Progress: As Section 31: Abyss opens, something large—very large—is headed to DS9. This turns out to be Nog’s plan from Avatar, Book Two to solve the problem of the station’s power needs since the loss of its core: with the assistance of nine other Federation ships, Nog successfully transports Empok Nor, by warp, into the orbit of DS9. What a fantastic opening set piece.
Kira wants most non-tech personnel off the station during the delicate core transfer, and that includes Bashir and Ezri. On the cusp of this vacation, Bashir is approached by a Section 31 agent calling himself Cole, who tells Bashir about another genetically enhanced human, named Dr. Ethan Locken. Locken has betrayed S31 and poses a great danger. Cole wants Bashir to travel to a planet in the Badlands called Sindorin to talk down Locken, who was working on a project to re-engineer Jem’Hadar that would be loyal to S31, but recently stopped checking in. Cole explains that if the Klingons and Romulans find out that the Federation has engaged in a genetic engineering program involving a Dominion Jem’Hadar hatchery, the Alliance will be over. As soon as Cole leaves, Bashir fills in the command crew on what has happened, and Kira authorizes an away mission consisting of Bashir, Ro (who knows the planet back from her days with the Maquis), Taran’atar, and Ezri, tasked with finding Locken. Bashir expresses concern about Vaughn’s apparent non-reaction to the revelation of S31, and his suspicion is compounded when Vaughn tells Bashir to “just go in, do the job, and come home” right before they depart on the runabout Euphrates.
Some time later, they discover a lifeless, engine-less Romulan N’renix-class cruiser drifting in space. Bashir, Taran’atar and Ezri beam onboard, discover dead Romulans—some of them killed by close-range disruptor fire, some melted into the walls—and a symbol recalling the rule of Khan Noonien Singh, along with a recording by Locken. In the message Locken warns against trespassing on the territory of the “New Federation” and advises listeners to leave or be destroyed. Fearing that if Romulans discover a human was behind the ship’s atrocities they will automatically blame Starfleet, Bashir gives Taran’atar the order to overload the cruiser’s warp core.
With Ro’s help, they’re able to navigate through the Badlands and reach Sindorin, but just as they’re figuring out their planetary approach vector, a Cardassian weapons platform decloaks and fires on them. Three “patchwork” fighter ships emerge from the cloudbank and also attack. Their runabout heavily damaged, Bashir and Ezri work the inertial dampeners and transporters long enough for Ro and Taran’atar to beam to Sindorin’s surface, the plan being for Bashir and Ezri to beam down right after them. But several minutes pass and Ro realizes that something has gone wrong. In fact, the transporters have gone down, which forces Bashir and Ezri to improvise a very rough reentry in which they will alternate between usage of their damaged antigravs and free fall.
Back on the station, Kira senses that Corporal Hava may be losing his respect for her command because of her status as a religious outcast. She talks to Hava’s sergeant, Shul Torem, originally hired by Odo, who offers a refreshingly non-judgmental perspective. Whatever good vibes Kira might have derived from this conversation come to a harsh end when she receives a call from First Minister Shakaar. Shakaar asks Kira if she thinks she’s still capable of commanding the station, heavily suggesting that a resignation may be in her best political interests, as she’s made some powerful enemies for herself. Kira’s not having it, though.
On Sindorin, Taran’atar shrouds and surveys the rainy, heavily forested area in which he and Ro materialized. After covering some ground, they encounter a group of Ingavi, humanoid refugees with whom Ro had prior Maquis dealings, and Ro has to convince both sides to trust her and each other. An Ingavi by the name of Kel agrees to be their guide, and leads them to shelter, where they catch up on what the Ingavi have endured since the last time Ro saw them. Taran’atar, meanwhile, is eager to get on with their mission of stopping Locken.
After using the tree canopy to crash land, Bashir and Ezri are taken in by Locken’s forces, and soon the genetically-enhanced mad genius himself appears, trying to court Bashir to his agenda. Bashir pretends to be charmed by Locken’s reasoning and hospitality (the neo-Khan even cooks for them, after all!). In true megalomaniacal fashion, Locken proceeds to calmly explain how he’s moved past “outmoded ethics” and unveils his vision for a new genetically-enhanced world order that will arise from the ashes of the old Federation. Bashir manipulates Locken into revealing as much as possible about his work on re-designed Jem’Hadar and ketracel-white production.
Meanwhile, Kel leads Ro and Taran’atar to “the oldest grove”—the place where his people first settled—which Ro had visited once before, and asks them to step forward into the mist. There they discover the evidence of heinous, disturbing crimes against children, committed by the Jem’Hadar under Locken’s command.
