The warning lights flared to life an instant before the red-alert klaxon resounded through the security office. A crimson glow washed over the banks of consoles in the compartment as the siren shrieked its call to emergency stations. At the master panel, Selten—Newton Outpost’s security chief—consulted the readouts and identified the cause of the alarm at once: “Breach in specimen storage.” Around him, his alpha-shift staff mobilized immediately, drawing their weapons and racing to their general-quarters assignments. Selten saw them dash through the doorway and past the compartment’s rectangular viewport, which looked out onto the adjacent corridor. Only Ensign Connor Block remained in the security office with him, crewing access control.
“All checkpoints are locked down,” the ensign reported. “All security doors are confirmed closed and all force fields have been raised.”
“Acknowledged,” Selten said as he silenced the alarm in the office and restored normal lighting. He then worked the communications controls on his panel, opening a complex-wide comm link that would carry his voice across the subterranean outpost, both on the upper level, where the twenty-one members of his Starfleet Security team protected the facility, and on the lower level, where forty-five Federation Department of Science researchers and technicians lived and worked. “This is Lieutenant Commander Selten. There has been a breach in Corridor Four, Compartment L,” he announced, reading the source of the alarm from his console. “All security personnel, report to alert stations. All others, withdraw to your nearest safety compartment.” Throughout the complex, various spaces had been set aside and secured for the protection of the scientific team in case of emergency. “This is not a drill.”
“Checkpoint data show that seven scientists, including Doctor Norsa, and two technicians entered Corridor Four thirty-seven minutes ago,” Block said. “The Changeling visitor was with them.” Norsa, an Argelian biologist, served as Newton Outpost’s chief of staff. The Changeling, Odo, had arrived in the Larrisint system a week earlier.
Selten operated his console, checking the outpost’s internal sensors. He inspected the readouts for Corridor Four, the section of the facility housing all specimen chambers, where the scientists stored both organic and inanimate objects for study. Scans showed rapid movement across a considerable area within and without Compartment L, but no steady combadge signals and no definite life signs. The readings suggested that the ten individuals who had entered the area had all met a violent end, but Selten’s exacting Vulcan mind considered that interpretation of events only a possibility, and he concentrated on gathering more information.
The security chief worked his controls, calling up images from the monitors surrounding the compromised compartment. He watched on the display as what looked like a torrent of liquid metal flowed past in multiple locations. Sensors tracked the motion, but they continued to register only indeterminate life signs.
Selten tapped a control surface that tied him in to his entire staff, but not to any members of the scientific team. “We have activity in Corridor Four,” he said, “including the movement of a sizable fluidic mass in the direction of the access door.” Only a single checkpoint allowed entry to and egress from the specimen chambers. Since Compartment L sat at the farthest reach of Corridor Four, the only direction to travel from there was toward the door.
“Could that be the shape-shifter?” Block asked once Selten had closed the channel. The security chief understood that the ensign did not refer to Odo. Rather, he spoke of the specimen that the Changeling had come to Newton Outpost to help study, which the scientists had listed for the security contingent as POTENTIAL SHAPE-SHIFTER.
“Possibly,” Selten said. Although his sensors still detected no definitive life signs, including none corresponding to any known types of shape-shifters, he could conceive of no other reasonable explanation for what he saw. He called up a secondary configuration on his console and accessed the automatically recorded feeds from in and around Compartment L, surveying the images collected in the moments just before the red alert had begun to blare. The first showed Norsa and five other scientists lined up along the viewing ports, gazing down into the outsize chamber. Measuring ten by twenty by fifty meters, the space had recently been expanded to those dimensions in order to accommodate the specimen, which had been discovered on an asteroid by the crew of U.S.S. Nova.
Another feed provided a view directly into the chamber. The great silver mass brought to Newton Outpost for study filled the footprint of the compartment, its inert surface rising and falling in sinuous, static swells, giving it a depth of between one and two meters. Selten watched as Odo emerged from the decontamination chamber that led into the compartment. A technician and another of the scientists remained inside decon, while the second technician waited outside in the corridor and observed through a viewport.
Odo peered back over his shoulder, then proceeded once the inner door had glided closed. He took two paces forward, then dropped onto his knees directly in front of the mass, which looked to Selten like a lake of molten metal, frozen into stillness. Odo leaned forward and laid his hands atop its matte silver surface.
