Part I: Discovery

Stardate 50991.7 - 2373

With a flare of light drenching the dark hull of the great starship, the USS Enterprise pierced the invisible veil between subspace and real space, to re-enter the universe as it was governed by the rules proved by Einstein and Newton, ending its three week long journey.

Decelerating sharply, the starship slid into the dark void like a shark cruising through the ocean, its muscular sleek shape perfectly attuned to the unique stresses of the environment in which it dwelt. Barely thirty seconds after leaving faster-than-light velocities, the Enterprise cruised at three-quarters impulse power along the border of the Romulan Neutral Zone.

The bridge of any starship is the nerve centre of the entire assembly of metal, great or small. In the case of this individual ship, the bridge was placed atop the great curve of the saucer section, a literal brain for the huge body below. In that mind of computers and circuits, the first thought would always originate from the fragile life forms shielded within the skin of the starship, a symbiosis of flesh and metal, one lending the other life.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard was the very epicentre of that symbiosis. Seated in his command chair, legs crossed and relaxed, at the centre of the bridge, amidst the gentle hum of activity, he could hear the ship's systems working in perfect concert, the quiet buzz of barely heard conversations, reports and updates flowing throughout the ship. It was at such times that a captain truly could imagine that his beloved command was alive, self-aware.

He roused himself from his private thoughts as he heard the formal report from the helmsman before him. 'Captain, we're secured from warp speed.'

Picard acknowledged the report with a casual nod. He glanced to his right, seeing his trusted friend and first officer, Will Riker, making a quick note of the report in the ship's log.

For some reason, perhaps the length of the journey, Picard had begun to feel restless. As he turned his attention back to the screen before him, he felt the familiar itch for exploration running through him. More and more of late, the Enterprise seemed to have been assigned to standard patrol routes rather than exploration missions and it had begun to rankle with her captain.

This feeling had been nagging at Picard all the way from Deep Space Four, and he now let it have its head. 'Data, run a full sensor scan of the sector. Let's see what's going on out there.'

'Aye, sir,' responded the android calmly, his nimble pale fingers darting to the appropriate controls on the console before him.

As Data did so, Riker leaned over to Picard with a half-grin on his face. 'Feeling bored, sir?'

As Picard turned to give Riker a wry look, an alert began to sound, an insistent bleeping that made Picard turn and look at his science officer. 'Captain,' said Data, his eyes on his console, 'our sensor scan has detected a subspace anomaly in the Neutral Zone.'

'Analysis, Data?' asked Riker.

'The anomaly is located three parsecs from our current location, in the Korella system,' said the android. 'I am having some trouble determining the exact coordinates, due to localised subspace interference. From long-range scans, it is possible that the anomaly may be a naturally occurring subspace rift.'

Data turned to look at Picard. 'Captain, it should be noted that no naturally occurring rift in subspace has ever been monitored by a Federation starship.'

Picard heard the note of eagerness in Data's voice and smiled, understanding where the eagerness came from. 'That may be so, Mr Data' he said, keeping a note of caution in his voice, 'but I think both the Romulans and Starfleet Command would take exception to us entering the Neutral Zone without asking first.'

The captain looked up at the screen for a long moment before an idea occurred to him. 'Launch a type-two probe for the Korella system. If it appears that the anomaly merits further examination, I'll inform Starfleet Command and see if I can get permission for us to enter the Neutral Zone.'

'Aye, sir,' answered Data. He turned to his console and keyed in a command. 'Probe ready.'

In years to come, Jean-Luc Picard would look back on this moment and curse it, knowing what had followed. Perhaps there should have been a portentous echo to his voice as he gave the simple command, 'Make it so.'

The dart-like probe spat forth from the photon torpedo launcher beneath the saucer section of the great starship, its engines taking hold of its trajectory almost immediately, directing it on its lonely journey to the Korella system. With a flicker of light, it jumped into warp speed.

Data watched on his instruments as the sensors received the telemetry from the probe. 'Probe active and functioning normally, Captain; ETA, 3 hours, twelve minutes.'

'Number One,' said Picard, glancing at Riker, 'notify me when we get the results. I'll be in my ready room.'

As the Enterprise continued to cruise slowly along the border, the probe sped through the interstellar deeps. The cold of space made no impact on the sensitive instruments housed within its duritanium skin, dormant and silent, waiting only for the electrical impulse to come from the probe's tiny computer core to bring them to life.

Three hours after being launched from the Enterprise, the tiny dart crossed into the heliopause of the Korella system, the point at which the probe began to register the presence of the Korella star's solar wind. Responding to its programming, the probe's computer activated its external systems, sampling the particles that flowed around its smooth hull. At the same time, it dropped out of warp speed, the tiny warp core within diverting its power to its powerful communications relay. It hunted for the familiar signal of the Enterprise and, finding it, began transmitting.

The telemetry appeared on Data's console a few seconds later. With a few swift commands, Data transferred the information stream to one of the aft science consoles that lined the back of the bridge behind the security station.

As the android left his station, Riker watched him walk to the back of the bridge and take a seat before one of the consoles. The first officer stood and followed him.

When Riker reached the console, he found Data already immersed in the raw telemetry flowing across the screen. Riker stared at the screen blankly, unable to follow the stream of numbers and seemingly random gibberish. Instead, he watched the reflection of Data's face in the screen, seeing the odd, blank half-grin that crossed the android's face whenever he was focused on his work. He knew better than to interrupt.

'Fascinating,' murmured the android as he stared at the screen. 'Fascinating…'

He tapped a couple of commands into the console, watching as a new set of readouts popped up on the screen alongside the data stream. After a few minutes, Data turned to look at Riker. 'Commander, it appears that my initial analysis of the sensor readings was incorrect.'

'Miracles never cease,' muttered Riker to himself. As Data gave his superior a puzzled look, Riker continued, 'What was incorrect?'

'Our initial scans detected what appeared to be a rift in subspace, generating a distortion field within the Korella system,' explained Data. 'However, I interpreted that to mean that the rift was at the centre of the distortion field. That was not correct.'

At Riker's puzzled expression, Data turned back to the console and keyed in a command. A small map of the Korella system appeared. His long, white fingers tapped the screen and a circle appeared in the heart of the system, encapsulating the second planet from the Korella star. 'The subspace rift is, in fact, the periphery of a distortion field, essentially a gap in the fabric of space/time, where subspace is interacting with real space. It forms the border between the distortion field and normal space, less than a metre wide.'

Riker leaned in closer, a frown creasing his brow. 'How is that possible?'

'Unknown,' admitted Data. 'I have never heard of anything like it before.'

'Any indications as to what might be causing it?'

'Some,' said the android. 'The distortion field is centred on Korella II extending two Astronomical Units in every direction. We are unable to scan the planet at present, as the probe is out of range and the distortion is interfering with our shipboard sensors. Something on Korella II is causing the field to exist.'


Data hesitated for a moment. 'Unknown, but not impossible.'

Riker tapped his commbadge. 'Captain Picard to the bridge.'

After a moment, Picard stepped onto the bridge, making his way to join Riker and Data. Patiently, the captain waited for Riker to summarise the situation and then turned his attention to Data. 'How long before the probe makes contact with the edge of the distortion?'

'Three hours, thirty-seven minutes,' replied Data promptly.

'Any theories on what will happen when the probe crosses into the distortion field?'

'Not at present, captain,' said Data.

'Very well,' said Picard. 'Have Commander La Forge begin working with you on this, Data. I want a hypothesis on the cause of this distortion field in three hours.'

'Aye, sir,' said Data immediately. He stood and left the bridge quickly.

'Sir,' asked Riker, 'what if this is the Romulans?'

'If it is, what are they doing?' replied Picard rhetorically. He turned and looked at the young woman manning the tactical station. 'Lieutenant Hedly, have there been any Starfleet Security bulletins regarding this area of the Neutral Zone in the last few days?'

'None, sir,' replied Hedly immediately. The new Chief of Security turned to face her superior officers, her lean body stiffly at attention and her manner formal. 'The latest security update on the Neutral Zone mentioned that a Romulan Warbird was last seen on their side of the border two weeks ago in this sector, but that it appeared to be a routine scan of the area, nothing more.'

'A Warbird de-cloaked just to run a sensor sweep?' asked Picard, surprised.

Hedly turned and called the report up on her console. 'Starbase 411 received a report from Outpost 18 that a Warbird de-cloaked and held position for three hours before re-cloaking. No other ships were monitored near the Warbird while it was de-cloaked.'

'A Warbird would only de-cloak to use its weapons or to run a full-power sensor sweep,' commented Riker. 'Are there any other inhabited systems near here?'

'No, sir,' replied Hedly. 'The Romulans maintain a small science colony on Korella III, but it's a licensed installation under the Neutral Zone treaty.'

'So it's likely the Romulans know about it already,' said Riker.

'Yes, sir.'

Picard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. 'I'm going to contact Starfleet,' he said eventually. 'Notify me if anything changes.'

Two minutes after he made his decision, Picard had made his call to Starfleet, and he now waited as the transmission was patched through to Starfleet Headquarters. After thirty seconds, the face of Admiral Shakoor looked across the subspace link at Picard. He listened intently as Picard explained the situation.

As Picard finished, Shakoor glanced at a report on a screen beside him. 'We've had a report from two of our science stations on the Neutral Zone border confirming your findings, Captain. More interestingly, however, we've had a communiqué from the Romulan government advising us that their colony on Korella III is suffering from severe environmental disruptions and requesting our permission to allow a Warbird to enter the Neutral Zone to assist with a possible evacuation.'

Picard raised an eyebrow. 'Has the Federation Council agreed?'

'Yes,' said Shakoor. 'In addition, the Romulans have requested that a Federation starship remains on station to monitor the Korella system for any further changes in status. That's your mission, Captain.'

'Why would they ask for that?' said Picard, genuinely surprised.

'I don't know,' replied the Admiral. He leaned slightly closer to the screen. 'Between you and me, Jean-Luc, the Romulans are very worried. The request came directly from their Continuing Committee, not the ambassador, and went straight to Admiral Drayton. Something is up in the Neutral Zone. Keep your eyes open, Captain, and good luck.'

'Yes, sir,' replied Picard.

The viewer went dark and Picard leaned back in his chair, a frown on his face. A moment later, the viewer bleeped again. Keying it on, Riker's face appeared. 'Captain, we're receiving a transmission from a Romulan Warbird, asking for you.'

'Put it through,' said Picard.

The viewer changed, displaying the face of a darkly handsome man, who gazed at Picard with arrogant poise. 'Captain Picard, I am Commander Ravloc of the Warbird Frisanius. We have been ordered to take control of the situation on Korella II. My ship will be uncloaked for the duration of our mission, but you will obey treaty stipulations and remain outside the Neutral Zone.'