Kira asks for an update from Vaughn, who is overseeing repairs to the Defiant, and Vaughn checks in with Prynn Tenmei (introduced in Avatar, Book Two), the conn officer, about the status of the ship’s biochem lab. Later, after the bridge is clear, Vaughn asks Tenmei if he can assist her with a faulty conn module, but she’d rather work until her fingers to bleed than accept his help. Before reporting to the infirmary, Vaughn asks Tenmei if she’ll have dinner with him, and she basically tells Vaughn she’ll follow the chain of command, but otherwise he can go to hell. Sheesh.
Ro, Taran’atar, Kel, and other Ingavi advance towards the damaged runabout, now being guarded by Locken’s forces, which they estimate have their stronghold about fifteen clicks away. Taran’atar takes out most of the Jem’Hadar singlehandedly and Ro gets access to the ship’s interior. It takes several minutes to reinitialize the ship’s thrusters, during which time Taran’atar fends off more incoming Jem’Hadar. He buys Ro enough time to get the runabout off the ground, but ends up getting captured by the group’s First.
Ezri asks Bashir if he’s seriously considering aiding Locken, and their heart-to-heart is interrupted by Locken himself, who believes it to be genuine. Bashir announces that he’ll help him and Locken is clearly pleased. After they leave, Ezri finds a metal shard in her bunk bed, left by Bashir to facilitate her escape.
Vaughn takes a meal at Quark’s, and the Ferengi bartender observes that Vaughn seems fixated on Ensign Tenmei. Assuming that Vaughn is romantically interested in Ensign Tenmei, Quark doles out exactly the wrong type of advice, prompting Vaughn to reveal that Prynn is in fact his daughter. Oops. Quark is later approached by an Orion named Malic.
An injured Taran’atar is tortured and interrogated by the First, who is confused by Taran’atar not needing white, and initially refuses to believe that Taran’atar can even be a Jem’Hadar, on the grounds that he was not created by “the Khan.” Taran’atar explains that the Founders are the true creators of the Jem’Hadar, and that Locken has corrupted their work.
Locken reveals to Bashir that he poisoned the original S31 agents who had arrived with him on Sindorin, but that they’re still alive in stasis. Then he spills the beans about his real achievement: a modified prion that can kill any humanoid organism with a central nervous system, and which is airborne, waterborne, and spread through sexual contact. Locken’s plan involves launching a prion-carrying missile at a Romulan protectorate in the Orias system, in order to spark a war between the Romulans and the Federation that will simultaneously infect both powers and then spread to the Klingons, Breen, and so on.
Ezri escapes her cell and climbs into one of the air ducts. As Taran’atar and the First continue their exchange, it becomes clear to the First that there’s something truly special about Taran’atar, who not only doesn’t require white, but was able to kill thirteen of the Jem’hadar under Locken singlehandedly.
Kasidy Yates talks to Joseph Sisko, and is extremely concerned to discover that Jake isn’t with him on Earth. Ezri finds Locken’s “chamber of horrors,” containing still-alive humanoids in stasis, and other dead ones, labeled “Failures.” Ro decides to attack Locken’s complex with an army of one hundred and sixty Ingavi, and they have an easier time taking out the Jem’hadar guards than she was expecting. Locken realizes that his soldier’s supply of white has become contaminated, and chases down Bashir, who has altered the orbit of the weapons platform, and uses it to destroy Locken’s missile. Bashir reveals to Locken that he was recruited by S31, and that Cole is surely the same person that Locken knew as Dr. Murdoch back on New Beijing, before the colony was destroyed by the Dominion because of Cole’s/Murdoch’s deliberate intelligence leak. That act was the turning point for Locken, converting him into an instrument of S31. Not wanting to hear any more, Locken orders the nearest Jem’Hadar to kill Bashir—but it turns out to be Taran’atar, who has something else in mind.
Locken runs away, but is intercepted by a group of his own cloned Jem’Hadar, who are waking up from the sedative-induced stupor caused by Ezri’s manipulation of their white. The Jem’Hadar, under the First, turn against Locken and kill him. Bashir and Ezri reunite, and are joined by Ro in short order, who introduces them to Kel. The First, claiming there is no time to fix the spoiled white, then executes the remaining Jem’Hadar clones. Going through the rest of the complex, Ezri and Bashir discover that Locken’s cloning experiments weren’t limited to the Jem’Hadar—he was preparing, along with others, a clone of Bashir himself. Bashir uses his phaser to destroy them. The First then becomes aware of a squadron of Jem’Hadar untouched by the tainted white, who are now fighting against the Ingavi. Ro urges Bashir to help the Ingavi, but Bashir gives the order to leave, and they depart Sindorin aboard the Euphrates. The First vows to gather his soldiers and “greet our makers appropriately.” A covert team of S31 agents, including Cole himself, which has been monitoring the situation, steps in to destroy any evidence of Locken, his misdeeds, and S31’s own involvement.
