As Enterprise approached the shrouded world, Captain Demora Sulu leaned forward in the command chair and studied the image on the main viewscreen. The second of seven planets in the unexplored Rejarris system, the dun-colored orb looked lifeless and uninviting, despite that it floated along the inner edge of the star’s circumstellar habitable zone. Clouds ensphered the globe, completely obscuring its surface. To Sulu, it resembled the second planet in Earth’s own solar system, Venus, and as with that desolate world, the captain expected sensors to describe an arid wasteland, with an atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide, and ground-level temperatures in excess of four hundred degrees Celsius.
“We’ve achieved standard orbit,” reported Ensign Torsten Syndergaard from his position at the helm.
“Initiate planetary scans,” ordered the ship’s first officer, Xintal Linojj, who stood to the captain’s right. The Boslic woman maintained a workstation on the starboard curve of the circular bridge, but during the course of active operations, she often vacated her panel and took up a position beside the command chair. “Take a set of basic readings,” she went on. “Identify anything out of the ordinary that might warrant further study.” Sulu and her crew concentrated their survey of previously unvisited solar systems on those that would supply something new to the Federation’s body of knowledge. Such contributions typically came when they encountered alien life or discovered something scientifically unusual, but when they found nothing more than common stars and empty planets, they simply collated fundamental data about the astronomical objects and moved on in their journey.
“Aye, sir, scanning,” replied Lieutenant Commander Borona Fenn. Sulu glanced to her left, over to where the Frunalian woman crewed the primary sciences station. As Fenn worked her controls, her eltis—the flesh-covered sensory appendage that extended upward from her brow, across her hairless head, and down her spine—rippled slowly, like the forward edge of a wheat field beneath the soft breath of an autumnal breeze.
“Continue monitoring for interstellar transmissions and executing long-range scans,” Linojj said. She looked aft, past the command chair, toward the freestanding console on the raised, outer ring of the bridge, and Sulu followed her gaze. On one side of the console, Ensign Hawkins Young manned the communications station, while on the other, Commander Tenger kept watch at tactical. “We need to know if anyone enters the neighborhood.”
Although Linojj did not specify the Tzenkethi Coalition by name, she didn’t need to: on their open-ended exploratory mission, the Enterprise crew had taken their ship into an unclaimed, unaligned region of space that, although distant, measured closer to the borders of the Coalition than to those of the Federation or any other known warp-capable power. Aware of the notorious territoriality and belligerence of the Tzenkethi, Starfleet Command had instructed Sulu to avoid not only a confrontation with them, but any contact at all. In the ten months Enterprise had traveled the sector, the crew had detected only two Tzenkethi vessels, both of them civilian, and which they’d given a wide berth.
After Young and Tenger acknowledged their orders, Sulu leaned toward her first officer. “Somehow, I doubt we’ll be seeing the Tzenkethi around here,” she told Linojj. “This star and these planets won’t appeal to the Coalition any more than they do to us.” With an unexceptional main-sequence sun, five conventional gas giants, and only two terrestrial worlds—both of which appeared unsuited in the extreme for humanoid life—the Rejarris system would offer little in the way of valuable resources, and its remoteness meant that it lacked any sort of strategic worth.
“You’re probably right, but it’s difficult to know with the Tzenkethi,” Linojj said. “They might show up just because we’re here.”
Sulu nodded her understanding. “They do sometimes seem preoccupied with the Federation, don’t they?”
Before Linojj could respond, Lieutenant Commander Fenn spoke up. “Captain,” she said, and in just the single word, Sulu could hear surprise in the science officer’s voice. “Sensors are reading a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere.”
Sulu looked to Linojj, whose deep-set eyes widened beneath the smooth, protruding ridges of her brow. “Is it breathable?” the first officer asked.
“Yes, but . . .” Fenn started, but then she operated her controls once more. Finally, she turned toward the center of the bridge. While the science officer peered at the captain with one of her eyes, Sulu saw that her other remained trained on her displays—an initially disconcerting sight back when Fenn had first joined the crew, but to which the captain had long ago grown accustomed. The eyes of Frunalians functioned independently of each other, and the organization of their brains allowed the concurrent processing of both sets of visual information. “Surface temperatures are near or below freezing almost all across the planet.”
The unanticipated readings gave Sulu pause. Where she had expected a poisonous atmosphere and unrelenting, lethal heat, sensors found non-toxic air and wintry conditions. An explanation began to percolate in her mind, an intuition, but she pushed it away in favor of waiting for concrete information to tell the story. “What about life signs?”
“Indeterminate,” Fenn said. “There appears to be some sort of substrate within the planet’s land masses that interferes with biosensors.” She turned fully back to her station and worked her controls again. “But I’m reading ports on bodies of water, and ships in those ports. There are buildings . . . what look like towns and cities . . . connected by complex road and transit systems.”
“Captain,” said Tenger, “there are a number of artificial satellites in low orbit.”
Sulu spun her chair to face the security chief. Standing on muscular legs, the stocky Orion had broad shoulders and a barrel-shaped chest. “Has the Enterprise been detected?” Sulu asked him.
“Negative,” Tenger said. “We have not been scanned. Sensors show that most of the satellites are configured for communications, and possibly for global positioning, but regardless, I’m reading no signal traffic to or from any of the devices.”