Picard kept his face carefully composed. 'Very well, Commander. Starfleet has informed me of your government's request and we will, of course, obey the Neutral Zone treaty. I have to inform you that we have launched a probe into the Korella system to investigate the distortion field.'

Ravloc acknowledged this with a grunt. 'That is permitted by the treaty.'

Picard continued, 'I have a question, Commander; why has your government committed a Warbird to support what seems to be a fairly straightforward rescue mission?'

A flicker of annoyance passed across Ravloc's face. 'It is not my duty to question the decisions of my superiors, Captain Picard,' he said, sneering, but Picard could see the unease his question had caused. 'I obey my orders, as do all good soldiers. Frisanius out.'

Ravloc stabbed his hand down on an unseen control before him, and the viewer went black. With a small smile, Picard stood from his seat slowly and made his way thoughtfully to the window.

Although Ravloc's defensiveness was not unusual in communications he had had in the past with Romulans, the momentary unease in his manner told the captain of the Enterprise that his opposite number knew his orders were strange. Something was definitely amiss in the Romulan High Command.

An hour later, Geordi La Forge shook his head as he read the newest report from the science team assisting them in analysing the probe's telemetry from the Korella system. 'I don't think this is feasible,' he said to Data. 'The warp core needed to generate this sort of power would have to be the size of Saturn.'

'I agree, Geordi,' said Data, 'but to create a subspace distortion bounding an area twice the size of the distance from the Earth to the Sun would require that scale of power generation.'

'Well, unless the Romulans have turned Korella II into a warp field generator, I don't buy it,' said La Forge with finality.

The two friends fell silent for a moment, their minds racing furiously. Eventually, Geordi sighed in frustration. 'There just isn't enough theoretical information about this, Data. We're looking at something that's barely even been speculated on. In two centuries of using warp technology, the maximum size of the warp field has always been determined by the size of the object generating the field. A subspace rift this size has to be generated by something in direct proportion to itself.'

'The answer seems to lie in the distortion field,' said Data, 'but I can't even explain what it is.'

Behind them, the door to the lab slid open. 'Sir?' asked a voice.

Data and Geordi both turned to see two other officers approaching. One of them was someone they both knew, Lieutenant Commander Brijeda, Data's deputy in the science department. The other was a young dark-haired woman, a lieutenant, who looked highly nervous. 'Do you have a moment?' asked Brijeda.

Data nodded. 'What is it?'

'We have a theory about the distortion field,' said Brijeda, his Bajoran earring jingling slightly as he turned to look at the young woman beside him. 'Come on, Ro.'

'Sir,' said the woman, shaking her head slightly and looking at Brijeda imploringly, 'It was only a suggestion –'

'We would like to hear your suggestion,' said Data gently. 'If Commander Brijeda has confidence enough to bring it to us, it must be a good suggestion.'

The young woman's back seemed to straighten slightly as Data spoke. Looking up, fixing his golden gaze with her own dark eyes, she said, 'Sir, when I was at the Academy, I did my master's thesis on extra-dimensional activity and interactions with our universe.'

Data raised an eyebrow. 'A slightly esoteric choice, if I might say, lieutenant.'

The lieutenant's cheeks coloured but she forged on nevertheless. 'One of my professors had a theory that an extra-dimensional intrusion into our universe would cause unexpected & unpredictable effects on our side of the dimensional wall, because the cause of the effect would be operating under different physical rules to the effect itself.'

'Clarify,' said Data immediately, his face becoming intrigued.

The young woman, obviously fortified by the fact that the senior officers had not shot down the theory immediately, continued, 'If we fire anti-matter and matter into each other and regulate the reaction using dilithium crystals, we create a warp field that projects the ship's physical body into another dimension, subspace, allowing us to travel faster than light. In subspace, our laws on motion and energy-curves do not apply, allowing faster-than-light travel to occur, but the warp field itself can exist, under our physical laws, in our own universe. The effect is separated from the cause.'

'An interesting hypothesis,' said Data thoughtfully. 'Do you propose, then, that the cause of the subspace distortion field is an extra-dimensional presence, possibly within subspace itself?'

'Yes, sir,' was the response. 'The field seems to be impossible to create in our universe given the situation in the Korella system at present, unless something of planetary size is being hidden from us. We know there is a subspace rift at the periphery of the distortion field. If another universe were intersecting with ours, there would have to be a barrier between the two, because the physical cause of the distortion could not exist within our universe.'

Geordi looked at Data. 'What do you think, Data?'

'It is a possibility,' replied the android after a moment's pause. 'It is certainly the only theory we have to explain the established facts. What is your name, lieutenant?'

'Lieutenant Thames, sir,' she said.

'I would like to formulate some form of proof for your theory, Lieutenant Thames,' said Data. 'If Lieutenant Commander Brijeda is amenable, I would like you to stay with me to work on that theory.'

'No problem, sir,' said Brijeda immediately, a beaming smile breaking out across his face. He reached and squeezed the suddenly delighted looking Thames around the shoulders affectionately, before turning and leaving his subordinate with the senior officers.

His scientific curiosity fired by the theory, Data swung around immediately and started working on the console behind him. Geordi took Thames gently by the arm and pointed her in the direction of another console opposite Data. As he did so, he murmured, 'Who was your professor at the academy?'

Surprised by the question, Thames glanced at La Forge. 'Sir?'

'Your professor who came up with the theory about parallel universes?'

'Oh,' said Thames as she sat at the console. 'It was Professor Calavari.'

Geordi grinned as he sat down beside her. 'That sounds right. Why didn't you mention his name?'

'Sorry, sir,' said Thames, looking embarrassed. 'I know some people consider his theories strange. But he awarded me a first on my thesis and… I suppose I always liked that theory.'

'You're right,' said Geordi with a friendly smile. 'I studied with Calavari for a short while when we were awaiting reassignment after the last Enterprise was destroyed. Some of his theories can be called insane, but he has a tendency to be right a lot of the time. I think he'd love the fact that one of his theories is being put to the test.'

He stood and moved back to Data's side, giving Thames a pat on the shoulder as he did so. Information began to appear on Thames' screen. She looked at the screen as the data flowed across it, a thrill of trepidation and excitement entering her heart. With a deep breath, she set to work.

Two hours later, Data and Geordi were in Picard's ready room, explaining the theory to their captain and Riker. Picard listened intently, not saying a word to interrupt his officers. 'Given the lack of a planet-sized warp field generator,' Geordi was saying, 'we think there is no way that a subspace field of that size could be created without recourse to something outside of the physical laws of our reality.'

'Could it be a natural phenomenon?' asked Riker.

'It would still have to conform to the natural laws that govern the size of subspace fields, sir,' said Data patiently. 'I know of no natural phenomena that could create a subspace field like this one.'

'Can we prove your theory, Mr Data?' asked Picard.

'Not without allowing the probe to cross the subspace barrier,' replied Data. 'At current speeds, that will happen in thirty minutes.'

Picard rubbed a hand across his eyes. 'Do we have any idea of what may happen if the probe crosses the barrier?'

'Yes, sir,' replied La Forge. 'Assuming our hypothesis holds up, the probe will essentially travel into the other universe as it intersects with our own. Any effects would likely happen on the far side of the barrier.'

'Likely?' said Riker doubtfully.

'Best we can do, Commander,' replied Geordi regretfully. 'The only other option is to recall the probe and see what happens if the Romulans decide to be curious.'

'Is this your own theory, Data?' asked Picard.

'No, sir,' replied Data, looking puzzled. 'One of Lieutenant Commander Brijeda's analysis team formulated it. However, Commander La Forge and I have tested the hypothesis as far as is possible and we are satisfied that it remains sound.'

'Very well,' said Picard. 'Let the probe cross the barrier. Keep monitoring it and the distortion until then. Number One, stay behind a moment.'

Riker did so, allowing Geordi and Data to leave the room. Picard stood and walked to the window, gazing at the stars, his mood pensive. Riker knew his friend would only speak when he was certain of what he wanted to say.

Eventually, Picard half-turned his head to look at his first officer, and Riker saw that his captain's normally calm and decisive countenance was troubled. 'Will, something's wrong here. The Romulans are very worried about this distortion field. Admiral Shakoor warned me that the Continuing Committee approached Admiral Drayton directly and asked him to have the Enterprise remain on standby while they evacuate the Korella colony. That is so far beyond their usual behaviour that I'm having a hard time believing it.'

'I have something else strange to report,' said Riker. 'I asked Lieutenant Hedly to go back through the records from Outpost 18. Every month at the same time, without fail, a ship de-cloaks at that same position and holds station for about three hours, before cloaking again.'

Picard turned fully to face Riker, surprised. 'For how long?'

Riker shrugged. 'We established Outpost 18 about thirty years ago, and the same report has come in every month since then.'

Picard frowned and stepped away from the window. As if thinking out loud, he said, 'A Romulan Warbird only de-cloaks for two reasons; to use its weapons or to run active sensor sweeps. As we know it didn't fire on anything, we have to assume it was running a sweep. The only system in range is the Korella system. Therefore the Romulans are running sensor scans of the Korella system once a month and have been for quite some time.'

Picard looked up at Riker. 'What the hell's going on out here? Do we know of anything in the Korella system to cause this level of concern?'

'No, sir,' replied Riker. As if to offset his captain's dark mood, he smiled. 'Whatever it is that's bothering the Romulans, we can handle it. We always do.'

Picard smiled back, buoyed as always by his first officer's confidence. 'Yes, we will.'

As the probe drifted closer to the distortion barrier, the passing of the minutes aboard the Enterprise became ever tenser. Picard sat in his centre chair, tapping his fingers idly against the chair arm, feeling the tension inwardly. As the tension grew, so did his determination to project an aura of calm.

These were the worst times, he thought, feeling the tension crackling through the air, like the sudden flush of heat on a summer's day immediately before a thunderstorm. The waiting and anticipation, both exciting and dull in equal turns, could play havoc with the nerves of an inexperienced captain.

'Sir,' said Hedly suddenly from her position at tactical, her voice cutting the atmosphere like a knife, 'the Warbird Frisanius has just dropped out of warp near Korella III.'

Before Picard acknowledged, he heard Data saying, 'Deactivating probe.'

'Thank you,' Picard said, acknowledging both reports. 'Data, at drift, when will the probe intersect the barrier?'

'Seven minutes,' replied Data. The android had turned his emotion chip off, and his voice was calm and unmodulated.

Picard nodded to himself. 'Lieutenant Hedly, put a tactical map of the Korella system on the main viewer.'

A moment later, the map appeared, replacing the familiar picture of the stars beyond the Enterprise's hull. Picard stood slowly, adjusting the front of his jumpsuit as he did so. 'Are there any indications that the Frisanius is moving towards the rift?'

'No, sir,' replied Hedly. 'They're currently proceeding at impulse speed towards Korella III.'

