Read an Excerpt
Captain's log, stardate 51604.21
At Starfleet's request, the Enterprise has arrived at Betazed to take on Lem Faal, a distinguished Betazoid scientist, and his two children. Under Faal's direction, this ship will take part in a highly classified experiment that, if it is successful, may open up a vast new frontier for exploration.
"Are you quite sure, Counselor, that you do not wish to visit your family while we are here at Betazed?"
"No, thank you, Captain," Commander Deanna Troi replied. "As it happens, my mother and little brother are off on one of her regular excursions to the Parallax Colony on Shiralea VI, so there's not much point in beaming down."
You didn't have to be an empath to detect an unmistakable look of relief on Captain Jean-Luc Picard's face when he learned that Lwaxana Troi was several dozen light-years away. She knew exactly how he felt; even though she genuinely loved her mother, Troi wasn't too disappointed that there would be no parent-daughter reunion on this particular mission. Surviving a visit with Lwaxana always required a lot of energy -- and patience. Maybe it will get easier someday, she thought. And maybe Klingons will become vegetarians, too.
"That's too bad," Captain Picard said unconvincingly. "Although I'm sure our guest must be anxious to get under way." He glanced toward the far end of the conference room, where a middle-aged Betazoid male waited patiently, reviewing the data on a padd that he held at arm's length from himself. Must be farsighted, Troi guessed, a not uncommon condition in Betazoids of a certain age. Lem Faal had striking, dark brown eyes, a receding hairline, and the slightly distracted air of a born academic. He reminded Troi of any number of professors she had encountered during her student days at the university, although, on closer inspection, she also picked up an impression of infirmity even though she couldn't spot any obvious handicap. Wearing a tan-colored civilian suit, he looked out of place among all the Starfleet uniforms. Almost instinctively, her empathic senses reached out to get a reading on the new arrival, only to immediately come into contact with a telepathic presence far more powerful than her own. Becoming aware of her tentative probing, Faal looked up from his data padd and made eye contact with Troi from across the room.
Hello, he thought to her.
Er, hello, she thought back. Growing up on Betazed, she had become accustomed to dealing with full telepaths, even though she felt a bit rusty at mind-speaking after spending so many years among humans and other nontelepathic races. Welcome to the Enterprise.
Thank you, he answered. She sensed, behind his verbal responses, feelings of keen anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and...something else as well, something she couldn't quite make out. Curious, she stretched out further, deeper until she could almost --
Excuse me, Faal thought, blocking her. I think the captain is ready to begin the briefing.
Troi blinked, momentarily disoriented by the speed with which she had been shoved out of Faal's mind. She looked around the conference room of the Enterprise-E. The other Betazoid's telepathic comment seemed accurate enough; her fellow officers were already taking their places around the curved, illuminated conference table. Captain Picard stood at the head of the table, opposite the blank viewscreen at the other end of the room, where Faal waited to make his presentation. Decorative windows along the outer wall of the conference room offered an eye-catching view of Betazed's upper hemisphere, an image reflected in the glass panes of the display case mounted to the inner wall. Gold-plated models of great starships of the past hung within the case, including a miniature replica of the lost Enterprise-D, her home for seven years. Troi always winced inside a little whenever she noticed that model. She'd been at the helm of that Enterprise when it made its fatal crash into Veridian III. Even though she knew, intellectually, that it wasn't her fault, she still couldn't forget the sense of horror she had felt as the saucer section dived into the atmosphere of Veridian III, never to rise again. This new ship was a fine vessel, as she'd proven during their historic battle with the Borg a few months ago, but she didn't feel quite like home. Not yet.
Preoccupied with thoughts of the past, Troi sat down at the table between Geordi La Forge and Beverly Crusher. Will Riker and Data were seated across from her, their attention on Captain Picard. Riker's confidence and good humor radiated from him, helping to dispel her gloomy memories. She shook her head to clear her mind and listened attentively as the captain began to speak.
"We are honored to have with us today Lem Faal, a specialist in applied physics from the University of Betazed. Professor Faal has previously won awards from the Daystrom Institute and the Vulcan Science Academy for his groundbreaking work in energy wave dynamics."
"Impressive stuff," Geordi said, obviously familiar with Faal's work. Troi could feel the intensity of his scientific interest seeping off him. No surprise there; she'd expect their chief engineer to be fascinated by "energy wave dynamics" and like matters.
"Indeed," Data commented. "I have been particularly intrigued by the professor's insights into the practical applications of transwarp spatial anomalies." The android's sense of anticipation felt just as acute as Geordi's. He must have activated his emotion chip, Troi realized. She could always tell, which certainly demonstrated how genuine Data's on-again, off-again emotions could be.
