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Star cluster NGC 6281
"Are we there yet?"
Lieutenant Commander Dawn Blair rolled her eyes at the question. "Are you going to ask that question every morning, Trys?"
"At least until we get there," T'Ryssa Chen replied, brushing her shaggy bangs out of her eyes. The gesture briefly revealed one of the elegantly pointed ears that she usually kept hidden under her shoulder-length black hair.
"You're just hoping to annoy me into letting you go on the away team," Blair said.
"Is it working?"
"Aw, come on, Dawn!" T'Ryssa moaned. "A whole cluster full of carbon planets, and you expect me to sit up here manning a boring old console?"
"Well, it might help if you remembered to call me 'Commander' when we're on duty, Lieutenant."
T'Ryssa's slanted eyebrows twisted in a way that Blair still sometimes found incongruous. She knew the younger woman had been raised by her human mother and had barely known her Vulcan father, but it was hard to shake off one's expectations of Vulcans. Which was probably why T'Ryssa defied those expectations so aggressively. "Right, I keep forgetting."
"On purpose. You always have to be such a nonconformist, Trys. That's why you're still a jg at twenty-six."
"I don't have to be," T'Ryssa countered. "I'm just very good at it. Gotta play to your strengths, you know."
She grew serious, or as close as she ever came. "And I'm not very good at sitting still in a cubbyhole, which is why you've gotta let me go down there and do some science! When we get there," she added. "Come on, Daw -- Commander Dawn, sir, ma'am -- " At the science officer's glare, she started over. "I mean, this is a Luna-class ship, right? All about crew diversity and cross-cultural synergies and exploring new approaches? Which means, in short, we're a ship full of nonconformists, and proud of it. Nonconforming -- ity -- ism -- is how we get the job done around here, right?" T'Ryssa bent her knees and clasped her hands in supplication. "So how about it, O Dawn, commander of my heart? Pleeeeeze?" She actually batted her eyelids.
Blair sighed, knowing T'Ryssa would keep this up until she relented. "Okay! Okay. Janyl can man the console, you can go on the away team and out of my hair."
"Oh, thank you, thank you! And such lovely hair it is, my commandress."
"Don't push it," Blair said. She was self-conscious about her hair, an unruly mass of cinnamon-brown waves that she usually kept confined within a bun or French braid while on duty, though Derek from environmental engineering insisted it was the most gorgeous thing he'd ever seen. Still, she couldn't help smirking at T'Ryssa's antics. Blair was too soft a touch to be any good at keeping her in line, which was probably to T'Ryssa's detriment in the long run. But giving her this away mission could help improve her career prospects. The half-Vulcan woman may not have been very good at practicing Starfleet discipline or respecting the chain of command, but she was a good scientist with a knack for understanding alien behaviors, sentient and otherwise. If the anomalous biosigns coming from the carbon planets of the NGC 6281 star cluster were correct and there was complex life there, she could be genuinely useful.
"Anyway," Blair went on, "we have to get there first."
T'Ryssa sagged. "I am so sick of this. We hit a zone of altered subspace, we get knocked out of warp, we spend five hours recalibrating the warp engines, we make it four hours before the structure of subspace changes, and we drop out of warp again. I swear I'm getting motion sick. Are we getting any closer to figuring out a pattern behind these distortions?"
Blair shook her head. "Only that they seem connected to the energy emissions from the carbon planets. And that those emissions seem to be coming from beneath the planets' surfaces, not localized around any of the biosigns."
"What about the cosmozoans?"
"We can't confirm that the energy readings from them are connected. It could be interference from the subspace distortions."
