Read an Excerpt
Captain Picard is missing, abducted by the capricious entity known as Q. We can only pray that Q will return the captain unharmed, although time has taught us that Q is nothing if not unpredictable. The captain's disappearance cannot have come at a worse time, as the Enterprise is under attack by the gaseous life-forms whom Q calls the Calamarain. Although Lieutenant Commander Data has succeeded in adapting our Universal Translator to the Calamarain's inhuman language, allowing us a degree of communication with them, we have thus far failed to win their trust. They have rendered our warp engines inactive and will not permit us to retreat, so we must persuade them otherwise. Speed is imperative, as our time is running out. To complicate matters, we have a number of potentially disruptive guests aboard the ship. Chief among them are a mysterious woman and boy who claim to be Q's mate and child. Like Q himself, these individuals treat the ship and its crew as mere toys for their amusement. Furthermore, they appear unwilling or unable to inform us where Q has taken Captain Picard. Equally uncooperative is Professor Lem Faal, a distinguished Betazoid physicist, whose ambitious attempt to breach the immense energy barrier surrounding our galaxy has been interrupted by the unexpected arrivals of both the Q family and the Calamarain. Dying of an incurable disease, and obsessed with completing his work in the time remaining to him, Faal has vigorously challenged my decision to abort the experiment in light of the unanticipated dangers we now face. While I sympathize with the man's plight, I cannot allow his single-minded determination to endanger the ship further. Indeed, according to what we have gathered from the Calamarain, our first effort to dare the barrier was the very event that provoked the Calamarain's wrath, thus threatening us all with destruction....
Ship's log, stardate 500146.3, First Officer William T. Riker reporting.
Captain Picard is missing, abducted by the capricious entity known as Q. We can only pray that Q will return the captain unharmed, although time has taught us that Q is nothing if not unpredictable.
The captain's disappearance cannot have come at a worse time, as the Enterprise is under attack by the gaseous life-forms whom Q calls the Calamarain. Although Lieutenant Commander Data has succeeded in adapting our Universal Translator to the Calamarain's inhuman language, allowing us a degree of communication with them, we have thus far failed to win their trust. They have rendered our warp engines inactive and will not permit us to retreat, so we must persuade them otherwise. Speed is imperative, as our time is running out.
To complicate matters, we have a number of potentially disruptive guests aboard the ship. Chief among them are a mysterious woman and boy who claim to be Q's mate and child. Like Q himself, these individuals treat the ship and its crew as mere toys for their amusement. Furthermore, they appear unwilling or unable to inform us where Q has taken Captain Picard.
Equally uncooperative is Professor Lem Faal, a distinguished Betazoid physicist, whose ambitious attempt to breach the immense energy barrier surrounding our galaxy has been interrupted by the unexpected arrivals of both the Q family and the Calamarain. Dying of an incurable disease, and obsessed with completing his work in the time remaining to him, Faal has vigorously challenged my decision to abort the experiment in light of the unanticipated dangers we now face. While I sympathize with the man's plight, I cannot allow his single-minded determination to endanger the ship further.
Indeed, according to what we have gathered from the Calamarain, our first effort to dare the barrier was the very event that provoked the Calamarain's wrath, thus threatening us all with destruction....
The storm raged around them. From the bridge of the Enterprise-E, Commander William Riker could see the fury of the Calamarain on the forward viewscreen. The massive plasma cloud that comprised the foe, and that now enclosed the entire Sovereign-class starship, had grown increasingly turbulent over the last few hours. The sentient, ionized gases outside the ship churned and billowed upon the screen; it was like being trapped in the center of the galaxy's biggest thunderhead. Huge sonic explosions literally shook the floor beneath his feet, while brilliant arcs of electrical energy flashed throughout the roiling cloud, intersecting violently with their own diminished shields. The distinctive blue flare of Cerenkov radiation discharged whenever the shield repelled another bolt of lightning from the Calamarain, which was happening far too often for Riker's peace of mind.
With the captain absent, his present whereabouts unknown, Riker was in command, and fighting a losing battle against alien entities determined to destroy them. Not this time, he vowed silently, determined not to lose another Enterprise while Jean-Luc Picard was away. Once, in that cataclysmic crash into Veridian III, was enough for one lifetime. Never again, he thought, remembering the sick sensation he had felt when that grand old ship had slammed into its final port. Not on my watch.
Their present circumstances were precarious, though. Warp engines down, shields fading, and no sign yet that the Calamarain were willing to abandon their ferocious attack on the ship, despite his sincere offer to abandon the experiment and retreat from the galactic barrier -- on impulse if necessary. Diplomacy was proving as useless as their phasers, even though Riker remained convinced that this entire conflict was based solely on suspicion and misunderstanding. Nothing's more tragic than a senseless battle, he thought.