Picard rubbed his chin thoughtfully and walked forward to stand at Data's shoulder, his keen eyes on the science officer's console. Behind the captain, Riker threw a glance in the direction of the ship's counsellor, Deanna Troi, who watched the captain with a mixture of gentle concern and bemusement. Riker didn't need to be an empath to sense the impatience flowing through his captain's thoughts.

'Captain,' murmured Data quietly, drawing Picard's attention to his console, 'look at this.'

Picard stared at the readouts Data indicated, and his eyebrows arched in surprise. 'What the hell?'

The probe was accelerating towards the rift. As Picard and Data watched in disbelief, the deactivated probe, its engines cold and quiet, was speeding up as it approached the subspace distortion. 'Data, what's causing that?' asked the captain.

'Unknown,' said Data, having got over his initial surprise, his hands dancing across his console. 'I am attempting to reactivate the probe.'

Picard waited patiently as his science officer worked, knowing to leave well enough alone. Eventually, Data shook his head. 'I cannot communicate with the probe any longer. It is being affected by subspace interference from the rift itself. Twelve seconds to impact.'

Picard stepped away from Data's console, his eyes fixed on the screen before him. Riker stood up as well, flanking his captain.

Quietly, Data said, 'Impact.'

Picard watched the tactical display as the probe passed across the white line marking the subspace rift. As soon as it did so, the indicator vanished. The captain frowned. 'Data?'

'The sensors cannot locate the probe any longer. It may –'

The image on the main screen suddenly jumped, its picture crackling with interference. Picard turned a puzzled glance at Hedly. 'Lieutenant?'

'I'm not sure, sir,' said Hedly, her face puzzled as she ran a diagnostic. 'I think there's something affecting the sensors.'

'Confirmed,' said Data. 'I am picking up fluctuations in the distortion field –'

The entire bridge suddenly jolted to the left, as if the ship had suddenly sneezed. Those members of the crew lucky enough to be seated grabbed their consoles to hang on, but Picard was sent sprawling to his knees by the jolt. As he recovered from the shock, Data said, 'Captain, we are experiencing ripples in the subspace continuum! They are flowing from the distortion field like waves!'

'Can we avoid them?' asked Riker as Picard got to his feet and walked back to his chair, only his dignity damaged.

'If we remodulate the navigational deflectors, we may be able to deflect the ripples around the ship,' said Data after a moment's thought.

'Do it,' Picard ordered, taking his seat again.

'Captain,' said Hedly, 'we're receiving a message from the Romulans.'

'On screen,' said the captain.

The flickering tactical display vanished, only to be replaced by a grainy, jerky picture filled with static. Squinting at the screen, Picard could barely make out a vaguely humanoid shape. 'Can we improve the signal?'

'The signal is being disrupted by the distortion field,' said Hedly. 'I'm trying to boost the audio.'

A booming report sounded through the speakers, startling everyone on the bridge. 'Sorry,' muttered Hedly as she struggled with the fluctuating signal. Slowly, through the crackles and pops of the disrupted message, Picard began to hear the sound of a voice.

'Ent… cannot main… compromised… dam… ling pow-'

Suddenly, the transmission cut out. Hedly shook her head apologetically. 'I'm sorry, Captain, that's the best I can do.'

Picard turned to look at Riker, a strange expression on his face. 'Number One, was it just me, or did you hear the word "distress" in that transmission?'

Frowning, Riker opened his mouth to reply when his captain's expression suddenly made sense. 'I… was just thinking that myself, sir,' he said after a moment's pause, fighting to repress a grin.

'Ensign Bridges,' Picard ordered, 'take us into the Neutral Zone. Maximum warp.'

The starship emerged from warp into troubled space. The bridge crew stared, dumbfounded, at the chaos being displayed on their main bridge monitor.

The darkness seemed to flicker around Korella II, ripples in the fabric of space like a pool of water, with eddies and whirls forming, spinning and dying in brief seconds. An oval sphere of distorted, twisted space surrounded the planet now writhing at its heart. The great planet's sphere itself seemed to distort under the terrible forces surrounding it, stretching and bulging like rubber being pulled apart. Strange lights swirled into being within the distortion field, flaring like fireworks, blazing and dying.

Picard stood slowly from his seat, his eyes never leaving the bizarre sight on the screen before him. 'Data, what the hell is happening?'

'I have no idea, sir,' replied Data, his voice hushed.

Picard tore his eyes from the screen to look at his tactical officer. 'Status of the Frisanius?'

It took a moment for Hedly to respond, but her professionalism came to the fore quickly. 'The Warbird is still in orbit above Korella III, Captain. I can't raise them on subspace.'

'Do we have any reading on the probe, Data?' asked Riker.

'I can confirm the probe still exists, sir,' said Data, 'but not if it is still active.'

Ensign Bridges, her young dark face suddenly worried, piped up suddenly. 'Captain, we're moving.'


Her hands dancing over the console, Bridges replied, 'Yes, sir. There's a subspace wake carrying us towards the rift.'

'Full reverse,' ordered Riker. 'Yellow alert!'

As the Enterprise's engines began to kick in, forcing the starship backwards against the tides of subspace trying to carry it forward, another change came over the tortured shape of the red planet.

Angry balls of red and purple energy flared into life around Korella II, like tiny stars orbiting the dark agonised world. Beneath them, the atmosphere burned, boiling and evaporating away from the terrible fire in space. Bolts of energy flared away from the orbs of light, some stabbing into the planet, exploding great chunks of earth from its wracked surface, others flaring into space, lancing into the edge of the distortion field.

The outpouring of energy surrounded the probe like feelers from an amoeba encountering an obstruction. For a moment, a glowing nimbus encompassed the probe. It shimmered unsteadily in the distortion field, before the energy field compressed and the probe was obliterated like a fly being squashed.

Picard watched this destruction with a fascinated horror, thinking that the distortion field seemed to be alive, vindictively seeking out the probe to destroy the interloper into its realm. But that couldn't be possible –

'Sir!' Hedly's voice was suddenly alarmed. 'The distortion is shrinking!'

'What?' Picard was jolted from his fascination, fixing his eyes on his science officer. 'How -?'

'Unknown,' said Data, anticipating his captain's question, 'but it is confirmed. The distortion has shrunk by seven thousand kilometres and it appears to be withdrawing into the planet itself. The rate of collapse is increasing.'

It became clear even to the naked eye that the distortion was collapsing, as if that wild outpouring of energy had exhausted its own strength. Flickers and embers of dying light receded into darkness and the planet's tortured movements abated as the distortion of the fabric of space settled down like a sea storm that had blown itself out.

In just a few moments, the huge distortion that had swollen out over the gulf between worlds had shrunk to less than half its former size.

'Ensign Bridges,' said Picard carefully, 'Take us closer to the rift, but don't get too close. Allow the wake to draw us in, but don't let it get hold of our trajectory.'

'Aye, sir,' said Bridges, her eyes intently on the console before her, concentrating hard on fighting the pull of the subspace wake.

As Picard stared at the shrinking oval, a voice suddenly blared out over the speakers, echoing around the bridge before Hedly had the presence of mind to reduce the volume. '-peat, this is the Frisanius to Enterprise, respond.'

'Sorry,' said Hedly, 'the subspace interference has begun to clear and I forgot to adjust the volume earlier. Frisanius, this is the Enterprise, we read you,' she added formally. 'What is your status?'

'Status green,' responded the voice, and Picard recognised Ravloc's arrogant tones. 'Explain your presence in the Neutral Zone.'

Hedly cast a helpless glance at Picard, who sighed. 'Commander Ravloc, we interpreted your signal as a distress call and came to render assistance. We-'

'I do not believe you,' interrupted Ravloc. 'You will leave the Neutral Zone immediately.' He cut the transmission.

Immediately, Picard turned to Data. 'Status of the distortion?'

'Still collapsing,' replied Data. 'I estimate thirty seconds until it is enclosed in the planetary diameter.'

'What about the planet itself?'

'It is difficult to tell due to the large amount of subspace interference, but much of its atmosphere has been devastated,' said Data, his eyes darting across the readouts. 'There are widespread seismic disturbances occurring throughout the crust.'

'What is the Frisanius doing?'

Bridges answered. 'They're still in orbit of Korella III, sir. They've made no move towards us.'

Picard pursed his lips, thoughtfully. 'Irrespective of anything else, we need to know what's going on here. I am not going to be chased out of the system just because the Romulans don't want to play. Get us into orbit of that planet, Ensign. Lieutenant Hedly, keep a close eye on the Warbird,' ordered Picard. 'Let me know the instant it moves out of orbit.'

The Enterprise drifted cautiously towards the giant red shape of Korella II, always staying a safe distance from the subspace rift that marked the border of the distortion. As the great ship approached the planet it was clear, even from high orbit, that Korella II had not endured the terrible stresses well.

The atmosphere roiled, swirling like milk in coffee, as monstrous storms swept across the surface of the planet and huge arcs of lightning flashed between the huge storm clouds. Where the blanket of clouds momentarily broke apart and allowed the surface to be seen, the planet's crust writhed painfully, huge fountains of fire erupting into the screaming sky.

Watching from the bridge of the Enterprise, Picard didn't need the efficiency of Data's scanners to know that Korella II was dying, but he didn't have time to concentrate on the incredible sight before him. Hedly's urgent voice cut into his thoughts. 'Sir, the Frisanius has left its station and is headed for our position.'


'Three minutes,' replied Hedly.

Picard felt the eyes of his crew suddenly fixed on him, looking to their captain to decide on their fate. He felt the strong pull of his instincts to explore, to linger and see what would happen next. Those instincts conflicted with his duty to obey interstellar law and leave a part of space that he had used questionable tactics to enter. This inner agonising did not approach his expression, which had been carefully prepared over the years to maintain an air of studied thoughtfulness.

So lost in his thought was the captain that the sound of Ensign Bridges' strangled yelp took him completely by surprise. Picard turned to look quizzically at the normally calm young officer to find her staring in horror at the main screen. A surge of disquiet welled up within the captain as he followed her gaze and saw what was emerging, registering only distantly the amazed gasps from the crew around him.

The planet was giving birth. Its violent suffering had become a hideous parody of labour pangs as the tortured skin of the planet began to split and part to release something buried deep within its molten womb. Massive earthquakes rocked the entire planet as the crust finally gave way completely and allowed the Enterprise crew to fully see what was beneath for the first time.

A huge black shape was forcing its way through the planet's surface, the disintegrating surface above riven further apart under the pressure from below. Toppling mountains in its wake, the immense craft broke free from its captivity, shattering the earthy bonds that entombed it, climbing for the sky. The glowing remnants of the planet's fiery afterbirth dripped from its flanks and plunged back to the molten rock from which the ship had emerged as the giant pushed ever higher, splitting the clouds, ignoring the vast thunderheads that surrounded it, driving hard for the freedom of open space.

