The Morthans were physically and mentally superior. Descended from humans, they were now, literally, “more-than” human . . . and considered the human race to be little better than animals. They would stop at nothing to conquer the remaining human-controlled worlds.
Formerly a never-filmed script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, this conclusion to the Star Wolf trilogy finds Executive Officer Korie and the crew of the Star Wolf answering a distress call from a mysteriously lifeless ship. On board the Norway, they discover half-wave, half-particle clusters of golden light—and a dead man. The lights are the energy form of bloodworms, a fatal infestation that feeds off the energy of living bodies, which scientists on the Norway have developed for use in the Alliance’s war against the Morthans. Officer Korie’s struggle between his conscience and his desire for vengeance will determine not only the safety of the Star Wolf, but the fate of the enemies he’s sworn to destroy.
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With each hyperstate jump, the distance between the two ships lessened significantly. Aboard the Star Wolf, the distress signal from the Norway was expected to become not only more distinct, but more detailed. Distress beacons were supposed to use "pyramid" coding, with successive layers of detail encrypted into the signal.
As a rescue vessel approached the source and the signal became stronger, the additional levels of information would become accessible and the rescuers would have a clearer idea of what kind of emergency to expect. Decoding the Norway's beacon should have provided additional information about the nature of her emergency.
In this situation, the supplementary channels remained bafflingly blank. And the itch behind Korie's shoulders became a full-blown rash, so much so that even Captain Parsons had to scratch. She grumbled her annoyance. "They want help, but they won't give details. You're right, Commander Korie. This has to be a high-security operation."
"Extremely high security," Korie noted. "Way out here, a month deep into the south end of the rift — this is the other side of nowhere — whatever it is they're doing, they want it secret."
On the forward display, the red star was already visible as a teardrop hung against the darkness. A pinpoint flare of blue-white flamed beyond, but the spiral streamer wasn't apparent yet, only a soft pink glow surrounding the blue-white dwarf.
"We have our bearings," reported Tor. "Ready for the next jump."
"Initiate," said the captain.
The Star Wolf jumped. And jumped again. And one more time. Soon, the object known only as IKE-34 was a wall of flame that filled half the visible universe. It occupied a volume of space equal to the orbit of Jupiter. Against the darkness, the blue dwarf could now be seen pulling a great streamer of flaming gas out of the tip of the crimson teardrop. The line of fire curled out and around, stretching across the visible sky like a rip; as it reached the disk-shaped well of the bright blue star, it began to spiral inward, around and around, the colors shifting more and more brightly as the crimson flames were gathered into the purpling corona. And yes, the scenery was spectacular. Better than spectacular. Astonishing.
From this angle, below the red star's south pole, it wasn't immediately apparent that the giant was also flattened at both poles; it was impressive nonetheless. Despite the Star Wolf's distance — several billion kilometers — the massive size of the star created the looming perception that they were close enough to touch it. The perspectives of space create impossible visions, and this was one of the more impossible views. That long-dead poet had been right. Enjoy God's handiwork in silence. Across the Bridge of the starship the crew worked wordlessly, but again and again their eyes were drawn to the forward display.
Eventually, the magnitude of the view became so intimidating and oppressive that Captain Parsons ordered the image muted down. "We don't need the eye of hell looking down on us," she remarked. "We've got work to do. Let's turn that off." She stepped down from the Command Deck, only three short steps into the well of the Operations Bay, but a whole other domain of command and control. She took a familiar position next to the astrogation console, just behind Tor's left shoulder. "How long to close with the Norway?"
"Fifty-six hours. Coming in across the pole brings us in a lot faster — but the Norway's in the plane of the ecliptic — a 'Missionary Orbit.' Coming up from under, we'll have to accelerate constantly to catch up, correcting all the way in, and decelerate only in the last few hours. Tricky, not impossible."
"And if those folks are in serious trouble ... we still might not be in time," said Parsons.
"They never should have parked so close to the star," Tor replied. "They've made the rescue operation damn near impossible."
"That may be the point," said Korie, coming up beside them. "They wanted to make interception difficult. By staying within the gravitational corona they're beyond the reach of hyperstate — no ship can jump in that close, neither friend nor enemy. The approach has to be made in normal space. The slow way. That gives them time to detect, scan and evade."
Parsons nodded. "Tactically, that was the right decision. In practice, it's going to kill them. This'll be another one for the textbooks. All right, take us in, Commander Tor." She turned to Goldberg at the communication station. "Lieutenant? Do you have anything else yet?"
The stout, red-headed man at the console shook his head. "Sorry, Captain. The signal is still blank."
"That's what I expected." She turned to Korie. "In a way, they're doing us a favor. When the inevitable board of inquiry asks why there were no survivors, we'll be able to point to the deficiencies of their orbit and their distress signal."
"Failure to arrive in time," murmured Korie. "That's what they'll say. Of course, we'll be excused for that — but it'll still be a black mark on our record."
