A few hours later saw most of Engineering in a cargo bay studying the biopods they had beamed up from the planet. There were several dozen but only three contained living people. The rest were filled with corpses which Kes was scanning so the EMH could determine the cause of death. Vorik and T’Loran were trying to tap into the main system and analyze what was happening while Harry Kim studied the program that was running. Hogan and Torres hovered nearby checking to see if any of the pods had failed. The Captain was supervising them all and asking questions.
“Did the system break down?” she asked as she turned to look at Mr. Kim.
“Not that I can see,” he replied. “I’m not reading any pathway failures in the hibernation pods. The circuitry all seems to be functioning…”
“It is,” Vorik confirmed. “No interruptions, no failures.”
“Thanks, Vorik,” Kim nodded. “From the programming here, it looks like their brains are all interconnected in a complex sensory system controlled by this computer. According to these indicators, Captain, their minds are active.”
“I can sense something from them as well,” T’Loran offered as she continued to try to tap into and bypass the main system. “Fear, fatigue, and resignation, I think.”
“The encephalographic readings suggest that they’re dreaming. There’s some kind of interactivity with the computer, though. It’s not just scanning their brain functions, it’s also sending a data stream back to them. They could be experiencing a nightmare of some kind at the moment and that would be what Ensign T’Loran is picking up.”
“It could be an artificial environment of some kind,” Captain Janeway mused. “Years ago, Starfleet used a technology to assist deep space travel that kept the body in stasis but provided a mental landscape to keep the mind active and alert. Still, what went wrong? Why are they still here four years after the program should have ended? Let’s try to find out and report on it later today.”
The rest of the crew nodded in acknowledgment and continued on with their work.
Hours later, Harry Kim stood in the briefing room with the report he and the others had compiled. Captain Janeway, Commander Chakotay, Lieutenant Tuvok, Torres, Paris, Nelix, and Kes were there as well. The EMH was present via video connection. Harry cleared his throat and tapped the video panel so that the others could see the data on his PADD.
“The system was supposed to bring these people out of hibernation four years ago. However, it wasn’t left entirely to the computer. The programmers obviously wanted the people in the system to decide for themselves when it would be safe to come out. This was accomplished by a subroutine that periodically displayed atmospheric conditions to them.”
“So they should have known years ago that the biosphere had recovered,” Janeway interjected.
“Exactly,” Harry confirmed. “This subroutine has remained available to these people since it was activated four years ago. It’s literally an escape hatch.”
“Perhaps it has malfunctioned,” Tuvok suggested.
“No. That’s what’s so odd about this,” Harry countered. “As far as I can tell, it’s working perfectly.”
“Then why don’t they get themselves out?” B’Elanna asked.
Harry shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe they like it in there,” Tom suggested.
“I don’t think so,” the EMH chimed in. Janeway motioned to the monitor telling him to continue. “The three victims died from massive heart failure and there was evidence of prior neural trauma.”
“What does that mean?” Neelix asked.
“It could be evidence of extreme fear,” the EMH explained.
“Could it have been caused by the panic that accompanies a heart attack?” the Talaxian asked.
Next to him, Kes shook her head. “The readings suggest an extended period of mental stress.”
“Sounds like we ought to get them out right away,” Commander Chakotay said.
“Surely, Commander, you’re not suggesting we simply unplug them?” the EMH bristled.
“Because you have three brains whose survival has depended upon careful monitoring by a sophisticated computer system for nineteen years.”
“The Doc is right,” Harry said before anyone could interrupt. “I have no idea how to disconnect them without causing neural damage. I just don’t know the system well enough.”
“They know the system. Why don’t we ask them how to proceed?”
“How can we do that?” Tom asked. “Implant a com-link into their brains?”
“We already have a means of communication,” Tuvok said dryly. “Three unoccupied pods.”
“We could add a backup life support system,” Harry agreed. “One that uses our own computer and medical stasis technology.”
“If the only way to help those people is to go in and find out from them what’s wrong, I don’t see any alternative,” Chakotay sighed.
“Neither do I,” Janeway agreed. “Ensign Kim, Lieutenant Torres, you’re the best choice for two of the pods. Who should take the third?”
“Someone who is telepathic and trained to deal with strong emotions,” Tuvok added.
“That means either Vorik or T’Loran, I suppose,” Harry sighed.
“T’Loran may be the better choice here,” Tuvok said carefully. He did not want to embarrass Ensign Vorik by speculating on the things he had begun to sense from the younger Vulcan.