From the Enterprise's viewpoint, the dark mammoth was a perfect circle, a silhouette of unrelieved black against the glowing fires of the tormented world. Huge, as big as a city, it rose towards the orbiting starship above, a disc of obsidian merging with the darkness of space.

For the first time in his career, Picard felt a frisson of fear run through him at the sight of the vast bulk before him. Perhaps it was a purely instinctual reaction to the sight of the darkness of the ship before him, but the captain felt a strange sense of anxiety that made its way into his mind and settled deep within him as he looked at the brooding, dark and menacing shape slowly pulling away from the planet below, dwarfing the Enterprise.

Reflexively, Picard rejected his fear, imposing his stern will on his turbulent emotions. Quickly, he fired off a series of orders, his voice kicking the crew back into action once again, shocking them out of their silence. 'Lieutenant Hedly, send a message to Starfleet advising them of our status. Include all sensor logs from the moment we arrived in the Korella system and request orders. Data, full sensor scans; tell me everything you can. Ensign Bridges; maintain our distance from the planet – I don't want to get any closer.'

The issuing of orders in a calm and authoritative voice had a galvanising effect on the crew, who seemed to awake from a dream and began to busy themselves about their tasks again.

Hedly's voice made Picard turn to face his security chief. 'Captain, the Frisanius has stopped her approach. They're broadcasting a lot of encrypted signals.'

'They're doing as we are; contacting base for orders,' commented Picard. He eyed the enormous shape that had now broken through the atmosphere of the planet below and was making for deeper space. 'I don't blame them.'

The giant black ship (it could only be a ship, thought Picard) had angled itself away from the planet. Within a few moments, it reached the orbital position of the Enterprise and soared past the nose of the dwarfed starship, casting an immense shadow as it briefly eclipsed the Korella star. Drifting into an orbital pattern, it loomed over the tiny Federation starship, which trailed behind as if caught in its wake.

The black ship filled the viewer before them. As it rotated gently on its axis, doing nothing more, intimidating simply through its size, the crew of the Enterprise began to relax, their initial fears being replaced by relief at the giant's quiescence.

It was Hedly who broke the silence. 'Captain, we're receiving a priority one message from Starfleet Command in response to our situation report.' She frowned as she read the message header. 'It's marked "Captain's Eyes Only".'

Picard hesitated for a moment before standing. 'Put it through to my ready room. Will, with me. I may need your input. Alert me if that ship's status changes in the slightest.'

Picard and Riker stepped through the door as the viewer on the desk bleeped for the captain's attention. Sitting behind the viewer, Picard could see the text on the screen, which read, 'Starfleet Command to Captain Jean-Luc Picard, USS Enterprise NCC 1701-E. Command Authorisation required.'

'Authorisation: Picard, 4-7-alpha-tango.' The computer accepted the code and unlocked the signal.

Admiral Alynna Nechayev's face appeared on the screen before him. 'Captain Picard.'

Picard immediately went on alert. Not only was it very unusual for the response to his request for orders to come from Admiral Nechayev, who commanded on the Cardassian border, not the Romulan Neutral Zone, everything about her attitude and expression was completely off-kilter.

Although they were not friends, having had too many spats in the past to be so, Nechayev and Picard nonetheless respected each other, and the captain of the Enterprise knew her well enough so that he realised that something was very wrong with the Admiral.

A blank expression filled Nechayev's face, and her eyes seemed almost unfocused. She spoke in an oddly formal style, with none of the acerbic qualities that Picard had come to expect. Indeed, he thought, it was as if she no longer knew who he was. Surprised, Picard responded, 'Admiral?'

Nechayev seemed to focus upon him. 'Captain, you are ordered to immediately leave the Neutral Zone. This situation does not concern Starfleet.'

Picard gaped at the screen. 'Admiral, are you serious? We're dealing with a first contact situation here, and the Romulans are very worried! How can we leave now?'

'Your orders stand, Captain. Leave the Romulans.' As Nechayev said this, a flicker of cruelty crossed her face.

Picard saw this flicker and felt a chill pass through him. From Riker's point of view, his captain's face became icy and distant. 'I acknowledge your order, Admiral.'

Nechayev nodded curtly and the screen went black.

Picard stared at the blank screen for a long moment before turning an angry gaze on Riker. 'To hell with them.'

Riker blinked at the unexpected ferocity of Picard's voice. 'Sir?'

'Something is wrong at Starfleet,' snapped Picard, rising quickly. 'I've now had two contradictory messages from them on this subject, and only one of them made any sense. We're remaining on station until –'

'Captain, bridge,' interrupted Hedly's voice. 'The Frisanius is hailing us again.'

'On our way,' said Picard. He paused, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. Then, with a short tug of his uniform top, he made his way back onto the bridge, followed by Riker.

As he entered the bridge, Picard's eyes were immediately drawn to the viewer, where a new face looked at him. The captain was struck by the sense of authority and strength of character in this new individual, upswept eyebrows framing eyes that were stern and piercing but not cruel. 'Captain Picard, I am Admiral Jaled of the Romulan High Command.'

'My greetings, Admiral,' replied Picard wryly. 'May I congratulate you on your arrival without even a ship to bring you here?'

Jaled smiled, almost ruefully. 'My apologies, Captain. I have been accompanying the Frisanius on an inspection tour. I have found it… convenient to allow Commander Ravloc to handle this situation until now.'

'Very well,' said Picard. 'What I can do for you?'

'I have standing orders with respect to this situation,' said Jaled. 'I have to ask you to withdraw from this area.'

'Withdraw?' repeated Picard, surprised. 'We have answered what we believed to be a legitimate distress call –'

'And now it has been established that there is no distress,' replied Jaled evenly, 'there is no reason for your ship to remain here.'

Picard hesitated, knowing that he was on shaky ground. If Jaled demanded that he withdraw, he would have no option but to accede. Maybe the best course was honesty… 'Admiral, as you say, there has been no distress in this area. However, the emergence of this… ship has created, I think, an opportunity for exploration, to work together to understand what is happening. Would -?'

Picard never finished his sentence. On both ships simultaneously, alarms blared out as their sensors registered what was unfolding on the planet below.

Far below the gathering of starships in the heavens above, the agonies of birth wracked the dying planet once again. Even without magnification, everyone looking at the surface of the planet could see the emergence of the darkness from within Korella, like a vast tumour breaking free of the body that it had mutilated. As big as a moon, as black as death, the monster simply defied belief, bursting the skin of the planet and wallowing into the atmosphere.

The immense mass, so close to the surface of the planet, was causing huge gravitational tidal effects to ripple across Korella II. Entire mountains tore from their roots in its wake, spiralling into the air, before the greater gravity of the planet snatched them back to the ground, thousands upon thousands of tons of rock and earth crashing back to the surface in a riot of destruction.

The Enterprise and the Frisanius also felt the effects of the unexpected shift in mass below them. Slowly, the noses of the two starships were being pulled down, towards Korella's writhing atmosphere.

'Break orbit!' shouted Riker as the Enterprise began to shudder around them. 'Get us clear!'

The impulse engines blazed into life, pushing the Enterprise away from the emerging darkness below. Lurching out of orbit, she swung away from the orbiting black ship, which seemed utterly unperturbed by the sudden commotion that had erupted around it. At the same time, the Frisanius made a similar move, angling in the opposite direction to the Enterprise, the two starships giving themselves more room to manoeuvre.

Finally, the Enterprise established a new holding pattern, several thousand kilometres from its original orbital position. Without being asked, Hedly displayed a wide view of the planet and it's new satellites.

The two new arrivals were silhouetted against the ravaged surface of the suffering world, their unrelieved black hulls even more prominent, standing out like shadows cast against the whirling clouds far below them.

Picard could feel an ancient sense, nagging at the back of his mind, fearing the black ships before him, warning him of terrible danger. He stared at the screen, feeling the tensions in his mind and his body, as his primal instinct fought against his training and experience.

'Sir,' interjected Hedly, 'we're receiving another transmission from Admiral Jaled.'

'Stall him,' snapped the captain. 'We need to get ahead of the situation.'

Before he could say anything else, the situation suddenly outpaced the captain of the Enterprise.

The first warning came from Data. 'Captain! We're picking up a massive energy spike from the second ship! Completely off the scale!'

As he said this, a sudden flare of white light seemed to explode from the large ship, so intense as to overload the filters on the viewer, forcing the whole bridge crew to cover their eyes against the glare. The light seemed to drown out everything it shone upon, washing out even the fiery glow of the surface of Korella II.

As suddenly as it had come, the light vanished. As the crew cleared their watering eyes of the afterimages, Data, unencumbered by such necessities, was already working on his sensors.

'What happened?' asked Riker, blinking furiously. 'Was there a self-destruct?'

'No, sir,' said Data immediately. 'Both ships are still intact and in orbit of Korella II.' He bent over his console again, an expression of faint disbelief on his face, hesitating before he spoke again. 'Captain, my instruments suggest that the larger craft fired on the smaller.'

'Fired on it?' repeated Riker. 'Did they do any damage?'

'Not that I can detect. However, I am registering increased power output from both vessels. They may be preparing for combat.'

'Yellow alert,' ordered Riker.

Picard ignored the increased activity on the bridge as the crew went to yellow alert to focus on the screen, where both of the immense black craft still loomed over the planet, motionless but menacing. Nothing appeared to have changed. 'They're fighting each other?' murmured Picard. He turned to look at his first officer. 'This doesn't make sense.'

'Sir,' said Hedly insistently, 'Admiral Jaled is demanding to speak with you. I don't think he'll take no for an answer again.'

'Put him on the main screen,' ordered Picard in exasperation.

Jaled's face appeared, replacing the black ships. His expression was taut with fear. 'Captain Picard, I assume you can see what we are seeing. We have issued a sector-wide alert and called in our sector fleet. I am launching an attack as soon as the fleet gets here in one hour.'

Picard couldn't believe what he was hearing. 'An attack? Admiral, we don't even –'

Jaled cut him off sharply. 'If you do not intend to support us, get out of the Neutral Zone or we will fire on you.'

As the Romulan cut the channel, Hedly called, 'The Frisanius has raised her shields and powered up her disruptors, Captain!'

'Is he about to fire on us?' wondered Riker out loud, almost disbelieving.

'I can't pick up a sensor lock, sir,' replied Hedly. 'I think they've just gone to battle stations.' She addressed her next question to Picard, a little anxiety in her voice. 'Captain, can I raise the shields?'

'What the hell is going on?' whispered Picard, ignoring the question for the moment. He paused, staring at the screen, willing the jigsaw to come together into a recognisable picture, but he knew there were too many pieces missing.

'All right,' he said, turning to face the bridge crew. 'Science and Tactical meeting, my ready room in ten minutes. I need options and we haven't got much time.'

