- X -
Xylion had left his hut armed with a phaser and a sling-over bag in a hurry.
What he had gleamed from the short mind meld was far worse than he had already suspected. The clues of course had all been there earlier on. The settlers odd behavior, ranging from hunting and consuming animal meat, their unwillingness to assist with repairs to the runabout, the lack of children in the settlement, their unprovoked attack on Ensign Srena, and Tela and her father’s insistence on not just an immediate marriage but one seemingly focused on copulation.
Xylion understood that he wasn’t entirely blameless. After all Deen had ostensibly suspected something much sooner and he was willing to entertain the notion that he had disregarded earlier clues partially because of his desire to study this intriguing Vulcan settlements so isolated from the rest of their kind. Perhaps he had even felt a certain attraction to Tela and an urge to assist her and her people rediscover their Vulcan roots. And in retrospect he understood that these elements had made him agree to their proposal to stay behind far too easily.
Their goal seemed to be clear to him now. The motives were not.
When the away team had declined their offer to stay and become part of the settlement Tela had attacked Srena. She had purposefully not killed the ensign but caused enough damage to force their hand, allow for her scheme of blackmail which would see Xylion remain on this world while the rest of the team returned to Eagle
by conveniently providing a necessary module to repair the runabout.
Tela and her people had wanted Xylion from the start. Why precisely he didn’t know but considering that there were no Vulcans on this world but him, he had his suspicions.
And he knew whatever their agenda, he could not allow it.
It was already dark outside when he had left the hut and he hoped to be able to use this to his advantage in order to slip out of the settlement undetected.
These creatures, whatever they were, were immensely powerful, that much he had learned from his brief encounter with Tela’s mind. He knew his chances were slim and yet he had to try to escape or at the very least attempt to send a distress signal and stay in hiding for as long as it took to avoid them.
His plan for now was to head back towards the canyon where the runabout had crashed, climb to the very top and make every effort to send a signal with the emergency beacon he had placed into his bag. Then he would continue north, find another peak and try again, always staying on the move.
He had no illusions and understood that the creatures would begin an extensive search as soon as they realized he was gone which was likely as quickly as Tela regained consciousness.
It took at least an hour to reach the canyon from the settlement but Xylion knew something was very wrong after less than half that time.
Thanks to his eidetic memory he knew exactly what the path was supposed to look like and it was nothing like he remembered. Instead the terrain was rocky and steep as if he was already climbing a mountain instead of traversing the tundra like desert he had come to expect.
The environment had changed.
He stopped, trying to get his bearings again but nothing appeared to be where he expected it to be. He turned to head east instead. It wasn’t the direction he had wanted to go but it would still take him away from the settlement.
After less than a five hundred meters he realized he was once again heading up a mountain just like he had before. And he knew which one. The very same Tela had taken him to on the day he had first arrived.
The creatures were not only leading him where they wanted him to go, they had the power to alter his surroundings. He understood then that this world was nothing but an illusion created for the specific purpose to make him feel at home. The hot climate and dry air were after all close approximations of what Vulcan felt like.
He saw no other choice for now but do continue to climb the mountain. There was no other place to go.
It didn’t take him long to reach the plateau overlooking the settlement below as well as much of the surrounding desert which he was now convinced wasn’t what it appeared. Nothing here was.
Very much aware that he didn’t have much time, he took a knee and then removed the emergency beacon from the bag he had brought. Xylion understood that the chances for a rescue were minimal but he needed to attempt it for no other reason than to warn Eagle
of the situation on the ground.
He stood upon hearing his name. Vulcan hearing was sensitive enough that he was sure he would have heard anyone approach. But when he stood and turned he found that the entire settlement, seemingly every last man and woman, stood on the plateau with him, Tela at the front just a few meters away. They had not simply climbed up here. They had appeared.
“Xylion, what are you doing?” she asked.
“I am attempting to contact my ship to advise them of the situation I have encountered here.”
She looked at him curiously. “Situation?”
He studied her face and then those of the others behind her, including her father. They almost looked concerned. “There is no need to maintain your deception. I have already learned that you are not Vulcan.”
Tela took a small step forward and Xylion realized that his back was fairly close to the precipice. If indeed it was real. “We took a form we thought you’d be most comfortable with.”
“And what was the purpose of your deception?”
