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As a former science officer and now the captain of a science vessel, Ronald Arens had encountered his share of interesting stellar phenomena. There had been the odd black hole or quasar, stars in the midst of going nova, and the occasional nebula here and there. He even had spent two weeks studying a rogue pulsar. Nothing Arens had seen with his own eyes or read about in reports submitted by those observing even stranger examples of spatial oddities compared to the image now displayed on the main viewscreen of the U.S.S. Huang Zhong’s bridge.
“Okay,” Arens said, rising from his command chair and moving closer to the screen, “I think this qualifies as an impressive welcome to the Kondaii system, especially considering how we nearly blew out our engines trying to get here.” Built for speed, the Huang Zhong, an Archer-class scout ship configured to hold an enhanced suite of sensor arrays and other science-related information-gathering equipment, had proceeded here at maximum speed after its abrupt reassignment from patrol duty. Despite his comment, the dependable little craft had handled with ease the exertion of traveling at high warp for nearly a week. As for why they had been dispatched, the captain had been told that the ship originally assigned to be here, the U.S.S. Lexington, had been deployed elsewhere on a task of greater priority. Though his ship’s science equipment would do in a pinch, Arens knew it could not substitute for a Constitution-class vessel. To that end, the Enterprise was being redirected to the Kondaii system to take on the brunt of the survey and research tasks. Until then, it was the Huang Zhong’s show.
Fine by me, Arens mused as he contemplated the anomaly on the viewscreen. To him, it appeared to be something of a cross between a plasma storm and a matter-antimatter explosion. It was an amorphous mass of energy, shifting and undulating in space, all while staying confined within what Arens already had been told was more or less a spherical area less than five hundred kilometers in diameter. Within that region was chaos, in the form of a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of light and color that seemed to fold back on itself, only to surge forth anew moments later. At the center of the field was a dark area, roughly circular in shape, which seemed to beckon to him. It took Arens an extra minute to realize that he had become all but mesmerized by the imagery.
“Captain?” a voice said from behind him, and Arens blinked as he turned to see Lieutenant Samuel Boma, a slightly-built man of African descent wearing a blue uniform tunic and regarding him with an expression that indicated the younger man had been waiting for his commanding officer with both patience and amusement.
Clearing his throat, Arens smiled. “I was daydreaming again, wasn’t I?”
The Huang Zhong’s science officer’s features remained fixed as he shook his head in melodramatic fashion. “I’m not qualified to speculate on that topic, sir. At all.”
“Damned right, you’re not.” Arens’s smile grew wider. Their easy banter, something the captain had missed, was a product of his and Boma’s service together years earlier. Arens at the time was the science officer on the Constellation, while Boma had been a fresh-faced junior-grade lieutenant fresh out of Starfleet Academy’s advanced astrophysics school. The friendship begun during that joint tour of duty continued even after both men went their separate ways to different assignments. Boma had joined the Huang Zhong’s crew less than six months earlier, transferring from a ground posting at Starbase 12 following a less than stellar performance while serving aboard the Enterprise. After Boma had run into trouble stemming from insubordination charges that resulted in a permanent notation in his service record, he had requested a transfer to any ship or station. When Arens found out that his friend was available, he had petitioned Starfleet Command to have Boma join his crew. Starfleet granted the request, allowing Arens to make sure that Boma was afforded a chance to redeem himself.
Gesturing toward the viewscreen, Arens said, “All right, let’s get down to business. What can you tell me about this thing?”
Boma replied, “Not much; at least, not yet. As the initial reports indicated, it’s about eight hundred thousand kilometers from the system’s fourth planet. According to my calculations, it maintains a consistent elliptical orbit with a duration of seventeen point six days.” He paused, pointing to the screen and indicating the dark area at the center of the energy field. “Most of the time, it’s impassable, but the rift we’re seeing appears at intervals that compute out to be approximately two point seven Earth years, give or take as much as two months. The rift stays open for a period of about thirty-eight days, again plus or minus a day or three, though it doesn’t just close; it shrinks over a period of several days before fading altogether. From the reports we’ve received, once the rift’s closed, that’s it until the next time it opens. No way in or out.” He gestured toward the screen. “The locals have a name for it that translates more or less as ‘the Pass.’ Seems appropriate enough for me.”
