It was a lifeless husk—its back broken, its skin rent, its mammoth form half buried in the shifting sands of a mountainous dune—and it was even more beautiful than Jadzia Dax remembered.
Her second host, Tobin Dax, had watched the Earth starship Columbia NX-02 leave its spacedock more than two hundred years earlier, on what no one then had realized would be its final mission; Tobin had directed the calibration of its starboard warp coils. A pang of sad nostalgia colored Jadzia’s thoughts as she stood on the grounded vessel’s bow and gazed at its shattered starboard nacelle, which had buckled at its midpoint and lay partially reclaimed by the dry waves of the desert.
Engineers from Defiant swarmed over the primary hull of the Columbia. They took tricorder readings in between shielding their faces from the scouring lash of a sand-laced sirocco. Behind them lay the delicate peaks of a desolate landscape, a vista of wheat-colored dunes shaped by an unceasing tide of anabatic winds, barren and lonely beneath a blanched sky.
Jadzia counted herself lucky that Captain Sisko had been willing to approve another planetary survey so soon after she had accidentally led them into peril on Gaia, where eight thousand lives had since been erased from history on a lover’s capricious whim. Though the crew was eager to return to Deep Space 9 as quickly as possible, Dax’s curiosity was always insatiable once aroused, and a flicker of a sensor reading had drawn her to this unnamed, uninhabited planet.
A sudden gust whipped her long, dark ponytail over her shoulder. She swatted it away from her face as she squinted into the blinding crimson flare of the rising suns. Adding to the brightness was a shimmer of light with a humanoid shape, a few meters away from her. The high-pitched drone of the transporter beam was drowned out by a wailing of wind in minor chords.
As the sound and shine faded away, the silhouette of Benjamin Sisko strode toward her across the buckled hull plates.
“Quite a find, Old Man,” he said, his mood subdued. Under normal circumstances he would have been elated by a discovery such as this, but the sting of recent events was too fresh and the threat of war too imminent for any of them to take much joy in it. He looked around and then asked, “How’re things going?”
“Slowly,” Dax said. “Our loadout was for recon, not salvage.” She started walking and nodded for him to follow her. “We’re seeing some unusual subatomic damage in the hull. Not sure what it means yet. All we know for sure is the Columbia’s been here for about two hundred years.” They reached the forward edge of the primary hull, where the force of impact had peeled back the metallic skin of the starship to reveal its duranium spaceframe. There Defiant’s engineers had installed a broad ramp on a shallow incline, because the ship’s original personnel hatches were all choked with centuries of windblown sand.
As they descended into the ship, Sisko asked, “Have you been able to identify any of the crew?” Echoes of their footfalls were muffled, trapped in the hollow beneath the ramp.
“We haven’t found any bodies,” Dax said, talking over the atonal cries of wind snaking through the Columbia’s corridors. “No remains of any kind.” Her footsteps scraped across grit-covered deck plates as she led him toward the ship’s core.
A dusty haze in the air was penetrated at irregular angles by narrow beams of sunlight that found their way through the dark wreckage. As they moved farther from the sparse light and deeper into the murky shadows of D Deck, Dax thought she saw brief flashes of bluish light, moving behind the bent bulkheads at the edges of her vision. When she turned her head to look for them, however, she found only darkness, and she dismissed the flickers as residual images fooling her retinas as her eyes adapted to the darkness near the ship’s core.
“Is it possible,” Sisko asked, stepping over the curved obstacle of a collapsed bulkhead brace, “they abandoned ship and settled somewhere on the planet?”
“Maybe,” Dax said. “But most of their gear is still on board.” She pushed past a tangle of fallen cables and held it aside for Sisko as he followed her. “This desert goes on for nine hundred kilometers in every direction,” she continued. “Between you and me, I don’t think they’d have gotten very far with just the clothes on their backs.”
“That’s a good point, but I think it’s moot,” Sisko said as they rounded a curve into a length of corridor draped with cobwebs, and disturbed a thick brood of small but lethal-looking indigenous arthropods. The ten-legged creatures rapidly scurried into the cracks between the bulkheads and the deck. He and Dax continued walking. “I don’t expect to find survivors from a two-hundred-year-old wreck, but I would like to know what an old Warp 5 Earth ship is doing in the Gamma Quadrant.”
“That makes two of us,” Dax said as they turned another corner toward a dead end, where Miles O’Brien hunched beneath a low-hanging tangle of wires and antiquated circuit boards—the remains of a control panel for the Columbia’s main computer. “Chief,” Dax called out, announcing their approach. “Any luck?”
“Not yet,” said the stout engineer. His tightly cut, curly fair hair was matted with sweat and dust. The two officers stepped up behind him as he continued in his gruff Irish brogue, “It’s a damned museum piece is what it is. Our tricorders can’t talk to it, and I can’t find an adapter in Defiant’s databases that’ll fit these inputs.”
Sisko leaned in beside O’Brien, supporting himself with his right hand on the chief’s left shoulder. Dax hovered behind O’Brien’s right side. The captain stroked his wiry goatee once and said, “Are the memory banks intact?”
