Chapter 3.
The crew on the bridge were all present as the Enterprise approached Starbase 44. The starship dropped out of warp about ten thousand kilometers away, and proceeded on impulse. Picard brought up their destination on the viewing screen.
The starbase was a huge station, with the number 44 painted on it in letters almost a kilometer high. Most ships approaching would not have any doubts about where they were headed, unless they were lost, but the station had to have a coating of radiation-resistant paint over metal shields, so it pleased someone to design the large numbers into the paint scheme.
If truth be told, the franchises producing holographic postcards for the station's floating population rather liked this. It gave their postcards more distinction, and the crews were more likely to buy souvenirs.
As the Enterprise was on approach, Captain Picard routinely contacted the Starbase Commander, Admiral Wrigley. Instead of the Commander's face, however, a secretary's face appeared.
'I'm sorry, captain,' he said apologetically. 'I'll find the Admiral. There's been a bit of a flap, but he'll be here soon.'
'Very well,' said Picard, disturbed. He did not know what the 'flap' involved, but it was somewhat unseemly for the approach of the fleet's flagship to be answered by a secretary. He felt it was a poor example for the officers on his bridge. None of the officers shared his view, except perhaps Commander Riker, who was beginning to think like a captain. It was quite understandable to them that a starbase commander would be at the scene of some emergency, instead of greeting arriving starships. They were also consumed by speculation about what might be wrong. Would it be something affecting them?
Picard decided to take the message in his ready room, and left Riker in charge of the bridge. He transferred control to his own terminal, and waited for a minute, looking at an empty seat. Shortly afterwards, Admiral Wrigley came into view, and sat down, puffing. Not fit, thought Picard sympathetically, that's what a desk job does to you. Wrigley brushed off amenities.
'My god, Picard,' he said, 'it's bedlam at the moment. Your first mission is aborted, well, I suppose it was anyway, but you can get on with the new one without any worry. All the worries are mine!'
Jean-Luc was surprised with the informality of the opening, but admirals were allowed some latitude. And life on a space station tended to make surprises less normal than for a starship captain.
'Calm yourself, Admiral,' he began, and realized that was not an appropriate response to an admiral. He was glad he had taken the call in private, as such a reply would have been improper in front of the crew. Wrigley, however, was so overwrought that it slipped by him.
'It's a disaster,' he said. 'They will never forget it, the Cardassians, I mean. We guaranteed his safety!'
'Why, admiral, what's happened?' Picard asked. 'Something has happened to the ambassador?'
'Assassinated!' gasped Wrigley. 'A Bajoran terrorist stabbed him. We were on the lookout for all sorts of technology, but he got him with a simple plastic knife!'
'You have compressed your information somewhat more than necessary,' Picard said, with a touch of irony. 'You are saying that the ambassador has been killed, and that we will not have to worry about whether to take him home or not. That seems somewhat understated. The murder is a tragedy, and likely to have enormous repercussions with the Cardassians!'
'They're paranoid enough already!' exclaimed Wrigley. 'They have minds like mazes, always looking for conspiracy.'
'You have the perpetrator?' asked Picard.
'Yes, but he's small potatoes,' sighed Wrigley. 'The Cardassians aren't going to care who he is. And they aren't going to believe we didn't look away somehow. Who would believe a plastic knife?'
'The lower the level of technology, the easier it is to be overlooked,' said Picard. 'These days it's almost impossible to get away with murder, but if the assassin doesn't mind being caught, it can be done!'
He wondered, in passing, whether this might prove the case with the supposed Romulan assassins.
'In any case, Picard, welcome,' said Wrigley. 'I'm sorry for the holdup. We'll have everything set for you when you arrive.'
'No holdup so far,' Picard assured him. 'If I hadn't been sitting here waiting, I would have been sitting on the bridge looking at the viewscreen.'
'Thank you for your forebearance,' said Wrigley. 'I'll be waiting at the dock.'
He disappeared from the screen, and Picard switched it off thoughtfully. From his point of view, this simplified matters considerably. Any stressful encounter with the ambassador was obviated, but the stress was passed on to Starfleet, who would have to pacify the Cardassians. It would certainly suit them. They would regard the loss of an ambassador as well set-off against the chance to harass Starfleet. He sighed, and returned to the bridge.
