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The Enterprise dropped out of warp and slowed to full-impulse speed. As the warp field collapsed, the streaks on the viewscreen turned to twinkling lights. A blur of red and orange obscured the majority of the starfield on the screen.
James T. Kirk, captain of the Federation Starship Enterprise, sat forward. He had never seen anything quite like this before. Layer upon layer of red, orange, and opaque white clouds.
"What is it, Spock?" Kirk asked.
"Enhancing sensors." Spock bent over his monitor and viewed the phenomenon through the computer readouts. The monitor reflected a green light into Spock's face, accenting his pallor and his upswept Vulcan brows. "It appears to be a plasma storm, Captain."
"I've never seen one this big before," Kirk murmured.
"There is no record in our database of such a phenomenon," Spock agreed.
The image grew larger, and now the individual ribbons of color could be seen, twisting and wrapping around one another. The storms glistened with an inner light, which meant only one thing to Kirk -- power. Power enough to cause disruptions in their warp field and make them drop from warp six to three, then to one as they approached the rendezvous coordinates provided by Starfleet Command. The Enterprise had left Federation territory days ago.
"The plasma mass is approximately eighty-four parsecs in width." Spock's voice was slightly muffled, as he was absorbed in reading the scanner. "It is roughly spherical in shape, and exerts a strong gravitational pull."
"Approximately eighty-four parsecs...," Kirk repeated in wonder.
"Most curious." Spock turned to examine the viewscreen. As usual, his expression was impassive. "I cannot obtain a precise measurement of the phenomenon. There appears to be a disruption in the scanner readings caused by the plasma emissions at this proximity to the storms."
Kirk stepped down from the captain's chair to get a closer look. Images appearing on a viewscreen were notoriously deceptive. Eighty-four parsecs...that was nearly one-third of this entire sector -- a vast region of space filled with active plasma.
At Spock's announcement, Ensign Chekov glanced at Lieutenant Sulu. Chekov's shoulders hunched as if to brace himself for what lay ahead. His shaggy hair concealed his face from Kirk's view, but the captain didn't have to see Chekov's expression to know the navigator was uneasy.
"Go to one-half impulse," Kirk ordered. That would give them some time to examine the phenomenon.
Sulu was unruffled, as usual, maintaining his crisp posture and tone as he concentrated on the helm data. "Aye, sir."
Turning, Kirk noticed Lieutenant Uhura watching the screen, the ear-receiver in her hand resting gracefully on her lap. Her mouth was slightly open in wonder, and her expressive eyes were shining.
Kirk thought he saw a faint blush as she dropped her head, embarrassed that he had seen her lost in open admiration. Turning back to her console, she said wistfully under her breath, "It's beautiful."
Kirk gave the screen another look. The colored masses moved and shifted together sinuously. "Yes, I suppose it is," he agreed.
Uhura quickly smiled before inserting her ear receiver.
"Any sign of Starfleet transmissions?" Kirk asked.
"None, sir," Uhura reported. "But I'm reading a clear signal from the communications relay."
"Keep me informed," Kirk ordered.
Starfleet had sent them to this distant and unexplored space several weeks ago. In an encoded transmission directly from Admiral Komack, Kirk had been ordered to keep their mission top secret. They had been given the coordinates of each location where the Enterprise was ordered to anchor a subspace communications relay. After launching each relay, they would then use it to receive the set of coordinates for the next location at which a relay probe was to be placed.
But Kirk had not been told that they would find a large and dangerous plasma storm near the final set of coordinates.
The red turbolift door swished open, and Dr. McCoy stepped onto the bridge. Kirk hid a smile, knowing McCoy was here to see "Why, in blue blazes, Starfleet has dragged us to the end of nowhere!" The doctor had probably felt the ship drop out of warp and hurried up from sickbay.
McCoy started to say something, but his blue eyes looked past Kirk and widened at the sight of the viewscreen. He took a few steps forward, unable to look away. Like Uhura, he seemed enthralled by the shifting orange and white clouds of plasma.