The security chief saw the Changeling’s hands begin to shimmer. Odo’s flesh softened, as though melting. His fingers liquefied, seeming to disappear into the large shape sprawling away before him.
Selten waited to see what would happen—what had happened—but for a moment, nothing did. The security chief had never witnessed two shape-shifters merging—linking, they called it—but he understood the concept. The living nature of the specimen remained conjecture, though, and so Selten did not anticipate Odo and the great bulk dissolving into each other. It therefore did not surprise the security chief when, after the Changeling’s hands deliquesced, the tableau grew motionless.
“The mass is moving rapidly down Corridor Four,” Block said. “It is approaching the entry door.”
Selten returned his attention to the status panel, but then motion caught his eye. He looked again at the playback on the display and saw that Odo had pulled back from the silver mass, the specimen’s shape changing and rushing upward. Its surface, formerly lusterless, suddenly gleamed. At the top of its reach, its amorphous curves shifted, hardening into straight lines and flat edges, forming into contours resembling those of a hammer’s head. It surged down, toward Odo. It struck him with tremendous force and sent him hurtling backward. Odo’s body impacted the bulkhead hard, flattened, and ruptured. What had been the simulacrum of a Bajoran man exploded into a gold-orange spatter.
“Ten seconds from the door,” Block said.
Selten quickly worked his controls to display a live feed from the monitor surveilling the Corridor Four entry. As with all the security checkpoints within the outpost, a large, thick metal door stood closed when not in use. Additionally, the red alert had initiated the automatic lockdown of the facility, and a force field had been activated at each access point within it.
The great silver mass flowed at high speed through the corridor. It slammed into the force field erected in front of the door. Electric-blue patches sparked into existence as a result of the contact, and jagged streaks spiked across the surface of the specimen. The undulating mass did not reverse its course, but like a dammed river, it collected where its forward progress had been halted, its level rising toward the overhead. Within just seconds, the image on the screen became completely obscured, preceded an instant before by a vibrant blue flash.
“The force field in Corridor Four is down,” Block said.
The security chief glanced back at the recordings of the specimen chamber and saw the shining silver mass swiftly expanding. It quickly grew to cover not just the deck of the compartment, but the volume of space above it. The specimen blotted out the monitors within the chamber, but those outside captured the reactions of the scientists. All but the chief of staff lurched backward, away from the viewing ports, while Doctor Norsa threw herself toward the nearest control panel—doubtless in an attempt to sound the alarm or to take some other action—but too late. The still-growing mass burst through the viewports, shattering them and inundating the corridor like a deluge. It swept the scientists from their feet, and Norsa and her colleagues were abruptly lost from view.
“Commander, the door in Corridor Four is showing signs of stress,” Block said. “I don’t think it’s going to hold.”
“How can that be?” Selten demanded. In addition to being fitted with force fields on either side, each of the security checkpoints within the outpost had been constructed of multiple plates and installed to withstand powerful forces on their own, including the yields of energy weapons and high explosives. A simple lateral force, even applied by as massive an object as the Compartment L specimen, should not have been able to compromise any of the doors.
At his station, Block worked his controls. “The door isn’t being strained from the outside,” he said, “but from within.”
That’s impossible, Selten thought but did not say, recognizing at once the illogic of such words. It didn’t matter that the security door had been designed to be not only impervious to liquids, but airtight as well. Clearly, the great shape-changing mass must have adjusted itself finely enough to penetrate whatever infinitesimal openings existed in the structure of the door. That appeared to imply, at the very least, instinct, and quite possibly intelligence. Regardless, it seemed plain to Selten that the object was alive, despite it not showing up as such on sensors.
The security chief also concluded that if the specimen could breach the door from one side, then it could exit through the other. That meant that the safety compartments to which the scientific team had retreated, protected by the same architecture, could no longer be considered secure. For the first time, Selten considered that he might have to order Newton Outpost evacuated.
He switched his display to show the other side of the Corridor Four checkpoint, which fronted on the entry hall of the complex’s lower level. Half a dozen standard, single-paneled doors led from there to the science personnel’s cabins, living areas, offices, and laboratories. Another closed checkpoint, set opposite Corridor Four, marked the main access to that portion of the facility. Selten saw two of his staff there: Ensign Elise Ehrenreich and Crewman Dozier held their phasers at the ready.
