The Sound of Distant Thunder
Written by John Payne
From Story ideas by Frank Terribile
In the early days of Earth’s exploration and colonization of the Milky Way, the people who went out into the vastness were the hardy sort of souls that first spread out across the Atlantic from Europe to colonize the New World. The voyages in the first warp-powered starships still took many months to all but the nearest stars, and many years for the most adventurous expeditions who wanted to see what farther suns had to offer. The people of Earth grew accustomed to not hearing from their explorers for periods of years, and more than one expedition had been long forgotten by the home planet before word of their progress arrived from dozens of light years away by radio or laser. Most of these voyages ended in colonization by necessity; once a crew had been sealed into a spaceship for so long, if the planet they found was habitable, a return trip in such isolation was almost unthinkable. Thus were Earth’s first colonies settled, to be visited only decades later by new expeditions with faster ships.
But if stay-behind Earthlings forgot about successful expeditions, so did they forget about unsuccessful ones. Space was still a strange and untamed place – like the Virginia wilderness in the 17th century. Not a few ships vanished without even a cryptic message carved into a pine tree for a clue.
Thus, when most of those on board the civilian colony ship Harrington’s Home were killed without ever reaching their destination, eight years after leaving Earth and 440 light years away, no one back home ever knew about it.
a a a
Commander Daniel McKinney lay on his bunk. The lights were out so his quarters, not being possessed of a window, were pitch black. Still, he stared at the ceiling he couldn’t see. And still, he couldn’t sleep. He wondered absently if there would ever come a day when starship crew quarters would have windows, even if only in officers’ quarters. But that wasn’t what was on his mind. It was the mission, of course.
From the time the Federation was incorporated, Starfleet’s ships had provided defense, exploration, and diplomatic services. The last was perhaps the least desirable duty for crew who mostly considered themselves professional explorers, or professional soldiers. For many of them the ways of politics were arcane and frightening, where a misspoken word or an unconscious gesture – perfectly proper in one culture but insulting in another – could precipitate an interstellar incident. McKinney didn’t envy the captain her job, for the captain of a starship was the one person aboard who had to be soldier, explorer, and diplomat all in one. As First Officer, McKinney’s duties related more to acting as liaison between captain and crew, although he had to be on the spot often enough with the occasional visiting dignitary.
Still, McKinney did want to command a ship of his own some day. It was a conflict; to avoid diplomacy he’d have to avoid command, to embrace command he’d have to embrace diplomacy. He knew he was awkward in such matters, so he wondered if he’d ever manage to convince Starfleet that he was up to his own command.
Captain Dubronin apparently thought McKinney should start getting used to the duties of a captain, since she’d put him in charge of the needs and comforts of their guest for this trip. That meant direct and frequent contact with a diplomat from a foreign planet – and royalty no less! One would think that by the time a person achieved the rank of Commander, and the position of First Officer of an Excelsior class starship, he’d be beyond schoolboy butterflies. But his stomach ached, and still he couldn’t sleep.
The dress uniform itched, naturally. Anything you only wear twice a year itched. McKinney took comfort in the fact that the rest of the department heads had to suffer along with him. Captain Dubronin herded them all into a proper line in front of the transporter operator’s free-standing console, facing the round alcove of the transporter unit.
Lieutenant Commander T’Lar, the ship’s head of bioresearch, made a point of falling into line next to him. McKinney was a little above average human height at 188 centimeters, and T’Lar matched his height within a few millimeters. It had taken him a few months to get used to being the same height as a woman – T’Lar was tall even for a Vulcan woman – but her obvious decentness showed through her habitual Vulcan stoicness, and the two had become friends. "Did you sleep?" she asked, getting right to the point.
"Oh, like a baby." He shrugged. "Like an awake, staring baby."
"I wish you would allow me to teach you some basic meditation. It will help you sleep. It will at least help you clear your mind."
He snorted. "yah, right."
She examined his face for a moment, unsure. "Was that agreement?"
"No!" he said, a little too sharply. "I’m sorry. It was a sarcastic reply based on my, uh, inability to picture myself meditating," he explained.
T’Lar shook her head slightly. "Sometimes you confuse me greatly."
He smiled. It amused him to confuse her.
"If your sleepless trend persists, I encourage you to get something from the doctor to help."
"I’ll be all right eventually. It’s only a week’s trip to Groningen. Once we drop the princess of and she’s out of my hair I’ll be fine."
"And yet that will be seven more days with too little sleep," T’Lar reasoned. "Added to the previous seven, from which you are already – as you have said – ‘ragged out’…"
He made a face that said he didn’t want to talk about it, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. Besides, he knew she was right. The doc could give him a tablet and he’d sleep for exactly eight hours and awaken as fresh as he needed to be. What was keeping him from doing that? Probably a cross between his usual stubbornness and his usual pride. She was about to continue her scolding when he said, "Ah, hell, you’re right, Lara."
She nodded once, sharply, in triumph. "It distresses me that you may have thought otherwise."
McKinney laughed. Whoever had said Vulcans had no sense of humor didn’t know many Vulcans. Or maybe it was only Vulcans who’d been around humans for a long time that developed – or re-developed – their humor. The medical department head, Dr. Alejandro, was three people to his left in the reception line. It would be too awkward to talk to him about it now. He’d put it off ‘til just before bed.
A tone sounded from the transporter console. The technician checked a telltale and announced "the princess’ party signals they’re ready, Captain."
