Phantom Days: Lost Souls
- Lost Souls - 12
The USS Phantom, floating like a dead duck on a misty lake, seemed quiet and innocuous enough. But the outer peace gave no indication of her inner horrors.* * *
In room 18, deck 2; section 2, in nothing but torchlight, Willow Rosenberg and Kimberly Clegg searched through the information on half a dozen tablet padds, large and small, as they tried to brainstorm a way out of the spirit-infested prison.
Willow was standing in their quarters; her nerves too wired to sit. “Can we beam the whole cloud into the brig?”
Kimberly looked up from her seat by the blank computer interface, now covered in data tablets. “Maybe. How big is it?” She swapped the large padd for a smaller one. “How compact can we go with it?” She started running calculations.
“If we can do that, the parafield should contain the spirits,” said Will.
“And if it doesn’t work out?”
The witch had already considered that. “I think Demon souls will be susceptible to the same kind of energies that destroy human brain function. Thought patterns are thought patterns.”
“But we’re not detecting any neural patterns out there,” Clegg pointed out. “Even Baragnos the Mutilator had those.”
“What about Spike?” offered Willow. “Doctor Crusher said he was just dead flesh with no brain function.”
“That was a medical examination. PRD hasn’t had a chance to look at him yet.”
“Believe me, Kimberly, these Demons are tricky. We’re just dealing with a different breed.”
“Okay. You’re the expert.” Kim put down the padd and relented. “I trust you.” Her own thoughts hovered over something Willow had just mentioned. Something she couldn’t help but wonder about. “So, what’s he like anyway? Vampire Spike?”
Will’s sombre expression turned grim. “If you’re lucky, you’ll never know.”
Kim nodded and went back to her padd. She still wondered.
“We need to go see the captain before this gets even worse,” Will suggested after a time.
Clegg scooped up her data tablets. She was right. “C’mon.”* * *
“So far we’ve been unable to detect any Demonoid readings,” said the elderly Commander Merran.
They were in the dungeon with the old woman and the captain, trying to explain their position.
“But your sensors aren’t working properly in this cloud,” noted Willow.
Merran argued; “It hasn’t interfered with our bio-sensors up to now.”
“That might be because they’re not physical,” said Will. “What do you guys call it? …Non-corporeal.”
Captain Rayner spoke up for the first time since arriving; “Until Nog and Varik find a way to adjust our sensor arrays to compensate for the cloud’s interference, I think it’s safer not to trust them fully. Even bio-sensors. It’s having a strange effect on many of our systems.”
Varik was also there, and he had a question to put to the girls. “You have a plan to contain these ‘spirits’?”
“We’re working on a way to beam the entire thing into the brig,” Clegg reported.
“The transporters will not be reliable enough to use on such a scale,” stated the Vulcan. “And the cloud is too massive to contain within the Phantom. Nor would we be able to modify and extend our shields to encompass it.”
“We were hoping to compact it…”
“The density is too great. It would require five vessels of this class to contain the entire cloud.”
As his First Officer debated with the girls, Rayner took Merran aside. “You’re sure about these Demonoid spirits?”
“I see no evidence,” she acknowledged, “but they have
dealt with spirit possession before. Very recently. And quite effectively.”Yes
, considered the captain. They had, hadn’t they? Supposedly.
Varik was saying: “I am afraid containment may be impossible in this situation with our limited resources.”
Rayner returned to address the PRD team. “Then find a way to neutralise or disrupt whatever’s out there so we can break free and get on our way. You’ve got one hour. Dismissed.”* * *
Xander explained for the third time what had happened. The first time was to Anya, the second to the doctor, and this time in a statement to the new acting head of security.
The young black officer with the military buzz cut hadn’t smirked, or smiled, or been anything other than professional as Xander had tried to describe the more... intimate events of his encounter with the possessed twins. He seemed more concerned with Laine’s conduct towards Anya than anything. As he left their room, the officer suggested a visit to sickbay.
The door hissed shut and Xander turned to see Anya in a chair at the back, her face to the wall, expression distant, feet tucked up to her buttocks on the seat, one arm clutched around her knees, the other cradled in her lap.
An awkward moment of silence passed before Xander found enough will to speak up. “He has a point,” he said, cringing at the words as they fell in the room. It felt like the twins had left a heavy static charge in the air. “We should probably go and get checked–”
Her reply had been delivered softly. But it failed to hide the coldness.
Xander sat back in his low bunk and made no other suggestions.* * *
Captain Javen Rayner entered sickbay to check in on the effected crew and right away saw a bad sign.
Haim’s bed had a new patient tucked in it, glaring up at the ceiling like a corpse.
It looked like the engineer hadn’t made it after all. He’d been the first, which meant all the coma patients might be dead by tomorrow. Soon after, maybe everyone.
“He came around a few minutes ago,” Doctor Singh explained from over his shoulder.
Rayner contained his relief. “How did you manage it?”
“I didn’t. It happened naturally.”
“And he’s all right?”
