On the cusp of their epic battle with Shinzon, many of Captain Jean-Luc Picard's long-time crew were heading for new assignments and new challenges. Among the changes were William Riker's promotion to captain and his new command, Riker's marriage to Counselor Deanna Troi, and Dr. Beverly Crusher's new career at Starfleet Medical. But the story of what set them on a path away from the Starship Enterprise™ has never been told.
The site of one of the Dominion War's fiercest battles, the Rashanar Sector now contains a vast interstellar graveyard littered with the lifeless hulks of hundreds of devastated starships. The explosive destruction of so many varied warp drives has severely distorted the space-time continuum in this region, resulting in dangerous unleashed energies and bizarre gravitational anomalies.
The Enterprise has been assigned to patrol the perimeter of the danger zone, while other vessels carry out the difficult and highly hazardous task of retrieving the bodies of the dead from the wrecked warships.
To some alien races, the former battleground is hallowed space. To others, including the rapacious Androssi, it is a scavenger's paradise, ripe for salvage. None expect this ship's graveyard to hold a deadly secret that will force the android Data to make a heart-wrenching decision about the path his life will take -- and that will endanger not only the Enterprise, but Picard's future in Starfleet.
The gaunt woman, wearing a ragged shift and shoes made of discarded insulation material, knelt in the gully and ran her fingers through the grimy soil. While the sun beat down mercilessly, she searched until she found a shriveled root, which she popped into her mouth and chewed ravenously until it was gone. So intent was she upon her search that she hardly noticed the shuttlecraft that set down in a cloud of blowing sand not fifty meters away. Thrusters clicked off; then a hatch opened. Even when three humanoids in flight suits emerged from the craft and approached the old woman, she continued her desperate search for food.
All of this was observed by a nondescript male of her species who sat on a bench about twenty meters away. He, too, wore rags and makeshift shoes, but he was not hungry, at least not for food. Behind him stood a row of deserted buildings that had once been stores, homes, and places of recreation and worship. Most of these dusty structures were collapsed or falling apart, and their hinges creaked in the constant wind. A ghost town, this place would have been called on another planet far, far away, the man on the bench decided.
The three strangers approached the woman. One of them said kindly, "Madam, we are here from the Relocation Bureau. Are you ready to go?"
She looked up at the men with unbridled hostility and spat at them, although she barely had enough spittle to wet her fingertip. "This is my home!" she rasped. "Who told you I was going anywhere?" She continued scrounging for roots.
The three strangers looked uneasily at one another, and another one of the men said, "Look around you, madam. This planet is finished -- nothing will grow in this irradiated soil. Your leaders have agreed to this relocation, and all of your neighbors have already left." He glanced for a moment at the man on the bench. "You two are the only ones left on this whole continent."
"Damn the Federation! Damn the Dominion! Damn them all!" shrieked the woman. She sobbed and pounded the worthless soil. "Why did you have to make war here? Why did it have to be our world? What did we ever do to anyone? We just wanted to live in peace -- to raise our children, to raise our crops. Now they're all gone...all gone." She buried her face in the scorched dirt and sobbed pitifully.
The three men tried to help her up. She fought them off with screams and flailing fists. That was enough for the observer on the bench, who rose slowly and walked toward them with a creaky gait that belied his youthful appearance. None of them could really tell how old he was, and their descriptions of him would later vary.
He motioned the trio back. They obeyed him without question. Then the nondescript man bent down and put his arms around the gaunt woman. "Mother," he said tenderly, "these men are not at fault for what happened here. No one chooses to be in a war, nor do they choose the place to fight it. Yes, our beloved world was once good to us, but now it's spent. Let's leave it as a shrine to the dead and departed. It's best to leave now, Mother, and go with these men. They will be kind to you and give you plenty of food. They have your welfare at heart. Go with them, please."
She gazed fondly at her neighbor, and her gnarled hand patted his. "Do I know you?"
He smiled. "Yes, you do, but you've forgotten. It doesn't matter. Let me help you up."
The neighbor gently lifted the woman to her feet and handed her off to her would-be rescuers. "Thanks for your help," said one of them. "Where are her belongings?"
"Belongings?" asked the local with amusement. "The Dominion War took care of everything she considered dear. Just take her and go."
They led the woman toward the shuttlecraft, expecting the man to follow. When he didn't, one of the officers walked back to him and said, "You have to go too, sir."
"I have my own transportation," he answered.
The man shook his head skeptically. "What transportation? There's nothing here but -- " He motioned around at the derelict buildings and arid fields.
