By Christina Moore
Hale was sitting behind her desk when Stadi called over the intercom to tell her they had reached Sector 380 and would be in orbit of the first planet in just over an hour. She had just ordered a second cup of tea when she was informed that they had entered orbit of the planet. That was fast, she thought. Canceling the request, Serutian walked out of her office and across the corridor onto the bridge, where Azlyn Reda had already called the image of the planet up on the viewscreen.
“It’s pretty,” Finley McPherson said from the helm.
“Indeed, Lieutenant,” Hale replied. “Operations, what can you tell me about it?”
Ensign Reda was working her console, already running scans. “Class-M atmosphere, Captain.” Her console beeped then and she frowned, running one scan again. When the negative signal came back again, she reported, “I’m having trouble scanning for lifesigns. There’s some radiant elements that are disrupting sensors.”
“Can you identify them?” Stadi asked.
Reda shook her head. “Negative.”
Hale exchanged a glance with Stadi before calling down to Main Science. “Bridge to Lt. Praeger.”
“Lieutenant, I’m going to have Ensign Reda send you some sensor data on the planet below. She’s found some radiant elements she's unable to identify. Run them through the lab’s memory banks and see if you can tell us what they are.”
“Will do, Captain.”
They waited less than ten minutes before an answer was given to them. “Praeger to Bridge. I've found two distinct forms of radiation. I don't know yet about one, but the other is metaphasic and it's coming from the crust of the planet below.”
“Metaphasic radiation is a transforming element. The only other ship that’s encountered it is the Enterprise. The rings around Ba’ku emanate a form of MR which regenerates the planet’s inhabitants,” he reported.
“How do you mean?” Stadi asked.
“Well, starting at physical maturity, as the Ba’ku age the radiation continuously regenerates their genetic structure and keeps them looking youthful. There are people on that planet that are hundreds of years old.”
“Can you determine whether or not this planet’s metaphasic radiation is the same as that from the rings of Ba’ku?”
“Only if I go down there and get samples, Captain.”
Hale smirked, even though he couldn’t see her. “And become a guinea pig. Stand by, Lieutenant.” Turning to Reda, she asked, “Any luck getting a lifesign reading?”
The ensign shook her head. “I can't even get a sensor lock on a blade of grass. If there is any grass,” she said, her voice laced with frustration. “That means transporters are out of the question. Looks like comms will go through, but there’s no telling how reliable that is.”
“Keep working on it. Lt. Praeger?”
“Gather what equipment you need and report to the shuttle bay. Bridge out.” Hale turned then to Tanis Auryn. “Lieutenant, tag another of your security officers and the doctor and report to the shuttle bay. I’ll join you shortly.”
As Tanis was leaving the bridge, Hale looked to Stadi. “Since we don’t know how this radiation will affect us, we won’t be down there for more than an hour, unless you hear otherwise from me. If we can use communicators, that is.”
After delivering a curt nod, Hale, too, headed for the shuttle bay.
“Captain Hale, it is ill-advised to take an away team down to the surface of a planet that emits radiation with unknown side effects,” Myrian Anil warned as she arrived in the shuttle bay.
Hale flashed a wry smile. “That’s why you're going with us, Doctor,” she returned.
“As reassuring as that may be to you, Captain, don’t forget that I’ll be of no use to you if I am similarly affected and the radiation has a negative influence,” Anil told her.
“You sound like T’Rae, Dr. Anil.”
“Come on, Doctor, where’s your optimism?” Tanis asked.
Anil raised an eyebrow. “Probably back in Medbay,” she replied.
Everyone in the shuttle laughed at that. Soon they lifted from the bay floor, eased out of the bay and into space. It took only about twenty minutes for Captain Hale and Lt. Tanis to guide the shuttle down to the planet’s surface and land it in a small clearing. Once the engine had been shut down, the group of five exited. Tanis and her security officer held their phasers at the ready, while Hale and Anil withdrew tricorders and Praeger opened up his carrying case to take a sample of the grass and soil at the landing site. Once they were labeled and put away, he indicated that he was ready to move on when they were.