“Medically he’s sound. I’ve repaired the Intraparenchymal haemorrhage and, although he presents as lucid and cognisant, he retains no knowledge of what happened to him immediately prior to his stroke.”
Laine was in the main bed, which held up well under his weight.
“What about Laine’s victims?”
Galeia came over from the surgery room where nurses were rushing in and out. “Between the pair of them, we’ve got a crushed face and a smashed chest. Broken nose, cheek bones and jaw, broken ribs and bruised internal organs. Some minor internal bleeding.”
“And stable. And, with a lot more work, both should make a full recovery.” That said, he masked up and headed back to start his repairs.
That was a hell of a relief. Not just for him, but for the big guy too. Then he remembered the rape. “And Lieutenant Howell?”
“Under guard in her quarters with Nurse Mills,” replied Singh. “She’s not good.”* * *
“Well, Varik’s right,” Kim concluded from her seat in main PRD, “We can’t contain it. I can’t even get a simulation to process with so many theoretical variables.”
Willow was sifting through computer mission records at another desk. “Then, I guess we’ll have to find a way to neutralise it.” That sounded far better than ‘destroy’ or ‘kill’. “I found a few references to neural disruption fields,” she mentioned.
Kimberly checked something on her screen. “Bridge scans still haven’t turned up any neural patterns.”
“If there was something alive out there it would have, right?”
. But that goes for Demon life too.” Clegg leaned back and took a few seconds to think. “What if, instead of thinking of it as a cloud of gas in space, we start thinking like it’s something more…tangible.”
“Like what?” asked Will, trying to see it another way.
“We’re caught up in it… like a…” she reached for an image.
“Like a field of tangled weeds,” finished the witch.
“Right.” Kim sat up. “And what would you do to get out of a jungle of weeds?”
Willow sliced the air. “Machete.”
The Phantom didn’t have a machete. Phasers would be the closest thing, but… “Wait.” She had something. “We could burn
it.” She got up. “C’mon.”
“We’ve gotta run this by Merran.”
Willow followed her to the office. “Run what?”* * *
Commander Varik exited the science lab on deck 2, which had the only working ion spectrometer onboard, and saw the corridor was empty. He stopped and held his head. The headache was at migraine level now and, he could admit to himself, it hurt. His headache levels were the least of his worries according to the data he’d just seen in the lab. Radiation levels onboard were just a few hours away from untreatable degrees. Fatal degrees.
He massaged his temples, then his eyes. This kind of pain was rare, especially among Vulcans his age. It certainly wasn’t a general symptom of overexposure to ionising radiation. It was beginning to concern him deeply.
He heard footsteps, straightened up, and moved on.
Sickbay was just down the corridor…* * *
The young Bajoran doctor – Galeia Yanek – completed his orbital scan of Varik’s head and clipped the medical probe into his tricorder. The Vulcan was regarding him with an expression of… well… nothing really. “It’ll be up in a second.” He waved the tricorder. It beeped. “There it is.” As he squinted at the small display, he caught Varik – one eyebrow up – peering to see the result. “Come on,” said the doctor. “I’ll get it up on one of the bigger monitors in my office.”
Before the Commander could voice his agreement, his comm badge echoed with Rayner’s voice.
“Varik. Rayner. Meet me in PRD asap.”
The Vulcan stood. There was no need to respond. “I shall return later,” he said to Galeia.
“Sure,” said the doc, and went to find his next victim.* * *
Rayner was back in the basement again and old arguments were resurfacing. “My only concern is the lack of any evidence that suggests the presence of Demonoid life to confirm this prison theory.”
The main doors parted.
“Plus,” said Anya, “you don’t need a prison if you’re sending them to hell anyway. It’s…it’s…”
“Illogical?” offered Varik as he entered.
“Exactly.” She was starting to like these Vulcans.
“Demons aren’t logical,” Willow tried to explain. “They’re not robots, like some people,” she aimed at Anya.
“What of the cloud?” Varik asked. “How do you account for that?”
“Maybe they’re trapped in the cloud,” Willow guessed. “The cloud could be
“Maybe?” Rayner stepped away, rubbing at his neck, and turned back. “There seems to be a significant lack of certainty going on here.”
“No kidding. I keep telling her that,” Anya said with emphasis.
Rayner saw how the girl was holding onto her arm, supporting it. She was clearly injured. But, then, Laine had attacked her.
“You should get that looked at,” Xander advised as gently as he could.
“I’m fine I said,” she snapped.
“Consider it an order,” said Rayner.
“I can manage.”
“That wasn’t optional. Go.”
Anya’s legs resisted, then finally bowed to the command and she left through the double doors. Xander followed after her.
Willow watched Anya go and recalled the argument they’d all once had about the genocide of Demons. She was opposed to genocide, no matter the species. She had even tried to convince Giles to tell Picard not to wipe them out. Had that been a mistake?
Giles had said that Picard wasn’t a genocidal man. She didn’t know Captain Picard all that well, but she didn’t want to disrespect the faith he’d placed in her. Plus… what if she was
wrong about everything?
On the other hand… The lives of everyone onboard could depend on her now.
