The stories behind the stories

Star Trek: Titan – Absent Enemies

“I’ve had a hard day. Don’t test me.” — Admiral William T. Riker

Star Trek: Titan — Absent Enemies

My first story in the Star Trek universe, a novella available in e-book form at Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble! Newly promoted Admiral William Riker and the crew of the U.S.S. Titan are ordered to race to Garadius IV—a planet Riker knows all too well from an unsuccessful peace mission when he was still first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. But this time, he finds a mysterious new situation: one with the potential to imperil the entire Federation. One of the warring parties has simply vanished…
Published by Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books • February 24, 2014
Written by John Jackson Miller

Edited by Margaret Clark

I’m a Star Wars fan, and I’m also a Star Trek fan. As a certain Dark Lord says, “There is no conflict.” “Logical,” a certain Vulcan would add: “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”

Whatever others in fandom thought, Star Wars and Star Trek were always completely distinct in my mind as I was growing up. One had started on the big screen while the other had started on television, yes — but the larger difference was in the natures of the stories told. Star Wars was space opera, pulp fantasy — whereas Star Trek drew more heavily from hard science fiction. As early as age 12, I was aware of the difference; I remember reading one Star Wars comic story and thinking “it felt more like Star Trek.”

There are similarities, though: I wanted to write for both — and in both cases, it took a long time to get started. The first pitch I wrote for comics was for Star Wars in the mid-1990s; it would be years before I would send it in. The first pitch I wrote for prose, meanwhile, was for Star Trek — and while it was accepted, it would be years before I got anything published in the line.

But that’s skipping ahead. As I noted, I had been a fan of Star Trek for a long time — and I even had a little trivial connection to it from the start: I was born the night that “A Piece of the Action” first aired during the original series. My first brush with Trek post-infancy, however, was the syndicated reruns and the NBC cartoon. I watched them all at one time or another: I always seemed to like McCoy best.

I would say my true Trek fandom period really got underway, however, when Star Wars went into hibernation post-Return of the Jedi. Wrath of Khan was being repeated regularly on pay TV, and I began buying the novels. (Robert Vardeman’s The Klingon Gambit, the third Pocket release, was the first, though I had read from the Log books at the school library). By the time of The Search for Spock — which I found a delight — I was pretty much hooked. I think I replayed the West End board game to the point where I had memorized all the potential scenario outcomes.

And then, when I was in college, Next Generation began — and it was literally that, in my case, as it gave me the chance to get in on the ground floor as a series viewer. Unlike in today’s streaming-digital age, I had never been able to view the original series episodes in any kind of order; this time, I got to see things from the start. I did, and followed along to Deep Space Nine and Voyager — and it was around that time that I made my first attempt at a Trek story of my own.

In 2000, Pocket Books was running another of its competitions for Strange New Worlds, its anthology for new authors. I sent in a story, “Scott’s World,” that mixed original series and Next Generation timeframe elements, to Strange New Worlds IV. “Good story,” wrote editor Dean Wesley Smith on the manuscript, but it was not accepted — the story had a few problems which I can see now. It was a good learning experience.

Several years later, once I was writing Star Wars comics, I sent a pitch for the S.C.E. (Starfleet Corps of Engineers) series of e-books; in it, the Bynar named Soloman, stranded on a planet with medieval-level technology, sets up an analog internet using the world’s network of semaphore stations. That was accepted, and would have been my first licensed prose. But the series was cancelled before we could get to a contract, and I got busy on other projects. One of them even used the semaphore-internet concept: “Pandemonium,” from Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith. Waste not, want not.

By the time the chance to write Trek came back around, it was the spring of 2013. By then I had met Simon & Schuster editor Ed Schlesinger — and with Simon’s Pocket Books imprint publishing Star Trek novellas electronically, editor Margaret Clark asked if I was interested in writing one. I was — and offered the chance to select from the various crews, I immediately asked for William Riker and the U.S.S. Titan.

I’d liked the Riker character from the start, but when he gave the word to fire on Locutus and the Borg in the cliffhanger of “The Best of Both Worlds,” he vaulted to the top of my list. This was someone who would do what he had to do, no matter what the personal consequences. I also liked that the Titan crew included Tuvok from Voyager: it struck me those two characters might have an interplay that was similar to that between Kirk and Spock, and yet different in subtle ways.

