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Renehan's blue-team station was on the lower decks, near the engine room. Paris and Kim took a turbolift, reaching the bridge as the computer announced, "All crew members in position." Paris settled into position behind the helm as the thin-faced ensign who had the conn slid aside, and called up a quick review of the ship's status. Everything seemed normal, all systems at maximum efficiency, and he switched to a sensor feed. The unenhanced view seemed unimpressive, a tiny disk barely larger than the nail of his little finger, too small as yet to show the clouds and colors of an inhabited world, but he heard Kim whistle softly to himself as he examined the sensor readouts. The captain obviously heard it, too, though Paris didn't dare look back to check her expression. "Report, Mr. Kim." "Still scanning, Captain," Kim answered. He was learning, Paris thought. Not long ago, he would have apologized, or rushed to finish, but he'd learned to take his time. "Sensors confirm this is a class-M planet. The atmosphere is almost identical to Earth's, down to trace gases, and the oceans are also remarkably Earth-like, including mineral content." "Vegetation?" Janeway asked. "Still scanning," Kim answered. "There's a lot of it, Captain, and all complex. lt looks like Neelix didn't exaggerate at all." "Take us in closer, Mr. Paris," Janeway said. "Impulse speed. Mr. Tuvok, any sign of this defense system Neelix mentioned?" "Not yet, Captain," the Vulcan answered. "All security scanners are at maximum." "Maintain that," Janeway said. "Proceed when ready, Mr. Paris." Paris touched his controls, setting up an easy course into the Kirse system. The planet lay between them and the diamond-bright pinpoint of the sun; as he fed the numbers into the computer, the image on the screen shifted, the disk of the planet slowly eclipsing the distant star. "Course locked in," he announced. "Engaged." For long minutes, nothing happened. In the main screen, the disk swelled fractionally, revealed a hint of blues and pale grays that Paris guessed would resolve into the familiar streaks and whorls of a class-M planet's cloudy atmosphere. At his own station, the course numbers clicked past, registering otherwise all-but-invisible progress, and the screens that relayed vital sensor indications stayed monotonously empty. "I'm picking up metal in orbit," Kim began, and Tuvok cut him off. "Captain, there are defense stations in orbit around the Kirse planet." "All stop," Janeway said instantly, and Paris was quick to obey. "All right, put it on the main screen, Mr. Tuvok." "Yes, Captain." The Vulcan manipulated his controls, and the planet vanished, to be replaced by a highly colored version of the same image. Flecks of brighter light appeared as well, most clustered around the planet's equator, but some in what seemed to be circumpolar orbits. There were dozens of them, Paris realized, and at the same time realized that they were seeing only a part of the system. There would have to be as many similar stations on the far side of the planet to provide the coverage the Kirse seemed to want. "Each of those dots represents an orbiting phaser platform," Tuvok said. "They are positioned so as to create overlapping firezones that cover all approaches to the planet. It seems that Mr. Neelix was correct in reporting an all but impenetrable shield around the planet." Janeway didn't answer for a moment, and Paris glanced over his shoulder, to see her staring thoughtfully at the screen. "What's the range on those things?" "Uncertain." Tuvok's hands were busy on his console as he spoke. "The power apparently available would indicate that the phasers are capable of reaching some distance, particularly if they were 1inked in series. However, the configuration of the firing points suggests that the stations are designed primarily for short-range use, and not for linked fire. If that is the case, then the range is actually quite limited, less than half the planetary radius, but the actual phaser fire would be correspondingly strong." "Captain," Kim said. "I've isolated the command frequency for the platforms. It seems to be mostly machine language, platform-to-platform communications. "I can confirm that, Captain," Tuvok said. "The computer indicates that these are a constant test pattern." "Test pattern?" Paris asked, in spite of himself, and looked away in embarrassment as the Vulcan looked at him. "The defense zone seems to be intended to be largely self-maintaining. The communications we are receiving are simply each platform confirming its own status and inquiring the status of the next platform in the series. The pattern also indicates the presence of smaller components which I cannot identify at this distance." "I wonder what happens when they get a negative answer," Chakotay said. "I don't think we'd like to be there to find out," Janeway answered. "Mr. Kim, can you pick out a communications channel? Not for the machines, I mean." Kim shook his head. "I've been trying, Captain I m not getting communications from any higher life forms. In fact, I haven't been able to pick up any lifeforms at all on the planet." "None?" Chakotay said, sharply. Janeway frowned. "Sensor error?" "I don't know," Kim said, "but I don't think so." His hands moved over his console again, confirming hrs previous readings. "We could simply be out of range-we are close to our limits-but usually we can pick up gross life signs from a planetary population at this point." "Interesting," Chakotay said, and Paris rolled his eyes. The first officer had, it seemed, a gift for understatement. Janeway acknowledged the comment with a nod She stared at the screen for a moment longer, her hands on her hips, then turned back to her chair "Well, there's no point in hovering out here wonder ma. Mr. Tuvok, find the likely range of those platforms." Tuvok touched controls, and the planet in the screen was suddenly surrounded by a red haze. "This represents the zone of greatest danger from the platform-mounted phasers. As long as we stay outside of that, our shields should be able to handle an attack and our far greater mobility will move us quickly out of danger. "Very well," Janeway said. "Take us on in, Mr Paris, just to the edge of the red zone-and be ready to raise the shields at the first sign of an attack." "Aye, Captain," Paris answered, and touched his controls to adjust the course. "Going in."
Copyright © 1997 by Melissa Scott