“Damnedest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Arens said, reaching up to rub the back of his bald head. Since being given the assignment to observe this phenomenon, he had familiarized himself with whatever information he could find on the Kondaii system, or System 965, as it had been catalogued after initial surveys by unmanned Starfleet reconnaissance probes more than a decade earlier. From the reports he had read, such as those provided by Federation first-contact teams that had visited the Kondaii system more than a year earlier as well as the most recent accounts submitted by continuing contact specialists and diplomatic envoys, the people who called the fourth planet, Dolysia, their home had always been aware of the phenomenon. Like their sun or the pair of moons orbiting their planet or even the other seven worlds occupying the Kondaii system, the mysterious anomaly had always been a part of the Dolysian people’s history.
“What about its interior?” Arens asked. “Anything on the moon or planetoid or whatever it is hiding in there?”
The science officer shook his head. “Not much, really. The locals call it ‘Gralafi,’ which in their language translates to something like ‘playful child,’ no doubt owing to the way it plays hide-and-seek from within the anomaly. It has a Class-M environment like the Dolysians’ own planet, so I suppose that’s a huge plus.” He shrugged. “By all accounts, it may be a dwarf planet, but there’s no way to know if it originally was part of this system and became trapped within that region, or if it’s from somewhere else. We won’t know anything until we get a closer look at it, run some scans, and see if it shares any properties with the planets here.”
“Regardless of where it came from,” Arens said, “or where it might belong, the Dolysians have certainly made the best of it.” The revelation that a spatial body had been discovered inside the rift residing within a form of pocket or other compartmentalized region of space had come as a surprise to him. Even more astonishing was learning that the Dolysians had explored and even settled upon it, having found a means of working with the rift’s sporadic if mostly predictable accessibility. A largely self-sufficient mining colony, constructed on the planetoid decades earlier, now played a vital role in meeting the energy production needs of several of Dolysia’s nation-states. “This mineral they extract, erinadium? It’s present on the home planet’s two moons, right?”
Boma replied, “Yes, sir, and it’s also on the planet itself, though in all three cases it’s not found in nearly the same abundance. The Dolysians had made the transition to using the material to meet their energy needs decades before the first probes into the anomaly found the planetoid and discovered its rich erinadium deposits. Once they knew that, there was a focused effort to get a permanent facility up and running. According to their projections, there’s enough erinadium on the planetoid to keep the lights on for a couple of centuries.”
“Wow,” Arens said, impressed at the effort the Dolysians had expended and the rewards they seemed to be enjoying for their work. “Well, that’d certainly justify the risk you’d think would be inherent in a project of this magnitude. On a different note, it suggests the planetoid might be native to this system, after all. It’ll be interesting to see if we can offer them some new insight.”
Boma replied, “That’s going to be easier said than done, though, as our sensor scans are being scattered as they come into contact with the rift’s . . . the anomaly’s outer boundary.”
Noting the other man’s change of word choice, Arens cocked his head as he regarded his friend. “You don’t think it’s an interspatial rift?” The idea that this might be a doorway of sorts—to another part of the universe or to another universe or reality entirely—made the captain’s mind race to consider the possibilities. “It wouldn’t be the first time something like that’s been encountered, after all.” Shrugging, he added, “Though it’d be a first for me.”
“Rifts such as those,” Boma replied, “at least the ones we know about, have usually been found to have some common characteristics. Energy distortion fields, chroniton or verteron particle emissions, time dilation effects, and so on. I’m not picking up anything like that from this thing.”
Arens frowned, crossing his arms before reaching up to stroke his thin, close-cropped beard. “Absence of such characteristics doesn’t automatically rule out this being some kind of interspatial rift or conduit.”
“Which is why I’m going to stick with my story of not having the first clue what it is, sir,” Boma said. “If it is a conduit, then what’s on the other side? Where’s the other end, where does it go, and what—or who—might be there?”
“Those are all interesting questions which we have also asked, Captain, though we have been unable to answer them.”
Arens and Boma turned in response to the new voice to see the Huang Zhong’s first officer, Commander April Hebert, standing near the bridge’s doorway. With her was the guest to whom the ship was playing host, a Dolysian female who earlier had introduced herself as Rzaelir Zihl du Molidin. Though she was humanoid in appearance, at least in a general sense, there still were several exterior differences in her physiology when compared to humans. Her skin was a pale yellow with a hint of green; a Vulcan-like pigmentation, Arens thought. The pupils of her eyes were almost devoid of color, with only the slightest shade of red encircling tiny irises. Rather than cartilage forming a nose, there was only a slight indentation beneath her eyes with a trio of small holes which Arens took to be nostrils. The upper portion of her rounded skull flared outward at a point just above small openings on each side, which seemed to serve as her ears. What little hair she possessed was confined to a single narrow strip that began just above the groove between her eyes and continued up and over her head to the nape of her long, thin neck. From there, the hair hung down below her shoulders, braided and intertwined with a strand of black material. The result resembled a ponytail, which hung down across the front of the Dolysian’s right shoulder so that Arens could see a decorative silver band encircling its end. Her clothing consisted of a single-piece, floor-length gown tailored to her trim, almost petite physique. The garment had been fashioned from a shiny material that reminded Arens of silk, colored a light tan with threads of white and silver woven into the fabric.
