Sample text for Aftermath / Christopher L. Bennett ... [et. al].

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From Aftermath

by Christopher L. Bennett

Chapter 1

"Danged Breen," Katie Huang complained. "They put a hole in my city."

Sanek, her new assistant, looked up at her as they worked their way down the slope, his bright orange hard hat clashing with his sallow skin. "The Breen put a great many holes in San Francisco. However, most of those holes have been filled."

"Yeah," Katie acceded grudgingly -- or not so grudgingly, she decided as she caught a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, now restored and reopened. She remembered how it had looked a year ago, after the Breen attack on Starfleet Headquarters -- the north tower crumpled, the span missing a huge chunk in the middle. It was a miracle the bridge hadn't collapsed. Some had wanted to leave it as it was as a monument, but it was too valuable a thoroughfare, and too important a symbol of the City by the Bay, not to be restored to its former glory. As proud as Katie was of her fellow civilian builders and maintenance workers, she gave a silent thanks to the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, Earth Division, for their tireless efforts on the city's behalf.

"But that's just it," she went on. "All this time, and there's still this great big ugly scar in the middle of my town."

"That is more the fault of the geology than the Breen."

"They had sensors. They must've known about the underground caverns." The Breen had been indiscriminate in their attack, hitting parts of the city far removed from the military targets and costing many innocent lives. They'd even attacked the Starfleet Museum Center, destabilizing the ground beneath it and opening a sinkhole into which most of the complex had collapsed. The losses to art, culture, and science were incalculable, and Katie felt them keenly; but the massive blemish on the landscape had become her personal symbol for all of it, something that affected her on a visceral level. What had made it worse was that the continued instabilities had hampered efforts to clear and restore the site, so it still remained, even though the rest of San Francisco was as good as new.

"Still," Sanek said, "the ground is now stabilized and most of the wreckage has been cleared away. The new museum can be built soon. Perhaps the construction of a war memorial will be approved. I understand you humans are fond of such emotional representations."

Katie smiled at her new friend's very Vulcan sentiment. "Nothing wrong with a good emotional representation, Sanek. You should try it sometime."

He raised an eyebrow. "That would be illogical, as you well know."

Katie laughed and said, "I know, but you can't blame a human for trying. I'm sure lots of humans think Vulcans would be better off if they let their hair down a bit."

"Just as many Vulcans think humans would be better off if they, to maintain the metaphor, kept their hair tied up."

That prompted another laugh. "Probably, yeah. But that's what keeps the galaxy interesting." They reached the bottom of the sinkhole and activated their sensor units. Not as versatile as Starfleet tricorders, they were still good enough to scan for remaining instabilities, gas pockets, salvageable artifacts from the museum . . . or organic remains. Even now, a few victims were still unaccounted for.

Sanek focused intently on his scanner, barely paying attention to his footing, and Katie smirked. "Don't trip over any android heads."

"I beg your pardon?"

"These tunnels are where they found Data's head a few years back."

"Assuming you are referring to Lieutenant Commander Data of the Starship Enterprise, I was under the impression that his head has remained attached to his person."

"This was his head from the past. He went back in time, it got knocked off, gathered dust here for five hundred years, and got put back on." She frowned. "So his head's twenty times older than the rest of him. I wonder what that does to the warranty."

"According to the records, that was a 'prank' on the part of some cadets from Starfleet Academy -- another of your emotional representations."

Katie grinned. "That's the official story. Of course, time-travel evidence gets classified. Too dangerous, you know. Imagine the havoc someone could cause if they knew how to go back and mess around with the past." She noticed something on her scanner. "Hey, I've got some kind of . . . reading. It's coming and going . . . but yeah, it's there."

"What manner of reading?"

"I think it's some kind of subspace static," she frowned. "Under those rocks."

"Down here?"

"Hell, maybe it's some old communicator from the museum with a bit of power left. Better check it out, though -- might be a priceless antique." Again, she smirked, showing what she thought of the odds. "Help me here." Together they moved the rubble out of the way, exposing the item.

It was a small spherical object, about the size of a golf ball, covered in dust. "It is not registering on my scanner," Sanek said. "Perhaps a Starfleet-issue tricorder would do better."

"No, we don't need to call in the troops every time a problem comes up." She reached toward it.

