Chapter 1Ship's log, stardate 500146.3, First Officer William T. Riker reporting.
Captain Picard remains missing, transported away by Q, who alone knows when and if the captain will return to the Enterprise. In his absence, I have barely managed to preserve both the ship and the crew, despite the best efforts of the gaseous life-form known as the Calamarain.
Our situation remains grave. To escape the Calamarain, we have taken refuge within the outer fringes of the galactic barrier. Although our shields, modified to absorb psychokinetic energy from the barrier itself, protect us from the worst of its effects, we cannot remain immune to the destructive force of the barrier indefinitely. Already the more telepathically sensitive members of the crew are experiencing discomfort and even pain from the excess of psychic energy composing the barrier and now surrounding the ship.
Due to damage inflicted by both the Calamarain and the barrier, our warp engines are inoperative, and we have lost artificial gravity in large portions of the saucer section, including the bridge. I can only hope that we can complete the most needed repairs before we are forced to exit the barrier and reenter our galaxy, perhaps to face the Calamarain again.
Lieutenant Baeta Leyoro's pain-racked cry echoed throughout the bridge. If not for the lack of gravity, she would have surely collapsed to the hard duranium floor; instead the stricken security officer levitated in midair, her body doubled over in agony as the psychic flux of the barrier set her synapses on fire. A plait of black hair rose from her scalp, swaying like a cobra about to strike. A heart-wrenching whimper escaped her lips, squeezing out from between tightly clenched teeth.
Riker blamed himself. I should have sent her to sickbay immediately, the moment I realized that her augmented nervous system made her uniquely vulnerable to the barrier. Instead he had waited until it was too late, with the result that she had succumbed to her seizure halfway between her post and the turbolift. But now was no time to second-guess himself. "Beam her directly to sickbay," he ordered, then slapped the comm badge on his chest. "Riker to Dr. Crusher. Lieutenant Leyoro requires emergency care. Expect her at once."
Even as he warned Beverly of the incoming patient, a shimmering silver glow enveloped the floating, fetal form of Leyoro. Thank heavens the transporters are still working, Riker thought, relieved that Leyoro could benefit from that technology at least, even if their jury-rigged deflectors, experimentally altered by Lieutenant Barclay and Data, had not been enough to protect her. The scintillating twinkle of the transporter effect shone even brighter amid the dimly lit bridge, where only flashing red-alert signals provided any illumination at all. Even the blue tracking lights that routinely ran along the floor of the bridge had been snuffed out by the abuse the Enterprise had sustained over the last several hours.
Riker's own head throbbed in sympathy with Leyoro; he suspected that his long-standing telepathic bond with Deanna had increased his sensitivity as well, weakening his brain's defenses against the psychic barrage. Swollen veins pounded beneath his temples and brow, although the ache was not yet fierce enough to make him abandon his post. My brain will have to explode first, he vowed defiantly, his jaw set squarely beneath his black beard. He nodded grimly as Leyoro vanished in a cascade of sparks that swiftly evaporated before his eyes.
"Got her," Beverly's voice confirmed via his comm badge. "Crusher out."
Convinced that Leyoro's fate now rested in the capable hands of the ship's medical officer, Riker leaned forward in the captain's chair and turned his attention to other pressing matters. A brilliant violet glow emanated from the forward viewscreen, catching his eye. Overloaded by the immeasurable radiance of the galactic barrier, the screen had initially gone dead upon their entry into the mysterious wall of energy. Now the screen flared back to life, but only to show a brighter form of blankness, filled from top to bottom by an undifferentiated display of pure luminosity. The glare from the screen pierced his eyes. "Someone dim the main viewer," he instructed gruffly.
"Affirmative, Commander," Data responded. Seated at Ops, the gold-skinned android manipulated the controls at his station. Scorch marks along the console's polished metal casing testified to the rigors of their recent battle against the Calamarain, as did numerous other scars all around the bridge. A fragment of torn polyduranide sheeting drifted past Riker's face, free from the downward pull of gravity, and he batted it away with a wave of his hand. On the screen, the phosphorescent effulgence of the galactic barrier faded to a more subdued but equally uninformative gleam. "Is that acceptable, Commander?" Data inquired calmly.
