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Author: James Swallow
Publisher: Pocket Books, 2009
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Titan: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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The Starship Titan continues on her outward voyage of discovery. Ranging farther and farther from Federation space, Captain William Riker and the crew look forward to living Starfleet's mission: seeking out new life, discovering new civilizations.

Striking a "sandbank" -- a spatial distortion -- the Titan is knocked out of warp, her crew shaken up but uninjured. Titan has stumbled across a battlefield, and floating in it, shattered and in pieces, are the remains of a ship. Searching for survivors, they discover the ship never had a crew. The away team removes the computer core, looking for answers. Once the device is restored, it becomes clear this is not just a computer, but a thinking, reasoning artificial intelligence.

It identifies itself as SecondGen White-Blue, and it comes from a civilization composed entirely of sentient computers. Eons ago these artificial intelligences were charged to be the first line of defense against The Null -- a destructive force so all-consuming that generation upon generation have waged unending war trying to find a way to beat back this terror. Captain Riker offers to assist them, but years of war have left the AIs distrustful and suspicious, especially of organics.

The tide of the battle is turning, and The Null is winning. Set free, it will destroy everything in this system and then, unchecked, spread its mindless destruction into the heart of the Federation.



Floating there, Melora Pazlar reached forward and carefully, delicately, put out the star with the cupping of her hand. The most gentle of radiances pushed back at her fingers, brushing lightly against her palm. She held it there for a moment, wondering about the shadow she was casting across a dozen worlds, the great darkness she had brought. If she wanted, she could have seen it for herself. A simple command, spoken aloud. A shift in viewpoint, down to the dusty surface of some nameless planetoid. Easy.

"The thing about this place is," said a voice, "you could let working in here go to your head."

Melora grinned and let the sun go, falling backward, dropping away. She made herself turn in midair, the spherical walls of Titan's stellar cartography lab ranged out around her, and found Christine Vale looking up at her from the control podium. "It's been said," she noted. "Sometimes it is easy to lose yourself in the scale of things."

Vale brushed a stray thread of hair back over her ear, unconsciously straightening a recently added gunmetalsilver highlight amid the auburn bangs. She glanced around. "Like looking the universe in the eye, right?"

"That's why we're out here." Melora drifted gently down to the same level as the commander -- it was a subtle thing, but she had always thought it bad form to look down on a senior officer -- and she floated closer to the podium. The small catwalk and open operations pulpit were the only sections of the chamber given over to Earth-standard gravity. The rest of the room replicated the microgravity environment that Melora had known growing up on Gemworld. Her tolerance for the so-called standard-g setting deployed aboard most ships of the line was poor, and when she wasn't floating here, a restrictive contragravity suit was required to prevent the stresses overwhelming her body. The technology was leaps and bounds beyond the powered chair or exoframes she had used in the past but still not enough to tempt her outside the lab without due discomfort.

Holographic projection grids hidden inside the walls threw out scaled images of stars, nebulae, and all manner of other astral phenomena, filling the lab with its own tiny universe. It was a great improvement on the earlier versions of the imaging system installed on the old Galaxy-class ships, flat-screen renditions replaced by this interpretation of the interstellar deeps. She gave Vale a smile. "Want to step up?"

The other woman folded her arms. "Nah. I'll stick to solid ground for the moment." She refused with a halfgrin, as if on some level she was hoping that Melora would try to convince her otherwise. But then the moment passed, and Vale tap-tapped on the console before her. "You've got something interesting for us?"

The ghostly pane of a control interface followed Melora as she moved, always staying within arm's reach, and now she reached for it, nodding. "I'm starting to think we might need a new scale of defining things, Commander. After all the stuff we've encountered out here so far, interesting sounds a bit...bland." The Elaysian tapped out a string of instructions on the virtual panel.

Vale nodded. "It does seem like we're using up all the good adjectives." Temporal discontinuities and ocean worlds, interstellar conduits and cosmozoans, new life and new civilizations around every corner. When the uncanny and the unknown became commonplace, there was a risk you could become jaded. "Okay, not interesting, then. Let's shoot for..." She paused, feeling for the right word. "Beguiling."

"That'll do." Melora triggered a command, and the matrix of stars and worlds shifted abruptly, enough that Vale reached out a hand to steady herself on the podium. From her standpoint, it had to be like standing on the prow of a ship plunging headfirst through the void. By contrast, any sensation of vertigo was nonexistent for Melora, who had lived most of her life walking on air. She adjusted the scaling of the display and drew them deeper into the representation of the sector block that lay ahead of the Starship Titan. The viewpoint closed in on a relatively isolated binary system haloed by the indistinct shapes of a few planetary bodies. "Here we are."

"You got a cute name for this one?" Vale asked lightly.

