At length, Sylok walked out of his ready room to the center of the bridge, and stared at the frontal arc of the viewer that circled around him, extending beyond the edges of his vision, his cyclopean eye into space. The vista was the true picture of the space that surrounded them, unenhanced for clarity, though of course altered in that only unharmful light came through the hologram.
He walked directly toward, and then into, the projection field. The nearest stars crept along at a much more lethargic clip—invisibly, had Human eyes been watching. He could faintly make out his own radial movement of arc-microseconds in relation to the closer stars: on his right a familiar binary pair of white stars that he could easily resolve into the individual units the viewscreen presented in superhuman high fidelity; much to the left of that, the pale subgiant that Andorians claimed kept their far-orbited and half-icebound home moon “warm”; and on the extreme left, the orange sun of his people’s origin. The more distant stars moved so slowly that even a Vulcan wouldn’t notice. His own sun was not visible at all.
The center of the viewscreen was filled by a white disk with a greenish tint. It had no apparent motion. Its gravity was the yoke by which the Revenge tilled.
When he turned away, he could hear the Betazoid say in a half-whisper, “—we’re not the only ones, either. Swas is getting so pent up, I think if her head could go off, we’d have to watch out for sharpnel.”
Yaokan chuckled, then saw the Captain’s eyes move and quieted himself.
Coral was aware, and ignored it. “Might liven up the assignment, really.”
Sylok looked to his right. “Have we not discussed, at length, appropriate topics for and durations of conversation during a yellow alert, Tactics?”
“Did I omit from the list of verboten subjects the emotional state of your superior officers?”
“No, Captain. But it’s only true. She’s frustrated.”
Sylok turned his fully toward Coral. “Really? And what am I feeling, Tactics?”
Coral shrugged and earnestly, if poorly, feigned innocence. “Hungry, sir? How should I know?” Yaokan laughed briefly, and stifled it immediately when Sylok’s eyes twitched toward his.
“I’ll let my counselors determine who’s frustrated.”
“They all lack my qualifications—”
“If you wished to practice medicine, your talent might have been useful. But you don’t. So keep your hobby to yourself. I’m not interested.”
Sylok turned back. “By contrast, I am enthusiastic to hear about the earlier problem with the ingressor.”
“Quite so. Please proceed.”
Without vigor, and clearly reading from his prepared statement, Coral acceded to the Captain’s request: ‘Fifteen microsecond partial cloak interruption at 0617 and 22 seconds, possible malfunct, most likely for transmission receipt, but possibly for transmission broadcast or for sensor gain—’ ”
“They dropped their cloak at 617.”
“Yes, very briefly. They don’t do it all the time, but it’s pretty normal.”
“I recall. Continue.”
“Ah, well—‘Behavior fits the interpretation of the Tactical/Science Joint Team, consistent with our hypothesis of intermittent navigational difficulties.’ ”
“Correct,” Yaokan confirmed. “They’ve locked up their cloak so tightly that it’s making it hard for them to see what’s coming. They keep dodging transporter beams and shipping traffic at the last moment—it looks like less than forty seconds’ lead time for a five-percent-c particle stream.”
“And our own sight, Science?” Sylok asked, turning to Yaokan.
“Clear as day, sir,” Yaokan said, “as usual.”
The rest of the next shift arrived, replacing all but a long-suffering Betazoid on the bridge. Coral and Yaokan acknowledged the two Humans taking over the respective pilot and communications stations at the front of the bridge.
“Michel,” Coral said, without looking up from his console. Louverture—the flight controller—grinned. Coral caught his thought and warned him—“Don't you dare ask me if it's been a long day."
Michel Louverture didn't, but he laughed a little as he sat down.
For a few minutes, the day proceeded at its ordinarily glacial pace, and then, for the first time in some time, something happened.
Coral noticed it in the middle of a yawn of deliberation and great intensity. Yaokan was the first to see the sound dying croaking in his throat, and that his jaw had locked firmly into place. “Captain. They’re...” Coral said softly. Sylok turned again toward him. The Betazoid looked confused. “They’re having some kind of problem.”
Yaokan snapped up, out of his seat, and bore down on his console—he prodded the sensors, risking just a little and still within his authority, to gain greater vision.
