face, her throat, and, he presumed, her chest were covered in the snowy white fur. The rest of her was fire. She had a way of flicking her tail from side to side as she stood that was at once playful and somewhat hypnotic.
Hsuuri was Dakal's superior officer, as was nearly everyone onTitan, but that didn't mean he couldn't admire her from time to time. There was a lot to appreciate about her, and not all of it had to do with her cultural history. Feline or no, she was a fascinating woman.
They hadn't passed two words to each other that weren't work related, but once omega phase was finished, who could say?
At home there were taboos against too much close fraternization with non-Cardassians. There was also an even stronger proscription against joining the paramilitary organizations of former enemies. He hadn't given a shtel about that, had he? So Dakal saw no reason to balk at a chance to interview Hsuuri about their cultural differences over something hot and steamy. Yes, he would ask her to join him for that meal as soon as the work was done.
"Cadet Dakal," said Jaza's voice from below, snapping him out of his reverie. "I asked you for an update."
Back to work, Zurin, he admonished himself.Mr. Jaza passed over four other candidates to put you on his team. Stop dreaming. "Probe Four is cresting the inner perimeter now, sir," he said a little hastily. "Telemetric linksys is in the green."
"Activating TOV," said Jaza, reaching for what looked like a large glass bowl impaled here and about with slender metallic rods and connected to the dais by a length of thick cable. It slid down over his forehead and eyes and then, "Counting down from five, four, three, two -- "
He was outside, free from the confines ofTitan's shell, free from the restrictions imposed by his physical body, out among the darklings. Only the small blinking display in the lower corner of his vision disrupted the illusion that his presence in open space was anything other than simulated.
Using the TOV -- telemetric observation VISOR -- Jaza saw what the probe saw, its sensor data translated into the visual spectrum with small annotations scrolling by to denote the exact composition of whatever happened to be its target.
It moved as he wished with little more than a flick of his mental will. Though he could never see them naturally, using the probe's "eyes" he found himself floating in the midst of a universe of floating black asteroids of every conceivable shape and size.
He felt a little pang of rue as he moved in on a particularly enticing hunk of darkling matter. They'd had a great time excavating all the data they could from this place, but once the omega sweep was done,Titanhad to move on.
Later Starfleet might decide to place an outpost here to really plumb the depths of Occultus Ora, but that was years away. If it ever happened.
The only real drawback of deep space exploration was what the humans often referred to as the Faustian bargain. He had no idea about the origin of the phrase, but the practical definition seemed to mean having to press on before you'd done more than scratch the surface of the new.
Ah, well, he thought. Every action has its opposite. At least we were here first. "Lieutenant Pazlar," he said aloud as he moved toward the great black hulk.
"Pazlar here," said a mellifluous voice over the comm.
"Omega series is under way," said Jaza, the pleasure in his own voice audible to anyone in a position to hear. "Prepare to receive telemetry from Probe Four."
"Ready when you are," said Pazlar, as he closed in on his shadowy prey.
"Excellent," Jaza said. "Let's get started."
Bralik shot slowly upward, happy to let her momentum take her where she wanted to go. In this case that meant about thirty vertical feet away from the deck of the stellar cartography lab, up through the strange inky formations, like asteroids and unlike them as well, that floated all around.
The chamber -- you couldn't really call something so enormous a room -- was a massive sphere in which star systems, individual cosmic bodies, even the entire galaxy could be displayed, at will, in three dimensions.
Bralik took great pleasure in her visits here, but as a geologist, she normally had little official reason to drop by.
This current project of Jaza's was not only an opportunity to demonstrate her expertise as a rock hound but it also required her to spend lots of time in this lovely, lovely chamber.
Of course the current setup also removed about a quarter of the fun of coming here, leaving only the job itself, the lowered g, and the companionship to entertain her. Bralik enjoyed fun and did her best to wedge it into just about any activity she could manage. Life was too short to do otherwise.
It wasn't a very Ferengi attitude, the seeking of pleasure without profit, but Bralik long ago decided that profit was sometimes in the eye of the beholder.
Most of the crew of the Starship Titan found the decreased gravity the mistress of this area enjoyed somewhat discomfiting. Not Bralik.