'Open a channel to the crew, Mister Data,' he said, after settling into his chair. When he had the channel he began.
'Attention all personnel. This is the Captain. You all know that our mission was to have been a simple transport of a Cardassian ambassador. That mission has been changed. The ambassador has been murdered. However, even before we learned this, I had just received word of a covert mission which the Enterprise is to undertake. As we will be going into dangerous territory, we will take only a basic crew. All families and non-essential crew will remain on Starbase 44 until we return. Exact details will be given by Commander Riker in a short while. In the meanwhile, families should prepare for an extended stay on the Starbase.'
He switched off, and speculation and excitement swept the ship. The destination of the 'covert mission' was not too much a secret, since the starbase was on the periphery of the Neutral Zone, and there were no other nearby dangerous areas. Those who might not consider themselves essential reacted with either disappointment or relief, and families began to think in terms of a holiday. The holiday thoughts were always tempered with the thought that the Enterprise might not come back to get them, so there was an undercurrent of tension in their preparations. Those who were not going to possibly lose close relatives, could lose good friends.
The Enterprise arrived to find matters had settled down. In fact, apart from late and purposeless extended security, things seemed normal. Picard met with Admiral Wrigley and tried to calm his distress. The Enterprise crew briefly had some 'shore leave' while the ship picked up both Ambassador Spock and two small ships, a starfighter and a small but speedy harrier.
The starfighter was of unusual design. Most ships in space were designed for aesthetics. Since there was no friction or resistance the shape of a spaceship was unimportant, but most were designed to look beautiful and streamlined. It did have one advantage. If a ship crashed into an atmosphere the streamlining might give it some survival potential, but fortunately this was a rare requirement.
Some races, such as the Romulans, and then the Klingons, chose to build their ships for psychological purposes, to look frightening. Building them long and slim also meant that by turning side-on the ship could present very little surface to fire on. But mainly, designers liked to design beautiful ships.
The Pinball Wizard, the Federation starfighter, was basically a sphere, with orifices for propulsion and firing. With the advances in technology a small silhouette was little use against a programmed missile, and the main defence was shields. Since the shields produced a spherical field it seemed logical to build a spherical ship to sit inside it.
In addition, a spherical shape is the strongest, and it offers very little flat surface, so that energy weapons can be made to bounce off more.
The ship was quite small, compared to a starship, but surprisingly roomy. All the weaponry and defence was around the outer skin, so that the inside part was able to be used for quarters, medicine and recreation, including a good-sized holodeck. A number of rooms were set aside as quarters for the small crew, and a few rooms were designed as cells for prisoners captured in battle. These were now empty, but in practice often became extra store rooms - always a nuisance when prisoners were occasionally captured! The bridge was dead center, all communication being by instruments.
Captain Picard and Commander Riker watched as the sphere drifted in under the effect of the Enterprise's tractor beams, and developed a trio of small legs to stand on in the artificial gravity of the larger vessel. The pilot climbed out and symbolically wiped his hands as he handed it over.
'Isn't it a beauty?' he asked, adding quickly, 'Sir,' as he saw their insignia.
'It is a revolutionary design,' said Picard.
'Oh, very good, sir,' laughed the pilot, then stopped short when he realized that Picard had not meant anything. 'Oh, I thought you meant... something to do with it being round. Sir. Spinning round. Revolutionary.'
He stopped short, glumly, but Picard was not offended.
'At ease,' he said. 'You can probably tell us more about this quickly than we can learn from a technical manual.'
The pilot immediately recovered his poise. A week's familiarity had made him feel an expert. He quickly pointed out the functions of the various parts.
'These are the openings for phasers,' he said. 'Can point any direction, with a quick spin of the ship. These are the photon torpedoes. The whole thing is very well equipped for its size. Nothing near the computational or sensor capacity of a starship, but it does what it is designed for very well. It's a bit more quickly manoeuvrable than a starship.'
This levity produced not a smile.
'It can take a normal crew up to twenty for a longish run, but it can actually be operated by one person if he does a lot of work. Do you see these lines? There are two escape pods. They fit in like pieces of a jigsaw.'
'Like slices in a spherical pie,' said Picard admiringly.
'Exactly, sir,' he replied. 'They slide in and just become part of the outer surface. Indistinguishable.'