Gaia Hedly watched the captain leave the bridge with a mounting sense of disbelief. How can we stay in the Neutral Zone, with an armed Warbird in range, without at least putting our shields up?

Riker saw the expression on Hedly's face and threw a smile at Troi, who returned the grin. Riker slowly made his way round to the tactical station and stood beside the tactical officer, his voice quiet and his tone friendly. 'Lieutenant, anything you'd like to discuss?'

Hedly let a little of her frustration show. 'Sir, we're in the middle of the Neutral Zone, there's a Romulan ship at battle stations off our port bow and two unidentified ships have just emerged from nowhere, ripping up a planet to do so.' She looked at Riker, her voice becoming sardonic. 'I have some concerns that we're not taking the security of the ship seriously enough.'

Riker raised an eyebrow. Hedly coloured slightly, realising that she might have overstepped the line. 'I'm sorry, sir. I tend to… go off the handle sometimes.'

A smile broke onto Riker's face. He had seen this behaviour in other security officers, notably Worf and Tasha. Hedly's mind was in the moment, concentrating on the immediate threats, while not quite seeing the bigger picture. Experience would smooth these rough edges and he was happy to tolerate this mild insubordination because he knew that it tended to manifest in the very best officers, already wanting to take responsibility and ready to experience the pressure of the real world outside the Academy's safe confines. 'It's OK, lieutenant. After dealing with a Klingon security chief, sarcastic is easy. You want to know the reason I'm not concerned about the shields?'

Hedly nodded keenly and Riker continued, 'Because I know that the safety of this ship and its crew is the very first thing in the captain's mind, now and always. Sometimes, the most cautious option, for instance raising the shields, is also the most dangerous. Admiral Jaled doesn't want to fire on us; he knows that might provoke a war for no reason. Captain Picard also knows that raising our shields might easily prompt the Romulans into thinking that we were about to take sides in the dispute and, knowing the Romulan military mind-set, they could easily assume we were siding against them.'

Hedly looked thoughtful as she took Riker's mini-lecture in. 'So what you're saying is; trust the captain.'

Riker nodded. 'On this ship, it's the first and best lesson you can learn. Put yourself in his place for a moment, lieutenant. Think about what he wants to know.'

When the staff entered the ready room, they found Picard sat at his desk, staring at the computer screen. He looked up as they entered, keying the screen off as Data, Hedly and Troi lined up before his desk, while Riker stood off to one side. 'Data, your report please.'

Data looked concerned. 'Captain, I'm picking up an enormous bioelectrical field, emanating to a radius of one thousand kilometres in a sphere from both ships. It's blanking out our sensor returns, including surface scans & tactical readouts.'

Picard looked surprised. 'Do you think it is a deliberate screen, like a cloaking device?'

'I have no way of knowing,' replied Data. 'The field seems more akin to our own sensor field, but much more powerful; hence our own sensors are being swamped. We can still visualise the ships; our targeting computers are able to find and lock onto them and our navigational instruments recognise them as potential obstacles for our course calculations. As a defence mechanism, the field is ineffective. But our sensors are incapable of returning any useful information about the ships, beyond the fact of their existence.'

A flicker of annoyance showed on Data's face, a clear signal that he had reactivated his emotion chip. 'It is most irritating.'

Picard looked at Troi. 'Counsellor, have you been able to sense anything from either of those ships?'

'Only very generally,' admitted Troi. 'I can sense something in those ships, but I can't pin it to anything specific. I am absolutely certain that there are life forms aboard at least one of those ships, but they are not broadcasting emotions – or, at least, not ones I recognise.'

'It should be noted that a bio-electrical field of the type we have detected could only be produced by living organisms,' added Data.

Picard nodded and looked at Hedly. 'Tactical assessment?'

Hedly looked uncertain. 'Sir, the situation is fluid, at best.'

She hesitated, throwing a glance at Riker, but before anyone could interrupt, Hedly straightened her back and continued, 'Sir, we're missing some information. I think you should try and contact these new arrivals and see if we can assess their intentions.'

Picard raised an eyebrow, affecting a sceptical air. 'Lieutenant, that might antagonise the Romulans, don't you think?'

Undeterred, Hedly forged on. 'Sir, the Romulans are going to be antagonised whatever we do. We should at least get something useful from it.'

Riker saw the smile that flashed across the captain's face. 'Very true, lieutenant. All right, let's see if we can make contact with them. Start first contact communication procedures and inform me if there is any change in status. Dismissed. Data, Will, stay behind a moment.'

A bright smile lit up Hedly's face and she almost skipped out of the room in joy, followed by Troi, shaking her head with a smile. Riker put his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing.

Picard was equally amused, but kept his voice and face serious. 'Data, do you have any theories about the origin of these ships?'

'I believe our hypothesis about an extra-dimensional presence may be correct,' replied the android. 'As the distortion field shrank, it appeared to stabilise into an inter-dimensional rift. I cannot begin to form a hypothesis on how that stabilisation occurred, but the rift appears now to be occupying the centre of Korella II. I surmise that our visitors have crossed through that rift.'

Picard clasped his hands together and leaned forward. 'What about the probe? Did that pick up anything before we deactivated it?'

Data shook his head. Picard sighed and sat back in his chair. 'Data, we need as much information as we can get about these ships. Your priority is to break through the damping effect and get our scanners back to full operation.'

'Understood.' Data turned and left the ready room.

Picard swivelled his chair to look at Riker. 'Your analysis, Number One?'

'Sir, the Romulans have been ready for this, quite possibly for some time,' said Riker. 'Their sector fleet is going to be here in an hour? They're within five light years if they're travelling at maximum warp.'

Picard nodded. 'I know. That also means that they are on a war footing for this system specifically. They have some foreknowledge of these ships and they have decided that they are hostile.'

'Which probably means that the fleet will come in shooting.' Riker finished the thought in a tone of unease. 'Sir, I hate to suggest that retreat might be our best option, but…'

Picard nodded ruefully. 'You're right - we may have no choice. But I would rather we tried everything else and failed than simply turn for Federation space with our tail between our legs. More than anything, I don't want the Romulans to start a shooting war in the Neutral Zone against an unknown species if we could have stopped it first.'

'How do we stop them?' asked Riker rhetorically.

'Aye, there's the rub,' murmured Picard, leaning back into his chair again.

The two men were lost in silence for a moment, before Picard looked up at Riker. 'What did you think of Lieutenant Hedly's performance?'

Riker smiled. 'I think we have a security chief with a fine future.'

Picard nodded thoughtfully. 'Did you know she requested her senior year placement to be aboard Deep Space Nine?'

Riker frowned. 'I thought they didn't allow cadets to do tours there?'

'Apparently Captain Sisko had been asking for some cadets to do short placements there for some time and Gaia was the first to apply. She was there when the Klingons attacked.'

Riker raised his eyebrows in surprise. 'That's a hell of a thing to go through as a seasoned officer, never mind a cadet.'

The captain stood. 'Worf recommended her to me as a security chief based on what he saw of her on DS9. His report suggested that she thrived under pressure and in tough situations.'

'I think we're about to find out how true that is,' replied Riker as they made their way to the door.

Hedly looked up eagerly as Picard and Riker emerged onto the bridge. 'Captain, I've prepared the standard basic greetings and linguacode packages for transmission.'

Picard looked amused at the security chief's eagerness. 'Very well, lieutenant; at your discretion.'

'Aye, sir,' said Hedly. She keyed a sequence of commands into her console. 'Transmitting now.'

Picard and Riker took their seats and waited. After a few seconds, Hedly frowned at her console. 'No response.'

Picard glanced at Counsellor Troi. 'Can you sense anything, Counsellor?'

Troi pursed her lips, her eyes fixed on the black shape on the screen before them, a frown crossing her brow. 'Nothing appears to have changed, Captain.'

The captain took a moment to think before saying, 'Very well; we've tried softly-softly. It's time to be more direct.'

Riker nodded. 'Agreed.' He looked up at Hedly. 'Lieutenant, hailing frequencies.'

'Open, sir,' replied Hedly after a moment's work.

Picard stood up and took a calming breath. Even with his years of experience behind him, he still felt this surge of nerves and adrenaline when making his first contact with the unknown. 'This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard representing the United Federation of Planets, to the unidentified ships that recently emerged from the planet Korella II. Please state your intentions and identify yourselves.'

Silence reigned. Not even static crackling came over the communications link. After thirty seconds wait, Picard turned and threw a quizzical look at Hedly. 'Lieutenant, is the channel even open?'

Caught unawares by the captain's mildly sardonic question, Hedly actually checked her instruments before answering, 'Yes, sir. Channel is open.'

'Sir…?' The tentative, worried call came from the helm.

Picard turned to look at Ensign Bridges, before he realised that she was staring at the viewer. Slowly, dreading what he might see, the captain of the Enterprise turned to look in the same direction. A deathly still settled over the bridge as the entire crew stared at the screen.

The black ships were glowing gently.

As Picard stared, the glow intensified, beginning at the top of the dome and filtering across the rest of the hull, as if rivulets were trickling down from a spring of light. The glow was funnelled into channels that created complex filigree patterns of light, like flowers burning in the night. Interconnected lines traced over the upper hull, simultaneously illuminating and decorating it, as if a delicate lace cloth had been draped across the dark surface. As those lines reached the base of the dome, they seemed to disappear, like tiny waterfalls dripping into space.

The subtle grandeur of the display awed Picard, who could once again feel that sense of wonder at the unexpected, the unknown. The sudden beauty revealed before them seemed to soften the menacing aspect of the leviathans dwarfing the starship that tried and failed to investigate them.

It seemed to Picard that the beings within had just revealed a little bit of their true selves to the watchers on the Enterprise.

Then he noticed something else - the first, smaller, ship was moving.

Almost imperceptibly at first, the ship was gathering momentum all the time, eclipsing the stars as it shifted its bulk into motion. As the astonished crew of the Enterprise watched, it pushed its way past the larger craft and into clearer space.

By the time Picard had managed to react, the black ship was almost upon the two tiny starships, eclipsing the Korella star behind its great mass, casting a dark shadow across the Enterprise and the Frisanius. Even as the shadow fell, the computer systems on the Enterprise began to fritz and die, while the bridge lights began to fade out.

Data stabbed at his controls as the bridge crew dove for their positions. 'Captain, the bioelectrical field is interfering with our computer core! We're being overloaded!

'Helm, bring us about to course 411 mark 3 at full impulse. Get us clear to a distance of ten thousand kilometres!' Riker's order was sharp and clear but not panicked.

'Bridge, engineering!' Geordi's voice came over the comm. 'Captain, the computer failures are interfering with our control of the warp core! We could lose containment if it's not stopped!'

'Acknowledged, Geordi,' replied Picard tersely. 'We're doing what we can.'

'Captain,' called Data, 'the Frisanius has engaged its warp engines!'