Since it was a novella, however, I knew I wouldn’t have room for a grand epic. The story would have to have the feel of one of the lighter television episodes; one of the breaks in the action between the big stories. The e-book would be releasing right after “The Fall” — a five-book storyline in the Trek literary universe that dealt with major events; this story would be far less weighty. And so I looked to write a sequel of sorts to one of those TV episodes in question: “The Next Phase” from Next Generation. The phasing episode — the one where Geordi and Ro get stuck in a phased state, unseeable by the Enterprise crew.

Phasing appeared in “The Next Phase,” but then it was also elaborated on in “The Pegasus,” a story that was a major moment in Riker’s career — and which also involved him questioning the deeds of a renegade admiral. Since Riker had become an admiral as a result of the events of “The Fall,” that seemed to offer some convenient things to play off of. And even Tuvok had also had some on-screen experience with phasing in a Voyager episode. Better still, the “Next Phase” episode itself offered a story hook: the crew was on its way to a diplomatic meeting on Garadius, we were told — but that event was never depicted or described. It seemed like a perfect place to set a story — one that might use phasing and address some questions about how it functioned.

The basic notion of the story — solving a territorial conflict by allowing two races to exist in the same physical place, only out of dimensional step with each other — was something I’d come up with for a Starjammers pitch to Marvel several years earlier. (Again, save your ideas!) It struck me that Tuvok in particular would find the ideal interesting — and that it could pose a nice diplomatic mystery for Riker.

I had read Christopher Bennett‘s thoughts on phasing and how it might work in the comments section of Keith R.A. DeCandido’s review of “The Next Phase,” and I liked his ideas. He’d also suggested in a Temporal Investigations story that the artificial gravity aboard the Enterprise was what prevented the characters from phasing through the floor. My problem, however, was that Garadius was a planet: I couldn’t exactly throw deck plating everywhere. It had also appeared to me from “Next Phase” that characters were both able to will their bodies through impediments from above — see Geordi shoving his hand through the consoles — and to rest upon such impediments, if they chose. Check out the phased Romulan in the episode, rising from a seat. It seemed to be connected to will, somehow — and that suggested that there might be a surface tension of a kind to horizontal surfaces that could be walked on or broken by force. A water strider walks across the surface of a lake, but could plunge in if it really wanted to. So while we’d seen Ro using the elevator, I imagined she probably could have phased through floors if she’d chosen.

Fun stuff — and not the sort of thing I would ever write about in connection with Star Wars, Mass Effect, or any of the other franchises I’ve written for. It’s pure Star Trek technobabble, and a lot of fun.

Best of all, the fact of the earlier Garadius trip allowed me the chance to write a flashback contemporaneous with the TNG series, showing Riker’s feelings about diplomatic work as Picard’s junior — foreshadowing his later role in the story as a diplomat himself. There was no better way to establish how annoying the Ekorr and the Baladonians were than to show them cracking the stoic reserve of Picard; this was a “facepalm” mission for him and Riker if there ever was one. Riker’s unusually unnerved reaction at the start depends on what we see in that flashback: if this isn’t the Worst Away Mission Ever, it’s on the list somewhere. Riker’s as cool a customer as they come, but the Ekorr and the Baladonians could make the Queen of England say some choice words. And while I was aware some readers might recoil at the notion of Riker and the captain of the Enterprise getting the giggles, I also knew that by this point in the TV series, this was a crew that could laugh together. This was the same bunch that made Worf walk the plank a few years later; it’s no longer a ship of stoics. My aspiration was to go to that same fun place in the novella.

I wrote the story in the late summer of 2013, and it was published online in February of the following year. There were a couple of continuity glitches on my watch — promotions and character transfers I’d missed noting — and worst, I transposed the Son’a and the Ba’ku on the last page and misspelled one of them. (I have a feeling the Insurrection writers probably did that a time or two!) Every shakedown cruise has its bumps. But the journey itself was a delight, and by the time of the book’s release, I had signed up to write a full-length novel, Takedown, shipping in January 2015. Engage!

“A Starfleet admiral does not lie, Mister Ra-Havreii. At least, this one doesn’t. He bluffs.” — Commander Tuvok

Chapter 1

Every Titan cast member I depicted already existed in the previous books. Because of the shorter and introductory nature of e-book novellas, I tried to keep the focus mostly on the TV characters, just giving a taste of the expanded casts.