T'Ryssa sighed, and Blair shared in her disappointment. As their sister ship Titan had confirmed half a year back, spacegoing life-forms were prone to inhabit star-formation regions. The open clusters Rhea was currently surveying were located be-tween the Orion and Carina Arms, removed from the star-formation zones that defined the arms of the galaxy, but they were still fairly young (as all open clusters were, for eventually their components were scattered by gravitational interactions with other stars and nebulae). NGC 6281 itself, a clump of a hundred or so young stars sharing a volume of space barely fifteen light-years in diameter, was less than a quarter billion years old and still retained a faint remnant of the nebula from which it had formed, so finding spacegoing organisms here was not a complete surprise. But the cosmozoans detected in this particular cluster were as strange as the space they occupied, giving off anomalous energy readings and biosignatures and seeming to appear and disappear unpredictably from sensors. Getting close to any of them, however, would take considerable time unless Blair and chief engineer Lorlinna could devise some way to adjust the warp engines to cope with the inexplicably shifting subspace geometry of this cluster. If they were unable to do so, then Captain Bazel might decide to turn back after the survey of the nearest component of the cluster, NGC 6281-34, and move on to the next open cluster once the Rhea slogged its way back to normal space.
It all depended on what they found on System 34's planets and whether it was exciting or mysterious enough to warrant surveying any of the other systems in the cluster. But it would be at least another day before they reached that system, a system they could reach in a few hours under normal circumstances.
Dawn Blair found herself agreeing with her friend's sentiment, if only in the privacy of her thoughts. Are we there yet?
T'Ryssa Chen hated going through the transporter. It wasn't that she was afraid of it or anything; rather, she was ticklish, and being transported felt like being tickled from the inside. People kept telling her she was imagining things, that there was no untoward sensation involved with transporting other than a slight tingling numbness, but she knew what she felt. Maybe it was a side effect of her hybrid nervous system; maybe all human-Vulcan blends had the same reaction but were too disciplined to admit it. Or maybe the transporter gods had just decided to pick on her. She tried to shake it off once she materialized, a convulsive move like she was trying to brush spiders off her body, but the heavy EV suit she wore hampered the movement.
Not that she regretted wearing the suit in this environment. NGC 6281-34 III, like most of the planetary bodies that long-range sensors had detected in the cluster, was a carbon planet: a world where carbon was the most abundant element in its mineral composition. In carbon-rich protoplanetary disks, graphite, carbides, and other carbon compounds tended to solidify sooner than the silicates that made up the bulk of normal planets, producing worlds with iron cores, carbide mantles, and crusts of graphite and diamond. The resultant surface chemistry was oxygen-poor, with tarry hydrocarbon seas and an atmosphere of carbon monoxide and methane.
And it looks about as inviting as it sounds, Trys thought as she looked around her through the helmet visor. The rocky ground on which they stood was dark and crumbly, like a carbonaceous asteroid. The depressions in the surface were filled with pools of tar, black against gray-brown. The hazy blue-green sky was smudged with clouds of graphite dust.
As First Officer Sekmal and the rest of the away team deployed their tricorders, T'Ryssa struck a pose as though planting an invisible flag and proclaimed, "I dub this planet Pencilvania!"
Sekmal turned to glare at her, raising an eyebrow in that way that Vulcans seemed to be specially trained for. "Explain."
"Pencil. You know. Old writing implement? Used graphite? It's why graphite's called that? Because people wrote with it?" Sekmal simply continued to glare until Trys sighed. "Never mind," she said, taking out her tricorder. Vulcans. For all their claims of emotionlessness, the Vulcans on Rhea were consistent in their disdain for Trys herself, as though her biology somehow required her to live up to their cultural standards. She could never see the logic in that.
"I thought it was funny," said Paul Janiss, smiling at her through his helmet. Trys gave him a wan smile of gratitude, knowing it was more likely that he just wanted to flatter her into sleeping with him again. Not that she wouldn't be interested in doing so, at least on a purely physical level, but she preferred more sincerity in her praise, and in her men.
"Anyway," Paul went on, "it's not like we're going to have any other fun on this dump of a planet. Bleakest hole I ever saw."