"Starfleet," the captain continued, "has the greatest of interest in Professor Faal's current line of research, and the Enterprise has been selected to participate in an experiment testing certain new theories he has devised." He gestured toward Faal, who nodded his head in acknowledgment. "Professor, no doubt you can explain your intentions better."
"Well, I can try," the scientist answered. He tapped a control on his padd and the viewscreen behind him lit up. The image that appeared on the screen was of a shimmering ribbon of reddish-purple energy that appeared to stretch across a wide expanse of interstellar space. The Nexus? Troi thought for a second, but, no, this glowing band did not look quite the same color as the mysterious phenomenon that had obsessed Tolian Soran. It looked familiar, though, like something she might have seen at an astrophysics lecture back at Starfleet Academy. Of course, she realized instantly, the barrier!
She felt a temporary surge of puzzlement quickly fade from the room. Obviously, the other officers had recognized the barrier as well. Faal let his audience take in the image for a few seconds before beginning his lecture.
"For centuries," he began, "the great galactic barrier has blocked the Federation's exploration of the universe beyond our own Milky Way Galaxy. It completely surrounds the perimeter of our galaxy, posing a serious hazard to any vessel that attempts to venture to the outer limits of inhabited space. Not only do the unnatural energies that comprise the barrier batter a vessel physically, but there is also a psychic component to the barrier that causes insanity, brain damage, and even death to any humanoid that comes into contact with it."
Troi winced at the thought. As an empath, she knew just how fragile a mind could be, and how a heightened sensitivity to psychic phenomena sometimes left one particularly vulnerable to such effects as the professor described. As a full telepath, Faal had to be even more wary of powerful psychokinetic forces. She wondered if his own gifts played any part in his interest in the barrier.
Faal pressed another button on his padd and the picture of the barrier was replaced by a standard map of the known galaxy, divided into the usual four sections. A flashing purple line, indicating the galactic barrier, circled all four quadrants. "The Federation has always accepted this limitation, as have the Klingons and the Romulans and the other major starfaring civilizations, because there has always been so much territory to explore within our own galaxy. After all, even after centuries of warp travel, both the Gamma and the Delta quadrants remain largely uncharted. Furthermore, the distances between galaxies are so incalculably immense that, even if there were a safe way to cross the barrier, a voyage to another galaxy would require a ship to travel for centuries at maximum warp. And finally, to be totally honest, we have accepted the barrier because there has been no viable alternative to doing so.
"That situation may have changed," Faal announced with what was to Troi a palpable sense of pride. Typical, she thought. What scientist is not proud of his accomplishments? The map of the galaxy flickered, giving way to a photo of a blond-haired woman whose pale skin was delicately speckled with dark red markings that ran from her temples down to the sides of her throat. A Trill, Troi thought, recognizing the characteristic spotting of that symbiotic life-form. She felt a fleeting pang of sadness from the woman seated next to her and sympathized with Beverly, who was surely recalling her own doomed love affair with the Trill diplomat Ambassador Odan. Troi wasn't sure, but she thought she sensed a bit of discomfort from Will Riker as well. A reasonable reaction, considering that Will had once "loaned" his own body to a Trill symbiont. She was relieved to note that both Will and Beverly swiftly overcame their flashes of emotion, focusing once more on the present. They acknowledged their pasts, then moved on, the counselor diagnosed approvingly. Very healthy behavior.
Worf married a Trill, she remembered with only the slightest twinge of jealousy. Then she took her own advice and put that reaction behind her. I wish him only the best, she thought.
"Some of you may be familiar with the recent work of Dr. Lenara Kahn, the noted Trill physicist," Faal went on. Heads nodded around the table and Troi experienced a twinge of guilt; she tried to keep up to date on the latest scientific developments, as summarized in Starfleet's never-ending bulletins and position papers, but her own interests leaned more toward psychology and sociology than the hard sciences, which she sometimes gave only a cursory inspection. Oh well, she thought, I never intended to transfer to Engineering. "A few years ago, Dr. Kahn and her associates conducted a test on Deep Space Nine, which resulted in the creation of the Federation's first artificially generated wormhole. The wormhole was unstable, and collapsed only moments after its creation, but Kahn's research team has continued to refine and develop this new technology. They're still years away from being able to produce an artificial wormhole that's stable enough to permit reliable transport to other sectors of the galaxy, but it dawned on me that the same technique, modified somewhat, might allow a starship to open a temporary breach in the galactic barrier, allowing safe passage through to the other side. As you may have guessed, that's where the Enterprise comes in."
A low murmur arose in the conference room as the assembled officers reacted to Faal's revelation. Data and Geordi took turns peppering the Betazoid scientist with highly technical questions that quickly left Troi behind. Just as well, she thought. She was startled enough by just the basic idea.