“To make you feel welcome, of course,” she said. “We only ever wanted you to be comfortable.”
Xylion took another step backwards but space was running out. “Your intentions were quite clearly to procreate. With me.”
She nodded gingerly. “Is this not how humanoid cultures consume their feelings?”
“I doubt very much that that is your motive.”
“Then consider it an experiment,” she said. “That was your initial interest in us, was it not? To study us. You are a scientist after all.”
“I believe you fundamentally misunderstand the scientific method,” he said with a raised eyebrow.
Tela’s eyes grew brighter. “We need you Xylion. We need you to survive. You were willing to help us before when you knew us to be like you. We were simply concerned that you would change your mind if you learned the truth. Please, Xylion,” she said and took a step closer to him. “We still need your help. Nothing has changed.”
“If that is truly the case I am willing to discuss whatever problems you are experiencing. But first you must explain your true nature. You are not humanoid?”
She shook her head. “We are bound to this planet by a powerful force. You possess what we require to escape. Your DNA holds the answer.”
“What is the nature of the force that binds you here?”
“That is not relevant.”
Xylion was just a few feet from the precipice now and he could feel the wind, fake or real, he wasn’t sure, blowing up the mountain and against his back. Tela was still approaching. “All information is relevant if you require my assistance.”
“The only assistance we require is your compliance. If you will not provide it willingly, we can extract your DNA by force. It is a painful process you are not likely to survive. Spare yourself that fate.”
Xylion looked her right in the eye. “Considering your threat it would be logical for me to assume that you have ill-intentions and that you might pose a danger once you overcome your current limitations.”
“We just want to be free,” she shot back with rising anger suddenly filling her voice. “We have been imprisoned here for far too long.”
“Imprisoned implies that you are considered criminal or dangerous.”
“Xylion,” she said, sounding softer now, and nearly within reach of him. “There is no place for you to go. This will happen. Give us what we want freely and you will not be harmed. There is no other option.”
He looked passed her and into the sky. Then he looked right back into the eyes of the alien creature which he had known to be a young Vulcan woman until very recently. For the first time he could see something just beyond them. A force or energy of some kind, brewing and restless and ready to leash out at whoever stood in their way. “There is always another option,” he said and took another step back and over the precipice.
“No!” Tela screamed and then dove after him.
* * *
Once the hostage crisis in engineering had been resolved, it had been only a matter of minutes for Hopkins and a small team of her people to rectify the damage to the docking clamps which had kept the captain’s yacht securely pinned to the underside of the saucer section. Deen and Culsten had already primed the vessel for immediate liftoff and as soon as all the clamps had been released, the small, oval shaped vessel, christened Golden Eagle
, disengaged from its mother ship and headed for a course towards the rouge planet.
“I’ve been wanting to take her out for a spin ever since she was refitted with a warp engine,” said Lif Culsten while he sat at the helm. “She should make as much as warp three now.”
“Not likely you’re going to get the chance,” said Deen by his side. “Not while we are inside the nebula.”
He smirked at that. “No, not theoretically speaking. In practice we actually have no idea what would happen if we did.”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to find out,” said Star, sitting at a console behind them. “How long until we reach the planet?”
“We’re pushing full impulse,” he said and then just to stress his point, the ship was hit by strong spatial turbulence rattling the occupants. “Not a recommended speed in this soup but I think she can take it. If we can keep it up we should get there within fifteen minutes.”
A computer station behind them exploded in a shower of sparks. Star was on her feet in an instant with a fire extinguisher to deal with the damage.
“Overload to the starboard EPS manifold,” said Deen while her fingers danced over her panel. “I’ve rerouted power to the port manifold. Not sure how long this will hold.”
“Seeing how rarely we’ve used her there shouldn’t be any wear and tear,” said Culsten. “Probably just couldn’t take the sudden acceleration.”
“Let’s keep an eye on power levels,” said Star once she had taken care of the flames. “I do not want to be stranded out here.”
“Right there with you, Commander,” said Deen. “I know only so many songs to use for distress signals.”
“Is it just me,” said the Krellonian and leaned forward and closer to the viewport, “or does the nebula look different?”
“No, you’re right,” said Deen. “I can hardly see any of those little particles which used to swirl all around this place any more.”
“The Light,” said Star, referring to them by the name the lifeform had given them.
“I think I know why,” said Culsten. “Look at that.”