"Don't sweat it," said Parsons. "If this ship can carry the burden of blame for Marathon without flinching, it can easily handle a minor embarrassment like this one." She turned away from Korie's dour expression. "All right, let's do the dance. We all know the steps." She headed back up to the Command Deck, the raised dais at the rear of the Bridge. "Oh, Mr. Korie — one more thing." She waited until Korie had joined her up behind the railing. In a more conversational tone, she asked, "Have you examined the manifest of the supplies we're delivering here?"
"Yes, ma'am." Korie waited for the captain to make her point.
"Notice anything interesting?"
"Quite a few things."
"Well, there's a more-than-usual complement of biotechnical equipment and supplies, isolation gear, repulsor valves, magnetic bottles and so on."
"It's a no-brainer, Captain. They're engaged in Class-X medical research. All that isolation gear says they're dealing with extreme toxicity."
The captain nodded. "That's my thought too. We've got a mean, ugly bear here. Train your mission team carefully." To his look, "Yes, I'm going to want you to lead it."
"Not Brik? This should be his responsibility."
"Think about it. If you were captain of a distressed vessel, how would you feel if the first person to your rescue was a Morthan ...? And if your ship was involved in a Class-X operation and security was a major concern — would you believe a Morthan in an Alliance uniform?"
"Point taken," said Korie, embarrassed that he hadn't thought of it himself. But then, he'd been focusing on the more immediate problem — trying to figure out what the Norway was doing out here.
"I want you to be careful," the captain added. "Feel free to break out any of the gear in that cargo you need to protect yourselves and the Star Wolf."
"Already planning on it."
"And don't listen to Hall's complaints about the charge-backs."
"I never do."
"How's your itch?"
"Good. Carry on."
Korie felt comfortable with Captain Parsons — the first time he'd felt comfortable with a captain in a long time. It was a pleasant change to have his abilities not only respected, but depended upon. He nodded his assent and turned back to his headset to complete an earlier discussion with HARLIE, the starship's intelligence engine. He and HARLIE had been sorting through the appropriate procedure books and manuals for dealing with medical emergencies, especially those involving possible contamination by unknown toxic substances. When he finished that, he headed forward to the Med Bay to confer with Chief Surgeon Molly Williger.
Dr. Williger was notorious as the shortest, ugliest woman in the known universe, but few people who served with her ever noticed that; all they saw was one of the best doctors in the fleet. Williger was just finishing a routine medical check on Crewman Brian Armstrong when Korie entered. Armstrong, a side of beef with a grin, flashed his smile at Korie as he pulled his shirt back on. "Hiya, sir."
Korie nodded a curt acknowledgment. He rarely smiled. "Armstrong."
"Sir?" Armstrong began eagerly. "I'd like to volunteer for the Mission Team. Dr. Williger says I'm in good shape. I can carry things. And I'm certified for security duties —"
"I can see you're in good shape." Korie noted Armstrong's well-developed body. "But we're going to need specialists for this operation." Noting Armstrong's immediate disappointment, Korie added, "But — I haven't made any final decisions yet. I'll keep you in mind."
"Thanks, sir. Thanks Dr. Williger." Armstrong grinned again and left. Williger and Korie exchanged amused glances.
"Gotta give him credit," Korie said. "He wants to work."
"He's bored," Williger said. "And he's got this thing going with the Quillas."
"I thought he was over that."
Williger jiggled her hand in an "iffy" gesture. "Armstrong doesn't understand intimacy. The Quillas are a fascinating mystery to him." She added, "He knows how to be friendly, not close. He uses friendliness as a defense against intimacy. But apparently, the Quillas got to him anyway."
"I saw your report."
When he had first come aboard, Armstrong had enjoyed a quick liaison with Quilla Delta, not realizing that all of the other Quillas were telepathic participants. The discovery of a male Quilla — Lambda — had startled him. Later Armstrong and Lambda had become friendly, if not exactly friends. Then Lambda was killed in action —
"Armstrong hurts," said Williger. "And he has no one to talk to about it. He's taking it a lot harder than he shows. All this energy and enthusiasm is ... denial and sublimation and overcompensation." She sighed. "And then we brought two more Quillas aboard, one male, one female, and ... well, Armstrong is jealous — "
"Jealous?" Korie looked incredulous.
"Of the male Quilla. Of the closeness the Quillas have. How much do you know about Quillas?"
Korie shrugged. "Haven't really given it too much thought. They're a religious order, dedicated to serving others, aren't they?"
"Well, you should give it more thought than that," Williger said. "They're not just a religious order, they're a conjoined mind in multiple bodies."
"So? What does this have to do with Armstrong?"
"The Quillas had a private welcoming ceremony — and Armstrong was left out of it. How could he be included? When Quillas take a new member into the cluster, there's a whole ritual of joining — very spiritual, but very physical as well. They have to tune themselves to each other. Usually it's only a matter of a few days. This time it took over a week. Armstrong felt like they were shutting him out. On top of Lambda's death — well, he's confused and he's hurting."
