Sample text for Challenger / Diane Carey.

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Chapter One

"How could threat vessels get so close without tripping our sensors?"

"What do you expect from me? Look at the monitors. Completely gamma-seized."

"Then we better saddle up and learn to ride blind."

The sci-deck of Starfleet Cruiser Peleliu stank and smoldered. Part of the carpet was on fire, but nobody was bothering with it. Hot damage crawled like parasites through the mechanics under the sensor boards' tripolymer skin. Burst connections caused tiny volcanoes of acid in ripped-open sheeting. A third of the pressure pads and readouts had quit working or were crying for damage control.

Nick Keller swiped his uniform's dirty sleeve across his forehead, bent over the sensor boards, and tried to focus his stinging eyes. A fleck of insulation hung from a wing of his briar-patch-brown hair and blocked part of his view. For an hour they'd fielded attacks from enemies they couldn't see, couldn't target, and hadn't expected. How had any hostiles known they were on their way out to Belle Terre? Or was this some new enemy that nobody in Starfleet or out at the colony even knew about yet?

The question went unanswered. Sensors couldn't see through the bath of gamma radiation spewed by a pulsing neutron star so far away that even working long-range sensors wouldn't have picked it up.

Beside him, Tim McAddis dribbled sweat from his pale forehead onto the sensor dials. His blond hair glistened with a frost of perspiration. "I'm used to seeing things a solar system away, not a lousy five hundred yards. Now that our deflectors are on full, we can't even pick up phantom data like before."

It was a hard thing for a science officer to admit.

Keller pressed a hand to McAddis's hunched shoulder. "Look at the bright side. You'll get the blame instead of me."

McAddis grinned nervously. "The mighty second mate stands defiant."

A knock on the cold-molded lattice grid near his knee got Keller's attention. He found the first officer's reassuring face peering up from the command deck seven feet below, through the lattice fence that prevented crewmen or tools from falling under the sci-deck rail. "What've you two got up there? How'd they come up on us?"

Without a good explanation, Keller knelt to meet him under the rail and handed over the unhelpful truth. "Derek, they must've cruised in cold. No engines. Coasting, like the old days of rocketry. We were looking for exhaust signatures, not solid objects. All I can figure is the bad guys are accustomed to blackout action and know how to maneuver on inertia. Without engines, they're really invisible."

"Mr. Hahn," the communications officer interrupted, "sickbay reports thirty casualties."

"How many dead?" Derek Hahn asked.

"They just said casualties. I don't think they want to tell us."

Kneeling up here in only a pretense of seclusion, Keller gripped the rail at the tremor in Tracy Chan's voice. Everybody was shaken badly. They weren't even sure yet how many of their shipmates were dead. Suj Sanjai at tactical had been killed in the first hit less than an hour ago. That grim hello had brought in critical seconds of attack before the Peleliu got its shields up. Since then, the minutes had been long and bitter, landing percussion after percussion on them from unseen foes who understood better than Starfleet how to fight during Gamma Night.

"Phasers direct aft," the captain ordered. "Fire!"

Both Keller and Hahn looked at the command deck.

Staccato phaser fire spewed from the aft array, at targets no one could see, jolting the ship much more than normal. That was the damage speaking. The cruiser convulsed under Keller's knee.

Keeping his voice low, he murmured, "What's he targeting? He can't possibly know where they are."

Hahn shook his head, but said nothing. He watched Captain Roger Lake, stalking the center deck.

From up here on the half-circle balcony, Keller clearly saw the command arena below except for the turbolift. The science and engineering balcony where he knelt rested on top of the lift's tube structure, a design meant to maximize use of the cruiser's support skeleton. Two narrow sets of ladder steps, one to his left and the other to his right, curved down to the command deck on either side of the lift doors. Below, Crewman Makarios at the helm and Ensign Hurley at nav both hunched over their controls, staring at the main viewscreen, which stubbornly showed them only a static field interrupted every twenty seconds or so by a grainy flash of open space, fed by McAddis's tedious attempts to clear the sensors. The largest screen on the bridge -- on any Starfleet bridge -- was their window to eternity. The two fellows at the helm were hoping for a lucky glimpse of the attackers, maybe get off a clean shot with full phasers.

