A quantum slipstream -- instantaneous transportation -- is controlled by these beings in the cluster, and in the heart of the cluster there is now a Borg ship. Cut off from the rest of the Borg collective, the Einstein cannot be allowed to rejoin it. For the sake of humanity, the Borg cannot gain access to quantum slipstream technology.
Starfleet Command gives Captain Picard carte blanche: do whatever he must to help the beings in the cluster, and stop the Einstein no matter the cost.
Star cluster NGC 6281
"Are we there yet?"
Lieutenant Commander Dawn Blair rolled her eyes at the question. "Are you going to ask that question every morning, Trys?"
"At least until we get there," T'Ryssa Chen replied, brushing her shaggy bangs out of her eyes. The gesture briefly revealed one of the elegantly pointed ears that she usually kept hidden under her shoulder-length black hair.
"You're just hoping to annoy me into letting you go on the away team," Blair said.
"Is it working?"
"Aw, come on, Dawn!" T'Ryssa moaned. "A whole cluster full of carbon planets, and you expect me to sit up here manning a boring old console?"
"Well, it might help if you remembered to call me 'Commander' when we're on duty, Lieutenant."
T'Ryssa's slanted eyebrows twisted in a way that Blair still sometimes found incongruous. She knew the younger woman had been raised by her human mother and had barely known her Vulcan father, but it was hard to shake off one's expectations of Vulcans. Which was probably why T'Ryssa defied those expectations so aggressively. "Right, I keep forgetting."
"On purpose. You always have to be such a nonconformist, Trys. That's why you're still a jg at twenty-six."
"I don't have to be," T'Ryssa countered. "I'm just very good at it. Gotta play to your strengths, you know."
She grew serious, or as close as she ever came. "And I'm not very good at sitting still in a cubbyhole, which is why you've gotta let me go down there and do some science! When we get there," she added. "Come on, Daw -- Commander Dawn, sir, ma'am -- " At the science officer's glare, she started over. "I mean, this is a Luna-class ship, right? All about crew diversity and cross-cultural synergies and exploring new approaches? Which means, in short, we're a ship full of nonconformists, and proud of it. Nonconforming -- ity -- ism -- is how we get the job done around here, right?" T'Ryssa bent her knees and clasped her hands in supplication. "So how about it, O Dawn, commander of my heart? Pleeeeeze?" She actually batted her eyelids.
Blair sighed, knowing T'Ryssa would keep this up until she relented. "Okay! Okay. Janyl can man the console, you can go on the away team and out of my hair."
"Oh, thank you, thank you! And such lovely hair it is, my commandress."
"Don't push it," Blair said. She was self-conscious about her hair, an unruly mass of cinnamon-brown waves that she usually kept confined within a bun or French braid while on duty, though Derek from environmental engineering insisted it was the most gorgeous thing he'd ever seen. Still, she couldn't help smirking at T'Ryssa's antics. Blair was too soft a touch to be any good at keeping her in line, which was probably to T'Ryssa's detriment in the long run. But giving her this away mission could help improve her career prospects. The half-Vulcan woman may not have been very good at practicing Starfleet discipline or respecting the chain of command, but she was a good scientist with a knack for understanding alien behaviors, sentient and otherwise. If the anomalous biosigns coming from the carbon planets of the NGC 6281 star cluster were correct and there was complex life there, she could be genuinely useful.
"Anyway," Blair went on, "we have to get there first."
T'Ryssa sagged. "I am so sick of this. We hit a zone of altered subspace, we get knocked out of warp, we spend five hours recalibrating the warp engines, we make it four hours before the structure of subspace changes, and we drop out of warp again. I swear I'm getting motion sick. Are we getting any closer to figuring out a pattern behind these distortions?"
Blair shook her head. "Only that they seem connected to the energy emissions from the carbon planets. And that those emissions seem to be coming from beneath the planets' surfaces, not localized around any of the biosigns."
"What about the cosmozoans?"
"We can't confirm that the energy readings from them are connected. It could be interference from the subspace distortions."
