CHAPTER ONE, FROM "ANCIENT BLOOD"
"Captain Picard, my mission is urgent. If it fails, six star systems and ten Federation colonies are going to fall under the influence of the most nefarious planet in this sector. I can't give you any more details than I have already. All I can say is we're picking up two key witnesses on whom our entire plan depends."
Evasive, yet somehow revealing.
"Commissioner...you're asking me to use my starship to delay a legal transport in authorized spacelanes."
"That's right, Captain."
"So you can arrest two of the passengers?"
"Arrest is a little harsh. Take them into protective custody is how I'd put it."
"Very well. If it's so vital, let's go get it done."
Jean-Luc Picard hadn't bothered to sit down in his ready room just off the ship's bridge. The commissioner followed him out, and Picard felt the other man's eyes all the way.
His first officer and security chief were waiting on the bridge. They were the only bridge crew who looked at him. The others -- ops, helm, science station, tactical, engineering -- were all fixed on their duties. Lieutenant Commander Data, in his elementally android manner, concentrated on his console and on the dominating main viewscreen at the fore of the bridge, which showed a docile vision of an oncoming ship.
"Transport on the screen, Captain," William Riker reported. "Roughly ten kilotons, carrying cargo and thirty-two life-forms."
"Pull them over, Number One." Picard turned then to the security officer. "Mr. Worf, prepare to go aboard and take two persons into custody. We'll be remanding them to Commissioner Toledano."
The Klingon officer nodded once. "Aye, sir."
At Picard's side, the commissioner leaned close and murmured, "Must've been hard for you, getting used to having a Klingon on the bridge of a Federation starship."
Will Riker -- a bit taller than the Klingon though not as brawny -- came down the port ramp, his eyes fixed on the transport as they drew nearer. "Hail them, Mr. Worf."
"Aye, sir," Worf responded, and played the glossy console before him to open hailing frequencies. Then he spoke into the com receptors. "This is the U.S.S. Enterprise. Stop your engines and prepare to be boarded."
"Do our -- passengers -- know we're coming?" Picard asked.
"No," Toledano replied. "It was too risky to tell anyone. There are twopeople on that ship who have to be isolated and protected. There's no placesafer than a starship. Then, we'll rendezvous with another starship, whichwill take them to an unspecified starbase. Even I don't know the ship orbase. Not yet anyway."
"We're in the vicinity of the Vaughn-Creighton system, aren't we?"
"Does this have anything to do with the planet Sindikash?"
"I can't talk to you about that yet."
"Yes, you said that."
"Sir, they are not reducing speed." Commander Data's android face remained typically expressionless.
"No answer to our hail, sir," Worf added from the upper aft bridge, hisbass voice like low thunder.
Picard deliberately said nothing. There was a certain art to captaincy, and that involved not doing his crewmen's jobs for them.
"Tractor beams," Riker decided.
Data looked at his board and worked it. "Tractor beams engaging, sir. Sir...their engines are still not reducing power. There is no response at all. They have not raised shields."
"Prepare to beam aboard immediately," Picard injected. "We'll shut those engines off ourselves, or they'll overload."
"Why wouldn't they respond?" Toledano asked as he, Picard, and Worf headed for the turbolift. "Aren't they required to answer you?"
"Could be any number of problems," Picard said as Worf stepped aside to let him board the lift first.
Despite not wanting to talk to him "yet," Toledano had already told him a great deal. Two witnesses were involved in a tentacled network of espionage and were willing to speak to the Federation in exchange for sanctuary. Their information probably had something to do with Sindikash, the only habitable planet in the Vaughn-Creighton system, a colony of the Federation inhabited by Earth people from...Asia? No...Bulgaria? Something like that.
He felt Riker's questioning eyes follow them into the lift. The first officer should know what was going on, and there was a subtle chastisement in that trailing gaze.
A twinge of resentment boiled up in Picard as the lift doors closed. Not at Riker, but at Toledano. If the Federation had briefed him, told him what was going on, had followed procedure for covert missions, he'd have known whether he was dealing with Romulans or Orions or lizards or insects by now. He'd have reviewed the situation and informed his officers.