Years working mining excavations situated on asteroids large and small had made gravity just another variable to her, nothing to get worked up about. Plus, the vibrations her spinning assent sent tingling across her lobes had an erotic quality she found hard to resist.
The remaining quarter of pleasure in this duty was the company of the chamber's only other occupant.
Melora Pazlar, the ship's lead stellar cartographer, was the reason for the area's lowered g. Pazlar's species, the Elaysians, had evolved in environments just like this, though how they'd also managed to maintain their basically humanoid structure was a matter of considerable conjecture. Unlike the squat, utilitarian Ferengi physique, Pazlar's people were almost the living incarnation of delicate grace.
Whatever the truth of her bizarre evolution, Pazlar took to her low-g haven like a slug to the swamp. Seeing her glide effortlessly from one position to the next was, Bralik thought, not unlike watching the flight of a creature from human myth that had once been described to her.
Of course, the only thing about Pazlar that was angelic was her looks. The rest was a combination of prickles and frost, at least at first, but even those qualities could be enjoyable. Once you got past her initial standoffishness -- a trait Bralik made it a rule to ignore in any being she encountered -- Pazlar was an energetic, even magnetic companion. She'd traveled everywhere, despite being hobbled by gravities that were almost invariably crushing for her delicate frame. Her mind was like a laser drill. She looked after herself and was proof against any display of pity or condescension.
She might look like she was built ofdzurabones and silk, but Pazlar was solid as osmium ore. Like any raw metal, a little patience was all it took to polish up a gleam.
"Somebody doesn't look happy," said Bralik as she passed between two of the black asteroids to bump lightly against Pazlar's legs.
"I miss my stars," said the younger woman, dutifully helping Bralik orient herself so that their heads faced each other. "I'm sick of all this black."
She meant the current display dominating the entirety of the chamber. Instead of the normal star field, the two women were surrounded by the computer's best guess at what Jaza's probes and recalibrated sensors had under examination.
It wasn't truly blackness that engulfed them. There were halos of every hue sparking and dying pretty much constantly in all directions. Wherever they appeared, their light created the clear silhouette of something that looked like an asteroid but was very much not. It wasn't the galaxy laid out like diamonds in invisible ether, but it was beautiful in its way.
What the silhouettes were and how they happened to be here, arranged as they were around their invisible star, was the topic of much interest amongTitan's science specialists. Even Melora Pazlar had been among them at first. Nearly two weeks of diminishing participation in the actual probing had increased her sense of useless isolation.
"Yeah," said Bralik, peeking over at the other woman's padd. "But buck up, angel. We're nearly done."
"I can't believe I let Jaza talk me into letting him commandeer my entire department for this."
"I wouldn't describe a superior officer ordering you to reset all your equipment to display only exotic matter talking you into something."
"You're right," said Pazlar with another of her rueful but stunning smiles. "But Jaza doesn't come at you that way. He's all enthusiasm and love of pure knowledge. It gets you caught up."
"â??'Jaza,' huh?" said Bralik, grinning. "Not 'Najem'?"
"He gets his name back when I get my stars," said Pazlar.
"You're a tough little thing when you want to be, aren't you," said Bralik, showing her own sharp teeth. "Anyway, it sounds more like you're talking about Captain Riker than our Bajoran friend."
"It's sort of the same thing," said Pazlar, watching another halo fire up and die and tapping in the appropriate notations. "By the time I realized what he was doing, my stars were gone and I was stuck with this."
"Forty-eight," said Bralik with a chuckle. Pazlar looked up from her padd but didn't ask the question. Bralik answered anyway. "Rule of Acquisition number forty-eight: The bigger the smile, the sharper the knife."
They were quiet for a time, each watching the halos' erratic discharges and making notes accordingly. Bralik had requested they bring an actual sample aboard for long-term study, but Jaza had deemed the darkling matter too volatile to risk danger to the crew. She'd been forced to make do with the holographic sims. Granted they were amazingly detailed and presented their data in the visual spectrum as much as possible, but you really couldn't ever beat putting your hands on something.
"Huh," said Pazlar absently. "That's odd."
"What is?" said Bralik.
"I'm getting flickers in the boryon range."
"Meaning?" said Bralik.
Pazlar ignored the question and "swam" down to a lower region of the massive display, disappearing briefly behind two enormous clumps of black. When she reappeared, Bralik saw her hovering near several midsized darklings, apparently waiting for something. She watched Pazlar watching as each object's halo lit up in succession.