Kirk went over to Spock's science station and placed his hands on the wide red railing around the command center. Spock had one arm bent behind his waist as he leaned over the scanner monitor. His other hand swiftly adjusted the computer controls.
"Prepare a relay," Kirk ordered.
"The plasma may disrupt our readings, Captain," Spock informed him. "The region is unusually turbulent, with electric and magnetic fields interacting. Photons are continuously being produced and absorbed, creating ionic oscillations off the scale."
"Is there any way we can shield the relay?" Kirk asked.
"I will endeavor to do so, sir," Spock assured him. "I suggest we move closer to the storms to heighten telemetry retrieval."
"Proceed," Kirk ordered Chekov at the helm. He returned to his command chair, sat down and ran one hand through his hair.
Dr. McCoy moved closer to the back of Kirk's chair. "So Starfleet sent us out to the middle of nowhere to gawk at a completely natural phenomenon," the doctor muttered under his breath.
Kirk wasn't ready to comment on that. Chekov had sharp ears. He shook his head slightly, knowing the doctor wouldn't press it in their current uncertain situation.
"What in blazes is wrong with the viewscreen?" McCoy added irritably.
Kirk had noticed that the closer they got to the plasma storms, the more static lines appeared on the viewscreen.
Spock replied from the science station. "The plasma discharge is interfering with our sensors."
For the next few minutes, the only sounds on the bridge were the dings and whirs of the computer consoles. Lights flashed rapidly on the science monitors, marking Spock's progress.
Spock finally straightened up from his console. "The science lab has prepared a class-four probe with enhanced telemetry and transponder capacity. The probe should return data up to and immediately following its entry into the area of plasma activity. After that, it is uncertain whether we shall be able to maintain contact."
Kirk nodded. "Very well, Mister Spock. Launch the probe."
Spock pressed a button. "Probe launched, Captain."
On screen, a speck of light arched away from the Enterprise, heading directly towards the growing expanse of plasma streamers.
"Gravity and ionized radiation increasing exponentially," Spock announced, monitoring the probe's progress. "X-ray energy off the scale. Kiloelectron voltages exceeding the eighth power. Variability in frequency and intensity in optical and radio pulsations by ten thousand times."
"Volatile place," Kirk muttered.
Dr. McCoy agreed, "I hope you weren't planning to build a vacation home nearby."
"Contact with probe has terminated." Spock was detached and scientifically precise. "Contact was maintained for 2.2 seconds after entry."
Chekov whistled low, then stopped when he realized what he was doing.
"Like a raging tornado," McCoy said with some respect. "We're not going in there...are we?"
Kirk didn't know what Starfleet had in mind for them, and that annoyed him. He was the captain of the Enterprise, he was supposed to be in the loop about anything that concerned his ship. But he couldn't let the crew know how he felt.
"Spock?" Kirk asked. "Could the Enterprise survive in there?"
"It will take me a moment to analyze the data, Captain."
McCoy leaned in closer, his voice dropping. "It makes sense that Starfleet would want to investigate this phenomenon. But why the secrecy? They could hardly keep other people from finding something this big."
"It is far from the normal transport lines," Kirk replied speculatively. He didn't want to mention that they were relatively near one end of Romulan territory in the neighboring Beta Quadrant. Perhaps that accounted for the excessive secrecy.
The usual point of contact between Romulans and the Federation was along the Neutral Zone, light years away. Kirk's initial encounter with the Romulans had been the first official contact between the Federation and their ancient foes in over one hundred years. Kirk had won that battle, if you could call it winning. He had never learned the Romulan commander's name, but his resourcefulness, his humanity, and his utter ruthlessness in destroying his own starship and killing his entire crew...years later Kirk was still haunted by it.
Spock approached the captain's chair. Kirk noticed that the science officer's eyes didn't move to acknowledge Dr. McCoy. Spock had never said anything about it, but Kirk knew that his science officer believed that the doctor tended to get unnecessarily involved in command decisions. Kirk could feel McCoy lean in closer to hear Spock's report.