"That will do, Mr. Data," Riker said. The sooner they put the barrier behind them, the better. He tapped his comm badge again. "Riker to La Forge. What's our warp status?"
Geordi's voice answered him from Engineering, sounding more than a little harried. "We've patched up the plasma-injection system, but the warp-field coils in the starboard nacelle still need a lot of work. We're talking another hour at least."
"Understood," Riker acknowledged. There was no need to urge La Forge to hurry; the engineering chief knew full well how shaky their shields were compared with the awesome power of the barrier. The devil of it is, Riker thought, we don't even know why the Calamarain attacked us in the first place, even though it obviously had something to do with the barrier. Were the gaseous entities still waiting for the Enterprise outside the wall? Riker didn't want to find out until he knew the ship could make a quick escape at warp speed. With any luck, the Calamarain will have given us up for dead the moment we flew into the barrier.
"I certainly hope you're not planning to sit here forever," said a voice to his left, belonging to a tall, auburn-haired woman who had usurped Deanna's seat in the command area. Her tone could be described as patronizing at best, contemptuous at worst. "As impressive and mystifying as our surroundings must appear to creatures of your ilk, I'm afraid I grew accustomed to such spectacles several millennia ago." She raised an impeccably manicured hand to her mouth in an only partially successful attempt to stifle a yawn. "Can't you do something just to liven things up a bit?"
The woman in question, balancing a sleepy toddler upon her knee, was reportedly Q's wife and the mother of his child, two propositions that franklyboggled Riker's mind whenever he cared to think of them, which definitely wasn't now. "If we're not sufficiently entertaining for you, you're more than welcome to leave," he informed her. Ever since she had refused to use her Q-like omnipotence to rescue the Enterprise from its current predicament, let alone enlighten him as to what Q had done with Captain Picard, he had resolved not to let either her or her child distract him from his duty.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said haughtily. The pips on the collar of her fake Starfleet uniform identified her (inaccurately) as a five-star admiral. Typical, Riker thought; from what he had seen so far, the female Q's ego was easily a match for her husband's. "I told you before, I intend to find out what precisely my esteemed spouse and partner finds so intriguing about this primitive vessel, no matter how excruciatingly tedious that task proves to be. Besides," she added, smiling indulgently at her small son, clad in equally counterfeit Starfleet attire, "little q enjoys your aboriginal antics."
"Ant-ticks!" q burbled happily. He waved a pudgy little hand, and a parade of tiny insects suddenly appeared on the floor of the command area, marching single file past the elevated captain's chair and across the top of Riker's gravity boots. Despite his determination to ignore Q's visiting relations as much as possible, the first officer had to suppress a shudder at this reminder of the seemingly harmless infant's abilities. Such amazing power in the hands of a child was enough to send a chill down a Vulcan's spine. Like the original Q isn't immature enough, he thought.
Naturally, q's mother was charmed by her offspring's naive misunderstanding. "Oh, isn't that adorable?" she said. Propelled by the motion of their miniature limbs, the insects began to lift off from the floor, adding to the ash and debris in the air. Fortunately, the female Q scooped up the floating bugs with a net she materialized from nowhere, then consigned both the net and its chittering contents to oblivion. "I'm sorry, dearest," she explained to the child, patting him on the head, "but our present surroundings are barbaric enough without any additional infestations."
Baby q objected strenuously to the sudden disappearance of his playthings. He scrunched up his face and let out an earsplitting squall while simultaneously kicking his little legs. His tantrum shook the entire bridge, which lurched from side to side, nearly throwing Riker out of his chair. Behind him, he heard Ensign Sondra Berglund, who had replaced Leyoro at tactical, stumble awkwardly in her heavy magnetic boots. "That's enough," he barked at the female Q. "He's your child. Do something about him."
