by Uli Kusterer
"What's the matter, Commander Picard?" she asked.
"I believe I see a vessel behind that hill." Picard heard himself say, trying not to stumble over the rocky desert ground. The surface of this planet was a darkish gray, with a slight hint of blue in the stone. Seeing Lt. Matthews waver in her steps, Picard quickly jumped forward and caught her before she hit the floor:
"I told you to tell me when you needed a break!" he practically yelled at her. Then he stopped, realizing she had passed out. He took an ice bag out of the medkit, placing it on her bandaged forehead. It didn't help much. Picard raised his head, to confirm what he already knew was true; there wasn't a shady place anywhere in the vicinity. Except for that silhouette he had seen ahead. There is no helping it, Picard thought as he dragged Matthews over his shoulder and resumed his way.
The shape of Matthews' uniform collar suddenly began shifting, blurring before his eyes, changing into a blackish, triangle-like shape whose tip seemed to be stretching endlessly towards the sky. The picture swam again before his eyes, and Picard's iris shifted restlessly underneath his closed eyelids. Once again, he found himself in front of a huge, black ship, that was made of several triangular subsections made of a color as deep as the blackest depths of space. He saw the front of the ship part, one part building a runway that allowed entry to the ship. A flash, and he felt a blast knock Matthews, struggling to her feet, against the wall, and then the huge shape that had been the origin of the blast stared him in the face, its own features disturbingly blank in his memory, and asked with its familiar voice: "Why are you here?"
It would take five hours for the "Enterprise" to be in full working order, plus another one until the new Commander was scheduled to arrive. Usually, Jean-Luc Picard would have taken the opportunity to visit his brother and nephew on Earth. But this was not an option anymore. Henri was dead. They both were.
Both Riker and LaForge had offered to spend time with him on leave, but he had declined. He was not ready to face Earth yet; the place didn't feel friendly to him anymore. Rather, as he was looking through the portal of the shuttle bay at this blue planet, it felt hostile.
As Europe threatened to come into view, Picard turned his attention to the bay, where constantly shuttles were leaving and coming in, accompanied by the familiar glowing aura every time one passed the force field that ensured the atmosphere stayed.
Checking the time, he found an explanation for this unusually high activity: the inspection of the transporter was still in full progress and would continue for another hour. Until then, the shuttles would keep bringing in supplies and parts, not unlike drones busily tending to their beehive, one almost indistinguishable from the other, slim grey ships, the latest generation of transports equipped for flight both in space and inside an atmosphere.
All exactly alike, save one. The odd one out was from one of the first series of shuttles, probably built early in the 23rd century. Although a bit clunky and geometric in shape, still elegant in its own right, and definitely in a very good state of maintenance. He tried to make out the name of the ship;
Picard couldn't believe his eyes. He squinted: "Galileo"? Surely this couldn't be the shuttle that had been destroyed along with the original "Enterprise"? Meanwhile the shuttle's pilot had set down with perfect accuracy. The shuttle's passengers descended; Some Lieutenants, five new ensigns -- probably fresh from the academy, nothing unusual. But Picard was waiting for the pilot who could land such an old machine so flawlessly. Then he could see the computer displays of the cockpit being deactivated, and shortly afterwards a young woman emerged. She looked about twenty, a bit taller than average, with long brown curls of hair falling down to her shoulders. She looked too young to be a pilot, not to mention one that still knew how to fly such an old ship.
The woman shouldered her bag and let her eyes wander across the bay, taking a few steps forward. Her steps were self-confident, but she had minimal motion. No swagger, no unnecessary movement. She was looking in Picard's direction and he thought he was able to discern the markings of a Commander on her collar. She turned and began crossing the bay in his direction, still the same economic movements he had already seen. But a Commander at 20? He would've known about such a person on his ship. Picard turned to the sound of someone climbing the ladder leading from the bay to the raised platform where he was standing. It was the Commander.