"Captain, this region of space is in a constant state of energized flux. There appear to be concentrations of activity within the region consisting of hundreds of discrete plasma storms."
Kirk remembered their last layover on Starbase 4 after their encounter with a plasma storm. It had taken weeks to realign their antimatter flow regulators.
"I would not recommend entering the region," Spock finished, lifting one brow in emphasis. "If we do enter the region, the warp engines must be off-line or our plasma exhaust could start an explosive chain reaction."
"I understand." Kirk tightened his hand into a fist. They weren't going anywhere until he received their orders.
Spock returned to the science console to resume his analysis of the plasma storms.
"Approaching the rendezvous coordinates," Sulu reported.
"There is a high level of gravitational pull in this area," Mister Spock warned.
"Captain!" Uhura said, then hesitated.
"Yes, Lieutenant?" he prompted. "Incoming message?"
"Negative. But the plasma storms are interfering with the comm link to the relay station." She tried to adjust the feed, then shook her head in frustration. "I'm not getting a clear signal. It's as if the plasma mass is casting a shadow that the telemetry can't penetrate."
"Scanners are similarly affected," Spock confirmed.
"Understood. Back off, Mister Sulu. Put some distance between us and the plasma storms," Kirk ordered. Consulting with the command console in the arm of his chair, Kirk gave Sulu the coordinates. He intended to place the plasma storms between the Enterprise and the Romulan Star Empire, just in case his hunch was correct.
McCoy settled in, as if prepared to wait as long as it took to solve the mystery. "It is pretty," he commented. "It's like watching a sunset."
"Mmm...yes," Kirk agreed absently. He replayed Admiral Komak's original orders, hoping that in light of their discovery of the plasma storms it would make more sense. But he was distracted by the flickering lights caused by the enormous energy being released within the plasma storms. "It reminds me of the Badlands."
"What's that?" McCoy asked.
Spock half-turned from his science station. "The Badlands are a region on Earth known for their distinctive erosional formations." His tone became more conversational. "However, Captain, I do not see a correlation between this phenomenon and a geophysical structure."
"The Badlands are in southwestern South Dakota, not far from where I grew up in Iowa," Kirk explained. "The erosion produces strange formations -- spires, and flat-topped buttes. Gullies cut straight down, exposing rock that's layered in colors. It's immense and isolated, like these storms. And it's incredibly beautiful."
"Yes," Uhura agreed, startling all of them. "That's exactly what this is. Something mysterious and compelling."
"The Badlands," McCoy said, as if testing it out. "That's fine by me. Just as long as we don't have to go in there."
McCoy was ready to call it quits and return to sickbay. Nearly an hour of waiting, and still no word from Starfleet. Surely they wouldn't be left out here in the middle of nowhere for days, waiting for their orders.
He sighed, and was irritated by Kirk's amused look. At least he was sitting down. McCoy sighed again, and decided that a strategic retreat was called for. "Let me know when you hear -- " he started to tell Kirk.
"Sir!" Lieutenant Uhura announced. "There's an incoming transmission from Starfleet. It's encoded."
Kirk turned his chair, expectantly leaning towards Uhura. McCoy raised one corner of his mouth. He knew Kirk's appearance of casual relaxation had just been an act -- reclining back in the command chair, his legs stretched out as if he had nothing better to do than to wait at the beck and call of Starfleet Command. McCoy had known it was an act because of Kirk's eyes, narrowed and darting from the viewscreen to Spock's bustling activity at the science station.
"Decoding the message, sir," Uhura informed the captain. "It's from Admiral Komack, marked as an unsecured transmission."
Kirk ordered, "On screen."
McCoy was ready to finally get some hard answers after all the cloak-and-dagger secrecy. He figured the Admiral's message was unsecured because there was no one around. Who could the crew tell?
All of the bridge officers were focused on the viewscreen. McCoy couldn't blame them. Usually they were briefed about their missions. Yet this time they had been in the dark for weeks. McCoy judged they were near the edge of their tolerance, noting the tension in Chekov's shoulders and the way Scotty sat forward on the edge of his seat.
