Andreas Nikolas had run into his share of alien species. He had attended the Academy with them, worked alongside them on starships, eaten with them, slept with them, laughed with them, and risked his life with them.
But he had never encountered anyone like the personage who towered before him in an otherwise empty corridor of the Yridian cargo hauler Iktoj'ni.
This alien was taller than Nikolas by half a meter and remarkably thick-chested beneath his coarse, dark tunic, giving the impression of enormous strength -- though he was quite clearly padded elsewhere with a surfeit of flaccid flesh. His oblong head was bald except for a long, lank circlet of dark hair, and his mouth was little more than a gash in his face.
But his most distinctive feature by far was his eyes. They glowed a dazzling silver beneath the overhanging ledge of his brow, fixing Nikolas where he stood.
"I am glad you are awake," said the behemoth, his voice a hair-raising jangle of stones.
It echoed off the cone-shaped mineral deposits that hung from the ceiling and rose from the floor -- because it wasn't quite true that Nikolas and the alien were alone in the duranium-sheathed passageway. There weren't any other sentients there, but there was an abundant collection of orange- and blue-veined stalagmites and stalactites -- the kind that seemed to belong in an underground cavern, not in the corridor of an Yridian cargo hauler.
And if that weren't disconcerting enough, the projections were growing before Nikolas's eyes, lengthening and adding girth with the help of the mineral-bearing water streaming down their sides.
Where was the water coming from? He didn't know. The Iktoj'ni wasn't supposed to have any water supply. Its crew washed with the help of sonic emitters and got their drinking water from replicators, the same as their food.
So why were there crystalline threads descending the smooth, shiny surface of the stalactites? And how could mineral deposits have gotten so robust in the short time Nikolas had been stretched out on a lower deck?
Awake, the alien had said. But was he awake?
He had lost consciousness sometime during the attack on the Iktoj'ni. And though he appeared to have woken up, bruised and limping and lacerated but alive, it was tempting to believe he was still asleep -- because otherwise, how could he explain the madness to which he had woken?
Several days earlier, Starfleet had warned the cargo hauler about a wave of unidentified aggressors boasting formidable weaponry. But it hadn't said anything about ship's corridors turning into subterranean caves.
"After all," the behemoth continued, in the same discordant voice, "you are going to be a big help to me." He smiled, exposing a rampart of thick, blunt teeth as his mouth stretched from one side of his face to the other. "A big help."
Nikolas didn't like the sound of the remark. "What do you mean?" he asked, his voice sounding strange even to his own ears.
It gave him a moment's pause. Had he suffered some damage in the attack after all, beyond the cut over his eye and the painful stiffness in his limbs?
The alien didn't answer Nikolas's unspoken question -- not out loud, anyway. But as the silver orbs in his eye sockets glowed brighter, Nikolas heard something in his brain.
My doing, said the monster, in a small, harsh whisper. All my doing.
A telepath...? Nikolas thought.
And the alien's smile spread even wider, though the human wouldn't have believed it possible. He seemed to be taking pleasure in Nikolas's discomfort.
But it's not enough, the colossus breathed in Nikolas's mind. I need more.
Suddenly, the human felt a shiver rise from the depths of his being and take hold of his entire body -- a shiver of shock and helplessness, because the alien wasn't just speaking inside his head anymore. He was dredging up memories.
The death-scream of a thousand finger-sized quadrupeds on Mercker V. The bitter stench of tortured metal after a grisly shuttlecraft crash. The glint of sunlight off an old woman's hair on a fertile moon of Samito III...
The alien wasn't gentle about it, either. He stalked about Nikolas's mind without conscience or compunction, probing and prodding, not caring what he damaged in the process.
Semi-sentient life-forms slithering under the surface of an inland sea. The feel of scales on the naked thigh of his Heiren lover. The bite of homemade ouzo on his tongue, setting fire to his throat and then his brain...
The intruder thrust himself into every fold and crevice of the human's experience, sampling and rejecting, violating privacies great and small. Nothing stopped him, nothing was off-limits.