By the time the third flare had come and gone, Bralik knew what had tweaked Pazlar's interest. So far, without deviation, the darkling halos had been uniformly red or aqua or whatever. This undulating rainbow effect was something new.
"Well?" said Bralik. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure," said Pazlar, her hands now tapping frantically at her padd. Something was obviously wrong. "Pazlar to Jaza."
"Go ahead," came the immediate response.
"Can you change the probe's orientation to grid zed seven and tell me what you see?"
"Executing," said Jaza, clearly puzzled. Then, "What am I supposed to be-- ?"
He stopped speaking abruptly, and Bralik thought she could see why. The strange halos that Pazlar noticed had returned and brought friends. A largish cluster of the rainbow auras flashed briefly around their respective darklings and faded again.
"Caves of fire," said Jaza under his breath. "Tell me that's not what it looks like."
"Don't go all Red Alert yet," said Pazlar, her fingers tapping furiously on her padd. "It could be something local, or it could be a glitch in the probe's transfer signal."
"No and no," said Jaza through what sounded to Bralik like clenched teeth. "Wait a moment."
"Should we abort?" said Pazlar, after the moment had passed.
"Wait," said Jaza, the stress clearly overtaking him now. Whatever this was, it was something apparently dire. Bralik's own padd was keyed to interpret only the geological data -- information culled strictly from the molecular examination of the darklings. By contrast, Pazlar and Jaza were focused on subatomica.
"Can you isolate the source of the distortion?" Pazlar asked.
"Working on it..."
"It looks like a ripple from some sort of -- "
"The distortion's clearly artificial, Melora."
"But there's nothing sentient-made out here." Bralik could tell from her tone that Pazlar was grasping at straws. "Is it possible we missed -- "
"You know what this is as well as I do or you wouldn't have contacted me," said Jaza, his anger evident even over the comm. "That lunatic!"
Unable to help or even participate, the Ferengi geologist contented herself with floating free, watching and listening as her colleagues worked frantically to solve their cryptic problem.
"Should we abort?"
"We're not aborting," said Jaza.
"But, if all the data are corrupted..."
"We don't know that yet."
Time ticked and, though she still couldn't decipher the meat of their conversation, Bralik felt the tension increase with each moment.
Just when she was about to ask again what the problem was, the entire display vanished, leaving the two women floating inside a massive gray sphere whose surface was a lattice of overlapping gold and silver grids.
"Melora," said Jaza's voice, now stripped of any semblance of emotion. "I'd like you and the rest of the team to go over the collected data and isolate any anomalies similar to what we've just seen. I need a timeline."
"We'll salvage what we can," said Pazlar.
A light chime sounded, indicating that Jaza had switched off. Pazlar tapped her padd once, deactivating it.
"What just happened?" said Bralik. "Don't tell me we're dumping three weeks of work over one little glitch."
"Just suspending it for now," Pazlar corrected, a hint of Jaza's pique creeping into her tone as well. "Pending data review."
"So what's the big problem?" asked Bralik, drifting down to join the Elaysian.
"Same problem as always," said Pazlar. "Ra-Havreii."
"Sometimes the worst thing about a day is living through it," her mother used to say. More than once in both her careers Christine Vale had come to know the wisdom of those words.
As she stood in the anteroom waiting for Troi to finish whatever was taking her so long, she wished again that something, perhaps some giant bit of alien war tech still roaming the stars in search of prey, would swoop down on the starshipTitanand start blasting away. Nothing too fancy or lethal -- just a little combat to break up the terrors of the lull.
It wasn't that she enjoyed the potential for carnage created by such circumstances. She had no particular bloodlust to speak of. It was just that, during those times, she knew who she was, knew what to do, how to function fluidly when there was chaos all around. It was just easier than, well,this.
"We're out here to explore, Chris," Will Riker said more than once. "Not to fight." His eyes always sparkled a bit when he dropped one of these epigrams, as if he had a cluster of pulsars stored in his skull instead of a brain. She was all for exploration -- hell, that was a large part of why she'd joined Starfleet in the first place: to set her eyes and hands on something really new. The trouble was, war got you used to the rush, the constant possibility of attack or death at the hands of an enemy. Exploration, pure exploration, was often very slow and brutally quiet.
