Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations - The Collectors
May 2, 2384 (a Wednesday)
Dwarf planet 136199 Eris, Outer Solar System
“So are you going to take the job?”
Marion Dulmur stared at his fellow special agent, surprised by the question. In the eighteen years, nine months, and sixteen days since he had first been partnered with Gariff Lucsly, he had rarely known the older man to initiate a conversation that wasn’t in the line of duty. Normally it would have been Dulmur who’d feel compelled to break the long silence at a time like this. They had spent the past three hours and fourteen minutes in a maglev carriage, descending via orbital tether from Eridiosynchronous orbit. Stretched out below them, drawing rapidly nearer in the final minutes of their descent, was the snowy-white yet dimly illuminated surface of Eris, a lifeless ball of ice on a wide, lonely orbit through the outer fringes of the Sol system, well removed from civilization or public attention. Here was where the Federation Department of Temporal Investigations maintained the Eridian Vault, the top-secret storage facility housing the most sensitive and dangerous temporal artifacts known to the Federation—or at least those that could be safely moved here. The artifact discovered sixteen days before by the crew of Rhea had so far fit into that category, but given the delicacy of the obelisk’s structure, no one was willing to risk sending it through a transporter, and thus it had to be delivered to the surface the old-fashioned way, gingerly lowered down a superstrong cable thousands of kilometers long. Dulmur and Lucsly had spent the past twelve days aboard a Starfleet slipstream courier, securing the obelisk and shepherding it back to the Vault; and now, after so much time aboard the fastest spacegoing conveyance the Federation had yet mastered, they had to spend the final leg of the journey on the slowest one still in use. It allowed the anticipation to build as they neared the moment when they would have to secure this powerful alien object in the Vault and pray that it didn’t have some unpredictable interaction with one of the dozens of other artifacts therein, artifacts with the power to rewrite reality. So most people would feel the need to indulge in small talk to avoid having to contemplate the immensity of it all.
Not Lucsly, though. The lanky, silver-haired, stone-faced special agent was a stalwart of the DTI, largely because he was simply too prosaic and unimaginative to be troubled much by the existential anxieties of temporal investigation. Normally it was Dulmur who carried the brunt of the conversation between them, for he’d never been able to achieve quite the same level of stoic professionalism as his partner.
But today, he’d been more subdued than usual, his thoughts about the recent offer preoccupying him. Now that they were almost home, he knew he couldn’t put the decision off much longer, so it weighed more heavily on his mind. Thus the conversational void that Lucsly was now unwontedly attempting to fill.
“I’m tempted, sure,” Dulmur finally replied. “Just like I was tempted the other three times they offered.”
“The Denobula branch office is an important addition to our facilities. It needs a capable assistant director.”
“I agree. We need a stronger presence out that way.” The growing tensions between the Federation and the more aggressive members of the Typhon Pact—the Breen and Tholians in particular—created a delicate situation where temporal security was concerned. In the two years and eleven months since the Pact had gone public, its members had generally adhered to the Temporal Accords, for any sane government understood that tampering with time could backfire in unpredictable ways. But just over five weeks ago, the increasingly erratic and belligerent Breen government had attempted to capture a derelict starship from a parallel quantum reality with the intent of using its extratemporal technology to gain a strategic edge. The derelict had been destroyed and the Breen leader deposed for his failure, but the incident had created uncertainty about the Pact’s reliability as a partner in temporal regulation. Thus a stronger DTI presence toward the Federation’s spinward border, where the Pact’s more bellicose members were concentrated, was very much worth having. The new office at Denobula Triaxa would also allow closer coordination with the nascent temporal management agency that the Ferengi Alliance was in the process of establishing at the behest of Grand Nagus Rom, whose prior personal experiences with transtemporal and allohistorical displacement had left him sympathetic toward the DTI’s goals. Rom had done the Department a great service the previous year by drawing on his personal fortune to purchase an ancient yet functional vortex manipulator that the Redheri had discovered and auctioned, whereupon he had bartered it to the Federation in exchange for fairly reasonable trade concessions—which, by Ferengi standards, was effectively a donation. The manipulator had been the most recent addition to the Vault’s inventory, until today.
“So you’re considering the job?” Lucsly asked.
“I always consider it. But it’s like I’ve said before—I can do the most good out in the field with you.”
“You said that ten years, six months, and twenty-five days ago, when we started to get warning signs that a new front of the Temporal Cold War was about to open in our era. That conflict was resolved two years, two months, and two weeks ago, our time.”
“As far as we know. Sure, Agent Noi said things would calm down for us in the future, but we both know there are many futures to choose from. The one she comes from might not be the one we get.”