'Thank you, lieutenant,' said Picard, 'you have been very helpful.'
'Not at all, sir,' he replied. 'Would you mind if I had a quick look around before I beam back? I've never been on the Enterprise.'
He received his permission, and walked off.
Riker climbed into the underneath hatch, and hoisted himself in.
'With all this technology,' he said, 'you'd think they had a better way to get in!'
'They will, Number One,' answered Jean Luc seriously. 'We'll..'
'Er, that was a joke, sir,' interrupted Will, politely.
He stood inside the command center of the starfighter, and looked up, but decided to leave exploration until later. In the gravity of the Enterprise the odd angles of the outer areas of the ship seemed unbalancing. In space, with gravity designed around the shape of the vessel, each room would have its own orientation. The only unsettling thing for those unused to it, would be the changing from one area to another.
'At least it's good to have something to do,' Riker remarked. 'A pity to come out all this way for nothing.'
'I hope it's not too traumatic a new mission, Number One,' said Picard. 'We may have to take back the body of the Cardassian ambassador when we are finished in any case. I wonder what exactly happened?'
'Oh, I can tell you all the details, sir,' replied Riker. 'It was about the only topic of small talk about the station!'
In his cabin, Lieutenant Worf was watching a direct subspace transmission. On the screen dreadful carnage was occurring.
Two groups of combatants were waging a fierce battle. They employed a diversity of weapons, similar only in that they were all clean blades, that is, there were no barbs or serrated edges. As he watched one of the figures on the screen received a spear in the throat, and fell. He was trampled as other fighters milled around, until a pair of stretcher-bearers picked him up and fled the battlefield.
Other wounds were taken and given, and blood flowed freely. Suddenly one of the combatants was struck from behind, and nearly decapitated. Worf leaped from his seat with a cry. 'A cowardly blow, a foul blow!'
The man was carried off, obviously in a bad way, but the battle continued with no let-up.
Suddenly Worf's communicator shrilled, and the voice of Commander Riker penetrated his consciousness. 'Lieutenant Worf, please report to the Conference Room. Acknowledge.'
An imprecation sprang to Worf's lips, but he obediently touched the communicator and replied, 'Acknowledged.' He made his way to the Conference Room.
Picard and Riker had changed their clothes, cleaned themselves up, and had called a meeting of Ambassador Spock and the senior officers of the Enterprise. These included Worf, Counselor Troi, Commander Data, Commander Geordi La Forge, and Doctor Beverley Crusher. As Worf approached Riker greeted him.
'How are you, Lieutenant ?'
'You picked a terrible time to call me, Commander,' replied Worf. 'Ten minutes to go in the last term of the Homeworld Superbowl, and scores even! Fortunately I was recording it in order to study the finer points of play later.'
'As long as you don't let any of the ship's minors see it!' laughed Riker. He had once accepted an invitation to watch a Klingon sports event. One was enough.
The group entered the room, and sat quietly gossiping until Captain Picard and Ambassador Spock entered. They stood until the two were seated.
'This is an unusual mission,' began Picard. 'It is based on a rumor. I will let Ambassador Spock introduce it, and then we will have further discussion. Ambassador?'
Spock rose to his feet, which was not the custom normally in conference.
'I have been part of a secret underground movement on Romulus for some time,' he said. 'Fortunately, some of our members are of high rank, or we may not have heard this story. It seems that a Romulan science vessel discovered a wormhole, which is rumored to go back in time, and exit near earth. One of the members of the High Council who has a particular hatred of earth decided to gather a gang of extremists and travel back in time to do earth some harm. In fact, a second rumor circulated that one of the extremists had boasted that they would destroy the human race.'
There was a murmur of shock.
'It appears that this group has acquired a vessel of some sort, and has departed for the wormhole.'
'This seems a fantasy,' Jean-Luc told the assembled group in the conference room, 'but both Ambassador Spock and Starfleet Command take it seriously. We will be in Romulan space soon, and trespassing. However the area of concern is somewhat off the beaten track, and Spock is confident of taking us there unseen.
'I'm puzzled by what the renegades hope to achieve. Even in the early days of man the Vulcans were in space around us, unseen. The energy required, and the time, to destroy a planetary surface would have attracted them quickly. It seems the renegades do not have a heavily armed warship.'