"Shields down to twenty percent," Lieutenant Baeta Leyoro reported. The Angosian security chief was getting a real baptism by fire on her first mission aboard the Enterprise. So far she had performed superlatively, even if Riker still occasionally expected to see Worf at the tactical station. "For a glorified blast of bad breath, they pack a hell of a punch."
Riker tapped his combadge to initiate a link to Geordi in Engineering. "Mr. La Forge," he barked, "we need to reinforce our shields, pronto."
Geordi La Forge's voice responded immediately. "We're doing what we can, Commander, but this tachyon barrage just keeps increasing in intensity." Riker could hear the frustration in the chief engineer's voice; Geordi had been working nonstop for hours. "It's eaten up most of our power to keep the ship intact this long. I've still got a few more tricks I can try, but we can't hold out indefinitely."
"Understood," Riker acknowledged, scratching his beard as he hastily considered the problem. The thunder and lightning of the storm, as spectacular as they looked and sounded, were only the most visible manifestations of the Calamarain's untempered wrath. The real danger was the tachyon emissions that the cloud creatures were somehow able to generate and direct against the Enterprise. Ironically, it was precisely those faster-than-light particles that prevented the ship from achieving warp speed. "What about adjusting the field harmonics?" he asked Geordi, searching for some way to shore up their defenses. "That worked before."
"Yeah," Geordi agreed, "but the Calamarain seem to have learned how to compensate for that. At best it can only buy us a little more time."
"I'll take whatever I can get," Riker said grimly. Every moment the deflectors remained in place gave them one more chance to find a way out. "Go to it, Mr. La Forge. Riker out."
He sniffed the air, detecting the harsh odor of burned circuitry and melted plastic. A few systems had already been fried by the relentless force of the aliens' assault, although nothing the auxiliary backups hadn't been able to pick up. The Calamarain had drawn first blood nonetheless, while the starship crew's own phasers had done little more than anger the enraged cloud of plasma even further, much to the annoyance of Baeta Leyoro, who took the failure of their weapons personally.
This is all Q's fault, Riker thought. Captain Picard had shielded Q from the Calamarain several years ago, and apparently they had neither forgotten nor forgiven that decision. It was the Enterprise's past association with Q, he believed, that made the Calamarain so unwilling to trust Riker now when he promised to abort Professor Faal's wormhole experiment. Tarred by Q's bad reputation...talk about adding insult to (possibly mortal) injury!
For all we know, he mused, the Calamarain might have sound reasons for objecting to the experiment. If only they could be reasoned with somehow! He glanced over at Counselor Deanna Troi, seated to his left at her own command station. "What are you picking up from our stormy friends out there?" he asked her. The seriousness in his eyes belied the flippancy of his words. "Any chance they might be calming down?"
Troi closed her eyes as she reached out with her empathic senses to probe the emotions of the seething vapors that had enveloped the ship. Her slender hands gently massaged her temples as her breathing slowed. No matter how many times Riker had seen Deanna employ her special sensitivity, it never failed to impress him. He prayed that Deanna would sense some room for compromise with the Calamarain. All he needed was to carve one chink in the other species' paranoia and he was sure he could find a peaceful solution to this needless conflict.
Blast you, Q, he thought bitterly. He had no idea what Q had done God-knows-when to infuriate the Calamarain so, but he was positive it was something stupid, infantile, and typically Q-like. Why should he have treated them any differently than he's ever treated us?
Riker's gaze swung inexorably to the right, where an imperious-looking auburn-haired woman rested comfortably in his own accustomed seat, a wide-eyed toddler bouncing on her knee while she observed the ongoing battle against the Calamarain with an air of refined boredom. Mother and child wore matching, if entirely unearned, Starfleet uniforms, with the woman bearing enough pips upon her collar to outrank Riker if they possessed any legitimacy -- which they most definitely did not. The first officer shook his head quietly; he still found it hard to accept that this woman and her infant were actually Q's wife and son. Frankly, he had a rough time believing that any being, highly evolved or otherwise, would willingly enter into any sort of union with Q.
Then again, the female Q, if that's what she truly was, had enough regal attitude and ego to be one of Q's relations. A match made in the Continuum, he thought. She seemed content to treat the imminent annihilation of the ship and everyone aboard as no more important than a day at the zoo, which was probably just how she regarded the Enterprise. At least the little boy, whom she called q, appeared to be enjoying the show. He gaped wide-eyed at the screen, clapping his pudgy little hands at each spectacular display of pyrotechnics.
I'm glad somebody's having a good time, Riker thought ruefully. I suppose I should be thankful that I don't have to worry about the kid's safety. The two Qs were probably the only people aboard the Enterprise who weren't facing mortal danger. Who knows? he wondered. They may even be at the heart of the problem. Could the Calamarain tell that Q's family were on the ship? That couldn't possibly reflect well on the Enterprise.