“And there’s no indication of warp travel in or around the system?” Sulu wanted to know.
“No, sir,” Tenger said. “At least not recently.”
Sulu turned her chair forward again. “So we know that the civilization here has begun to reach out from their world into space. They’ve sent satellites into orbit, but we’ve explored most of this solar system and seen no evidence that they’ve developed interplanetary, much less interstellar, travel.” Speaking to her first officer, she asked, “Recommendations?”
“Under normal circumstances, I’d suggest transporting a landing party down to an uninhabited location so that they could gather more detailed readings on both the planet itself and the people who live on it,” Linojj said. Starfleet’s Prime Directive barred interference with pre-warp cultures, meaning that the Enterprise crew could not reveal themselves to the natives of the planet below. “In this instance, when our biosensors aren’t able to identify life-forms on the surface, we can launch a high-altitude probe instead. Even if it can’t get close enough to the surface to overcome the interference, it can still fly below the overcast and provide visual reconnaissance, which would allow us to definitively pinpoint unpopulated areas.”
“Sensors are showing no air traffic and no active monitoring of the skies,” Fenn added, “so a probe would likely go unnoticed.”
“We can also calibrate the probe’s guidance system to use the clouds for cover,” Linojj said, “having it emerge only for short periods to ensure the most effective concealment.”
“Agreed,” Sulu said. “Prepare a class-three probe and launch when ready.” As her crew worked to fulfill their orders—Fenn would program the automated device, Tenger would launch it, and Young would validate its telemetry, while Linojj would oversee the entire endeavor—the captain wondered what they would find on Rejarris II. Unbidden, her earlier suspicion about the reason for the conditions on the planet recurred. She hoped that she was wrong.
♦ ♦ ♦
An indicator on the communications console winked green, and a flood of data poured across the display. “Confirming comlink to the probe,” said Ensign Young. “Awaiting visual signal.”
“Thank you,” the captain said. “Put it on the screen when you have it.”
“Yes, sir.” Young tapped at his controls to analyze the quality of the incoming transmission. While it maintained its integrity, he saw a slight degradation in the upload rate. Back at the Academy, from which he’d graduated less than a year prior, one or another of his instructors had taught him that such a dip in performance most frequently resulted from a failing component, but his months aboard Enterprise told him something different. It seemed more likely to him that the considerable volume of information in the data stream had combined with the high bandwidth of the ship’s network processors to cause the generation of noise in the signal. By bringing a few of the backup nodes online and actually narrowing the bandwidth, he could eliminate that noise and thus increase the transmission rate.
Without notifying anybody of his evaluation or seeking anybody’s approval, Young made the adjustments to the comm system. He’d learned that as well in his time on Enterprise: to have confidence in his abilities, and to recognize the importance of—sometimes even the need for—acting independently. It gratified him to see the upload rate immediately rise, with no corresponding loss of data.
A second indicator on his console flashed from yellow to green, and Young responded at once. “The probe has begun visual surveillance,” he said. “Transferring the feed to the main viewer.” He operated his controls, marrying the deed to his words.
On the viewscreen, the image of the planet vanished, the dirty arc hanging against the black, star-speckled depths of space replaced by an uneven and rapidly moving field of grayish brown. Young watched in silence, waiting to see what Rejarris II looked like. He wanted to know what the alien world held in store for the Enterprise crew in general, and for him in particular. Cities and ports and transportation systems signified an industrial civilization, and no matter how advanced or undeveloped that pre-warp civilization, Captain Sulu would want it studied. She would order a landing party to the surface, where they would study the planet up close and the inhabitants from afar. If the Enterprise personnel could learn enough about the alien society—enough so that they could disguise themselves and blend in—they would masquerade as locals and enter a city so that they could surreptitiously observe the culture at close range.
The idea of walking unrecognized through an alien settlement, functioning as a benign observer, thrilled Hawkins Young. At Starfleet Academy, he had studied to become a communications officer, but he’d also pursued a secondary concentration in archaeology. He enjoyed studying the material remains of ancient civilizations, but he also reasoned that possessing such a specialty would help him get off the ship and onto strange new worlds, where he would meet previously unknown life-forms. Since joining the Enterprise crew, though, he’d participated in only two landing parties, both of which had involved the study of deserted ruins, offering him no opportunity to encounter a living alien species.
As a result, Young had requested cross-training as a contact specialist. He began receiving his instruction half a year earlier. He took to the discipline at once, enjoying it immensely, and consequently spent many of his off-duty hours studying on his own. It took him only four months to receive his certification as an assistant specialist, but since then, the Enterprise crew had worked only a single first-contact mission, on Beta Velara IV, and Commander Linojj hadn’t called his name for the landing party. The omission disappointed him, but he understood that, with more shipboard experience and additional training, his chance would come.
On the main screen, the gray-brown of the cloud cover suddenly gave way as the probe descended into clear air. Young had expected a burst of color—the greens or crimsons or golds of foliage, perhaps, or some sort of ornamentation on buildings—but the city that hove into view appeared as wan as the overcast sky. The only differentiation in the hues of the pallid landscape came in the form of a dark, almost black body of water that stretched away from the alien metropolis in a torpid expanse.
