Deep Space, Sagittarius Star Cluster
"Keller. We're in."
A cloying jungle sensation of oily fingers brushed Nick Keller's shoulders as he lowered his communicator from his lips. He turned, braced, knees flexed, and expected to be struck from behind.
No one there. Just this prehensile smell moving across his skin.
Then why did he feel somebody's eyes? He was being watched.
And why hadn't he drawn his phaser? Wasn't that supposed to be the efficient Starfleet reflex action? When had things changed so much?
Challenger hadn't responded. Had they heard him? Was this place com-shielded? They'd barely been able to get a transporter beam to take a fix, and only into this one four-meter square. Everything else here was still a mystery. Scans just came back crying.
From a low-slung entry vestibule he moved into an excremental stink. His boots stuck in a marshy floor, obliging him to repossess his feet from the suction with each step. He brushed his nose and ended up only knuckling the self-adhesive fitted filter mask over his mouth and nostrils.
"Somebody piddled," he commented.
A few steps to his right, Search and Rescue Officer Savannah Ring kept one eye on her science tricorder while picking through the mushy flooring. A Haz-Mat/First Response pack on her back caused her to stoop slightly even though she also wore a supportive emergency harness and belt. A pale green haze from some unseen light source turned her sangria hair into a helmet of lemonade.
"Don't take your mask off," she warned. "You won't last sixty seconds."
She moved ahead, off to the right, toward a corridor draped with silvery gauze curtains.
Keller stepped after her. He itched to lead the way, but Ring had the sci-tricorder and was better at reading it. Should a commander lead the way or keep his eyes open? What if he had to choose?
To his left, the sphinx-like presence of his tactical and security officer almost seemed at home in this prehistoric grotto. Zoa's golden skin, decorated with story tattoos on her shoulders and arms, and the hundreds of spaghetti braids framing her face were muted to bronze under the strange lighting. Her eyes, dots of inky blue without pupils, keenly scanned the surroundings. She blinked seldom, which created an almost doll-like demeanor. Her lined lips made no comment. Her only sounds were the soft jangle of two sheathless Rassua dirks on her belts, pinging against brass loops woven into the leather braiding of her leggings, and the ponk ponk of her sandals' thick soles. Every third step or so, her long toenails, curved tidily over the soles, snatched up a bit of moss and threw it into her path.
Too dang quiet...no throb of engines, no click of machinery, no murmur of airflow or whisk of hiding crewmen slipping behind the twisting silvery mesh as Keller brushed the curtains aside.
Savannah Ring ducked under another curtain and went ahead. "How about 'Colonial Guard'?"
Keller tasted the suggestion. "Nah, Belle Terre doesn't intend to be a colony any longer than it can get away with. Governor Pardonnet's got some big ideas about planetary autonomy. He wants full-fledged Federation membership as soon as he can qualify for it."
"For sixty thousand people? Barely a city."
"Give'm time. Look at this interior decor...early mossbound."
"Not sure it's moss." Ring spoke from slightly ahead, one eye on her tricorder screen. "I'm not picking up any cell structure." She frowned at the readings. The instrument's tiny screen flickered, unable to make up its mind. "I hope our boys put their masks on before they came over. If they came over."
"Their Plume disintegrated," Keller said tartly. "If they're not in here, they're not anywhere." As his stomach cramped with tension, he added, "I'm not ready to lose two crewmen."
She glanced at him. "Maybe it's our dues, Nick."
The edge in his tone nearly tripped her. Ring stopped the glances and concentrated forward.
Before them lay a long swirling tube-like structure, more a cave than a ship's interior, but in fact they were on a ship. In their last communication with their first officer, Shucorion said the basic shape suggested old Kauld design. Then the two-man patroller he'd been flying went silent and...
Accept it. And apparently blew up. Outside, space glittered with microbits of the demolished craft. Amazing that a two-man craft could have so many molecules to disrupt.
His stomach crawled. His hands were cold.
As he and Zoa followed Ring's tricorder scan toward the far end of this airlock, the silvery curtains fell behind them and the draping effect was taken over by sheets of something that looked like Spanish moss, hanging in layers from unseen heights between sections. Where was the ceiling?
At least there was gravity. But why was there gravity? Who needed gravity? Where was the ship's complement?
They struggled into a greenish-silver cave of unidentifiable shapes, geometric forms, clearly not natural, though overgrown with a coat made up of shimmering leaves here, tiny hairs there, thick spores over there, as if some gardener had let otherworldly kudzu take over inside his house. No helm, no walkways, no seats or consoles, yet this was a space vessel and it was moving. Keller hungered to ask Shucorion why he thought this vessel might be Kauld, or might be masquerading as Kauld. But Shucorion was missing.
Hardly a month in command, and Keller had misplaced his plainspoken first officer and his fanciful bosun, each newly appointed, each desperately needed.
Lost...Shucorion was Blood, and he was talking about Kauld, and Keller didn't fool himself that the alliance between the two ancient warring cultures was temporary at best, an illusion at worst. He knew the Federation's push into the Cluster had upset an ages-old balance that had been about to tip in Kauld favor. The Kauld were talking nice right now, but for how long? No matter what kind of overtures Keller made, he and his one ship were a very thin stick to hold Blood and Kauld apart. Had the stick snapped? Why did things have to be this way?
A methyl-green canopy of living stuff, or what seemed to be living, dipped over snaggletoothed structures that resembled more than anything else man-sized mounds of decaying cheese. Upon those grew lichen and some kind of coppery mushroom. Between them were masses of three-inch-wide bulbs with spines, and on each spine was a little glossy globe. Keller swore they were looking at him as he and Ring picked past.
"This place'll cure your hiccups," he muttered. "Never know you were in space if you didn't come from outside."
Ring poked a probing finger at a piece of -- was it machinery? "There's something metallic under this coating. Reads as alloy."
"I'm picking up all kinds, all around us. Steel...manganese bronze...air-hardened steel...perminvar...pig iron...silicon steel...fused metal...cupronickel...silver leaf...what the hell?" She stopped reading off the list, cocked her hip in disgust, and grumbled, "The tricorder's having a hernia. Some of this stuff doesn't read as any kind of conventional compound, even though I'm getting some base-metallic traits. These bonds can't happen. There's got to be something wrong with this thing."
While she grumbled curses at her tricorder, Keller came up behind her and prodded the same formation, a tall cylindrical column sticking up out of the alabastrine mesh. His finger went through a draping of hairlike fibers as soft as a woman's ponytail, and inside was something hard. "Is this some kind of tree?"
"In the Tin Man's imagination, maybe. I only read metal."
"Even this?" The soft stuff rolled in his hand. The only hint of metallic nature was the sheen over the curves of his fingers. It l