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"A little groggy there, son? You look all slumped over!"
Ensign Stephen Klisiewicz raised his head from his console at the sciences station and looked across the Endeavour's bridge to the source of the voice. Pointing to where his attention had been focused, he said, "This device is a viewer, sir. It requires the user to hunch down and look into it. I understand how that might be a new concept to an engineer such as yourself, Commander. You're more used to crawling into things rather than just looking into them."
Bersh glov Mog released a laugh that sounded more like a belch one that rose over the rest of the bridge's ambient noise and that was enough to set Klisiewicz to laughing a bit on his own.
"Well, we all learn by doing," Mog replied, offering the Tellarite equivalent of a smile, which to Klisiewicsz still looked like the fierce rictus of a rabid dog.
The engineer's sentiment underscored the sense that, in its own slow way, the Endeavour was becoming something of a teaching vessel. Mog seemed to run engineering more as a training lab, mixing up duty rosters and making sure his staff became highly proficient at all aspects of operations rather than focusing on a single area of specialization. Khatami seemed to follow his lead by rotating untried personnel into roles of greater responsibility when opportunities arose. Even Captain Zhao seemed to make himself available to officers fresh out of the Academy, such as Klisiewicz, to discuss matters of life and duty aboard a starship.
Okay, so maybe not so much in sickbay, he thought, but every place else is pretty open to a new guy like me.
Two hours into his duty shift, and the chief engineer had started tossing wisecracks across the bridge at his expense. Had the remark come from someone other than Mog, he surely would have held his tongue in reply. While Klisiewicz was becoming fast friends with the Tellarite chief engineer, he noticed in his first scan around the bridge that other than Mog's, there were few familiar faces.
He knew Commander Khatami, of course, who in Captain Zhao's absence now occupied the Endeavour's center seat, but his conversations with her typically did not stray from whatever task was at hand. Specifically, she was the one to pass to him any information he might need in the course of his duties regarding his continual search for class-V forms of life, otherwise known as anything containing the Taurus meta-genome. Those conversations rarely were chatty; it seemed to be a sobering subject for her, he sensed.
The communications officer looked familiar, but his name escaped Klisiewicz at the moment, and the navigator, Lieutenant McCormack, well, he did recognize her, as she was one of his favorite objects of secret unrequited affection on the entire ship.
Turning back to the science console, the ensign noted the white blinking indicator and toggled the controls to transfer the sensor data to an eye-level display. Looking over the readings, he knit his brow before turning to Khatami, who already was regarding him expectantly.
"Commander," he said, "we're registering a new power reading from the surface."
"Location?" Khatami asked, spinning her chair to face him.
Klisiewicz keyed in a few commands, allowing the computer to correlate the sensor data. "It's about five kilometers northwest of the encampment and...about two kilometers beneath the planet's surface."
"Anything else?" Khatami asked.
"The energy signature is weak, but pretty distinctive, Commander," Klisiewicz replied as he entered new commands to the console, self-conscious of getting her more information as quickly as he was able. "It's definitely a geothermal source, and it's slowly building in temperature."
"Keep an eye on it, Ensign," Khatami said, her eyes turning to the main viewer, "Provide regular updates as appropriate, and relay those sensor readings to the survey teams on the surface."
"Aye, Commander," Klisiewicz said as he keyed the required commands to route the data. The swiftness of a starship's response to human command was something for which he was sure he would never lose a sense of marvel.
Then another alert indicator flashed on his console.
"Commander!" he called out to Khatami even as he bent over the hooded viewer once more. Reviewing the new stream of sensor telemetry being fed to his station, he said, "We're picking up a second power reading now."
"And?" Khatami asked.
"It's confirmed, sir. Same energy signature as before," he said, checking his calculations. "Bearing due south of the encampment this time, less than five kilometers out."
"Any ideas, Mr. Mog?" the first officer asked after a moment. "Could they be activating the artifact?"
"Well, we could ask," the engineer replied before turning back to his station.
"Mr. Estrada, hail Lieutenant Xiong at the encampment," Khatami said, "and let's see what's going on down there."
Activate the artifact? Can they do that?
Klisiewicz involuntarily rubbed his arm as he felt goose bumps rise beneath his sleeves. His thoughts turned to Ravanar IV and the destruction dealt to the research facility there by the Tholians, who apparently had taken issue with a Federation presence on that world. According to what he had learned from rumors and other scuttlebutt around the ship, Lieutenant Xiong, who had been there along with a landing party from the U.S.S. Enterprise investigating the aftermath of an earlier Tholian attack, had barely escaped with his life.