Certainly no information could funnel off the ship without their knowing about it, and those witnesses would've been just as safe. Might it be asking so much for the Federation to trust its captains as much as the captains trusted their officers?
Instantly in his head he heard the arguments both ways, and pressed his lips rather than voice the thought to Commissioner Toledano, who would eagerly detail the Federation's side. Picard would be obliged to counter with the captains' side, and since he was already hearing it all in his mind, why hear it again in the lift?
"Mr. Worf, have you notified your security team?" he asked, determined to change his mind's subject.
"Four guards will meet us in the transporter room, sir," the big Klingon rumbled. "Also, one engineering technician, who will shut down the transport's engines, if they are not shut down already."
"Very good. Commissioner, I would appreciate some idea of exactly why I'm sending guards to my transporter room."
Toledano, a middle-aged man who had once been handsome and was now a somewhat silver-haired echo of that, sighed. "Captain, I can't talk to you about this yet."
"Regardless, I have to be able to give my team some idea of what they're looking for, or they won't be able to do their jobs. They won't be able to protect anybody if they don't know what they're protecting against."
The commissioner frowned, tried to add that up, and sighed a second time.
"These two people are witnesses to an event that could tie an interstellar espionage network to a person we haven't been able to implicate," he said. "No one on that transport knows who those two people are. When we get on board, the witnesses will disclose their identities to us, and we'll take them into custody. That's all there is to it, really."
"Mmm," Picard responded, and thought very little else. He fixed his eyes on the lift doors before them.
"No one on board this transport knows who the witnesses are?"
"Except the witnesses themselves," the commissioner said.
"They did all this themselves. They contacted us, they arranged transport, they didn't purchase tickets or book passage until the last possible second -- we don't even know what they look like."
Worf's comm badge beeped then, and he tapped it. "Lieutenant Worf."
"Security, sir. Transporter Room One is under repair. The molecular stabilizers are off-line."
"Very well. Divert to Transporter Room Three. Worf out." The Klingon touched the controls. "Diverting to Room Three, sir."
"Very well," Picard said. Another forty-five seconds in the lift.
"Hopefully, by the time we reach the transporter room, Mr. Riker will have pulled that transport over and be holding it. We should be able to beam directly on board and isolate your two witnesses straightaway."
"I'll breathe a sigh of relief then, Captain," the commissioner told him.
In the transporter room they came upon Worf's four security guards and Ensign Jensen, a new transferee barely out of Starfleet Academy but one who Worf had high hopes for. Since the Enterprise was so far away from central Federation space, the young man had been on two starships, two transports, and four Starfleet supply ships just to get out to the Enterprise. He was twitching with anticipation to actually beam out in the captain's company.
Picard could tell -- he'd seen the look. And Jensen's eyes never once left him. As if the commissioner's jolly attention weren't altogether plenty.
"Ready, sir," the transporter officer said as they walked in. "The transport is stabilized. Mr. Data linked into their computer and managed to reduce their engine power by about forty-eight percent so far. He'll keep trying, but the rest'll most likely have to be done on board."
"I'm ready, sir!" Jensen piped.
Picard nodded. "Very good, gentlemen. Still no response from the crew?"
"No response, sir," the transporter officer answered. "But there are some scrambled emissions coming from over there, and Mr. Data thinks it might be an on-board mechanical malfunction. They might be trying to answer. They may be trying to shut down their engines, too."
"Understood." He turned to Toledano as he accepted a standard issue handphaser from Worf. "Let's take care not to startle them. Mr. Warren, energize as soon as we're in position."
He motioned the boarding party to the raised transporter platform, where each took a place on one of the clear disks as the transporter officer replied, "Aye, sir."
"Energizing, sir," Warren informed, and the familiar faint buzzing began.
In an unnoticeable minute, Picard's surroundings had changed to the chalky walls of the transport's docking bay. That moment of mental fog when the surroundings changed was shunted quickly aside. This place smelled like a slaughterhouse.
This place was also crushingly silent. Not even the throb of engines anymore. Data must have succeeded in shutting them down by remote.
But that smell --
"All hands, stand by...security alert." The sound of his own voice startled him.