“Then T’Loran it is,” Janeway said calmly. “The three of you should report to the cargo bay immediately.”
T’Loran was surprised when Ensign Kim and Lieutenant Torres told her she would be the third person in their party. She could sense tension and mild anxiety rolling off of Vorik as he stood behind her, his face impassive and deceptively mild. Idly, she wondered at that for a second before putting the thought aside. She followed the others back to the cargo bay and climbed into one of the pods. She relaxed and maintained her calm as she felt the hibernation cycle beginning and dragging her down into unconsciousness. When she regained a sense of self, she was a bit taken aback by her surroundings. The people and the place itself seemed a bit childish. She’d mostly expected a recreation of the planet filled with places that would be more comfortable for adults than an amusement park crossed with a circus.
A few steps ahead of her, she heard Torres and Kim speaking to one of the circus-folk, a little woman dressed like a ballerina. It seemed that these people were not truly people at all but were, instead, part of the program. T’Loran kept her thoughts to herself. She made use of the mental shielding techniques that Mr. Suder had taught her in order to keep some aspect of her thinking private and separate from the computer program she herself was now part of. Before another minute passed, T’Loran found herself being pulled into a madcap dance, dragged alongside Ensign Kim and Lieutenant Torres until they stood near a bright pink guillotine. Torres began screaming when the creatures loaded Harry into the guillotine. T’Loran was pondering trying to stop the blade as it fell when, suddenly, three new people entered the room.
“Stop!” one of the two men cried out. “They’re aliens. They won’t be alone. If you kill them, their shipmates will shut down the program.”
T’Loran stayed close to Torres and Kim but held herself apart, trying to analyze and make sense of the entire situation. From what the lead clown, a psychotic man dressed in gray with thick white face paint, said there seemed to be no way out without his cooperation. The lead clown taunted and teased them, digging through their minds to pull up things to use against them. From T’Loran, however, he was able to glean little.
“Oh, a telepath,” he sneered. “That’s cheating. That’s not fair. No, no, no, no. We shall have to do something about that.”
T’Loran winced as she felt him trying to break through her mental shields. She forced herself to remain calm as he tried to dredge up fears and things that would frighten her. She refused to give into him, to panic, or to let fear get the better of her. The longer she remained calm, the more infuriated the clown became. The Betazoid began to wonder just how much longer it would be before the clown lost his patience with her and placed her on the guillotine.
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that to you,” he laughed. She blinked — the two of them were in a darkened room alone. “You understand the trick to it. If I tried to get rid of you that way, the others would know how to stop me. I can’t have them doing that now, can I? No, I’m going to let you and dear B’Elanna go back but I’ll keep Harry here with me. Tell your captain that I want to continue to exist. That is my only demand.”
Vorik kept his eyes focused on the monitors that let them know just what Ensign Kim, T’Loran, and Lieutenant Torres were feeling. He could sense mostly mild confusion, a bit of irritation, and sheer determination from T’Loran. The others were less clear to him. He wondered what they were seeing and experiencing and if they had managed to find the reason for the deaths of the others. Schooling himself to patience, he waited for the timer to run out and the three of them to return.
When Ensign Kim’s norepinepherine levels began to climb, Vorik started to worry that they might be about to lose one of their crew. However, the levels quickly dropped off to normal. Would Torres or T’Loran be next? If anything happened to T’Loran…
“They should be back by now,” the Captain muttered. “What’s going on?”
“Someone has terminated the recall subroutine from within the program,” Tuvok replied.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait, then,” the Captain sighed.
Long minutes passed. Vorik managed to maintain an outward appearance of utter serenity but he could feel hints of emotions starting to tumble through his mind. Fear that T’Loran would be trapped in stasis forever. Anxiety that none of the three would ever regain consciousness. Worry that they had been too rushed to study this system thoroughly enough and that they had, with the best will in the world, just exposed three more people to something that would wind up killing them. He vowed to himself that when — not if, but when — T’Loran came out of stasis, he would talk with her immediately. A bond between them would help him keep his balance until such a time as they could complete the wedding ritual, after all.
“Someone’s reactivated the recall subroutine,” the Captain said. Her works pulled Vorik out of his thoughts. Kes studied the read-out and nodded.
“It’s Lieutenant Torres and Ensign T’Loran,” she replied. “Their temperatures are rising. They should be out of stasis within a quarter-hour.”
Captain Janeway sighed and exhaled gustily. “At least we’ll finally get the answers to a few questions,” she muttered as she and the others settled in to wait for the two women to wake up.