As Hale led them toward a small stand of trees, Dr. Anil, who had been scanning the members of the group with her medical tricorder, took the Trill woman’s arm and pulled her to a stop. “Captain Hale, I think it would be prudent to end this sojourn and return to the ship.”
“Why Doctor?” Hale asked.
“Because we’re aging,” the doctor replied, handing the captain her tricorder. “According to these scans of our bio signatures, everyone in this group has aged point one-five percent faster than normal.”
Hale studied the readings and then looked at Journey's doctor quizzically. “In less than ten minutes? How is that possible?”
“Obviously, the metaphasic radiation generated by this planet’s crust has the opposite effect than that of the rings around Ba’ku,” Anil stated simply.
“But we can’t go yet, I haven't got enough samples to study!” Praeger said. “Forgive me, Captain, but we’re on a survey mission, right? How are we supposed to know how this radiation works if we don't study its effects? Not just on the vegetation that grows here, but on us too?”
Tanis looked at him with a puzzled expression. “You mean you want to age fifteen percent faster than normal?” she asked.
Hale held up a hand. “Look, Doctor, I appreciate your concern. But Praeger has a point. And we’re only going to be here an hour. Will one hour have that much a negative impact?”
Anil remained impassive. “Captain, I cannot guarantee that it won’t. I don’t know exactly how much each of us will have aged in that one hour.”
“Okay… What about thirty minutes? Can you agree with that?”
Dr. Anil thought about that for a moment, and then nodded reluctantly. “But no more, Captain. And I want each of you to join me in Medbay for a complete battery of tests.”
Hale nodded and turned to her science officer. “You heard the lady, Lieutenant. You’ve got thirty minutes.”
Aviri Praeger grinned. “Yes, ma’am,” he said then took the lead, once again heading them towards the stand of trees.
As they began moving once again, Captain Hale was able to make contact with Journey and informed her first officer that since the radiation accelerated the aging process, their trip was going to be cut in half. Stadi agreed with Dr. Anil in that it was a good idea to be on the surface as little as possible.
In the woods, Praeger took another soil sample, some leaves from the ground, and a small strip of bark from a tree. Thinking he heard the sound of water nearby, he headed in that direction—in the back of his mind already selecting which tests he and his crew would run on the samples. His hearing proved accurate, as through a break in the trees they came to a small stream. Once at the water’s edge, he filled another of his vials with the liquid and was prepared to stand when Lt. Tanis put a hand on his shoulder and pointed. About fifteen feet away, across the small creek, was a creature strikingly similar to a deer from Earth. As slowly as possible, so as not to startle the animal, he turned on his heel and scanned it with his tricorder as it first stared at the away team, then slowly lowered its head to drink.
Suddenly the creature jerked its head up from the water, and an instant later bolted in the direction from which it had come. The security team was already in the midst of a sweep of their immediate area when a loud splash drew their attention back to the water.
Lieutenant Praeger had fallen in—and was clearly unconscious. One by one, the rest of the away team joined him in a state of oblivion.
Serutian Hale winced as she stirred, her head aching. How long had she been out? Where were the others?
It was then that she noticed she was being carried, and had been thrown over someone’s shoulder. From the view she had, her transporter’s backside, she couldn’t tell what species he was—only that she was somehow sure it was a he. She started working at the rough-hewn rope that bound her wrists even as she looked around for her crew. She didn’t see any of them, and she had to force herself not to worry prematurely.
Minutes later, Hale was unceremoniously dumped on the ground next to the second security officer. She had to grit her teeth to keep from crying out, as a conveniently placed rock had pressed into her back sharply when she landed. The officer she’d landed next to, Tate Owens, had also regained consciousness, as had the others she could immediately see. Then she looked up at their captors, her eyes going wide as saucers upon recognition.
What the hell? she thought, trying to follow the soldier with her eyes as he circumvented the group of Starfleet officers and called out in a language she didn’t recognize. Hale looked down, and seeing that her commbadge was gone cursed under her breath. She glanced around and saw that they had been brought to a small village, if it could be called that.