Nikolas couldn't stand the feeling of invasion. It filled him with such revulsion, such self-loathing, that he wanted to escape his own skin. Concentrating with all his might, he tried to expel the alien from his brain.
But he couldn't. It was like trying to wrestle an enraged mugato. And just as Nikolas realized how powerless he was against the invasion, how utterly overmatched, the alien began to thrust even deeper into his consciousness.
Nikolas could have given in to it. He could have allowed his captor to run roughshod and saved himself even greater discomfort. But he didn't. He continued to struggle.
It was a futile gesture. The alien was simply too strong, too determined. So Nikolas wasn't surprised when he felt himself submerged in a raving, synapse-shattering wave of pain...or when he felt his consciousness slip away again into the depths of a slow, black sea...
Jean-Luc Picard gazed across his desk at the strapping, blue-skinned officer who had come to see him. He knew exactly what his visitor wanted.
Still, he allowed Vigo to broach the matter his own way, in his own time. The Pandrilite had earned that privilege with his valor, his dedication, and his unswerving loyalty.
"You'll recall what I told you about Pandril," said Vigo. "What Ejanix told me before he died."
"I do," said the captain.
Ejanix had been Vigo's mentor and close friend. Prior to his untimely death, he had insisted that their homeworld -- a supposed utopia in which all classes of society were supposed to thrive -- was riddled with tyranny and injustice. Vigo hadn't believed it possible -- not at first. But the more he had considered the matter, the more he felt it was his duty to determine the truth.
Of course, Ejanix had become a revolutionary over the years, someone who had come to tolerate the use of force in the name of social change. Vigo didn't condone that approach -- he had already said as much. But it didn't mean that he could dismiss Ejanix and his compatriots out of hand.
If it turned out that they had a point, Vigo wanted those in the upper caste to be made aware of the problem. And as a member of the upper caste himself, he felt he was uniquely suited to the work of informing them.
Picard sat back in his chair. "You wish to take advantage of that leave we spoke of?"
"Yes," said Vigo. "For the reasons we discussed."
The captain nodded. "I understand. And I will not stand in your way. If you feel you must go, I will make the necessary arrangements immediately."
Vigo looked grateful. "Thank you, sir."
Picard dismissed the need for gratitude with a wave of his hand. Vigo was a mainstay of his crew. The captain just wished he could do more for him.
"Dismissed," he told Vigo. "And good luck."
The lieutenant nodded, then got up and left. As he exited the room, Picard took a good look at his weapons officer, knowing he might never see him again.
It wasn't that he thought Vigo would prefer to remain on his homeworld. He believed that, in time, the Pandrilite would want to return to Starfleet, and to the Stargazer in particular.
Picard just wasn't certain that he would still be commanding the Stargazer when Vigo came back.
He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the screen of his computer monitor -- that of a fellow with prominent cheekbones, a strong, cleft chin, and inquisitive brown eyes. A young man, to be sure. And yet, he was already developing worry lines above the bridge of his nose.
But then, he had more worries than most men his age.
In a week's time, he was slated to report to Starbase 59. Shortly after he arrived, he would attend a formal hearing, the subject of which would be his actions as commanding officer of the Stargazer, and his future in Starfleet.
There would be three admirals present to hear his case. One was McAteer, his superior, and the man who had arranged the hearing in the first place. Another was Mehdi, who had made Picard a captain and given him command of the Stargazer.
If all went as expected, McAteer would try to tear Picard down while Mehdi did his best to defend Picard's decisions. One against one, an even contest -- or it would have been, if McAteer and Mehdi had been the only combatants.
But the third juror -- and there had to be a third one, lest the contest end in a draw -- was Admiral Caber, whose son had been unceremoniously kicked off the Stargazer for what Picard had believed were good reasons.
The younger Caber had seen the matter otherwise. And at the time of his departure, he had threatened to use his father's influence in Starfleet to get even with Picard.
The Cabers' chance to do that was close at hand. All the admiral had to do was side with McAteer and Picard would be abruptly stripped of his command -- not to mention his rank.