The two women turned to see what he was pointing at. Not too far ahead a massive, pulsating entity had appeared. Similar in composition to what they had witnessed earlier when Eagle
had come under attack, except that this phenomenon was at least five times larger. It now rivaled in size a small moon and it was heading into the same direction as the Golden Eagle
Deen shook her head as she looked down at her sensor data. “It’s pure, concentrated energy made up of thousands of individual power signatures. The Light has transformed itself into a single and massively powerful entity.”
“If they can bring to bear as much relative power as they used against Eagle
,” Star said but then looked towards Deen.
“It’s probably more than enough to wipe out an entire planet.”
The first officer turned to look at the pilot. “Give me every last drop of speed you can out of those engines, Mister. We need to overtake that thing and get to this planet before they can.”
He nodded sharply. “Better hold on to your seats. This is going to get rough.”
It wasn’t an understatement. In order to muster the power required to win this race, Culsten had to divert energy from other systems including the inertial dampers which were designed to keep the ship from tearing itself apart in the hostile environment. All three officers were forcefully pushed back into their seats as the yacht accelerated way beyond any recommended velocities.
“ETA eight minutes, twelve seconds,” said Culsten.
“What can we expect to find once we get there?” Star asked Deen, the only person in the away team who had actually been to that world.
“A small and relatively primitive colony of Vulcans on the southern continent within a dry desert environment. But considering what we know now, that they are somehow related to these Light life forms made up of pure energy, it’s not unreasonable to think that they may be able to alter their appearance and perhaps even their environment.”
“All we need is to locate Xylion and get him out of there,” said Star.
“The planet is surrounded by massive energy discharges which caused us to crash in the first instance. We get zapped by one of those and this will turn out to be a really short rescue mission,” the Tenarian said.
“How do we get around those?”
“I might be able to depolarize the hull and reinforce our systems to withstand an electromagnetic strike,” said Deen and was already at work. “That way we may be able to slip by it.”
The yacht passed the Light formation quickly thereafter and with little incident. But Star and the others could see that while it moved at a somewhat slower pace than their ship, there were still smaller particles joining the whole even as it continued towards the planet. It was still growing. The Light it appeared was not willing to take any chances. Whatever they feared about the Dark, whatever history existed between them, it had decided to bring to bear all the force it could muster to stop it from leaving the rogue planet.
“Visual range,” said Culsten.
Before them Aphrodite cleared up like a veil which had been pulled aside to reveal the lonely, grayish planet divorced from its star a long time ago. As Deen had warned, powerful lighting bolt like discharges were completely encircling that world as if to warn anyone to stay away. Of course this was not an option for the away team.
“I wonder if this is some sort of security mechanism,” said Deen as she watched those energy discharges whip around the planet. “Perhaps that is what keeps the Dark on that planet.”
“It’s possible,” said Star. “Or it could be designed to keep us off it. Lieutenant, make sure you keep your distance to these things, I do not want to put our modifications to the test unless we absolutely have to.”
“You got it, sir,” said the helmsman. “I’ll keep us well clear,” he added and then focused on his controls to dive and bank the small vessel away from the discharges while still heading towards the planet.
One of the lightning bolts shot by the Golden Eagle
so closely, both Deen and Star ducked reflexively.
“Well clear?” Deen said and shot him displeased look.
“Clear enough at any rate,” he said without taking his eyes off the controls. “This bucket isn’t exactly built to dodge lightning.”
“Just get us down there in one piece,” Star said as she held on tightly to her station while Culsten had the vessel perform sharp maneuvers into every which direction to keep them in one piece.
“Almost there,” he said after he had put the ship upside down with the planet now suddenly hovering far above their heads.
“Are you quite sure you’re going the right way?” Deen said.
“Hope you haven’t had dinner yet,” he said with a little smirk and then put the ship into such a hard dive, it felt as if the skin was being pulled off their teeth.
The move paid off, none of the discharges connected with the yacht and moments later they found themselves in the atmosphere making a rapid descend.
“That was fun,” said Culsten and looked at a blanched Deen at his side.
“Let’s just … not do that again,” she said, clearly trying to compose herself. “Ever.”
Now that the harrowing maneuvers were behind them, Star felt safe enough to step up behind Culsten and Deen. “Lieutenant,” she said to the Tenarian. “Can you get us to that that colony?”