As Young looked on with the rest of the bridge crew, the probe’s optics zoomed in on the city. A legend in the lower right corner enumerated the scale, giving the area visible on the viewer as ten square kilometers. The buildings rose in arcs that fitted into a framework of circular and radial thoroughfares that defined the urban community. With the constant overcast diffusing the light, the sun threw no shadows. The vertical contours of the city dropped as it spread out from the center. Young strained to see some aspect of the design or some detail that distinguished the place from others he’d seen, but the drab setting did not impress him.
As the probe soared directly above the city, Captain Sulu stood up from the command chair and stepped forward, just behind Ensign Syndergaard at the helm and Lieutenant Aldani at navigation. “Do you see it?” she asked without taking her gaze from the viewscreen.
“I don’t see anything,” said the first officer, who stood beside the command chair. “It’s all gray. It looks almost . . . inert.”
“It does,” Sulu agreed. “Commander Fenn, scan for heat signatures or movement within the buildings.”
“Aye, sir.” Fenn touched a sequence of control surfaces. A bluish tint washed across the image on the main viewer, blurring the sharp edges of the buildings. Some slight variation occurred in the color mask, but no red points appeared, which would have signified distinct instances of temperature variation or motion.
“There’s no movement anywhere,” Sulu said. “Not in the city, not along the transit networks, not on the lake. There are no people.”
“Sensors are showing no active power sources either,” Tenger said.
Sulu paused, then ordered Fenn to return the image to a normal view and magnify it. The tinge of blue faded and the picture sharpened before it shifted, bringing a single square kilometer of the city into focus. Young tried to determine if something specific had caught the captain’s attention, but he saw nothing of any note. Sulu asked to see a different section of the landscape, and then another. Finally, she said, “It looks as though everything’s been covered by a dull blanket of material. Has it snowed there?”
“No, sir,” Fenn said. “The city stands near the planet’s equator, in one of the warmer regions. The surface temperature is nine degrees, well above the freezing point of water.” Her hands fluttered across her panel. “The ground and buildings are all covered, though, Captain, but not by snow. It’s a layer of ash, several centimeters deep.”
“Ash,” Sulu said, with a disgust that would have been appropriate if she’d had a mouthful of it. For a few seconds, Young did not understand the captain’s reaction, but then she asked another, telling question. “How high are the radiation levels?”
Nuclear winter, Young thought, and he understood that everybody else on the bridge would draw the same conclusion. The uninterrupted clouds surrounding the planet, the coating of ash across the city, the lack of movement—it all pointed to the catastrophe of a nuclear war. Young had seen no obvious scars from such an attack, but that did not mean that atomic weapons had not detonated elsewhere on the planet. Indeed, he thought that the city wore its stillness like a cloak of death.
“The amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface is high,” Fenn reported. “That corresponds with a lack of ozone I’m reading in the stratosphere, which could have resulted from firestorms across the planet that sent soot up into the mesosphere. But scans are not picking up any indication of fallout. That could be the result of the amplified UV radiation overwhelming the sensors, or because of the interfering substrate in the soil, or simply due to a reduction of those levels over time.”
“If it’s been long enough for fallout to dissipate, wouldn’t the skies have cleared as well?” Sulu asked.
“Probably,” Fenn said, “but that would also depend on a number of factors, including the amounts and locations of the nuclear material released, as well as meteorological conditions, both at the time of the release and overall for the planet.”
Sulu paced back to the command chair, though she did not sit. “Ensign Young, what do your instruments show?” she asked. He’d been so intent on the planetary conditions and on following the conversation that the mention of his name startled him. “Are you picking up any type of communications signals at all? Even automated ones?”
Young consulted his panel, then performed a quick secondary scan. “No, sir,” he said. “I’m not reading any comm traffic at all.”
The captain seemed to consider that. “Commander Tenger, adjust the course of the probe. Have it follow one of the transportation routes to another city.”
As Sulu sat back down in the command chair, Young watched the main screen. The city receded from view, until it disappeared when the probe ascended into the clouds. It’s not cloud cover, he reminded himself. It’s smoke.
Within just a few minutes, the probe reached a much smaller settlement—less a city than a town. Nevertheless, the same conditions prevailed: a layer of ash covered everything, and the Enterprise crew detected no sign of the planet’s inhabitants, either inside or outside the buildings. Before the captain ordered the security chief to send the probe onward, though, Fenn espied several distinctive shapes in a field. When she notified Sulu, the captain ordered a close-up view. Half a dozen ash-covered mounds appeared, all with familiar shapes.
“Are those what they look like?” the captain asked.
“They appear to be the skeletal remains of arivent-like animals,” Fenn said. Young had never heard the word arivent before and suspected that it belonged to the science officer’s native Frunalian tongue, but then she amended her statement. “Horse-like animals.”
“And we still don’t see any people,” Sulu said. “Not living, not dead.” Young thought to point out that perhaps the bodies of the population who had constructed the civilization on Rejarris II lacked any internal structures that would survive decomposition, but the existence of the equine skeletons made such a claim unlikely.
“Maybe this town and the city we saw were abandoned,” suggested the first officer. “There’s no obvious destruction, so maybe the ash was deposited by some sort of nuclear accident, rather than as a result of a military conflict.”
“Maybe,” Sulu said. “Commander Tenger, set the probe’s course to continue following one of the transportation routes. Let’s see what else we can find on this planet.”
