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U.S.S. TITAN, DEEP IN THE VELA OB2 ASSOCIATION, BETA QUADRANT
The aquamarine world that turned serenely on the main viewer had seemed hospitable enough when Captain William Riker had first looked upon it from orbit. It had seemed so when he had first set foot upon one of the small rocky continents that punctuated a planet-girdling, highly saline ocean. Other than the prevalence of strong winds, and the clouds of grit and dust they kicked up, the place had been very accommodating to Titan’s survey teams—it offered breathable air, middling-warm temperatures, and fair-to-tolerable humidity levels.
But the sometimes all-but-invisible fabric that nearly always accompanied such humanoid-compatible environments—an oft-taken-for-granted little thing more commonly known as life—was conspicuously absent from this place, from pole to pole and meridian to meridian.
William Riker leaned forward in his command chair, resting his chin on his fist as he regarded the dead world that even now Titan’s planetary-science specialists were still busy trying to understand.
“Deanna, what do you think about naming this place ‘Doornail’?” he said, turning to his left just far enough to see an amused smile split his wife’s face.
“ ‘Doornail,’” repeated Commander Deanna Troi, Titan’s senior diplomatic officer, chief counselor, social-sciences department head—and beloved Imzadi of the captain. She pitched her voice low, as if to be audible only in Riker’s immediate vicinity. “That’s a curious choice, Will.”
He repaid Deanna’s grin with interest. After spending the past six hours down on that sterile, rocky world, he was grateful to be back aboard Titan and in the warmth of her presence. “‘Doornail,’” he said, matching her sotto voce delivery. “As in ‘dead as a.’ “
She shrugged. “I understand the idiom, Will. My father came from Earth, after all.”
“But you don’t seem to be falling in love with it.”
“No, it’s a fine choice,” she said, though a slight wrinkling of her nose belied her endorsement. “Besides, assigning names to new worlds is one of your prerogatives as captain.”
Commander Christine Vale, who was seated in the chair to Riker’s immediate right, chimed in quietly, “At least until the Federation Science Council settles on something a little more, um, dignified.”
“Ouch, Commander,” Riker said as he turned his command chair so that he faced Vale. “Way to show loyalty to your captain.”
Vale answered with mock solemnity. “I wouldn’t be much of a first officer if I didn’t point out the captain’s mistakes, sir.”
“TouchÉ. But as I recall, you were quite a bit more eager than I was to get away from that dustball.”
“I was just more vocal about it, Captain. After all, a healthy set of lungs and a lack of hesitancy to use same are the main keys to success in this job.”
“So . . . an exec’s job amounts to either arguing with the captain, or just bellowing the captain’s orders to the crew at the top of her lungs?”
Vale smirked as she pushed several strands of her shoulder-length auburn hair from her eyes. “I learned from the best, sir—aboard two ships called Enterprise. That reminds me of another nice thing about the planet: good acoustics.”
Riker heard Deanna snicker behind him. “It sounds to me as if you like the planet a lot better now that you’re safely back aboard Titan.”
“Places like that always look better in retrospect,” Vale said, gesturing toward the bluish orb that hung in the viewscreen’s center. “Not to mention from nearly five hundred kilometers away. Besides, it could have been worse. At least there weren’t any mosquitoes—”
With an almost Vulcan-like calm, Deanna said something that Riker belatedly recognized as “Incoming!” Simultaneously, Vale interrupted herself by letting out a yelp—accompanied by a brief chorus from Lieutenant Sariel Rager at ops and Lieutenant Aili Lavena at the conn—that startled the captain into turning toward the section of the bridge at which his exec’s eyes had been directed: the main viewer.
An apparition had suddenly appeared directly between the screen and the forward helm and ops consoles, where it rapidly took on solidity—or at least the appearance of solidity. In the space of a few heartbeats, it had become recognizable as the high-fidelity holographic avatar of Lieutenant Commander Melora Pazlar, even as it continued to hover several centimeters above the deck directly in front of the wide central screen.
“I don’t think I’m ever gonna get used to that,” Vale said.
“Nor will I,” said Lavena. The Pacifican flight controller shuddered as though something had gone wrong with her hydration suit’s temperature controls. The suit made a barely audible sloshing sound in response to her brief startle reaction.
“Sorry, Commander,” Pazlar said. “Lieutenant.”
The senior science officer entered a command into the padd she carried; in response, Titan’s holographic telepresence system gingerly shifted her toward an open space on the bridge’s port side. Pazlar’s willowy form was outfitted in an ordinary duty uniform rather than in one of the slightly bulkier contragravity suits she wore when venturing outside the comfortable variable-g environment of her stellar cartography lab or her living quarters. Being an Elaysian born, bred, and raised in the microgravity environment of the planet known as Gemworld, Pazlar’s body was structurally incompatible with a Federation starship’s standard one-g environment.