She told herself her doubt was normal. Buffy and Giles probably felt like this all the time. But what would the Slayer do? …Easy… She’d go kick some ass.
“I need a working proposal now,” Rayner said when the doors closed themselves. “Before the entire crew goes into a coma.”
Willow made peace with herself and accepted what she had to do. She put it to him this way: “We’ve got to destroy them before they figure out how to take over this ship and use us as permanent hosts.”
“Our mission is to capture, not destroy,” said Varik.
Clegg replied; “There’s nothing to lock onto out there, and you said yourself we can’t beam the cloud aboard. If we could make out individual brain-wave patterns… but we can’t.”
“Perhaps we can further adjust our working sensors?” he suggested.
“There’s no time,” insisted Willow. “Look what happened with Laine. Two of your people could have died! Xander and Anya…” She calmed herself. “We’re at war. We have to fight back now if we’re to survive.”
Captain Rayner had been giving great consideration to exactly this kind of situation, and how he thought he would handle it. Chances were, if the Enterprise had destroyed all the Demons when they’d had the chance, this situation, and many more like it, may have been avoided. He thought about all those peaceful P’Jem monks back at Delta Vindi. How unnecessary had that been? Could he afford to be as morally naïve as Picard? Perhaps not. “What are our options in neutralising the cloud?”
Clegg jumped in like a bull; “If we send out an electromagnetic pulse to disrupt any neural energy patterns that might be present, then coat everything out there with an anionic beam–”
“It’ll be like pouring gasoline over the whole thing,” Willow quickly finished.
Clegg nodded. “Then we can fire phasers on a wide dispersal to burn away the cloud. That should take care of all our problems. It just requires a few modifications to the deflector array.”
“What about the infected crewmembers?” the captain asked.
“Some of them are already coming around from their possession naturally,” answered Willow. “The others should be freed when we destroy the prison – every one of the Demon minds is linked together by the cloud…it’s like a big soul soup.”
Rayner looked at his Vulcan number two… and nodded.
Varik still felt uncertain. “Then we mean to do this?”
“Unless anyone has a better theory?” said the captain. No one offered any. “Right. …Then let’s get to it.”
“It’ll take a while to make the necessary modifications,” explained Clegg. “Maybe twenty minutes.”
“Fine.” He walked out with Varik, taking Merran with him to the door. “I hope your people know what they’re talking about.”
So did she.* * *
“Deck one, bridge,” Rayner called as they boarded the turbolift outside PRD.
He still wasn’t utterly clear about this whole scenario. He hated it, but he needed help now more than ever, and the only crewman he could share such a weakness with was in the lift with him. “Varik? Your thoughts?”
The Vulcan seemed troubled. “Without any evidence to either support or invalidate their hypothesis, I have none, Captain.” He rubbed his temple. The pain was getting noticeably worse.
“But something’s bothering you?”
“A feeling. Nothing I can substantiate.”
“So to speak. Coupled with the lack of brain-wave patterns detected in the cloud…. Gives me cause to be uncertain of our intended course of action.”
“Sounds like you’re having a human gut-reaction.”
“I think not, sir.”
“Merely… evidence that has not presented itself clearly enough to be interpreted at this time.”
“Well, get it interpreted by the time they’ve finished modifying the deflector or we’ll be sending out that anionic beam and torching the whole cloud regardless.”
Varik tried to nod but it sent arrows of pain slicing through his eyeballs, burning across the back of his retinas.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” asked Rayner. “You have a headache or something?”
“Perhaps our presence in this cloud is effecting me.”
Rayner didn’t like seeing Varik this way. Varik was a machine. If it could effect him like this… no one was safe. “If this plan of theirs doesn’t work, I want you to have the doctor take a look at you. Immediately.”
He’d already tried that once, but he braced for impact and gave his nod.
Arrows followed. Hot fiery arrows.* * *
The beds were full in sickbay, and it was a relief for Xander & Anya when one of the doctors could finally see them.
Doctor Galeia looked around at the madness and the coma victims. Lori Gunnlaugsdóttir had just recovered consciousness and was in a chair, giving them room for another comatose patient. She was groggy, foggy, and had no more clue as to what befell her than Haim had. As it turned out, Singh had been right. Sickbay had quickly overflowed into the cargo bay one deck below and they did
need a large team on staff. In fact, everyone was in. He owed Dr Singh an apology.
Now he had the civilian girl to fix up. He found her waiting in the hall with her boyfriend and called them in. He directed them over to chairs that were out of the way to one side of the room. Galeia dragged a trolley and a chair over and sat opposite his latest patient, glad to have one that was awake for a change.
Dr Galeia held a small silver flashing bullet over Anya’s arm and read the results of its scan on his medical tricorder. “You had an injury repaired here recently?”
“This’ll be her third time broken,” said Xander.
“I don’t need a translator,” Anya told him.
Xander leaned back and out of the way.
“Well, this time it’s just a fracture,” Galeia reassured them, skirting the tension. “I can try overexposing it to the osteo-regenerator to give the bone a little more strength but you really should think about not running into anymore turbolift doors in future.”