So when the captain wondered if he and Vigo would ever have a chance to serve together again, it wasn't an idle question. It was a very real concern.
Frowning, he ignored his reflection and focused on the list of Starfleet advisories on his monitor screen. He might not be a captain much longer, but for the time being he would continue to do his job.
Nikolas woke to the feeling of something cold and wet against his cheek. Lifting his head, he saw that a puddle had gathered beneath his face in a trough formed by three stout, still-growing stalagmites.
No, he thought, correcting himself. They weren't just stalagmites anymore. They had connected with the stalactites growing above them, creating complete, hourglass-shaped columns. In fact, the corridor was lousy with them in both directions.
But the alien was gone.
Nikolas felt a wave of relief. What the invader had done to him...he never wanted to experience it again.
He hadn't known that a telepath could pillage someone's mind that way. But then, the only telepaths he had known were a couple of doe-eyed Indrotti on Risa, and they had obviously been more interested in his body than his mind.
He wished he were back on Risa at that very moment. He wished, in fact, that he were anywhere but on an Yridian cargo hauler inexplicably turned into an underground chamber.
He touched his fingers to the puddle in which he had been lying and tasted it. It was water, all right. But where the devil was it coming from? And how was it manufacturing cones of accumulated mineral matter so quickly?
Nikolas remembered what the alien had said to him: My doing. All my doing.
But that was ridiculous. No one had the power to create this kind of environment on a spacegoing vessel...did they?
Examining the mineral column closest to him, Nikolas saw that it was hard and surprisingly smooth to the touch. And it had to have come from somewhere.
He had read stories of seemingly magical beings in the logs of the early starship captains -- a teenager who had been brought up by powerful aliens, a mysterious humanoid named Trelane, even the ancient Greek god Apollo. But no one like them had turned up in the last fifty years, and there was speculation that they had never really existed in the first place.
There has to be an explanation, he told himself. It can't be the alien who's doing this. Not on his own.
Then he remembered the other thing the behemoth had said: But it's not enough. I need more.
What the hell did he mean by that? More mineral accumulations? What good could they possibly do him?
Nikolas would eventually have to find out. But first, he wanted to know what had happened to his crewmates -- his friend Ed Locklear and all the others. If they were lying somewhere all broken up, Nikolas doubted they would get any assistance from the alien.
The question was where to look first. Fortunately, he didn't have to dwell very long on the answer. He had been on his way to the bridge when he encountered the alien. It was still the most promising destination he could think of.
Making his way through the forest of blue and orange columns, he found a turbolift and waited until the doors slid aside for him. Then he entered the compartment, punched the necessary code into the control panel, and watched the doors close again.
The last time Nikolas had attempted a ride in the lift, the compartment had stopped partway to the bridge level and the doors had opened, apparently on their own. And that was when he had encountered the alien.
A coincidence? It didn't seem like one. But he wasn't ready to believe that the invader was responsible. It was one thing to violate a mind and another to stop a moving turbolift.
In any case, the lift didn't stop this time. It kept going, moving in determined fashion through the ship, until it reached its appointed destination.
When the doors parted, giving Nikolas access to the corridor, he got out and looked around -- and found the same conditions that had prevailed two decks below. Cone-shaped projections coming from both the ceiling and the deck beneath his feet, each of them waxing larger right before his eyes.
But that wasn't all he saw. Partway to the bridge, nearly hidden by a bend in the corridor, a pair of boots was lying on the deck -- and Nikolas had a feeling they weren't empty.
Negotiating a path through the field of stalagmites, he got near enough to confirm it -- there were legs attached to the boots, and a body attached to the legs. But it wasn't yet clear to him whose it was. The only thing that was clear to him was that the body was no longer alive. It was too thin and too pale, and it was lying at too awkward an angle -- the kind no humanoid could have adopted and survived.
Feeling a lump in his throat, Nikolas advanced a little farther and saw that it was Redonna, the Dedderac who had piloted the ship. She was tough as duranium, as reliable as they came -- and she had made a pass at him the night before the attack.