To port of the helm the half-demolished tactical station was still unmanned, with Captain Lake's stocky form haunting it as he tried to keep one eye on the main screen. Why hadn't he called for somebody to replace Sanjai? Why was he so moody?

To starboard, Chan's communications console was the only board on the bridge that had so far evaded damage, either direct or repercussive. Everybody else was struggling just to make things work at half capacity. Those first hits had done some nasty work.

Up here the engineering console on the balcony's starboard side beeped madly, reporting dozens of damaged sites all over the ship, but there was no one to answer. The engineers had split for their own section as soon as the attack came, and behind him the environmental and life-support board went wanting too. Keller and McAddis were up here alone.

Almost alone.

The sci-deck offered a certain amount of privacy. Sound insulation and clever design of the ceiling shell prevented travel of much conversation from up here to the lower deck, where command conversations were also taking place. The two sections, then, could be functionally close, but not interrupt each other. Usually, Keller liked it up here. This was second-officer territory if ever there had been any. During this voyage, though, an added presence haunted the upper deck.

He glanced to his right.

There she was. That Rassua woman, Zoa, along for the haul. A cross between an ambassador and an inspector, she wasn't in Starfleet, but she was here most of the time anyway, fulfilling her mission of "determining whether the Federation is up the standards of the Rassua."

She stood on the upper deck as if someone had leaned an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus against the console, both legs braced, her gold face and thick hair in a waterfall of severe skinny plaits, her lined lips giving nothing away. In the months of travel, Keller had only heard her voice a couple of times. If she was any indication, the Rassua weren't talkative.

Dressed in woven strips of leather that left her heavily tattooed shoulders bare, Zoa was markedly disparate from the Starfleet crew in their black trousers and brick-red jackets. If only she had boots on. Instead, she wore only some kind of crisscross thong sandals with thick soles, allowing her two-inch toenails to curve down like a hawk's talons hooked over a branch.

And she never moved her face. Her blue-dot eyes followed the crew action here and below. It was like having a sphinx watch every move they made. Keller wished he could order her off the bridge. Roger Lake wanted her here. He liked showing off to an alien who was being courted by the Federation. The UFP wanted the Rassua alliance to guard their zenith borders.

So here she was, observing. If they got out of this, she'd have a real story for somebody back home.

Keller had hoped she'd get the hint and go below when the battle started, but apparently this was what she'd been waiting for all along and she wasn't about to leave. He tried to ignore her. His skull throbbed.

Derek Hahn reached up and caught Keller's wrist. "You okay? Your left eye's dilating."

His swollen temple ached under Keller's probing fingers. "Feel like I got mule-kicked."

"You got ship-kicked. For a minute there I didn't think we'd come out of that spin. Harrison's hands are full in sickbay, but I'll have Ring come up here."

"No, don't. Savannah's a passenger this trip. She shouldn't have to be on the bridge."

"Won't hurt a Starfleet medic to work her passage. She wants to start a Special Services Rescue Unit at Belle Terre, she can start right here."

"Were you a drill sergeant in a previous life?"

"Everybody needs a hobby." Hahn looked under the sci-deck balcony toward the communications post. "Tracy, call Savannah Ring to the bridge with her bag of tricks."

"Aye, sir. Medic Ring, report to the bridge with a field kit. Medic Ring to the bridge, please."

"Nick!" McAddis erupted from the science board. "I'm getting a shadow! I think they're coming in again!"

Without even attempting to confirm the readings, Keller glanced at the stocky form of their captain, pacing the lower deck between the helm and the command chair. "Tell him, Derek."

Accepting Keller's instincts, Hahn spun around. "Captain, brace for another pass!"

On the command deck, Captain Roger Lake didn't order the crew to brace or any other preventive action. Instead he made a completely unexplained order. "Thrusters on! One-eighth impulse power!"