Picard looked at the viewer just in time to see the Warbird turn and flicker into warp. 'Did they make it safely?'

Data's hands sped over his console. 'It appears so.'

Beside Picard, Troi suddenly gasped in shock. 'Sir, I'm sensing hatred – fury! Great terrible anger!'

Picard turned to his Counsellor, worry and concern on his face. Troi was staring at the screen in horror, her eyes fixed on the black ship. She didn't respond, and the captain knelt beside her seat, taking hold of her shoulders, turning her towards him gently but firmly. 'Counsellor, look at me,' he said, his voice urgent and insistent.

Troi's eyes broke from the screen, finding her captain's eyes. She reached out, clutching at his arms, seeking the reality of a human being to draw her away from the all-encompassing emotions drowning her psyche. Her eyes looked past him, as her lips moved soundlessly. Picard could make out the words being shaped, like a plea. Imzadi…

Abruptly, she slumped, her eyes rolling back in her head as she fell into Picard's arms in a dead faint. Riker suddenly moved past Picard, gently but firmly taking Troi's weight in his arms, supporting her limp body. As he did so, Picard saw the deep concern written into his first officer's eyes.

'Get her to sickbay,' muttered the captain, 'and let me know when she comes around.'

Riker nodded, tapping his commbadge before hoisting Troi's body in his arms. 'Transporter room, two to beam directly to sickbay.'

As Riker and Troi dematerialised, Picard stood and turned to face his crew again. 'Status report?'

'Sir,' called Ensign Bridges, 'We've established our new position twelve thousand kilometres off the target's port…' The youngster hesitated. '… side, I suppose.'

As she said this, the lights glowed back into full life again. Data turned to face his captain. 'Full computer control is restored, Captain.'

'Engineering reports that the warp core is back under control,' added Hedly.

'Very good,' said Picard. He looked at his science officer. 'Mr Data, what the hell just happened?'

The android looked perturbed. 'Captain, I can only theorise. We have some experience of biologically produced electricity fields in the past. However I know of no known instance where such a field is so powerful that it extrudes any significant distance beyond the generator. I will need to spend some time analysing the sensor telemetry on the field.'

'Was it an attack?'

'Unknown,' admitted Data. 'It may have been an attempt to scan us.'

Picard nodded thoughtfully. He stared at the viewer, looking intently at the seemingly unmoving disc of black. It was odd that, even though he knew the ship was there, it was still very hard to distinguish the shape of it against the backdrop of stars. It was as if the great vessel sank into space itself, moving just underneath the fabric of reality, disturbing the surface like a shark's fin, hunting.

The captain of the Enterprise dismissed these overly emotive thoughts, although he was disturbed by how easily they came to mind when confronted by the leviathan before him. Instead, he looked at the helm officer. 'Ensign, what course is that ship on?'

'They're heading for Korella III, Captain,' replied Bridges. 'ETA: four minutes.'

'The ship is proceeding at a sublight speed far in excess of our own at full impulse, Captain,' observed Data, 'and both ships are now registering massively increased power outputs. The scale of the power being generated is beyond anything that I have ever seen before, even on a planetary scale.'

He turned to give Picard a worried look. 'I've not had time to analyse the data sufficiently, but even allowing for their necessarily huge engine demands, I cannot rationalise any reason for the kinds of power output before us.'

'I thought you said you couldn't break through the bio-electric field's sensor dampening effect,' said Picard.

'That is correct, Captain,' replied the android levelly. 'The power output is so great that it is detectable even with the dampening effect.'

'Very well,' said the captain after a moment's thought. 'Ensign Bridges: match that ship's course and best possible speed. Warn me when they enter orbit of Korella III. Lieutenant Hedly, raise shields and go to yellow alert.'

As his commands were carried out, Picard turned and walked slowly back to his command chair, using the time to think.

Troi had seen into the minds of their visitors for a moment, and what she had seen had utterly overwhelmed her. Anger and fury; yet as far as he knew, neither of their races knew anything of the other.

Hedly's console bleeped. 'Captain, report from Dr Crusher. Counsellor Troi is conscious again. Commander Riker is returning to the bridge.'

A small sliver of worry disappeared from Picard's mind. 'Thank you, Lieutenant.'

As he said this, the turbolift doors slid open and Riker emerged onto the bridge. He took his place beside Picard, throwing a relieved look at his captain. Picard leaned across to murmur, 'How is Deanna?'

'She's OK, sir,' replied Riker, his voice equally quiet. 'As soon as the computer problems eased off, she started coming around. We need to keep clear of those ships.'

'Agreed, Number One,' replied Picard with a small smile.

Another bleep sounded from Hedly's console. 'Captain, we are receiving a distress call from Korella III,' reported the security officer, her voice surprised.

Picard threw a look at Riker before responding. 'On screen.'

A Romulan man's face appeared on the viewer, wearing an expression that Picard had not often seen on a Romulan – fear. 'Enterprise, this is Korella research station. Please help us! We are unarmed and defenceless!'

'Korella, this is Captain Picard of the Enterprise,' replied Picard carefully, amazed again by the strength of the Romulan reaction to the new ships. 'What is your distress?'

The man closed his eyes for a moment, clearly trying to bring his panic under control. 'Captain Picard, my name is Levik Erek and I am the administrator of this station. The Warbird Frisanius was assisting us with an evacuation until it was forced to leave orbit. We have been monitoring the situation and I must ask you to help us flee.'

'What is the nature of your distress?' repeated Picard.

'The ships that emerged from Korella II are known to us,' replied Erek, his voice notably calmer. 'Part of the purpose of this station is to continuously monitor the situation in this system and alert the High Command appropriately. Our evacuation was part of the standard procedure if anything was to emerge into the system.' Fear passed across his face again. 'I beg you, please help us and I will give you any information you require.'

'How many people are we talking about?' asked Riker.

'Besides our research team, the wider base comprises about 1500 people, mostly civilians,' replied Erek.

'Stand by,' said Picard. He motioned to Hedly to cut the channel before looking at Riker. 'How long would it take -?'

'About twelve hours,' replied Riker immediately. 'I don't think we've got that sort of time.'

Picard nodded grimly. 'Can we beat that ship to the planet?'

'Not on impulse power,' said Riker. 'But we can be in transporter range quicker than they can get there.'

'What's our ETA?' asked Picard.

'We will be within transporter range in 30 seconds,' reported Bridges.

If indecision could exist for Starfleet captains, this was it for Picard. A brief moment to consider, and then, 'Number One, you're in charge of the evacuation. Get the research team out first. Send Erek to the bridge as soon as he's up.'

'Yes, sir,' replied Riker, immediately bounding to his feet and heading for the turbolift.

'Ensign Bridges, get us as close to the planet as you can without entering the bio-electrical field. Data, keep a close eye on that ship – if they make a single hostile move towards us or the outpost, I need to know.'

Picard turned to face the screen. 'Put Administrator Erek back on screen.'

Hedly complied and the Romulan appeared again. 'Captain, I –'

Picard cut him off. 'Administrator, I need you to prepare your people for emergency beam-outs. We'll evacuate as many as we can.'

Erek's troubled expression washed away in a tide of relief. 'Thank you Captain. We will be ready. Korella base out.'

The screen went dark and Picard slowly made his way back to the command chair. As he sat, he found that he was staring once again at the black saucer shape that now cruised slowly across the surface of the planet below. Oddly enough, when silhouetted against Korella's surface, the ship seemed more real than it had when in space.

What did the Romulans know? Picard asked himself the question furiously, although his calm expression belied his thoughts. As soon as these ships had appeared, the Romulans had abandoned any pretence at rationality, responding in panic and fear. Why?

The captain was desperate to know the answer and could feel the frustration welling up within him. The first thing the Frisanius had done was begin an evacuation. Admiral Jaled had summoned in an entire sector fleet to launch an unprovoked assault against a silent target. Erek was convinced that the ship approaching his outpost was hostile. Picard acknowledged that the behaviour of the silent strangers was odd and Troi's encounter with their emotions was unsettling at best, but he also knew what his duty demanded of him. He had to gather information and intelligence, the two things which were being denied him.

Ensign Bridges interrupted his thoughts. 'Captain, the ship has entered orbit of Korella III. They're – 'She hesitated before continuing, her voice stunned, 'Sir, they're entering the atmosphere.'

'The atmosphere?' repeated the captain in disbelief. 'Are you sure?'

'Confirmed,' answered Data, turning back to his console. 'They have completed a successful insertion into the atmospheric envelope and attained a stable altitude of three miles above the surface. They are decelerating sharply, but remaining on course.'

'Where are they in relation to the research station?'

'Approximately 120 miles west of the outpost. They will be overhead in seven minutes.'

Picard absorbed this latest surprise with outward equanimity, although his mind was racing to keep up. The next few minutes passed in silent tension, although Picard made a point of keeping his body relaxed. On the screen before him, the bridge crew watched as the dark saucer shape cruised across the planet's surface towards the research outpost.

'Riker to bridge.'

'Bridge here, Number One,' replied Picard calmly.

'Sir, we've evacuated about one hundred people so far, including the majority of the research team itself.'

'The majority?' echoed the captain.

'Yes, sir,' replied Riker. 'Administrator Erek has elected to stay behind on the planet and supervise the evacuation from that end.'

Picard sighed, rubbing his chin. 'Understandable, I suppose. Carry on, Commander.'

As his attention returned to the screen, Picard saw Data frowning at his console readouts. 'Something wrong, Mr Data?'

Data didn't turn to face him, but simply replied, 'I'm not sure, sir. I'm starting to read a sizeable power build-up from the ship above the planet.'

'Monitor it,' ordered Picard, feeling a stirring of unease within him for the first time. 'Ensign, what is the status of the larger ship?'

'Unchanged,' reported Bridges. 'It's still in position near Korella II.'

'Sir, we're receiving a signal from the base again,' reported Hedly.

'On screen.'

Erek's face appeared again but, where the Romulan had previously looked frightened, now he looked almost calm. 'Captain Picard, I am going to send you telemetry from our ground-based sensor stations. This is what we're seeing now.'

Before Picard could ask anymore, the screen flickered and a new image appeared, causing the captain to slowly stand, his unease blooming into outright fear.

The sensor was angled into the sky, but darkness clouded the view. According to the weather forecast data, that area of the planet should have been enjoying clear skies and warm sunshine, but instead the huge black ship loomed, slowly moving with a languid but fateful air, blocking out the light of the sun and casting darkness across the land.

Abruptly, light began to spill across the darkness, starting with a point that bloomed into life in the centre of the great ship, widening swiftly into a bright column of turquoise fire, reaching down from the heavens to the ground. Amid the eerie glow, Picard could make out a movement like doors opening, swinging on giant hinges towards the ground, as if they were the petals of a great black flower.