It took time to map the contours of an exotic stellar phenomenon or open diplomatic relations with a species that had no understanding of the concept of "I." It took time and concentration and coordinated effort. Coordination takes unity, and unity takes -- well, until this duty she thought she knew what unity meant. Life onTitanhad blown all her notions on that score out the airlock. Lately, whenTitanwas performing its function, she found herself experiencing an increasing sense of dread as she anticipated the next catastrophic problem coming from within rather than without. There were simply too many variables, too many potential trouble spots for her to come up with contingencies for everything. The longerTitanwent in the quiet, the more anxious she became.
Her nerves had, once again, taken their toll on her hair. When she was too long in stir, she dyed. When she was too long waiting for the second shoe to drop, she cut. Now she was both, so...
It's too red, she thought, catching her reflection in the polished surface of the room divider.It looks like Risan shimmer ink.
The length was okay. She always enjoyed a severe cut, but, paired with the red in her uniform, well,too muchwas the simplest way to put it. As soon as she had an hour free, she'd go back to some version of blond.
Vale had deliberately avoided visiting the counselors' suites since beginning duty onTitan. Not only did she not enjoy people poking around in her psyche, telepathically or otherwise, she simply preferred Deanna Troi in her capacity as the ship's diplomatic officer. There was a clear delineation between their duties then, less potential for boundary crossing.
The command structure was in place for a reason, and those wrinkles that muddied it, say a senior officer being married to the captain, as was the case with Troi and Captain Riker -- well,muddywas definitely the word for it.
Vale's duties as XO and Troi's in her other capacity as senior counselor created an automatic -- and not always comfortable -- overlap. Overlap meant confusion. Confusion meant a drop in efficiency, something a ship with a crew as diverse asTitan's could ill afford.
Lives depended, quite literally, on both interspecies and interdepartmental harmony. It was another reason the Sudden Alien Attack scenario was increasingly attractive. Something like that cleared the normal frictions away in favor of duty. Without that Other to offer a binding physical threat? Well.
If nothing else, the friction proved to her what she had long suspected: no matter the planet of origin, people were essentially the same. Too bad it wasn't a guarantee of peaceful coexistence.
A certain amount of chronic discord was inevitable on long-term space explorations, even among members of the same species. You just couldn't coop up that many people that long in what was essentially a giant metal can and not get some temper spikes. Generally, this sort of thing was self-regulating, only occasionally requiring intercession by counselors -- and, once in a while, security.
The carnivores and the herbivores, for example, had managed to ease into something like a polite truce, the former keeping the blood spray at mealtimes to a minimum and the latter respecting the effort enough not to raise a fuss over the occasional stray droplet. Progress.
Some of the other frictions, however, still required a degree of management.
No, you can't remove this bulkhead, Chaka. I'm sorry the accommodations are so cramped. We'll work something out for you.
Yes, Lieutenant Keyexisi, I know Ensign Lavena's quarters are still bleeding heat from yours, but we're only talking about a few decimals of a degree. You can't possibly feel the diff --
He has apologized, Ensign Mecatus. Put him down. You are not entitled to a quart of his lifeblood.
It was like being pecked to death by ducks (another of Mother Vale's maxims). And most irritating of all, perhaps, were the troubles caused by Titan's chief engineer: the mounting tension between him and the ship's senior science officer, the difficulties the engineer's...natural hedonism was causing among not a few of the crew's female complement, and, of course, the fact that his air of complete indifference to all of it made Vale's own pressure spike. Routinely pissing off your shipmates might make for a bumpy tour of duty. Adding stress to your XO's day? That could get ugly.
Dr. Xin Ra-Havreii was a genius, yes, but that didn't count for much in stopping someone from punching him in the face. Vale had seen plenty of smart guys pounded senseless by lesser intellects who happened to be in possession of a pool cue. Jaza wasn't quite there yet, but if Ra-Havreii kept pushing him...
And so, here she was, waiting to meet with Counselor Troi so they could work out a tandem approach to obviating some of the more persistent issues that had sprung up among the crew.
Only Troi had been off her game too, hadn't she? She and, by extension, her staff were evidently leaving enough cracks inTitan's social cement that crewmen were actually accosting Vale in the corridors to vent their grievances. Being turned into the ship's walking complaint department had definitely breached the perimeter of her personal neutral zone.