"Don't dismiss it so quickly," said Thyyshev zh'Skenat, the Andorian geologist. "As the galaxy ages and supernovae inject more carbon into the interstellar medium, the ratio of carbon planets to oxygen planets will increase. In a billion years or so, all new planets may be carbon worlds."
"Thanks, Thyyshev. You just gave me a reason to be glad I'm not immortal."
"How do you know?" Trys asked.
"That you're not immortal? I mean, there's only one way to know for sure, isn't there?"
It took Paul a moment. "Oh! Good one."
"On the other hand," Trys went on as if he hadn't spoken, "there's no way to prove anyone really is immortal either. Just that they haven't died yet. Kind of a meaningless category, really. Maybe it needs a better name. Like 'mortality challenged.'"
Thyyshev's antennae twisted under his specially designed helmet. "Aren't you supposed to be doing your duty or something?"
"It's been known to happen." She consulted her tricorder, moving out from the group. "I still don't get how there could be any life here, though. The system's only a couple hundred million years old. If this planet weren't made of carbides and graphite, it'd probably still be molten."
"Many planets in young star systems are known to be inhabited," Sekmal pointed out. "Generally this is the result of terraforming and colonization. We may discover signs of an intelligent presence here as well."
"I'm not reading any life, intelligent or stupid," Trys told him. "No plants, no microbes. This reads as a brand-new, sterile planet, right out of the replicator."
Her tricorder naturally chose that moment to begin beeping. "Um. Except for those. New readings coming from somewhere over that ridge," she said, gesturing. "Not sure where they came from; they're well within range."
The tricorder beeped again, denoting a sudden strong signal behind her. T'Ryssa turned around --
And yelped. The life-form was practically right in front of her. It was an oddly amorphous being, pale gray and vaguely bipedal in shape, but with no evident legs, its lower half almost conical, like a long skirt or robe that flared at the bottom. It had upper-body protrusions roughly where a humanoid's arms would be, but they were merely flexible rods with winglike membranes attaching them to the sides of the trunk. The head, if it could be called that, was large and featureless. But it had senses of some sort, for it responded to T'Ryssa's surprised reaction with a similar rearing-back motion of its own, though its was slower and more stately.
"Uhh, Commander?" Paul said. Trys looked around to see that more such creatures had appeared near the other members of the team.
"Make no sudden moves," Sekmal said. Facing the entity before him, he raised his hand and offered it the Vulcan salute, insofar as his EV suit glove permitted. "Peace and long life," he said. "I am Commander Sekmal of the U.S.S. Rhea, representing the United Federation of Planets." The entity raised its arm, or wing, in a similar motion but made no sound. "We are on a mission of peaceful exploration. Can you understand me?"
The creatures gave no verbal response -- perhaps not surprising, since they had no mouths. Instead, they simply continued their loose mimicry of the away team's actions. "Great," Trys muttered. "Welcome to Mime World."
"Please limit yourself to constructive comments, Lieutenant," Sekmal said.
She glared. "Not much I can tell you, Commander. The readings on these...Mime Angels are bizarre. Their molecular composition -- it isn't normal living tissue. I'm not sure it's even biological. Carbon based, but not quite a match for this planet's chemistry." She moved in closer to the entity that shadowed her, peering curiously into its lack of a face. "No metabolic readings either. They're a match for ambient temperature. And their internal energy readings...I've never seen anything like them before."
"I have," Sekmal said. "They resemble the quantum energy emanations from the interior of this planet. There are faint fluctuations in that quantum field that appear to be synchronized with the entities' appearances and actions."
"Hmm," Trys said. "So maybe they are connected to it af -- Whoa!" She had turned back to her Mime Angel and been surprised to see that it suddenly had a semblance of a face. Only a semblance, though, a smallish set of contours emulating eyes, nostrils, and mouth, static and unmoving. "Are you guys seeing this too?"
