Captain’s Log, Stardate 6097.2. The Enterprise has reached the extreme edge of the Alpha Quadrant in a region known as the Vara Nebula sector. We are traveling to Federation science outpost Zeta Gibraltar, which is located near the main nebular dust clouds. The outpost is not answering hailing messages, and there has been no word for over a standard week. Our mission: to investigate why Zeta Gibraltar has gone dark.
Captain James T. Kirk swiveled in his captain’s command chair toward Mister Spock, who was peering into his science station scope at a display of data coming in from a remote scan of the planetoid below.
“Anything, Mister Spock?”
“No signs of life, Captain, and no signs of human biology living or dead,” Spock replied. “The complex’s computer system and life support are still functioning normally. I’m conducting thermal regression analysis in an attempt to determine how long ago the staff was present in the main laboratory complex. I will have results momentarily.”
“Will your regression provide answers as far back as the moment communication was lost with the outpost?”
“It should, sir.”
“Very good.” Kirk frowned. “Seven days without a word at an outpost that usually sends in a daily report,” he said. He turned to Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the bridge. “Any response to our hails, Lieutenant?”
Uhura cupped her hand to her earpiece and shook her head. She wore a worried expression. “No response to multiple hails, sir. No emergency signals or beacons. It’s as if they’ve disappeared without a trace, Captain.”
“We’ll see about that,” Kirk replied, a grim set to his jaw.
The science staff has to be somewhere, he thought. The Enterprise will find them.
Kirk glanced around the bridge, feeling pride both in the efficient manner in which everyone went about his or her job and also in the brilliance and creativity of his officers. The captain knew he was inordinately proud of his crew, but they had accomplished much together. He felt lucky to command them and responsible to make use of their skills in the best way possible. They were the best of the best, and Kirk was keenly aware that they expected no less than full engagement from him.
Besides, the Enterprise had a reputation to keep up as one of the best ships in Starfleet.
We will find those scientists, all right, Kirk thought. But whether they’ll be living or dead when we do—that’s another matter.
“Captain, I am picking up heat signatures in my thermal regression analysis. Small differentials in surface temperatures within the station.”
“Something occurred approximately six point four days ago. These heat differentials may indicate use of energy weapons, sir. They point to disruptor technology.”
“There was a firefight? This is a science outpost.”
“That is how the current data correlates, Captain.”
“We’re going to have to find out in person,” Kirk said, rising from his command chair. “Spock, you’re with me. Lieutenant Uhura, have a full security team meet us in the transporter room.”
“Aye, sir,” Uhura said. She touched a signal pad. “They’re on their way.”
“Good. You’re with us, as well. I’ll want you to examine the outpost communications records. Chekov, you’ll assist Mister Spock with his scans. Mister Sulu, you have the bridge.”
Kirk turned toward the portal to the bridge turbolift. The familiar tingle of anticipation was under his skin—the feeling he got whenever he led a landing party. This mission may turn out to be a routine sensor sweep, or it could develop into a situation that pushed him to the limits of his abilities. His rational side may hope for the former, but there was a part of him that always craved a challenge and action. Even danger.
Kirk knew that he suppressed the part of his psyche that lived for excitement at his peril. On this occasion, the captain had a feeling he wouldn’t have to go looking for trouble. Trouble was about to find him.
With a shimmer of coalescing particles, the landing party materialized in the laboratory’s central monitoring room on Zeta Gibraltar. It was a fairly large chamber with multiple sensor readout arrays lining a curving wall. The ceiling was a good five meters above them, and along the walls were large hermetically sealed windows, partially opaqued against the system’s sun. Gibraltar was a young blue star still accreting mass in this very dusty system. The star was on the outlying arm of the Vara Nebula that intruded into Federation space. The nebula itself was a great mass of debris from a supernova that had exploded a billion years previously—creating the breeding ground for a thousand smaller stars and systems. By day, the local star brightened the sky to an almost ultraviolet purplish blue.
Zeta Gibraltar’s days were only ten hours long. Although it was presently daytime on the planetoid, Kirk had been to other nebular worlds and knew the Vara would likely dominate the night sky. Perhaps he’d be here long enough to see it. Its smear of glowing light would be powered from within by the small young stars being born inside. Beautiful. Also deadly: an active nebula was an inferno of lethal radiation and a hazard to interstellar navigation for the unshielded, of course. Not that there was any run-of-the-mill traffic out here on the Federation’s frontier.