“Hm,” Lucsly replied.
“And even without more invasions from the future, things in the present are getting pretty intense, with the Breen and everything. No telling what other dangerous tech they might want to get their gloves on. So, best to stay ready.”
For another 3.8 minutes, there was nothing but the hum of the maglev carriage’s motors. “Still,” the older agent finally said, “there are other facets of the future to consider. More personal ones.”
Again, Dulmur was surprised. True, he made no secret of his desire to settle down and start a family one day, but he’d become increasingly resigned to the unlikelihood of that as he’d grown older and more entrenched in his job. And he’d never known Lucsly to encourage him in that pursuit. “You hate change, Lucsly. You really want the hassle of breaking in a new partner again?”
“No.” Twelve seconds later: “But change happens. That’s just reality. Sooner or later you have to face it.”
Dulmur studied his partner’s lean, stoic face for a long moment. “Look . . . partner . . .”
The carriage hummed louder as it began its final deceleration. “We’re about to arrive,” Lucsly said. “Time to get this artifact checked in.”
Two decades of practice let Dulmur follow his partner’s lead and set personal issues aside as they proceeded with the work. The next hour was spent delicately transferring the obelisk to the processing bay, where it would be examined with great caution to determine whether it could be safely neutralized, or at least effectively shielded from the Vault’s other most powerful artifacts. True, the majority of those artifacts were mercifully nonfunctional, but some required only an infusion of temporal energy to be triggered, and the obelisk emitted it in abundance.
“You must be joking,” moaned Doctor Warain, the Caldonian temporal physicist who supervised the study and management of the Vault’s contents. The towering, brown-complexioned humanoid shook his bulbous head at the readings on his console as he and the two special agents monitored the obelisk from the observation chamber. “These negative-energy readings are unprecedented! And the chroniton emissions . . . no, no, if this thing is placed anywhere near the Mervynian chroniton polarizers while one is switched on . . .”
“I don’t think there are any plans to switch them on, Warain,” Dulmur said.
“And are you confident that you can rule out a recursive retrocausal anomaly arising from the gravitomagnetic interactions that could result? Because I can’t. It’s an allowable solution to the equations, you know.”
“Yes, we know,” Lucsly said, even as he finished logging the obelisk into inventory on his part of the console. “We’re aware of the challenges. The courier’s engineer raised similar concerns about the slipstream interaction, but they managed to avoid problems.”
“So if they could do it,” Dulmur went on, “you can do it. Right? You’ve come up with containment solutions for dangerous items before.”
“Oh, I have a containment solution, all right.”
“Great! Let’s hear it.”
“Phaser a hole fifty kilometers deep in the ice and dump this thing in. On the opposite side of the planetoid.”
“We’ll take that under advisement,” Lucsly told him dryly. “In the meantime, if you could determine how much we need to shore up the containment fields in Bay D14 . . .”
Warain glowered down at him. “You know it’s not that easy, right? There’s no way this will ever work.” He sighed. “I’ll get right on it.”
The Caldonian strode from the chamber, muttering anxiously to himself. Dulmur would have been more worried if not for the fact that Warain reacted the same way to virtually every new addition to the Vault. It had once amazed Dulmur that someone so neurotic could handle the responsibility of a job where one misstep could erase oneself or one’s whole civilization from existence. Over the years, he’d come to realize that it was simply how Warain coped, a façade masking the intricate calculations and strategies always percolating in that massive brain of his. The towering scientist had managed to keep the Vault free of major temporal mishaps for the entirety of his tenure here, and so Dulmur was confident that—
“He’s right, you know.”
Dulmur spun, startled by the new yet familiar voice. Lucsly had already turned and showed no sign of surprise at the presence of the unauthorized visitor: an elegant, exotic female with mahogany skin, large honey-colored eyes, black hair worn in a long braid, scalloped Vulcanoid ears, a subtle chevron ridge between her eyebrows, and truly spectacular cheekbones. The interloper’s sleek frame was clad in the close-fitting, ribbed black jumpsuit of the Federation Temporal Agency, the thirty-first-century descendant of the DTI. True to form, she’d arrived imperceptibly, as though she’d been there all along and simply hadn’t been noticed. Her quantum time-travel technology not only created that illusion, but made it child’s play for her to bypass Vault security. “Agent Noi,” Lucsly said. “You know you’re not authorized to be here.”
