Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Lieutenant Melora Pazlar hovered above a row of terminals in a weightless, cylindrical chamber inside the protective shell that encircled Gemworld. This chamber was a monitoring station which was usually populated by Elaysian and Alpusta engineers. The Elaysians were in residence, but now so was an away team from the Federation starship Enterprise. Melora hardly considered herself to be a member of that crew, having been on board only a few hours before her dreams had been invaded by the Lipuls' call for help.
Melora glanced at one of the screens. Far beneath the shell and its labyrinth of collectors, generators, pumps, and forcefields floated Gemworld itself -- a dazzling, multihued cluster of spires, prisms, and archways. Seen from afar, her crystalline world was an awesome bauble glimmering in the vastness of space. From within, it was a forest of massive monoliths, dancing light beams, and perpetual shadow.
Not only was Melora's body suspended in midair, which was normal, but her mind felt as if it were suspended, too. She was reminded of the out-of-body experiences humans often claimed to have had, even though few of them ever took the time to understand such phenomena.
It wasn't surprising that the Lipuls' dreamships had first contacted humans, out of all the Federation species. Unlike Elaysians, humans were open-minded, even generous and outgoing. But like Elaysians, they could also be obstinate and blunt. That bluntness was now being amply demonstrated by the harsh words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, as he lectured Tangre Bertoran and a handful of Elaysian engineers.
In standard Federation language, the captain had already told them they had the equivalent of eight days to live. Did her fellow Elaysians even know how short a time period that was? They didn't have days on Gemworld, in the accepted sense, only refracted sunlight and a strange sort of twilight in the shadows. Gemworld had been inhabited ever since the universe was young, and they thought they had surmounted every obstacle. How could her people possibly comprehend that their life expectancy had come down to eight rotations of a faraway alien planet?
She could tell by the concern on Reg Barclay's face that he understood their predicament -- and the truth of Picard's dire prediction. Counselor Deanna Troi listened with her usual detachment as the captain finished his summation.
"That is quite impossible, Captain," said Tangre Bertoran, in a tone of voice usually reserved for small children who have told grandiose lies. The silver-haired Peer of the Jeptah shook his head in pity. "Thoron radiation is naturally occurring in our atmosphere. And in Earth's too, I understand. It couldn't harm all life on Gemworld, only those who spend too much time near the mutant crystal."
"Which continues to grow every day," insisted the captain. "Commander Data is not given to making errant predictions. Trust me when I say that we have to shut down the darkmatter collectors and the dimensional rift in eight days -- by whatever means -- or we'll all die. If we have to shut down the shell to accomplish that goal, then so be it."
Bertoran wrinkled his nose and forehead ridges as if sniffing a foul odor. "Captain, we don't talk about 'shutting down the shell,' even in jest....That is like saying we need to destroy the Earth in order to stop a weed from growing. Yes, it will work -- but at what cost?"
The captain gestured broadly, making it clear how frustrated he felt. "I don't want anyone to die, especially not two billion inhabitants. My first officer and chief engineer think that we can power your forcefields from the Enterprise for a brief period, taking over while the shell is turned off. You know how all those systems are intertwined -- there's no other choice. If we're successful, Gemworld won't lose any of her atmosphere."
"And if you're wrong, we'll all be dead," replied Bertoran snidely.
"We have eight days to put something together," answered Picard, sounding as if that were plenty of time. "We have considerable experience with forcefields, and my people have already gotten a head start on this. Your people can help by making sealed shelters, bottling air -- whatever is necessary. Believe me, I wouldn't suggest this course if I didn't think we could do it."
Tangre Bertoran grimaced his displeasure. "What you're asking goes against all my upbringing and common sense. It's akin to murder. I don't know, Captain...I need to see Commander Data's sensor readings before I agree to this."
"We've got them." Picard gestured, and Reg Barclay fumbled in a pouch on his belt, finally producing an isolinear chip. Melora smiled at the contrast between this gleaming storage device and the aged violet prism that hung from Reg's neck.
"Can you read isolinear chips?" asked the captain.
Bertoran sneered. "After we joined the Federation, it took us about two weeks to master your language and technology. Now you wish to destroy ours in a heartbeat."
"Your technology has turned against you," said Deanna Troi, speaking up for the first time since the meeting began. Hesitantly, the counselor floated down from the circular doorway, looking uneasy in her weightless state. "We wouldn't go to this much trouble to destroy you. The only thing that can destroy you is doing nothing."
Tangre Bertoran scowled and snatched the isolinear chip from Reg's hand. "Give me a moment."
He and his entourage retreated to a monitoring console, where they plugged in the chip and studied the data, muttering in low tones. Melora hovered overhead, uncertain whether she should join her fellow Elaysians or stay with her unfamiliar crew. Since coming back to Gemworld, she had felt increasingly torn between her duty to Starfleet and a natural inclination to protect her people and her homeworld. The two shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but Starfleet represented the whole Federation, not just one peculiar planet.
Her split allegiance had never been an issue before, because Gemworld had always seemed like a memory from a past life, something that would never intrude on her Starfleet commitments. But being here, visiting her old enclave, seeing the frightened faces and the crumbling, mutant crystal -- it had become clear that Gemworld needed her more than Starfleet did.
For now, the dimensional rift not only threatened their solar system, but it could endanger the entire quadrant if left unchecked. Captain Picard had made it clear that he would sacrifice his ship and every soul on her planet to keep that from happening. And he probably wouldn't hesitate to use the Enterprise's weapon systems.
Reg Barclay looked at Melora and smiled sweetly, jarring her out of her depressing reverie. His boyish, earnest face brought out a smile in her, and she realized how glad she was to see him again. Here she was -- perhaps in the last days of her life -- and she had met a perfectly charming man who doted on her and strove to protect her. In fact, he strove to protect all of her people, as proven by the shard around his neck.
He was an unlikely hero -- and an even more unlikely acting senior engineer for the Elaysians -- yet he performed both duties valiantly. Looking at Reg brought out a respect and affection in Melora that she had thought she could never feel for anyone. And her feelings were amplified by the guilt she felt over not being totally honest with him....The last thing she wanted to do was to hurt Reg, or any member of the Enterprise crew. They were trying to help, but they didn't fully understand.
Did Reg know how she felt about him? Did it even matter -- with all the obstacles they faced?
Yes, it matters, decided Melora. This should be a time to feel for one another -- to seek love, and give it. What did it mean to fight for life if