Riker turned his chair toward Pazlar’s floating image. “Commander, I assume you’re here because the department heads have reached a consensus about the origins of this planet.”
“Yes, Captain,” Pazlar said. “At least insofar as our current knowledge can take us.”
“Are most of you still convinced that this planet’s M-class environment didn’t come about naturally?” Deanna asked.
“As surprising as you might find this,” Pazlar said, “the answer is ‘yes.’ “
Riker smiled. “Huh. Maybe ‘Doornail’ will stick after all.” As dead as they were, even doornails did not spontaneously generate themselves.
Pazlar’s V-ridged forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. “Sir?”
“Never mind. As I recall, you were part of the ‘this planet’s environment is a natural product of planetary evolution’ camp.”
“I was, Captain. At least at the beginning of our analysis.”
“What changed your mind?” Riker wanted to know.
“Well, to give credit where credit is due, Captain, Eviku and Chamish were the first to notice the pattern—a pattern that appears to have played out in several other star systems scattered throughout the Vela OB2 Association, and perhaps even much further into deep Beta Quadrant space.”
Commander Christine Vale, Titan’s executive officer, spoke up from the seat at Riker’s right hand. “If anybody aboard Titan was going to find that sort of pattern, it would be our resident xenobiology and ecology experts.”
“Apparently,” Pazlar said with a nod. “Unfortunately, my expertise in those fields doesn’t overlap all that much with that of the biospheric scientists. My specialties are cosmology and big-bore physics. Since we hadn’t found a clear-cut footprint indicating intelligence the way we had with the Sentries, I still needed a little more convincing at the outset.”
“Sounds like you got what you needed,” Vale said.
The Elaysian nodded. “Torvig and White-Blue crunched the numbers—twice, I might add—and the end results finally made a believer out of me.”
SecondGen White-Blue was the designation of the eight-limbed artificial intelligence that Riker had allowed to remain aboard Titan a few months back, following the starship’s harrowing encounter with White-Blue’s kind, the ancient AI civilization whose members referred to themselves as “the Sentries.” Although Riker couldn’t deny that White-Blue had been invaluable in preventing Titan’s destruction, both at the hands of White-Blue’s own kind and via the destructive energies of their extradimensional nemesis, the Null, he was also keenly aware of how much trouble the little AI had brought to his ship. The fact that White-Blue had violated the ship’s security and privacy protocols on numerous occasions—to say nothing of its having briefly “uplifted” Titan’s main computer to full sentience—left the captain still wary of any judgments White-Blue might care to render. That White-Blue’s conclusions were supported by calculations run by Ensign Torvig Bu-Kar-Nguv—a Choblik science specialist whose own sentience depended upon an extraordinary degree of integration between his natural biological form and his bionic components—made Riker feel only slightly better.
Riker’s face felt flushed as he noticed Deanna regarding him curiously from her station at his immediate left. He stood, straightening his uniform tunic as he got to his feet.
“Give me the gist of it, Commander. Why are you convinced that this planet couldn’t have produced its atmosphere on its own the way billions of other planets across the galaxy have?”
“The long and short of it is the balance of gases in this planet’s atmosphere, Captain,” Pazlar said. “You’ll note that the sensors have corroborated Lieutenant Chamish’s early contention that the eighty-twenty nitrogen-oxygen mix we observe here could only have been produced by nonbiotic processes.”
“Are we certain of that?” Deanna asked. “Couldn’t this planet’s atmosphere have been produced by a thriving biosphere that was wiped out by some catastrophe in the relatively recent past?”
Pazlar shook her head, her fine white hair following a heartbeat behind owing to her protective cocoon of micro-gravity. “None of the scans we’ve done so far have turned up any evidence that there’s ever been any life on this planet, let alone life that was catastrophically wiped out after producing a Class-M atmosphere.”
Riker was no scientist, but he had enough scientific training to know that all Class-M planets’ atmospheres were significantly out-of-equilibrium in comparison with those of lifeless worlds. Dead places tended to have atmospheres that were devoid of free molecular oxygen, a gas that tended to get bound up in planetary crusts as oxides, as had occurred billions of years ago on Mars. Lifeless worlds whose atmospheres were “in equilibrium” routinely became anaerobic carbon dioxide hells like Venus, deserts like Mars, or stillborn “primordial soups” like his ship’s namesake, Saturn’s moon Titan.
Facing Pazlar, Riker said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but there are still only two known ways to create an M-class environment, broadly speaking. The action of organic photosynthesis or similar biospheric processes on a planet’s surface over eons is one.” He began ticking off his points on his fingers. “And terraforming technology is the other.”