"Captain Picard -- Commander Sara reporting on board." She glanced at Earth and added "Oh, and a good morning, sir." A hint of amusement shot across the Commander's face as it dawned upon the Captain that this was the new Commander, even though she was 6 hours early and looked about 60 years too young.
"Your files said you were eighty?" Picard wondered, trying to shrug off a feeling of having met her before. Something felt strange here.
"That is correct." A smile grew on her face as she casually brushed back her hair, exposing a pointed ear.
"You are Vulcan." Picard was surprised. That explained it. But he wouldn't have missed that in the files.
"You could say so." She explained. "My passport says 'Moon', though, which is why most starfleet databases tend to mark me wrongly"
Frowning slightly while shaking his head, Picard offered:
"Would you like me to show you your quarters so you can drop off your things?" He extended a hand towards the exit opposite the ladder, the sliding doors automatically swishing open.
"I thought you'd never ask..." the Commander replied with a grin, stepping through the door into the corridor.
"A very strange Vulcan indeed..." Picard thought before he stepped after her.
Riker sat at a small table close to the windowed back of the "ten forward", picking at his steak with a fork, visibly bored. He could be on Earth right now. He could be having a drink with Geordi and Worf, he could be on a camping trip with Data -- one of his numerous attempts to discover why nature meant so much to humans. He could have done at least a dozen things more enjoyable than having "the usual" served to him by Guinean here on the ship.
But he had decided to spend his holidays with the Captain. Not that they had done this before, but he had felt that something was wrong with Picard. And he had wanted to set that right.
"But this stiff-necked loner has declined, and now I'm stuck here!" He mumbled between gritted teeth.
"Did you want to go on leave?" a young Vulcan with long brown hair sat down at his table, a glass of a strange-smelling green drink in her hands.
"Of course." Riker replied in a toneless voice. A smirk showed on her face, then she repeated her question: "Did you want to go on leave?"
Riker looked up from his meal, examining her face for a moment. He had never really thought about it, it occurred to him. He had known all along that Picard would notice he was trying to help him. He had known all along that he'd never take someone's help. Not yet.
"You're right." He desisted. "I'm Commander William Riker..." he introduced himself.
"I know." the woman grinned, smelling at her drink, frowning. Then she got up, smiled at Riker and left the "ten forward".
"A very strange Vulcan..." Riker mused.
Picard saw himself rising from his chair:
"Sir, we have the final word on the casualty report." He waited for the Captain to nod he wanted it announced aloud, then continued "We completely lost decks twelve thirteen and fourteen, with 273 dead." There was no need to mention that these decks had housed the families of more than 100 crewmembers. "Furthermore we have severe radiation burns four decks above and below the engine room." He paused, the Captain motioned him to continue.
"131 victims, including Dr. Bateham, Dr. J'affer and 14 members of the medical staff." Dexter leaned back defeated. Picard forced himself to continue "The remaining casualties related to the impact number at 203. Including us, we are thus left with 94 still alive, of which 21 are civilians." Smithson cheked the ship status report:
"That means we're 73 without sickbay, engines and armory." He turned to Picard:
"Can we get together a minimal crew?" Picard shook his head. "What's missing?" Picard handed Smithson a PADD with a list whose length yielded a surprised grunt from the Captain. Slowly he set it down on the table, leaning back in his chair and staring down at the empty spot where the scientific officer would've sat: "Has our 'Mayday' already gone out?" he asked nobody in particular. "Yes, sir." Matthews coughed. They all knew full well that nobody would be sent to their rescue. Acknowledging this, if not in word, then at least in deed, Smithson directed his next words towards Picard and Matthews: "I need you to go outside. Try to find anything that can help us get off this planet."
By the time the "Enterprise" left the dock, Riker knew Commander Sara's name. He also knew why she had been called to the ship as the new navigations officer. She brought the ship out of the dock so smoothly that most of them almost didn't notice the stars were moving onscreen until they jumped to warp. They would be on this course for the better part of three days. The new warp engine was whirring away smoothly and would take them to "Deep Space 9" easily.