Smiling, Arens said, “Advisor Zihl, welcome to the bridge.” When he had all but choked during his first attempt at mimicking her pronunciation, the Dolysian had taken apparent pity on him by explaining that in her society—one of however many that called her planet home—names acted as a means of honoring respected family members. When a member died, others in the family might be inspired to add a portion of that person’s name to their own, a process that continued throughout the lives of those offering such tributes. In the case of Rzaelir Zihl du Molidin, Zihl was her given name, and her title of “advisor” was given to her while operating in her role as one of numerous liaisons between the Federation and the various Dolysian governments.
“Thank you, Captain,” she replied, bowing her head for a brief moment. “It is an honor to be here.”
Arens repeated Zihl’s gesture. “I hope you enjoyed the tour, such as it was.”
“The fastest five minutes you’ll ever spend,” Hebert replied, reaching up to brush a lock of her dark hair away from her eyes. As though attempting to decipher the meaning of the first officer’s words, Zihl’s expression changed to what Arens thought might be a look of confusion.
“What she means is that because our ship is so small, such tours often don’t take that much time,” he said, before offering another smile. Starfleet linguistic experts had done a phenomenal job creating a database from which universal translation protocols assisted in communicating with the Dolysian people, using more than one hundred of their known languages. Despite such an achievement, bridging the gap with respect to odd turns of phrase unfamiliar to one party or the other would always present a challenge.
Boma added, “On the other hand, it’s easy to keep clean.”
Archer-class scouts were designed for speed, their missions entailing getting in and out of places in a hurry and often working in stealth. Their size made them ideal for clandestine surveillance duties, such as monitoring activities along borders separating Federation territory from that of rival powers such as the Klingon and Romulan empires. The Huang Zhong, like her sister vessels of this type, possessed few frills or creature comforts for its fourteen-person crew to enjoy. Commander Hebert, like the ship’s other female crew members, wore the female officer’s version of uniform tunic and trousers rather than the skirt variant. Given the vessel’s lack of turbolifts, the uniform choice made for traversing the ship’s ladders and crawl spaces in a more dignified manner.
Even billet space aboard the Huang Zhong was at a premium, with only the captain and first officer entitled to a private cabin. As for the rest of the ship’s complement, though each of them was formally assigned to one of the four remaining crew compartments, each room only possessed one berth, necessitating the practice of “hot-bunking,” or sharing the beds by virtue of working and sleeping during different duty shifts. Given the often fluctuating nature of life aboard ship, any open bunk was fair game to anyone when their off-duty shift came around. The situation was tolerable, because most of the Huang Zhong’s missions were of limited duration and were interspersed with rotations at the ship’s home station, Starbase 23. That the crew was one of the most tight-knit groups with which Arens had ever served also went a long way toward defusing any problems that might arise from being stuffed into such a compact vessel for lengthy periods of time.
Remember that, Arens warned himself, when Hebert sticks you with the bar tab our first night back in port.
Seemingly satisfied with his explanation, Zihl nodded. “As I said, the commander is an excellent guide. Your technology is wondrous, particularly your engines which allow you to travel faster than light.” She paused, glancing toward the viewscreen. “Such feats are only fodder for stories to my people. Our attempts at interstellar travel must seem so quaint to you, but I hope that one day we too will be able to move among the stars as you do.”
“You will,” Hebert replied, “one day.”
Zihl said, “We have been told by your diplomatic envoys that it is atypical for your Federation even to interact with a weaker species such as mine until after we have reached that technological milestone.”
“Not weaker,” Boma countered, his tone light and respectful, “just less advanced. Our laws prohibit us from revealing ourselves to such a culture, or to interfere with it, except in very special circumstances.”
When Zihl’s expression once again conveyed her lack of understanding, Arens added, “We believe that every society has the right to develop on its own, without influence from outside parties such as ourselves.”