"You see," she had said, her voice low and lusty, "I've had my eye on you since the minute you beamed aboard. It gets lonely on a cargo hauler. But there are ways to relieve the loneliness..."
Nikolas swore under his breath.
In life, Redonna's skin had been a series of wild black stripes on a white background. In death, the stripes seemed to have faded, leaving her looking pale and washed out. But that wasn't the worst change in her appearance. Her cheeks had sunken, her eyes had retreated deep into their sockets, and the skin around her mouth had become dry and cracked.
It was as if she had had the life drained from her. It didn't make sense, but that was how it appeared.
When she came on to Nikolas the other night, he had rebuffed her. But part of him had been tempted to go along with the idea. She was, after all, an attractive female.
Or had been.
Nikolas knelt on his bruised and battered knees and brushed his fingertips against Redonna's face. Her flesh felt so cold, so terribly cold, that it was hard to imagine it had ever been any other way.
He had barely known her, but he felt that he should do something for her -- that it was up to him to mark her passing somehow. What could he do?
Putting the problem aside for the moment, he decided to walk on, in the hope that he might find another survivor. But as he negotiated the first bend in the corridor, all he came across was another corpse.
It was Murata, one of the engineers. He was human, but he looked a lot like Redonna now, his skin contracted around his bones so tightly it was painful to look at him. And like Redonna, he was well past the point where he might have benefited from Nikolas's help.
Around the next bend, Nikolas found three more bodies. Sadly, he identified them in his head. Happy-go-lucky Jetraka, who had just celebrated his hundred and seventh birthday. Kroda the Tellarite, who had been so indignant when one of the other crewmen jostled him in a corridor. Yellowstone, the chess player. All of them sucked dry, like ancient mummies.
rdBut not Nikolas. Why not? he asked himself. What bizarre providence had spared his miserable life when all these others had been sacrificed?
Moments later, he came to the doors that gave admittance to the bridge. As he approached them, they whispered open for him, revealing the scene beyond.
The Iktoj'ni's command center was a good deal smaller than that of a Federation starship. It held only three stations -- the captain's, the helm officer's, and the navigator's. There was no room to accommodate a communications officer, an engineer, a sciences chief, or a weapons officer.
Still, the bridge had been a busy place, with personnel coming and going all the time. Usually, Nikolas added silently.
Not now, though. Those who had come and would have gone were stretched unmoving among the beginnings of blue and orange stalagmites, their handheld computer devices spilled from their grasps. And those ensconced in the three control stations were slumped forward in them, as if they had gone to sleep and had yet to wake up.
But they won't be doing that, Nikolas thought with a sinking feeling. Not if they've fallen afoul of the same thing that killed Redonna and the others.
Just to be sure, he approached Captain Rejjerin, who had ignored Starfleet's warning for the sake of making her ship's delivery date. A Vobilite, she had ruddy, mottled skin and tusks that protruded from the corners of her mouth. Nikolas felt her neck for a pulse. There wasn't any, and her skin was icy to the touch.
Just like the others, he thought. There wasn't a mark on her, but she had clearly been dead for some time.
Is everyone dead? he thought.
And how in blazes had they died? What kind of weapon could rob a person of their life's energy that way?
Then he saw something else -- the configuration of stars on the large, octagonal viewscreen that covered the bridge's forward bulkhead. It was wrong, it seemed to him, different from what it should have been.
Someone else might not have noticed. But Nikolas had sometimes served as a navigator on the bridges of Federation starships, guiding them through this part of space. He knew what the screen should have looked like.
Gently, he removed the helm officer from his station, which was wet with the drip from a stalactite directly above it, and laid him on the floor. Having already begun to stiffen, the fellow lay grotesquely on his side, with his head laid across his outthrust arms.
Nikolas forced himself to ignore the helmsman's corpse and concentrate instead on the helm controls. They weren't all that different from those he had manipulated in his Starfleet training sessions.
A small screen in the upper right corner showed him their course as a red line on a black-and-yellow grid. Sure enough, it had changed since the attack.