"I would not advise touching it. We have no way of knowing its function."

"Whatever its function was, if anything, it's been blasted by the Breen's energy dampers, dumped through a sinkhole, and buried under rubble for a year. It probably doesn't do much of anything anymore. Hey, look, it's even got a crack in it. Was that there a moment ago?" She reached a finger forward to indicate the hairline fissure. Her fingernail barely brushed it.

She never heard the blast that followed -- though it rocked the whole city.

It's too quiet, thought David Gold.

He was walking to the bridge with Sonya Gomez, the same morning ritual he and his first officer had enacted every day until the da Vinci had been crippled in the incident at Galvan VI. This was their first morning back since then, and they'd resumed the ritual automatically, a natural beginning to the day when the repaired starship would launch herself out of dry dock once more. Around them the rebuilt corridors sparkled in mint condition; in the background the restored engines thrummed in perfect tune, supplying electroplasma for perfectly calibrated systems. Shipshape and Bristol fashion, Gold thought, remembering the phrase his old friend Jean-Luc liked to use in his antiquarian moments.

But it was too quiet. There was none of the pleasant bustle that had formerly filled the ship's compact corridors -- whether that of engineers pursuing their projects, constantly making adjustments to push the systems just a bit more beyond dry dock specs, or that of crewmates and friends exchanging banter and giving friendly greetings as their commanding officers walked by. All the people they passed were subdued -- the old crew members (agonizingly few) still recovering from the tragedy, the new ones still adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings. It would take time for them to get comfortable with each other, to mesh into a unit that Gold hoped could work as smoothly as the old crew -- though not in quite the same way, to be sure. The da Vinci would never be truly the same again.

Gold wondered if his morning walk with Gomez would ever be the same again either. In the past, it had been an opportunity for small talk, for exchanging shipboard gossip and chatting about family and news and trivia, having more to do with friendship than duty. To Gold, it helped to compensate for being so far from his own family.

In fact, he hadn't been sure that she was going to show up for the walk at all. Among the many fatalities had been Kieran Duffy, the ship's second officer and Gomez's lover. It had seemed from the outside like a simple shipboard romance -- until Duffy had popped the question out of the blue. Gold couldn't blame Gomez for being too farblonzhet to give him an answer. But then Duffy had sacrificed himself to save the ship, never knowing what her answer would've been. By her own admission, Gomez herself didn't know, either. One more loss to add to the list -- the loss of closure. But for a time, Gomez had blamed Gold for Duffy's death, and, though they had settled that, at least, and regained a semblance of their former friendship, Gold knew that Duffy's death would always be a barrier between them.

Gold knew she'd worked through the worst of her grief, and was ready to resume her duties. But there was no telling how long it would be before she could take joy in them again. Which was a shame. She was generally a serious sort, a hardened pro, tough on herself, prone to worry; but underneath it all was a girlish innocence and playfulness, which manifested itself in a radiant smile that filled Gold with fatherly warmth. He missed that smile.

And it was still too quiet.

Naturally, just as he thought that, a jolt went through the ship, knocking him briefly off balance. As he and Gomez ran to the bridge, the captain reflected that he had some choice words for God about His sense of timing.

The bridge was bustling with activity as the crew worked to analyze the disturbance. Yet even here it seemed too quiet, without David McAllan to announce "Captain on the bridge" as he always had. That shtick had annoyed Gold at first, but over time he'd grown accustomed to it, and now he'd give anything to hear it again. Better that than the memory of McAllan sacrificing himself, shoving Gold out from under a falling ceiling support -- of the look on the young man's face in that last moment, meeting his captain's eyes imploringly, seeking assurance that he'd done all right. Until that moment, Gold had never realized the deep respect and devotion that had underlain young David's -- his namesake's -- insistence on announcing his captain's arrival.

Anthony Shabalala, McAllan's replacement at tactical, looked for a moment like he wanted to announce Gold, but couldn't bring himself to. They weren't his words to say.

So Gold announced himself. "What's all the tumult about?"

