Without warning, a Starfleet ship is overwhelmed by a mysterious, alien aggressor—one who appears to possess an intimate knowledge of the vessel's tactical technology. Then a second Starfleet ship is attacked. And a third.
Twenty-eight-year-old Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the U.S.S. Stargazer—a Constellation-class starship—is ordered to help form a desperate line of defense against the aggressor. But it seems nothing can stop the aliens' headlong plunge into the heart of the Federation.
Or rather, nothing in front of them can. Trailing one of the alien attack formations is a tiny Starfleet shuttle with a half dozen crewmembers aboard. One of them is Picard's first officer and best friend, Gilaad Ben Zoma.
Another is Arlen McAteer, the ambitious admiral who has made it his business to relieve Picard of his command.
Can Ben Zoma and McAteer work together to unlock the secret of the alien assault? Or will their differences sabotage their effort—and deprive the Federation of its last hope for survival?
As Jean-Luc Picard made his way down the long, curving corridor on his way to Transporter Room One, he saw Lieutenant Urajel coming from the other direction.
"Lieutenant," he said, favoring the Andorian with a nod.
"Captain," she returned.
But she wasn't looking him in the eye. She was looking at his head -- a common problem of late, as he had been compelled to shave it weeks ago in a place called Oblivion, and his hair was growing back more slowly than anyone had expected.
At the moment, it was little more than stubble, and itchy stubble at that. Rather a nuisance all around, the captain reflected, as he passed Urajel and continued on his way.
Unfortunately, his hair was the least of his problems.
At the end of the corridor, he found a set of double doors, which hissed open at his approach. Beyond them, two of his people were waiting for him.
No, he thought, amending his observation. Just one of them is still mine.
That was Goetz, the red-haired junior operator on duty in the ship's primary transporter room. She was standing behind the enclosure's lone control console, awaiting the captain's authorization to proceed.
The other figure in the room -- the one who was no longer Picard's to command -- was standing on the slightly raised transporter platform, dressed in a brown tunic with gray pants and a shirt of the same color. He had left all his cranberry-and-black Starfleet uniforms hanging in his quarters, as it was no longer appropriate for him to wear any of them.
Picard met the man's eyes. "Mister Nikolas," he said.
The ensign -- no, the captain reminded himself, former ensign -- inclined his head. "Captain."
Andreas Nikolas appeared relieved, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. And no doubt it had been. A couple of days earlier, he had come to Picard with a haunted, hollowed-out look in his eyes -- the same look the captain had seen lurking there for the last several weeks.
Ever since Gerda Idun Asmund had left them.
She had arrived on the Stargazer in an apparent transporter accident, one that had shot her from her original timeline into Picard's own. As it turned out later, her transit was actually part of an elaborate plan to kidnap Phigus Simenon, the Stargazer's chief engineer, and put him to work for a rebel cause.
Gerda Idun was foiled -- with Nikolas's help, as fate would have it -- and she was returned to her proper universe empty-handed. But that was only after Nikolas had done himself the disservice of falling in love with her.
From that point on, the ensign's life on the Stargazer had been a little bit of hell. After all, Gerda and Idun Asmund, who looked exactly like Gerda Idun, were still serving alongside him on the ship. And every time Nikolas bumped into one of them, in a corridor or a lounge, he was painfully reminded of what he had lost.
Picard had been aware of Nikolas's discomfort. However, he had assumed that Nikolas would get over it, as Picard had gotten over his own lost loves. So he was surprised when the fellow walked into the captain's ready room a few days ago, sat down opposite him, and asked for his discharge from Starfleet.
Picard was torn by the request. Ever since Nikolas had beamed aboard the Stargazer, the captain had identified with him and seen promise in him.
Nikolas had been reprimanded a few times for getting into fights, that was true. But Picard had his share of ill-considered dust-offs at that age, and he had eventually grown past them. He had seen no reason why Nikolas couldn't do the same.
Then Gerda Idun had appeared, and Nikolas changed. The day she was slated to leave, his orders called for him to report to engineering. Instead, he went to the transporter room from which she was departing, determined to speak with her.
And days later, after the captain had specifically warned Nikolas about getting into any more fights with his fellow crewmen, he had managed to get into not one such conflict, but two -- both of them with Lieutenant Hanta, who should have known better as well.
Picard had considered the idea of encouraging Nikolas to transfer to another ship. However, that would have solved only a portion of the fellow's problem. Even if Nikolas had been removed from the presence of the Asmund twins, he would still have been distracted by his memories of Gerda Idun.
And an officer on a starship couldn't afford such a distraction. Not when it might place his colleagues in deadly danger.
Finally -- feeling he had no choice in the matter -- the captain had given in. He had approved Nikolas's resignation from the fleet. But he had done so with a heavy heart.
Under normal circumstances, Nikolas would have been compelled to remain on the Stargazer for weeks. It usually took that long to arrange a series of handoffs with other starships in the transport of a low-priority passenger.
However, there had been a change in Picard's orders, requiring him to go halfway back to Earth. That had drastically expedited Nikolas's departure -- bringing about this day, this time, and this unfortunate moment.
Standing there alongside Goetz, the captain considered Nikolas for a moment. He couldn't help feeling that he had failed somehow -- that he had let the younger man down, rather than the other way around.
No matter how one looked at the situation, it was a shame. Picard turned to his transporter operator.
"Is the Manitou ready?" he asked, referring to the ardship with which they had rendezvoused minutes earlier.
