Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Returned, Part I

Peter David

  Thank you for downloading this Pocket Star Books eBook.

  * * *

  Sign up for our newsletter and receive special offers, access to bonus content, and info on the latest new releases and other great eBooks from Pocket Star Books and Simon & Schuster.


  or visit us online to sign up at


  IT WAS AN extremely odd sensation for Elizabeth Shelby when the transporter effect wore off, depositing her on the surface of Xenex. She was hardly a stranger to the world; she had been there several times before. But it had always been in conjunction with her husband. His absence from her side was palpable, but she did not dare to dwell on it. She had bigger things to worry about.

  She ran her fingers through her dusty brown–blond hair and squinted against the steady warm breeze that was blowing into her face. It was quite a different sensation from the transporter room that she had just been in, and from the overall environment of the transport vessel that had brought her here. The ship’s captain had offered to accompany her. She insisted on beaming down alone, because she knew that she had to conduct this business on her own.

  It was the first time she had been here since the disaster three months ago: the series of events that had resulted in the utter genocide of the Xenexian people. When the admiral had learned of it in her office on Bravo Station, she had been stunned beyond her ability to comprehend. An entire race of beings—men, women, even the children—just annihilated. Their lives snuffed out through the machinations of an insidious race known as the D’myurj. She couldn’t even begin to conceive of the sort of mind that would plan such a thing.

  Yes, you can, she thought grimly. The human race might have made significant progress as a people over the centuries, but she was fully aware that there had been individuals in her world’s history who had aspired to race cleansing. It had happened in situations ranging from the extermination of native peoples to world wars. It was difficult for her to acknowledge that whatever repulsive behavior was perpetrated by alien races, humans had done it and perhaps even better. The unfortunate fact was that when she pondered what sort of being would consider it acceptable or even laudable behavior to wipe out a species, she didn’t have to look any further than the nearest mirror to receive an answer.

  It obviously did nothing to make her feel better for the Xenexians’ fate. The truth was that she wasn’t concerned about them. A harsh reality, but there it was. The simple fact was that she could do nothing for them. She couldn’t wave a magic wand and return them to life. She couldn’t reach through the sands of time to save them. The one thing she could do was try to operate in the best interests of one of the very few Xenexians who was still alive: M’k’n’zy of Calhoun, better known as Mackenzie Calhoun, her husband.

  Shelby knew that he was somewhere nearby.

  “Nearby” at this particular moment in time was a low-hanging mountain range. The ground was baked to the point of cracking; nothing could ever be grown here. Curiously enough, that did not deter small animals—that apparently had no need for food or water—from scrambling out every now and then as if they were in the midst of some elaborate ritual. They were odd little creatures. They resembled rabbits but had scales instead of fur. Shelby didn’t know quite what to make of them. She hoped that the creatures weren’t carnivorous. That was the last thing she needed, to be attacked by Xenexian wildlife. Thus far, they seemed perfectly content to glance at her occasionally with a complete lack of interest and then go back to whatever they were doing.

  There appeared to be caves in the nearby rock face. To the admiral that certainly seemed an appropriate place to hang out, especially thanks to the moisture-draining heat of the sun. The heat was so intense, in fact, that the sky itself was tinted orange. She shielded her eyes as best she could and then decided to get to business.

  “Mac!” she called.

  Her voice echoed and reverberated around her. She shouted it a second time and then a third and no response was forthcoming. She paused a moment and then, still hollering, she called out, “I know you’re here somewhere! Hiding isn’t going to make me unable to find you!” She waited for him to reply and continued when he didn’t. “Do you seriously think a ship’s sensors wouldn’t be able to find the life signs of the one living being on this world? Aside from these stupid little rabbit things, I mean.”

  Still nothing.

  “Okay, fine!” she bellowed. “I figure you’re in one of the caves, so if I have to search every damned one for you, that’s what I’ll do. I’ve got all the time in the world. So you can hide as long as you—”

  “Oh for gods’ sake.”

  Shelby stopped. The words hadn’t been shouted the way she had been yelling at the top of her lungs. They were said more in faint exasperation than anything else, and yet somehow they managed to carry the distance from the speaker to her. She couldn’t determine at first from exactly where the voice had originated, but after long seconds of looking around, she saw a figure standing at the lip of one of the caves. Even from this distance, she knew exactly who it was.

  “Mac.” She made no effort to keep the relief from her voice. That was contrary to what she was originally going to do. She had been intending to sound stern, even scolding over his disappearance and his complete reneging of his responsibilities to Starfleet. But she was unable to do that. Mentally, Shelby kicked herself for slipping up and then wrote it off to the literal heat of the moment. She squared her shoulders, smoothed down the line of her uniform tunic, and repeated, in a more formal tone, “Mac.”

  “Admiral,” he called back. He was too far away from her to make out any details and then, before she could say or do anything, Calhoun turned away from her and strode into the cave.

  That was rude. She’d come all this way motivated by love and concern for his well-being, and this was his response? He couldn’t even come down from the damned cave?

  For a moment she was tempted to contact the ship and tell it to bring her back up. She would return to Bravo Station and Calhoun could continue to avoid returning to Starfleet for as long as he wanted. To hell with him. He can stay here until he rots.

  All of that went through her head and then, with a heavy sigh, she started walking in the direction of the cave.

  It took her twenty minutes to cover the distance. As she trudged along her way, she supposed that she could be grateful for the fact that he had emerged at all. He could have simply stayed hidden. She’d have had to spend a hell of a long time going through every cave. So at least he had made her job easier.

  But only a little.

  She made it to the base of the cliff side and started climbing. It wasn’t too steep, and yet she almost lost her grip several times as she clambered up. The dry dirt wedged itself into her fingernails, which was not the most pleasant of experiences. She licked her lips and realized that she should have brought water with her. She could always have the ship beam some down, but she felt so stupid to have forgotten it that she couldn’t bring herself to ask. False pride. You’re an idiot.

  Her combadge beeped. She tapped it and in doing so skidded downward a meter. She muttered a curse.

  “Admiral? Have you found him?” came the voice of the transport vessel’s captain.

  “Yes, I have.”

  “Should we just beam him up?”

  She considered that for a moment. “If you try to beam up Mackenzie Calhoun, I assure you that within half an hour he’ll have beamed himself back down and guaranteed your ship will be dead in space. Leave him to me.”

  “I think we could handle him, Admiral.”

“Trust me. You can’t.”

  “Very well, Admiral.” He sounded a bit torqued at her dismissal. Shelby supposed she couldn’t blame him for being irritated, but she couldn’t let herself get too worked up about it. The captain’s pride notwithstanding, she knew she was right. Actually, if anything, she had understated. Half an hour? Calhoun would be back on Xenex inside of ten minutes while the transport ship hovered in orbit with no power.

  She smiled briefly at the notion despite herself. She hated to admit it, but she liked the idea that she was married to so formidable a man.

  Then she started to skid down the mountainside and let out a loud curse as she dug her fingers in to prevent herself from sliding. It took her a few moments to compose herself, and then she started climbing once more.

  Long minutes later Shelby had made it to the cave that she knew Mac was hiding in. At least she assumed that he was still there. She supposed it was possible that there was a network of caves and pathways and he could have taken refuge somewhere else, leaving her to wander around in an empty cave.

  But no, there he was. She had no idea what to expect when she found him, and she was actually a bit startled to see that Mac appeared to have his act together. His cave barely had anything in it: just a small fire that was burning, over which some sort of small dead creature was roasting on a stick. Calhoun was crouched nearby, turning it over and over, apparently in order to make sure it was cooked evenly. The carcass was sufficiently charred that Shelby couldn’t determine what the thing had looked like when it was alive. She couldn’t even be sure if it was one of the rabbit things.

  “Do you want some?” He sounded normal.

  “No thanks. I already had a nameless creature on the ship before I came down.”

  “Sounds lovely.”

  Shelby walked slowly across the rocky floor toward her husband. She felt as if making a sudden movement might cause him to vanish into the air like some sprite. It was a ridiculous notion, she knew, but still she couldn’t eliminate the idea from her imagination.

  She hunkered down opposite him and studied him for a time. Having finished cooking the whatever-it-was, Calhoun proceeded to take bites out of it. At least he wasn’t gulping it down. He ate as precisely as any Starfleet officer might have done.

  When he spoke it was so abruptly that Shelby was momentarily startled.

  “Do you have something to say?” he asked.

  She had a million things she wanted to say. What she began with actually surprised her a bit. “I love you, Mac.”

  “I love you, too.” He said it offhandedly and matter-of-factly, as if it was something he knew he was supposed to say but wasn’t capable of feeling it.

  Don’t think like that. Of course he can feel it. Of course he loves you.

  “Mac,” she said, and reached out for his hand. He allowed her to take it, but he didn’t squeeze it particularly. “How much longer is this going to go on?”

  “Until I find some other Xenexians,” he said with simple determination.

  “There are none to find.”

  “I haven’t finished looking.” Calhoun held up a small note-taking device and started to thumb through it. “I’m going to the Slaker Heights next. It’s an entire farming community that’s partly underground. Dozens of people could survive there indefinitely . . .”

  “Mac . . .”

  “It’s only a hundred and forty kilometers from here. I should be able to reach it in—”

  “Mac!” she said more forcefully this time, and it caught his attention. He scratched his beard briefly and stared at her, waiting for her to continue speaking. “Mac”—she dropped her voice to a more gentle tone—“there isn’t anyone there.”

  “There might be—”

  “There’s not. We’ve done sensor scans of the entire world. You are the only living entity on it, aside from the creatures that you’re cooking up to eat.”

  “We don’t know that definitively—”

  “Yes, we do. The sensors can’t be fooled.”

  “You can’t underestimate the people of Xenex. It’s possible that—”

  Shelby reached over and gripped him tightly by the shoulders. “No, it’s not possible. Scanners have covered every inch of this world. It’s empty, Mac. There’s no one left. There’s just you, wasting day after day crawling over this rock, looking for something or someone that only exists in your imagination!”