“Pressure inside the door is increasing,” Block said. “The exterior surfaces are exhibiting significant signs of strain. They can’t hold much longer.”
The security chief didn’t hesitate. He activated a comm circuit. “Ehrenreich, Dozier,” he said, “exit the entry hall at once to Corridor Seven.” The two officers acknowledged the order, and Selten watched as they followed his instructions, darting through the single-paneled door that led into the section of the complex containing the scientists’ quarters.
A moment later, a section of the Corridor Four security door blew apart. Chunks of metal flew across the entrance hall like shrapnel. The force field on that side of the checkpoint flickered multiple times as fragments of metal struck it. Rivulets of the silver mass spilled from the gaping hole left in the door and further sparked the force field, which soon collapsed. The damaged door juddered in its track and slid open a meter or so. The entity coursed through the newly opened gap and began filling the entry hall like water flooding into a tub. The force field protecting the other security door glinted blue again and again where the silver fluid washed up against it, until Block ultimately reported its failure.
Selten once more worked the sensors. Though permanently shielded against beaming into or out of its confines, Newton Outpost possessed an internal transporter, and the security chief considered employing it to relocate the entity away from the facility’s personnel. Even if no section of the complex could contain the specimen, the security chief conceived of moving the silver mass from one location to another long enough to allow the entire complement of the outpost to board and launch the escape pods.
But scans failed to read the mass as a living creature, or even as a single object. Selten attempted a geographic transporter lock, directing the dematerialization sequence to target a specific location, beginning with the entry hall on the second level. All of his efforts failed.
On the display, the level of the silver mass rose toward the overhead. Before the security chief could order the use of the escape pods, the outpost’s operating procedures required him to take one more action. “Initiating intruder defense system,” he intoned. Selten would have preferred not to do it—he did not doubt the living status of the specimen, despite the lack of corroborating evidence from his scans—but he also understood the rationale for making abandonment of Newton Outpost the option of last resort. The secret, secure facility hosted important—and in many cases unique—scientific research, in particular providing a haven for sensitive work.
The security chief disabled the safeties on the intruder defense system, then isolated the entry hall on the lower level and Corridor Four. “Releasing nerve agent.” On the display, jets of gas blasted from far up on the bulkhead, near the overhead. If the entity took any notice of the measure, it gave no sign. It continued streaming into the entry hall, its level rising. Sensors revealed no slowing of its movement.
“Releasing secondary nerve agent,” Selten said, marrying his actions to his words. He did not appreciate the euphemistic label for the weapon, but he used it according to regulations. The first gas he’d discharged rendered many life-forms unconscious; the second left them dead.
“The entry door is now showing signs of internal strain,” Block said.
“What about the other doors?” Selten asked. The single panels that led into the scientists’ living and working habitats would pose far less of a hindrance to the entity than the heavy-duty security door it had already compromised.
“They’re being strained by the weight of the specimen against them,” Block said, “but there seems to be no attempt to breach them.”
Why not? Selten wanted to know. It could have been that the creature acted out of reflex, seeking to negotiate the second security door because it had already gotten past the first. It also could have been an indication of the entity making a choice, thereby implying intelligence.
Selten adjusted his screen to display the long, wide corridor that stretched between the entry hall on the lower level and the large turbolift that led down from the security deck above. He saw two more of his staff, Lieutenant Rellor Verat and Ensign Diahann Baker, stationed there, standing just in front of the lift doors. The security chief opened a channel to them.
“Verat, Baker,” he said, adding a note of urgency to his normally even voice, “the massive specimen from Compartment L is headed in your direction through the main entrance to the sciences section.” He hesitated over his next order, but he knew that once the entity made it through the security door, his officers would not have an opportunity to increase the power of their weapons if their first shots failed to stop it. “Set your phasers to kill, and fire on the specimen as soon as you see it.” Selten saw them adjust their weapons as they acknowledged their orders.
The security chief consulted the internal sensors again. To his surprise, he noted seven life signs and ten combadge signals back in Corridor Four, corresponding to the locations of the scientists and technicians at Compartment L, but he had no time to address them. Instead, he concentrated on the two life-forms—one Cygnian and one human—he read in the turbolift corridor. “Open the main security door on the lower level and deactivate the second force field,” he told Block.
“Yes, sir,” the ensign said.