“I’ll make it my prime directive,” she promised.
Galeia smiled, picked out a flashy Ping-Pong bat gadget and waved it at her arm in slow steady passes. “Any news from the top deck?” he asked them.
“Half the crew’s possessed,” Anya reported, “your captain’s barely keeping his cool, and Willow’s off on her crusade. But it’s not right… I keep wondering about these non…i…noni-tonic readings people are talking about.”
Doctor Singh was close by. He turned and his moustache twitched. “Nonionic? Really?” He crossed to the coma patient in the main bed against the bank of computer screens and brought up their brain scan. He checked the lower E-band on the negative threshold.
Galeia saw what he was trying to find and remembered something else he’d seen, albeit briefly. He suggested bringing up Varik’s brain scan and running the same check.
Xander and Anya watched as the younger Doc whistled in surprise.
“My god, look at the intensity of these waves of high frequency neurotransmissions he’s receiving.”
Singh was equally staggered. “His paracortex is on fire!”
When their surprise began to look more like dismay, Xander stepped in; “And that’s really bad?”
Singh explained; “To put it into context; if there were any Betazoids onboard, they’d be dead from the psionic overload.”
“There’s none onboard?” he asked. “I thought they were on every ship?” They had been so far.
Galeia was scanning the patient now with his hand sensor. “I guess their abilities wouldn’t be of much use seeing how they can’t read Demonoid minds. This is a military mission. There’s no tactical advantage.”
“But this Varik’s telepathic?” said Anya. “And he’s alright?”
Singh replied; “As a Vulcan, he is mostly a touch-telepath, requiring physical contact to transmit thoughts. His mind is not as susceptible to psionic input. Only because of this is he spared such a fate.”
“So…what does all this mean?” Xander asked them. “In simple terms.”
Galeia flicked his tricorder shut and tossed it aside. “We’re being bombarded by thoughts – minds. Identities that are not onboard.”
Xander’s heart began to pump with adrenaline. “The possessions… The attacks… There is something out there taking us over?”
Singh retrieved Galeia’s tricorder and ran it over Lori’s blank face. “I’m checking her neocortex for electropathic energies that aren’t covered by our usual scans.” Something beeped. “Here, look.” He showed the results to the young Doctor. “There’s an unknown energy reading that could be the residual of a psilosynine-like neurotransmitter.”
Galeia checked for himself, which earned him a frown of annoyance from the older Doctor, then asked for a scientific tricorder. One of the patients had arrived with one in his personal items and Singh passed it over. It was still operating at 90%.
He raised the unit and checked the air. Within seconds he was getting the same odd energy pattern not normally picked up in a scan.
“The crew aren’t being taken over,” he told them. “It’s more like radio interference. Picking up random clips of random shows that are being transmitted through the air. These readings show very strange, but definitely psionic, patterns. Something out there is communicating telepathically.”
When Darkness had controlled with his mind it was not a psionic thing, both Anya and Xander were fairly certain of that much.
“And it must be this radio static that’s giving Varik a migraine,” noted Dr Singh.
Xander looked to Lori’s sleeping body and back to the medics. “Then… whatever’s out there… it’s alive?”
Singh nodded. “Evidently so.”
“Alive, and sentient,” added Galeia.
That meant aware, didn’t it? Intelligent.
Xander turned to Anya in realisation. She didn’t look surprised at the news. Why would she be? He turned on his heels and raced out of the room.* * *
Willow observed from the rear of the bridge as Commander Merran oversaw Clegg at the engineering console, imagining the plaudits she would receive if she managed to save the day. They were running out of time. No one was saying anything, but she’d looked into it herself and radiation levels were reaching increasingly dangerous heights. A few more hours in this haunted sea of mist and they’d all be permanently cooked.
“Were ready to initialise the deflector,” Clegg reported to her captain. “Anionic beam control at your command, sir.”
Rayner acknowledged and swung his chair. “Lieutenant Nog – prepare an EM burst. Put as much power into it as we can spare, please.”
The lights failed suddenly without warning, pitching the bridge into almost absolute dark.
Captain Rayner ground his teeth. Luckily, Nog had been expecting such a turn of events and the room was soon aglow with a Starfleet issue field lantern. He offered the Ferengi a tip of the head in thanks but his annoyance still showed. “All right. Can we put an end to this now?”
One of the rear doors slid open to the sound of heavy feet as Xander came tearing into the room. “Stop!”
The captain, already at the limits of his patience, shot up from his chair.
Willow thought the man might throw Xander out on his ass with his own hands. Her breathless friend saw her then. She had no idea what he was playing at. “Xander?”
“Don’t do this, Will,” he begged through gasps. “Whatever’s out there, it’s psychic.” That wasn’t right. “Er…telepathic.”
“What are you talking about?” Rayner demanded.
“They’re not Demons. I just came from medical. The docs put it together. This’s for real.”
“And what, exactly, is it that’s ‘for real’?” the captain returned.
“Man, I don’t know.” Xander had to support his hands on his knees as he fought to catch his breath. “Whatever it is, it’s powerful enough to kill those Betazoid types. And it’s effecting him.” He pointed to the Vulcan.