To his surprise, the woman actually looked abashed, as if she feared the child's behavior reflected poorly on her parenting skills. "Now, now," she cooed to q in a soothing tone, "you can play with your funny arthropods another time." Accompanied by a brief flash of white light, an enticing jumja treat appeared in q's balled-up fist. Not surprisingly, the delectable glop-on-a-stick successfully distracted q, who abandoned his uproar in favor of sucking energetically on the sugary confection. "There," his mother said approvingly. "Isn't that better?"
Although the candy calmed the child, it also made something of a mess. Riker already spotted sticky handprints all over Troi's customary seat. Deanna herself was currently in sickbay, under the care of Dr. Crusher. He allowed himself a moment of concern regarding Deanna's safety, praying that the doctor's efforts had protected Deanna, with her empathic sensitivity, from the barrier. Be well, imzadi, he thought.
Deanna's Betazoid gifts rendered her unusually susceptible to the concentrated psionic energy surrounding the ship, as were their civilian passengers: Professor Lem Faal of Betazed, and his two children. As full telepaths, the Faal family were probably more at risk than anyone else aboard the Enterprise. For that reason, he had ordered all three Betazoids, along with Deanna, to sickbay before they even entered the barrier. He'd hoped that precaution would be enough to keep their guests safe, but, insanely, Faal had caused a disturbance in sickbay, attacking Deanna and escaping with his son. Even now, security was searching for the missing patients.
I knew Faal was upset about his experiment being called off due to the unexpected attack of the Calamarain, but I never expected him to resort to violence. Thank heavens, Deanna wasn't seriously harmed, Riker thought, or I'd be tempted to beam him to the Calamarain myself.
At tactical, Ensign Berglund had regained her footing. "Shield strength is fluctuating, Commander," she reported, "by variances of twenty percent and more." Her eyes never left the display panel. "I'm doing my best to stabilize the deflectors, but it's not working."
Riker glanced quickly at Lieutenant Reginald Barclay, now positioned at the secondary aft science station. It had been Barclay's idea to divert telekinetic energy from the barrier to the ship's shields by way of the organic bio-neural gel packs in the Enterprise's computer system, a hastily improvised tactic that had proven successful...so far.
"The gel packs are still absorbing energy from the barrier," Barclay assured Riker, gulping nervously, "but it's hard to quantify. I had to reroute the monitoring program to science two after the engineering station exploded." He cast a wary look at the charred remains of the main engineering console, only a few stations away. "The gel packs were never intended to serve as batteries for psychic energy, so there are no established parameters to judge their efficiency."
"This is correct, Commander," Data confirmed. He had carefully evaluated Barclay's preliminary findings earlier, as had Geordi La Forge. "Prolonged exposure to the barrier is causing a significant percentage of bio-neural circuitry to incinerate. At present, energy absorption exceeds extinction by a rate of approximately forty-seven-point-three-four percent, averagedover the duration of our stay in the barrier, but at any given moment the quantity of energy available to the deflector array can vary dramatically, just as Ensign Berglund reports."
Riker nodded. "Let me know the instant the scale tips the other way. Ensign Clarze," he instructed the young Deltan crewman at the conn, "set a course that takes us straight out of the barrier in the shortest possible time. When we go, I want to leave here in a hurry."
"Yes, sir," Clarze said. Riker had been impressed by the way the inexperienced ensign had kept his cool during this crisis, coping with both the hostile activities of the Calamarain as well as the always unsettling caprices of Q and his kin. He resolved to make a note of this the next time he and Deanna completed their personnel evaluation reports, assuming any of them came out of this alive. He gazed at the lambent glow of the main viewer. Somewhere beyond that incandescent haze, the Milky Way waited for them, as did, perhaps, an angry and homicidal mass of sentient plasma.
Where are the Calamarain? Riker brooded. And, just as importantly, where is Captain Picard?
Copyright © 1998 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.