"I'm sorry, Will," Troi said, reopening her eyes and lowering her hands to her lap. "All I can sense is anger and fear, just like before." She stared quizzically at the iridescent plasma surging across the viewer. "They're dreadfully afraid of us for some reason, and determined to stop us from interfering with the barrier."
The barrier, Riker thought. It all came back to the galactic barrier. He could no longer see the shimmering radiance of the barrier on the forward viewer, but he knew that the great, glowing curtain was only a fraction of a light-year away. For generations, ever since James Kirk first braved the galactic barrier in the original Enterprise, no vessel had ventured into it without suffering massive casualties and structural damage. Professor Faal had insisted that his wormhole experiment would have no harmful effect on the barrier as a whole, but the Calamarain definitely seemed to feel otherwise. They referred to the barrier as the "moat" and had made it abundantly and forcefully clear that they would obliterate the Enterprise before they would permit the starship to tamper with it. I need to find some way to convince them that we mean no harm.
That might be easier accomplished without any Qs around to cloud the issue, he decided. "Excuse me," he said to the woman seated to his right ignoring for the moment the sound of the Calamarain pounding against the shields. He was unsure how to address her; although she claimed her name was Q as well, he still thought of her as a Q rather than the Q. "I'm afraid that the presence of you and your child upon the Enterprise may be provoking the Calamarain, complicating an al ready tense situation. As the acting commander of this vessel, I have to ask you to leave this ship immediately."
She peered down her nose at him as she might at a yapping dog whose pedigree left something to be desired. One eyebrow arched skeptically. For a second or two, Riker feared that she wasn't even going to acknowledge his request at all, but eventually she heaved a weary sigh. "Nonsense," she said, in a tone that reminded him rather too much of Lwaxana Troi at her most overbearing. "The Calamarain wouldn't dare threaten a Q. This is entirely between you and that noxious little species out there."
Riker rose from the captain's chair and looked down on the seated woman, utilizing every possible psychological advantage at his disposal. She didn't look too impressed, and Riker recalled that, standing, the woman was nearly as tall as he was. "That may be so," he insisted, "but I can't afford to take that risk." He tried another tack. "Surely, in all the universe, there is someplace else you'd rather be."
"Several trillion," she informed him haughtily, "but dear q is amused by your little skirmish." She patted the boy's tousled head indulgently.
Don't think of her as godlike super-being, Riker thought as a new approach occurred to him. Think of her as a doting mom. His own mother had tragically died when he was very young, but Riker thought he understood the type. "Are you certain it's not too violent for him?" he asked, trying to sound as concerned and sympathetic as possible. "Things are likely to get messy soon, especially once our shields break down. It's not going to be pretty."
The woman's brow furrowed at his words. It appeared the potential grisliness of the crew's probable demise had not crossed her mind before. She glanced around her, checking out the various fragile humanoids populating the bridge. Outside, the tempest bellowed its intention to destroy the Enterprise and all aboard her. As if to make Riker's point, the ship pitched forward, slamming Lieutenant Leyoro into her tactical console. Her grunt of pain, followed by a look of stoic endurance, did not escape the female Q's notice.
Riker felt encouraged by her hesitant silence. This might actually work, he thought. "You know," he added, "I cried my eyes out the first time I read Old Yeller."
The woman gave him a blank look; apparently her omniscience did not extend to classic children's fiction of the human species. Still, the basic idea seemed to get across. She cast a worried look at her son. "Perhaps you have a point," she conceded. Resignation settled onto her patrician features. "Too much mindless entertainment cannot be good for little q...even if his father can't get enough of your primitive antics."
With that, both mother and child vanished in a flash of white light that left Riker blinking. He breathed a sigh of relief, settling back into the captain's chair, until q reappeared upon his own knee. "Stay!" he yelped boisterously. For a superior being from a higher plane of reality, q felt solid enough and, if Riker could trust his own nostrils, in need of a fresh diaper beneath his miniature Starfleet uniform.
Riker groaned aloud. Good thing the captain's still missing, he thought, for the first and only time since Picard's abduction. The captain, it was well-known, had even less patience with small children than his first officer. Now what do I do with this kid? he wondered, looking rather desperately at Deanna for assistance. Despite their otherwise dire circumstances, the counselor could not resist a smile at Riker's sudden predicament.
Mercifully, the female Q materialized in front of Riker and lifted the toddler from his knee. "Come along, young q," she scolded gently. "I mean it." She tapped her foot impatiently upon the floor, giving Riker just enough warning to avert his eyes before the pair disappeared in another blinding flash of light.