On the display, Selten saw a flash of blue pinpoints as the force field dropped, and then the security door began to withdraw into the bulkhead. The shape-shifting life-form gushed through the opening and onto the tiled floor beyond. Verat and Baker began firing at once. The yellow-red beams of their phasers seared across the length of the corridor and into the silver mass as it streamed forward. The weapons fire showed no indication of hindering the creature at all, much less of stopping it.
The two officers continued to discharge their weapons even as the entity bore down on them. Their dedication to duty and their composure in extremis gratified Selten. He would be sure to note those qualities on their next performance evaluations.
The security chief operated the transporter controls, being sure to neutralize their phasers as he beamed Verat and Baker to the upper section of the outpost. Specks and then streaks of bright white light engulfed the two officers. They vanished just before the life-form crashed across the place they had been standing, like a wave thundering onto a beach. It continued forward, into the force field protecting the turbolift, which sparked blue with the contact.
“Drop the lift to the bottom of the shaft,” Selten said. “Then lower the force field and open the doors.”
“Yes, sir,” Block said as he sent his fingers skittering across his control panel.
Selten didn’t believe he had enough information to draw a firm conclusion about the intelligence of the shape-shifting life-form—he reasoned that it could be acting on innate reflexes—but the security chief perceived a measure of knowledge in the creature, which he could only assume it had gleaned from its brief contact with Odo. Though the specimen had been faced with few choices, the path it had taken from its compartment nevertheless appeared to follow the most direct route to the upper level of Newton Outpost and, presumably, to freedom.
Selten opened a channel once more to his staff. “All security personnel, withdraw to the nearest safety compartment.” Then, to Block, he said, “Lower the force field at the top of the turboshaft and open the doors there.” As he spoke, the security chief operated the transporter again, using the life signs and combadge signals to beam everybody in and around Compartment L to the outpost’s infirmary, a secure area always supervised by one of the numerous medical doctors on the staff. “Pressurize the hangar, then lower all force fields and open all doors between there and the turbolift.”
On the display, the lift doors on the lower level opened to reveal an empty shaft. The great silver mass heaved into the vertical conduit and arced upward. Its way no longer impeded, its shape smoothed and narrowed as it sped into the turboshaft, making it look like a mammoth silver snake. “Raise the force fields and close the security doors behind it as it clears them,” Selten said. While the creature had demonstrated that such measures would not stop it should it reverse its course, they would at least slow it down, which would provide additional time, if necessary, to evacuate the outpost.
The security chief accessed other monitors, starting with the one observing the turbolift on the upper level. The doors stood open on the vacant shaft. Time elapsed—ten seconds, twenty, thirty, a full minute—and then the creature shot out of the turboshaft and whisked down the adjoining corridor. It sped through two open checkpoints, its path clear, then raced past the security office. Selten and Block both stood up at their stations to peer through the one-way port that looked out into the corridor. The creature’s shining silver surface reflected the overhead lighting.
Something like an insistent whisper reached Selten’s ears, and he realized that, even through the door to the security office, he could hear the sound of the air as the great mass roared past. The size and the speed of the specimen impressed, but as the security chief looked on, something about its lithe motion implied a mind driving its movement. Selten could not explain it, other than to attribute it to intuition, or to infer that his own telepathic abilities touched however dimly upon the creature’s awareness. The security chief concentrated for a moment, and he briefly felt something, a sense of yearning, there and then gone.
Before the serpentine entity had fully passed, Selten returned to his console, and Ensign Block followed suit. The security chief accessed the monitors in the hangar. He saw that the door to the airlock had withdrawn into the bulkhead, implying that atmosphere had been introduced into the large area. On the deck, markings designated a landing zone, and the outpost’s two runabouts—Neva and Loire—sat off to the side.
The creature bolted through the open airlock. It sliced past the runabouts, its form stretched into an extended silver cylinder. It curved up and toward the interlocking hatches that formed the flat roof of the hangar.
“As soon as its entire mass has cleared the airlock, seal the doors,” Selten told Block.
The creature smashed into the center of the hangar’s roof. At the point of impact, its body compressed and spread, but not in a circle. It flowed along the line where the two hatches came together. Selten didn’t know with certainty that the entity could compromise the roof the way it had the Corridor Four security door, but he did not intend to find out. He focused on the entrance to the airlock and waited as the trailing body of the creature continued passing through it and into the hangar.
“The outer hatch is showing signs of strain,” Block said.