Jena Noi smiled. “Nice to see you too, Lucsly. And you, Dulmur. It’s been a while.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Dulmur said. “What brings you to our neck of history? Or can’t you tell us?” True, as a DTI agent sworn to protect the timeline, Dulmur understood the importance of controlling information about the future. But it still rankled when someone from uptime did it to him—usually in the process of throwing their weight around and telling their primitive forebears in the DTI to stand back and let their descendants handle things. He’d seen Jena Noi softpedal such orders often enough to see it coming now.
Indeed, she sighed and grew apologetic. “It’s simple enough, Dulmur. The obelisk—I’m here to claim it.”
“And what do you plan to do with it?”
“Same thing you were: Contain it and keep it safe. But we have better containment methods up in the thirty-first. Surely you can see it’d be better off with us.”
“Then why didn’t you just pick it up on that planet before the Rhea found it? Save us all the trouble?”
Lucsly tapped the console. “Because the FTA wouldn’t have known about it until we—”
“Until we entered it into our records, I get it,” Dulmur finished for him. “But you sure didn’t waste any time getting here, Agent Noi.”
“I’ll refrain from the obvious time-travel crack,” she replied. “But the sooner we get it out of here, the sooner you can rest easy.”
“Why this artifact?” Lucsly asked. “We have other hazardous items in storage. Is there some particular danger to this one?”
“That’s just it, Gariff—we don’t know.” She gestured at the high, tapering structure, its intricately textured surface shimmering with diffraction rainbows under the bright lights of the processing bay. “Look at that thing. It’s beyond anything even the FTA’s ever seen, aside from the Guardian of Forever.”
“Then what makes you any better qualified to handle it?” Dulmur asked. “We’re all primitives by comparison.”
“Dulmur, there’s no reason to fight over this.”
“In fact,” Lucsly told her, “DTI procedure clearly states that nothing is to be removed from Vault containment without clearance through the director’s office. You can’t just come in and take it.”
“Even though history shows I already did? Guys, there’s no record of this thing being in the Vault after today. The archives say it was retrieved by an uptime agency. Naturally there was no more detail,” she added. Dulmur knew that procedure restricted entering specific knowledge of the future into the official record. “But that’s how I knew to come here. Contact Director Andos if you need to, but you know it’s best to keep this discreet. I’m doing you a courtesy by asking at all.”
“Very well,” Lucsly said, earning a startled look from Dulmur until he continued: “I will contact the director.”
Noi held his gaze, but Lucsly didn’t budge. Finally, the uptime agent sighed. “Fine. We’ll go through proper channels,” she said. “But is it all right if I at least help you secure the artifact? I’d rather not leave it unshielded while we sort out the red tape.”
“What did you have in mind?”
She hesitated briefly, then deigned to reply. “I can erect a buffer field to contain its temporal emissions. Make sure it can’t interfere with any of the other toys you’ve got in this box.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Lucsly said. Noi took it as consent, correctly so.
But Dulmur peered at her. “You still have toy boxes in the future?”
Noi threw him an amused glare. “That’s classified.”
Dulmur kept an eye on her through the transparent aluminum partition as she moved into the bay and began scanning the obelisk with some kind of instrument, though he had no idea where she’d stored it in her formfitting jumpsuit. “I’m still not sure we should just go along with this,” he said, while Lucsly tried to get through to Director Andos. “We’ve seen that these uptime agents aren’t always content to leave history well enough alone. And you heard her, that obelisk’s high-level stuff even by her standards. It’s either from the far future or some incredibly advanced ancient culture.” He laughed. “Hell, we can’t even get a comprehensible quantum dating off that thing to tell us which direction it came from. What if they learn something from it that they’re not ready to know?”
“We’d be no more ready,” Lucsly told him.
“But at least we’d have the good sense to leave the damn thing alone.” He furrowed his brow. “Here’s a thought: Maybe we could take it to the Axis of Time and—”
A burst of alarms cut him off. Lucsly gave the readouts a quick once-over. “A temporal vortex is starting to form around the artifact. Incredibly powerful.” He triggered the intercom. “Jena, whatever you’re doing in there—”
“I’m on it! I’m trying to damp its emissions. That should . . .”
But it didn’t. Dulmur stared in alarm as the obelisk began to expand—no, to unwind, opening gaps between its membranes from which a bright blue glow of Cherenkov radiation emerged. Noi frantically worked her equipment, both the device in her hand and the circuitry built into her uniform, but nothing she did had any effect. A sphere of blue light was expanding outward from the obelisk, already engulfing Noi. Lucsly shot through the door, running toward her, and Dulmur reached after him. But the sphere was still expanding, swallowing up Lucsly, and then it came right through the partition, filling his vision with light . . .
And then there was blackness.