On the other hand, I couldn’t find a Breen troop transport that fit the configurations I had in mind, so the ones depicted here are a new class.

A couple of developments from “Over a Torrent Sea” accidentally weren’t reflected here: Fo Hachesa had actually left the ship, to be replaced by Tamen Gibruch — and Alia Lavena had been promoted to lieutenant. My less than total recall is also to blame for something else: the rear admiral insignia is actually two gold pips in a rectangle, rather than one.

I remember well the stories from the original TV series where higher-ups visiting the Enterprise bridge almost always meant trouble; it was actually built into the game system of the West End Star Trek board game that when a Federation commissioner was traveling with the crew, the worst possible result would ensue. So Riker and Vale are both very conscious of this as their working relationship enters a new stage.

Chapter 2

Just walking outside in winter in Wisconsin can make the lungs protest, so I had always wondered about how transporting would impact human respiration. It’s not easy to acclimate to a new environment when you’re suddenly plunged right into it. Riker has that feeling here, appearing on Garadius.

The story required the location where phasing was taking place to be no bigger than a city, so I went with a very small island for the habitable area of Garadius. It kept the playing field small, which meant it was likelier for characters to encounter one another.

“Vulcaniform”: this should be in a dictionary someplace. “v.: to make a world more like the planet Vulcan.”

Having created one species with the Ekorr, I decided to go with an established one for the Baladonians, by making them a group of disaffected Lurians. Everyone knew Morn from DS9 (and Picard apparently had met him, too) so it made the species easier to picture.

Needless repetition in speech is one of the Ekorr’s annoying hallmarks — and as we see later in the story, it has its political benefits.

The filtration systems were a good story device, as it gave the Federation both a reason to return every few years, and something to keep them from leaving immediately after they arrived and realized how useless diplomacy was. This sequence is all basically Riker’s Worst Nightmare — everything he would fear having to deal with on becoming an admiral — so it was important to make sure he stayed in the nightmare long enough to leave a permanent impression.

Chapter 3

Here we finally see that the story connects up with “The Next Phase” — though not yet how deeply that connection runs. As we’ll see, the flashback isn’t just a set-up for the diplomatic situation; it’s the reason that things have changed seventeen years later.

The “Pegasus” episode of Next Generation was still in the future when “Next Phase” aired, so Riker here worries over not having told Picard the truth about it yet.

“You know, I think I’ll just quit” is my favorite movie review line from Gene Siskel on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies: it was his stunned response to one film clip, and it said it all. Sadly, I can’t remember what episode it was, but he did consider quitting in response to the Tony Danza movie She’s Out of Control. Of course, Picard wouldn’t really quit — but then he probably never had to review that movie, either.

Chapter 4

I learned later that Vale had been on a beach somewhere during the battle with Shinzon, a fact that had somehow missed becoming a part of her bio. I suppose we could presume that wherever she was, people had been scrambled to attention. The lifeguards, anyway…

“Cats carrying phasers.” Not a Laser Cats reference, I swear.

We hear some population numbers in this chapter. The number of phased Ekorr needed to be kept to a reasonable figure, which was why I decided to limit the conflict to a single city-sized island. This way we were phasing people in the thousands, not the millions or billions.

With the end of this chapter, we realize this story is a mystery, in addition to being a bit of a comedy: where’d the Ekorr go?

Chapter 5

We saw transport inhibitors in the movies in Insurrection.

All electronic communications in Star Trek fiction are italicized; it’s one more difference between writing for Trek and for other worlds.

The Anvil — sorry, Altar — needed to be heavy and gigantic so that its form could hide what was within from any scans.

The drops in power generation and thefts Jakoh mentions are all related to the phasing of foodstuffs and supplies by the Ekorr.

Chapter 6

The Breen’s slipstream project demise happened in David Mack‘s Star Trek: Typhon Pact — Zero Sum Game.

I never got to write that SCE story, but I got to call back on an element here with the Tolkien language reference and Bart Faulwell, which previously had been one of the few places in Trek where the author had been mentioned. I had to consider for a moment whether Tuvok and Riker would know the name: it’s nice to see that Lord of the Rings reached Vulcan.

“He figured if you learned an artificial language, learning Klingon should be a snap.” A bit of an out-of-universe joke here. I regret nothing.