"This is your last chance, sir. By the end of the day, there won't be anyone on this planet but you. You're signing your own death warrant."
"I won't be dying here," the local assured him with a smile. "You're doing a good job...a necessary job. But your work here is finished. Go on home."
The officer looked unconvinced; then he turned and strode after his companions, who had ushered the woman into the shuttlecraft. In a flurry of dust, the small vessel took off and streaked into the pale sky.
The man on the ground sighed, and he looked his true age of twenty-seven Terran years. "This planet died too young."
"I know," replied a kindly voice beside him. "That's the nature of war -- death at an early age. It will take many generations for the Alpha Quadrant to recover from the Dominion War. You did well on this vigil, Wesley, however you came close to interfering in that woman's life."
Wes turned to gaze at his slight, bald, unobtrusive friend, a being he had known for a dozen years without ever knowing his name, only his extraordinary existence as the Traveler.
"When you helped me save my mom's life, weren't you interfering a little?" asked Wesley.
"Just a little," agreed the Traveler. "There's always a price to pay when we interfere. In your case, I had to take on a protégé."
The young man gazed at the stark landscape and said, "It was painful, watching this planet and these people suffer...then wither away and die. They tried so hard to reclaim their world."
"I know," answered the Traveler with sympathy. "We all experienced what you did, remember. Their suffering will not be forgotten. You performed well in this trial."
"This trial?" asked the young man, angrily. "I have sat too many vigils in the last six years -- all that training, never seeing my mother, never having the companionship of my own kind. Most of all, never being myself. I don't feel what you feel. Watching this suffering and not being able to help...it only left me depressed."
"You must submerge yourself," said his guide sternly. "But soon you will feel what every Traveler feels, because this was your last trial, Wesley. I will no longer be able to call you by that name, because your identity will merge with ours. You will be born anew as a Traveler."
The human stared at his mentor in surprise. He had been waiting for this moment -- with dread and anticipation -- and now it had arrived. "Will I be able to go anywhere?" he asked. "By myself?"
"Yes," answered the Traveler, casting his pale eyes downward. "Any place, any dimension, any time -- they are open. Our combined focus will enable you. However the temptation will be great for you to do more than watch and record. Remember, no experience will be yours alone, it will belong to all of us. You can visit the Enterprise, but you won't see it as you once did. I believe it was a human who said, 'You can't go home again.'"
"Thomas Wolfe," replied Wes with a nod. "I feel so old already, after all the training and vigils, but I don't feel that much wiser."
Now the Traveler smiled. "That's because you're aware of everything you don't know. To most cultures, what we do is magic, but the more we discover about life and how to focus, the more inadequate we feel. The more we witness, the more we hunger to see."
The young man didn't contradict his friend, but he really hungered for warmth and familiarity -- a poker game, a scratch on the back, a birthday card. Seeing the triumphs and suffering of others was not the same as experiencing them, even if he had godlike powers to move through dimensions and blend in with a crowd until he was barely noticeable. Living without being in danger, without having to suffer -- that was both exhilarating and weakening. He had always thought his intense studies and lonesome vigils would be rewarded when the Travelers finally took him into their fellowship. If it really happened, he faced the end of his quest, unsure what he had learned except that, at his core, he was still human.
What if I've spent six years in a futile search for perfection and knowledge, when they're just an illusion?
The Traveler laid a hand on his shoulder in a comforting gesture he rarely used. "You are expanding your mind, Wesley. That you have gotten this far is wonderful for one of your species, but it goes to prove that humans are wasting a large degree of their potential. You have always trained to be a pioneer, an explorer, and we've just continued your education. Are you ready to be born?"
Wes nodded warily. It was asking if he no longer wanted to be human. When he embarked on this journey, he knew there would be a destination, a border that he couldn't cross and expect to come back the same.
"Will I change much?" asked Wesley.
"You'll be changed," admitted the guide, "and we'll be changed by you. Perhaps you have less changing to do than you think."
My mind will be transformed, thought Wesley, remembering his lessons. Regions I didn't use before I will now use, and subconscious areas of my brain will multiprocess in focus with the minds of all the other Travelers. When I use all my potential, I will Travel.
The Traveler's vigil had lasted more than a year, so he hadn't Traveled any great distance since he arrived here. It was never as easy for the human as for his companion.
"Shall we go?" asked his comrade. "I will ease the way."