Varik cocked a brow. Effecting me? … The headaches… of course… telepathy
Rayner turned on them suddenly, wildly, an inferno in his eyes as he scrambled over his chair to reach Varik; “You try to murder us!”
Clegg was on the wrong side of her captain and she thrust a finger out to the acting security chief. “Stop him!”
Varik quickly countered; “Hold!” and the guard backed down as Rayner collided with his First Officer.
Varik grabbed the captain by the back of the head with one hand, and shoved the other onto his face – thumb to chin, index finger to cheek, middle finger to temple.
Rayner struggled against him.
your mind!” he commanded. The captain froze. “…Ease…your…mind,” he said again, softer. “Be restful. There is no danger. My mind to your mind, your thoughts to my thoughts.” Rayner was calm now, relaxed even. Free of tension. Possibly for the first time in his career. “I wish you no harm. I am not your enemy. Open your thoughts to me...”
The captain gasped momentarily, trying to pull away, then settled once again, meeting the Vulcan’s gaze.
“Who are you?” asked Varik.
“Family,” answered Rayner, sounding far away in a dream.
“We are many.”
“Do you have a name?”
“Where are you from?”
“The dark eye of the mother.”
Xander remembered what Ella had said. The dark eye of the mother is no longer within our reach.
“What is your purpose?” Varik continued.
“What do you want
,” he rephrased.
“To return. To increase our numbers. It is the time of the seeding.”
This time Xander spoke up. “That’s what the twins said! The time of the seeding. They wanna make babies.”
Varik pushed on; “And where exactly are you at this moment?”
“We… are adrift on the sparkling sea.”
They looked to each other. It was hard to say how much of his speech was metaphorical and how much was literal.
“I think he means space,” offered Clegg.
“And why do you attack us and damage our vessel?”
“Your breath burns us. It breaks us apart. I can no longer hear my sisters and my brothers. I am alone. I am in pain.”
Shared looks of uncertainty again.
“I believe, by breath, he is referring to our engine emissions,” noted the Vulcan. “Possibly our energy output in general.”
Willow was growing nervous, her body constricting itself inside a shroud of burning panic. She found herself moving away.
Varik repositioned his hand for a change of approach. “I am attempting to communicate through imagery,” he informed the room. “I will interpret…”
Some quiet seconds passed, the captain blinking rarely and slowly like a child caught in awe, the Vulcan squinting and tilting his head as if listening for something hard to hear.
“I believe our presence is disrupting their protective cloud,” he said finally. “The radiation we are generating may be the cause. The life forms are attempting to communicate with one and other, though we may be preventing their ability to do so.” He looked across at the crew. “We are the cause of this. Our emissions are interfering with their group coherence. And, I believe, we are hurting them in the process. They are afraid of us. To them, the Phantom is an invading monster. A fierce giant with burning breath.”Demons
, Willow’s mind threw at her. You’re all Demons in a Demon cage
“Why don’t they move away?” asked Clegg. If the ship was so scary and damaging, it seemed the natural move.
“They are unable to free themselves from the Phantom,” Varik replied.
“We’re flypaper,” muttered Xander.
Rayner, still in the Vulcan’s mind meld, let out a tired sigh. “You try to kill us with breath of fire.”
“That is no longer our intention,” Varik assured him. “We will now attempt to free you.” With that, he helped the captain to clear his mind safely of the alien consciousness and released him.
Rayner passed over to his chair and steadied himself there. “What was that?” he asked his number two.
“Thoughts, Captain,” he clarified. “Feelings. The voices of an entire colony reaching out. As you may recall, Lieutenant Nog reported Nonionic readings before our systems failed. This would account for our inability to detect them clearly. As nonionic beings, their chemical composition would repel light and sensors. It is my belief that these life forms generate the cloud as a protection against the ionic radiation of space, and that they communicate chemically through
this cloud. The nonionic gas itself reacts badly with our systems, but by drawing it onboard through our engines, their attempts to communicate found a channel to us. As a result, we…have been intercepting their mail. Most of it scared, pained, and confused. Our minds have simply interpreted these messages in the best way they were able. We experienced their fear, their anger towards us, their desire to leave – to reach their destination and procreate before their mating cycle ended. They are trapped, Captain. To them, we are the beast that is killing them. If we remain here, our energy will weaken the cloud. They will be exposed to the EM-radiation of space… and die.”
Captain Rayner sat down in the command seat and gave his armrest a slap. “Take the warp core offline and shut down our propulsion systems. Purge the nacelles of all cloud. But do it gently.”
Clegg nodded, returned to her chair and patched the order through to engineering.
It occurred to Rayner that this could have been cleared up much sooner if Varik had made contact before now. “Why is it you got headaches instead of thoughts?”
The answer was a matter of logic. “Their communication exists on a negative plane. My receiver is not directly compatible with their transmitter.”
When Clegg reported the propulsion systems down, Rayner ordered a further shutdown of everything they could but life support. They had to reduce their energy output enough to unglue the cloud.