Kirk looked around. Lights blinked on computer and sensor readouts. Large screens depicted various presentations from satellite feeds and ground monitors of Vara. Some displayed normal spectrum. Others flashed with garish false colors showing gamma radiation, tachyonic intensities, as well as gravimetric and chromospheric data. The nebula truly was a knotty spot in the space-time continuum, a place where ships could go in and not return.
Also a good place to hide, Kirk reflected. If I were a pirate in this sector, it would be my first pick.
There was no one present, not a soul. Spock and Chekov immediately began a sensor sweep with their tricorders. Kirk motioned for his security detachment—Lieutenant Graves and Ensign Thibodeaux—to follow him. Thibodeaux, very young and obviously quite anxious on such an exotic assignment, moved to draw his phaser from where it hung at his side.
Kirk put out a hand to stay the action. “Not just yet, Ensign,” he said. “Wait for the order.” Thibodeaux reddened in embarrassment at being corrected by his captain. “But a good instinct to be on your toes,” Kirk continued. “Stay alert.”
Kirk and Graves exchanged a quick half smile between them. The kid would learn, and this was an excellent place for him to cut his teeth.
The captain followed a main corridor out of the control center and passed door after closed door on either side. All were unlocked and responded to his entry. Kirk chose one at random and went inside.
It was a personal living quarters, sumptuously large by starship standards. Someone with good taste, Kirk reflected. Abstract prints by an Earth-based artist whose work Kirk recognized adorned the walls. Several of them hung askew.
And here was something else. The sleep padding was ripped, and various items had been swept from shelves and lay broken on the floor. Spock picked one object up, examined it, then showed it to Kirk. It appeared to be a framed hologram of a family taken on a much greener and more hospitable planet than Zeta Gibraltar, where the highest form of life was a bush-like blue algae.
“Captain,” said Graves from behind them. “Here.”
Kirk turned to find Graves looking into a crevice formed by the curving wall and a built-in bookshelf. It would be an excellent place to hide if you didn’t want anyone glancing through the door to see you. Kirk stepped over and looked to where Graves was pointing.
A handprint. It was composed of what looked like small, flaking brown leaves. Portions had fallen away, but the smeared outline of the hand—it was a left hand—was still apparent.
Kirk didn’t need a tricorder readout to tell him what that flaking brown substance was. He’d seen enough of it at various times.
Dried human blood. Someone had stumbled into that wall with blood on a hand to leave such a mark.
“Not good,” Kirk said. “Let’s check elsewhere.”
They passed through door after door, and many, though not all, of the quarters appeared to have been tossed: cushions cut, padding ripped out, items knocked from shelves to get at what may be hidden behind.
“Raiders, sir?” asked Thibodeaux.
“We don’t know yet, Ensign,” Kirk replied. “Somebody was certainly looking for something—or someone—in these quarters.”
They entered another room, and Kirk paused, surprised. This room was most decidedly not like the other personal quarters they’d examined. It was a living space, yes. There was a bed and desk. But instead of the plasto-ceramic standard furniture he’d seen elsewhere, these were made of what looked like wood.
“Mahogany,” Spock said, anticipating Kirk’s question. “And the wardrobe is of American chestnut.”
“That must have cost a fortune to ship out here to the butt end of nowhere,” said Thibodeaux.
He raised a hand over his mouth, as if he’d spoken out of turn, but a nod from Kirk seemed to put him at ease again.
On the wall was a portrait in an ornately carved frame. It was no holographic image, but an oil painting depicting a stern-looking man. He was dressed in a coat over a ruffled shirt with a cravat tied around his neck. Even more curious, the man in the portrait was clearly wearing an elaborate wig of gray hair curling down to his shoulders.
“Something odd about this furniture, Captain,” Chekov put in.
“It seems to be . . . well, breaking down,” Chekov continued, his accent, as usual, turning the w sound into a v.
“I can’t, sir,” Chekov replied. “The chemical bonds, they seem to be just . . . spontaneously decomposing.”