They found the same conditions prevailing in the next city, although they also discovered a complex on its outskirts clearly designed to launch rockets—a capability consistent with the artificial satellites orbiting the planet. The captain ordered five additional probes deployed, spaced evenly across the surface of Rejarris II. On every continent the probes searched, in every city and town, the Enterprise crew encountered the same situation. They also located additional launch facilities, but because they’d already surveyed the five outer worlds and their moons—none of them class M—they knew that the people of the second planet did not evacuate to any of those, and long-range scans of the innermost world in the system showed that it had no atmosphere, resulting in temperature swings from two hundred degrees below zero to five hundred above, all of which ruled it out as a possible haven. Despite being much cooler, neither of Rejarris II’s pair of moons held an atmosphere, though Young thought that the captain would likely want to examine the two natural satellites more closely at some point.
Commander Linojj proposed another possibility. “Could the inhabitants have been abducted?” She appeared to hesitate before adding, “This system isn’t that far from the Tzenkethi Coalition.”
The captain took in a deep breath, then exhaled loudly. “I can’t reasonably argue against the aggressiveness of the Tzenkethi,” she said, “but could an entire planetary population have been taken against their will? We’ve seen no signs of destruction anywhere on Rejarris Two.”
“Maybe they left voluntarily,” Linojj said. “Maybe the Coalition helped them escape whatever caused the pollution in the atmosphere and the ash on the ground.”
“Maybe,” Sulu said, though she sounded unconvinced. “It would mark the first time I’ve heard of the Tzenkethi coming to the aid of another species.”
“What if it wasn’t another species?” asked the navigator, Gaia Aldani. “What if Rejarris Two was the site of a Tzenkethi colony?”
“That would make more sense,” Sulu said.
“Or maybe the planet was never populated,” offered Syndergaard at the helm. “Could these cities and towns have been built for a colonization that never took place because of a nuclear accident?”
Sulu nodded, then glanced around the bridge. “Well, we have a lot of questions, so let’s see if we can find some answers,” she said, and then, to the first officer: “Commander, equip a landing party. I want you to transport down to one of the cities and see what you can learn about the people who built it.”
“Yes, sir,” Linojj said.
“Captain,” Fenn spoke up, “because of the interference with the biosensors, the landing party should carry signal enhancers with them.”
“Linojj?” Sulu said.
“Understood.” The first officer stepped up onto the raised, outer section of the bridge and headed for the starboard-side turbolift. “Tenger, Fenn, Young, you’re with me.”
For the second time, the sound of his name on an officer’s lips surprised Young. He quickly secured his station, then joined Linojj in the lift. As Tenger and Fenn followed them inside, supplementary personnel moved from secondary positions to take over the vacated stations. Young saw the captain rise from her chair and address her exec. “Commander, exercise extreme caution,” she said. “Something about all of this—” Sulu glanced over her shoulder at the main viewscreen, which once more showed Rejarris II hanging in the firmament. “—just doesn’t feel right.”
“Yes, sir,” Linojj said.
Young more or less agreed with the captain’s assessment, but another feeling overwhelmed whatever trepidation he might have felt: excitement. He didn’t know if Commander Linojj wanted him on the landing party as a communications officer or because of his training in archaeology and alien contact, but it didn’t really matter to him. He didn’t even know if they would find any of the planet’s inhabitants, and if not, then what had happened to them, but none of that mattered either. At that moment, all Young wanted was to explore the unknown.
♦ ♦ ♦
Xintal Linojj resisted the impulse to draw her phaser. As she walked cautiously forward, she slowly moved her head from side to side, casting her gaze upon the round windows that looked out on the landing party from the one- and two-story buildings lining the thoroughfare. She saw no movement anywhere, but the sensation of being watched persisted. Fenn assured her that she read no life signs in the area, and that at such close range, the biosensors of her tricorder readily overcame the interfering substance in the ground. The science officer also confirmed that she detected no power sources or communications signals around them, implying that nobody watched them, even remotely, and no equipment recorded them. Still, it required an act of Linojj’s will not to reach for her type-1 phaser where it hung at the back of her black uniform pants, concealed beneath the hem of her brick-red tunic and the cold-weather jacket she wore atop it.
The air felt crisp as she and the five other members of the landing party walked along the center of one of the wide radial avenues that led from the edge of the circular metropolis directly to its center. In addition to pulling Tenger, Borona Fenn, and Hawkins Young from the bridge, she’d added a second security guard, Crewman Darius Permenter, as well as the ship’s chief medical officer, Doctor Uta Morell. They had transported from Enterprise to the perimeter of the city, where they had chosen to begin their survey. Linojj took point, with Permenter sticking to her side, while Tenger positioned himself as he always did, at the rear of the group, where, as he often said, he could keep all of the people entrusted to his safekeeping within his view.
They had arrived in the city just after midday, and yet the muddy sky lent their surroundings the dim, hazy look and feel of dusk. The high-pitched whines of three tricorders—one operated by Fenn, one by Morell, and one by Young—sounded unnaturally loud as they pierced the silence of the city. The carpet of ash covering the ground muffled the clack of their boot heels against the pavement. Measuring from four to five centimeters deep, the accumulation of the smoky residue kicked up around the landing party as they moved through it, surrounding them at calf level like a miniature, gray snowstorm.
