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Carlos Tarasco of the S.S. Valiant stood in front of his captain's chair and eyed the phenomenon pictured on his viewscreen.
It was immense, he thought. No -- it was beyond immense. It stretched across space without boundaries or limits, a blazing vermillion abyss without beginning or end.
"Amazing," said Gardenhire, his redheaded ops officer.
Tarasco grunted. "You can say that again."
Sommers, the curly-haired brunette who was sitting next to Gardenhire at the helm controls, cast a glance back at the captain. "You still want to go through it, sir?"
"Do we have a choice?" Tarasco asked her.
The helm officer recognized it as a rhetorical question and returned her attention to her monitors. With her slender fingers crawling across her control dials like an exotic variety of insect, she deployed additional power to the propulsion system.
"Ready when you are, sir."
Was he ready? The captain drew a deep breath.
The phenomenon had puzzled him ever since it came up on the viewscreen earlier that day. Their optical scanners registered what looked like the universe's biggest light show, but there was nothing there as far as their other instruments were concerned.
Unfortunately, it wasn't merely a matter of scientific curiosity. Tarasco and his crew of eighty-eight had set out from Earth years earlier, aiming to chart a stretch of space from their home system to the farthest reaches of the Milky Way galaxy -- part of a sector that Terran astronomers had labeled the Alpha Quadrant.
They had almost completed their assignment when they encountered an unexpectedly powerful magnetic storm. At first, it seemed that they might be able to outrun the thing. Then they found out otherwise.
The storm caught them up and flung them light-years off course, well past what Tarasco's cartography team reckoned was the outer edge of the galaxy. If not for the readings their scanners took along the way, they wouldn't even have known which way was home.
But knowing the way was only half the battle. The storm had wrecked both their warp and nuclear impulse engines, forcing them to drift on emergency power until the crew could get them up and running.
Finally, after weeks of languishing under the glare of alien stars, Tarasco and his people got underway again. They knew that their trip back to Earth had been lengthened by nearly eleven months, but no one griped. They were just glad to be heading home.
And all had gone well from that point, the captain reflected. Until now, that is.
He couldn't be sure if the phenomenon had been there when the storm threw them so precipitously in the other direction, or if it had sprung up since that time. Certainly, their computer hadn't made any record of it.
One thing was for sure -- they weren't going to get back to Earth without passing through the thing.
Tarasco glanced at Sommers. "Let's do it."
He could feel a subtle hum in the deck below his feet as the Valiant accelerated to the speed of light. The phenomenon loomed in front of them, a gargantuan, red maw opened wide to swallow them up.
"Still no sign of it on sensors," said Hollandsworth, his tall, dark-skinned science officer.
"Deflectors are registering something," reported Gardenhire. He turned to the captain. "A kind of pressure."
"So we're not just seeing things," Tarasco concluded. "I guess we can take some comfort in that."
"Maintain heading?" asked Sommers.
"Affirmative," said the captain.
The closer they got, the more tumultuous the phenomenon appeared. The ruby light within it began to writhe and shimmer, giving birth to monstrous caverns and towering eruptions.
It was beautiful in the way a stormy, windblown sea was beautiful. And like a stormy sea, it was frightening at the same time.
"All available power to the shields," Tarasco ordered.
"Aye, sir," said Gardenhire.
Suddenly, the ship jerked hard to starboard. Caught by surprise, the captain had to grab hold of his chair back for support. He turned to his operations officer, a question on his face.
"We're all right," Gardenhire reported dutifully. "Shields are holding fine, sir."
Tarasco turned back to the viewscreen. They seemed to be entering a deep, red-veined chasm, pulsating with forces that baffled him as much as they did his scanning devices. Before he knew it, the phenomenon wasn't just in front of them, it was all around.
He felt another jerk, even harder than the first. But a glance at Gardenhire told him that everything was still under control.
Behind the captain, the lift doors whispered open. He looked back and saw that his first officer had joined them. Commander Rashad was a wiry man with a neatly trimmed beard and a sarcastic wit.
"I hope I'm not too late," Rashad said darkly.
"Not at all," Tarasco told him. "The show's just starting."
"Good," said his exec. "I hate to miss anything."
The words had barely left his mouth when the lights on the bridge began to flicker. Everyone looked around, the captain included.
"What's happening?" he asked his ops officer.
"I'm not sure, sir," said Gardenhire, searching his control panel for a clue. "Something's interfering with our electroplasma flow."