What the hell was Troi doing back there? She had to know Vale's to-do list had stretched to the point where it could choke a pig. Troi's own had to be competitively long. They'd agreed to get this out of the way, first thing, so as not to clutter up the day with missing each other and having to waste time -- time in which the frictions would only grow -- with serial rescheduling.
"First will be best," Troi had said, and Vale had agreed. It was something her mother had instilled in her along with the other little buds of wisdom.
Clear the scrap away early, so it's easier to see what's in front of you.
At this rate, First was in danger of shoving Second to Third and Third to Sixty-Seventh, and that couldn't happen if Vale hoped to remain sane. Of course, another ten minutes cooling her heels in this damnable vestibule might push her over the brink before Troi got the chance.
She'd never enjoyed waiting. Even when she was an officer in the planet Izar's security force the worst part of the job had always been the stakeouts -- sitting meters away from some criminal's den on the off chance that they might come or go during the hours you were watching. You watched the clock during those times. You waited, expectant, for something previously unconsidered to occur that would shatter your whole program.
Sometimes it came and you were sort of relieved to have been right -- something bad was about to happen. Sometimes it didn't and you were thrilled to be wrong and for things to run as they should. In either case it was the waiting that killed. In joining Starfleet she'd hoped to put that particular torment behind her.
But, here I am again,she thought, taking in the room for the seventy-fifth time.If there's a hell, you can bet it's a place like this.The vestibule was a lot like Troi herself -- understated, well put together, professional in appearance but with occasional flourishes. In addition to the walls' muted colors, pale greens and yellows mostly, she'd hung small tapestries from various worlds. A few leafy micro vines were potted here and about, their branches extending across the ceiling in places and subtly undercutting the sense of being indoors. There was a hint of some fragrance in the air as well -- traces of some exotic spice? Maybecherasroot.
In any case the whole place was obviously set up to put occupants at their ease, which, of course, made Vale edgy. She was just about to loudly remind Troi of their scheduled meeting when the door to the counselor's office sighed open and a large scaly figure emerged.
"Good morning, Commander Vale," said the raptorlike creature genially, the words hissing out of his throat like jets of steam.
"Morning, Dr. Ree," she said.
"Please forgive me for delaying Counselor Troi," said Ree. "I believe she'll be with you in a moment."
"No problem," said Vale. "Not discussing anything that needs my attention, were you?"
Ree's sloping reptilian face cocked to one side and his tongue licked out at her twice.
"Not at all, Commander," he said. "This was strictly a routine visit." His Pahkwa-thanh morphology made the subtleties of Ree's expressions difficult for Vale to read. Sometimes, when he was amused, for instance, his unblinking yellow eyes gave the impression they were tracking prey. Still, she thought she might have detected a mild stiltedness to Ree's words, as if he was perhaps not speaking the precise truth. Or it could have been something totally alien to her human sensibilities and untranslatable.
The doctor complimented her on her choice of hair pigment and then was gone, the claws on his feet scratching softly against the carpet as he passed.
"A little too much red, no?" Troi emerged from the main suite, gesturing for Vale to join her inside.
"No peeking inside my head, Counselor," said Vale jauntily. "We've talked about that."
"None necessary," said Troi with a smile that seemed to Vale a little forced. "Just years of enduring intense fashion criticism at Lwaxana's School for Wayward Betazoids."
Nice try, thought Vale, taking in Troi's demeanor.But I'm not buying.
Unlike the doctor, Troi was an easy read. Though she covered it well, the counselor looked, for lack of a better term, like hell. Despite the strictly professional pose and demeanor, there were little hints that, to Vale's eyes at least, added up to something other than happiness lurking behind her mask.
Her eyes were red-rimmed and flat, totally absent their normal inky sparkle. Her mouth was set, stiff, as if to say,Smile, what smile? I have no idea what a smile is or why I should want to make one. Her skin, normally a deep olive, was now nearly as pale as Vale's own.
You didn't need police training to see she'd been crying. It wasn't a leap to conclude Ree had given her some unpleasant news.
Routine visit, huh? she thought. I'll bet.