Chapter 7

“Physical reality is consistent with universal laws. Where the laws do not operate, there is no reality.” I love it when I find a quote from the TV series that integrates perfectly with what’s going on in a story. I would presume the line might have made it into a log entry about the event somewhere, or that Spock would have written it somewhere — and the fact that Spock had said it made it even more likely Tuvok would know it. The quote is from “Spectre of the Gun.”

What is the proper etiquette for a phased individual lurking among the unaware? “The Next Phase” dabbled in this; it felt right to have Tuvok consider it.

Tuvok was the perfect person to phase. He had the scientific knowhow to understand what was going on — and the intelligence background necessary to appreciate the possibilities of phasing.

I concluded that Tuvok would certainly have known about Admiral Pressman and the Pegasus; even if parts of it had been hushed up, he would have had clearance to learn of it.

I had to go back and rewatch the Voth episode of Voyager, “Distant Origin,” since it included phasing. Those were the dinosaur guys.

Leaving the tricorder with Tuvok played a dual purpose — it meant he couldn’t be rescued as Ro and La Forge were, and it allowed him to study the world around him. This really is the pseudoscientific heart of the story here, dealing with several of the questions of why things in “Next Phase” worked the way they did. Your explanations may vary!

Chapter 8

You always have to worry about using terms like “flimflam,” but I knew Riker knew the word because Picard had used it once in the TV series. Dixon Hill surely would have known it.

It was a fun challenge writing characters sharing the same location, but where only certain characters could see and hear the others. The use of Shayla’s bedroom as an Ekorr warehouse, I figured, would amuse the Ekorr to no end.

Chapter 9

“I can confirm that it was a speech” is about all a well-mannered Vulcan could say about Zorrayn’s gabble.

It seemed to me that Data would have a harder time dealing with the Ekorr’s non sequiturs than Tuvok would have. Data, at least early on, tended to expect people to make sense — at least some of the time!

Anyonic particles, chronitons — all this came from rewatches of “The Next Phase,” which got into them in more detail.

Chapter 10

It was always a bit tongue-twisty talking about phasing and phasers in the same sequence. The opening of this chapter has Tuvok acknowledge that.

Chapter 11

While some readers might have inferred that Titan racked up quite a body count in its battle with the Breen, the mentions of lifepods leaving and of landers being disabled were purposeful. I expect that knowing they were dealing with troop transports, Vale’s people would have tried to call their shots, to whatever degree possible. The warship attacking them was another story.

I assumed the Baladonians wouldn’t know what horses were. Seemed a safe guess!

Chapter 12

Figuring out a mechanism for someone in the phased world to become unphased was tricky, as the only way a phased character could interact with the regular world was through chronitons. It made sense that the phased characters would have previously placed something in the real world that was scanning for chroniton signals,  and which could bombard those who sent them with anyons.

Here, Tuvok conveys that the way phasing works in this story — which otherwise follows the processes in “The Next Phase” — might not be how phasing works in all occasions in Star Trek. “When you define, you confine,” as one of my editors used to say: I try never to establish more than is necessary for a particular story.

The phased Romulan sitting down in an unphased chair was, of course, the biggest head-scratcher moment from “The Next Phase.” The explanation in this chapter was my best shot. I’m a writer, not a theoretical physicist…

Chapter 13

Forget the neutron bomb — phasing an atomic bomb into a phased realm is about as no-mess as a weapon of mass destruction gets. Fortunately, Riker is able to convince the Baladonians otherwise.

Botulinus bacteria came from the original series episode “The Man Trap.” The “nerve gas” mention later was a vestige of a draft that used a chemical rather than biological agent.

The “explosion in main engineering on Pegasus” is a description straight from the Next Generation episode.

This is the rare story of mine where the main villain doesn’t say a word we understand. That’s the Breen…


“Spit in the Ocean” is a real poker variant, in which (at least when I’ve played) a single community card is added to each person’s four-card hand. There are many more variations of it from there.

Here’s where to find the story!

Star Trek: Titan — Absent Enemies

Star Trek: Titan — Absent Enemies

Newly promoted Admiral William Riker and the crew of the U.S.S. Titan are ordered to race to Garadius IV—a planet Riker knows all too well from an unsuccessful peace mission when he was still first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. But this time, he finds a mysterious new situation: one with the potential to imperil the entire Federation. One of the warring parties has simply vanished…

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