Back on Ds9, Bashir and the team debrief Kira and the command crew. Ro expresses bitterness about the fate of the Ingavi. Taran’atar and Kira have a theological discussion. Bashir meets privately with Vaughn, who confides in him that he’s been quietly opposing S31 for years, and managed to rescue most of the Ingavi using a holoship.
What you don’t leave behind: The first chapter of this novel includes a reference to Commander Tiris Jast, whom we lost too soon (in Avatar, Book One); Shar wonders if Kira is still adjusting to losing her. So far this novel series has proved adept at exploring the consequences of character losses or changes across books, and this is yet another example. Also, it reminds me again that I should read the Ds9 N-vector comic miniseries.
Nog praises the Starfleet Corps of Engineers (“I want you to know the SCE really came through. This wouldn’t have happened without them”) for their assistance with the transportation of Empok Nor. I think I need to read this series as well…
When Cole recruits Bashir for his mission, and they briefly touch on the Delta quadrant, he makes reference to “the Hirogen, Species 8472, the Srivani, the Vaadwaur.” I’m not necessarily hungering for adventures involving the last two species, but I wouldn’t mind more stories featuring Species 8472. Either way, it’s nice to know that Bashir is aware of these various beings.
I’ll never tire of the words “self-sealing stem bolt,” and Jeffrey Lang obliges in this novel.
An enjoyable bit of continuity occurs when Kira brings up Jadzia and Worf’s mission to Soukara in response to Ezri’s request to join the away team with Bashir, Ro, and Taran’atar. Regardless of how one feels about that episode, I think it makes sense that Kira would invoke it here, and I appreciate her raising the issue, as well as Ezri’s concise counter-argument.
And my favorite reference to a previous Trek outing, perhaps an unlikely choice, is the callback in the final chapter to the events of Star Trek: Insurrection. I always secretly hoped that that film’s holoship would service other stories, and I’m glad that Vaughn got his hands on it. I also appreciate the retcon: “a failed Section 31 operation in the Briar Patch last year. Thirty-One was never implicated, unfortunately. The blame went instead to a single rogue admiral, now dead, who was working with the Son’a.” This seems more likely to me than that Vice Admiral Matthew Dougherty would have been working solo all along. Part of the fun of media tie-ins is their ability to re-contextualize events, and Insurrection can use the help.
Don’t tell me you’re getting sentimental: Kira continues to be on point in this novel. Her exchange with Shakaar is handled with subtlety and depth; we see the various shades of her reactions to his specific choice of words and varying degrees of bluntness or politicizing. The moment in which she cuts through all of that and asks him if he’s one of her new enemies is arresting. Kira won’t kowtow to Shakaar, or anyone else. Still, the seeds have been planted for future political strife, which feels realistic, given the events of the Avatar duology.
Kira’s conversations with Taran’atar early on about not killing, and later on the subject of faith, are also standouts for me. Lang has an excellent grasp on Kira’s speech patterns and emotional beats. “The only way our faith can grow stronger is by having it challenged” sounds exactly like the kind of thing Kira would say, and is in wonderful resonance with her line “I envied Vedek Winn because she was a true believer… I wanted my faith to be as strong as hers,” from “In the Hands of the Prophets.”
All I do all day long is give, give, give: Quark’s pretty low-key in this one, with his faux pas with Vaughn perfectly played (“On the house, Commander”). It was also amusing that he knew enough not to try and charge Taran’atar for his holosuite time (and referred to him as “Mr. Jem’Hadar”). Where is the plot with Malic going, though? Hopefully it’s developed in the next book!
A chance to enjoy paradise again: This novel provides good insight into Bashir and how he’s grown with experience. Most impressively, it gives him a full, rewarding arc, and it manages to do so by building on the past, rather than negating it. Case in point: there’s an early nod to that establishing scene in “Emissary” in which Bashir excitedly talked about “frontier medicine” and having specifically sought out “one of the most remote outposts available,” when Shar’s point of view informs us that “The more the place began to feel like a frontier outpost, the happier some of the old hands seemed to be. Dr. Bashir was practically giddy about it sometimes.”