And Ravanar didn't even have an intact structure, he thought, but the Tholians still wanted us to leave it the hell alone. Could the same thing happen here or something worse? As he turned his attention back to the incoming stream of data from the planet's two newly energized power sources, Klisiewicz could not help thinking that someone, somewhere, would learn what was happening on Erilon and not like it one bit.
Xiong jumped from the driver's seat of the encampment's all-terrain vehicle, his face chilled by icy wind as he made his way quickly to a black, manually operated hatch the only distinct feature on the snow-encrusted front of a temporary structure at the base of the artifact. He turned and squinted through the bright white of swirling snow to see his five passengers step out of the side hatch of the vehicle, which had been adapted for use on Erilon with rear treads and an assembly of shock-absorbing skis mounted in place of its front axle.
He waved them forward, unable to hear any crunching of their boots on the snowpack from the howling of the arctic wind. Xiong had not been on the planet long enough to get a feel for impending white-out conditions, but as he placed his gloved hands on the hatch's center wheel and strained to turn it, he had to wonder whether this was the start of some weather he did not want to witness firsthand. A form stepped alongside him to grip the wheel as well, and they both attempted to turn it again.
"The automatic locks keep freezing shut!" Xiong yelled over the wind to his helper, whom he now recognized as Captain Zhao. The two tugged to break the wheel loose of the outdoors' frozen grip, and after spinning it freely, Xiong pushed his weight against the door and opened it enough to admit them into the airlock.
Stepping back so the others could pass, Xiong clanged the hatch shut behind the last of them and started to twist the interior mate to the locking mechanism to seal it. Once the wind's whine was shut out, the room filled with the clatter of feet stamping against floor plates and hands slapping against parkas to loosen the ice crystals that had accumulated on their protective clothing just in the short amount of time they had stood outside. Xiong pushed back the fur-lined hood of his parka and moved to the opposite door.
"This one's a bit easier," he said, slipping his hand from a glove and keying a security code into a panel next to the door. As it slid open, a rush of warmer air greeted the new arrivals. They made their way briskly into a darkened, ebony-surfaced corridor, one with a graded slope that led under the planet's surface, with Xiong leading them toward a dim source of light and sound several hundred meters into the structure. Their footsteps rang crisply against the smooth floors and walls of the low-ceilinged corridor, and no one spoke as Zhao stepped up into the point position of the group a few strides before they entered the control room, a move that Xiong dismissed as being more out of habit than arrogance.
"Report," the captain snapped in a voice loud enough to capture the immediate attention of the three researchers in the room. Xiong saw Lieutenant Spencer, the young, blond-haired officer with whom he had worked most closely since his arrival, draw himself up from a crouch next to a power generator and approach the group.
"Uh...yes, sir," Spencer said hesitantly to Zhao before looking at Xiong. "Isn't this information...?"
Nodding as he slipped out of his parka, Xiong said, "Captain Zhao's presence is authorized, Spence. Just tell us what's going on."
Spencer spoke as he turned and walked deeper into the room, prompting Xiong and Zhao to keep up. "When I called you, we'd just picked up a power source activating below the surface a few kilometers from the artifact. We thought that was interesting enough to notify you. But now we have three of them."
Xiong felt his jaw go slack, and it required physical effort to keep his mouth from dropping open in surprise. "Three? Where?"
Spencer turned and pointed to the screen of a portable computer viewer propped up on a pitch-black console top in front of them. "One northwest of us and two others south. They're building in output, and we're detecting some deep melt there!" Spencer poked at the screen where a blinking amber dot indicated a fourth budding power level, this one situated northeast of the artifact and apparently equidistant from the others. "They just keep activating, no rhyme or reason."
"Lieutenant Spencer," Zhao spoke, "how long have you been attempting to transfer power from that generator into the artifact's control center?"
"Not long, sir," the younger officer replied. Looking past the captain's shoulder, he called out, "Hey, Bohanon, how long has our generator been up and running?"
A large-built Denobulan in a blue jumpsuit stepped to the pulsing generator and stooped over it. "Two-point-three-seven hours, Spence."
Looking to Zhao, Xiong asked, "You think we may be activating those power sources, Captain?"
"Or," Zhao countered, "are they activating as a response to your activities here?" Any further discussion was interrupted by the sound of the captain's communicator beeping. Unzipping his parka, Zhao retrieved the device and flipped it open in a practiced motion. "Zhao here."