Breaking the barrier! It was one of those things, like passing the warp-ten threshold or flying through a sun, that people talked about sometimes, but you never really expected to happen in your lifetime. Searching her memory, she vaguely recalled that an earlier Enterprise, Captain Kirk's ship, had passed through the barrier on a couple of occasions, usually with spectacularly disastrous consequences. Starfleet had declared such expeditions off-limits decades ago, although every few years some crackpot or daredevil would try to break the barrier in a specially modified ship. To date, none of these would-be heroes had survived. She remembered Will Riker once, years ago on Betazed, describing such dubious endeavors as "the warp-era equivalent of going over Niagara in a barrel." Now, apparently, it was time for the Enterprise-E to take the plunge. She couldn't suppress a chill at the very thought.
"I'm curious, Professor," Riker asked. "Where exactly do you plan to make the test?"
Faal tapped his padd and the map of the galaxy reappeared on the screen. The image zoomed in on the Alpha Quadrant and he pointed at a wedge-shaped area on the map. "Those portions of the barrier that exist within Federation space have been thoroughly surveyed by unmanned probes containing the most advanced sensors available, and they've made a very intriguing discovery. Over the last year or so, energy levels within the barrier have fluctuated significantly, producing what appears to be a distinct weakening in the barrier at several locations."
Shaded red areas appeared throughout the flashing purple curve on the screen. Troi noted that the shaded sections represented only a small portion of the barrier. They looked like mere dots scattered along the length of the line. Like leaks in a dam, she thought, finding the comparison somewhat unsettling.
Faal gave her an odd look, as if aware of her momentary discomfort. "These...imperfections...in the integrity of the barrier are not substantial, representing only a fractional diminution in the barrier's strength, but they are significant enough to recommend themselves as the logical sites at which to attempt to penetrate the barrier. This particular site," he said, pointing to one of the red spots, which began to flash brighter than the rest, "is located in an uninhabited and otherwise uninteresting sector of space. Since Starfleet would prefer to conduct this experiment in secrecy, far from the prying eyes of the Romulans or the Cardassians, this site has been selected for our trial run. Even as I speak, specialized equipment, adapted from the original Trill designs, is being transported aboard the Enterprise. I look forward to working with Mr. La Forge and his engineering team on this project."
"Thanks," Geordi replied. The ocular implants that served as his eyes glanced from Data to Faal. "Whatever you need, I'm sure we're up to it. Sounds like quite a breakthrough, in more ways than one."
Troi peered at the spot that Faal had indicated on the map. She didn't recall much about that region, but she estimated that it was about two to three days away at warp five. Neither the captain nor Will Riker radiated any concern about the location Faal had chosen. She could tell that they anticipated an uneventful flight until they arrived at the barrier.
"Professor," she asked, "how similar is the galactic barrier to the Great Barrier? Would your new technique be effective on both?"
Faal nodded knowingly. "That's a good question. What is colloquially known as 'the Great Barrier' is a similar wall of energy that encloses the very center of our galaxy, as opposed to the outer rim of the galaxy. More precisely, the Great Barrier is an intragalactic energy field while our destination is an extragalactic field." He ran his hand through his thinning gray hair. "Research conducted over the last hundred years suggests that both barriers are composed of equivalent, maybe even identical, forms of energy. In theory, the artificial wormhole process, if it's successful, could be used to penetrate the Great Barrier as well. Many theorists believe both barriers stem from the same root cause."
"Which is?" she inquired.
Faal chuckled. "I'm afraid that's more of a theological question than a scientific one, and thus rather out of my field. As far as we can tell, the existence of the barriers predates the development of sentient life in our galaxy. Or at least any life-forms we're familiar with."
That's odd, Troi mused. She wasn't sure but she thought she detected a flicker of insincerity behind the scientist's ingratiating manner, like he was holding something back. Perhaps he's not as confident about his theories as he'd like Starfleet to think, she thought. It was hard to tell; Faal's own telepathic gifts made him difficult to read.
Sitting beside Troi, Beverly Crusher spoke up, a look of concern upon her features. "Has anyone thought about the potential ecological consequences of poking a hole in the barrier? If these walls have been in place for billions of years, maybe they serve some vital purpose, either to us or to whatever life-forms exist on the opposite side of the wall. I hate to throw cold water on a fascinating proposal, but maybe the barrier shouldn't be breached?"
There it is again, Troi thought, watching the Betazoid scientist carefully. She sensed some sort of reaction from Faal in response to Beverly's question. It flared up immediately, then was quickly snuffed out before she could clearly identify the emotion. Fear? Guilt? Annoyance? Maybe he simply doesn't like having his experiment challenged, she speculated. Certainly he wouldn't be the first dedicated scientist to suffer from tunnel vision where his brainchild was concerned. Researchers, she knew from experience, could be as protective of their pet projects as an enraged sehlat defending its young.