Soon Hale and the others were surprised to hear a voice call out in Standard for her and the others to be released immediately, that they were guests. As she was helped to her feet and released from her bonds, she made sure each of her officers was alive and well. Approaching the group was an older Jem’Hadar soldier and a Cardassian female.
“Mind if I ask what’s going on here? How did you people get here? How come we couldn’t read your lifesigns from orbit?” Hale demanded.
The two newcomers looked at each other and smiled. Heavens, will wonders never cease? Hale thought.
“I am Tidak’miklos, and this is Leva,” the Jem’Hadar said by way of introduction. “I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive our young ones, as they have not seen anyone other than ourselves before.”
“Captain Serutian Hale. You’ll have to forgive me for being rude, but you haven’t answered my questions,” Hale returned.
The woman called Leva spoke then. “To be honest with you Captain, we don’t know why you could not detect our lifesigns. We can only assume it has something to do with the radiation emanating from the planet’s crust. We had the same kind of trouble when we first came here three years ago.”
Tidak’miklos snorted. “Our ship was sent here on a survey mission, to determine whether or not the sector would be a good place to set up a base of operations.”
“And I take it you weren’t too pleased by that?” asked Praeger.
“I am a soldier, boy. Soldiers do not conduct scientific surveys.”
“Okay,” Hale said, hoping to stave off an argument. “Then how come there’s no base and you’re still here after three years? Do you even know that the war is over?”
The Cardassian sighed. “I am not surprised by that, Captain,” Leva said. “We were close to losing the war when our ship left, and an end to the hostilities was inevitable in my opinion. Our superiors thought a base in a remote sector might give us an advantage, but it became apparent long ago that when they didn’t hear from us, the effort was abandoned, just as we were.”
“The reason we are still here is because our ship was damaged in transit when we encountered an unexpected meteor shower. This was the first planet we came to that we could even attempt to land on,” Tidak’miklos told her.
“Only we didn’t land, we crashed,” added Leva. “The Vorta in attendance and several of our officers were killed. We had a minimal crew as it was, and only twelve of us made it through the crash alive. Four of those died afterward. The rest of the adults in our group are still out hunting.”
“How do you have young ones here, then? Who, by the way, don’t look young to me. And why didn’t you call for help?” asked Tate Owens.
“We could not call for help because much of our ship and equipment was damaged beyond repair, including the main computer and communications system. The young ones were barely past infancy at the time of the crash, and they were to be trained at the new base. We were able to repair the medical bay’s few stasis chambers and keep them in those until suitable shelter could be constructed. We call them young ones because we are more than twice their age in years,” said the Jem’Hadar.
“Wait a minute, what about our equipment?” broke in Tanis Auryn. “If we are not your prisoners, then why has it not been returned to us?”
Tidak’miklos gestured to one of the young Jem’Hadar and spoke to him in their language. He ran off and returned with a satchel containing their communicators, tricorders and weapons, and Lt. Praeger’s equipment. Immediately the science officer bent to check his samples and make sure they were intact. Captain Hale and the security officers checked their phasers and Dr. Anil checked each of the tricorders.
“I’m curious, Mr. Tidak’miklos,” began the doctor. “How is it that you and your fellow Jem’Hadar have managed to survive as long as three years on what I would assume was a limited supply of Ketracel White?”
The Jem’Hadar soldier nodded. “Indeed, our supply was limited, and some was lost in the crash. We discovered some time ago that there are plants on this planet that can be combined to produce a similar substance,” he replied.
“And are you aware that the radiation from the planet’s crust accelerates the aging process?” Anil went on.
“Of course we are,” Leva said. “Obviously we noticed when the young ones grew much faster than even Jem’Hadar are known to do, and I wouldn’t have this head full of gray hair otherwise.”
Hale looked at each of them in turn. “So…you crash-landed here three years ago, and were left with little to no usable equipment?”