The others confirmed that their Angels had also manifested masklike faces. Trys turned back to hers to see that its eyes were wider, as though mirroring her surprise. And yet she still saw no overt movement in its features. She tried making faces at it, grinning, winking, sticking out her tongue. Its own features transformed subtly as she watched, not through any sort of muscular movement but more by dissolving from one expression to the next, or through a subtle change of aspect she couldn't follow with her eyes. She was reminded of the masks of Japanese Noh theater, the way their static features could seem to transform as the performers changed the angle of their heads, due to the clever way the masks were carved. "I was wrong," T'Ryssa said. "They aren't Mime Angels." Her grin widened at the impending pun. "They're Noh Angels."
"Then what are they?" Paul asked without irony, decisively scuttling his chances of ever seeing her naked again.
Still, his question resonated. "What are you?" T'Ryssa whispered to her Noh Angel. It leaned forward, seeming to ask the same question of her.
"Rhea to away team!" The urgency in Captain Bazel's voice startled her out of her reverie.
"Prepare for emergency beam-out!" Bazel commanded. "A ship has just dropped out of warp. Sensors say it's the Einstein."
Everyone froze. That name had become infamous since the Borg assault on Sector 001 back in June: the science vessel that had been assimilated by what was believed to be a dormant, depopulated Borg cube and had played a key role in its subsequent strike against Earth.
"But the Einstein was destroyed," Paul said.
"Believed destroyed," Bazel corrected. "That belief was wrong. It's not only intact...it's gotten bigger."
Captain Bazel stared goggle-eyed at the image on the screen -- not because he was alarmed but because, as a Saurian, he was always goggle-eyed. Certainly the sight of what had once been the Einstein -- its original contours now obscured under a blocky jumble of ill-matched ship parts grafted together by a network of conduits and structural members in Borg black and green -- sent at least two of his cardiac nodes racing. But Bazel had not survived seventy years in Starfleet by losing his cool.
"Please elaborate, Captain," Sekmal said. "You say it has grown larger?"
"Affirmative. It seems to have assimilated additional vessels, accreted them to its hull. We're attempting to elude them long enough to drop shields and beam you aboard, but their capabilities are unknown at this point. Stand by." Nuax, the Edoan flight controller, was working controls with all three hands as she tried to keep the planet between Rhea and the Borg vessel while still remaining in transporter range of the team.
He turned to Caithlin Tomei at tactical. "Extrapolate from the Borg's last known course and program a spread of torpedoes to arc through the atmosphere, hugging the planet. Keep the Borg from seeing them until the last possible moment." Tomei nodded and executed the order.
"Clean miss, sir," she announced a minute later. "No sign of impact."
"Sir!" Nuax called. But Bazel's wide field of vision already let him see what was on the screen: the former Einstein was coming over the curve of the planet on a different, tighter trajectory than before, on an intercept course with Rhea. There was no chance to drop shields.
But then the shields proved moot anyway as a green shimmer heralded the arrival of half a dozen Borg drones on the bridge. These drones were different from the standard type, their bionic components sleeker and more compact, their movements faster and more aggressive. As Bazel dove from his command chair to avoid the cutting arm that swung down at him, he recalled the reports that the immense Borg vessel that had taken the Einstein had employed a new, evolved form of assimilation technology. He realized that experience would likely no longer apply where these drones were concerned.
Indeed, when the security guards opened fire on the invaders, they found that the Borg's strategy had already changed. Before, it was always possible to take out one or two drones with phaser fire before they adapted and their personal shields kicked in. But these drones' shields went up the moment the first phaser beams were fired. They aren't just reacting -- they're anticipating.
"General distress signal!" Bazel called. "Alert Starfleet!" As the guards recalibrated their phasers to find a frequency that could penetrate the shields, Bazel went on the offensive, striking out physically at the nearest drone. That was a move they apparently hadn't anticipated, for the drone soon fell to the deck, its neck snapped by Saurian strength. Bazel noted that the drone he'd just killed belonged to no species he recognized, proving that the ship had assimilated new blood over the past few months. He knew it shouldn't make any difference, but he felt a stab of relief that he hadn't killed a fellow Starfleet officer.