If he was feeling defensive, he displayed no sign of it. "Above all else, first do no harm, correct, Doctor?" he replied to Crusher amiably, paraphrasing the Hippocratic Oath. "I appreciate your concerns, Doctor. Let me reassure you a bit regarding the scale of our experiment. The galactic barrier itself is so unfathomably vast that our proposed exercise is not unlike knocking a few bricks out of your own Earth's Great Wall of China. It's hard to imagine that we could do much damage to the ecosystem of the entire galaxy, let alone whatever lies beyond, although the potential danger is another good reason for conducting this preliminary test in an unpopulated sector. As far as we know, there's nothing on the other side except the vast emptiness between our own galaxy and its neighbors." He pressed a finger against his padd and the screen behind him reverted to the compelling image with which he had begun his lecture: the awe-inspiring sight of the galactic barrier stretching across countless light-years of space, its eerie, incandescent energies rippling through the shimmering wall of violet light.
"Starfleet feels -- " he started to say, but a harsh choking noise interrupted his explanation. He placed his free hand over his mouth and coughed a few more times. Troi saw his chest heaving beneath his suit and winced in sympathy. She was no physician, but she didn't like the sound of Faal's coughs, which seemed to come from deep within his lungs. She could tell that Beverly was concerned as well.
"Excuse me," Faal gasped, fishing around in the pockets of his tan suit. He withdrew a compact silver hypospray, which he pressed against the crook of his arm. Troi heard a distinctive hiss as the instrument released its medication into his body. Within a few seconds, Faal appeared to regain control of his breathing. "I apologize for the interruption, but I'm afraid my health isn't all it should be."
Troi recalled her earlier impression of infirmity. Was this ailment, she wondered, what the professor was trying so hard to conceal? Even Betazoids, who generally prided themselves on being at ease with their own bodies, could feel uncomfortable about revealing a serious medical condition. She recalled that Faal had brought his family along on this mission, despite the possibility of danger, and she wondered how his obvious health problems might have affected his children. Perhaps I should prepare for some family counseling, just in case my assistance is needed.
Faal took a few deep breaths to steady himself, then addressed Beverly. "As ship's medical officer, Dr. Crusher, you should probably be aware that I have Iverson's disease."
The emotional temperature of the room rose to a heightened level the moment Faal mentioned the dreaded sickness. Iverson's disease remained one of the more conspicuous failures of twenty-fourth-century medicine: a debilitating, degenerative condition for which there was no known cure. Thankfully noncontagious, the disorder attacked muscle fiber and other connective tissues, resulting in the progressive atrophy of limbs and vital organs; from the sound of Faal's labored breathing, Troi suspected that Faal's ailment had targeted his respiratory system. She felt acute sympathy and embarrassment on the part of her fellow officers. No doubt all of them were remembering Admiral Mark Jameson -- and the desperate lengths the disease had driven him to during that mission to Mordan IV. "I'm very sorry," she said.
"Please feel free to call on me for whatever care you may require," Beverly stressed. "Perhaps you should come by sickbay later so we can discuss your condition in private."
"Thank you," he said, "but please don't let my condition concern any of you." He held up the hypospray. "My doctor has prescribed polyadrenaline for my current symptoms. All that matters now is that I live long enough to see the completion of my work." The hypospray went back into his pocket and Faal pointed again to the image of the galactic barrier on the screen.
"At any rate," he continued, "Starfleet Science has judged the potential risk of this experiment to be acceptable when weighed against the promise of opening up a new era of expansion beyond the boundaries of this galaxy. Exploring the unknown always contains an element of danger. Isn't that so, Captain?"
"Indeed," the captain agreed. "The fundamental mission of the Enterprise, as well as that of Starfleet, has always been to extend the limits of our knowledge of the universe, exploring new and uncharted territory." Picard rose from his seat at the head of the table. "Your experiment, Professor Faal, falls squarely within the proud tradition of this ship. Let us hope for the best of luck in this exciting new endeavor."
It's too bad, Troi thought, that the rest of the crew can't sense Captain Picard's passion and commitment the same way I can. Then she looked around the conference table and saw the glow of the captain's inspiration reflected in the faces of her fellow officers. Even Beverly, despite her earlier doubts, shared their commitment to the mission. On second thought, maybe they can.
"Thank you, Captain," Lem Faal said warmly. Troi noticed that he still seemed a bit out of breath. "I am anxious to begin."
This time Troi detected nothing but total sincerity in the man's words.
Copyright © 1998 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.