The red alert klaxon sounded immediately after he registered his results, and Coral jumped to his feet too.
“Called the alert, Captain,” Yaokan said.
Sylok turned to him, his face drained of all color—something Yaokan had never seen. “Where are the automatics?”
“It’s not a terminal yet, Captain,” Yaokan said, “but—”
Sylok breathed again. “Explain. Quickly.”
“Their cloak,” Yaokan answered, “is blinking.”
, heavily outside of bounds. Ingressor is possibly powering up to warp—”
“Helm, you have all courses?” Sylok asked in a clipped bark.
“Yes,” Louverture replied automatically. The flight controller double-checked the calculations represented in graphical form on his console’s stand-up screen. The Starfleet chevron followed the avian representation of their quarry at a respectful distance. Two ellipses represented each ship’s orbit around the sun, four planets and an asteroid belt out. Two straight lines indicated their true concern—each had their engines lined up with a sphere that had assumed a graphical importance far in excess of its real size. Louverture, more than anyone else on the bridge, felt this importance, but as a matter of discipline as well as his own peace of mind, he tried to ignore it.
“Standby for maximum speed,” Sylok demanded. “If they go to warp, we do. I want us between them and the target.”
“Tactics: arm quantum and photon torpedoes.”
“Forty-five seconds on the cues,” Coral informed him, standing up from his chair, feeling the surge of energy that came with a combat situation, that he was sure he’d never feel again on this ship—and as the situation became real, he found he was regretting it at least half as much as he was revelling in it. “Pho-torps ready.”
“Science, status of the device?”
“Ready for pop-up firing, Captain,” Yaokan confirmed.
“They won’t know we’re here till they’re dead,” Coral promised.
Sylok motioned that he keep hold of his exuberance. “Are phasers ready for anti-torpedo operation, Tactics?”
“Wound up and standing by, sir,” Coral said. He looked across the bridge, and smirked. “Still bored?” he wondered.
Yaokan returned an unpleasant look, which defaulted quickly to an uncertain expression. “Ejian—what do you think? They were supposed to just warp in and drop their payload. We were supposed to follow them, stop their torpedoes, and shoot them down. This isn’t at all what we thought
we’d see them do.”
“I know, I know,” Coral said. “It probably
just means we were wrong.”
“Their cloak keeps—twitching
,” Yaokan stated with concern. “Ideal lensing one moment, then nearly gone the next—” Confusion did strange things to his face. “Ejian, this isn’t rational.”
“Yes it is,” Coral contradicted vehemently. “They could be cycling it, to get a better look at their targets. We know they can hardly see past their own cloak.”
“Why would they need to take eighty-five thousand peeks a second?”
“Maybe they need realtime information for navigation. Traffic density is hell in this system. We hardly manage and we have the schedules...”
“They wouldn’t notice most of the ships in this system if they smashed right through them. This is totally unnecessary.” Yaokan said exactly what he was thinking, even though he was aware that it could be the biggest mistake he could think of: “Captain, this is not
“Science, you sound certain.”
“Yes, sir. I’m convinced.”
Coral started to argue, “And what better way to be proven wrong than a planet full of dead people, Yan? Come on, we can’t go on a gut feeling here—”
“This isn’t a gut feeling,” Yaokan said decisively. “We shouldn’t even have the time
to discuss this!”
“I don’t think we do, Yan—!”
Coral seemed eager to continue the debate, but Sylok cut him off with a glance. He recognized a familiar brown, black, and red figure on the periphery of his vision.
“I sent you home,” he said quietly.
“I came back,” Shah answered.
He nodded. Unfiltered worry controlled the muscles of his face for just a moment; the mask returned almost immediately, but there was a tremor in his voice when he asked her, in nearly a whisper, “What do you think?”
She stared ahead, thinking about the consequences of being wrong, as well as the consequences of being right. She nodded. “I don’t think we can afford the benefit of the doubt. I think we have to fire.”
“That,” Yaokan said sharply, wondering if they had really missed the obvious point, “will start a war, Commander.”
“We can’t assume the war hasn’t already started,” she told him with an uneasy mix of authority and consolation.
Sylok turned away from all of them.
“Hit ‘em now
, Captain,” Coral demanded.