“It is very strange, Captain,” said Spock, looking up from his tricorder. “The process is similar to radioactive decay, but there is no matter-energy conversion. Whatever the process may be, it is accelerating. Every piece of furniture in this room will have disintegrated to dust within the next six point four days.”
The walls were hung with fabrics, and a window looked out onto the planetary landscape. There were curtains framing the window. They were made of a sumptuous and beautifully printed fabric.
The mattress lay askew from the bed, and a writing desk was turned on its side since it was not physically connected to the wall.
“Interesting,” said Mister Spock, who had gone to examine the drapes with his tricorder. “The woven textile fabrics are made of the finely worked pellicle coating of Earth sheep.”
“Wool,” Kirk said.
“Sir!” The call came from Thibodeaux. He had stepped around the tumbled desk and was staring down at something behind it. Kirk joined the ensign.
There on the floor lay what looked to be a severed arm. It was manifestly not human. There were four digits connected by folds of webbing. A chunky armband glistening with gemstones was about the wrist, but it was bare otherwise. It appeared to have been severed below the shoulder. But what was most arresting was the color.
The arm was a bright yellow.
Kirk nodded to his science officer. “Spock?”
Spock turned the tricorder’s biosensors toward the arm.
“Fascinating. Most definitely a bilateral appendage,” Spock said after a moment. A twist of the tricorder controls presented Spock with further analysis. “Thirty-seven chromosomes and trio-based gender determination.”
“Not human,” Kirk said. “We have forty-six chromosomes.”
“Not Vulcan, either. Nor Romulan, Klingon or, in fact, any known Federation sentient species,” Spock replied.
“Hypothesis, Mister Spock?”
“Not enough data at present, Captain,” Spock replied.
Spock cocked his head.
I know you all too well, my friend, Kirk thought. Never a moment when that magnificent mind of yours isn’t bubbling with one idea or another.
“Extremely speculative, Captain. I would prefer to gather more information before hazarding an opinion.”
Kirk nodded. “Very well, Mister Spock.”
He turned his attention back to the room and its furnishings.
Who had wooden furniture and natural fiber curtains on a remote science outpost? This was information his orders most definitely had not included, and Kirk didn’t like it.
“One thing’s for sure, whoever was in this room didn’t want to leave it and made someone pay a high price for intruding.”
Kirk had an additional security team beamed down. He sent this detail to check every room in this wing of the complex, while he and Spock returned to the central control room. Uhura, at the main communications console, had by this time pulled up the outpost communications records—what there were of them.
“The station communication records have been wiped, Captain,” Uhura reported. “Interior sensor recordings, incoming message backups, outgoing communiqués—all of it. Someone who knew their way around computers and communication equipment did this.”
“Or was forced to do it,” Kirk replied. “Gentlemen, it’s time we venture outside.”
Exterior egress was through an airlock. The planetoid was Class-M, but barely. The surface of Zeta Gibraltar was not a spot you’d want to visit for shoreleave. Or ever—if you didn’t have to.
Atmospheric pressure was slightly lower than Earth normal, much closer to that of Vulcan. Gravity, on the other hand, was almost twenty percent higher despite the planetoid’s compact size. This was due to a dense iron core so large it even extruded through the surface in spots. It was a geology where dilithium might be found, Kirk noted, although the deposit would likely be a kilometer or more beneath the crust.
Spock remained as stoic as ever when he encountered the gravity increase, but Chekov sighed at the added weight, as did Graves, and Thibodeaux nearly collapsed at the knees, not anticipating the sudden change. The ensign stumbled a few steps before finding his footing.
Kirk felt the change immediately when he stepped out onto the gritty, dry soil of the surface.
The station interior obviously generated artificial gravity at one g to lighten the planetary effects. This was another odd hint of luxury for a scientific outpost. An assignment to such a frontier facility usually meant roughing it and getting used to whatever gravity you happened to find holding you to the planet or planetoid.
“On polny mudak!” Chekov exclaimed. “Even my eyelids feel heavy.”
Kirk nodded and led the group forward. There was bright blue algae-level vegetation in clumps all about. An odor not unlike rotting seaweed filled the air—what there was of air, that is.