"All right," said Wesley with relief. While his mentor kept a hand on his shoulder, the young man cleared his mind and began to focus. This process seemed magical but was based on shared, amplified manipulation of brain waves unknown to or nonexistent in most species. So Traveling was less physical than mental, even if the end result was physical relocation.
If it was familiar to him, Wes could conjure his own image of the place he wanted to go. If it was unknown in his limited knowledge, or he was being assigned to a vigil, the fellowship could focus and send him directly. When he was sent, the young man felt swept away, as he was on this dusty afternoon in the last ghost town on a dead planet.
To Wesley's surprise, he arrived at the Travelers' homeworld, a place he had visited only once before during his eight years of service. He knew where he was instantly. He saw a youthful individual of their nondescript, gray-skinned species. The child was running across a field, pursuing a soap bubble larger than herself. Not every member of this species became a Traveler; in fact, it was less than one percent, he recalled. Few were capable of getting through the rigorous training, and even fewer were cut out for such a demanding life. Among the Travelers were several members of other races, like himself, but they always had this pool of their own kind from which to recruit.
He had been surprised to find that Travelers lived normal life spans, although Wesley suspected they could improve that condition if they chose. Since their feelings and experiences lived on in every other Traveler, there seemed little point in making themselves immortal.
The human looked around for his mentor, but he was alone in the meadow, except for the little girl. She stopped, shook her fists, and shuffled toward him. "It broke," she complained. "My bubble broke."
"Perhaps you can make a new one," suggested Wesley, leaning down to study the child. She looked about six in Terran years, with subtle head ridges and a lone braid of hair at the back of her skull.
She smiled at him flirtatiously. "You're handsome and very hairy. You're not from the Dell, are you?"
"No," he admitted, gazing at the feathery fields and orange and crimson wildflowers. "But I feel at home here."
"Lendal!" called a voice that seemed to waft on the breeze. Wes wondered if it was more telepathic than real.
"They're calling me," said the girl sadly as she shuffled away from him. She ran off, and at the last moment turned to wave. Her pout became a smile when she shouted, "See you tomorrow!"
"Tomorrow!" called Wesley, and he knew this was no idle prediction, but a fact. He also felt a familiar presence at his side, so he asked, "Who is that?"
"Your mother," answered the Traveler. "Of course, this is her past. She hasn't yet chosen the path that will unite the two of you."
Wes wanted to protest that he already had a mother, but he chose not to since he knew very little about this "borning" process. That had to be contributing to his uneasiness.
The Traveler gazed after the departing child. "We wanted you to see that she's just a normal person, from a normal background. She's unexceptional except for what she becomes later in life. But we don't want to stay here long or interact too much -- "
"I know," said Wesley, fully understanding the taboos associated with Travelers going into the past. They tried to avoid affecting the lives of those they observed in the present. Only in dire emergencies did they even dare interfere. To change events in the past was unforgivable, considering the unexpected consequences that might result. Travelers would no more use their focus to change the past than to commit murder. Possessing great power and knowing how to use it sparingly were the ultimate goals of their existence.
"You look confused," said his companion sympathetically. The breeze carried flower petals across the lush grassland, as the Traveler was uncharacteristically searching for words. "If you were of my species, I would know how to prepare you. Seeing this child would be comforting to us."
"That's okay," Wesley assured him, realizing that his mentor was also nervous about doing his best under unfamiliar circumstances.
"I'm a human," said the former Starfleet officer. "What's best for humans is to push them into the swimming hole, throw them out of the plane -- plunge them into it and don't let them think too much."
"Of course," said the Traveler with a knowing smile. "But I warn you, after you join the fellowship, there is one more trial before your focus is honed. It may be trivial, it may be terrifying -- we have no control over what you see. Once you are a Traveler, you must gaze into the Pool of Prophecy."
"I will," agreed Wesley immediately. He had little direct knowledge of the sacred miratorium, only that it consisted of shared impressions of the future, unexplainable except to one with the right experience.
"So you're ready now?" asked his guide. "Do you need any more time to prepare?"
"I've been preparing my whole life to take the path less traveled," answered the young man. "I never knew what it was until you invited me on the vision quest -- I only knew that the path kept eluding me. For all the years I've known you, I've been preparing. It hasn't been easy. I grew so lonely and discouraged. I wanted to quit many times, but quitting is in my past. I'll go through with it; however, don't make me consider it too long -- "
"Enough said," replied his mentor, warmly placing his hand on Wes's shoulder. "The fellowship has been summoned."