Lieutenant Commander Mor glasch Tev, the da Vinci's new second officer, rose efficiently from the center seat and faced his captain. The stocky Tellarite barely came up to Gomez's height, but carried himself high and proudly. His monk's fringe of dark hair and the gray-frosted beard that framed his porcine features were groomed to machine tolerances. "Subspace shock wave, sir," Tev reported in a curt but surprisingly mellow baritone. "No damage reported, but I'm having Chief Engineer Conlon recalibrate the warp coils." Although no engineer himself, Gold knew well enough that the wave, moving through subspace instead of normal space, wouldn't have affected the da Vinci at all if the warp coils hadn't resonated with it and transmitted the shock to the ship. Any resultant misalignment would be minuscule, but if there was one thing Gold had already learned about Tev, it was that he was a perfectionist.

"Subspace shock?" Gomez asked with an air of dread. "Did a ship blow up?"

"The wave metric is wrong," Tev told her. "No engine signature, no magneton pulse." Efficient, too, to have evaluated and responded to the situation so quickly. "It reminds me of a warp-field collapse upon collision with a massive body, though."

The most massive body in the immediate area was the one where most of Gold's family, and a fair percentage of his species, lived. "Where did the shock wave come from?"

Tev's reply was prompt, but muted. "San Francisco, sir."

Gold stared for a second, then turned to Shabalala. "Get me Starfleet Command."

The city looked like a bomb had hit it.

Smoke and dust hung in the air, obscuring the sun. Buildings around the blast site stood empty, some burning, some teetering on the brink of collapse. Emergency crews, including S.C.E. units, worked with grim, determined efficiency.

It could've been far, far worse, thought Montgomery Scott as he surveyed the scene. The sinkhole region had still been largely unpopulated. And transporter grids, both civilian and Starfleet, had been able to lock onto buried survivors and beam them promptly to hospitals across the western seaboard. But dozens of people -- cleanup crews, surveyors, geo-engineers, and gawkers -- were still unaccounted for. More than a few had been S.C.E. personnel. Scotty knew from experience -- too much of it -- that the number would likely fall as more information was gathered; but however low it went, it would still be far too many.

Perhaps the worst damage was to the spirit of the San Franciscans. Their postwar sense of security and comfort had been shattered in an instant. Thousands stood outside the force-field cordons, gazing on in fear or bewilderment or anger, while children cried and asked their parents why this was happening again, or whether another war had begun. Nobody had any answers for them. Scotty hoped to change that, with the help of his S.C.E. crews.

So far the one clear thing was that it hadn't been a bomb. Instead, in the middle of a new crater blown in the side of the sinkhole, there was . . . a thing. A stout domed structure eight stories tall, its fluid contours declaring an unearthly origin. The blast damage had been done by its impromptu arrival, rather than by any explosive reaction.

An image came to Scotty's mind -- the distress signal from Intar months ago, showing the devastation wrought when the Omearan Starsearcher Friend had crashed into their capital city. The Intarians had been lucky, he'd reflected at the time, that the ship had been traveling relatively slowly. If a vessel that massive had hit at full impulse, a quarter lightspeed, it would've been a dinosaur-killer of a blast. That was why almost every spacefaring world -- including Intar now, belatedly -- had a damned good planetary defense grid. The Breen fleet that had attacked Starfleet HQ had sacrificed half its ships just to break through Earth's defense grid, even with the advantage of their energy dissipators.

"And that's what doesn't make sense!" Scotty insisted to the two men who walked through the disaster zone alongside him: Starfleet Admiral William Ross, the decorated Dominion War commander, and Cemal Iskander, the civilian Director of Earth Security. "My crews rebuilt that defense grid stronger and better than ever, upgraded with the finest sensors and countermeasures ever devised. No cloak ever made could slip by it. A Denebian dust mite could not get through, not without setting off every alarm from here to Neptune's nether regions. I'd stake my life on it!"

"I don't doubt you, Scotty," Iskander said. Indeed, the distinguished Turk had worked closely with Scotty in rebuilding the grid, and had proven a good sort to trade tall tales with, even if his faith kept him from enjoying a good bottle. "But then, how did it get here? Could it have stayed in warp until the actual moment of impact?"

"That would've set off the alarms even sooner."

"Could it have been beamed in somehow?" Ross asked.

Scotty shook his head. "A confinement beam strong enough to shove that much solid earth aside, that forcefully? That'd be a devil of a weapon in itself -- why bother beamin' anything in with it?"