  He looked as if he wanted to respond to her. His mouth opened but then closed without a word. Instead he just stared at her.

  Shelby had seen sharks in her life. Never out in the wild, but she had seen some on display back on Earth. The thing that had always struck her about them was the lack of soul in their eyes. They were just these empty black orbs that hung in their faces, staring out at the world with no hint of life.

  That was what she was seeing in Mac’s eyes now. They were purple rather than black, of course, but they were as soulless as a shark’s. She wasn’t concerned that he was going to attack and devour her, but it was still disconcerting to see that absence of spark in her husband’s eyes.

  Determined to try and connect with him on a human basis, she pulled him toward her. He didn’t offer any resistance, and she held him tightly against herself. “Mac,” she said softly, “I know what you want to do.”

  “Do you?”

  “Yes. You’d like to wave a magic wand. You’d like to travel through time and find a way to stop the D’myurj from doing what they did. But you can’t. You just can’t.”

  “Why not?”

  The question confused her. She drew back from him slightly and stared at him in confusion. “What do you mean, why not?”

  “Why not?” he repeated. There seemed to be genuine interest sparking in his eyes for the first time. “We’ve traveled in time before.”

  “Yes, I know, once,” she said impatiently. “But it was a million to one happenstance. And we were lucky to get out of it without causing the entire space-time continuum to collapse. Besides, what would you do? Return to the Excalibur after all this time and order them to transport you back in time? Does that sound like something they would do?”

  Even as she said it, the thought of they might passed through her head. There was the loyalty that the Excalibur crew felt to their captain. Inwardly, she had to admit that there was every possibility the crew might indeed agree to do whatever it took to make their captain happy. Travel back in time, sir? No problem. We’ll fire up the engines and be on our way.

  But to her surprise and even relief, he dropped his gaze and looked away. “No,” he said, as much to himself as to her. “No, of course not.”

  Shelby continued to hold him. “Mac, it’s time to leave this place. You’ve been living in a planetary cemetery for three months. You look like hell. You must have lost thirty pounds. It’s time to come home. It’s time to return to the Excalibur.”

  “The Excalibur,” he snorted derisively, “that’s insane. They must have a new captain by now.”

  “No. They don’t. Burgoyne has been holding it together as best s/he can.”

  “Burgoyne?” For the first time, Mac was visibly surprised. “Burgoyne was never interested in command.”

  “You made hir your second-in-command, so you didn’t really give hir a choice,” she said. “S/he’s been leading the Excalibur through various missions and, from the reports, has done reasonably well. S/he’s grown into command.”

  “Maybe that’s where I should leave hir.”

  She drew back from him so that he could see her irritated face. “Don’t be ridiculous. Burgy would step down for you in a heartbeat. S/he’s commanding because s/he believes it’s what you want while you’re doing whatever the hell it is that you’re doing. But just because s/he’s coping with it doesn’t mean that it’s something s/he wants to pursue. S/he’s waiting for you to come back. They all a
re. Not to mention your son, Moke. Have you thought about him at all?”

  “Moke isn’t my son,” he said tersely.

  “Maybe not, but you’re the closest thing to a father he’s got. Yes, there are plenty of people on the Excalibur watching over him, but you’ve abandoned him. Have you given any thought to how difficult your absence has been on him?”

  “He never seemed to be too wild about me when I was there.”

  “That’s how kids can be,” she said with a shrug. “I’m sorry you don’t seem to understand that.”

  “How would I?” He made no effort to keep the bitterness from his voice. “I wasn’t there for my actual son. And Xyon hates me even more than Moke does. He blames me for the loss of the Xenexians. He and I are the only ones left. Why shouldn’t he blame me? I do.”

  She took his right hand in both of hers. “It wasn’t your fault, Mac. It was the work of madmen. Just because you weren’t able to stop them from committing genocide doesn’t make it your fault. Mac . . . you need to leave this place. You can’t stay here anymore. It’s time to—”

  He leaned forward abruptly and kissed her. It wasn’t a kiss like any that she’d gotten from him before. It was full of desperation and hunger and a need for release.

  She returned it with an urgency that she had almost forgotten she had. When he put his hand on her breast she gasped into his mouth. His tongue darted forward and dashed lightly around hers.

  Her combadge beeped.

  She hit it impatiently. “What?”

  “Are you all right, Admiral? Your life signs are spiking.”

  “I’m fine. I’m jogging. Go away.” She hit the combadge to shut it off.

  “Let me help you with that,” said Calhoun, and he pulled at the top of her uniform.

  It took only seconds to strip it off, and then she was upon him.

  The minutes sped by as they made love on the floor of the cave. She wasn’t aware of their surroundings or various smells or anything save for the presence of her husband, of the press of his flesh against hers, and his incredible physicality. He might well have been steeped in mourning for his people, but that mourning did nothing to deter his performance. She kissed him ferociously and writhed upon him and when the heat exploded within her it threatened to consume her.