Though he had been weakened, Yaokan reaffirmed himself, leaning over the Science console. “Don’t
Sylok turned back, and sat down, making no indication, at first, that he had heard them at all.
She sat in the chair next to him. “Sylok,” Shah asked quietly, “what’s your decision?”
He glanced at her ruefully, then said simply, “Tactics, you have quantum torpedoes ready, correct?”
Yaokan closed his eyes in defeat and rising panic, putting both hands to his temples out of lack of anything more constructive to do with them. Coral was briefly distracted by a string of mental curses that cut off in mid-word. The Cardassian’s hands fell back to his controls, and his eyes opened, glaring at Coral with resignation. “I do, Captain,” Coral answered, slightly distracted.
“Can you destroy the enemy?”
“Yes, Captain. With certainty.”
“I require one more moment to consider.”
“I don’t know if we have it—” Coral said.
“Calm,” Sylok told him. “The automatics are set.”
“Captain, those aren’t sure
,” Coral declared. “And we have a hundred-percent kill right in front of us.”
“Tactics,” Sylok said, “we must not be wrong.”
Coral remained uneasily quiet.
Sylok covered his moth and nose with his hands, closed his eyes, thinking quickly.
Flashes of light filled his mind’s eye. he imagined the end of life on a thousand worlds, the consequence if he were wrong. He considered briefly, as well, the cost of being right. It was almost identical, except one world did not die, right now. His head hurt, like being closed in a vice, and this was true, and physical, the only difference that the pressure exerted itself from inside instead of out. He was struck with a sudden dizziness—and this was a symptom of emotion that he could neither ignore nor completely dominate.
He found himself again wishing he could be someone else.
He was. The dimmest perception of light, filtered through both sets of eyelids; the world remained a dark green that was not quite black, until, finally, he opened them, and saw somewhere he knew he could not be.
Mirikal’s cloud-banded primary shone in the quasi-night when his side of the moon didn’t face its sun but the gas giant wasn’t interposed between them. The real time, the time the colony authorities dictated, could not be immediately ascertained—the memory wasn’t thinking of the time, and the information was inaccessible to him.
He was sitting on a sandy beach, meditating on the innate strangeness to him of waves that weren’t dangerously toxic, and reflecting on the natural beauty of the rising, storm-torn gas giant. The northern hemisphere of Khalet II looked like a firmament holding up the sky above the sea. An aimless daydream occupied his attention, wondering, if there had ever been natives here, what kind of myths they might have imagined to explain their world.
And he was realizing, at length, that it was the same body, and same mind, he’d worn in his dream, a decade older, noticeably changed. It had been a very long time since he’d touched this skin. He had no control over its movements, but he didn’t feel trapped inside the compact frame of the one he’d known. It all seemed so natural. Even the thoughts were immutable, but they too seemed correct—what they had been, and would always be.
The air changed abruptly, throwing seaspray in his face, as if the ocean had playfully, rudely decided to spit on him. He flinched at the water; the fragment of his consciousness that was truly his, that observed this record of years past, flinched in sympathy.
We’ve spent too long here
, the voice to his right said.
He turned his head, and saw exactly whom he expected.
The young man he had been repeated, stone-faced, We have to go.
He stared into the boy’s eyes, wondering how much more innocence they had, before things would change. The thoughts of this body anticipated it, but not entirely without fear.
, he said softly.
“Wait for what
?” Coral asked with disbelief.
“For the order, Tactics,” Sylok said, shaking off the instant of unwanted memory. He took in a lungfull of air, and found he couldn’t easily exhale. He forced the word out of his throat: “Fire.”
“They’ve changed course!” Yaokan yelled out. “Ejian, don’t shoot. Don’t shoot!”
“Okay!” Coral’s hand held, and he gazed across the bridge with unconcealed anxiety.
“They’re on a new course—” Yaokan repeated.
Sylok turned toward him. “And—?”
“New course, out of the system. It must have been a malfunction... I told you. Michel, confirm?”
Louverture nodded. “Confirmed: heading up-ecliptic, sir, as fast as they think they can go without being detected. Do you want me to pursue, Captain?”
“Absolutely. Match them and go.”
“Yes, sir. Five percent impulse.”
The exertions of the ship as power surged into the fusion-driven rockets was just audible. This was the only sound at all for a long time.