The security chief tried to gauge how long he could safely delay before risking serious damage to the outpost, but then he saw the tail end of the creature enter the hangar. “Now,” he said at once. “Close the airlock, then open the hatches.”
The ensign operated his controls, and Selten saw the airlock doors glide closed. Immediately afterward, the hatches parted and the roof to the hangar opened. Beyond, against a backdrop of stars, light glinted off numerous small objects teeming in nearby space. Located inside a shepherd moon tucked into the rings circling the gas giant of Larrisint IV, Newton Outpost provided nothing but spectacular views.
As the hatch continued to open, the walls of the crater situated directly above the outpost came into view. The creature rocketed out of the hangar, whether of its own efforts or as the result of the atmosphere blasting out into space, Selten couldn’t tell. He waited until the entire mass of the specimen had left the outpost, then ordered Block to secure the hatches. The ensign complied at once. The security chief raised the outpost’s shields, although he had little confidence that they could long withstand an assault by the creature, which had already proven its ability against force fields.
As the roof of the hangar closed, Selten accessed the external sensors. The specimen still did not read as a living organism, but the security chief tracked its movement. It continued in its tubular shape, twisting among the dust and rocks of Larrisint IV’s rings. For three full minutes, it moved away, but then it abruptly changed its path and plunged back toward the shepherd moon at tremendous speed.
Selten quickly worked the outpost’s weapons controls. The shepherd moon had been fitted with two phaser banks and a quantum torpedo launcher. The security staff maintained the systems, regularly testing them to ensure their performance, but in the three years Selten had served at Newton Outpost, they had never been fired in defense of the facility.
The security chief targeted both the phasers and the quantum torpedoes. He tracked the path of the creature, but as it neared the shepherd moon, it altered its trajectory. Selten waited to fire, and the deviation increased. The creature had initially been headed for the center of the crater that masked the entrance to the outpost, and then for a spot on the surface, and finally for a point in nearby space.
Mindful of a feint, Selten kept the weapons locked on the silver mass. As it swooped in, it suddenly altered its form. It changed from its long, cylindrical configuration into a complex structure, with what looked like fins and sails, antennae and tails, demonstrating that it possessed far more than the rudimentary shape-shifting abilities it had to that point shown. It remained entirely silver, but nevertheless appeared organic, like some great spaceborne entity. Selten had never seen anything even remotely resembling it. Its appendages rippled, almost as though the creature swam through the void.
The shape-shifter soared past Newton Outpost. Its course changed slightly, and the security chief quickly calculated that the creature had used the mass of the shepherd moon to make the adjustment. Its path bent past the outpost and headed on a course that would take it on a close approach to Larrisint IV.
It’s using gravity either for propulsion or for navigation, or perhaps for both, Selten thought. The action could have been the byproduct of mere instinct, but it also could have been the design of an intelligent mind. Selten calculated its flight path and saw that it would bend around the gas giant and slingshot outward, taking the creature out of the Larrisint system.
As the security chief tracked the shape-shifter, wanting to ensure that it did not return to the shepherd moon, he opened an outpost-wide comm link. “This is Lieutenant Commander Selten,” he said. “Secure from general quarters. The specimen held in Compartment L has escaped confinement and fled the outpost.”
He then checked in with the infirmary. Doctor Leslie Braeden reported two dead and six injured among the scientists and technicians present when the creature broke from captivity. She could not determine the condition of Odo, whose physical essence remained in an unformed gelatinous state. Since being transported to the infirmary after being attacked, the Changeling had shown no signs of life.
Once his staff had reassembled, Selten briefed them on everything that had transpired. The security team followed the progress of the creature, first as it fell toward Larrisint IV, and then as its redirected course took it into interstellar space. Selten prepared a report, then contacted Starfleet Operations.
“Would you classify the creature as a belligerent?” asked Admiral Elizabeth Kadin over a secure subspace channel.
“I cannot make such a determination with any certainty,” said the Newton Outpost security chief, “but it clearly could pose a hazard to Federation vessels.”
“Understood,” Kadin said. “Is there anything more?”
“Just one thing,” Selten said. “When the creature passed close to me, I sensed what I can only describe at its driving force.” The security chief paused, allowing the fleeting impressions he’d received to coalesce into a coherent thought. “Whatever that thing is, it wants something,” he finally said. “It wants something, and it wants it badly.”