Lieutenant Commander Melora Pazlar reached across the light-years and cupped the rapidly spinning neutron star in her outstretched palm. She held it gently, carefully rotating the bright, oblate body’s south pole until the energetic prominence that originated there pointed almost directly toward her face, while its northern counterpart pointed almost directly away. The vast, star-flecked cloud of gas and dust that a supernova explosion had left in its wake millennia ago—nestled deep inside the Gum Nebula, an even more expansive cloud of gas and dust generated by a still more ancient supernova—mirrored the change in the pulsar’s orientation, turning obediently on the gravitational tethers that subtly linked every particle of matter in the universe.
Known in the Federation’s astronomical catalogs as the Vela Pulsar, the intensely bright object that lay in Pazlar’s open hand was now positioned so that the nearest of its polar jets had become the electromagnetic equivalent of a fire hose; the pulsar’s immense gravity had so accelerated its outer shell of infalling matter that its poles emitted powerful streams of energy that encompassed every wavelength from gamma rays and X-rays to visible light to radio waves to the subspace bands. She flinched involuntarily, releasing the pulsar as the stream of false-color brilliance geysered into her face. She knew that the resulting light show was entirely harmless, a holographic representation of the real thing, even though she noted with a turn of her head that it extended through and past the space she occupied; it formed a long tail beyond her head, as though she wasn’t even there. And yet she had flinched, her reaction fueled by some primal instinct she was incapable of taming. Her senses found the illusion all too convincing, despite her certain knowledge of its unreality. If the holographic object before her possessed any of the Vela Pulsar’s characteristics other than its fierce appearance, she would have been utterly fried long before she had come anywhere near the object’s seething photosphere.
As she drifted like a dust mote in the expansive variable-gravity imaging chamber that comprised the bulk of the stellar cartography lab’s volume, she silently upbraided herself. Melora, you’d think by now the fact that you routinely soar through interstellar space wearing nothing but an ordinary duty uniform would keep you from forgetting that you’re safe, toiling in your cozy personal workspace.
A familiar Efrosian lilt rose from the combadge attached to Pazlar’s uniform tunic, interrupting her reverie. “Are you busy at the moment, Melora?”
She gave the combadge a desultory tap. “You might say that, Xin,” she told Titan’s chief engineer. “I’m about to start a long-range analysis of our next destination. The captain wants to know as much as possible about the Vela Pulsar before we arrive and start the actual survey mission.”
“Do you think you might put that task aside for a few minutes?” Commander Xin Ra-Havreii said. “I could use your assistance here in engineering.”
Pazlar listened carefully for any sign of flirtation or double entendre, but found neither. Although she knew that Xin took his job as seriously as she did her own, she had learned very early in their still-evolving relationship that he wasn’t past suggesting a midday tryst occasionally.
“Why?” she said, unable to keep a slight edge out of her tone.
“It’s almost time for Captain Riker’s conference with Admiral de la Fuego, and he’s expecting to tie it in to the shipwide holoimaging system. The system has developed a few glitches that I can resolve more quickly with your help.”
She frowned. “Troubleshooting holoimagers sounds a lot more like your department than mine, Xin.”
“Running the stellar cartography lab the past couple of years has made you more of a holography expert than you realize, Melora,” he said. “Besides, you’re easily the shipwide holosystem’s heaviest user.”
His words struck her with the force of a mild slap, reminding her that she had once allowed herself to become entirely too dependent upon Titan’s integrated network of internal holoemitters for her own good. How could it have been otherwise? The system allowed her to visit essentially any section of the ship without risking bone breakage via exposure to the crushing artificial gravity levels that prevailed nearly everywhere aboard Titan. It obviated any need for either a bulky contragravity suit or an antigrav exoskeleton, not to mention the necessity of leaving the safety of either the stellar cartography lab or her quarters, both of which faithfully recreated the microgravity environment of her homeworld.
