Captain Evans broke the silence by commenting, "Funny, you don't *look* like a cloud of ionized hydrogen, Admiral...."
Admiral Pike allowed himself the luxury of a brief smile when he answered Evans. "Believe me, Captain. No one was more surprised than I. Computer. Resume playback."
The holodeck morphed into the bridge of the *USS Knight* once again....
Commodore Pike found himself standing in the center of his bridge. He remained motionless, staring straight ahead while trying to come to grips with the fact he wasn't dead. A frown wrinkled his brow -- there was no logical explanation.
He unfroze and turned slowly about. His confusion deepened. The bridge showed no sign of battle damage -- there were no exploded consoles, no bent bulkheads, no fire damage. Instead the various consoles were happily beeping and humming to themselves just like they regularly do in the normal operation of the ship. The main viewer was on and showed a normal starscape.
But there was one thing amiss. Aside from himself there was no one else in sight.
Pike returned to his command chair, sat down and thumbed the comm switch. "Pike to Engineering." There was no reply. "Pike to Sickbay, respond please." Nothing. "This is Commodore Pike to any crewmember who can hear my voice. Respond." The silence was deafening.
Pike frowned again, thumbed off the comm and stood up. He took a few steps forward and stopped between the Con and Ops stations. Something about the starfield on the main viewer had caught his attention. The pattern of stars was all wrong -- the *Knight* wasn't in the Cardassian System anymore!
*What in the world is going on here?!?* thought Pike. He was beginning to feel a bit anxious -- nothing made sense.
When the sudden unfamiliar voice spoke up from the rear area of the bridge -- where Pike *knew* no one had been only two seconds before -- Pike almost had a heart attack. He spun around to face the intruder, and came face to face with a strange alien being.
It was rather short, being only about five feet tall, and its body was draped from the neck down in a shimmering, gray metallic fabric. But it was the alien's head that held Pike's attention. It was huge! A massive brain casing towered above a delicate, effeminate face. Blood vessels could be seen under the scalp, pumping nutrients to the gigantic organ.
The alien walked down the sloped ramp to the command level and stood directly in front of Pike. It held Pike in a steady regard, head slightly tilted and arms concealed inside folds of its robes.
It spoke to Pike now, but it's lips didn't move. Instead, Pike heard the voice directly inside his mind. Its voice was pitched high, almost feminine, and had a slightly uneven cadence. It said, ~Congratulations, Commodore Pike. You have successfully completed the test.~
After overcoming the initial surprise of having this strange alien appear suddenly on his bridge and having it speak directly into his own mind, Pike almost missed the chilling significance of what the alien had just told him. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up as he took a cautious step toward the alien. He tried to assume his most authoritative voice and said, "What do you mean 'test'? Who are you? How did you get on my ship?"
The alien gave a small nod in greeting as it said, ~I am the Keeper. The world I come from is known by your race as Talos IV.~
Talos IV!!! thought Pike in alarm. He knew that his father had once lived on Talos IV along with his grandparents -- the only humans ever to have done so. Pike's grandparents, Captain Christopher Pike and his wife Vina stayed on Talos, but Pike's father was turned over to Starfleet when still very young and returned to Earth. The details were classified under Starfleet General Order #7, and Pike's father never spoke about his time on Talos. Now one of these Talosians was here on his ship. Pike was determined to find out why, and what had happened to his crew. He was sure the Talosian knew the answers.
~You are correct, Commodore.~
Pike started. The Talosian had read every thought that had just gone through his mind.
The Keeper continued, ~As you have surmised, we are responsible for the recent events you and your crew have experienced with regard to the Kelvan Battle Planet.~
"You are?!?" exclaimed Pike, clenching his fists in anger. "Hundreds of loyal men and women died because of what you've done!"
~No one has died, Commodore. You're crew is unharmed. I have simply been creating the illusion of an empty bridge so that you and I could talk without interruption. But if you prefer... here is your crew.~
The Keeper tilted his bulbous head, and suddenly the bridge felt crowded. All the bridge crew popped suddenly into existence from Pike's point of view. They looked dazed and confused, but none the worse for the wear. He returned his full attention to the Talosian in from of him. He folded his arms across his chest. "All right, I've got my crew back. Now I demand an explanation for what's been going on or you'll regret ever having stepped foot on this ship," he said forcefully.
A small smile played across the Keeper's face, but the Keeper complied with Pike's demand. Pike wasn't sure how to interpret the smile, and wondered if the Keeper was cooperating because of his threat or because it was in the Keeper's own best interest to do so.
The Keeper said, ~Approximately One hundred fifty of your years ago, our two species first encountered each other. Fearing our power of illusion, your race imposed a quarantine around our star group that has remained virtually unbroken since then.~
Pike already knew all this. He wished the Talosian would get to the point. The Keeper immediately picked up on Pike thoughts, of course. He said, ~Patience, Commodore.~ Pike scowled.