In a moment they were left lit once more by Lieutenant Nog’s lantern. The bridge itself was dead – completely disconnected.
“Engineering to bridge,” Commander Carver’s voice cut in.
The current head of security returned through the door to Rayner’s left and handed him a computer padd. The captain tapped his chest comm. “Rayner. Report.”
“It’s done, sir. Power output’s as low as we can make it. I’m gonna try de-magnetising the hull – see it that helps break the cloud free.”
“Acknowledged.” He looked at the device in his hand, the largest portable tablet computer that Starfleet provided, and switched it on. “Commander Carver, you’ll find an active interface unit present on the bridge. Please connect the feed from the forward viewer. I’d like to see what’s happening out there.” If anything was happening at all, that was.
“One second,” replied the engineer as he patched it through.
As the 12-inch screen flickered to life and filled with the spot-lit image of fog, Rayner noticed a bridge-full of bodies crowding around behind his chair. He held the padd so they could see.
One person on the command deck didn’t join them in the huddle. Willow.
She was holding onto herself, loathing the fact that she was praying they were wrong, just so she wouldn’t be. Begging the Goddess for a possession, a Demon, a monster. Anything.
Why wasn’t there a spell to freeze time?
She saw Kimberly, leaning to see over Nog’s basketball of a head, suddenly squeezing his shoulder. “Look!” she announced.
Nog’s hands came up to his face in fists of impending triumph. “Stars…” he cooed.
The cloud was clearing.
“Bridge.” It was Carver again. “The last of the fog just passed us over. We’re clear. I repeat, we are clear.”
There followed a few low cheers as the computers and screens re-ignited with life.
Rayner handed the padd away and sank into his chair. The others went back to work.
“Bridge, this is sickbay.” It was Singh. “Did something happen up there? I’ve got two dozen coma patients jumping out of their beds.”
“Yes, Doctor. Something happened,” answered the captain. “We’re clear.”
“Oh.” The doc sounded surprised. “Well… that’s nice to know.”
“Captain!” Nog called across from ops. He was tracking the alien mist. “Look at this!”
He sent an image to the main screen and they watched as the whirlpool vortex of a black hole sun appeared.
“I believe this is their destination,” said the Ferengi.
They were aiming for a black hole?
Varik looked up from the science position, intrigued. “The black eye of the mother. Nonionic life forms born in negative space. They must return to procreate.” Fascinating
The connotations alone were mind blowing. Life forms that could safely enter and
exit a gravitational field as massive as a black hole…
Carver arrived and went to the engineering station. “It’ll take a while to get the engines going, but power’s back to all systems.”
Rayner nodded. Well, thank the stars that’s over with
. Still… what were these life forms that had almost been the end of them? He clicked his finger at Varik. “If we used phasers to charge the field with radon particles, is it possible to irradiate the life forms just enough to bring them into our visual spectrum?”
“Perhaps,” he replied. “However, if they truly are nonionic beings, the radiation would likely kill them. Even at low-levels.”
The captain gave his armrest a tap.
“I could use the deflector array to discharge a controlled anionic pulse,” offered Clegg. “It wouldn’t do any harm but it might just adhere to them long enough to make them visible.”
Rayner turned to her, and then back. “Varik?”
“A reasonable hypothesis, Captain.”
wanted to see what they’d been wrestling with. “Do it.”
Clegg set to work with Carver, modifying her previous settings, and fired the pulse.
A glow lit up in the distance as the cloud began to luminesce.
The captain waved a finger. “Nog – zoom in.”
The image changed.
Captain Javen Rayner stood up from his chair and opened his mouth silently.
A mass of undulating bodies moved across the screen. Gelatinous sea-like creatures glowing red and blue with thick tendrils and fine skirt-like membranes that waved as they moved. A swarm of alien jellyfish in a dense ocean of light. Such a beautiful sight.
Nature held such beauty that no man, in all his art and invention, could recreate.
Sparks were flying between the creatures – like thoughts transmitting through the human brain. They were reaching out – finding each other.
“My God,” the captain uttered in awe.
It was glorious.
And then, as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone. Life invisible to the human eye.
Captain Rayner turned to the back of the room. The awe was gone. “Well done, Rosenberg,” he said, ripping the stupid pouch from around his neck. “You almost eradicated an entire colony of alien life forms.”
Willow had to look away from him, and her eyes found Kimberly. Her roommate was looking to the carpet. In shame? Willow felt her face burning up and she wished only that the deck would turn to quicksand and drag her away into hell.
She realised she’d backed away when the door opened behind her. On hearing the door mechanism swoosh, Kimberly started to turn. Willow couldn’t bear to be looked at, especially by her. She escaped before their eyes could meet.
Kimberly caught the back of her as she disappeared down the corridor and the door closed.
“It’s going to be amazing studying these creatures in more detail,” considered Nog.
“Not for us, it won’t,” interdicted the captain. “I’ll inform Starfleet. and they can send a science vessel to study them if they choose. We have a mission to get back to, if it’s not already too late.”