He waited apprehensively for several seconds thereafter, holding his breath against the likelihood of another surprise reappearance. Had Q and q really left for the time being? He did not delude himself that the Enterprise had seen the last of either of them, let alone their mischievous relation, but he'd gladly settle for a temporary respite if it gave him enough time to settle matters with the Calamarain. Just what we needed, he thought sarcastically. Three Qs to worry about from now on.
Deanna broke the silence. "I think they're gone, Will."
"Thank heaven for small favors," he said. Now, if only the Calamarain could be disposed of so easily! "Mr. Data, activate your modified translation system. Now that our visitors have departed, let's try talking to the Calamarain one more time."
"Understood, Commander." The gold-skinned android manipulated the controls at Ops. After much effort, Data had devised a program by which humanoid language could be translated into the shortwave tachyon bursts the Calamarain used to communicate, and vice versa. "The translator is online. You may speak normally."
Riker leaned against the back of the captain's chair and took a deep breath. "This is Commander Riker of the U.S.S. Enterprise, addressing the Calamarain." In truth, he wasn't exactly sure whom he was speaking to. Give me a face I can talk to any day, he thought. "I'm asking you to call off your hostile actions toward our vessel. Speaking on behalf of this ship, and the United Federation of Planets, we are more than willing to discuss your concerns regarding the...moat. Let us return to our own space now, and perhaps our two peoples can communicate further in the future."
I can't get more direct than that, Riker thought. He could only hope that the Calamarain would realize how reasonable his offer was. If not, our only remaining option may be to find a way to destroy the Calamarain before they destroy us, he realized. A grim outcome to this mission, even assuming their foe could be extinguished somehow.
"They've heard you," Troi reported, sensing the Calamarain's reaction. "I think they're going to respond."
"Incoming transmission via tachyon emission," Data confirmed. He consulted his monitor and made a few quick adjustments to the translation program.
An eerie voice, devoid of gender or human inflections, echoed throughout the bridge. Riker decided he preferred the computer's ordinary tones, or even the harsh cadence of spoken Klingon.
"We/singular remain/endure the Calamarain," it intoned. "Moat is sacred/essential. No release/No escape. Chaos waits/threatens. Enterprise brings/ succors chaos. Evaporation/sublimation is mandatory/preferable."
Riker scowled at the awkward and downright cryptic phrasing of the Calamarain's message. Unfortunately, Data didn't have nearly enough time to get all the bugs worked out of the new translation program. It will have to do, he resolved. Throughout human history, explorers and peacemakers had coped without any foolproof, high-tech translating devices. Could the crew of the Enterprise do any less?
When the Calamarain talked of "chaos," he guessed, they referred to Q and his kind. Frankly, he couldn't blame the Calamarain for mistrusting anyone associated with Q; that devilish troublemaker wasn't exactly the most sterling character witness. As for "evaporation/sublimation," he feared that term was simply the cloud creatures' way of describing the forthcoming destruction of the Enterprise, sublimation being the chemical process by which solid matter was reduced to a gaseous state. Who knows? he thought. Maybe the Calamarain think they're doing us a favor by liberating our respective molecules from the constraints of solid existence.
He didn't exactly see things their way. "Listen to me," he told the Calamarain, hoping that his own words weren't getting as badly garbled as theirs. He strove to keep his syntax as simple as possible. "The beings known as the Q Continuum are not our allies. We do not serve the Q."
In fact, he recalled, Q had also warned Captain Picard to stay away from the galactic barrier.
"Chaos within/without," the Calamarain stated mysteriously. "Chaos then/now/to come. No/not be/not again. Excess risk/dread. No Enterprise/no be."
That doesn't sound good, Riker thought, whatever it means. He refused to give up, boiling his intended message down to its basics. "Please believe me. We will not harm you. Let us go." Even our shaky translator can't mangle that, he prayed.
The Calamarain responded not with words but with a roar of thunder that rocked the bridge. Riker felt his breath knocked out of him as the floor suddenly lurched to starboard, nearly toppling him from the captain's chair. Troi gasped nearby and fierce bolts of electrical fire arced across the viewscreen. At the conn, Ensign Clarze struggled to stabilize their flight path; sweat beaded on his smooth, hairless skull. Behind Riker, Lieutenant Leyoro held on to the tactical podium for dear life while the rest of the bridge staff fought to remain at their stations. Only Data looked unfazed by the abrupt jolt. "The Calamarain are not replying to your last transmission, Commander," he reported. The android inspected the raging tempest on the screen. "At least not verbally."
Troi released her grip on her chair's armrests as the floor leveled. The din of the Calamarain's attack persisted, though, like a ringing in Riker's ears and a constant vibration through his bones. "I sense great impatience," she informed him. "They're through with talking, Will."
"I got that impression," he said. He looked around the bridge at the tense and wary faces of the men and women depending on his leadership. Wherever you are, Captain, he thought, I hope you're faring better than us.
Copyright © 1998 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.