Troi gestured for Vale to take the seat opposite hers. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
"No problem," said Vale, easing down into the soft cushion. She had to restrain herself from asking about Ree's house call.
"I'm fine," said Troi, having obviously plucked the feeling out of her mind despite her earlier denials.Betazoids. "Dr. Ree's visit was just routine."
Sure it was, thought Vale, and regretted it instantly. Troi had obviously "felt" her skepticism then as well. Vale resolved to redouble her efforts to develop her emotional shields. Jokes aside, she knew Troi better than to think she would invade Vale's privacy, but one of the things that helped to make her so effective as a multispecies therapist was the way her patients' feelings "leaked" out of them, and it wouldn't do for the ship's first officer to be that readable. Despite their time together as crewmates, Vale didn't yet know Troi well enough to keep track of all the subtleties.
The moment passed and Troi was all business again, for which Vale was grateful. This was going to be hard enough on its own.
"So," said Troi. "Shall we get to it?"
"Absolutely," said Vale, punching up the relevant notes on the screen of her padd. "We have a few fires to put out. I think your staff should coordinate with Mr. Keru's once we settle on a game plan."
"That sounds fine," said Troi, her face now little more than a mask of calm. "Why don't we start with the worst and work our way up?"
"The worst. Right," said Vale, scrolling. "There are actually a couple of contenders for the bottom spot."
"All right," said Vale. "That would be the Ra-Havreii situation."
It took Torvig a few seconds to process the question. It wasn't the wording that confused him or the fact that the question had come from Lieutenant Commander Jaza -- though what the science officer was doing this far belowdecks was puzzling.
It wasn't even that he'd been surprised, mid-task, by the Bajoran's arrival or that said task currently had most of Torvig's body ensconced in the bowels of a ceiling access grid so that only his head and neck were visible from the corridor below. No, what froze Torvig's mental gears was the question itself.
"Well, Ensign," said Jaza, his gray eyes glaring up out of his brown face, his arms folded in a configuration that Torvig had come to understand was meant to express displeasure. "I'm waiting."
"Sir," said Torvig, craning his neck so that he could meet Jaza's eyes. At the Academy a cadet had tried to saddle him with the name Ostrich. Torvig had discouraged it, finding the allusion inexact at best. "Regrets, but I don't understand your meaning."
"It's a simple question, Ensign," said Jaza. "Are you trying to kill me?"
Unlike his own people, the Choblik, who enjoyed precision, humanoids like Commander Jaza often used colorful imagery to convey information rather than simply stating it outright. Other Choblik had mentioned difficulty in processing this idiomatic quirk. Most chalked it up to the fact that, generally, humanoids eschewed the cybernetic enhancement that defined Choblik existence. The more time Torvig spent in the company of humanoids, the more he found himself agreeing with this assessment.
It was sad, he thought, their aversion to biomechanicals. A couple of extra cognition chips or an added posterior appendage could work wonders for a being's outlook.
"I don't believe so, sir," he said eventually, still doubtful that he had a full grasp on his superior's meaning. His long neck ached from holding this position. The servo at the end of his tail was caught on something. "It is certainly not my intention to cause you harm."
"That's odd," said Jaza, apparently meaning the opposite, "because I've just had to pull three of your colleagues out of the ship's guts, each of whom were engaged in hardware upgrades that had been specifically designated as off limits until the end of our current mission."
"We were informed that the mapping operations were essentially complete, sir," said Torvig.
"Informed," Jaza repeated, his eyes narrowing as he leaned closer to Torvig. "Informed by whom?"
"Do I understand you to mean," Jaza asked Ensign Rossini, "that Commander Ra-Havreii himself instructed you to do this?"
"Yes, sir," said Ensign Rossini. He was obviously still a bit shaken by Jaza's sudden appearance in engineering as well as by the pointed questions the science officer had started asking. He still stood where Jaza had found him, one foot on the bottommost rung of an access ladder, the other on the deck. All around them a cluster of Rossini's fellow engineers went about their business tending the great pulsating tower of controlled matter/antimatter reactions:Titan's warp core. Rossini's hyperspanner dangled forgotten in his left hand while his right held tight to one of the upper rungs. "The chief said you'd have wrapped up the mapping by 0600 and we should get on with the upgrades."
Jaza's only response was a slight narrowing of his eyes.