"Just a string of location coordinates and a catalog number at the moment." She reached out and widened the interface panel, unfolding new windows that displayed real-time feeds from the Titan's long-range sensor pallet. "Here's what spiked my attention. Lieutenant Hsuuri pulled this out of a cursory automatic scan of the sector..." She highlighted a string of peaks in a sine-wave energy pattern. "Cyclic output on the extreme eichner bands, very tightly packed together."

"Natural phenomena?" Vale raised an eyebrow.

"Not like this," Melora replied. "At least, not like anything I've seen before. It's too precise, too engineered."

"Artificial, then."

The Elaysian gave a slow pirouette. "And there's more. See here, and here?" She brought up a second data window, filled with a waterfall of text readouts. "That looks like some variation of a Cochrane-type distortion. Very faint but definitely there."


"Starships." A note of wonder crept into Melora's voice. "Maybe."
Drumming his fingers lightly on the wall of the turbolift, Will Riker adjusted the carryall dangling at his side, fixing the strap so that it wouldn't bite so hard into the flesh of his shoulder. He felt every gram of the weight through the thin cotton of his short-sleeved Aloha shirt, and he shifted, trying and failing to find a more comfortable way of holding it.

The elevator car slowed to a halt, just as the captain realized he wasn't actually at his destination; instead, the doors hissed open, and he found himself looking at the scaly countenance of his Pahkwa-thanh medical officer, Shenti Yisec Eres Ree. The saurian rocked on his clawed feet, hesitating on the lift's threshold.

"Doctor?" Riker inclined his head, granting permission.

Ree's long lips thinned, and he stepped into the elevator, drawing up his tail. "Captain. Pardon me, I was just on my way to sickbay." He spoke in a deep, throaty rumble.

"Resume," Riker told the lift, and it continued on its journey downship. For a moment, the humming of the electromag conveyors was the only sound. The silence was in danger of turning a little awkward; recent events had put some distance between the captain and his CMO, and despite an amount of spoken forgiveness, there was still a reticence between them.

Hardly surprising, Riker considered. He did bite my wife. And later kidnap her and my unborn daughter. Even with all of the best intentions, that sort of incident wasn't just going to be forgotten overnight. Ree's actions had been cleared by a board of inquiry, but that didn't do anything to change the fact that the personal -- if not professional -- trust between the doctor and the captain and his wife had taken a hard knock. It would take a while to rebuild it to its former state.

Ree's dark eyes gave Riker's attire a sideways glance. "If you don't mind me saying, that's a decidedly nonregulation look for you, sir."

Riker plucked at the collar of the shirt, thumbing over the patterned print of blue sky, yellow beach, and palm trees. "It's casual Friday, Doctor," he said with a smile, attempting to lighten the mood. "Didn't you get the memo?"

"Captain," Ree replied gravely, "it is Thursday."

"I'm off duty," he noted. "I'm taking some quality time with the family."

"Ah." Ree paused and sniffed the air. "I smell meat."

Riker patted the carryall. "Replicated ham sandwiches. I've got a picnic in here. Not to mention diapers, baby powder, cleansing wipes, a water flask, blankets, a couple of cuddly toys, a self-heating milk bottle, and a bunch of other stuff. I carry less than this on an away-team mission."

"I have noted that human parents have a tendency to overprepare," said Ree. "Still, better safe than sorry, I believe the expression goes." The saurian blinked slowly. "How are your wife and daughter?"

"Good," Riker noted. "Tasha's developing fast."

"That would be the Betazoid in her."

"You can see for yourself, next time Deanna brings her in for a checkup."

"Perhaps." Ree looked away. In fact, in the weeks after their return from Lumbu, the prewarp planet where the Pahkwa-thanh had taken Riker's stricken wife so that she could give birth, the doctor had ensured that it was Riker's former Enterprise crewmate Alyssa Ogawa who had handled all postnatal care. Ree had kept his distance for the most part, although on one occasion, Riker had seen him reach out a gentle digit to stroke the child's head. The saurian hadn't been aware that Tasha's father was observing him, and to Riker's amusement, his daughter had confidently reached out and patted the alien's dinosaurlike snout. She was fearless, just like her namesake.

Ree's remorse was visible in the slight stoop of his shoulders. Driven beyond reason by a mix of his own biology's primitive drives and the effects of Deanna's empathic abilities, he had stolen mother and baby-to-be during the Titan's mission on the planet Droplet, convinced that only he could keep them safe. In the aftermath, Ree had freely admitted his culpability and offered himself up for censure, but the captain had refused. Now it seemed as if the saurian doctor was walking on eggshells every time he crossed paths with Riker and Troi.

The captain frowned. This had gone on long enough. "Actually, I have a better idea. How about you have dinner with the three of us, in our quarters?"

Ree blinked again. " are aware that my eating habits as a carnivore..."

"I'll make Andorian sushi," Riker suggested. "That's human and Pahkwa-thanh edible, right?"

The doctor seemed genuinely at a loss for words, and so when the lift halted, he appeared quite relieved. "Is order, sir?"

The captain ste...

Copyright © 2009 by James Swallow


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