The novel, part of its own crossover book miniseries, also plausibly expands on S31, specifically as it intersects with the TNG/DS9-era ’verse. Not surprisingly, when Cole is trying to win Bashir over to his cause, he forcefully makes use of an ends-justify-means argument, talking about minimizing casualties and reducing suffering. Bashir can see the logic behind that kind of reasoning:
As they had been talking, he had been running simulations and the numbers weren’t encouraging. And that’s what it comes down to, he realized. Not right and wrong, moral or immoral, but numbers—counting the quick and the dead.
Bashir’s ethics are never really in question, but his having to pretend to agree with Locken certainly forces him to confront unpleasant memories pertaining the need to fit in (e.g. “Bashir nodded, remembering the nights in the med-school library when he had to pretend to read the same page over and over again even after he had memorized an entire textbook”), as well as lingering doubts about the best fate for the Alpha Quadrant. This is compellingly brought home when Ezri remarks that he almost had her fooled, and Bashir replies: “I had you convinced […] because I wasn’t lying. Not entirely. Don’t misunderstand—I would never have joined him, Ezri. But those sleepless nights—they do happen and they scare the hell out of me.” Locken is almost like a mirror universe Bashir, except he’s in the prime universe.
Seeing Bashir successfully lead a dangerous away mission, and defeat a real-life Bond-style supervillain along the way, adds rich texture to his character, and shows that maybe all those spy games in the holosuite weren’t for naught after all.
There’s a first time for everything: Ezri’s relationship with Bashir, I feel, finally comes into its own in this novel. Both characters demonstrate more trust and are more level-headed in their approach than we’ve seen before. At first I was worried that their vacation would lead to melodramatic bickering, but fortunately the plot goes elsewhere.
Ezri herself, aside from Bashir, continues to deepen and become a more interesting character, integrating prior experiences, leveraging her skills, gaining confidence. I enjoyed seeing her engage with the process of emotional adjustment to her previous hosts by taking up clay work early on. A neat moment also occurs when she remarks on the strangeness of her predicament:
[…] I know whatever’s in there, at some time in one of my lives, I’m sure I’ve seen something worse. Curzon witnessed the aftermath of half a dozen battles. Tobin saw a woman get shot out an airlock by Romulans. Audrid watched as her husband was killed by some kind of alien parasite… Yet, as much as these were all things that happened to me, it’s also like something that I’ve only read about or had described to me in a lecture….
That would certainly be trippy.
I will be waiting: Kasidy makes only a brief appearance in Chapter 17 to discover, as noted, that Jake never made it to Earth.
If I get lost: Nog shines in this novel, and I loved it. His plan to use Empok Nor’s core is clever, and he executes the heck out of it. Vaughn describes Nog as having style, and I’m not one to disagree.
Try re-aligning the induction coils: We’re reminded that O’Brien is in San Francisco, and there’s a nice line regarding the station’s crash net—“O’Brien liked his low-tech solutions”—but that’s about it.
Dramatis personae: Cole, Locken, and Kel are the standout new characters. In a way, I wish Locken hadn’t been killed, but I’m also okay with this being the neo-Khan’s only story—it was fully fleshed out. His death scene was perhaps anticlimactic. My gut tells me we haven’t seen the last of Cole. And Kel? All bets are off.
In absentia: The Emissary, Worf, Jake, Odo, O’Brien.
Behind the lines: The genesis of this book appears to have been somewhat different from the three previously covered in this reread, and I think that shows in the final product. Jeffrey Lang has noted:
It was a fun project, though, if memory serves, produced under a tight deadline. […] Marco [Palmieri] and David Weddle developed the outline and I was brought in to write the ms. when David had to bow out. As I recall, the outline was very similar to a TV show beat sheet, noting the key events for each act and the arches of the main characters. I don’t believe I added any major plot points, but the character bits were mine.
This perfectly syncs up with my first reading note, made after Chapter One, and my overall impression of the novel upon finishing it: it’s the most episode-like book of the four we’ve looked at so far. The narrative structure follows that of numerous DS9 scripts, and the action sequences are remarkably easy to picture. The story simply flows smoothly from one scene to the next. It’s a fast, entertaining read, in no small part due to Lang’s style: his prose is polished and functional, geared towards efficiency. Where as S. D. Perry’s duology, and Andrew Robinson’s novel in particular, feel like literary extensions of a cinematic experience, this is more purely evocative of the latter. That makes it mesh more easily in my mind with various episodes, but it also means it lacks a bit of the deeper ambiance or atmosphere that a novel can conjure.