"Did we screw up the mapping, sir?" Rossini asked in real distress. The boss might have no sense of team play, but his staff certainly did. "We would never have started the upgrade if the chief hadn't -- "
Jaza held up a hand for silence. Rossini watched as the Bajoran scientist drifted over to a nearby console and tapped in a few commands.
"This is an elective upgrade, isn't it, Ensign?" said Jaza as the data he'd requested appeared on the screen before him. "None of these systems is anywhere near failure, correct?"
"No, sir," said Rossini. "I mean, yes, sir. I mean, you're right, sir. These systems are all performing to spec. But Dr. Ra-Havreii says he wantsTitanto be the first ship to return to the dock in better shape than she left it, so -- "
"Thank you, Ensign," Jaza interrupted. "Can you tell me where I would find Commander Ra-Havreii at this precise moment?"
"Probably in his quarters, sir. Truth is, he's not spending much time down here anymore. Just comes through, makes notes, and tells us..."
Rossini trailed off. Jaza was already on his way out of engineering.
"You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?" asked Vale.
Troi made a show of putting away whatever had been occupying her mind. "I've been listening," she said. "Dr. Ra-Havreii has been a concern of mine for some time."
"But you haven't done anything about it," said Vale.
"He hasn't exhibited any truly aberrant behavior," Troi said. "The anecdotes are troubling, yes, but they don't add up to an actual pathology."
"You've been around the man," said Vale. "And you're a telepath. You've got to know something's going on with him."
"I'm anempath, Christine," said Troi. "I'm only half-Betazoid. My telepathic abilities are limited." The words came out in what to Vale was a stilted manner, rife with something like bitterness -- odd for Troi. She was neither of those things as a rule. "And the accuracy of my empathic abilities varies from species to species. Efrosians are...complex."
"The point is," said Vale, "I shouldn't even be involved in this. The fact that I am says somebody's falling down on the job."
"You're blaming me?" said Troi. "Is that what this is about?"
"I'm asking you to do your job," said Vale. "If I have to have an official on-the-record conversation with Ra-Havreii..."
"I've been at this a lot longer than you, Christine," said Troi archly. "I think I know how to -- "
"You can't play the old veteran card every time, Counselor," said Vale. "Titanisn't theEnterprise. We're on our own out here, naked. We don't get to swap Ra-Havreii out for a better model."
"You're in no position to lecture me, Commander," Troi snapped.
Suddenly all Vale could think about was the argument she'd had with her mother after announcing her intention to join Starfleet.
There have been Vales in Izar's Peace Office for generations. You're spitting on your heritage!
There were ugly words and uglier feelings between them then, all tangled up in the dance of mother and child and all of which had been resolved to remain unresolved years ago. Why would she think of that now?
The moment passed.
Vale blinked, unsure how things had spiraled this far so fast. "That's where you're mistaken, Counselor. As first officer, it's my duty to make sure the ship runs smoothly. When something impedes that, I have to take steps. This is step one."
For a moment it seemed that Troi was about to respond with something caustic. It was now clear to Vale that she was worked up about something other than their conversation. The counselor sat, composing herself by degrees, breathing deeply. When she was done, when her mask of serenity had reassembled, she stood, indicating that, for her at least, this meeting was over.
"I think we understand each other, Commander," she said. "I'll have a proposal for remedying the Ra-Havreii problem by the end of the day."
"And the other situation?" Vale asked, rising to her feet.
"That's not your concern."
Vale hated what she was about to say, but it was too important to the well-being of the ship and its crew to leave unsaid. "I've noticed the captain's been a little slow off the mark lately as well." In fact, Riker had been stiff as a board for the last two weeks, and he also had consistently deflected Vale's concerned inquiries. "Is something going on between you two that I can -- ?"
"As I said," Troi interrupted, "whatever is or isn't between me and Will is our concern, not yours. Now if you'll excuse me, I have duties to attend to."
But it is my concern, Deanna, thought Vale, as the doors to the counselor's suite whispered closed behind her.And I can see I'm going to have to move on to Plan B.
She waited until she was around the bend in the corridor before tapping her combadge. "Vale to Counselor Huilan."
© 2007 Paramount Pictures Corporation. Copyright © 2007 by CBS Studios Inc.
Excerpted from Sword of Damocles by Geoffrey Thorne
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.