Hahn stepped away from the rail and croaked, "Sir, we shouldn't be moving during Gamma Night!"

Lake shot him a glare. "We've got to outrun them while we can. I know how these people think."

Keller pushed to his feet and spoke up, "Sir, I agree with Derek. One full-power hit from Peleliu would demolish any ship in this sector. They don't have anything that can match -- "

"They've got everything we've got. Fire!"

Lake's eyes were fixed on the forward screen, as if he saw something there. But there was nothing. Only a clicking blue cloud of static. Yet he was shooting, over and over, depleting their weapons, sending unthinkable destructive power racing through space behind them without effect.

Hahn came back to the rail and peered up at McAddis's scanners. "If only we could go to warp speed..."

Gamma Night laughed in his face.

Hahn turned to watch Lake from behind, analyzing the set of the captain's shoulders, the quick breathing, the cranky movements, the petulant glances. "We're dead if we keep moving." He jumped to the nearest ladder, climbed it, and joined Keller at the suffering sensors. His voice was very low. "He's snapping, Nick."

Cold dread washed down Keller's spine. He glanced to his side, afraid the science officer had overheard, but McAddis had moved down the sensor bank and was preoccupied.

Keller's hands turned icy. "Now, let's not pick our peaches before they're fuzzy."

"We gambled," Hahn said. "We lost."

"We don't know that yet, Dee," Keller downplayed.

"His judgments are sluggish, he's irrational -- this stuff about how they've got everything we've got -- who does he think is out there?"

Desperate to hold together whatever they had, Keller resisted the urge to face him and obviously be having a conversation that might get the captain's attention. Quietly he said, "Harrison did a psych scan two weeks ago for chemical abnormalities. The results were indeterminate. This is just stress. He hasn't been in battle for years."

"Neither have I, but I'm not -- "

"Hey, I've got blips on the short-range," McAddis interrupted. "I think they might be moving away!"

Keller spoke past Hahn. "Captain, they might be moving off."

"If we hold off on weapons fire," Hahn added, "they might lose us. Sir!"

"Don't believe the equipment!" Lake whirled around, meeting everyone's eyes one by one. "They've done something to our sensors! Sabotage. We have to rely on instinct. We know they always attack in a wedge formation. Like bees."

At that, Hahn stepped forward. "Captain, how can you recognize something we've never encountered before?"

"Don't joke around, Dee," Lake said. "It's typical Klingon formation. Hurley, did I tell you to stop shooting?"

Beside Keller, McAddis bent forward as if he'd gotten a cramp. "Klingons."

"Shh. Anybody can misspeak. He means Kauld."

But he peered past Hahn, down to the command area. A few steps to their right, the Rassua woman now had her inkdot eyes fixed not on Lake, but on Keller and Hahn. Gold face, a zillion little braids, and eyes with no pupils, just solid blue, grilling them with an angry message.

This could get out of hand. Turning away from her, Keller pressed a couple of fingers gingerly to his aching head and used the other hand to play the suffering sensors, but he overturned the dial and lost the image.

McAddis nudged him. "All right, Nick?"

Beside them, Hahn complained, "What's taking Ring so long?"

Keller waved them off. "Swamped in sickbay. I'll just put a patch over the dilated one. You can call me the Santa Fe Bandito."

McAddis smiled, then murmured, "I'd feel better if she just wasn't here all the time."

"Captain likes having her here, watching," Hahn reminded, almost casting a glance back at Zoa, then changing his mind at the last second. "Her people have a taste for frontier living. They weren't interested in the UFP before Belle Terre broke wide open."

"Funny," Keller commented. "Nobody wanted to go out there when it was peaceful and pretty. Now hell's broke loose, they discovered stable olivium, and all bets are off."

Uneasy, McAddis sighed. "Those colonists are in for a shock with people like the Rassua prowling around."

Keller peered at the reflection of Zoa's stiff face in the polished rim of the number-two scanner. "Naw, she's just going out there to open a young ladies' academy. Zoa's Charm School and Small Engine Repair."