Nog sat back in disappointment. Such a shame. It wouldn’t matter if Starfleet wanted to study them or not. By the time a science vessel got out here, those things would be swallowed up in their hole. This might have been their only chance to observe their species. * * *
The mood an hour later was much less triumphant, as Xander searched the ship for Willow. Their Klingon trail had decayed and now they flew aimlessly in the general direction of their last known heading. The day had been a serious fail. Willow no doubt had blamed herself entirely and gone into exile but the blame could not be one person’s alone.
He walked into PRD and saw Commander Merran through her office window, but found no one else around the place. He was about to leave when the twins came in.
The three of them came to an awkward stop as they met.
“Xander…” Ella and Mia shared an embarrassed glance and tried to make words. “We…”
“Yeah…” He couldn’t find a comfortable place to park his hands. “I guess you heard about… what happened when you…”
“Actually…” said Mia, “We remember,” they revealed together.
“Oh.” That was even more awkward. But none of the others remembered their possessions… “How?”
“Partially telepathic,” they explained, indicating their mental connection. They seemed to struggle again to speak. “…We…”
“Look,” he said, really wanting to get away and forget the whole thing. “Let’s just…” he made a sweeping move as he laid a thin coat of plaster across the air between them, “skim over the entire bizarre incident and… just delete it. Huh?”
Their tension eased as he said that.
“Absolutely,” Mia agreed.
“That would be great,” added Ella.
“We weren’t ourselves,” they said.
“You really weren’t. You had no control.”
“We really didn’t.”
He nodded, glad to have that over with. Good talk.
“And…” they began in an understanding tone, “We’re sure any other male would have had similar difficulty maintaining their own…control.”
Xander’s eyes popped open as he realised just how much they recalled. His face was heating up.
Mia tapped him across the arm. “Don’t be too hard
Ella threw a hand over her mouth to contain a smile. Even though they’d both had the same innuendo pop into their heads, it still surprised when her sister actually delivered the line.
Xander squirmed before them. “Great. Well, …I’d better…”
He left. Quickly. * * *
Willow wasn’t in the mess hall either when he looked, and he moved on to check in at her room.
She still wasn’t back when Kimberly answered the door to him.
“Still no sign of her?” he asked.
“Not so far,” Clegg replied.
“I don’t blame her, y’know. Captain looked ready to jettison her.”
Kim nodded sadly. “Yeah.”
Xander shifted uneasily. He knew Will was starting to really like Clegg – they were getting close. But the look on her face now… the word disappointment
didn’t cover it. He knew Will would care what Clegg thought of her. He wanted to say something but he wasn’t sure what.
“I think she just needed to save the day,” he offered in the end.
She gave him a sympathetic nod. “I know.”
After that, he returned to his room. Anya still wasn’t speaking to him when he told her Will was in the wind. She shook her head at him and asked the computer for the location of Willow Rosenberg.
Right away the female voice replied. Willow was at the portside thruster assembly.* * *
Captain Rayner was sat in his office adjacent to the bridge. Once out of sight, he had dropped into the chair and sagged back, letting his body relax for the first time since departing from Earth. What else could he do? The ship and crew were safe from harm and they were flying randomly though space on a heading to nowhere in particular. He could just see himself pulling into Spacedock with an empty brig saying: ‘Well guys, we gave it our best shot
As a last resort, they had sent out a call to all in-range outposts. If any one of them had seen anything it might be their only lead.
These Demons were proving to be more like ghosts.Phantom
, he was thinking. Funny
Something not quite real – something you just can’t get your hands on. They’d seen no sign of a single one of those supernatural creatures, even the trail was cold, and what they had
encountered had been made to substitute for their intended prize.
If those things were even any more real than the infamous Roswell alien or the Bigfoot.
He knew exactly where the fault lay. This Paranormal Research Department had them all seeing phantoms.
The voice of Commander Varik interrupted his ruminations.
“Captain. I am receiving a response from Starbase three-four-three.”
Rayner stepped through onto the bridge. “What do they have?”
“Their long-range sensors briefly detected a Klingon fighter entering the Hromi Cluster. …Three days ago,” the Vulcan reported. “It has yet to exit.”
It was the best lead they had. “Take us there, Ensign.”
Lori altered her heading and set them back on their hunt. “Course laid in, sir. Four hours to arrival, Captain.”Four hours
, thought Javen Rayner. Four hours, and then BAM!
He would find out just how real these Demons were. He was just about ready to drag one of those things into the brig with his own damn hands.* * *
Xander pulled himself up the ladders from the nacelle deck and onto the railed catwalk that ran the length of the portside thruster assembly. There he found Willow sitting with her legs and head through the railings. As he joined her on her perch, he saw she’d been crying.
“Hey, pumpkin,” he said as she turned to him with waterlogged eyes.
She failed to contain a short titter of laughter at his greeting. It had been something he’d called her as kids, back when they first met and Xander thought her big red bob of hair looked like a plump pumpkin. She’d forgotten all about it and was surprised he hadn’t.