Before either Leva or Tidak’miklos could answer, Hale’s communicator chirped, and Stadi’s voice came from it. “Captain Hale, is everything okay? You’ve been down there more than half an hour.”
Pressing her commbadge to respond, Hale said, “Everything is fine, Commander. We just ran into some old friends.”
“Excuse me, Captain?”
“I’ll explain in a few moments, Commander. Stand by.” Hale turned to the two people before her. “I’m sure you’ve made a decent life for yourselves here, but now you have the opportunity to change that. If you would like to come back with us, I would be willing to transport you to the nearest Federation starbase to be taken to your respective homes.”
“It is a most tempting offer, Captain. However, in fairness to the others, we should discuss it with them before making such a decision,” Tidak’miklos replied.
Hale nodded. “I understand. I’ll come back tomorrow to hear your decision. May we go?”
“Of course, Captain. We shall see you tomorrow.”
“Looks like we can reverse the accelerated aging in each of you,” stated Holodoc, who was currently in the guise of Dr. Katherine Pulaski. Dr. Anil had requested Pulaski knowing she’d dealt with a similar situation during her tour on the Enterprise-D. “It’s not so much as to really concern yourselves, but if you want to go through the procedure, I’ll need to use the transporters and a sample of DNA from each of you, which will need to be taken from either a toothbrush or hairbrush used before you went to the planet’s surface.”
Everyone on the away team decided that since the effect of the radiation had been minimal they would forego any treatment. Praeger even suggested the record of their examination ought to be added to his scientific studies.
Jennara Stadi accompanied Captain Hale up to the bridge so that the Trill could fill her in on the happenings down below. “And what did those Jem’Hadar use to knock you out?”
“It was a small dart, such as would be blown through a tube by mouth. Apparently they were coated with a mild tranquilizer, since none of us were out very long,” Hale replied.
Stadi shook her head. “I’m surprised it was so mild, considering you said they were hunting for food.”
The Trill suppressed a shudder, remembering how ruthless Jem’Hadar soldiers could be in battle. “You and me both, Commander,” she said. “I can only assume it was because they wanted to kill the animals from up close.”
After her arrival, Serutian Hale met with her chief engineer in her ready room. “What’s the story with sensors?” she asked.
“We are still as yet unable to determine the cause of the disruption, Captain,” replied T'Rae.
At that moment, the door chime rang and after bidding the visitor “Enter”, Hale and T’Rae greeted Ensign Reda. “Captain,” the younger Trill began excitedly, “I think I’ve finally figured out what’s behind the sensor scramble.”
Hale and T’Rae exchanged a look. “T’Rae was just telling me that you didn't know yet,” Hale said.
“I know, but there was something about it that just kept bugging me, because I knew we were missing something,” Reda replied. “So I ran a multi-spectral analysis of all known forms of radiation and I found huge amounts of thorons in this area. That's the other element we hadn't identified.”
T’Rae raised an eyebrow. “Thoron radiation was used frequently by the Maquis to confuse Federation sensor systems—Starfleet in particular,” she observed.
Hale nodded. “I remember.”
“But this thoron radiation is naturally occurring,” Reda went on. “And I think what had me so confused is that I kept scanning the planet for the source and continually didn’t find it.”
“Where is it coming from?” asked the Vulcan.
“The sun,” Reda said. “I widened my search parameters and that’s when I found it. And from what Lt. Praeger just told me about the people down there, it’s probably the reason they had trouble, too.”
Hale and Stadi went to the surface the next day to speak with Tidak’miklos and Leva about their decision on whether or not to leave. When they arrived in the tiny village, the entire group met them. Tidak’miklos and Leva stood at the fore.
“As a group, we have decided to remain on the planet, Captain Hale,” Tidak’miklos announced.
Hale nodded. She’d thought they might. “Mind if I ask why?”
“Our time here has given us plenty in which to think,” stated Leva. “Our peoples have not thought enough of us to come looking for us, and as such we have no wish to return to them. We have made lives here, and our simple existence, strangely enough, is just that—enough.”