Jensen moved into the captain's periphery. "Sir, permission to confirm engine shutdown?"
"Negative. Stand by."
Picard stepped across the small loading bay toward the passenger entrance, which was recessed downward about three inches and carpeted. A few paces beyond the step was the door to the seating coach. Worf stepped behind him, without requesting permission. Evidently he wasn't going to allow Picard to open that door without guard cover, and Picard did him the courtesy of not pointing out his defying the stand by order.
Together they descended the single step onto the carpet. Picard looked down, suddenly feeling as if he'd stepped into a soaked sponge and gone down to the ankle.
Behind him, someone gasped.
His foot and Worf's were down into the nap of the carpet, which was indeed soaked through. A ring of glossy liquid cuffed his boot and Worf's. Only now did he realize that the burgundy color had nothing to do with the carpet itself. He had no idea what color it once had been.
Now it was the color of blood.
"Oh...God..." Commissioner Toledano's voice quavered with subdued violence. He drew a breath, but couldn't choke out another word.
His jagged face severe, Worf stepped past Picard to the door. He put his hand on the controls, then turned and motioned his four guards forward onto the gore-soaked carpet. He glanced at Picard. "Captain, if you would please step aside."
Though he summoned his voice, Picard also found it in the same state as Toledano's, and cut it back before some choked squawk came out. He nodded and stepped to one side, instantly nauseated by the pull of sticky suction on his boot.
How many life-forms had someone said were here?
He had started adding that up in gallons when the door sloshed open.
Worf went in first. Another security man flanked him, and together they aimed their phasers sharply in two directions. Then the three other guards splashed in, crouched, and took over the aim.
Leading the way into the coach, Worf's stiff posture wavered in a way that could only be described as shock. The other guards each reacted subtly, but they reacted. A shiver. A drooping phaser. A stumble down to one knee on the soaked carpet. Picard's alarm doubled as he followed them inside.
The coach was engulfed in the syrupy odor of corruption, blood, slaughter. To his left was the forward part of the cabin, to his right the aft. The rows of seats were all occupied, but with corpses.
All human or humanoid, he noticed first off, one head, two arms, two legs -- except that the first ten or so rows of seats were occupied by people whose torsos were drenched from the necks down with bodily fluids. Their faces stretched upward, sideward, mouths aghast, eyes tight or wide, all staring in that last moment's frozen horror.
Under the astounded eyes of his captain, the stunned security men, the frozen commissioner, and poor Engineer Jensen, who still hadn't quite made it through the doorway, Worf took one confirming step toward the nearest couple of rows, then squished his way back to Picard.
"Sir," he rasped, "their arms...are missing."
"How many...like that?"
"Twenty-one, sir. Arms forcibly avulsed at the shoulder. Two of those have had their eyes gouged out. The remaining passengers' throats have been cut."
Standing near the entry, unable to move, Commissioner Toledano gulped, "What's 'avulsed'?"
Worf glanced at the commissioner, then at Picard, then the Commissioner again. "Torn off, sir."
Not cut. Not phasered. Torn.
"The blood splatters on the bulkheads," Worf went on, "suggest the torture was done in this area. Then the victims were dumped back into their seats."
The lieutenant of the security squad, pale with revulsion, came back from his reconnaissance of the rest of the ship and the cockpit. He swallowed a couple of times. "Sir...captain and copilot are both...the arms are the same. The steward's over there, behind that serving cart. Guess he tried to hide. Didn't help, though. Engine room's pretty bad, too. Both engineers had their throats cut."
"Some with throats cut," Picard murmured, "some with arms pulled off."
He squinted at the rows of seats, a hideous procession of gore fromfore to aft, and he walked along the rows, now desensitized to the squish of his boots on the blood-soaked carpet. The first two people's facial expressions were relaxed, almost as if they could look up and say, "Hello." Only the indelible stare of their eyes and the paper whiteness of their drained faces gave away their true condition, give or take the tunic of blood each wore. The second, third, fourth row...muscles frozen in perpetual astonishment, brows drawn, teeth bared, eyes wide. And it went that way, all the way to midships.