The group reached an intersection, where an avenue that looped around the city crossed the straight thoroughfare they had taken. Linojj stopped and looked around, then called back over her shoulder. “Ensign?”
The communications officer hurried to her, deactivating his tricorder and dropping it to his side. “Yes, Commander?”
“What’s your assessment of these buildings?” Linojj asked, waving her hand toward the structures closest to them.
“Sir?” Young said, as though he hadn’t understood her question.
“You have archaeological training,” Linojj said. “You draw conclusions about historical places and peoples based on what they leave behind. What are your thoughts about this part of the city?”
“I . . . I’m not sure,” Young said, his discomfort obvious. He clearly didn’t know what she wanted of him, and therefore fretted about providing her bad information.
“Don’t worry, Ensign,” Linojj said. “This isn’t a test.” She offered him a thin smile, attempting to put him at ease. “I’m just looking for an opinion as we try to figure out what we’ve discovered here.” As the rest of the landing party congregated about them, Linojj pointed to the nearest building. It rose only a single level and fronted on the arc of the crossing avenue, both its front and back walls shaped to match the curve. Its short side walls ran straight, parallel to the radial thoroughfare. The building featured round windows and a round door, and its roof arched downward, like a flattened dome. Constructed of a seamless, concrete-like material, the entire structure matched the gritty color of the ash all around it.
Young raised his tricorder, but Linojj stopped him. “Forget about sensors,” she said. “Tell me what your first impressions are. Is that a home? An office? A lab or commercial establishment?”
Young took a step toward the building. “It’s difficult to say just by looking at it, Commander. Archaeologists base their conclusions not only on physical evidence, but what they know about a population and a region historically. In some cultures, citizens tend to aggregate in large numbers, residing not in smaller dwellings like that, but in sizable, multi-unit structures. In other societies, people choose to live by themselves in smaller places. There are also numerous examples of other preferences in other civilizations, but I don’t know anything about who lived on this planet, or anything about this city.”
“I understand all of that,” Linojj said, “but what do you think of when you look at that building?”
Young continued to regard the structure without saying anything, and Linojj wondered how badly the situation—or she herself—intimidated him. It hadn’t been all that long since he’d left the Academy. She had opted to include him in the landing party so that he could gain experience—and confidence—in the field, but also because she believed that his diverse training could prove useful in such an enigmatic situation.
Finally, Young said, “It’s dull.”
“What is?” Linojj asked.
“The building,” the ensign said. “It’s absent anything identifiable as ornamentation. It has the round windows and the round door, but those appear utilitarian, not decorative. The walls and the roof are smooth and drab and featureless.” He turned in place and motioned toward the other structures in the immediate vicinity. “All of these buildings aren’t identical,” he went on, “but they all share a lack of adornment.”
“And what does that tell you?” Linojj wanted to know, pleased that she’d gotten the young officer talking.
“Nothing definitive,” the ensign said. “I’d need more information even to formulate a working hypothesis. It could simply be that the inhabitants of the city have no artistic sensibilities. It could also be that they prize creativity to such a degree that they mandate its limitation to certain contexts, such as display in a museum. Or it could even be what Ensign Syndergaard speculated: that this place was built for a population who never arrived, and so never had the opportunity to embellish it.”
“Thank you,” Linojj said. She declined to point out that Young had not actually answered the question she’d asked. They had just begun their investigation, though, and so he might yet contribute to their efforts. Regardless, she would meet with him afterward to discuss whatever shortcomings and strengths he demonstrated on the mission. To Morell and Fenn, she said, “Doctor, Commander, scan that building. I want to be as sure as we can that there’s nobody inside.”
The two officers held up their tricorders in the direction of the structure. “I’m reading no life signs of any kind,” Morell said.
“And there’s no movement whatsoever,” Fenn added.
“Then let’s go find out what’s inside,” Linojj said. She had taken only a single step when Tenger materialized beside her. She knew that, since she wanted to take the landing party into an unexplored, unsecured interior space, the security chief would insist on entering first and checking it for any potential dangers. She saw that he’d already taken his phaser in hand, although he kept it lowered, almost hidden with the grip of his fingers. With it, he quickly signaled to the other security guard, and Permenter fell back at once to protect the landing party from the rear.
Tenger led the way toward the plain structure, the vibrant green of his Orion skin conspicuous against the grayscale environs of the city. When he reached the door, he turned to face Linojj and the rest of the landing party. “I will enter first,” he said, just as the methodical security chief had on so many other missions. “Wait for my signal before you follow.” Linojj nodded.
A round handle protruded from the center of the door. Tenger reached for it with his empty hand. Linojj expected that the door wouldn’t open, and that they’d have to force it, but it swung inward at Tenger’s touch. The hinges growled out their displeasure, a clear indication that they hadn’t been used in quite some time. Tenger called out a greeting. When he received no response, he stepped inside. He did not raise his phaser as he did so, but Linojj knew that he didn’t need to: she’d witnessed the swiftness of his reflexes in action.
The security chief stood in the doorway for a moment, his broad shoulders nearly filling the frame, his head swiveling from side to side. Linojj tried to look past him into the building, but she saw only shadows. When Tenger moved inside and away from the door, she waited. After a minute or so, he reappeared, a portable beacon gleaming where he had affixed it to his wrist. “There are four rooms,” he said. “They are all empty.”
