Nostrene could sense the tension permeating the room, though he himself refused to display any outward indications except that of perfect calm. His posture contrasted with that of his crew and the scientific advisors bustling about the command deck as they made last-minute adjustments or ran final tests. Consoles and viewscreens displayed a vast array of data, each one dedicated to some facet of the monumental experiment currently under way.
"Holding at light speed minus three," reported the subordinate manning the helm with no attempt to hide the excitement in his voice. Nostrene could not blame the younger officer, who was serving aboard ship on his first assignment and was displaying much of the same excitability and enthusiasm he himself had at that age.
"Report current status, Dlyax." In response, one of the scientists stationed near the front of the command deck turned to face Nostrene, the deep red hue of his crystalline body reflecting the harsh illumination emitted from the deck plating.
"Commander, the drive system appears to be functioning normally. Our diagnostic scans show no anomalies or irregularities. It is our consensus that the test can proceed without further delay."
Of course they would think that, Nostrene mused. Their reputations are being tested here today as much as any new propulsion system.
Tholian ships had enjoyed success with their ability to attack from positions of stealth and to utilize their much feared energy web generators, draining the power and crushing the hull of even the sturdiest enemy vessel. But it had been Nostrene's experience that ships controlled by enemies he'd faced in past battles had possessed definite advantages in speed. While Tholian vessels had been able to travel faster than light for generations, they never had been able to achieve speeds comparable to those recorded by ships of other races. The vessels most frequently underscoring this shortcoming, to Nostrene's chagrin, belonged to the United Federation of Planets.
This concern had been brought to the forefront during the recent war between the Federation and the Dominion. Alpha Quadrant forces had nearly succumbed to the might of the so-called "Founders" and their legions of genetically engineered soldiers, the Jem'Hadar. The Assembly's tenuous state of peace with the Federation had strengthened during the conflict, allowing the Tholian people to largely observe the war. That position fit securely with the nonaggression pact they had established with the Dominion. Though it had not been popular opinion to state publicly at the time, Nostrene was certain that Tholian forces would have fallen quickly to the vastly superior strength exhibited by the Dominion. Fortunately the war had ended, with the Founders and the Jem'Hadar being forced back into Gamma Quadrant space before his suspicions could be tested.
Such concerns could soon be put to rest, however, should the experiment they were conducting here today prove successful. Tholian vessels would be regarded as among the fastest in the Quadrant. Additionally, the ability to channel newly harnessed stores of power would lend additional strength to the defenses and armament of their ships.
Satisfied with Dlyax's report, Nostrene said, "Very well, resume acceleration."
As he gave the order, his eyes shifted from screens displaying information transmitted by the ship's network of sensors to the command deck's main viewscreen. The stars as rendered by the computer remained still, but he knew that in a few moments they would twist and distort as their ship crossed the threshold into subspace.
"Light speed minus one," his helmsman called out, and Nostrene braced himself for the impending quantum shift. He knew it was an absurd notion, as the ship's inertial dampening systems prevented him or anyone else on the ship from feeling the affects of acceleration. But it was something he had always done, almost instinctively, since childhood. It added to the thrill, he thought. In his mind's eye, he saw the subspace field erupting into reality as the ship stretched, extended and distended into infinity.
"Plus one," the helmsman said. "Continuing to accelerate." Except for the subordinate's reports of the ship's progress, all else was silent on the command deck as engineers and scientists continued checking the telemetry fed to them by the ship's sensors. This was the easy part, in actuality, with the difficult tasks yet to come. First the ship had to accelerate successfully to its uppermost obtainable velocity. Then endurance tests would begin as the crew determined how long the ship could sustain that measure of speed. If those experiments were successful, then the celebrations would begin in earnest, and merely wary adversaries would now have reason to fear the Tholian Assembly.
Nostrene's reverie was broken by the first in what quickly became a series of alarms coming from the observation stations at the front of the command deck.
"Commander," Dlyax said, "we are experiencing a power fall-off."
Moving toward the forward stations, Nostrene replied, "What is causing it?"
The scientist was keying commands into his console and studying the rapidly shifting patterns of light on his suite of monitors. "I cannot ascertain the cause. All systems are functioning normally, but there is an unexplained power drain in the drive system."
For a moment, Nostrene was worried that the ship might be rendered inert in space. "How serious is this drain?"
"It is not severe, Commander, but it is enough to disrupt our subspace field."
Given the choice between slowing to sublight speeds on his own or being ripped from subspace by a malfunctioning propulsion system, Nostrene preferred the first option. "Decelerate to light minus eight." Turning back to Dlyax, he said, "Initiate a diagnostic check of the drive systems."
Another voice called out from behind him, "Commander, our sensors are registering some unusual readings."