“It should be coming up right below us. About 500 kilometers.”
“Push her hard,” she told Culsten, “if we figured out about these life forms I can’t believe Xylion is far behind.”
Deen spotted the peak first and pointed towards it. “Over there.”
Culsten banked the ship to the right to head towards the large mountain range Deen had identified.
“Lifesigns?” Star asked.
Deen nodded. “Vulcans. A lot of Vulcans.”
“But which is the real one?”
They were still too far away to make out anything taking place on the ground so Deen studied her sensor readouts instead. “I think they are all assembled together,” she said.”
Star shook her head. “No, not assembled. They’ve got somebody surrounded.”
“That has to be Xylion.”
“Uh, somebody just went over that cliff,” Culsten said when they were coming into visual range.
“Lock on to that life sign and beam it up,” Star said.
Deen’s fingers were racing over her controls, frustration etched into her features. “I can’t get a lock while he’s in free fall.”
“Forget the lock. Get everything within a five meter radius from that life sign and beam it on board,” she said and then turned towards the back of the cockpit which had its own dedicated transporter pad.
“Got it. Energizing.”
What Star saw slowly materializing was not apparently humanoid and her heart sank. That was until she realized that the reason the shape seemed so odd was that it wasn’t one person they had beamed on board. Xylion materialized along with what appeared to be a young Vulcan woman clinging on to him.
She took a step towards them. “Commander?”
The Vulcan science officer freed himself from the woman who seemed momentarily startled to find herself on the yacht. Xylion showed no such hesitation, immediately aware where he was, he stood quickly and strode directly to the nearest weapons locker.
Tela jumped back onto her feat even before he had reached it.
Star turned towards Deen. “Beam her back to—“ she didn’t get a chance to finish that sentence when Tela jumped forward and drove her hard into the bulkhead.
Xylion fired the phaser he had retrieved but the creature masquerading itself as a Vulcan woman shrug off the stun setting with no apparent difficulty at all.
Realizing the more immediate danger of being whisked away again, it turned towards the front of the yacht and darted directly for Deen to stop her from using the transporter.
Culsten, leaving the ship on autopilot, jumped out of his seat to intercept her. It was a fruitless effort as Tela, using surprising strength, simply shoved the Krellonian out of the way. Then holding on to Deen by her shoulders, she easily dragged her out of the chair and sent her flying towards the back of the cockpit.
Xylion in the meantime had readjusted his phaser to a higher setting and took careful aim. Tela spotted him just in time and then, not unlike a ghost, became ethereal, causing the beam to phase right through her and burn into the bulkhead instead. She then practically glided across the cockpit in an instant, taking on a solid shape again only once she was directly in front of Xylion and then reached out with both her hands to squeeze his throat. He fought back and they tumbled to the floor together with the Tela creature kneeling on top of him, bringing her face close to his. “This could have been a pleasurable experience for you Xylion, if you had only chosen to do as I had asked of you. Now I will consume your essence and nothing of you will remain but an empty and dead husk,” she said and moved closer to his head even while she continued to restrict his airflow. “My people will be free,” she said before her mouth opened wide, far wider than should have been possible for her anatomy until most of her face was a dark, gaping hole, seemingly intend on swallowing up Xylion’s head whole.
Deen watched in horror from where she had landed against the back bulkhead as the young Vulcan woman had transformed into a vampire like creature attempting to suck the life right out of Xylion. She couldn’t stand and the pain in her leg felt as if bones had broken. Out of the forward viewport she could see that the yacht was heading back towards orbit but without anybody at the controls, the ship was traveling at an almost leisurely pace.
She spotted Star coming back around. She had landed closer to the controls than anyone else. “Commander,” she cried out. “Take us up.”
The Trill saw Xylion and the creature sitting on top of him and then Deen pointing at the forward viewports. There the nebula was slowly becoming visible as they penetrated the gray cloud cover surrounding the planet.
Star understood and jumped to the controls, pitching the yacht sharply upwards and engaging the impulse engine for additional speed. She hung on for dear life while everyone else tumbled towards the back including Xylion and Tela.
The yacht shot clear of the clouds and back into orbit.
The creature saw that they were about to leave the planet behind and abandoned Xylion for the moment to head towards Star. “No, we are not ready yet.”
“Too bad,” said Star. “Because, ready or not, we’re getting out of here.”