Riker had seized a calm moment after they had all congratulated Sara on her first time at the Enterprise's controls to drop by the "ten forward" for "the usual". He didn't know what it actually was he had taken to drinking, and he had decided not to ask Guinean after she had told him he didn't want to know. It tasted too good to spoil it by being told that it was made of --
He stopped in mid-thought to keep himself from thinking of anything disgusting, then smiled at that thought. After so many battles and some covert missions that had forced him to consume food he would usually have refused to even be in one room with, he still cared what was in his drink. Sometimes it really felt good to know he hadn't lost the child inside. Scanning the room for a table to sit at he noticed Commander Sara sitting by the windowed front. A few casual steps and he had reached her table:
"Is this chair available?" He asked the Commander who was staring out into space, shifting his fingers around his glass in preparation to setting it down. At first he thought she hadn't heard him, but then she spun around with a slightly disoriented look on her face, quickly reassessing the situation:
"Oh, sure, there's nobody here who would mind." She smiled, playfully looking around for objectors.
"What were you looking at out there?" He began the conversation as he sat down his drink on the flat surface and made himself comfortable in the chair. She smirked as if he had caught her with her hand in the cookie jar and quickly glanced around herself:
"Oh, nothing really."
"What were you looking at?" He prodded in a calm and friendly voice. She caught the allusion to this morning's conversation and coughed politely:
"Umm... I hate to admit it, but I was looking for my homeworld..." She took a quick sip from her drink to bridge the silence to the reply she knew would come from him now.
"We are a bit far from Vulcan to still see it." He said, looking her straight in the eyes. She quickly lowered her gaze before she admitted:
"I tend", she took another sip from her drink, "to get a little homesick whenever I'm on a spaceship."
"Homesick." Riker echoed hollowly.
She sighed. "Let's leave it at that. I have to be on duty in five minutes." With that she got up and without another word left him behind.
When Riker entered the Captain's ready room fifteen minutes later, he found him with heaps of files around him. The whole desk was stacked with PADDs, and Riker couldn't recall having ever seen so many on one desk. Not to mention he had never seen the Captain's desk in such a state of untidyness.
"Is anything wrong, sir?" Riker asked.
The Captain looked up excusingly for a second, then picked up a PADD, read something on it and noted something down on another one in his hand. Then he looked up: "Number one," he handed Riker his notes "what do you think about this?"
Riker scanned the columns of numbers and names with his eyes. An impressive travel schedule. "Whose is it?" he asked the Captain.
"Commander Sara's." Picard replied, picking up a cup of tea from his desk and taking a sip before beginning to collect the documents from his desk, stacking one of the flat electronic devices onto the other next to his terminal.
"She certainly has a reason to be homesick" Riker commented, then he pointed at one entry in the list; "Where is S'alimna?"
Picard nodded at Riker as he sat down, taking his tea cup in both hands and taking another sip before motioning at Riker to get seated as well: "When the federation was founded several hundred years ago, the Vulcans were very insistent on excluding a certain area far behind Vulcan space, dubbed Sector VIII by them, from the treaty. They forbid travel to it, and refused to let any Starfleet ship enter."
"I've heard about it, yes. It's one of the mysteries that makes people so uncomfortable around Vulcans. And S'alimna lies inside this area?"
Picard set down his cup of tea on the desk and shook his head: "It is right at the edge." He rose to look out the window, glancing back over his shoulder at Riker for a moment before beginning:
"Ten years ago, a freighter got lost when entering this area. The Vulcan government issued a warning to anyone who wanted to go after it. Of course, Starfleet dispatched a ship nonetheless. It was the Bernoulli, where I was stationed as second of command."
"The Vulcan government let this happen?"