Now what? Was the entire ship falling apart?
"What is it?" he asked as he made his way to the sensor officer's station.
The subordinate manning the station did not look up at his commander's approach. "I have detected a disruption in space at bearing four point nine relative to our current position. It wasn't there during my initial scans a few moments ago, Commander."
The report was far too vague for Nostrene's tastes. "Be more specific."
"I cannot, Commander. The sensors are behaving quite erratically. They report it as an object, yet I cannot verify the readings."
If an object had been detected so close to the ship, Nostrene knew that automated defensive systems would have alerted the crew to possible danger. That none of that had happened deepened his concern. Was an enemy who could render themselves invisible to sensors attacking them? Was a Romulan ship out there, attempting a covert strike?
"Is there a flaw in the sensor equipment?" Nostrene asked.
"Not that I have been able to find, Commander," the sensor officer replied. "It is as if this region of space is physically deteriorating."
"A localized phenomenon?" There were no intelligence reports of anything unusual encountered in this area. It was a lightly traveled region, one of the reasons it was selected as the site of the experiment in the first place.
"Put that area on the main screen," he ordered.
All eyes turned as the image on the forward screen changed. At first Nostrene saw no discernible difference from the field of stars that had been there previously. It appeared tranquil, almost the very image he carried in his mind even when he was planetbound to tide him over until he could return to space once again.
"There," the helmsman said, pointing at the screen. "Upper left quadrant."
Nostrene saw it too. Amid the blanket of stars beckoning to them, a dark area had appeared. It was small but opaque, and therefore contrasting sharply against the starfield.
"Magnify that area," Nostrene said, stepping closer to the screen. The image shifted again and now the dark area dominated the center of the screen. It was irregular in shape, its edges fluctuating with no noticeable pattern. Everyone on the command deck watched as the patch of darkness expanded, then contracted to almost disappear entirely before repeating the process all over again.
"It looks like a hole in space," the helmsman said.
Nostrene agreed. In all the years he had traveled space he had never seen anything like what was displayed on the screen.
"I am detecting spiking radiation levels coming from that area, Commander," the sensor officer reported. "They are slight, but there nonetheless."
"Is there a danger to the ship?" Nostrene asked.
The subordinate took an extra moment to confirm his readings before replying. "Negative, Commander, at least so long as we maintain this distance."
Nostrene's attention snapped back to the screen at the call in time to see the interior of the "hole," as he had come to think of it, shift as a blue-green field of energy appeared.
"Enlarge that," Nostrene ordered, and the image appeared to jump forward. The energy distortion became more detailed and he could see static discharges and rippling effects as the field undulated within the confines of the dark area.
"Are you saying the sensors register none of that?" he asked.
"That is correct, Commander. We see it, but our sensors give no indication that it exists at all."
In front of him, the helmsman nearly came out of his chair as he pointed to the screen. "Commander, look!"
On the viewer, the energy field wavered and expanded violently as, out of the nothingness that was the dark hole amid the stars, an object began to materialize, quickly taking on form and substance. With the image magnified as it was, Nostrene easily made out seams between scarred hull plates and areas where bare metal now shone through what had once been a brightly painted finish.
Behind him, the sensor officer studied his console and shook his head. "I have managed to tune the sensors to at least detect the vessel, but readings are inconclusive at best. There are no signs of life or power sources. I believe the ship to be a derelict, Commander."
Nostrene suspected as much, having already recognized the design of the ship as soon as it had become visible. He hadn't seen such a vessel except in historical documents, but there was no mistaking the large, saucer-shaped hull supported by a pylon above a smaller cylindrical secondary section and the pair of long nacelles resting on their own support pylons. Though the design had been refined and improved over the many years the Tholians had been aware of it, the basic tenets had remained the same.
Behind him, his weapons officer confirmed his suspicion. "Commander, our tactical database identifies it as a Federation Constitution-class starship. According to our information, that model of vessel was retired from active service long ago."
"Are there any indications of other ships in this area?" Both the weapons and sensor officers replied with negative reports.
"So what is it doing in our space?" Dlyax asked, staring at the ghostly image of the ship.
Nostrene had no answer. Learning of the ship's presence in Tholian space would certainly put some government officials on edge. Despite the warming of relations with the Federation, distrust and even contempt for its principles continued to simmer within the ranks of the Assembly's elder statesmen.
Seeing the ship on the screen, however, his instincts told him such worries were unfounded. If the ship was indeed a derelict, then it was likely that neither the Federation nor the Assembly had any knowledge of its whereabouts, let alone the circumstances surrounding its appearance here and now, long after such a vessel would have been retired from normal service.
Such judgments, though, were not his to make.
"We must report this discovery," he said finally. "They will know best how to proceed."
Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures