What would happen to technological cultures if their power supplies were rendered useless? That's the question at the heart of Dave Galanter and Greg Brodeur's Maximum Warp, a pair of simultaneously released paperbacks. At the beginning, "dead zones" devoid of subspace energy start popping up all over the Milky Way, leaving Voyager as helpless in the Delta Quadrant as is Deep Space Nine near the mouth of the wormhole. Warp-capable civilizations face starving or freezing to death -- and because their subspace communications don't work, they can't even alert others to their plight. The Federation, Klingons and Romulans reach the brink of war as they blame one another for the growing galactic catastrophe.
Picard gains assistance from a very unexpected source -- Ambassador Spock, who has long worked undercover on Romulus. The Vulcan comes on board the Enterprise with T'sart, a ruthless Romulan criminal responsible for the deaths of thousands; he is despised by nearly as many Romulans as Federation and Klingon citizens. While Riker, Troi and Data go on a mission to find supplies to help the Enterprise infiltrate the Romulan Empire, Picard takes his passengers on a roundabout route through Klingon space. Their destination: the remote Caltiskan system, where an inhabited planet perches in close proximity to a black hole. By all known laws of physics, the system should not be able to exist. But by the time the crew discovers the mechanism that maintains the Caltiskan sun, the rest of the universe faces annihilation.
Maximum Warp tips its hand early in the first book by revealing that T'sart is behind the crisis. Even before he understands the forces causing dead zones to emerge across the galaxy, the Romulan commits brutal murders and betrays a skilled officer who thinks of him as a mentor. T'sart drags a reluctant Spock into the crisis by pretending he wants to defect to the Federation, but as soon as the undercover Vulcan realizes the stakes for the galaxy, he decides to bring the untrustworthy Romulan on his journey to the Enterprise. Fortunately, Picard remains one step ahead of T'sart and his henchman Lotre.
It's great to see Picard and Spock together again, and both are well-characterized, with many references to the changes in the Vulcan over the years. Picard wonders on several occasions whether Spock relates to him differently than he related to a prevous Enterprise captain ("'Did you correct Captain Kirk's grammar?'" he jokes at one point). T'sart is a worthy adversary, though it's hard not to be incredulous that the Romulans have allowed a loose cannon such free rein. T'sart refused membership in the Tal Shiar and isn't very subtle about hiding his disgust for many of its operatives, plus he betrays the loyalty of nearly all the power-hungry individuals he gets to follow him. He is depicted as the polar opposite of Picard -- who is friendly enough with his officers to enlist Riker in helping him escape from boring Starfleet meetings, and who struggles mightily with the realization that to save the galaxy, he may have to sacrifice several crewmembers.
While Picard deals with the larger crisis, Data, Riker and Troi set out to find a crucial component of their plan to infiltrate Romulan space. They meet up with another Romulan would-be-defector who helps them through a crisis, but when Tobin cannot repair his ship, the Enterprise crewmembers are forced to sell themselves as slaves to protect their mission. Though Riker cannot repress his concern for Troi, he befriends his clever, witty owner, who discovers his secret and chooses to help him. Of course he needn't have worried -- Deanna locks her lecherous master in a closet. Throughout the story, Data has his emotion chip on, and his dry honesty and naivete serve him just as well. When Troi is injured, for instance, he reports on a bruise on her left cheek...then when Riker studies her face, he amends, "Not that left cheek."
Unlike the heavy main plot, there's a lot of humor in these sub-sections, which take place mostly in the second book. By that time Maximum Warp has found its pace -- it takes awhile, since the timeline jumps around over the period of weeks within which the crisis unfolds. It's hard to tell which events are happening simultaneously in different areas of the galaxy, and it's hard to figure out exactly how T'sart fits in among the Romulans, who seem to despise him as much as the Klingons and humans. There's also little to anchor the story to its post-Dominion War setting, other than the alliances and personnel in place.
Brodeur and Galanter do a good job with all the regular Trek characters, though it's an odd decision to set scenes on the Defiant with characters who haven't yet been introduced in the Deep Space Nine book relaunch. The vague dates make it impossible to figure out when these events happened to Voyager. I'm not sure it was necessary or even advisable to set so many scenes elsewhere in the galaxy -- we get to witness some events on the Exeter and on Tellar that would have worked just as well as second-hand reports in the voices of familiar characters. It's supposed to create a sense of the scope of the emergency, but it creates a choppy narrative as well.
Still, the story itself is compelling enough that these aren't significant drawbacks. The writers introduce a fascinating Romulan scientist who takes command of her ship, then is recruited by the Tal Shiar, but her loyalty to pure science remains stronger than power or politics. T'sart's Klingon-by-blood, Romulan-by-choice assistant Lotre is also an interesting character, someone who epitomizes not IDIC but the nastier aspects of his joint heritage. Governor Kalor, one of those Klingons whose dedication to honor sometimes overrides safety and common sense, provides an interesting foil for Lotre.
The conclusion involves some breathtakingly complex technobabble and theories of physics that may make some readers scoff. The crew encounters a device that makes both the Guardian of Forever seem comparatively simple, leading to a confrontation reminiscent of the ending of "All Good Things..." on a larger scale and with higher stakes. All in all, it's a satisfying ending, though one wishes for some context, some indication about why the Bajoran Prophets and the Q Continuum don't involve themselves in the crisis. Oddly enough, this fast-paced adventure story will probably be remembered better for the strong characterizations of the crew than the sci-fi disaster facing them.
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