“That seems like a noble sentiment,” Zihl replied, “though I suspect such a philosophy would be problematic from time to time, such as with my people. I am grateful you chose to make an exception on our behalf.”
Though the budding relationship between Dolysia and the Federation was continuing to grow and prosper since formal first-contact protocols had been initiated fourteen months earlier, the initial meeting between the two almost did not come to pass. Only fortunate happenstance had seen to it that the U.S.S. Resolute, a Starfleet border patrol ship on assignment several sectors away from the Kondaii system in Federation space, crossed paths with a Dolysian cargo freighter adrift in space.
“It was a pretty bold experiment,” Boma said, “converting that old freighter into a sleeper ship.”
Zihl nodded. “I imagine you find such notions rather simplistic, given your ability to travel faster than light itself.”
“Not at all,” Hebert replied. “Hibernation ships are a normal first step when developing interstellar travel. Our planet did the same thing, hundreds of years ago.”
“Ours was an experiment,” Zihl said, “testing whether long-term cryogenics would be a feasible means of traveling to the other planets in our system. I am not familiar with the specifics of the mission, but I do not believe interstellar flight was a goal, at least not so early in the process.”
Arens recalled what he had been told of the Dolysians’ initial forays into long-duration spaceflight. A trio of scientists had volunteered to be placed in hibernation for a period of several years while the vessel transited the Kondaii system. During the flight, an error in the ship’s onboard computer system caused an unplanned ignition of the vessel’s engines, sending the freighter on a trajectory that eventually sent it out of the system and into interstellar space. Engineers on Dolysia remained in contact with the ship for a time while frantic plans were considered in order to attempt a retrieval. Though contact with the vessel was sporadic, a minor update to the computer’s software allowed the computer to extend the crew’s planned hibernation cycle. As the ship continued to travel farther away, a more extensive update to alter its course and redirect it back toward Dolysia failed, taking with it any hope—realistic or otherwise—of rescue.
Several years later, the Resolute’s sensors had picked up the ship, registering its low, battery-generated power readings and what was determined to be a distress signal. Upon intercepting the stricken vessel for closer investigation and then detecting life signs aboard, the Resolute’s captain made the decision to render assistance, resulting in the first Federation-Dolysian meeting. After the captain made her report to Starfleet Command, a decision was made to send a Federation first-contact team with the Resolute when it towed the freighter back to the Kondaii system.
“Captain,” a female voice called out from behind him, and Arens turned to where his helm officer, Lieutenant T’Vrel, sat at her station. “Sensors are registering a vessel emerging from the rift.”
“One of the ore freighters?” Arens asked, redirecting his attention back to the main viewscreen.
The Vulcan did not reply at first, leaning forward in her seat to peer into the scanner that had extended upward from her console. Then, she said, “Affirmative, sir.”
“I’ve been waiting to see this,” Boma said, moving back to his own station. “I want to monitor the energy readings from the rift as a ship passes through.”
“So,” Arens said, unable to resist the opening his science officer had provided him, “we’re calling it a rift again?”
“Quiet, sir,” Boma replied. “People are working here, and you’re distracting them.”
Hebert smiled. “I assume that was said with all due respect?”
“If it makes you feel better.” As he bent over his console and looked into his station’s scanner viewport, Boma’s face was bathed in the soft blue glow emanating from the instruments.
Arens turned back to Zihl. “Advisor, how many of these cargo runs do your freighters make while the rift is open?” He glanced over his shoulder at Boma as he asked the question, but the younger man either had not heard him or was choosing not to react to the gentle needling.
“Each season is different,” the Dolysian replied, “and we always endeavor to establish and maintain a safety deadline, after which no ships are permitted to transit the Pass. For as long as my people have known about the energy field and Gralafi, we have been able to predict within a margin of error when the Pass will open and close.” She paused, then added, “Of course, there have been a few miscalculations, as well, but those were long ago, and infrequent.”
Hebert asked, “You’ve had ships in transit when the rift’s closed?”
The advisor nodded, bowing her head. “A few times, yes. On those occasions, the ship making the journey was destroyed.”
“And nothing can penetrate the field after that?” Boma asked.
“That is correct, Lieutenant,” Zihl replied. “When my people first perfected space travel, we sent automated probes to the energy field, followed by larger ships piloted remotely from ground stations on my planet. In every case, the vehicles were lost. So far as our technology can determine, the field is impenetrable except for when the Pass is open.”