“I can hardly believe it, but I quite enjoy living without the unbreakable backbone of military regulations,” one Cardassian said.
“And I find hunting most enjoyable myself,” said one of the Jem’Hadar.
“You would, Gutan’drogo!” retorted the Cardassian who'd spoken before.
The entire group laughed, even Stadi and Hale, who were amazed by the sight of Jem’Hadar soldiers laughing.
“As you can see, Captain, we have learned to get along quite well with one another. We have come to work together for the mutual benefit of everyone,” Leva said with a smile.
Hale inclined her head once more. “Is there anything we can do for you before we go, then? Perhaps we might find a way to stall this aging, if we can’t reverse it,” she offered.
“I’m afraid we’ve been trying to do that since we got here, Captain. You’d more than likely be here for quite some time, and I wouldn’t want to keep you from your mission,” Leva told her. “No, I think we’re quite content to spend the rest of our lives here, for however long that may be.”
“What about medical supplies?” suggested Stadi. “Might you be willing to accept those? I’m sure they’d come in handy.”
The two leaders looked to their fellows, who nodded. “Your offer is most appreciated, Commander. Thank you,” replied Tidak’miklos with a slight bow.
“Would one of you like to come up to the ship and speak with our doctor about what you might need?” Hale asked.
Leva decided to go, and after spending an hour in Medbay with Dr. Anil and Milo Haiakauna, was returned to the planet with enough supplies to last her people for quite a while.
The next planet in the system was about half an hour's travel. As Journey got underway once more, Serutian Hale pondered the incredulity of a group of Jem’Hadar and Cardassian soldiers not only living together in peace, but having mutually decided to stay and live on a planet that would cut their lifespan by nearly a quarter.
As she was finishing a log entry on the last two days’ events, Hale was called out to the bridge with the announcement that a ship of unknown origin was fast approaching.
“All stop. Hail them,” she ordered as she strode to the center of the bridge.
“No response, Captain,” Reda replied.
“Put us on yellow alert, Tanis. We want to be prepared, but we don’t want to appear hostile.”
Hale barely noticed the flashing yellow of the lights on the bridge’s display panels. She was about to order Reda to hail the ship again when they were fired on.
“Return fire, Captain?” Lt. Tanis asked as the alert lights went from yellow to red.
“No, wait! They’re hailing, Captain!” reported Ensign Reda.
“By all means, Ensign, put them onscreen,” Hale instructed.
She found herself looking at a creature that at first glance looked like an Insectoid Xindi. It seemed to be a cross between an ant and a beetle. The ship’s captain, or pilot, or whatever it was, spoke (or she assumed it was speaking) very rapidly in clicks and whistles the Universal Translator was unable to decipher. The image blinked off abruptly and another shot from the alien vessel flew across the space between them, glancing off of Journey’s shields. The ship then flew away at high speed.
“Lay in a pursuit course, Captain?” asked McPherson from the helm.
“Not yet. Damage report?”
“Shields are down to eighty-five percent, Captain. Medbay is reporting minor injuries.”
“Well, whoever they were, I’m sure if a fight was what they wanted, they’d have stuck around for one. What do you think, Commander?”
“I agree. Seemed to me this was more of a warning. I felt more than a little hostility,” Stadi replied.
“That’s my thought, too. Lt. Dareth is a linguist, right?”
Stadi nodded. “Yes, he’s the best when it comes to languages and codes,” she replied.
Hale thought a moment. “Alright. Have him work with Adrian to figure out exactly what that creature was warning us about,” she told her.
“Yes, Captain,” the Betazoid said, and immediately left the bridge to find the Vulcan.
As she took the command chair, Serutian found herself rubbing her temples; a tension headache was beginning to build right behind her eyes. “Reda, Tanis, run continuous scans for any ships matching that one's description. I want more warning next time. Cancel red alert. Miss McPherson, return to our previous heading.”
“Aye, Captain. We’re already set.”
“Good. Let’s get a move on.”