T'Ryssa sighed, and Blair shared in her disappointment. As their sister ship Titan had confirmed half a year back, spacegoing life-forms were prone to inhabit star-formation regions. The open clusters Rhea was currently surveying were located be-tween the Orion and Carina Arms, removed from the star-formation zones that defined the arms of the galaxy, but they were still fairly young (as all open clusters were, for eventually their components were scattered by gravitational interactions with other stars and nebulae). NGC 6281 itself, a clump of a hundred or so young stars sharing a volume of space barely fifteen light-years in diameter, was less than a quarter billion years old and still retained a faint remnant of the nebula from which it had formed, so finding spacegoing organisms here was not a complete surprise. But the cosmozoans detected in this particular cluster were as strange as the space they occupied, giving off anomalous energy readings and biosignatures and seeming to appear and disappear unpredictably from sensors. Getting close to any of them, however, would take considerable time unless Blair and chief engineer Lorlinna could devise some way to adjust the warp engines to cope with the inexplicably shifting subspace geometry of this cluster. If they were unable to do so, then Captain Bazel might decide to turn back after the survey of the nearest component of the cluster, NGC 6281-34, and move on to the next open cluster once the Rhea slogged its way back to normal space.
It all depended on what they found on System 34's planets and whether it was exciting or mysterious enough to warrant surveying any of the other systems in the cluster. But it would be at least another day before they reached that system, a system they could reach in a few hours under normal circumstances.
Dawn Blair found herself agreeing with her friend's sentiment, if only in the privacy of her thoughts. Are we there yet?
T'Ryssa Chen hated going through the transporter. It wasn't that she was afraid of it or anything; rather, she was ticklish, and being transported felt like being tickled from the inside. People kept telling her she was imagining things, that there was no untoward sensation involved with transporting other than a slight tingling numbness, but she knew what she felt. Maybe it was a side effect of her hybrid nervous system; maybe all human-Vulcan blends had the same reaction but were too disciplined to admit it. Or maybe the transporter gods had just decided to pick on her. She tried to shake it off once she materialized, a convulsive move like she was trying to brush spiders off her body, but the heavy EV suit she wore hampered the movement.
Not that she regretted wearing the suit in this environment. NGC 6281-34 III, like most of the planetary bodies that long-range sensors had detected in the cluster, was a carbon planet: a world where carbon was the most abundant element in its mineral composition. In carbon-rich protoplanetary disks, graphite, carbides, and other carbon compounds tended to solidify sooner than the silicates that made up the bulk of normal planets, producing worlds with iron cores, carbide mantles, and crusts of graphite and diamond. The resultant surface chemistry was oxygen-poor, with tarry hydrocarbon seas and an atmosphere of carbon monoxide and methane.
And it looks about as inviting as it sounds, Trys thought as she looked around her through the helmet visor. The rocky ground on which they stood was dark and crumbly, like a carbonaceous asteroid. The depressions in the surface were filled with pools of tar, black against gray-brown. The hazy blue-green sky was smudged with clouds of graphite dust.
As First Officer Sekmal and the rest of the away team deployed their tricorders, T'Ryssa struck a pose as though planting an invisible flag and proclaimed, "I dub this planet Pencilvania!"
Sekmal turned to glare at her, raising an eyebrow in that way that Vulcans seemed to be specially trained for. "Explain."
"Pencil. You know. Old writing implement? Used graphite? It's why graphite's called that? Because people wrote with it?" Sekmal simply continued to glare until Trys sighed. "Never mind," she said, taking out her tricorder. Vulcans. For all their claims of emotionlessness, the Vulcans on Rhea were consistent in their disdain for Trys herself, as though her biology somehow required her to live up to their cultural standards. She could never see the logic in that.
"I thought it was funny," said Paul Janiss, smiling at her through his helmet. Trys gave him a wan smile of gratitude, knowing it was more likely that he just wanted to flatter her into sleeping with him again. Not that she wouldn't be interested in doing so, at least on a purely physical level, but she preferred more sincerity in her praise, and in her men.
"Anyway," Paul went on, "it's not like we're going to have any other fun on this dump of a planet. Bleakest hole I ever saw."
"Don't dismiss it so quickly," said Thyyshev zh'Skenat, the Andorian geologist. "As the galaxy ages and supernovae inject more carbon into the interstellar medium, the ratio of carbon planets to oxygen planets will increase. In a billion years or so, all new planets may be carbon worlds."
"Thanks, Thyyshev. You just gave me a reason to be glad I'm not immortal."
"How do you know?" Trys asked.
"That you're not immortal? I mean, there's only one way to know for sure, isn't there?"
It took Paul a moment. "Oh! Good one."
"On the other hand," Trys went on as if he hadn't spoken, "there's no way to prove anyone really is immortal either. Just that they haven't died yet. Kind of a meaningless category, really. Maybe it needs a better name. Like 'mortality challenged.'"
Thyyshev's antennae twisted under his specially designed helmet. "Aren't you supposed to be doing your duty...