Linojj strode through the doorway and past him. As her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, she saw that Tenger’s characterization of the room as empty referred only to people, not to furnishings. The window in the curved front wall provided the only illumination, which marginally brightened a patch of the floor, but did little to reveal the objects filling the space. While the rest of the landing party filed inside behind her, Linojj reached into a pocket of her jacket and pulled out her own beacon. She clapped it onto her wrist and switched it on.
As Linojj shined the light about the surroundings, other beams joined hers. Tenger and Fenn moved deeper into the building through an arched passage, while Morell, Young, and Permenter stayed in the front room. Ash had penetrated inside and coated everything in a fine layer. She saw a number of objects she recognized as furniture, though few she would have wanted to use herself. Two similar pieces that she assumed functioned as the Rejarris II equivalent of chairs featured a compressed, bowl-like bench perched atop a tripodal base. Linojj puzzled over another object with two small vertical boards, one mounted high on a metal pole and the other low, with a crosshatched hoop jutting out halfway up. Something that looked a lot like a desk held a pair of posts atop it, one on either side, with a wide, filmy material suspended between them.
More than the forms of the items, though, the colors surprised Linojj. Where outside the city displayed itself in a neutral, monochromatic palette, the beacons of the landing party picked out a scene dressed in one deep color after another. Linojj pointed her beam down at the floor, which showed red even through the ash covering it. Comprising thousands of small, irregularly shaped tiles, the mosaic reflected both artistry and precision. The first officer squatted down and brushed her fingertips across the floor; they came away coated with particles of ash, leaving behind gleaming red commas where they had swept the floor clean.
“Commander,” said Morell. Linojj stood back up and walked over to where the doctor examined a round, open-faced cabinet hanging on an inner wall. Concentric dividers lined its interior, and circular pictures in frames filled most of the spaces between them. “I assume these are—or were—the inhabitants of Rejarris Two.”
Linojj studied the images. She couldn’t tell with certainty, but based upon their spacing within the cabinet, she thought that a few of them had been removed. In the ones that remained, she saw individuals belonging to a species completely unknown to her. Their bodies looked like one torso on top of another, joined together by a narrower, tubular structure. They stood on a ring of a dozen or more short appendages. They possessed nothing resembling a head or neck, but a number of vine-like limbs hung down from the top of the body. Darker specks stippled their amber-tinted flesh, and a glossy vertical strip stood out on one side of their upper torso. The clothing they wore—also quite colorful, Linojj noticed—mostly wrapped around their lower section. She could not discern any gender traits, but could easily classify the smaller individuals in some of the photographs as children.
“Have you ever seen or heard of beings like this?” Linojj asked the doctor.
“No,” Morell said. “They certainly don’t look anything like the Tzenkethi, and I’ve never encountered anything in the medical literature about the Coalition that tells of a member race like that.”
“Can you speculate about them?”
“I can’t tell much just by looking at pictures of them,” the doctor said. “I would guess, though, that the dots of deeper color are cutaneous receptors, probably tactile in function. I’d also bet that the silvery stripe is a sensory organ, perhaps visual.”
“What about sex?” Linojj asked.
“No, thank you, Xintal,” Morell deadpanned. “I’m married.”
Linojj heard a chuckle behind her, but couldn’t tell whether it had come from Young or Permenter. The first officer shook her head, an act more of forbearance than vexation. She’d long ago accepted—and even learned to appreciate—Morell’s arch sense of humor, which Linojj always thought must have developed as a reaction to the emotional rigors of the CMO’s profession and duties. “The aliens, Doctor.”
“Of course,” Morell said. “Again, it’s difficult to draw conclusions based only on pictures, especially since some parts of the body are clothed in every image. The only visible characteristic I see that might be gender specific is the length of the upper limbs.”
Linojj smiled, but she elected to choke back the sophomoric rejoinder that occurred to her. Instead, she looked past the doctor as Fenn and Tenger re-entered the room, the beams of their beacons dancing along the floor in front of them. “What have you found?” she asked.
“Usage, but not for some time,” Fenn said. “The ash that’s gotten inside covers every surface and is undisturbed, other than where the landing party has walked. There are furnishings in all the rooms, and we’ve found clothing, what appear to be household goods and personal items, and many of those items display signs of wear. Sensors also show that the floor has been slightly eroded along some paths, such as the area inside the front door, an area that logically would have seen some of the most use.”
“So your conclusion is that this was somebody’s home?” Linojj asked.
“Probably so, yes,” Fenn said. “At the very least, the physical evidence demonstrates that it was occupied in some capacity, for some reason, over a course of time.”
“Did you find any remains?” Doctor Morell asked.
“No, although my tricorder has picked up trace amounts of DNA,” Fenn said. “Nothing that we can sequence, though.”
“Not only did we find no corpses or skeletons,” Tenger said, “we also saw no half-eaten meals, no items out of place, no signs of panic or violence. Whatever happened to empty this place of its inhabitants—to empty this building, and presumably this city, and perhaps even this entire world—it did not come as a surprise to the people who lived here.”