“That’s the basic shape of it, Captain,” said Pazlar’s image. “We have the evidence presented by the composition of the atmosphere itself. Our survey scans have already determined to a high degree of certainty that no biosphere has ever existed on this world. Doctor Chamish, our senior ecologist, triple-checked the figures.” Although Riker didn’t know Chamish all that well, he understood that Chamish’s people were generally gifted with the ability to communicate telepathically with lower animals, and that their homeworld, Kazar, was renowned for producing gifted ecologists.
“Wait a minute,” Vale said. “I may have stumbled into this exploration business by way of law enforcement and security instead of through a lab, but even I can see a flaw in your methodology.”
Pazlar nodded. “You mean that no matter how many numbers I might crunch, I still can’t really prove to a fare-thee-well that there never really was any biota on the planet.”
“Indeed,” Commander Tuvok said from his position behind the tactical console. “I trust that I need not point out that proving a negative is a logical impossibility.”
Turning her chair halfway toward Tuvok, the exec nodded in agreement. “Isn’t absence of evidence sometimes just that? Absence of evidence?”
“As opposed to evidence of absence,” said the stellar cartographer. “Point taken. But biospheres always leave a mark on the worlds that host them. Even small, tenuous biospheres will make their presence known if your instruments are good enough. And our instruments are damned good.”
Riker considered the most tenuous native biosphere that existed in his own species’ backyard—that of Mars. The Martian ecology, marginal though it was by the time humans had developed any capability of studying it to any significant extent, had made itself known only by dint of the traces of atmospheric methane it released and maintained at slightly-above-equilibrium levels. Absent the continued action of a relative handful of hardy subsurface extremophile native microbe colonies, that methane would have quickly been photodissociated into its component elements and then dispersed or absorbed. And before Mars had been scrutinized under a sufficiently sensitive lens, those molecular traces had been undetectable; Mars, with its whisper-thin, oxygen-free atmosphere, had appeared already to be in an equilibrium state consistent with an eternally dead, lifeless desert.
“But as good as our instruments are,” Riker said, “couldn’t there still be an ancient biological marker that nobody’s been able to find yet—something so old it’s literally buried at the very bottom of the rock pile?”
“There’s a sharp limit to how old a fossil biosphere like that could be, Captain, given the atmosphere we’ve observed here. Class-M atmospheres are inherently out of equilibrium with the surrounding environment. Without biota to maintain them, they always deteriorate into something much less friendly—especially after a few tens of millions of years go by.”
Deanna shrugged. “Suppose this atmosphere is being created right now by life so alien that our sensors simply couldn’t recognize it as life?”
“According to Eviku, that’s still just barely possible,” said Pazlar. “But it isn’t likely. Life processes, even extremely exotic ones, must involve some sort of metabolism that takes advantage of natural energy gradients—that is, materials moving from a high-energy state to a lower one. Predictable patterns of internal order being created in exchange for increased external entropy. But we simply haven’t seen anything remotely resembling that here.”
Riker nodded toward the blue world on the screen. “So nothing is maintaining this world’s atmosphere. Or at least nothing we’ve detected so far.”
“That’s right,” Pazlar said. “In fact, Chamish and Bralik have both confirmed that the oxygen in the atmosphere is slowly combining with the surface through natural weathering processes, even as it’s being broken down by exospheric solar ultraviolet radiation. Since no detectable process is acting to maintain the atmosphere, it will succumb given enough time. Most of the free oxygen will end up in the rocks, and much of the rest will ultimately bleed off into space.”
“In other words,” Riker said, “what looks nominally like another Earth now will someday deteriorate into another Mars.”
“Assuming that the atmosphere’s rate of deterioration remains relatively consistent over time, it should be possible to estimate the approximate age of this . . . non-biogenic atmosphere,” said Tuvok, who had raised an eyebrow. Though the phlegmatic Vulcan’s current post was tactical officer, it seemed obvious to Riker that his scientific curiosity was now fully roused.
“My department thought the very same thing,” said Pazlar. “Bralik locked the core probes onto the rock strata that corresponds to a time-depth of about five million standard years. And that’s where we’ve found a marker of sorts—just not a marker made by life.”
“What sort of marker?” Deanna asked.
“A very thin layer of klendthium that seems to cover the entire planet at that depth,” Pazlar said.
Riker nodded. “The same way a subsurface layer of radioactive iridium marks the asteroid collision that wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth around sixty-five million years ago.”
“Exactly,” Pazlar said with a nod.
“Klendthium,” Tuvok repeated. “That is an extremely rare mineral that I have only seen associated with Vulcan terraforming techniques, such as the ones historically employed at the Loonkerian outpost on Klendth.”
Hence the name, I suppose, Riker thought.