But Bazel had no time to reflect. Another drone was approaching from the right, trying to come at him from behind but failing to account for Bazel's wide field of vision. He ducked and whirled, taking out the drone's legs from under it with a spinning kick. He caught its head as it fell and drove it into the deck. A second blow ended its ordeal.
The remaining drones kept up their assault, and reports came in over the comm that more drones were attacking engineering, environmental control, and other key areas of the ship. Bazel saw Nuax and T'Hala fall before the drones, slain rather than assimilated, in keeping with these Borg's new aggressiveness. Moments later, the lights flickered and died. Bazel smiled grimly. Can drones see in the dark? he wondered as he popped out the filtered contact lenses that let his nocturnally adapted eyes function in normal Starfleet lighting conditions. Looking around, he saw the rest of the bridge crew floundering in the dark and realized it was up to him.
Bazel ran for the tactical console, where Tomei was under attack by a drone. He tore it free from her and sent it flying, but then he saw the puncture marks in her neck. He blinked his inner eyelids closed, filtering out what humans called the "visible" light so he could concentrate solely on the infrared portion of his visual range. Already, Caithlin's body temperature was dropping, the cold spreading out from her neck as the nanoprobes surged through her bloodstream and self-replicated. Why assimilate her instead of killing? he wondered, supposing they wished to gain her tactical knowledge. In any case, he had to end this soon if there was any chance of saving her and the others.
He turned to the tactical console and prepared to trigger a release of anesthezine gas. He wasn't sure it would work on the drones, but it was worth a try. And if it failed, at least he would still be conscious, his natural respiratory filters protecting him. He would still be able to try other options.
Though if this failed, Bazel realized, his only option might be the autodestruct system. At least he could try to take the former Einstein with him.
But then a phaser beam struck the tactical console. It exploded in his face, the flare of heat blinding his thermal vision. Ignoring the searing pain, he snapped back the nictitating membranes to let visible light in again -- only to see the phaser-wielding drone advancing on him as two more closed in on his flanks.
He struck out again, but he was slowed by his injuries. The drones caught him and he felt cold spikes bite into his neck. With his last free thought, he prayed that the away team could somehow survive this...and somehow survive the toxic conditions down on the planet long enough for rescue to come.
T'Ryssa Chen had never taken much interest in her Vulcan heritage, feeling that the repression of emotion would take all the fun out of life. But then she listened to the screams coming over the comm channel from Rhea. And then a group of Borg drones materialized around the away team and the Noh Angels, and T'Ryssa had to watch as Thyyshev and Paul drew their phasers and were promptly cut down. And for the first time in her life, she wished she knew how to stop herself from feeling.
Sekmal ordered a tactical retreat, firing uselessly at the shielded drones and barking, "Move!" with un-Vulcan intensity to break T'Ryssa from her paralysis. It was too late for him; a drone caught up to him and impaled him on a blade that extended from its arm. "Go!" he ordered with his last breath.
Weeping equally for her two friends and the commander she couldn't stand, T'Ryssa started to run...but paused, turning to the Noh Angel nearest her.
"If you can understand me, please run," she urged it, knowing it was futile. It simply mimicked the grief and horror on her face, a mere mask over an unknowable interior. As Trys ran, she looked back to see a drone closing on it. The Angel changed, its face disappearing from her view and presumably manifesting on its far side to regard the drone. "No!" she cried as the drone plunged assimilation tubules into its hide...
And then removed them and tried again. And again. The Noh Angel regarded it curiously, bending its wing to nudge the drone's shoulder in mimickry, but showed no other change. Trys came to a halt, amazed by the scene.
And so she was taken by surprise by the drone that came up behind her. She felt the tubules pierce her suit and her skin before she could even reach for her phaser.