“But what did happen?” Linojj asked aloud, although she didn’t expect an answer, posing the conundrum more to herself than to her crewmates. She paced over to the window and stared out at the flat-hued city beneath the forbidding charcoal sky. “If the unbroken clouds of smoke in the atmosphere and the ash covering the ground are indications of a nuclear war, then where’s the damage?” The first officer recalled the case of the cultures on the planets Eminiar and Vendikar, which she had learned about in both the Prime Directive class and the Survey of the Alpha Quadrant seminar she’d been required to attend at the Academy. Until just fifty years earlier, the people on the two worlds had waged a centuries-long war, conducted not with physical weapons, but by computer. Both sides launched attacks mathematically, with the results determined by programmatic simulation. People designated as casualties reported to so-called disintegration chambers, which vaporized them out of existence. In that fashion, the war raged on for hundreds of years, the populations of the two planets at risk, but their societies free from the physical destruction of conventional battle. It was, in Linojj’s opinion, both elegant and horrific, a clever means of preserving the material existence of a world, mixed with a callous disregard for the safety of its citizenry.
None of that had any bearing on Rejarris II, Linojj knew. Even if the entire population there had died in a “clean” war conducted on computers, even if every single person willingly marched to their deaths in order to fulfill some fatality toll—a set of improbable circumstances that could justify the Enterprise crew finding an intact but unoccupied civilization—that still would not explain the nuclear winter enveloping the planet.
“All right,” Linojj said, moving away from the window and toward the front door. “Let’s see what else we can find.”
The landing party followed the first officer back outside and deeper into the alien city.
♦ ♦ ♦
Sulu sat at the head of the long conference table in the observation lounge situated aft of the Enterprise bridge. After the landing party had returned from their journey through the city on Rejarris II, she had summoned its members to brief her on what they’d found—and on what they hadn’t. “You saw no signs of life whatsoever?” she asked, baffled by what seemed like the inexplicable disappearance of an entire planetary population.
“To the contrary, Captain,” said Linojj, seated directly to Sulu’s left, beside Morell and Tenger. Fenn, Young, and Permenter sat across from them. Behind the first officer, through the viewports lining the aft bulkhead of Deck 1, the ship’s warp nacelles pulsed with energy. A veiled curve of the planet hung off to port. “We saw signs of life everywhere. In each building we entered, whether one of the smaller structures on the periphery of the city, or one of the twenty-story towers at the center, we found furnishings and personal belongings, equipment and supplies. We identified patterns of wear consistent with everyday use, and recorded numerous instances of trace DNA. We just couldn’t find any of the beings who actually lived there.”
It sounded to Sulu almost like double-talk. She understood, though, that the crux of the confusion lay not with the language her first officer employed, but with the situation she described. Sulu leaned back in her seat and ran a hand through her hair, a reflex born from years of pushing her long locks away from her eyes. It caught her momentarily off guard when her fingers whisked easily through her cropped coiffure. She’d had her hair cut short only days earlier, something she’d considered doing for a long time, and which the amount of gray strands weaving through the black had finally convinced her to do.
“What about records?” Sulu asked.
“We didn’t see anything recognizable as a traditional computer,” Linojj said. “Even if we had, the city was without power. We did discover several items that resembled large books, but instead of paper pages, they contained sheets of a film-like substance. Sensors revealed that they had been inscribed chemically. If that’s how they stored information, it may take some time to decipher their language.”
Sulu reached forward and picked up a personal access display device. She examined the padd’s screen, which showed the tawny-skinned form of an alien being, the image copied from a picture—one of many—that the landing party had found down on the planet. “Could it be that the population is there, but we just can’t perceive them? Could they be hiding from us?”
“I don’t think so,” Linojj said. “If they were there but somehow imperceptible to us, they would still interact with the environment, but the undisturbed layers of ash covering everything belies that idea. Nobody’s been in that city for some time.”
Sulu set the padd back down on the table. “Can we be sure that everything you experienced on the planet was real?” she asked, searching for an explanation.
The first officer looked across the table at Lieutenant Commander Fenn, who held up her tricorder. “We’re as sure as we can be, Captain,” she said. “Every member of the landing party saw the same things, all of it matched by the data logged on multiple tricorders.”
“The readings gathered on the surface are also consistent with what our probes have so far detected,” Tenger added. The six class-three devices continued to soar through the skies of Rejarris II, collecting information.
“I imagine it’s possible that everything we’ve seen is some sort of illusion,” Linojj said, “or that it was all manufactured complete with trace DNA and signs of wear built in, but to what end? Whether intended for us or for somebody else, what purpose would such a ruse serve?”
Sulu considered her first officer’s point. “You’re right,” she said. “Those possibilities seem even less likely than all the inhabitants of a world vanishing.”
“Excuse me, Captain,” Young said. He seemed tentative to Sulu.
“You have something to say, Ensign?” she asked. “I called this meeting for discussion.”
“Yes, sir,” Young said. “I just wanted to point out that the word vanish implies something sudden, and in this case, where we’re talking about the population of a planet, it also implies some powerful force at work. But while we do know that there doesn’t appear to be anybody left on Rejarris Two, we don’t know when they left or how long it took them.”
Linojj nodded as Young spoke. When he finished, she said, “We uncovered no evidence that the people all died, but I did notice several details that hinted at them simply leaving. It was nothing definite. We found an arrangement of pictures that seemed incomplete, as though somebody had decided to remove a few to take with them. A collection of clothes that looked as though items were missing. Things like that.”