Iskander frowned. "Maybe as a warning -- psychological warfare. Maybe this enemy wants to terrorize rather than simply destroy us -- to cow us into accepting conquest, like the Dominion." He peered at the structure, though, as if expecting it to erupt at any moment. "But just dropping that in our laps as a statement isn't enough. The other shoe could fall any moment. That's why you've got to attack it now, Bill."

"And we know this is even a weapon, how?" came a familiar, gruff voice. Scotty brightened to see David Gold and his team approaching.

Iskander was taken aback. "Look around you, Captain . . . ."

"Gold. David Gold. Shalom."

They shook hands. "Merhaba. As I said, look around. Our city is ablaze again. Does that look like a peaceful gesture to you?"

"In fact, it looks a little like the Starsearcher crash on Intar. That turned out to be an accident."

Right, Scotty remembered, it had been the da Vinci that he'd assigned to that mission.

"And how do you 'accidentally' slip through the most secure defense grid ever built, bypassing its every sensor mechanism?"

"I don't know, but my crew here is the most likely group to find out."

Iskander looked impatient. "Scotty, all respect to your people, but shouldn't they be working with the other S.C.E. teams on cleanup and ground stability? Even if we do risk the cautious approach," and his expression showed what he thought of that, "we have specialists who are better qualified to tell us about that thing."

"I can tell you one thing right now," said P8 Blue, startling Iskander, who'd overlooked her since she was down in crawl mode taking some low-angle seismic readings. The Nasat rose to full height to continue her report. "That object wasn't designed to arrive the way it did."

"We don't even know how it did arrive."

"We don't need to, not for this. The structure's not as badly damaged as the buildings around it, obviously, but it shows clear signs of stress. There are cracked support members inside, fatigue in several shell layers, and it's visibly crumpled at ground level." Scotty peered closely at its curves, but couldn't tell what was crumpled and what was intentional. But he wasn't a structural specialist like Blue. "The only reason it hasn't suffered worse is that it seems to be designed for a higher gravity than this, using dense materials such as cortenum."

"Then there's the inside," said Tev, holding up a tricorder with a cross-section display. "Clearly designed for habitation, but not for ferrying troops. The compartment size, corridor layout -- they'd be too spread out, take too long to get to battle stations or exits. And there's nothing that looks like a weapon."

Good man, Scotty thought. Tev wasn't a tactical specialist like Fabian Stevens, but he was nearly as much a "Renaissance man" as Spock himself had been. Scotty had hand-picked him for this assignment, knowing only the best could hope to make up for Duffy's loss.

Stevens, however, looked a little annoyed, as though Tev had stolen his lines. "And the very fact that we can scan inside," he added, "means there isn't any substantial shielding."

"Obviously," said Tev dismissively. "More importantly, it suggests the structure wasn't designed for combat."

Stevens glared. "I was getting to that."

"What about life signs, though?" Iskander asked. "We can't get a clear read. They might be shielding the occupants."

"Or they could all have been killed on impact, and we're just reading residual heat and organic residue," Stevens replied.

"Besides," chimed in Carol Abramowitz, the team's cultural specialist, "if this structure were intended as a warning in itself, I doubt it would look so . . . placid and soft. Most species would symbolize aggression with sharper, more angular designs. And if something within it, rather than the structure itself, is the message, then it probably would've emerged by now."

Scotty beamed. "Cemal, there are no better specialists around for this sort of thing than this bunch before you. Explorin' dangerous alien whatsies, findin' out if they're safe and makin' 'em safe if they're not -- that's what S.C.E. teams like theirs are all about. And there's no team I'd rather have here than this one. The best thing about this whole mess is that these lads and lassies are here to straighten it up. So let them do their job," he said, addressing Admiral Ross as well now. "Send them in."

"This was the team that brought back the old Defiant and averted a war with the Tholians," Ross told Iskander. "I have every confidence in them."

The director was hesitant. "We still don't know what dangers there might be in there. Surely this is a job for Starfleet Security."

"You rang?" Domenica Corsi strode forward, seemingly towering over Iskander, though they were comparable in height. She made her case just standing there. The security team behind her, and the sizable phaser rifles they all carried, didn't hurt either.

Iskander sighed. "Very well. I concur. But may Allah protect you all."

Copyright © 2003 by CBS Studios Inc.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Star Trek fiction.
Science fiction, American.