Abruptly, the deck lurched beneath them, as if they were riding the crest of a gigantic wave. Hollandsworth's console exploded in a shower of sparks, sending him flying backward out of his seat.
Tarasco began to move to the science officer's side. However, Rashad beat him to it.
"Shields down forty-five percent!" Gardenhire announced.
Another console exploded -- this time, an empty one. It contributed to the miasma of smoke collecting above them. And again, the ship bucked like an angry horse.
"The helm's not responding!" Sommers cried out.
Rashad depressed the comm pad at the corner of Hollandsworth's console. "Sickbay, this is Rashad. We need someone up here on the double. Lieutenant Hollandsworth has been -- "
Before he could finish his sentence, the first officer seemed to light up from within, his body suffused with a smoldering, red glow. Then he fell to his knees beside the unconscious Hollandsworth.
"Amir!" Tarasco bellowed.
For a gut-wrenching moment, he thought Rashad had been seriously hurt. Then the man turned in response to the captain's cry and signaled with his hand that he was all right.
"Shields down eighty-six percent!" Gardenhire hollered. He turned to the captain, his eyes red from the smoke and full of dread. "Sir, we can't take much more of this!"
As if to prove his point, the Valiant staggered sharply to port, throwing Tarasco into the side of his center seat. He glared at the viewscreen, hating the idea that his choices had narrowed to one.
"All right!" he thundered over the din of hissing consoles and shuddering deckplates. "Get us out of here!"
There was only one way the helm officer could accomplish that: retreat. Wrestling the ship hard to starboard, she aimed for a patch of open space.
Under Sommers's expert hand, the Valiant climbed out of the scarlet abyss. At the last moment, the forces inside the phenomenon seemed to add to their momentum, spitting them out like a watermelon seed.
Tarasco had never been so glad to see the stars in his life. Trying not to breathe in the black fumes from Hollandsworth's console, he made his way to the science officer and dropped down beside him.
Hollandsworth's face and hands had been badly burned. He was making sounds of agony deep in his throat.
"Is he going to make it?" asked Rashad, who was sitting back on his haunches. He looked a little pale for his experience.
"I don't know," the captain told him.
Before he could try to help, the lift doors parted and a couple of medics emerged. One was a petite woman named Coquillette, the other a muscular man named Rudolph.
"We'll take it from here, sir," said Coquillette.
Tarasco backed off and let the medical personnel do their jobs. Then he did his. "Damage report!" he demanded of his ops officer.
"Shields down, sir," Gardenhire told him ruefully. "Scanners, communications, lasers...all off-line."
Beside him, Sommers pounded her fist on her console. "The main engines are shot. That last thrust burned out every last circuit."
"Switch life support to emergency backup," said the captain.
Without waiting for a response, he peered over Coquillette's shoulder to see how Hollandsworth was doing. The science officer's eyes were open, but he was trembling with pain.
"Easy now," Coquillette told Hollandsworth, and injected him with an anesthetic through the sleeve of his uniform.
Tarasco heaved a sigh. Then he turned back to Rashad. "Poor guy," he said, referring to the science officer.
But Rashad wasn't looking at the captain any longer. He was stretched out on his back, eyes staring at the ceiling, and Rudolph was trying to breathe air into his lungs.
Rashad wasn't responding. He just lay there, limp, like a machine drained of all its power.
Tarasco shook his head. "No..."
Just moments earlier, his first officer had assured him he was all right. He had even asked the captain about Hollandsworth. How could something have happened to him so quickly?
Then Tarasco remembered the way Rashad had lit up in the grip of the phenomenon, like a wax candle with a fierce, orange flame raging inside it. Clearly, they were dealing with matters beyond their understanding.
Tarasco watched helplessly as Rudolph labored to bring Rashad back to life, blowing into his mouth and pounding Rashad's chest with the heel of his hand. At the same time, Coquillette injected the first officer with a stimulant of some kind.
None of it helped.
"Let's get them to sickbay," a red-faced Rudolph said at last.
Numbly, the captain took hold of Rashad under his arms, though he knew his chief medical officer wouldn't be able to help the man either. On the other hand, Hollandsworth still had a chance to pull through.
He and Coquillette picked up the first officer, while Rudolph and Gardenhire hefted the lanky Hollandsworth. Then they squeezed into the still-open lift compartment and entered sickbay as their destination.