The Keeper continued, ~We on Talos remained vigilant however. At the height of their power 100,000 centuries ago, our ancestors possessed machines of unimaginable complexity. Some of these machine still function. Using one of these machines we are able to extend our perceptions and senses out into the galaxy and beyond. In this way, we eventually discovered the Kelvans in the Andromeda Galaxy.~
Now the Keeper had Pike's attention.
Another small, knowing small flickered across the Keeper's face, but he went on with his story without pause. ~Of all the species we had encountered, none matched the cold cunning and dispassionate, calculating brutality of the Kelvans. We withdrew our consciousnesses from the Kelvans' sphere of influence, but not before discovering that they had launched an invasion against this galaxy.~
"And it very nearly destroyed us and the entire Federation!" yelled Pike, his anger rising again.
~What you believe you encountered was *not* the Kelvan invasion force Commodore,~ interrupted the Keeper. ~It was merely an illusion, created by us, to test your reactions. The *real* invasion force has not arrived yet, and is considerably more powerful,~ he finished ominously.
Pike was fuming. He fought hard to control his anger, to keep from throttling the Talosian where he stood. He managed to grind out between his teeth, "Are you telling me that everything we've been through for the past month has been an illusion created by you?!? All the suffering? All the killing and death?" Pike was shouting by now, "Is this what you Talosians do for fun?!?"
The Talosian didn't seem impressed by Pike's tirade. He answered calmly, in his usual odd syncopated speaking rhythm. ~The illusion experiment was necessary to determine if your species is capable of meeting the challenge of the Kelvan invasion and of defending this Galaxy and its inhabitants. You have proven adequate in this regard. The Talosian race is no longer capable of resisting such an onslaught. But we find that your race is willing to sacrifice much for the continued well-being of your fellow sentient beings -- you will even sacrifice your own lives. This is what we had hoped.~
Pike's anger blazed just under the surface of his demeanor. "I'm glad you're happy with the results of your little 'experiment'," he said sarcastically. "What if we hadn't passed your 'test'?"
~Then we would have been forced to looked elsewhere,~ was the simple answer.
"And what's to keep me from throwing you in the brig for what you've done to us?" glared Pike.
~Because Commodore, we have done your race and all the other races of this galaxy a great service. Do you not recognize it?~ The Keeper seemed genuinely puzzled. ~You now have advance knowledge of the coming Kelvan invasion. You will be able to use this knowledge, as well as the knowledge you have gained during the illusion experiment to improve your offensive and defensive capabilities.~
Pike grunted. Deep down he knew the Talosian was right. True, he and his crew had suffered, but it had only been an illusion, and the tactical data they had gained would no doubt prove invaluable. On the other hand, what the Talosian had done was wrong....
But before Pike could act, the Keeper was speaking again. ~Now that the experiment is over, we will once again part ways. However, it may be that I will be seeing you again soon, Commodore,~ said the Keeper. He smiled one last time at Pike. There was a rippling effect in the air around the Keeper, then he simply wasn't there anymore. Captain Neil strode forward into the space that had been until now occupied by the Talosian and waved her arms about, but there was nothing there.
Pike sighed. The Keeper's last words about the two of them meeting again left him with an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach for no reason that Pike could articulate. He gave up trying to figure it out, instead opting to go over to his chair and sit down. Captain Neil joined him. She leaned over towards him and said with a smile, "You know Jeff, Starfleet's never going to believe this story."
Pike realized she was right. He said, "We have to make them believe it Kara. If the Talosian was telling the truth, and I can't think of a single reason why he would have lied about something like that, then the Kelvans are coming. And we have to be ready for them -- or we die."
Neil nodded. She said, "If only we had some proof...."
Lieutenant Tunis had been busy all this time at one of the Science stations at the rear of the bridge. He had made quite a startling discovery, and after confirming it, he called out, "Commodore!"
"Yes Lieutenant," answered Pike.
"I've been reviewing the sensor logs and historic recorders, sir. The data banks appear to have about a month's worth of extra data."
Pike and Neil had gotten up from their seats and made their way back to stand behind Tunis at the Science station. Now Pike said, "Let's see some of the extra data, Lieutenant."
"Aye sir," said Tunis. He pressed a control and the main display on the Science console came to life. It showed a dull brown planet circled by eight moons and countless battleships and fighters approaching the planet Jupiter. Somehow, the Talosians had arranged things so that the experiences of the *Knight's* crew, even though illusory, were still recorded in the computers as though they had really happened.
Pike and Neil looked at each other. This was the proof they needed.
....The scene faded, leaving only the bare holodeck walls. The *Ronin's* computer voice placidly announced, <End of program.>
"What we've been watching," said Admiral Pike, "is part of the 'proof' the Talosian left us. So. Any questions?"