Though he managed to get chuckles out of the two other men, that was all the relief they would get. On the engineering console, across the sci-deck from where the three men huddled, the severe-malfunction lights came on with a corresponding alarm. An instant later, half the board exploded in what was obviously not another hit, but internal damage finally blowing.

While Hahn pulled the leather-strapped presence of Zoa out of the way, Keller stumbled to the unmanned engineering console and tried to make sense of the flashing and smoldering. "Tetragrid overload! We need an engineer on the bridge to lock down the static pulses!"

"I'll do it," Hahn volunteered. He skimmed down the ladder, dropped to the lower deck, and crossed to the tactical boards.

Keller fought to tie his controls in to the tactical, racing the damage before it caused a calamity. "Starboard PTCs read amber!"

"Leave 'em alone!" Hahn turned briefly toward aft to make sure he was heard over the mechanical whine. "Cool those plasma injectors right now! Try the -- "

The ship slammed sideways, driving Keller first backward, and then elbow-first into the environmental grids. The enemy had found them again and struck them in the main section's port side, hitting the skin of the cruiser mere feet from the bridge. A tumor of smoke and shrapnel burst out of the tactical displays.

The blast swallowed Derek Hahn completely. The last thing Keller saw of him was the wedge of his chin as the explosion struck him in the back.

"Oh, cripe -- !" Keller was down the steps before he realized he was on his feet.

"Out of the way!" Roger Lake shoved Helmsman Makarios right out of his seat and plowed to Hahn.

He and Keller met at the first officer's writhing form. Lake pulled from one side, and Keller caught Hahn as they rolled him over.

Hahn's uniform was actually sizzling in Keller's hands, but the exo was conscious, talking, and trying to stand.

"I'm all right," Hahn gasped. "The injectors -- "

"Pick him up." Lake pushed off the deck and veered back to the helm. "Blanket the phasers! Set up a grid and open fire!"

"Our weapons are depleting," Keller reminded, but it was like talking to a tree. "Blanketing shots without a target just wastes power!"

Derek Hahn reached out. "Roger!"

The captain didn't honor them with a response, turning instead to the frightened helm crew. "Ahead, quarter impulse!"

"Oh, no -- " Hahn pressed a hand to Keller's knee and forced himself to his feet.

When Hahn stood up, Keller was choked by a heart-clutching sight of Hahn's uniform and the three inches of metal sticking out of the first officer's back on the right side, an unidentified piece of the blown board material.

Three inches out -- how far in?

And how could he avoid a panic? He grasped Hahn from behind. "Captain, permission to drag Mr. Hahn kicking and screaming to sickbay?"

"What?" Hahn belched. "Get your hands off me!"


"Come on, Derek." Looping an arm around the first officer, Keller hoisted him to the turbolift vestibule. Overhead, one leg pressed against the balcony rail, Tim McAddis stared down at them in a momentary lapse from the science boards.

He and Keller locked gazes for a moment. "Be right back, Tim," Keller undergirded.

The turbolift doors parted and he pulled Hahn inside. Hahn tried to help, but only one leg was working. Instead the exo clasped Keller's arms and shrieked, "It's the methane! Roger!"

"Hush," Keller warned, "don't make me rope you," and pulled him all the way in. The lift doors gushed closed, but before Keller could grasp the destination controller, Hahn collapsed against him and Keller devoted both hands to holding him.

Valiantly Hahn braced his legs and tried to stay upright, but slipped a centimeter with every agonized gasp. "He's snapping! Did you see -- his -- eyes?"

"It's just Gamma Night," Keller said. "He's never fought like this before."

"We shouldn't be moving -- not a foot, not an inch, they -- could lay mines in front of us -- If we move, we're easier to find even on blinded sensors. It's the methane, Nick, I know it is -- I know it is!"

Still holding him, Keller cranked halfway around. Where was the control arm? There! He gave it a twist. The mechanism felt sluggish in his hand. "Sickbay," he said.