Picard was about to ask Data for analysis when the image flickered and failed. Erek's face reappeared on the screen. 'Captain, we are about to come under attack,' announced the Romulan, his voice still oddly calm. 'I am currently uploading all of our sensor telemetry and our database to your computer systems. I hope the work I and my people here have done will not be in vain.'

Picard frowned, recognising the calm in Erek's voice as fatalism. He had made exactly the preparations you would make if you were expecting to die. Picard stood up as he asked, 'Administrator, why -?'

He cut off as static suddenly flared across the screen, distorting Erek's face. Picard turned to face Hedly. 'What's going on?'

Hedly looked anxious as she worked her console. 'Captain, something on the surface is blocking our signal to the surface. I can't break through the interference.'

'Sensors detecting a huge power surge from the ship, Captain,' called Data. 'Off the scale!'

Concern on his face, the captain turned to the screen again. As he did so, the screen cleared for a moment and Erek's face gazed at him. Picard would never forget the look of haunted fear and sorrow that overcame the Romulan in his last few moments. His eyes penetrated into Picard's soul and seared their image into his heart forever.

'It's too late,' murmured Erek. The screen went dead.

''We've lost visual!' reported Data. 'Visual sensors have been knocked out.'

'Report!' snapped Picard. 'What's going on down there?'

Hedly was first, her voice horrified. 'Sir, I'm picking up a huge explosion in the centre of the colony.'

'An explosion? Has the ship crashed?'

'No, sir; they're still there,' replied the tactical officer. She turned worried eyes on her captain. 'Sir, I'm reading a huge fireball, nearly a thousand feet in height and expanding rapidly in diameter. If I didn't know better, I'd have said they fired on the colony.'

'Confirmed,' reported Data, his voice as calm as Hedly's was horrified. The android looked at his captain. 'The visual sensors were knocked out by an enormous electromagnetic pulse emanating from that ship at the moment the power surge discharged. It was big enough to affect an area of roughly five hundred thousand kilometres. I believe that Lieutenant Hedly is right; they have destroyed the Korella III base with a weapon more powerful than anything I have ever seen before.'

Picard felt a cold chill run through him. Deep within, he knew it had been inevitable – the Romulans did not panic easily and they must have encountered these strangers before. 'Data, get those sensors working,' he said, keeping his voice calm. 'Lieutenant Hedly, arm weapons. Red alert.'

His crew reacted as their captain expected; with calm, quiet efficiency. The activity level on the bridge jumped a notch as the red alert sirens blared their warning. The captain could sense the subtle change in the Enterprise's readiness, shifting in moments from a ship of exploration to a vessel of war.

Picard moved to Data's side. 'Data, I need more information; we have to find a way to break through the jamming effect. Do you have any ideas?'

'None as yet, sir,' replied the android.

'This is your priority,' said the captain. 'Get the visual sensors back on-line, then break through the jamming.'

'Understood,' replied Data.

As Data set to work, Picard turned and looked at Hedly. 'Lieutenant, update Starfleet with the current situation. Mark it for Admiral Shakoor's eyes only.'

Hedly looked puzzled but did as ordered. Picard tapped his commbadge. 'Picard to Riker.'

'Riker here.'

'Number One, how many people did we get from the surface?'

'About one hundred and fifty, sir,' replied the first officer, 'but we just lost a group in transit. I think something bad has happened down there.'

'Truer than you know, Commander,' replied Picard grimly. 'I need you back up here; bring someone from the base with you.'

'Aye, sir,' came the response. Picard turned his attention to the screen just as it flickered back into life.

The screen displayed the same view of the planet that it had a moment before, but now Picard could see that the black giant had angled itself away from the planet, pushing its enormous bulk out of the atmosphere and back into space. Trailing behind it were streams of clouds, looking tiny in comparison to the planet and the ship, but Picard knew that each of them would be at least ten miles long.

His eye was drawn to the source of those streamers. The site of the research colony was marked by a spreading plume of black smoke. With trepidation, Picard said, 'Magnify that dark cloud.'

The Enterprise's powerful sensors zoomed in on the site of the outpost; or, more accurately, what remained of it. The deceptively small black plume was in fact a vast raging tower of smoke and flame that belched into the skies. The Romulan base had been obliterated, wiped off the face of Korella III by an inexplicable alien fury. The disquieting thought came to Picard that the only times he had seen anything similar had been when he had seen the craters left behind by the Borg.

Before he could take in fully what he was seeing, the turbolift doors slid aside to admit Riker to the bridge, followed closely by a young Romulan woman wearing the uniform and wary expression of a military officer. Her eyes cast worriedly around the bridge, before she stopped abruptly as her gaze took in the sight of what had once been her home.

For a moment, Picard saw the stricken and horrified look on her face before training reasserted itself and her expression became composed. She focused her eyes on Picard, who found himself impressed by the self-possessed confidence in the younger woman's eyes.

Riker made his way to Picard's side, gesturing to the new arrival. 'Captain, this is Subcommander Serisa. She was the Romulan military attaché to the Korella III research base.'

Picard nodded to Serisa. 'Subcommander, welcome to the Enterprise. You have my condolences on the loss of your base.'

'Thank you, Captain Picard,' replied the Romulan, her voice cool but tightly controlled. 'I am grateful for the efforts you and your officers have made to evacuate our base. Before the Frisanius was called away, she had already evacuated five hundred of our people and most of the research material, so we have hopefully not lost too much in the attack.'

Picard winced inwardly at the coldness of Serisa's tone, remembering how cold many in the Romulan military forced themselves to be. Serisa's superiors would be more worried by the losses of material and data, rather than personnel and it was only sensible for junior officers to try to match this lack of concern in their own dealings. It promoted a great deal of efficiency in the Romulan Navy, but also a great deal of almost incidental cruelty when officers were expected to prioritise data and equipment before lives.

Nonetheless, nearly fifteen hundred lives had been lost in the attack on Korella III, but rather than react with the anger he felt, Picard turned and looked at Data. 'Status report, Data.'

'The smaller ship has now exited the atmosphere of Korella III, Captain,' replied Data promptly. 'They are currently holding a geo-stationary orbit around the planet. The larger ship is maintaining its position near Korella II.'

Picard nodded thoughtfully before turning to look at Serisa. 'Would you join me in my ready room, Subcommander? I'm afraid I will need to ask you some questions.'

'Do you intend to strike back at these invaders, Captain?' asked Serisa, her voice still cold.

Picard could detect the undercurrent of hostility in Serisa's tone and opted to keep his voice calm. 'At the moment, they have made no hostile moves towards my ship or any Federation property. I have no right to launch an attack against them, especially not in the Neutral Zone.'

A flash of anger passed across Serisa's face, but she covered it hastily. After a moment, she inclined her head solemnly. 'My apologies, Captain.'

As Serisa made her way to the ready room, Picard indicated that Riker should join him. 'Data, you have the bridge,' ordered the captain. 'Alert me to any change in status and have someone start reviewing the data uploaded from the Korella III outpost.'

Picard was unsurprised to find that Serisa held herself stiffly at attention as she stood before his desk. 'Captain Picard, it is my duty to inform you that I will not surrender any classified intelligence details about the work of the Korella outpost. Furthermore I must demand that I and my staff are returned to a Romulan military outpost immediately.'

Picard and Riker shared a look. 'Well, the nearest base is the one we just beamed you out of,' the first officer remarked acidly. 'You want to go back?'

Serisa looked confused, but remained silent, her gaze fixed on the bulkhead. Picard regarded her silently for a moment before asking, 'Why were you attached to the Korella outpost, Subcommander?'

Serisa glanced at the captain, her expression puzzled, but kept quiet. Picard continued quietly, 'It seems somewhat strange that a civilian research outpost should have any ties to the military at all; that is, unless there is something unusual going on in this system?'

Picard left the question hanging in the air and turned to look at Riker. 'How many of the people you evacuated would you say were military officers, Commander?'

'Most of them,' replied Riker. 'In every batch we brought up, at least half were in uniforms.'

'Meaning that the Korella outpost was, more than likely, a military base rather than a civilian research installation,' said Picard calmly, turning his eyes back to Serisa, who now looked increasingly worried and uncomfortable.

'A Romulan military base in the Neutral Zone?' asked Riker, catching on to his captain's thinking. 'At least that explains why a Warbird was despatched to carry out the evacuation.'

Picard nodded slowly, his gaze fixed on Serisa's increasingly bleak expression. 'It also explains why a senior Admiral of the Romulan High Command was on an inspection tour here. I wonder what the Federation Council might make of this when we inform them; especially after we present the senior surviving officer of that base to them.'

Serisa's nerve snapped. 'Captain, I resent this treatment! I am not your prize to be displayed –'

Picard cut her off with practised ease, deliberately making his tone harsh. 'I'm afraid you are, Subcommander! Admiral Jaled is on his way with a fleet to attack those new ships and you know as well as I do that you will be considered a casualty when your fleet sees what was done to the outpost! From my position, I have no reason to want to reveal that we have evacuated anyone from Korella III.'

He stood slowly, making sure that every part of his will was concentrated on intimidating the Romulan. Picard hated to do this, but he had learnt that Romulans would resist threats to the last ounce of their strength, but tended to crumble at any hint of public exposure, especially if that exposure could embarrass the government on Romulus. 'As far as your government is concerned, you and your team are dead. That is, until the time is right.'

Serisa's face was bleak. Her shoulders had slumped and her hands, previously laid flat against the leg of her trousers, were now bunched into fists, knuckles white with tension. She dropped her gaze to the deck, before muttering, 'What do you want to know?'

Picard kept any expression of victory away from his face and simply asked, 'What was the mission of the Korella III outpost? Why do Romulan Warbirds keep running regular scans of the system? Do you know who these ships belong to?'

Serisa raised her eyes to look at Picard with some befuddlement. 'You don't know?'

It was Picard's turn to be surprised. 'Know what?'

'Starfleet was informed that we were setting up a research base in the Neutral Zone,' replied Serisa after a moment's hesitation. 'It was licensed under treaty.'

'Yes,' replied Riker, equally confused, 'but we didn't know that it was being turned into a military base.'

Serisa's befuddlement became outright shock. 'But that was the entire point of the base - it was a military installation that Starfleet knew about!'

The two Starfleet officers looked at each other, shock and disbelief on their faces. After a moment, Picard dropped back into his seat, putting his hand over his eyes. With the other, he motioned for Riker and Serisa to sit down. As they did so, the captain murmured, 'Subcommander, I apologise for my behaviour a moment ago. It appears that I may have been the one in the wrong.'

He lifted his hand away from his face to continue, 'I need to know all of the details that Starfleet is supposed to know about the Korella base. It appears that something has gone… amiss.'

Serisa stared at Picard for a long moment, doubt in her eyes. The captain leaned forward to fix her with his gaze, knowing that she was fighting long held doubts and fears about trusting outsiders. 'Please, Serisa. We cannot help either of our peoples if we don't trust each other.'