“The ground cover is colored blue to filter out excessive sunlight that would break down the normal photosynthetic process,” Spock remarked. “Much like some desert plants on other Class-M worlds have red leaves in order to filter out intense light from a mainline yellow-red sun.”
Up ahead about fifty paces Kirk spotted an area that appeared to be bare of all vegetation. “Come on,” Kirk said, and directed the others to follow him toward it.
When they arrived, Kirk saw that it was exactly what he’d expected. A blast zone.
“Recent. Notice the burn marks at the outer edge. The ion signature indicates a matter/antimatter powered propulsion device was present here six point four days ago,” Spock said.
“The day the outpost missed its first daily report,” said Kirk.
“Precisely,” answered Spock.
“A landing craft?” said Kirk.
“Very likely, Captain. However, it is a very peculiar ion signal.”
Spock took several steps toward the blast zone, his attention still fixed on his tricorder. Kirk looked around to see if there were any other signs of what had taken place. A white flash of something tangled in one of the algae bushes caught his eye, but before he could examine it more closely, Ensign Thibodeaux’s voice called out.
Kirk whirled to see the ensign backing away in horror from something on the ground—something Spock was about to inadvertently step on.
There was no way Spock could react quickly enough to avoid it.
Suddenly, in a streak of gold and black, Chekov barreled into Spock’s torso, pushing the first officer to the side. Spock, a very difficult man to drop, merely stumbled a few steps sideways, while Chekov himself crashed into a bush. Kirk came closer and saw what it was Spock had been about to come down on.
A flat saucer shape with a pin sticking up from its top.
Landmine, Kirk thought. Outlawed in the Federation, but in use outside its boundaries by backward military regimes of various stripes—and pirates.
Spock came beside Kirk and examined the device with him.
“Whoever put this here very likely seeded the area with them to dissuade attack,” he said, “or perhaps to cordon in a group.”
“I’d bet on the latter,” Kirk said. He turned to the others. “Be on the lookout for these landmines. There are probably more of them.”
Chekov, who was on his hands and knees, extracted himself from the algae bush. He had a few scratches on his face and arms, but otherwise seemed none the worse for wear. He grinned when he saw Spock was all right.
“It seems you owe Mister Chekov a debt of gratitude,” Kirk said.
Spock looked surprised. “My death or dismemberment would have disrupted the mission,” he said. “It was the only logical thing for Ensign Chekov to do.”
Kirk looked at Chekov with a wry smile and shrugged. The navigator returned the smile and shrugged back. They both knew to expect that reaction from the first officer and were amused rather than irritated.
What Spock lacked in emotional response, Ensign Thibodeaux made up for in buckets. The young ensign had his hands to his knees and was gasping for breath.
Kirk was about to go to him to see what was the matter, but Chekov spoke first. “Captain, allow me. I believe I know what he is going through very well. It was not so long ago that I was a green officer on his first assignment.”
“All right, Mister Chekov, handle it,” Kirk said. “Spock, let’s see what else we can find out.” He was about to leave it at that, but added: “And watch your step, won’t you?”
He knew the teasing statement would likely have no effect on his first officer, but he couldn’t resist if only for his own amusement.
“Indeed, Captain,” Spock replied, with a raise of the eyebrow. “That type of landmine has a blast radius of fifteen point three meters, if I’m not mistaken. The ensuing explosion would likely have eliminated the entire landing party as well as myself had I activated it. I shall take care not to trigger one.”
Did I get to you, Spock, or was that merely a display of routine logic? Kirk thought.
It was always impossible to tell—which was another fascinating characteristic of his friend and second-in-command.
The U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of Captain James T. Kirk is en route to the extreme edge of the Alpha Quadrant, and to a region known as the Vara Nebula. Its mission: to investigate why science outpost Zeta Gibraltar is not answering all Federation hailing messages. When the Enterprise arrives, a scan shows no life forms in the science station. Kirk leads a landing party and quickly discovers the reason for the strange silence—signs of a violent firefight are everywhere. Zeta Gibraltar has been completely raided. Yet there are no bodies and the entire roster of station personnel is missing…
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- Pocket Books/Star Trek |
- 384 pages |
- ISBN 9781476765501 |
- February 2015