Arens could not help imagining the Huang Zhong in such a situation. Not liking where his musings were taking him, he returned his gaze to the viewscreen, watching as the freighter emerged from the energy field and into normal space. Having been born into a family of low-warp, long-distance cargo haulers with a history going back to the earliest days of the Federation more than a century earlier, it was easy for him to see that the vessel had been constructed with function and practicality taking a priority over aesthetics. The ship was comprised of a forward section, which likely held the navigational and other control areas as well as crew berthing, and an aft segment from which protruded a quartet of engine bells that provided the ship’s propulsion and expended waste products from whatever it used as a propellant. The two sections were linked by a long support pylon that Arens figured must contain crawl spaces and other work areas, and beneath which were connected six modular containers of differing colors. Even from this distance, Arens could see that the ship and its components were well-worn, with missing paint or no paint at all, replaced hull plates, and other signs of age and constant use.
“By the time the Pass closes again,” Zihl said, “enough erinadium will have been obtained to supply the energy needs of my entire planet for one of your years. Combined with the other mining facilities we have operating on our planet’s two moons as well as other sources of production on Dolysia itself, we are able to meet our energy requirements with ease.”
Arens nodded. “It’s an impressive operation, that’s for sure. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything like it; not on this scale, and certainly not with the added wrinkle of only being able to get the ore to your planet every three years.” Then, he shrugged. “On the other hand, I suppose you’ve had plenty of time to iron out all the wrinkles.”
Seeing the renewed look of confusion on Zihl’s face, he was about to explain the idiom when Boma called out from his science station.
“Captain,” he said, lifting his face away from his scanner’s viewfinder. “You should have a look at this. Based on what we’ve been told about how stable the conduit is and how it doesn’t seem to react to ships passing through it, I didn’t expect to pick up any sensor fluctuations, but that’s exactly what I’m seeing here.”
Frowning, Arens asked, “You caught something as the freighter was coming through?”
Boma nodded. “The rift does react to the passage of ship traffic, but not in any way that’s immediately noticeable. Look.” He tapped a series of controls on his console, and one of the overhead screens began to display what Arens recognized as a computer-generated graphic of the energy field. “I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it was sort of a rippling effect. I was able to pick it up on this side of the rift, but then our sensor beams scattered again. From what I can tell, the effect started from the other side and worked its way in this direction, tracking with the freighter’s course. It’s only a minor deviation from the readings I’ve collected to this point, but it was still enough to catch our attention.”
“Advisor,” Hebert said, her brow furrowed in confusion. “Has this sort of thing ever happened before?”
“Not that I know of, Commander,” Zihl replied. “Though our monitoring devices possess nothing approaching the ability of your equipment, no probe we have ever dispatched to study the Pass has ever discovered anything which might hint at its being unstable.”
“This probably sounds like a stupid question,” Hebert said, “but could any disruption or whatever you want to call it be caused by our sensors?”
Boma replied, “I don’t think so, Commander. We’ve been conducting full sensor sweeps since we got here. This is the first indication of anything out of the ordinary.” He shrugged. “To be honest? I don’t think it’s an instability. It’s almost as if the field was . . . I don’t know . . . sweeping over the freighter as it passed.”
“Like some sort of scan?” Arens asked. “But that would mean . . .”
“It’d mean the field isn’t a natural phenomenon,” Boma finished. “If that’s the case, then it’s not like anything on record. Captain, we need to check this out.”
Arens nodded. “Agreed.” What might such a revelation mean, particularly for the Dolysians? As interesting as chasing down this mystery sounded to him, the captain knew he needed to proceed with care. Prudence was a fine watchword, at least for the moment, but that did not mean sitting idle. “Would it help if we got you a little closer?” Arens asked.
“It certainly wouldn’t hurt,” the science officer said. “We were planning to take a look at the other side, anyway.”
Turning to Zihl, Arens said, “Advisor, would you be able to obtain the necessary permissions to allow my ship to enter the Pass?”
Zihl replied, “Certainly.”
Arens nodded, his anticipation at the thought of getting to see firsthand whatever might lay beyond the rift tempered with concern over what Boma’s sensor readings might be trying to tell them. Could he and his ship be responsible—without malice but through simple ignorance—for introducing some new, random element into whatever mix had conspired to create and sustain the enigmatic energy field before them? Had they endangered the planet it shielded, along with the resources that world possessed and upon which the Dolysian people had come to depend?
Despite his conflicting and troubling thoughts, Arens could not help the mounting excitement he felt as he regarded the main viewscreen and the image of the anomaly. “Okay, then. Let’s go have ourselves a look.”
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