Though the confirm light went on, the lift did nothing. Outside the closed doors, he could hear the action on the bridge and wanted to go back. The wound in Hahn's back was now bleeding into the fabric of Keller's sleeve, almost the same color.

"Sickbay!" he shouted at the sound-sensitive panel. "Dang box of rocks -- "

Responding this time, the lift started to move downward, then chunked under his feet to a sudden dead stop and threw him and Hahn against the wall. Hahn gasped out his pain, and the lift began to descend again.

Less than ten feet down, the whole cab shifted a good two inches, tilted at a noticeable angle, and jammed to another grating stop.

"The guides!" Hahn choked out.

Keller looked up at the flashing warning lights. "Must be bent."

"If he'd sit still, the sensors might be able to pull in something. Open the doors -- I've got to get back in there."

But Keller pressed him down, feeling desperation and his own fears rushing through his arms. "You sit still."

He craned around to look at the lift's control panel. How could he get it moving? The doors were jammed. There'd been a power surge.

"Did you see him?" Hahn coiled his arms around his own body. "He's not acting right. We don't need to be moving. We survived the surprise attack. We can stand toe to toe with anybody -- there's nobody -- read the reports -- who can stand up to a destroyer point-blank in this sector. But if we're moving we can collide, we can hit anything else that's out there, our own thrusters and shields muck up our sensors..."

Maybe he was babbling, except that people who babble don't usually make perfect sense. Keller nodded in frustration and unhappy agreement, then broke the panel off the wall and got to the direct-feed cables. A puff of gray acid smoke piled out at him, souring the air in the lift. When it cleared, he looked into the panel opening. What he saw in there -- he didn't even want to touch it, never mind stick his arm all the way in.

"Fused," he reported, more to himself than Hahn. "We're stuck."

"They'll break us -- out in a minute." On the deck, Hahn's breathing grew more labored and his voice weaker. "I was hoping we could make it to Belle Terre.... Captain Kirk could take over...situation..." He pressed a bloody hand to his side again, but couldn't reach the wound in his back. As his head dropped against the lift wall, his waxy eyes beseeched Keller's. "We're overpaying our debt, Nick."

More concerned about Hahn than the lift, Keller divided his mind and knelt beside the injured officer, seeing their four years together dancing in front of his eyes.

Hahn grimaced and arched against the lift wall. "I -- feel it now -- I feel it -- !" Pain twisted through him. He clutched toward the wound he couldn't possibly reach. "Is there something in me? I feel something solid. Pull it out!"

"There's nothing in there," Keller lied. "You're just ship-kicked."

Drunk with blood loss, Hahn couldn't raise his head. His eyes began to glaze. "He'll be poisoned.... Tavola exposure -- you know what that means...but he saved our asses. Don't tell them, Nick...he'll cover for you. I will too..."

Stunned, Keller held his breath a few seconds before he realized what was happening. He dug his fingers into the chest placket of Hahn's uniform and shook him. "Derek, that was three years ago! Come out of it!"

"What?" Hahn murmured. His eyes cleared with a surge of adrenaline. "Oh, sorry...took a trip, didn't I?"

Angry now, Keller snapped, "Tavola exposure shows itself in the first ninety days -- you know that!"

"Usually," Hahn gagged. "And usually the person's watched like a hawk by every doctor within a light-year. Nick, he's snapping and it's our -- "

"No, no," Keller insisted, feeling himself sweat under his jacket. This couldn't be rearing its ugly skull, could it? Not now! "He hasn't been in battle in over six years. It's just stress."

Forcing a shake of his head, Hahn argued, "The pressure's bringing the reaction out. We can't protect him anymore...We made a hell of a mistake. Today we...we pay."

From above, a faint voice filtered through the sound-muffling insulation. "Nick?"

Keller bolted to his feet. "Savannah! The lift's jammed! Break us out! We need help!"

A response thrummed through the shaft, but he couldn't make it out. For a moment he wondered how Savannah Ring had made it onto the bridge, but then his head cleared some and he remembered the companionway ladder leading down to the next deck. Then they must know the lift wasn't working.