They were practically quivering with anticipation. Except for Kirk. And Spock, of course. Spock acted like he could hardly tear himself away from his scanner.
"Not interested in finding out what brought us out here, eh Spock?" McCoy couldn't resist prodding.
"On the contrary," Spock said calmly, which just irritated McCoy more.
"Don't get too excited," McCoy muttered.
Admiral Komack appeared on the viewscreen. He was an older human who had been a deep-space captain in his younger days. "Captain Kirk, I congratulate you on reaching the rendezvous point. I'm sorry we had to send you on this mission without a proper briefing, but you'll understand in a moment. We knew the Enterprise was the only starship for this job." The admiral's expression momentarily eased with a smile, then he was all business again. "We've gotten word that a smuggler will be meeting a transport near your present coordinates. We don't know who is purchasing the information, so you'll have to watch your back. We want you to intercept and apprehend the smuggler before he can transfer the data." He glanced down, his brows drawing together. "We believe it will include technical information on the Romulan plasma-energy weapon. The same weapon that destroyed four Earth Outposts along the Neutral Zone two years ago."
McCoy remembered the staggering loss of life that had resulted from those attacks. During their battle with the wily Romulan ship, which had an unfair advantage because of its cloak, Specialist Robert Tomlinson had been killed. Even worse, Tomlinson had been in the middle of marrying Angela Martine when Earth Outpost 4 was attacked. The Enterprise had not been able to prevent the Romulan ship from pulverizing the outposts with their plasma-energy weapon.
The Enterprise had barely survived that encounter; afterwards, morale on the ship had suffered. Some began to believe it would be impossible to make a family on board the Enterprise while furthering their careers. Many of the younger crewmembers were particularly shaken -- they had wanted adventure, but this was their first encounter with mass death.
McCoy felt ancient next to the lot of them. All these baby-faced junior officers should be sent back to the Academy to ripen a bit before they underwent another trial by fire.
Admiral Komack finished providing the specs on the type of vessel the smuggler was using. "I don't need to tell you how important this is to the Federation, Captain. Good luck."
The message faded to the Federation symbol. Then the starfield appeared again with the Badlands swirling in the top half of the viewscreen.
Thoughtfully, Kirk said, "He didn't mention the plasma activity."
"Doubtless, the Admiral is not aware of this phenomenon," Spock said calmly.
"Well, we can use the storms to our advantage." Kirk sat forward. "Move in closer to the Badlands, Mister Sulu. Take us to within 200,000 kilometers."
"Aye, sir!" Sulu agreed.
"Good idea," McCoy told him. "If the plasma storms disrupt our scanners, they're bound to disrupt the smuggler's instruments, too."
"Exactly." Kirk lowered his head and smiled. "We can wait in the sensor shadow and ambush him when he arrives."
"Let's just hope we get to him before he passes along the information," Chekov said.
"We will," Sulu assured him.
Kirk seemed much more reserved than the other bridge officers at the news. "Signal this to all decks, Lieutenant Uhura."
"All decks standing by, sir," Uhura said.
"This is the captain speaking," Kirk said, pausing to be sure he had their attention. "It is of utmost importance that we complete our next mission. You all know we were ordered to leave Federation territory and come to this remote spot. What you don't know, and now must be told, is that we were sent here to intercept important weapons data that is being smuggled out of Romulan territory." He paused to let that sink in. "I want all hands standing by, yellow alert. Captain out."
The mood became more somber, yet everyone was still eager to take on the mission. Smugglers were apparently much more exciting than natural galactic phenomenon. Even McCoy was perfectly ready to admit that he too was relieved they weren't being sent into the Badlands.
As he moved toward the turbolift to go back down to sickbay, McCoy turned for one more look at the swirling plasma clouds as the Enterprise moved in closer. The plasma now filled the viewscreen, with only a thin line of friendly star-sprinkled blackness along the bottom. The static increased on the viewscreen.
Sure it was pretty, but the place made him uneasy. And when you'd been a doctor as long as McCoy had, you trusted your instincts.
Copyright © 1999 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.