"They issued a final warning; if we sent another ship, we would lose it. And..." Picard's body seemed to tense "and we did." At these last words, Picard had turned from the window, to the left where he had numerous models of spaceships behind glass. It weren't as many as he'd had on the previous Enterprise, and thus Riker could easily discern which one Picard was currently looking at. It was one of the bigger models, its slightly clunkier look than the much more modern Enterprise identifying it as maybe a decade older. The Bernoulli.
"What happened?" Riker inquired.
"Sir, we're entering Sector VIII in four ... three ... two ... one; We're in there." Lt. Matthews at navigations cited in a monotonous voice. Her usual melodic speech had been wiped away the moment the new orders had arrived. Picard's hands were clasping his bedsheets.
"So Jean-Luc, this is the fabled Sector VIII. I hope you're memorizing everything here. You'll be recounting the events of this mission to your grandchildren time after time!" Captain Smithson said to his second-in-command. "Keep me posted on any sensory contact. Do we already have calculations on a possible course the freighter might've taken?" Matthews looked at her console: "There's a barely M-class planet in the vicinity. One of the course projections indicates a possibility of 65% that the Wagner might have set down there." Picard spun around in his bed. A distant thundering roar brought down the ship.
Picard saw himself being sweeped off his feet by a sudden skip of the ship's artificial gravity; all around him consoles were blowing up; Lt. Matthews was thrown through the air, and then the ship began shaking violently. "Everyone brace for impact, we're drawn into the atmosphere!" he heard Captain Smithson yell as another thundering impact hit the ship.
The next thing he percieved was the face of Captain Smithson, recounting the situation at a briefing:
"Matthews, Dexter, have you determined what hit us yet?" He asked. Matthews motioned to the Chief and he began to speak:
"We don't have much. The sensory logs have been damaged during the crash, as much of the computer system, but from the damage on decks ten through fifteen it is likely that it wasn't an object."
"So, somebody shot at us?" Smithson deduced.
"More likely something, sir. Though we haven't yet been able to find any signs of planetary defenses, which means what attacked us might still be in orbit." Chief Dexter sat down again, immediately checking on Lt. Matthews whose head was crowned by a provisional bandage.
Once more he heard the thunder, but this time it was the sound of Lt. Matthews being thrown against the wall of the dark ship with its bluishly shimmering, featureless black walls. He saw her sinking down, slumped against the wall, a trail of blood painting her path of movement against the dark surface, and then he saw the gigantic body, as dark as the ship, but even blacker if that was at all possible, how it advanced towards him and then this familiar voice sounded out of the depths of his memory: "Why are you here?" And once again, Picard found its face lacking any trace of memorability, though he knew he had seen it clearly. As if blanked, wiped out of his memory. "You have not met them yet!" It chided him, and he took this message along into the waking world.
Captain Benjamin Sisko was sitting in his unlit office aboard DS9, his eyes staring at the empty spot in space where he knew the wormhole was. He extended his flat hand towards the window, as if trying to bar entry to the dangers that lay beyond it. He knew not what it was, it seemed to be merely a gut feeling.
He peeked at his watch: It was late. He'd never let himself come into a gloomy mood just because he was tired. He wouldn't let it happen now. As he rose from his chair, his foot kicked against his baseball. He picked it up, chalking it up to his tiredness that he hadn't heard it drop to the floor, then set it down in its usual spot on the desk before heading out.
As the doors closed behind him a huge black shape emerged from the shadows. Its large black hand reached for the baseball and lifted it in front of its featureless face, studying it with interest. Then, with a fluent motion that almost bore resemblance to a human shrugging his shoulder, it turned its intention towards the window, staring at the exact spot the wormhole was at.
At that very moment, the baseball slipped from its fingers and hit the floor, immovably staying in the spot it had landed on. The being froze for a second, its head tilted towards the baseball that refused to obey the laws of nature, then took a quick step back and vanished into the shadows again.