"Khatami here, Captain," said the voice of the Endeavour's first officer, filtered through the communicator's small speaker. "We're not getting a strong signal...."
"I can hear you," he spoke back. "What's your status?"
"We're fine, sir," Khatami continued, "but we're monitoring multiple power spikes from the planet in the vicinity of the artifact."
"We're on top of the situation, Commander," Zhao said in a voice that exuded more confidence than Xiong himself was feeling at the moment. "I'll presume you are transmitting your readings to the research base?"
"You know me too well, sir," Khatami said, her voice easing a bit. "We'll keep you apprised. Endeavour out."
As Zhao closed his communicator, Xiong said, "If this is a response, I don't see why it's..."
The ground trembled beneath his feet and he reached out toward the nearby wall to steady himself as a heavy metal clanking suddenly rang once, then again from within the structure. Everything in the chamber seemed to register the vibration, which also rattled equipment and made Xiong look to the ceiling for any sign that they might be facing a cave-in. He fell silent along with the rest of the men in the control room and, just like each of the others, found himself instinctively looking to Zhao.
Evenly, almost quietly, the captain said, "We're leaving. Collect any data you can carry and get moving, now." Pointing to Bohanon, he added, "Disconnect that power coupling."
"Wait!" Xiong said in a loud whisper, drawing Zhao's narrowed gaze. "That'll kill the computers. I need time to transmit our data to the Endeavour. We can't afford to lose it." When Zhao did not answer after a moment, the lieutenant took a step forward, his expression anxious. "Captain, please!"
"Do it quickly," Zhao ordered before turning his attention to the others. "The rest of you, continue the evacuation."
Xiong dashed to the portable console and his fingers sped across the buttons and switches, dumping all of their accumulated raw data into a central file and pushing it upstream into a communications feed. Once he had begun the data transmission to the Endeavour's main computer, he snatched his parka from a chair back and was just beginning to shrug into it when another resounding crash echoed through the room. Instead of the low rumble that just moments earlier had washed over everything and everyone in the chamber, this clamor was localized, sounding as though it had come from the control room.
Frowning in confusion, Xiong looked toward the adjoining room in time to see a pair of Endeavour security guards scrambling back through the entrance, their phasers drawn and aimed toward the way they had come.
"Everybody out!" one of the men shouted. "Now!" Even as he shouted the order he punctuated the words by firing his phaser into the control room.
"What's going on?" Zhao shouted over the weapons fire, and Xiong saw the captain reaching into his parka to extract his own phaser an instant before the entire room was plunged into darkness. The sound of the generator faded, as did the gentle hum of the portable computer and communications equipment.
"Report!" Xiong heard Captain Zhao shout as other members of the team cried out in alarm.
Fumbling into one of his parka's larger pockets, Xiong drew out a flashlight and activated it, its narrow beam playing across the darkened interior of the ancient control room. He quickly found the group of Endeavour security guards and other members of his own team gathered near the airlock.
"There's something in here!" another voice shouted, and Xiong recognized it as the Endeavour security guard who had fired his phaser. "It came through the damned wall!"
Xiong felt his heart beginning to race as he sprinted across the room to join the group. A loud crash echoed in the chamber somewhere behind him. Spinning around, he aimed his flashlight beam toward the source of the noise in time to see a blur of movement in the control room. A cry of pain echoed through the room, followed by a flurry of phaser fire as beams of blue energy sliced through the darkness.
Something was attacking? What was it? How could it have forced its way through solid rock? Was it native to this world?
Later! his mind screamed at him. You need to move, now!
"The door won't open!" said another voice from somewhere to his left, sounding like Bohanon's.
"Force it!" shouted Zhao.
Nervous bile stung Xiong's throat as the screeching howl of metal against metal pierced the air and echoed against the hard, flat surfaces of the corridor. A second, longer grinding moaned from the yielding door as several men grunted from their effort, which sent a blast of chilled air from the airlock to surround them and immediately permeate Xiong's uniform.
As he felt the huddle of men start to push beyond the doorway into more darkness, a frantic scream stabbed his ears. He looked toward it only to have his eyes burned by the flash of phaser fire. The brightness of the beam held for a couple of seconds, plenty of time for a vivid image to sear into the young researcher's mind: one security officer's grimacing face glowing sapphire in the flare of a thin, lancing beam, and that beam finding its mark against...something else a shapeless, black form that seemed to envelop another guard and squeeze him at the torso, compressing his body to inhuman thinness.