Why me? she wondered. The others had been killed; why was she being assimilated?
Because you didn't fight back in time. Because you froze, and you ran. Just like you always run.
T'Ryssa felt the chill surging through her veins, felt her consciousness slipping away, and longed for a place she could run to. A place where she could be safe...
As awareness gradually returned, T'Ryssa didn't much like what she was becoming aware of. Her head was spinning, and half of her body was tingling like it did in the transporter, only worse, while the other half simply ached. She gradually realized she was lying in something that felt like damp grass against her skin. Groggily, she opened her eyes, blinking against the bright daylight. A dark shape moved in front of her, shading her from the light. "Thanks, I..."
Her eyes focused, and she saw a dragon peering down at her.
Yelping, T'Ryssa leaped off the ground, startling the large purplish creature into emitting a piercing, ascending shriek. Not wanting to risk the dragon's ire, Trys jogged back from the shoreline of the lake, knowing the legless creature could not easily travel on land. If it tried to use its wings and fly at her, she could retreat to the nearby tree line and --
"Wait a minute. What the hell am I doing on Maravel?" She looked down at herself. "And why am I naked?" The dragon merely opened its jagged beak and cawed again, offering no answer.
She remembered Rhea, the carbon planet, the Borg attack. She remembered the tubules piercing her shoulder. Looking at it, she saw two small puncture marks, still a livid green. So it was real! Was it? "How could I be here?" she went on aloud. "Wait a minute," she said, still talking to the dragon, which apparently no longer felt threatened, for it had folded its batlike wings and settled down to float at the edge of the lake, watching her with a stony gaze. In her childhood, during that all-too-brief year her mother had been posted here at the Starfleet research station, she had often come out to talk to the relatively docile lake dragons that lived near the colony, the ones that had learned they had nothing to fear from humanoids so long as they posed no threat. She had imagined that their stern demeanor masked an intelligence greater than what the scientists claimed, that they had cosmic wisdom to offer her if only she asked the right question in the right way. They had always made her feel oddly safe. Maybe because, unlike Lieutenant Commander Antigone Chen, they had always taken the time to listen to the musings and complaints of a ten-year-old human-Vulcan girl.
"Wait a minute," she repeated. "Unimatrix Zero. I read about this. Some people who get assimilated, they have a mutation, they can create a virtual dreamworld when they regenerate." The dragon cocked its angular head with seeming skepticism. "No, you're right," she told it. "That's right, the queen shut that down. Or Janeway did, I forget. Same difference.
"So could this be some kind of private Unimatrix Zero? My own little regenerative dreamworld between shifts killing and assimilating people?" She looked down again at the welts on her shoulder. "Then why am I in so much pain?" She tried to will it away, with no luck. She tried to will herself into the forest elf garb she'd imagined herself wearing as she'd played in these woods as a child, green and brown skins with a bow and quiver strapped to her back. But her lithe body stayed resolutely nude.
She sighed. "So either I've got a worse imagination than I thought," she told the dragon, "or I'm really here on Maravel. But how is that possible? I was a hundred sectors away! With a terminal case of Borgdom!"
The dragon let out another shriek, rearing back its spiny neck, and wriggled its boat-shaped lower body to turn itself around, using its wings as paddles. Then it flapped its wings forcefully and rose from the water. "Aww, c'mon, it wasn't that bad!" Trys called.
But then she heard the sound of air car engines closing in on her, along with transporter whines as people materialized in a perimeter around her, just beyond the giant sequoialike trees. Remembering she was naked, Trys moved to cover herself...but then stopped. Okay, either I'm dreaming, or there's something really big going on here and I'm the only one who can tell them about it. Either way, I might as well do it with style.
So she strode forward casually, naked and unashamed, to greet the Starfleet security contingent as it burst from the trees. "Hi, guys!" she called. "Have you seen my boyfriend? Middle Eastern guy, goes by Adam? You can't miss him..."
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