Korie made a face. This was not something he wanted to deal with.
Williger glowered up at him. "I know — you don't think self-esteem issues are your concern, they're supposed to be mine. Or the Quillas'. But it is your concern, because he's part of your crew. Armstrong needs something to do that lets him feel essential. Right now — he doesn't." The little doctor looked to Korie sharply. "That's why he's trying so hard to be everyone's best friend. That's all he knows how to do. He needs something else to be good at."
"The problem is, he doesn't have any skills. He's not our smartest crewmember."
"I thought you had him in a training program."
Korie sighed. "He passes his tests, but his scores are always just barely passing. He's doing just enough to get by. I need more than that. I can't risk putting him anywhere essential. That's why I keep rotating him."
"Maybe you should trust him with a little responsibility. Maybe he'll surprise you."
"I don't see any evidence to suggest it."
"Uh-huh," Williger said sharply. "And maybe he's feeling the same thing you are, Commander. All you want is your chance too."
Korie glanced over at her. He did not like being reminded of the fact that he was not yet wearing captain's stars on his collar. He held back his immediate response, exhaled instead. "That's not what I came down here for, Doctor. We need to finalize our plans for the medical mission team. We need to plan their training — we have to assume the Norway is an extremely toxic environment."
Williger noted Korie's deliberate change of subject with a curt "Fine." Then she added, "I'm going with you. And I'll want Brian Armstrong too."
"No, you aren't," Korie said. "The captain doesn't want to risk you."
"But she'll risk you ...?"
"I'm expendable. You're not. You'll monitor from the Bridge, or from Med Bay. You can still have Armstrong, if you want."
"I suppose this is not negotiable."
"Well ... all right." She sighed acceptance. "I tried. Listen, if the situation is really bad over there, we'll need to use the forward bay as an auxiliary receiving room. I assume you'll be docking at the nose?"
"That's the recommended procedure."
"I want enhanced scanners on your helmets, with high-med software. I'll give you Chief Pharmacist's Mate Berryman as your senior corpsman. Hodel and Easton are also certified. Take them. You won't reconsider Armstrong?"
"Not this time, no. I was thinking Bach and Shibano."
Williger frowned. "Shibano's a cowboy — and Bach hasn't been certified yet for medical missions."
Korie ran a hand through his hair. How to say this without sounding paranoid? There was no way, so he just said it. "We don't know what's over there. I need security people."
"Yeah, I heard about your itch. Half a dozen people came in asking for skin-rex lotion." Her expression was wry. "It must be catching, eh?"
"I certainly hope so."CHAPTER 2
Armstrong sat alone in the mess room. Thinking. His cup of chocolate sat cold and forgotten in front of him. On some unspoken level, he understood what his problem was. And now, today, for some reason, he was almost ready to speak it — if not to anyone else, at least to himself.
It wasn't loneliness. It was that thing on the other side of loneliness.
He could talk to people, he could make friends, he could get people to spend time with him, and he usually didn't have any problems with women either. He'd had more than his share of sexual exercise. And even a relationship or two. So, no, it wasn't loneliness.
It was that other thing. About belonging. About being a part of something — not just a plug-in module, replaceable, discardable — but something more essential. Something with identity. He wanted to know that what he did was useful and important, and even necessary to the success of the ship. And the war.
It was a need that he couldn't explain, and he felt frustrated every time he thought about it — this feeling that he had to be something more. But there was nothing particularly special about Brian Armstrong. He was big, good-looking, a little goofy, likable, mostly capable, and just like several billion other men in this part of the galaxy. If he died right now, there would be no evidence that he was ever here, except a few records in the Fleet rolls. There would be no artifact, no object, no person, no heritage, nothing remarkable to indicate that Brian Armstrong had passed this way; nothing to say that Brian Armstrong had left the universe a better place than he found it. And despite his genial, easy-going nature, Brian Armstrong found this thought intolerable. It wasn't death he feared; it was being insignificant.
He just wanted to ... make a difference. That was all.
Quilla Delta sat down opposite him. She placed one blue hand on top of his. He glanced up, met her eyes, forced a half-smile, pulled his hand away, then looked back down at his lap.
"You are not happy, Brian," she said. "That makes us sad."
Armstrong didn't answer. To answer would have meant discussing the things that he didn't discuss with anyone. If Lambda had lived, maybe he would have. He had thought about it a lot, what he wanted to say to Lambda. Lambda had seemed to know something of his confusion —
"Lambda is not dead," Delta said. "Everything that Lambda was, everything that Lambda knew — it still lives inside us. Only the body is gone. Not the soul. Not the spirit."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blood and Fire"
Copyright © 2003 David Gerrold.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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ALSO BY DAVID GERROLD,
The Orange Box,
Forward Airlock Reception Bay,
A Tide of Fireflies,
Blood and Fire,
Jarell and Blintze,