Blind panic reached out to snare Xiong in its grip, his eyes wide as he looked all around for potential threats. Memories of Ravanar IV exploded in his mind scrambling from danger, the near-blinding pain of his shattered knee, the shock waves of the energy blasts unleashed by Tholian demolitions as they obliterated all evidence of the similar artifact on that world.
"Where the hell's the door?" he heard a voice shout, before another flashlight beam flared into existence and he saw Spencer, Bohanon, and one of the Endeavour security men moving toward the airlock's inner door.
"Xiong!" Captain Zhao called out, and the lieutenant saw
him standing near the door, waving the others into the airlock. "Move it!"
He pushed his way into the airlock, followed by Zhao, who pulled the inner door closed behind him and engaged the manual lock. While Bohanon and Spencer fought with the outer hatch's wheel, the captain reached into his parka and drew his phaser
before turning his attention to Lieutenants Nauls and La Sala. Both security officers had drawn their own weapons, with Nauls standing near the outer hatch while La Sala had taken up a defensive stance, her back to the wall of the cramped vestibule.
"Once the door's open," Zhao said in a quiet voice that managed still to convey the tension of the situation, "sweep the area outside and make sure our way to the transport is clear."
After some tussling and slight groaning of metal on metal, Xiong heard the hatch wheel give way and spin with the slapping of bare hands over hands to punctuate its process. Without warning, a thick slice of whiteness cut the room in half, the abrupt change in illumination momentarily blinding him as crisp, cold wind flooded the airlock.
One by one, the group began to duck quickly through the hatch and onto the cold, snow-covered ground outside the artifact just as a loud surge against the inner bulkhead rocked the temporary airlock and spilled Xiong and the others off of their feet. As he tried to regain his footing, another blow hit and a visible dent appeared in the airlock's inner door.
La Sala suddenly stuck her head back into the airlock, her dark hair already smattered with snowflakes. "All clear! Let's go!"
Xiong was almost through the outer door when another thunderous hammer blow rocked the airlock, and he turned to see that the inner door now was partly caved in.
A dark, amorphous blur sprang from the forced gap of the doorway, striking Spencer and yanking him by the arm against the door and wall. Xiong froze in shock, unable to look away as the researcher howled and kicked his feet, lashing out to free his limb from the gap. A hand slapped Xiong on the shoulder and spun him around, and he found himself looking at Zhao.
"Go!" the captain yelled as he all but tossed Xiong out of the airlock. Behind him, Spencer's shouting turned more guttural for a moment before stopping altogether.
Shoving Xiong toward the all-terrain vehicle and nearly knocking him to the snow-covered ground in the process, Zhao shouted, "Get that thing moving!"
As he rushed for the vehicle's driver compartment, Xiong looked over his shoulder to see the captain and La Sala frantically climbing aboard through the passenger door. Throwing himself into the driver's seat, Xiong stabbed at the control to start the vehicle, relieved when the engine powered up and the array of gauges and display readouts flared to life.
"Move!" Zhao shouted just as Xiong fed power to the transport's drive, remembering at the last moment that a fast acceleration would cause more problems than it solved while trying to navigate the snow-laden path. As the vehicle came up to speed, he heard Zhao flip open a communicator. "Erilon base! This is Captain Zhao of the Endeavour. We are under atta "
Bohanon's shout cut off Zhao's words. "Whatever it is, it just destroyed the airlock! It's coming right at us!"
Trying to keep his attention on the snow-covered trail in front of him, Xiong still managed to look at one rearview monitor set into the panel above the windshield. He saw fragments of the airlock strewn across the frozen ground, though this was quickly obscured by a dual wake of snow and ice flying several meters high, stemming from a dark, undulating blur in the center of the path left by the vehicle's passage through the snow.
And it was getting closer.
"Everybody hang on!" Zhao called out, and Xiong felt himself tensing up even as he tried to coax more speed from the lumbering vehicle.
Then the blur struck.
Like a jellyfish, Xiong pitched backward and hard against the back of his seat; then his world upended with the sounds of yelling and groaning metal as he felt the entire vehicle rise off its back wheels and tumble onto its side. Everything spun to the right as he was thrown against the driver compartment's door, pain stabbing his shoulder. Then his head struck the doorframe and Erilon's bleak white landscape was swallowed by unyielding darkness.
Copyright © 2006 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.