“But if the inhabitants of the planet left, where did they go?” Tenger asked. “There are no Class-M worlds in this solar system, and the level of technology we found on the planet tells us that they had yet to develop warp drive. As best we can tell, they only recently visited their moons for the first time.” After the landing party had beamed down, the crew had sent a probe to each of the two small natural satellites orbiting Rejarris II. Scans found a pair of automated, uncrewed spacecraft on the larger moon, and a third on the other. Small and liquid-fueled, the trio of landers demonstrated the rudimentary level of space travel that the natives of Rejarris II had achieved.
“Maybe they had help,” Linojj said, repeating an idea she’d voiced before transporting down to the planet.
“Where would that help have come from?” Tenger asked. “We surveyed all the other planets and moons in this system, and none are inhabited. That means that assistance would have had to come from outside. The star nearest to Rejarris is almost five light-years distant, which implies that such assistance would have required the use of warp drive, but we’ve scanned for residual warp signatures and haven’t found any.”
“Maybe the exodus from the planet took place so long ago,” Fenn said, “that the residual signatures have dissipated.”
“Or maybe we haven’t scanned closely enough in surrounding space,” Sulu said. “Commander Tenger, plot a search pattern for—”
The three-toned boatswain’s whistle sounded in the observation lounge. “Bridge to Captain Sulu,” came the voice of the ship’s navigator, Gaia Aldani, who presently had the conn.
Sulu tapped a control on the intercom set into the conference table. “Go ahead, Lieutenant.”
“Captain, one of the probes has found something,” Aldani said.
Sulu pushed back in her chair at once and stood up. Everybody else followed suit. “I’m on my way, Lieutenant. Out.” She deactivated the intercom with a touch. Addressing the two crew members who did not serve on the bridge, the captain dismissed Morell and Permenter. She then led the others through the nearest exit. Passing doors that opened into her office, a turbolift, and a refresher, she emerged through one of two aft entries onto the bridge.
“Report,” Sulu said. She skirted the combined communications-and-tactical console and moved to the command chair, where Lieutenant Aldani had already started to rise.
“One of the probes completed its flyover of the southernmost continent and began mapping the sea floor,” she said, pointing toward the main viewer. The blue expanse of a Rejarris II ocean filled most of it, with the edge of an empty brown-and-gray landmass cutting across the bottom left corner of the screen. “The region isn’t far from the pole. Ensign Andreas, show the captain what the probe discovered.”
“Yes, sir.” Fenn took a position at a secondary sciences station as Devonna Andreas operated the primary console. On the viewscreen, a red line appeared and proceeded to trace a rough circle, mostly over the water, but also along an inland mountain range. The blue then faded away, leaving a shaded area of the sea floor showing. The familiar form—a raised rim surrounding a central uplift at the center—told Sulu exactly what the probe had located.
“It’s a crater,” she said.
“Yes, sir,” Aldani confirmed.
“When was it produced?” Sulu asked.
“Based on the minimal amount of erosion and several other factors,” Andreas said, “it was probably generated within the last half century.”
“So the smoke in the atmosphere and the ash on the ground are not the product of a nuclear winter,” Sulu said. “They’re the result of an impact winter.”
“Yes, sir,” Aldani said.
“Thank you, Lieutenant, Ensign,” Sulu said. “That’s good work.”
As the captain sat down, Aldani returned to the navigation console, where she relieved Ensign Shahinian. The first officer stepped up beside the command chair. “It seems that an asteroid has solved our mystery,” Linojj said. “That’s why we didn’t see any destroyed cities anywhere on the planet: there was no war.”
“It solves one mystery,” Sulu said, “but not the other. An asteroid impact didn’t vaporize everybody on Rejarris Two.”
“No,” Linojj said, “but if they studied the skies, then they could have predicted the disaster.”
“But you’ve seen their civilization,” Sulu said. “You’ve seen the satellites that they put into orbit, and their rudimentary launch facilities. Is there any chance that they managed to develop faster-than-light travel?”
Linojj shrugged and shook her head. “Not based on what we’ve learned so far.”
“Then that’s our second mystery,” Sulu said. “Where did the people of Rejarris Two go, and how did they get there?”
Star Trek: The Lost Era: One Constant Star
When Captain Demora Sulu leads the crew of U.S.S. Enterprise-B on a mission near Tzenkethi space, they explore Rejarris II, a planet they cannot explain. A strange structure on the surface could hold answers, but when a landing party transports down to study it, chaos erupts. After communication fails with one officer and another is horribly injured, Captain Sulu deems the planet too dangerous to continue exploring. She decides to leave Rejarris II, but not until she can retrieve her lost crew member. But when contact is ultimately severed with the captain, a Tzenkethi force subsequently appears. Could they be behind the mysteries on the planet, or the disappearances of the Enterprise officers? Regardless, will Sulu's crew be able stand up to them long enough to find and retrieve their captain and the other missing personnel?
Once, John Harriman commanded Enterprise-B with Demora Sulu by his side as his first officer. Eight years after stepping down as a starship captain—in the wake of the Tomed Incident—Harriman now serves as an admiral based out of Helaspont Station, on the edge of the Tzenkethi Coalition. When he receives a mysterious message from Rejarris II, he realizes that he might hold the key to finding his former crewmate. In choosing to help recover Demora Sulu, though, he could risk losing everything he holds dear. What price is Harriman willing to pay to attempt to rescue his longtime friend?
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