But over the course of the past year Pazlar had gone out of her way to avoid using the shipwide holosystem. On the advice of Counselor Huilan Sen’kara and others—advice that she had rejected at first—Pazlar had come to recognize that she was overusing telepresence technology, and had turned it into an unhealthy form of self-imposed social isolation.
She scowled and pushed the Vela Pulsar hologram away, allowing it to recede several virtual light-years into the simulated distance. If Xin really is looking for a nooner, she thought, then he’s doing a damned poor job of pouring on the charm.
“What exactly are you saying, Xin?”
Pazlar knew that her ability to concentrate on matters astronomical would depend upon what Xin Ra-Havreii said next.
“I’m saying you’ve had more experience fixing the system on the fly than anybody else aboard Titan, with the possible exception of myself. The captain needs the holosystem running glitch-free—now—and I don’t want to disappoint him. A second pair of trained eyes could go a long way toward making sure I won’t have to. Please come down to engineering, Melora. I won’t need you for very long.”
Adrift in microgravity like a piece of cosmic flotsam, she considered his request. At length, she said, “All right, Xin. Give me a minute.”
She could visualize the satisfied grin behind his reply, and imagined his snow-white mustachios going gently aloft like the delicate underlimbs of a telepathic Gemworld Lipul. “Thank you, Melora. Ra-Havreii out.”
Pazlar activated one of the several small compressed-air maneuvering thrusters she had incorporated into her uniform tunic. In obeisance to basic Newtonian physics, her body began moving in the direction opposite the gentle thrust, toward the lab’s central consoles and the network of catwalks and railings that surrounded them.
Once she reached “ground level,” she headed for the locker where she kept her contragravity suit. Thinking better of it while en route, she turned in mid-motion, used her thrusters to arrest her momentum, and then launched herself at the nearest console capable of accessing the holosystem.
Just in case he really did have a hidden agenda that he couldn’t carry out unless she came to him in the flesh.
* * *
Captain Will Riker noted that he’d reached his destination nearly two minutes early, and decided to take that as a good omen.
Standing alone in the dimly illuminated main observation lounge, he paused to gaze out the panoramic window and take in the breathtaking vista it displayed. He looked outward across Titan’s broad bow into the mysterious, tantalizingly luminescent depths of the Gum Nebula that lay in the starship’s path.
What are we accomplishing out here, really? he thought. Lately his dreams had been plagued by images gathered from a dozen or more worlds—Federation members and allies—that had been hit hardest during the Last Borg Invasion. Deneva, Vulcan, Andor, Tellar, Qo’noS, none of these planets were done picking up the pieces yet. Could they ever recover fully, considering how much wholesale death the Borg Collective had dealt?
Riker turned and glanced around the observation lounge’s interior. He had ordered that the room be made available exclusively to him at fifteen hundred hours, the scheduled time of his conference with Admiral de la Fuego. He would have preferred to have Deanna at his side, considering one of the topics to be discussed. However, this was a command-level affair, for the captain’s eyes and ears only. Some of the ground to be covered would be sensitive, which was why he wanted the meeting conducted in full three-dimensional holography. If Admiral de la Fuego expected to ram an unpalatable policy down his throat, she’d damned well better be prepared to look him straight in the eye when she did it.
At the broad, round conference table that dominated the room’s center, Riker sat with his back to the observation windows. He sighed, then said, “Computer, open secure holographic subspace channel Starfleet Seventeen-Tau-Alpha-Epsilon. Authorization: Riker-Beta-One-Zero-Two. Increase lighting to point-seven-five of standard.”
The illumination level rose instantaneously. Within the space of a few heartbeats, a hologram began to coalesce in a chair across the table from Riker. The image shimmered, gradually gaining solidity before it began to fade away behind a curtain of static. It was almost as though the admiral were being beamed aboard Titan with a faulty transporter, which was losing her pattern.
The captain scowled and whispered a pungent curse. Just as he was reaching for his combadge, the holographic image in the chair suddenly acquired clarity, depth, and resolution. It ...