Deanna turned to face the tactical station. “Other cultures have employed methods similar to the Vulcan universal atmospheric element compensator, Commander. Vulcan is only one of that technology’s more recent users.”
“Quite right,” Pazlar said.
“It sounds as though you think we may have found another,” Riker said.
“Wait a minute,” Vale said, waving her hands before her as though she was dispersing a cloud of smoke. “Couldn’t this ‘marker’ we’re talking about here simply be evidence of something that could have wiped out a previously existing biosphere?”
Pazlar shook her head. “Something that seems to have left no trace anywhere on the planet of the billions of years of biological and chemical evolution that must have preceded it? That doesn’t seem likely. Not without destroying the planet itself—or at least creating geologic stresses that would still be detectable today.”
“What about comet collisions?” Deanna asked. “Couldn’t the constituents of this planet’s present-day atmosphere have rained down from the system’s Kuiper belt?”
Pazlar folded her arms before her, her body language radiating skepticism. “It’s a possibility. But this system doesn’t appear to have much of a Kuiper belt. And those sorts of impacts would have left behind some geologic evidence somewhere. This planet looks to be almost in mint condition, so to speak. Not even a geologically active world like Earth can cover up every last one of its old scars.”
“Add that to the implication of a global terraforming operation being conducted here millions of years ago,” Deanna said, “and you’ve got a fairly tantalizing mystery.”
“You might have even more than that, especially if you consider two additional factors,” Pazlar said, her gray eyes beginning to flash with a rare enthusiasm.
“What are those?” Riker said.
“The telemetry from our probes and the results of our long-range scans. They show that several adjacent systems have bodies that fit the general profile of this planet—”
“Doornail,” Riker said, glancing in Deanna’s direction momentarily to underscore his determination to keep the name in place as long as possible.
“Doornail?” The look of perplexity Pazlar had displayed earlier abruptly returned to her face.
“It’ll have to do until something better comes along, Commander,” Deanna said around an incompletely suppressed smirk.
Pazlar blinked at the counselor. “All right.” Focusing her telepresent gaze back upon Riker, she added, “Doornail it is, Captain. And it looks as though there could be a bunch more Doornails out there—nominally Class-M worlds that apparently got that way via unconventional means.”
“A series of artificially terraformed planets spanning an entire sector or more?” Vale said. She didn’t sound quite convinced.
Deanna, however, quickly took up the more optimistic side of the discussion. “Why not? We already have evidence that ancient starfaring species have transplanted entire humanoid societies from star system to star system. Some of those interventions may have even involved making deliberate, intensive genetic alterations to the relocated sapients.”
“Exactly,” Pazlar said. “It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that some long-vanished alien civilization may have manipulated whole planetary environments in much the same way. We may be on track to settling the matter definitively. There are several other Doornails within easy reach of our current position. And if any or all of those worlds appear to be as artificially created as this one does, then we could gain some insight into precisely how it was done. If we’re fortunate, we might even stumble across some technological relics.”
Echoing Pazlar’s mounting enthusiasm, Deanna said, “And if we’re really lucky, we’ll find some intact machinery, or maybe some still-readable computer data, that could give us a way to reverse engineer whatever technology these paleo-terraformers were using.”
Riker stood in silence in front of Lavena’s conn station and studied the viewscreen’s image of a dead-yet-life-friendly world whose stately, eternal rotation was rapidly carrying its nearer hemisphere into night. The allure of seizing long-forgotten knowledge that had once made a dead world—or perhaps even countless dead worlds—capable of supporting life was undeniable. The Federation was still in the process of recovering from the devastation the Borg had wrought during the previous year. Deneva had been laid waste, as had parts of Vulcan. Beyond the Federation, Qo’noS had suffered cruelly from the invasion. If a means of accelerating the recovery of those wounded worlds really existed out here, it deserved serious attention from Titan’s captain and crew.
But such a discovery also demanded a fair amount of caution. Riker was well acquainted with the dangers posed by Project Genesis, the code name of a Federation terra-forming initiative. Not only had Genesis’s initial deployment nearly a century ago proved it far more effective as a biosphere-destroying weapon than as a means of planet-scale creation, the powerful, molecular-level matter-reorganizing force known as the Genesis Wave had also threatened the Federation’s very existence much more recently.
Once released from their bottles, genies were often notoriously difficult to coax back inside.
But maybe I can afford to let the ethical agonies wait a while longer, Riker decided, chiding himself gently for getting so far ahead of himself so quickly. We don’t even know whether or not this thing still exists—if it ever really did.
Turning to face Lavena, he said, “Lieutenant, get the coordinates for the nearest candidate star system from Commander Pazlar and lay in a course, best speed.
“Let’s find out how lucky we can be.”
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