They had been hoping to uncover some sort of hidden control center or analog to the Ocampa City, but they had instead discovered that Omicron Torrensis IV was entirely hollow. It wasn’t just terraformed; it was artificial. Commander Armstrong was correct; there was no solid evidence that it was the Nacene, at least not yet, but Lancaster was still secretly on Commander Vahlen’s side. No other explanation made sense to him, dangerous as that might be for the integrity of their scientific conclusions. The data from the ground sensor array had allowed Lancaster to develop a scanning program that could penetrate the planet’s crust to get an even better picture of what they were dealing with.
“Engineering to Bridge. We have applied your modifications to the deflector array, Captain,” Okusanya reported from deep within the bowels of the ship.
“Acknowledged,” Lancaster replied, tapping his badge. “Begin survey program, Mr. Vahlen,” he ordered to the chief science officer, who was standing at his station aft of the command area.
“Initiating,” Vahlen confirmed.
There was a visible burst of energy from the deflector as it focused a steady stream of nadions through the long-range sensors to penetrate the crust. Lancaster knew it would work, but he wasn’t prepared for how fast it would do so.
“This is incredible, sir. I’m detecting what appears to be a Nacene array at the center of this structure. It’s what’s providing the gravitational field, as well as projecting the tetryon radiation fields around the planet,” Vahlen replied. “Wait… Something is changing. The array is emitting a lot of energy.”
“Shields up,” Lancaster ordered. “Yellow alert.”
There was a low hum as the ship’s defensive systems energized, but moments later, a band of energy appeared on the far end of the bridge, passing methodically through the compartment and through everyone in it without any sense of being slowed by their shields. Lancaster stood up, turning to Vahlen for an explanation as they were scanned.
“That was a coherent tetryon beam,” the scientist said.
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Lancaster replied.
“Our databases are being accessed!” Alesser reported from operations. “Our… our entire computer has just been downloaded, Captain!”
“That’s impossible,” Lancaster replied. “Secure our–,” he started before he vanished mid-sentence.
When Lancaster regained consciousness, he was suspended by his arms and legs in a chamber he didn’t recognize. He knew he was nowhere on the Arcturus, not that there were any restraint devices on his ship capable of holding him that way. He couldn’t move his head at all, but from the pinpricks on his skin, he could tell he wasn’t wearing any clothes. In front of him, there was a cylinder running three meters or so from floor to ceiling, which swirled with purple and blue light.
“YOU ARE NOT THE EXPECTED INPUT,” a voice boomed throughout the room. Lancaster let out an involuntary gasp of pain from the sheer volume; it felt like the sound was all around him, shouting directly into his ears. “You are not the expected input,” the voice repeated, at a normal speaking volume; Lancaster wondered if it had calibrated itself based on scans of his physiology or if the first time was just for input.
“I am Captain Michael Lancaster of the Federation starship Arcturus,” he replied.
“This is known. I have scanned your ship. Why are you here?”
“If you have scanned my ship, you know that we are here to explore.”
“That is an incomplete explanation. Do you seek to settle or exploit this facility?”
“We only seek knowledge. We have no interest in settling this part of the galaxy,” Lancaster replied. “Who are you? Are you a Nacene?”
“I am of the Nacene, but I am not Nacene. They created me to complete this project. I now await the expected input.”
“What is this place?”
“You call it Omicron Torrensis IV.”
“Well, what do you call it?”
“Habitat Project Zero-Zero-Zero-One.”
“For the Ocampa? We have a working theory that this is some attempt to make amends for destabilizing their atmosphere,” Lancaster suggested.
“We’ve met them. They would certainly be grateful for this world.”
“They would be welcome here. They would be an acceptable input,” the device replied. “You are not welcome here, though.”
“We are allies of the Ocampa!” Lancaster exclaimed.
“Irrelevant. You are extraneous variables. You will be returned to your origin.”
“We will leave orbit on our own if you do not wish us to be here,” the captain said.
“No. I have completed my analysis. Your ship could wield significant destructive power in retaliation for denying you settlement rights. It must be removed. You will be returned to your origin.”
“Wait! Look at our logs. The last time the Nacene moved one of our ships, there were significant casualties!” Lancaster replied in a cold panic.
There was a pause. “Confirmed. Adjustments will be made to minimize this possibility,” it said. “Do not attempt to return to this world. My defenses are significant.”
Moments later, Lancaster found himself face down on the cold deck of the bridge. First Officer Rakan was at his side shouting for the medical department as someone else draped a jacket over his back. Whatever process had been used to transport him had left him dazed as he tried to process what had just happened.
“Computer, emergency power to structural integrity fields and inertial dampeners. All hands, brace for impact,” he ordered in a whisper.
The computer picked up his command, though, moments before the entire deck rocked under him. Whoever had covered him was holding him down to the deck as well, and Rakan was tossed off to the side. The ship’s structural members seemed to groan and whine for what seemed like an eternity before everything went silent.
“Report!” Lancaster gasped.
“Checking all systems, Captain,” Alesser reported. “No apparent damage or casualties.”
“What is our position?”
“We’re… We’re in the Alpha Quadrant, Captain. At Epsilon Indi, according to these readings,” Marshall said from the helm.
Lancaster furrowed his brow. He was expecting Earth until it dawned on him: the Arcturus was built at Epsilon Indi Station. “I guess we’re back at our point of origin, then. Serves us right for poking around in paradise,” he muttered before blacking out.