O’Brien started to chortle, then caught himself. “Well, they’re here,” he said. “Whether they work, who knows? I can’t even power them up with the parts we have on hand.”
Dax asked, “How long will it take to make an adapter?”
“Just for power?” O’Brien said. “Three hours, maybe four. I’d have to do some research to make it work with our EPS grid.” He turned away from the Gordian knot of electronics to face Dax and Sisko. “Getting at its data’s gonna be the real challenge. Nobody’s worked with a core like this in over a century.”
“Give me a number, Chief,” Sisko said. “How long?”
O’Brien shrugged. “A couple days, at least.”
Sisko’s jaw tightened, and the worry lines on his brown forehead grew deeper as he expressed his disapproval with a frown. “That’s not the answer I was looking for,” he said.
“Best I can do,” O’Brien said.
With a heavy sigh and a slump of his shoulders, Sisko seemed to surrender to the inevitable. “Fine,” he said. “Keep at it, Chief. Let us know if you make any progress.”
“Aye, sir,” O’Brien said, and he turned back to his work.
Dax and Sisko returned the way they’d come, and they were met at the intersection by Major Kira. The Bajoran woman had been in charge of the search teams looking for the crew’s remains. Her rose-colored militia uniform was streaked with dark gray smears of dirt and grime, and a faint speckling of dust clung to her short, close-cropped red hair. “We finished our sweep,” she said, her eyes darting nervously back down the corridor. “There’s no sign of the crew, or anyone else.”
“What about combat damage?” asked Sisko. “Maybe they were boarded and captured.”
Kira shook her head quickly. “I don’t think so. All the damage I saw fits with a crash-landing. There are no blast effects on the internal bulkheads, no marks from weapons fire. Whatever happened here, it wasn’t a firefight.” Nodding forward toward the route to the exit, she added, “Can we get out of here now?”
“What’s wrong, Major?” asked Sisko, whose attention had sharpened in response to Kira’s apparent agitation.
The Bajoran woman cast another fearful look down the corridor behind her and frowned as she turned back toward Sisko and Dax. “There’s something in here,” she said. “I can’t explain it, but I can feel it.” Glaring suspiciously at the overhead, she added, “There’s a borhyas watching us.”
Sisko protested, “A ghost?” As tolerant as he tried to be of Kira’s religious convictions, he sometimes grew exasperated with her willingness to embrace superstition. “Are you really telling me you think this ship is haunted?”
“I don’t know,” Kira said, seemingly frustrated at having to justify her instincts to her friends. “But I heard things, and I felt the hairs on my neck stand up, and I keep seeing blinks of light in the dark—”
Dax cut in, “Blue flashes?”
“Yes!” Kira said, sounding excited by Dax’s confirmation.
Sisko shook his head and resumed walking forward. “I’ve heard enough,” he said. “Let’s get back to Defiant.”
Kira and Dax fell into step behind him, and they walked back into the compartment through which they had entered the Columbia. Sisko moved at a quickstep, and Dax had to work to keep pace with him as he headed for the ramp topside.
“Benjamin,” Dax said, “I think we need to make a more detailed study of this ship. If I had a little more time, maybe the chief and I could find a way to use Defiant’s tractor beams to lift the Columbia back to orbit and—” She was cut off by a chirping from Sisko’s combadge, followed by Worf’s voice.
“Defiant to Captain Sisko,” Worf said over the comm.
Sisko answered without breaking stride. “Go ahead.”
“Long-range sensors have detected two Jem’Hadar warships approaching this system,” Worf said. “ETA nine minutes.”
“Sound Yellow Alert and start beaming up the engineers,” Sisko said as he climbed the ramp into the blaze of daylight. “Wait for my order to beam up the command team.”
“Acknowledged,” Worf replied. “Defiant out.”
Back atop the crash-deformed hull, Sisko stopped and turned toward Dax. “Sorry, Old Man. The salvage has to wait.”
Kira asked, “Should we plant demolitions?” Dax and Sisko reacted with confused expressions, prompting Kira to elaborate, “To prevent the Jem’Hadar from capturing the ship.”
“I doubt they’ll find much more than we did,” Sisko said. “Columbia’s over two hundred years old, Major—and technically, it’s not even a Federation vessel.” He lifted his arm to shade his eyes from the morning suns. “Besides, it’s kept its secrets this long. I think we can leave it be.”
Dax watched him walk away toward the apex of the primary hull. All around him, in groups of four or five, teams of engineers faded away in luminescent shimmers, transported back to the orbiting Defiant. The outline of Sisko’s body dissolved in the suns’ glare until the captain was just a stick figure in front of a sky of fire. Kira walked beside him on his right, as familiar and comfortable as someone who had always been there.
Sisko’s voice emanated from Dax’s combadge. “Command team, stand by to beam up.”
The broken gray majesty of the Columbia lay beneath Dax’s feet, an empty tomb harboring secrets untold. It pained her to abandon its mysteries before she’d had time to unravel them … but the Dominion was on the move, and war made its own demands.