Finally, Sylok spoke, as if relearning the use of his voice, and said, “Excellent performance, all of you. We would have stopped them, if we had to. We didn’t. Mr. Yaokan—congratulations. You saved the Federation.”
The Cardassian was stunned by the idea.
“That is why we’re here,” Sylok told him.
“Thank you, sir,” Yaokan said, anxious and humbled.
“I’d like reports from Tactics and Science. At your convenience, but I want a full explanation soon.”
Coral fell blindly back into his chair, spent; he shrugged at Yaokan, who returned an awkward expression, before circumspectly reseating himself as well.
“Yan?” Shah asked in the quiet. “Can you show me the planet, please?”
“Yes, Commander,” he said.
“I know,” she said confidentially to Sylok, “it’s unnecessarily sentimental. But we always like to see it in one piece when we leave.”
“No,” Sylok answered. “It’s not unnecessary.”
The perspective of the viewscreen had shifted; the image had clearly changed, but what they saw was not so different than the starfield they had seen before. A black curtain spangled with the occasional cluster of multifaceted light stretched beneath them, like intimate constellations of stars. Their movement against the curtain became perceptible as they accelerated, until the curve of the horizon became apparent.
The dark edge of the sphere, clad by a thin blue halo, descended downscreen as another object lifted. Immediately it was recognizable as the primary, having bound its tiny daughter eons ago. On the night face, day-bright conglomerates of artificial light filled the primary’s sleepless continents, their edges marking the borders of great oceans. They continued to rise against the ecliptic, and the world began to slip beneath them.
For a moment, the glare of direct sunlight separated from the primary’s horizon like a soaring phoenix, then rose out of view. The planet nodded its northern pole in friendly fashion toward its sun, almost as bright with the sheen off its white, hyperborean sea. The angle grew ever steeper, until a blue, white, and green crescent expanded to become day’s half-circle. A world thick with life turned continually toward the warmth.
They watched it for a very long time, until it diminished into a bluish dot just a few arcminutes across. Sylok contemplated the dwindling object, as he had been taught to do as a child.
He had been here many times; but he had never been on Earth.
He absently wondered what it was like. It wasn’t supposed to be much different from Mirikal—a little colder, significantly wetter, much brighter, wilder in the places so designated by the nature committees, and more irrevocably tamed in others, and with more of every kind of person, even his own kind.
“My parents are sleeping,” Louverture said with a bit of melancholy.
“It looks like noon in Haiti,” Shah ventured.
“So my mother might be just waking up, then... but I doubt it. I wonder when we’ll get to come back.”
Sylok told the helmsman, “You’ll have to ask the Romulans.”
Shah, too, had carefully studied the magnified image of the planet that had been her home, but where Sylok only saw the white, blue, and green of a mixed nature preserve and governing metroplis seen from space, her memories imposed other colors on the Earth.
She effortlessly recalled North America, vanished beneath clouds of ash, populations bombed out existence in a dozen countries, pinprick lights of doomsday weapons and the dim glow of a tenth of the world burning, all still discernible by telescope from her place of safety six light hours away.
She had known that the worst was invisible. All the thermonuclear weapons, the satellite gasers, and the tons of rocks hurled down had been only the brute, ineffective responses to a sublime weapon of undifferentiated, uncaring, perfect extinction.
Every time she saw the faint signal of the cloaked warbird they hunted across the black, she thought of the Earth she knew, the Earth that was decimated, the civilization reduced to barbarism overnight, the race that suffered hundreds of millions gone in a few hours and perhaps a billion more in the unspeakable years to come.
That had been three hundred and thirty-six years ago. Sometimes it felt no further than yesterday.
Once she could pull herself away from the planet, she went back to her quarters, almost in a hurry. They were bare and empty, running no program. She didn't give it one yet, and she stood by herself in the blankness in the center of the room-behind-the-room, and asked the computer to pull one of her few remaining connections to the past out of its hiding place in the bulk matter hold. It did, and placed it effortlessly right between her fingers.
“Thanks. Now remember, computer,” she said, “you’ve got to clean every atom of this off the walls this time, because if Sylok finds out, then I’ll be in real trouble.”
The cigarette lit, and she inhaled deeply, because that’s what you do at the end of the world.