But the creature had other intentions. It turned ethereal once more and suddenly gravity no longer seemed to be a hindrance as it easily glided towards the front.
Star, looking over her shoulder, saw her approach. When she looked forward again she realized that they were headed straight for the lightning storm. “Lieutenant, I really hope those modifications you’ve made to the hull will work.”
Deen understood what she was saying. “Only one way to find out.”
The creature reached out for the Trill but Star dodged underneath her and rolled away just in time.
The Dark looked up and out of the viewport to see a massive energy discharge heading straight for the ship. “No!”
The discharge hit and seemed to penetrate the outer hull like it was made out of tissue paper. The yacht trembled but otherwise remained in tact while the energy bolt ripped right into the Dark causing it to scream and screech as it seemed to experience unbearable pain. It turned ethereal again but only for a moment. Then it seemed to spontaneously erupt into flames and burn from the inside out. Seconds later it had vanished, leaving behind only dust.
Star got back onto her feet and shot Deen a look. “I think you’re theory about those discharges may have been correct,” she said and helped Culsten who appeared a little dazed but otherwise unharmed back onto his feet. “Lieutenant, take the helm, let’s not take any more chances and avoid us getting hit again. Then get us back to Eagle
as fast as you can.”
He nodded and made his way back to the helm controls.
“Commander, are you alright?” Star asked Xylion as he was slowly sitting up against the bulkhead, holding on to his neck.
“I have sustained bruising and lacerations to my esophagus. However, my injuries are relatively minor,” he said, even if his voice remained noticeably strained from the attack.
“Good,” she said and pulled him back to his feet. “We may still need you to get us out of this nebula. Your new friends down on that planet have enemies up here and last we checked they were very much set on their destruction. I’d rather not be around when that happens.”
“The threat has passed,” said Deen who had managed to pull herself into a chair. “Whatever they tried to do with Xylion, they’ve failed and they remain bound to that world they’ve been banished to.”
“Yeah, I don’t think the Light got the memo,” said Culsten.
All eyes turned towards the forward viewport were the Krellonian was staring at a massive entity of light approaching the planet. It was now easily the size of a natural moon and pulsating with barely contained fury, ready to be unleashed onto a target with devastating effect. The lightning all around the planet ceased all at once as the Light entity moved into orbit. Not a moment later an energy beam the width of a starship shot out from the phenomenon and struck the planet dead on.
Xylion had taken the seat next to Culsten while Star returned to her own chair. The Vulcan was first in providing an update. “I am reading energy signatures beyond our capabilities to measure. At this rate the planet will lose molecular cohesion in approximately thirty-four seconds.”
“Losing molecular cohesion doesn’t sound too bad,” said Star.
Xylion clarified. “The resulting shockwave will destroy this vessel.”
“Always with the bad news,” she said and looked at Culsten. “Can we outrun it on impulse?”
He shook his head. “No chance.”
“Alright, you wanted to test her new warp drive. Let’s do it now.”
But Xylion shot Star a concerned looked. “Commander, using warp drive within the nebula may cause unexpected complications which we may not survive.”
“Sorry, I must have missed the part where you were offering an alternative.”
Xylion said nothing.
The planet was now glowing and beginning to pulsate, absorbing immense amounts of energy no spatial body would have been able to handle. Ripples of immensely bright lights were beginning to spread like a cancer across the entire surface, quickly dissecting the rogue planetoid.
Star looked at the pilot. “Do it, do it now.”
He nodded sharply. “Here goes nothing.”
The yacht deployed two short warp nacelles which lit up briefly when the warp core came online. But the ship didn’t go anywhere.
“What just happened?” Star asked.
Culsten shook his head in frustration as he tried to make sense of the readings his panel was offering him. “I don’t understand, the warp core did power up and according to this we should be traveling at warp two.”
Xylion raised an eyebrow. “As I attempted to explain before, the composition of this nebula makes any attempt of creating a stable warp bubble extremely unpredictable and unlikely.”
“The planet is breaking up,” said Deen from an aft station.
“Wormhole, dead ahead, ” said Xylion.
A swirling black mass had appeared right in front of the yacht, looking to suck anything and everything into uncertainty.
“And we’re going in,” Culsten added.
Star held on to her station as tightly as she could, fully cognizant that it was likely not going to be nearly enough to survive that encounter. “Brace for impact.”