The human felt himself being swept away, as the combined brain waves of every Traveler in existence bent time and space to whisk him to a familiar chamber. Wes was never sure if this was a genuine location on the physical plane or another dimension, but he knew the Travelers felt safe here. To the human, the natural cavity seemed like the weightless center of a hollow asteroid, but it could be more complicated than that. A hundred or more Travelers floated in the blackness, lit only by the globes of liquid nourishment which circulated among them via telekinesis. He had never seen so many Travelers gathered at one time. In addition, they were all watching him. In the past, those resting in the chamber had paid him little attention. On this occasion, they smiled and nodded at the human as he moved among them, letting him know that he was indeed the guest of honor.
Wesley gravitated slowly toward the center of the vast gathering, releasing his will so that his subconscious mind would conduct his actions. This was one of the stress-reducing techniques he had learned early on. It allowed him to immerse himself physically and mentally without fear. Under the circumstances, he had a feeling that would be a good idea. In time, he saw his destination -- a filmy bubble at the center of the hollow asteroid. Except for its immense size, it was not much different from the soap bubble the little girl had been chasing in the meadow.
The elastic globe shimmered in the darkness, its thin membrane quivering with every movement of air in the cavern. As the human drew closer, he was shocked to see that the immense bubble was attached to the cranium of an old female, who floated beneath it. Her frail body was dressed in a slight shift, revealing her purple veins and desiccated limbs. He tried not to cringe at the thought that the elastic sphere actually was the woman's cranium, although that's what it looked like. Wesley feared that she wasn't alive, just some mummified remains kept in a strange suspension.
He dropped closer to the withered crone, and she opened her eyes and stared at him with blazing turquoise pupils. He knew at once that she was the little girl he had met in the meadow...at least a century ago.
The elder studied his concerned face and said in a hoarse whisper, "It's like a dampening field -- to contain all that we know. I must channel it for you, as you will immerse yourself. In this way, we shall imprint your being with all of our experiences and knowledge. This will unlock the last regions of your brain that you must control to be a real Traveler. When you are full, you will be born."
Wes sighed with relief, realizing that the membrane bubble was not any part of the woman's head, although it was an extension of her mind. Before anything else was explained to him, the elder shut her eyes. Subtle beams radiated from the sphere to every Traveler floating in the vast reaches of the cavern. He marveled as the darkness was crisscrossed by hundreds of these slender beams, which seemed no more substantial than dust particles floating in a sliver of light.
The young man felt himself moving physically, beyond his will. He passed through the filmy barrier into the very heart of the Travelers' existence, surrounded by an impossible array of images, sensations, glimpses, and thoughts. In a nanosecond, Wes experienced all war, joy, failure, triumph -- the humdrum of everyday existence and the extraordinary moments that defined each and every life. The great moments of history, a thousand dark ages, the march of progress, and the deprivations of brutality -- all assaulted him without demanding explanation...just acceptance.
Wesley thought his eyes had been opened during his six years of apprenticeship; now he knew that he had been spared the true scope of what they had witnessed. Take the bad with the good was the only thought he clung to...while his mind drowned in a morass of searing images and emotions. An eternity passed -- or mere seconds -- and the human felt ravaged, overwhelmed, and unable to absorb any more. Still he watched, as if viewing a horrible accident and being unable to look away. He screamed in agony, but there was no relief from the ordeal. It was like a newborn infant being shown everything he would ever see in his life the moment he was expelled from the womb.
In desperation, Wesley found himself clawing to get out. He ripped apart the past and the future, shredding the veneer that any of it made sense. It was madness...spiders weaving webs by day and tearing them apart at night...death on an incomprehensible scale, followed by the screaming of newborns...the protoplasm of a cell looking as wide and deep as an ocean. Panting from the exertion, the young Traveler tore through the filmy membrane and emerged in blinding light -- strong white beams that were as warm as sunlight. He had left the collective experience of his fellow Travelers to bask in their collective love. In this way, they welcomed him into their unique fellowship.
The light gradually faded, and Wes felt real hands patting his back, tousling his hair, and touching the tears on his face. He felt full yet drained, wise beyond his years but insufferably stupid. The new Traveler touched his own cheek and was shocked to see that he had grown several days' worth of beard. How long have I been in there? he thought to himself as he accepted the wishes of his peers. How much have I changed?
"You'll need sleep," said a familiar voice, and he turned to see his mentor, who looked as proud and fulfilled as any father.