The Romulan sighed before saying, 'The base was built about seventy years ago because of an incident that happened in the Neutral Zone. Administrator Erek knew all of the details, but I believe it had something to do with these ships that have destroyed our outpost.' Another quick flash of emotion flickered across her expression.

Picard thought about mentioning the outpost database, but decided against it. Serisa continued, 'When I was posted to the base, it was just the next part of my rotation through the command structure in the sector. I was to oversee the work of the outpost and be the first point of contact if anything unusual was to happen. I knew the outpost itself was unusual, but I was told nothing of what it was looking for. Anything I found out was due to comments that Levik made. It was an undemanding post – until three days ago.'

The intercom bleeped suddenly. 'Hedly to Picard.'

Picard repressed a sigh of frustration. 'Picard here.'

'Captain, we're receiving another signal from Starfleet. Priority One.'

Picard could not remember a time when he had received two Priority One signals in the same day. 'Acknowledged, Lieutenant.'

He looked back at Serisa. 'We'll have to continue this conversation later, Subcommander.'

'Should I consider myself your prisoner, Captain Picard?' Serisa's voice was tightly controlled once again.

Picard hid a smile. 'Of course not. Number One, take our guest to join the rest of her people. We will return you to your government as soon as possible, Subcommander.'

Serisa's expression relaxed slightly. 'Thank you, Captain Picard.'

As Riker escorted Serisa out, Picard swivelled his viewer to face him. Entering his access code as before, he was pleased to see Admiral Shakoor's face appear before him once again, rather than Admiral Nechayev. The Admiral got right to the point, his expression grave. 'Captain Picard, I've reviewed your reports. What is your current situation?'

Picard gave his report, finishing by telling Shakoor about the destruction of the Romulan base on Korella III. The Admiral pursed his lips as Picard finished speaking. 'Captain, what you are telling me tallies with the attitude of the Romulans when they first alerted us to the situation in the Korella system. It's as if they're expecting us to be fully aware of these ships.'

'They say that the base on Korella III was established as a military base with Federation support and permission,' replied Picard. 'Is it possible something has been removed from the database?'

'Who knows?' asked Shakoor rhetorically. 'I'll have the archivists begin a search for anything relating to the events you have already logged. In the meantime, have those ships made any hostile move towards you?'

'Beside our brush with their bio-electrical field, none,' replied Picard. 'It's as if they don't even know we're here. Or care.'

'I need the Enterprise to remain where she is for the moment, Captain,' said Shakoor after a moment's thought. 'I'm going to scramble a small taskforce for the Neutral Zone border to support you if things turn bad. Stay out of the way of the Romulans when they come in and monitor the situation for as long as you can.'

'We're not intervening?' asked Picard, surprised. 'The only thing that these ships have done is commit a hostile act –'

'Against a government that isn't exactly our best friend, Captain,' Shakoor interrupted, his voice calm. 'If the Romulans get involved in a fight that we didn't start, we're not going to bend over backwards to help them, are we?'

Picard stared at the face of his superior, unable to believe what he was hearing. After a moment, all he could manage was, ''Acknowledged. Picard out.'

As the viewer went blank, Picard rested his elbows on the desk and dropped his head into his hands. Once again, his instincts ran up hard into the wall that was the desire of his superiors to play realpolitik.

The intercom sounded. 'Riker to Picard.'

The captain sighed. Not taking his head from his hands, he said, 'What is it, Number One?'

'Sir, Deanna wants to talk to you.'

Picard strode through the sickbay doors to find his Counsellor propped up on one of the bio-beds, her face pale but otherwise unharmed. At her side were Riker and Beverly Crusher, who cast a worried look at her captain as he entered.

Picard leaned down and took Troi's hand in his, feeling how cold her hand seemed to be. 'How are you, Counsellor?'

Deanna gave him a wan smile. 'I'm okay, thank you, sir.'

'What can you tell me about what happened?'

Troi sighed. 'I don't know exactly what happened. I was stretching out as far as I could with my senses when it seemed as if a great black cloak suddenly dropped onto my mind.'

Her grip tightened on Picard's hand but her expression remained calm. 'At first all I could sense was darkness. It was like being wrapped in a shroud, cold and silent. Then I noticed that there was a powerful, sentient mind behind that shroud. It was watching me even as I was watching back.'

Her dark eyes gazed into Picard's. 'There is a living presence on those ships, Captain. It has seen us; it hates and fears us. It has immense mental power, beyond anything I have ever seen before. I caught a fraction of that power and I was unprepared for it; that's what knocked me out.'

Picard nodded, hiding the worry that her words had provoked. 'Counsellor, I hate to ask –'

Troi smiled gently at him. 'I understand, Captain. I've been preparing for it. I will try again.'

Picard returned the smile, releasing her hand. As he stood up again, he caught Beverly's eye. The doctor's expression was dark.

The two officers retreated to the other side of the sickbay. Crusher said, 'Are you sure this is a good idea, Jean-Luc? You didn't see her when she came in.'

'I have no information, Beverly,' replied Picard, letting a touch of his frustration show to his oldest friend. 'We can't scan these ships. The Romulans are behaving strangely and, in about twenty minutes, a fleet of Warbirds is going to launch an attack that I can't stop unless we make contact. Deanna may be our last chance.'

He hesitated, throwing a glance back at the empath, who was chatting with Riker. Her eyes were watching her captain, however. Picard held Troi's solemn gaze for a moment before turning to face the doctor, adding, 'If you can give me a good reason not to, I won't make her do it.'

Beverly managed a smile. 'I know that, Jean-Luc,' she said. 'Besides, I don't think I could stop her anyway.'

'Captain,' said Riker, who had left Troi's side and joined Beverly and Picard, 'Deanna says we need to be inside the bio-electrical field in order to make this work.'

Picard raised an eyebrow at his first officer before walking back to Troi's bedside. 'Are you sure, Counsellor?'

'Positive,' she replied immediately. 'I couldn't sense anything from those ships until we entered the field. It seems almost like a psychic cloud.'

Picard and Riker looked puzzled and Troi continued, 'All living creatures broadcast the mental activity in their minds, but only telepaths are able to receive those thoughts. We call it a cloud because it is unfocused, uncontrolled background thoughts and feelings that surround a person or group, rather than directed mental communications. Telepaths learn early on how to screen it out, otherwise they go mad. Do you remember Tam Elbrun, Captain?'

Picard nodded ruefully. Tam Elbrun had been a Betazoid first contact specialist working for Starfleet. Unlike most Betazoids, who develop their telepathic abilities during adolescence, Elbrun had been born with his abilities fully active and had suffered through psychological pain inflicted by the thoughts of others most of his life, making him nearly impossible to work alongside. Picard had met him once during a very strange first contact mission, coincidentally one that had also involved the Romulans.

At her captain's slightly pained expression, Troi grinned impishly. 'Tam instinctively picked up the cloud of thoughts around him from birth and he never learnt how to shield himself against others. Those thoughts he was picking up are what we refer to as a psychic cloud; any large enough group of sentient beings creates this cloud of thoughts.'

'How large a group are we talking about?' asked Riker.

Troi shrugged. 'We usually talk in terms of thousands of people together. I suspect that, if this ship is generating a psychic cloud this large, not to mention powerful enough to be detected by our scanners, we're probably talking about millions.'

'So you think that this bio-electrical field is being caused by millions of telepaths?' asked Picard.

'Millions of sentients, at least,' Troi corrected him. 'I don't know if they're telepaths. I won't know until we can make contact with them.'

'You said that you sensed anger and hatred.' Picard's voice was unsure.

Troi nodded. 'I wasn't in connection with the mind long enough to get any more than an impression, but what I picked up wasn't pleasant. The emotions were as powerful as the mental impression that I got, but I couldn't pin them down to an individual. I've sensed feelings as strong as those before, but only from extremely powerful single beings, not from large groups.

Picard sighed. 'Very well,' he said after a moment's thought. 'Number One, I want you and Counsellor Troi to take a shuttle and pilot it into the bio-electrical field. Beverly, go with them. We'll keep you under constant transporter lock and beam you out at the slightest hostile move.'

The Counsellor smiled at him warmly and took Picard's hand in hers, trying to communicate her pleasure at being of use to him. 'Thank you, Captain.'

Will Riker suppressed a frisson of fear as he gazed up at the huge black shape before him. Standing on the bridge of the Enterprise, separated from the giants by a computer viewscreen, not to mention several thousand kilometres of space, it was possible to pretend that their bulk did not intimidate him.

Out here, their vastness pressed down upon him with an almost physical force. As the shuttle Cassini drifted closer to the larger of the pair on its navigational thrusters, Riker had to fight the involuntary urge to duck his head below the level of his shoulders as he looked up at the gigantic hull.

He glanced back at the miniature sickbay that had been rigged up at the back of the shuttle. Deanna, her face still too pale for his liking, sat in the midst of a panoply of medical equipment, Dr Crusher and a nurse fussing around her like mother hens. Troi caught Riker's worried look and favoured him with a gentle smile.

Riker, despite knowing the futility of trying to hide his feelings from an empath, nonetheless concealed the outward signs of his growing worry and smiled back at the Counsellor. 'I'm cutting engines now; hopefully we can slip in without being noticed.'

The gentle background hum of the engines died out, leaving the shuttle silent amid the darkness. Riker kept a keen eye on the readouts, showing how closely the Cassini was skirting the bio-electrical field. He glanced back to Troi. 'We're about two kilometres from the edge of the field. Can you sense anything?'

Troi shook her head, her smile growing amused at the rueful look on Riker's face. 'I told you, Will; I need to be inside the field to sense anything.'

Behind her smile, Deanna was nowhere near as confident as she had made out to Picard and Riker. What she had sensed from the alien ship had scared her almost out of her wits, much more than she was prepared to let on to either Will or the captain.

A fragment of the alien psyche had pressed down upon her, its immense force like a black weight crushing her spirit. She had borne its stress for only a brief moment, but even that momentary exposure had hurt her deeply. The sensation had felt like a freezing knife stabbing and lodging in her mind; she could feel the pain even now.

Nonetheless, she maintained her outward cheeriness and smiled back at her closest friend, whose concern was radiating across the shuttle towards her. She knew that Riker's devotion to duty was conflicting with his love for her. Yet Deanna couldn't seem to get him to realise that it was her own devotion to duty that propelled her into this course of action; she was the only one who could do this for their captain, therefore she had to do it.

Beverly finished what Deanna was certain was her fourth recheck of the medical equipment around her before turning her gaze on her friend. Deanna could see the worry and fear in the doctor's eyes as she searched for the right words, finally settling on, 'Are you ready?'

'I think so,' replied Troi, keeping her voice calm. She turned her eyes past Beverly, past Will, towards the giant black hulk before them. 'Let's do it.'