The Iktoj'ni wasn't heading for the trading world called Djillika any longer. She was on a course that would take her into the portion of space occupied by the Ubarrak.
And she was doing so at full speed. Nikolas felt his throat go dry.
Ubarrak territory was the last sector he or any other Federation citizen would be advised to visit. Though the Federation wasn't officially at war with the Ubarrak, the possibility of an armed conflict was always implicit in their strained and often hostile relations.
dSlipping behind the helm console, Nikolas slowed the cargo hauler to a crawl. Then he punched in a new heading -- one that would take the vessel back to the heart of Federation space -- and engaged the thrusters.
When he looked up at the viewscreen, he saw the stars scrolling from one side to the other, reflecting his course change. Much better, he thought.
Suddenly, Nikolas heard footfalls. Heavy ones, too heavy to belong to one of his crewmates.
Swiveling in his seat, he saw the alien looming over him, his eyes glowing feverishly. But he wasn't returning the human's scrutiny. His head was tilted to one side, as if he were listening to something Nikolas couldn't hear.
What's going on? Nikolas wondered. Giving in to an impulse, he turned back to the viewscreen -- and saw that the stars had begun moving back the other way again. Glancing at his helm console, he noticed that his course change had been nullified. Once again, they were heading for Ubarrak territory.
What the hell...?
Behind him, the alien stood gazing at the screen. He looked pleased with what he saw.
"We have resumed course," he said in that strange, discordant voice of his.
A part of Nikolas couldn't believe the invader had reset the helm controls without touching an instrument panel, or that he could stop a moving turbolift or make a cavern out of a ship's corridor. But another part of him was starting to believe that it was possible -- and that if the alien had done those things, he could drain the life from Nikolas's comrades as well.
It seemed crazy. And yet, the evidence was starting to pile up. The invader possessed abilities far beyond anything Nikolas had ever seen.
But that didn't mean the alien was a match for the Ubarrak. Not all by himself, in a lightly armed cargo vessel.
"You don't want to go where we're headed," Nikolas said reasonably. "The Ubarrak don't like outsiders."
"I know," said the alien, his voice every bit as harsh and ringing as before. "I noticed that when I reached into your mind to find a destination."
Ignoring Nikolas, he turned to Rejjerin and raised a four-fingered hand -- and the captain ascended from her station. With a horizontal gesture, the alien slid her through the air to another part of the bridge. Then he dropped his hand, and Rejjerin plummeted to the deck with a thud.
With the captain's chair vacated, the alien settled his bulk into it. Then he turned to the viewscreen, where the stars were streaming by, and took on a look of contentment.
"I don't think you understand," said Nikolas. "The Ubarrak will destroy us on sight."
"I understand perfectly," said the alien, his mouth spreading again in a smile.
Nikolas thought about trying to incapacitate the bastard, but he knew that he would fail. And then there would be one more pale, shriveled corpse on the Iktoj'ni.
No, he thought, I'll bide my time. Eventually, he'll let his guard down. He has to sleep sometime.
He had barely completed the thought when the alien sent words into his mind: I don't, actually. Not anymore.
"Nonetheless," he added out loud, "assault me if you like. It won't make any difference. We'll still follow the course we're following now."
Nikolas's heart sank in his chest. The alien might not have been as scary as the Ubarrak, with all their ships and their armaments, but he was starting to come in a close second.
Copyright © 2004 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Stargazer: Maker
All he wants of his new life is a chance to forget his troubles. And that's what he gets -- until the Iktoj'ni is taken over by a monstrous alien with unbelievable powers and a disdain for all forms of life.
Without saying why, the alien sends the freighter hurtling toward a part of space inhabited by the Ubarrak, the Federation's deadliest and most xenophobic enemy. And Nikolas, who fears that the incident will start a war, can't convince his captor to turn back.
Picard's only hope of stopping the alien menance is Serenity Santana -- a woman who once abused his trust in the name of her people's survival. Now she's back, asking for the captain's trust a second time.
Picard desperately needs Santana's help in his struggle to save his galaxy. But will she justify his faith in her -- or once again twist it to serve her own shadowy ends?
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