The others were gone, including his ageless mother. Wesley and his mentor were standing in a wooded hollow on a golden-hued planet that he knew was in another dimension. A simple hut made of leaves and native materials rested in the shade. He could tell that the pillows and sleeping mat were intended for him. The new Traveler was exhausted yet strangely energized, as one often is after an ordeal. He knew he would be able to find his way back here any time he wished, then stay as long as he liked without wasting a moment in the reality he had once known.
I can also go to Earth in the blink of an eye, thought the Traveler. The Enterprise, my home, my childhood...past, present, or future...any place I choose.
He yawned with satisfaction. "I am very tired," he admitted. "Thank you, I'll lie down now."
"Wait," said his mentor, tugging gently on his arm. "Remember, you have one final task before your well-deserved rest. You must gaze into the Pool of Prophecy, which will show you an event from the future. Although we have all shared to create the Pool, we have no control over what you will witness. Rest assured, this vision will mean something to you, and only you."
"Let me see the Pool," answered the young Traveler with confidence. After what he had been through, he figured he could see one more vision, no matter where it came from.
With a comforting arm on his elbow, the young Traveler allowed himself to be guided down a wooded path suffused with golden light. Orange and scarlet blossoms the length of his hand grew in profusion, and the floral scents were almost overpowering. He thought he heard birds chirping in the willowy trees, until he heard familiar languages and realized that the forest hummed with voices from all creatures. In seconds, he grew accustomed to the cacophony of low-pitched conversations, like whispers in the room next door.
The path led them to a pond that was lined with rough stones and looked much too dark for the sunlit glen. Leaves and a bit of green slime floated in one forgotten eddy of the pool, and the murky depths looked as if they couldn't reveal anything but a tadpole. Wesley glanced around for his mentor at the same moment that he realized he was alone.
With a shrug, the young Traveler leaned over the Pool of Prophecy and gazed upon its inky surface. For once, he didn't physically go anywhere; he simply saw an image dance atop the water until it grew as sharp as an image on an Enterprise viewscreen. When he saw some Starfleet markings, he realized that it was a viewscreen on the Enterprise-E, a ship he had never visited. On a portion of the screen a countdown was running, with the bright red seconds whizzing by. The Traveler felt himself gaining control over the vision. He was able to move his perspective outside the hull, where the massive starship floated in space, surrounded by some sort of wreckage. The most recent Enterprise was a distinctive spacecraft, beautiful in its own right yet clearly the successor to a noble line.
His joy at seeing his mother's ship was quickly tempered when he noticed more debris, oddly flickering running lights, and the craft's stricken appearance. Then he heard one voice above the others in the hum of the trees. This one was not carbon-based but silicon.
"Autodestruct sequence in progress. Abort impossible in five more seconds," said the computer. "Ten, nine, eight -- "
"Mom!" shouted Wesley. He knew she was aboard the ship. There was no question: All of his shipmates were on the Enterprise at that moment, and time was ticking down.
"Five, four, three," intoned the computer matter-of-factly. No one could stop it now!
"Wait!" he cried helplessly.
Wes reached for the Enterprise as if it were a toy vessel floating upon the black water. Before he could save it, the starship erupted in a monstrous fireball, spewing glittering rubble into the far corners of his vision. The Pool of Prophecy blazed like a sun going nova; then it was dark again, except for a sparkling cloud of glitter that expanded ever outward. That shimmering dust was all that remained of the mighty Starship Enterprise.
The Traveler roared in grief and plunged his hands into the water. At once, the vision shattered into a million neon eels, all squirming to escape from the murky pool.
"What do I do?" he wailed, turning to look for his mentor...or anyone. But he was alone in the golden forest, kneeling at the edge of a muddy pond. "How can I save them?" he begged to the heavens.
That was like asking, "What is zero subtracted from zero?" There would never be anything he could do to save them, because he was just a witness. With shock, the Traveler realized that every trial and every vigil he had suffered during his training had only been to prepare him for this moment. If he could resist misusing his powers now, he would be a trusted member of this unique society. That felt more like a curse than a comfort.
Crouching by the pool, the newly born Traveler buried his face in his hands and wept for his dead mother, fallen comrades, and lost innocence.
John Vornholt is the author of is the author of two of the New York Times bestselling Star Trek: The Next Generation Dominion War books, the successful two-book Star Trek: The Next Generation series Gemworld, Genesis Wave Book One, and several other Star Trek novels, including Quarantine, Antimatter, Sanctuary, Rogue Saucer and Mind Meld.
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