Two nitpicks before I get back to praise. We’re told in Chapter Two that as the station prepares for the fusion core transfer from Empok Nor, it will need to be “powered down to its lowest threshold,” which is the reason Kira wants folks not involved with the transfer gone. But later we find out that Taran’atar is running a simulation in holosuite one, which is probably not the most energy-efficient thing to be doing. Now, this can be solved for easily by assuming that the powering down hasn’t yet commenced when we meet Taran’atar in his simulated combat, but I would have appreciated a line indicating that.
The second observation is that there are a couple of individual scenes that tend to lose momentum because of lengthy exposition. For example, here’s Ro telling Taran’atar about the Ingavi:
“Here’s what I know,” she said. “The creatures, the Ingavi, were native to one of the worlds that fell under Cardassian control about seventy-five years ago, just as the Cardassian Union was beginning the same wave of expansion that eventually swallowed up Bajor. The Ingavi were still a young warp culture—they’d only had it for about fifty years—and a group of about two thousand fled before the Cardassians could completely annex their planet. They were forced into the Badlands to avoid pursuit, lost their primary drive, and were lucky enough to make it here relatively unscathed. They made a controlled reentry—barely—and managed to unload a few bare necessities before the ship sank in the ocean. […] Sindorin is similar enough to their own world and many of the survivors decided there was an almost mystical connection between them and their new planet.”
Thankfully, this doesn’t happen often. I can understand that if Lang was under a tight deadline he may have simply lacked the necessary time to go back and smooth out those sections.
Speaking of the Ingavi, they vaguely reminded me of the Terrians from Earth 2, but they clearly don’t have the same abilities. And another association: when Bashir phasers down the clones, including the one of himself, it brought to mind the sequence in Alien: Resurrection in which Ripley does essentially the same thing, albeit with a Draco Double Burner.
Let’s spend a minute on the subject of genetic engineering, central to both Bashir and this novel’s plot. Intriguingly, Cole says that “There are many others, far more than Starfleet Command knows about”—surely not all of them have become mentally unhinged in some way? Will we meet more well-adjusted, uber-competent enhanceds like Bashir in this relaunch series? I sure hope so.
Another interesting tidbit comes by way of Locken, who tells Bashir, “Remind me to show you some notes I’ve been developing for a paper suggesting the possibility that the Founders were once solids themselves and their current state is the result of genetic engineering.” Indeed, in the episode “Behind the Lines” one of the Founders revealed that “Eons ago we were like them [the solids], limited to one form, but then we evolved.” Exactly how that process of evolution took place—and whether it was nudged or even artificially driven by genetic engineering—remains unclear. I’m sure that if S31 realizes the Founders might have gained their metamorphic abilities through genetic engineering, they’ll set up a secret lab or twelve to try and duplicate the breakthrough. Which in turn brings to mind the Suliban, who were part of the way there, as shown in Enterprise, thanks to the technology they gained from a shadowy 28th-century figure.
If this topic continues to be explored in Trek novels, I’d like to see more of a reconciliation of genetic engineering as undertaken by Denobulans, who appear to have been Khan-free, as well as other isolated groups, like that depicted in “The Masterpiece Society,” with the way it appears to consistently go wrong with our Federation characters.
Kudos to Lang for managing to strike a nice tonal balance with, on the one hand, some rather harrowing sequences related to Locken’s atrocities, and, on the other, moments of well-timed comedic relief. Two that stayed with me: Ezri tells Kira that of course Bashir wants her to come along on the away mission, and then we get a hard cut to the next scene, which begins with Bashir telling her he doesn’t want her to come along. The other is when Ro teases Taran’atar about not having brought throwing knives along, and he nonchalantly points to a small satchel, prompting Ro to quip, “Oh good. Don’t want to forget those.”
Lang has said that Taran’atar was “such a fun character,” and it shows—he gets a lot of the best lines, many of which are the result of stark honesty and self-awareness. At one point, for example, he tells Bashir, “You all look like Vorta to us.” Ouch.
In between the central moral discussions and action set pieces, Lang also manages to weave in some intriguing parallels, like that of Bashir having had to adjust to his genetic engineering compared to Ezri having to adjust to her Trillhood. More striking is the implied connection between S31 and Maquis mindsets: Cole points out that “Terror always has a strategic value,” and later Ro says “Terror is an effective weapon.”
Orb factor: On the whole, I think Lang does a really good job of tackling classic Trek themes while continuing the grander DS9 relaunch narrative, so I’m giving this an orb factor of 8.
Alvaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published some forty stories in professional magazines and anthologies, as well as over a hundred essays, reviews, and interviews. Nag him @AZinosAmaro.