Xander smiled. “I remember a little girl hiding out on a wall, trying to escape kindergarten, crying ‘cos some fat bully had tripped her and scuffed her knee, too scared to jump ‘cos of the three-foot drop to the sidewalk.” He looked down through the railing at the long drop “I hope you’re not getting any ideas.”
“It was Brad something,” Willow recalled, and sniffed back her tears. “He stole my candy bar.”
Xander reached across to gently bring her head to his face and kissed her on her crown. “Don’t let the caustic captain get you down. Guys like him need a scapegoat.”
“I messed up, Xander.”
He rubbed her back. “And we still live to save another day.”
“When do I ever save the day?”
“We kicked the ass of Darkness or did you forget already?”
She scoffed. “Like that had anything to do with me. Sure, I had a few words with the Goddess… but she’s the one who performed the spell. I was just the channel. In the end, it wasn’t my magic that got the job done. It was Giles, …the Goddess, …Buffy …and you
who saved that day.”
He shrugged it off. “So, I was in the right place with the right tool. I just pulled a trigger. I didn’t invent the phaser. My God, Will, you channelled a Goddess – real Holy power. Think how powerful you could be as a witch.”
“I can’t be anything without my library,” she conceded. “If I can’t study Wicca, I’ll never be more than a half-rate wannabe-witch.”
“It’s second-rate,” said Xander.
She looked up at him, startled.
“It’s second-rate, not half-rate,” he corrected. “And you’ll never be second-rate.”
“I came this
close to genocide, Xander.”
“You know what they used to call witches that turned to the dark side? …Angeli Della Morte – the Angels of Death.” She gave a heavy broken sigh. “I am become death… I’m no better than Hitler.”
“Er… Okay, I think you might be putting a little bit too much egg in the pudding there, Will. You screwed up. Sure. Can’t deny that. But… this wasn’t a Demon thing. It wasn’t ghosts or vampires or zombies. It was science stuff – future alien science stuff. That’s not exactly our field of expertise. It doesn’t make you a second-rate witch. Just a second-rate Starfleet officer – and, hey, join the club. I blame these space-heads for not catching it sooner.”
She looked to him again and Xander could see that she was glad to have him there at that moment. “We just have to get used to the fact that there are more things out there than Human and Demon,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulder and giving her a supportive hug. “I know you feel like you can’t face people right now, but no one’s waiting back there to burn you at the stake.” He gave her a squeeze. “Whaddaya say?”
“I’m…not ready to go back yet. I just need another minute.”
“That’s cool. I can hang out.”
“You don’t have to stay with me.”
He held her hand and rested his head on hers. “Yeah I do.”
They sat together for the next hour, dangling their legs over the catwalk, just like a pair of kindergarten kids they remembered who had shared a wall so many years ago.* * *Space, 2418 AD:
Ten-Forward on the Enterprise-F was at its mid-morning rush hour peak as the night shifts clocked off. Her long wall-to-ceiling windows were now almost eclipsed by the milling and gathering of crewmen; the only sense of movement now blocked from view.
Captain Willow Rosenberg, the very embodiment of calm, thoughtful authority – a shining example of wisdom and maturity for all those under her command – sat at one of the tables with two members of her crew, shaking her head at her younger self with a faint smile wrinkling her lips.
“Wow. You really made a mistake,” voiced Leonid Korotkin, struggling to see his captain in such a light.
“Oh, yes,” said Willow. “A big one. But, you know what? I think I needed it.”
“You needed it
, ma’am?” Crius puzzled. Who the hell needed failure?
“We were revered,” she answered. “We were rock stars. For the first time we were famous and important. That kind of popularity and attention can go to your head rather quickly. You think it’ll be easy to keep your feet on the ground but, before you know it, you find yourself ten feet in the air. It’s a dangerous state to get yourself into because, when enough people see you as a superhero, you start to believe it.”
“What did you do after that?”
“What else could I do? I found the ground and planted my feet firmly on it. The worst part for me back then… was having new friends see me for what I really was.”
Leonid had a good idea who she meant. “And… you and Clegg…?”
Out the corner of her eye, Willow saw a junior officer enter the hall and scan his eyes around the room. He saw her, locked on, and headed over. “Oh, I had a crush on her,” she admitted, “but she wasn’t that way inclined. As I was realising: You can’t win them all.”
The young man, a Kiwi named Matty if she recalled, arrived at her side, gave a nod and stood to attention.
“Captain, message coming in for you from Starfleet HQ.”
She smiled to herself. All those years ago she thought she’d needed superpowers
to gain respect. “I’ll come and take it in my readyroom.” As she stood and pulled her tunic down through her belt, she saw the disappointment on the faces of Crius and Korotkin. They were really into this firsthand history lesson. She supposed it might be like listening to an old jazz player talking about their memories of the Rat Pack and Vegas in it’s heyday if you were into that sort of thing. There was so much more she could tell them. And they did have to get back to bridge duty, after all. “Walk with me,” she said.
They jumped up, eager for more tales from darker times, and clung to her heels as she led them away.
Before they reached the nearest turbolift they were zooming away across the stars in search of Demons and a rogue Klingon fighter.