Goetz nodded. "She is, sir."
Picard turned to his former ensign and said, "I wish you well, Mister Nikolas."
Nikolas's brow knit, as if he were feeling a pang of regret. Or maybe it was simply an indication of how impatient he was to be off the Stargazer.
Finally, he said, "The same to you, sir."
The captain acknowledged the gesture with a nod. Then he glanced at Goetz and said, "Energize."
Picard watched a column of golden light take shape around Nikolas, immersing him in its brilliance. After a moment, he began to fade away. Little by little, his features became indistinguishable from the light.
Then the light faded too, leaving nothing in its place.
Picard sighed. But it wasn't just Nikolas's departure that compelled him to do so. After all, the Stargazer was slated to receive a transport subject as well as give one up.
Goetz turned to the captain. "Sir, Nikolas has arrived safely on the Manitou."
Picard nodded. "Proceed."
This time, the transporter operator didn't have much to do, as her opposite number on the Manitou was the one initiating the transport. Goetz's only responsibility was to give the other ship's operator the go-ahead, which she did with a tap on her console, and then monitor the procedure.
Seconds later, another column of golden light took shape on the platform. As Picard looked on, it became clear that there was someone forming inside it -- someone obviously humanoid, who solidified as the splendor around him vanished.
He was blond, of medium build, and older than the captain by a couple of decades. Though he was wearing the same cranberry and black uniform, the insignia on it denoted a rank superior to Picard's -- that of the Starfleet admiral overseeing this sector of space.
McAteer, thought the captain, and not with any special fondness. But what he said was "Admiral. Welcome to the Stargazer."
McAteer smiled as if he were happy to see Picard, but his smile wasn't to be taken at face value. It was merely a tool that he used to disarm his adversaries.
"Picard," he said as he stepped down from the platform.
Not Captain Picard. Just Picard, without the title. But then, McAteer had never seemed comfortable with the notion of someone Picard's age commanding a starship.
"You've cut your hair," the admiral observed.
"I did," the captain confirmed. "A necessary part of my assignment on Oblivion."
"Ah yes," said McAteer. "Oblivion." As if that single word were comment enough.
Picard's mission there hadn't been a complete success. He had, after all, failed to obtain strategic information that would have given the Federation a significant advantage over its adversaries in the sector.
However, he had flushed out a scheme to put the Federation at a significant disadvantage. Most superior officers would have taken that into consideration. But not McAteer.
"I trust your trip here was a comfortable one," said the captain.
"It was," the admiral confirmed. "But then, Captain Dorchester knows his way around."
And I don't, Picard couldn't help adding silently. The implication was there whether McAteer said it out loud or not.
The captain indicated the exit. "Shall I have someone see you to your quarters?"
"Not just yet," said McAteer. "Right now, I'd like to go over a few things in your ready room."
Of course you would, thought Picard.
Carter Greyhorse, the Stargazer's chief medical officer, appeared to be studying the red-on-black digital readout on the side of one of his biobeds. However, he was really thinking about Gerda Asmund. In point of fact, he was always thinking about Gerda Asmund.
And why not? She was his lover.
Greyhorse had never imagined he would be saying such a thing, not even to himself. But it was true. The fates had been kinder to him than he could ever have imagined. Lovely, fierce Gerda had miraculously seen fit to share his bed.
And not just his bed.
After all, Gerda had been raised as a Klingon. Her appetites were untidy, to say the least, and they had a way of manifesting themselves even when there was no bed available.
More than once in recent weeks, Greyhorse had found himself in a semipublic part of the ship, hastily covering up some newly inflicted wound -- the livid result of Gerda's passion. He was sporting two such wounds at that very moment, one half-healed and the other still fresh and bloody.
The doctor didn't like the risks he and Gerda were taking, sometimes getting involved with each other while one or both of them were on duty. However, his lover seemed to thrive on risk. For her, it appeared to be an integral part of the experience.
He couldn't deny her that thrill. Hell, he couldn't deny her anything -- not when Gerda might suddenly decide that Greyhorse was too much trouble and end their relationship, just like that. He didn't know how he would go on living if she did that.
So he endured their trysts, no matter where or when they took place, and the scars that came with them, and still he counted himself lucky. And he would go on doing that as long as Gerda gave him the chance to --
"Doctor?" said his patient, interrupting Greyhorse's thoughts.
He looked down at Ulelo, one of the com officers who reported to Lieutenant Paxton. "Yes?"
"Have you got everything you needed?"
Greyhorse nodded. "Yes. Yes, of course. You can go."
He should have scrutinized Ulelo's bioscan, just to be certain there was nothing wrong with the man. However, a cursory look hadn't given him any reason for concern, and he would take a closer look at the scan later on.
Besides, Ulelo hadn't had any complaints. It was just a routine checkup, mandated by Starfleet regulations.
"Thank you," said the com officer.
"No problem," said Greyhorse.
Swiveling himself around and removing himself from the biobed, Ulelo crossed sickbay and headed for the exit. By the time the doctor heard the clatter of Ulelo's footfalls in the corridor outside, he wasn't thinking about the com officer anymore.
Michael Jan Friedman is the author of nearly sixty books of fiction and nonfiction, more than half of which bear the name Star Trek or some variation thereof. Ten of his titles have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. He has also written for network and cable television, radio, and comic books, the Star Trek: Voyager® episode “Resistance” prominent among his credits. On those rare occasions when he visits the real world, Friedman lives on Long Island with his wife and two sons.
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