'I too am puzzled.' interposed Spock. 'The energy required to raze a planet would be quite significant, and easily attributable to its source. The Romulans would be the pariahs of the galaxy, albeit this group is a small band of malcontents. Their hatred of humanity must be great enough that they would destroy the honor of their own race as well.'
'If the wormhole is large enough,' added Picard, 'the Enterprise will go through, even if we have to separate the ship. Otherwise Commander Riker will fly the fighter we have picked up. He and I will select a crew after this meeting. If the wormhole is very small we may have to use the harrier.'
'If the wormhole is very small,' observed Geordi, 'that might be why they have taken a small ship.'
'Speculative fiction has often considered what would happen if the past were changed through time travel,' interposed Data. 'If we were in the past and some action led to a change in our history, would we cease to exist? Or would we return to a future where our friends did not know us, and our parents had never existed, but we still did? Both ideas lead to paradoxes, but one must be true.'
'Indeed,' said Spock, 'there might be a third possibility, where we might continue to exist in the past, but cease to exist on returning to our present. There may be some other variation we have not considered.'
'Well, I believe that if our ancestors ceased to exist, so would we,' said Riker. 'The fact that we still exist means they haven't succeeded yet. In fact, I think this whole mission is unlikely, but I don't mind a trip through the wormhole.'
'It is possible that this whole venture is a rumor built up into a fact,' agreed Spock. 'The difficulty is, the possibility that it may be fact is so overwhelming that it should be investigated. A parallel might be made with the discovery of the deterioration of the atmosphere on earth some centuries ago. Few were absolutely certain that a problem did exist, but the chance could not be taken that it did not. As a consequence the earth was saved, after some years of turmoil. If the story proves unfounded it is still worthwhile investigating the wormhole for its own sake. I do not believe the Romulan authorities will trouble us. They would most likely be pleased for us to investigate the problem for them, and undertake the danger as well.'
'The starfighter can take a crew of from six to twenty,' said Commander Riker. 'We'll take along about a dozen if we use it. The harrier only takes two, so if we have to use that it will just be myself and Commander Data.
'I hope it does not come to that. If we do go back in time, I'd like to have a few specialists who could do some exploring as well as being able to fight if necessary.'
'Will, remain here for a while,' said Picard, rising to his feet. 'and Ambassador Spock, if you will. The rest of you get prepared and get some rest.'
When the others had gone, Picard asked Riker who he wanted as crew on the starfighter, should the need arise.
'Data certainly, and Worf. We will need crew to man the phasers and photon torpedos. I would like to take Deanna as well, and a medical team. I don't know whether Ambassador Spock would be willing to come, but if he wants to, I would welcome him. He would have some familiarity with the Romulans certainly.'
'I would be very interested in the whole investigation,' said Spock, 'whether a threat exists or not. The chance to see the universe some years in the past would be intriguing. However, if I am not useful, I would prefer to return to the matters which have become my major interest lately.'
'Surely your knowledge of the Romulans could not help but be useful?' said Picard.
'My knowledge may be duplicated by Lieutenant Selar,' replied Spock. 'She has made a special study of Romulan culture and history, so that her knowledge is likely to be equal to mine, and she will presumably be going in any case, as part of the medical team.'
'Why Deanna, Will?' Picard knew quite well why, but gave Riker the chance to explain, and perhaps elicit comment from Ambassador Spock.
'First, because we may have to deal with the Romulans face to face, and I would like some clue as to their truthfulness. They are as impassive as Vulcans, but not as noted for their honesty. The other reason is that I would like to have a number of non-human personnel. If it does happen that the renegades succeed, and all humans blink out of existence, I want some people left who might either retrieve the situation or at least avenge us.'
'Counselor Troi would not qualify on that account,' observed Spock, 'as part of her heritage is human. But the principle is sound. A crew including many non-humans would be a practical choice.'
'Excellent thinking, number one,' said Picard. 'We will invite all non-human personnel to take part, on a voluntary basis.'
'Not the hairdresser, perhaps,' grinned Riker. 'I don't think he'd have much to contribute.'
'I doubt that Mr Mot would volunteer,' said Picard. 'He likes to give his tactical advice from behind his barber chair.'

On to Chapter 4, or go home..