"These," Worf said, "saw those in front being killed. Their faces are mottled, as if flushed with panic before being drained by hemorrhage. The murderers started up there and worked their way aft, forcing these people to watch. Then...here," he said, stepping aft past several bodies who still possessed their arms; he paused at two corpses who were missing arms.
Picard noticed what he was getting at -- those in front had their arms ripped off, then some didn't, then two did.
"Then these two spoke up," Worf suggested, as if relating the details of an ancient battle. "The attackers found what they wanted and came back here. And these two paid by having their living eyes gouged out before their arms were taken off."
The two pathetic corpses, a man and a woman, slumped in their ghastly final throes. The woman's head rested upon what was left of the man's shoulder, her hair matted with his blood and muscle tissues.
"Commissioner," Picard said, turning, "let me introduce you to your two witnesses."
Poor Toledano picked his way through faint impressions of the other men's footprints in a vain attempt to avoid the unavoidable blood soaking the carpet. "Do you really think so?"
"Our medical and forensic departments will confirm all these people's identities in comparison with the ship's manifest and the departure records. Assuming that someone knows who your witnesses were, I'll bet these two are the ones."
"Because their eyes are..."
"Yes, partly. They were obviously punished more than the others, with the intent that the message of this should get back to someone. Perhaps a lot of someones."
"I don't know. Word does tend to escape in these kinds of events. A memo here, a whisper there, a security officer's spouse -- it gets out. Whoever did this was counting on that, or they wouldn't have resorted to such theatrics. They didn't know who the two witnesses were, so they tortured everyone until the witnesses spoke up. They were brave people, hoping to save others by giving themselves up. Unfortunately, it failed. After the attackers found and tortured the witnesses, they took care of these others with some dispatch."
He looked sadly at the remaining passengers, whose throats had been cut.
"Those were the lucky ones," he added as his heart twisted in empathy. Innocent passengers, on a safe, well-traveled spacelane.
Worf splashed toward them, his legs bloody to the knees now. "Forensics will be making a complete investigation, but so far tricorders have failed to pick up any physical clues. There may be some dusty residue of skin tissue, but it will take some time to sort those out and do DNA identification." The Klingon stepped a little closer, and spoke more intimately than Picard had ever remembered him doing. "Sir, whoever did this...we are dealing with people who have no honor at all."
The weight of that was evident in the tenor of his voice, which seemed somehow deeper than Picard had ever heard it. Worf was deeply disturbed, and there was enough of his upbringing among humans left in him to let his feelings show.
Toledano turned a shade greener and sidled closer to Picard. "I'm sorry to say, I have a pretty good idea who did this."
Picard glanced at Worf, then frowned at Toledano. "Well, speak up, Commissioner, now's the time."
The nauseated Federation official steeled himself visibly. "We're pretty sure...it was a band of Klingons."
Worf stiffened. "Impossible!"
"I'm sorry," Toledano said again, but he seemed certain.
Suddenly furious, Worf confronted both Picard and the commissioner so powerfully that even Picard felt the threat in that posture. "Klingons do not arbitrarily torture anyone! Klingons will kill -- but not like this!"
Toledano gathered his voice. "You know more about Klingons than I do, obviously, but...I'm sorry, but that's what I think we've got here."
"We'll discuss it back on the Enterprise," Picard interrupted, seeing where this was going.
"Klingons do not behave this way!" Worf continued.
Picard shot him a warning look. "I said later, Mister Worf."
Clamping his mouth shut, Worf blew his fury out his nostrils.
"At the moment," Picard said, "we have a few more troubling questions. For instance," he went on tightly, "where are the arms?"
His crew and the commissioner glanced about, as if expecting to see a pile of ripped-off limbs in some corner. Such a presence would be dreadful. Its absence was somehow more so.
As the stink of the slaughter suffused the air around them, and Engineer Jensen shuddered in the doorway, driven mute by the horror of his first boarding-party mission, Commissioner Toledano managed the two steps to bring him to Picard's side. Pale as the thirty-plus victims, visibly holding down his supper, he lowered his gaze briefly to the bloody carpet, then raised it to Picard.
"Captain...I think we'd better talk."
Ancient Blood copyright © 1997 by Paramount Pictures