"Open up the hatch," Hahn said. "Let's get back to the bridge."

"You're going to sickbay," Keller said. At least he could do that much.

"Till I get back," Hahn gasped, "keep our shields up, no matter what."

"If we run with full shields, the sensors won't work at all." Keller tried pushing at the ceiling hatch. The twisted lift must have jammed the hatch too. It wouldn't budge. "Not even the little bit of data we get trickling in -- dang crippled thing, open up!"

Hahn flinched at the protest and grasped Keller's leg. "We shouldn't be running at all! Roger's watch him. I -- I -- can't breathe..." His eyes cramped shut and he slipped sideways, his face a twisted knot.

Abandoning the hatch as he heard noises thunking from above, Keller quickly knelt again and pulled Hahn up, then yanked open the placket to loose the exo's jacket. "Let's get your belt off."

"You always -- wanted an excuse -- to get out of uniform...."

Keller tried a grin. "At least the new ones have pockets in the britches. The other ones were just fancy PJs. What's a cowboy to do with his thumbs?"

"Still got those wranglers on..."

"Don't give me grief about m'boots. You don't outrank me that much."

"Nick -- " Hahn fought his way back from the edge of consciousness again, battled down the pain that obviously had him by the body, and hooked his bloody hand on Keller's neck. "Nick, listen. It's time, it's time."

"Now, Dee," Keller moaned. "He's got thirteen years' command experience. That's better than what you and I got between us, even if he's a little shook."

"We let it go too long," Hahn wheezed. His gaze was now shockingly lucid. "As soon as I get back from sickbay," he vowed, "I'm relieving him."

More roughly than he meant, Keller tightened his grip. "Sit still. Let me get us out of here. Everything'll be better in a few minutes. Just sit."

On thready legs he stood again, reached up, and tried pulling on the hatch instead of pushing. The hatch squawked and moved this time, but it was meant to push out, not pull in, and the rim wouldn't give. "Come on, bust open," he grumbled. "What've I ever done to you?"

If only he had something to stand on, he could apply his weight onto the hatch with a well-arranged elbow. Muffled thunks and rasping of tools and metal told him they were breaking through from the bridge. He wanted to call out for them to hurry, but the lift tube was clustered with electrical outlets and access points that might be hot, dangerous. They couldn't hurry. He braced his legs and tried to push straight upward, but his boot heel skidded on the deck. His leg slipped out from under him. He staggered.

He looked down.

Hahn's blood painted the deck, a red smear across the lift floor, with a slashing imprint of the heel of Keller's left ranch boot.

Maybe if he'd wear regulation footwear, none of this would be happening. If one decision had been different somewhere way back --

Derek had tried to tell him. Why hadn't they made a different decision three years ago? Why couldn't they go back and fix it?

Below him, Derek Hahn sucked a lump of air and wheezed it back out. "The crew..."

"What about 'em?" Aggravated and taking it out on the hatch, Keller pushed harder on the stubborn panel.

There was no response this time. After a few seconds, the silence made sense.

"Derek?" Keller knelt again.

Hahn's eyes had lost their focus. Though sweat trailed down his face, his lips were relaxed now, his arms resting on his thighs. A breath gurgled in...out.

"Derek! They're almost through!"

Though the first officer was still breathing, he no longer blinked or responded. His eyelids began to sag, his tight facial muscles to go limp. His face turned pasty. Another choked breath clawed its way in.

Terror seized Keller by the heart. This was supposed to be a milk run. An easy mission. A six-month flight out to Belle Terre, the same heading all the way, boring, quiet, peaceful, simple, then take over picket duty at Belle Terre and relieve the Enterprise to return to Federation space.

Suddenly everything shattered around him like a glass bulb he held too tight in his hand. His fingers crushed the bulb into ever smaller shards.

Something thumped on the lift roof. The access hatch cranked open with a ghastly shriek. Bent metal, crying, weeping.

There it was. The way back to the bridge. A hand came down.


Copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Kirk, James T. (Fictitious character) -- Fiction.
Life on other planets -- Fiction.