The air in the lift was close and foul with the stench of burned flesh. Fortunately, their destination was just a couple of decks up. As the doors slid apart, Tarasco and the others piled out with their burdens and made their way down the corridor.
In less than a minute, they reached sickbay. Its doors were wide open, giving them an unobstructed view of the facility's eight intensive care beds, which were arranged like the spokes of a wheel. Three of the beds were occupied, though metallic silver blankets had been pulled up ominously over the patients' faces.
Damn, thought the captain, his heart sinking in his chest. He had assumed the only casualties were those suffered on the bridge.
Gorvoy, the Valiant's florid-faced chief medical officer, looked grim as he approached them and took a look. "Put them down here and here," he told Rudolph and Coquillette, pointing to a couple of empty beds, "and get up to deck seven. McMillan's got two more in engineering."
The medics did as they were told and took off, leaving Tarasco and Gardenhire to stand there as Gorvoy examined Hollandsworth with a handheld bioscanner. The physician consulted the device's tiny readout, crossed the octagonally shaped room and removed something from an open drawer. Then he came back to the semiconscious science officer.
"Hollandsworth will heal," he told the captain. "I wish I could say that for the others. Do me a favor and cover Rashad, will you?"
Tarasco gazed at his first officer, who was lying inert on his bed, his features slack and his eyes locked on eternity. Moving to the foot of the bed, the captain took the blanket there and unfolded it. Then he draped it over Rashad.
"Amir," he sighed, mourning his friend and colleague.
Gorvoy glanced at him as he applied a salve to Hollandsworth's burns. "He lit up like a lightning bug, right?"
Tarasco returned the glance. "The others, too?" he guessed.
"Uh huh. Kolodny, Rivers, Yoshii...all of them."
The captain considered the man-sized shapes beneath the metallic blankets. "But why them and not anyone else?"
"That's the question," the medical officer agreed. "Was Rashad near an open conduit or something?"
Tarasco thought about it. "No. He was near Hollandsworth's console, though. And it was shooting sparks."
It was possible the console had had something to do with it. However, the captain's gut told him otherwise. And judging by the expression on Gorvoy's face, the doctor didn't believe it was the console either.
Gardenhire was grimacing as he watched Gorvoy spread the salve. Tarasco put his hand on the ops officer's shoulder.
"Go on," he told Gardenhire. "Get back to the bridge. See if Sommers needs any help."
The redhead nodded. "Aye, sir," he said. With a last, sympathetic look at Hollandsworth, he left sickbay.
But Gardenhire wasn't gone long before Tarasco heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming from the corridor. Suddenly, another medical team burst into the room, carrying a young woman between them.
It was Zosky, the stellar physicist who had signed onto the mission at the last minute. She was a dead weight in the medics' arms as they followed Gorvoy's gesture and laid her on another bed.
My God, the captain thought...how many more? And what could have killed them, while so many others had been spared?
He watched as they laid Zosky down, as Gorvoy took a moment to examine her with his bioscanner...and as they pulled the blanket over her face. Not the console, part of him insisted.
The doctor eyed Tarasco. "Maybe you ought to get back to the bridge, too," he suggested.
The captain nodded. "Maybe."
He had started to leave sickbay when Coquillette and Rudolph came huffing in from the corridor. They were carrying yet another victim -- a baby-faced engineer named Davidoff.
"McMillan said there were two of them," Gorvoy told them. "Where's the other one?"
As if in answer to his question, Chief Engineer McMillan came shuffling in with one of his men leaning on him for support. Tarasco recognized the injured man as Agnarsson, McMillan's first assistant.
Agnarsson was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a strong jaw and a fierce blond mustache. But at the moment, he was weak as a kitten, fighting hard just to stay conscious. The captain helped McMillan get him to a bed and hoist him onto it.
"What's the matter with him?" Tarasco asked.
The chief engineer cursed beneath his breath. "He started to glow -- he and Davidoff both. It was the damnedest thing."
The captain looked at him, his pulse starting to pound in his temples. "He was glowing? And he's still alive?"
"I'm fine," Agnarsson muttered, hanging his head and rubbing the back of his neck. "Just a little light-headed is all."
Then the big man picked up his head...and Tarasco's jaw fell. Agnarsson's eyes, normally a very ordinary shade of blue, were glowing with a luxuriant silver light.
Additional text copyright © 2003 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Reunion copyright © 1991 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.
The Valiant copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.