"All right, everybody," The captain said in her mild Russian accent, "Best behavior, best trim. At attention." Feet stamped the floor in quiet unison as everyone in the room came to attention. The captain gave McKinney a meaningful look that told him he was doing something she didn’t like. When he couldn’t figure it out right away she crooked a finger at him and pointed to the deck at her side. Oops, he thought, almost committed a social faux pas. When he’d taken his place at his captain’s side she said to the transporter operator, "Ensign, energize."
The familiar hum filled the room, and a swirl of coalescing atoms sparkled brilliant blue on the raised platform before them. Pretty to look at, McKinney always thought, like a waterfall. When the swirling stopped, four people had been rebuilt from their most basic particles, and stood waiting. On the left, a human male of middle age and seeming importance, dressed in some kind of formal business attire. To the rear, a woman of around the same age, in the feminine version of the same type of clothing. At right, a severe looking young man in apparent military uniform with a phaser at his hip. The obvious subject of the mission that had been keeping McKinney awake for a week was on the foremost pad: a young woman in her late teens, dressed elegantly in a properly royal-looking suit, and quite thoroughly pregnant.
Captain Dubronin stepped forward a pace and courtsied expertly, though it would have looked better in a ball gown than a stiff uniform. Upon rising, she said to the young lady, "Your highness, I am Captain Valentina Dubronin. On behalf of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, welcome to the starship U.S.S. Breitling."
The young woman stepped gracefully from the platform and approached the captain. She offered her hand and gripped the captain’s lightly in a manner closely resembling a handshake without the shake. She smiled brightly, inclined her head in a partial nod of greeting and said, "Hello, Captain, I am Elayna. Please, don’t feel compelled to call me ‘Your Highness’. I’m just the simple daughter-in-law of a figurehead monarch." She smiled winningly.
The captain produced an amiable grin and replied, "All the same, Your Highness…" the princess tightened her grip and raised her eyebrows in good-natured warning. "Shall we settle on ‘Princess Elayna’ then?" the captain asked.
McKinney thought he should be taking notes. This was the kind of banter that he blanked on.
Princess Elayna smiled even more and said "Thank you, Captain Dubronin. I don’t feel very regal these last few months." She released the captain and used her hand to pat her belly. Then she swept her arm to indicate the gentleman now descending from the transporter stage. "My personal physician, Doctor Van der Roll."
The man bowed slightly when he took the captain’s hand and smiled. "Anthony," he said. "A pleasure to meet you."
The princess then indicated the other woman, who stepped from the platform to meet the captain. "My personal assistant, Melody, without whom I’d be lost in a sea of political doublespeak." Melody gave the princess a smile of maternal affection as she shook the captain’s hand.
The military type had assumed a position next to the princess. He’d briefly scanned the room and the people in it for threats and, finding none, continued to scan the room and the people for threats. Elayna said with a wry smile, "My shadow here is Leftenant Dockray, my personal guardsman. We are attached by an invisible umbilical, so please take care not to get tangled."
The leftenant closed his eyes as if bearing up under an insect bite and intoned flatly, "Thank you, Highness." He met the captain’s eyes then and bowed from his at-ease stance, hands still firmly clasped behind him. "Thank you, Captain, for allowing me to go armed aboard your vessel. I’d appreciate a meeting with your security chief at his convenience."
"Not a problem, Leftenant," Dubronin nodded. "assuming we’re all on the same side here." The armsman actually smiled when he nodded acknowledgement.
The captain "presented" McKinney as her first officer to the princess. He took her hand and bowed, maintaining eye contact and smiling as he’d been briefed. The smile came easily in light of the young lady’s simple prettiness and her charming demeanor. Possibly her personality was the result of polishing by a social education at the hands of professional tutors, possibly it was natural. It would be impossible to tell unless she let slip a darker side, which was unlikely in the short time she’d be aboard. Nevertheless, McKinney would treat her as kindly as he knew how. Or as kindly as his social awkwardness would allow him. He said, "It’s a great pleasure to meet you Your Highness."
She gave him a "now-now" look and said, "Now, Commander McKinney, your captain and I have already decided ‘Princess Elayna’ would suffice. I will hold you to that also."
He froze for only a moment at the unexpected change of script, but her beaming smile broke his uncertainty quickly. He smiled back reflexively, repeated his bow and said, "Princess Elayna" as firmly as he could manage. "Welcome aboard." He greeted the others with a handshake – reflexively shaking their hands rather than just holding them as he’d seen them do – then gratefully fell back into the captain’s shadow as she presented the rest of the department heads in the receiving line. Oddly, now that he had a first impression of the princess and she seemed to be not at all threatening, his butterflies were quieter. It would be just like him, he thought, to spend a week working himself up into a worry over nothing.
They’d prepared the largest of their guest quarters ("supercargo" was the official technical term, signifying space reserved for excess cargo and "supernumerary" persons, though it would be rude to tell the guests this) for the princess, with the neighboring quarters for her party. Doctor Van der Roll himself had followed Dr. Alejandro directly to sick bay to get himself acquainted with the place, and to share the princess’ medical records with the ship’s computer. There was of course no obstetrician aboard a starship, so Van der Roll would remain the princess’ official doctor during the trip. Alejandro was versed in all forms of medicine for several Federation species, but he’d remain in an administrative role where this was concerned. McKinney accompanied the captain and Princess Elayna, with Melody alongside and Leftenant Dockray in tow, directly to her quarters on deck seven, eschewing an immediate tour of the ship in deference to the young lady’s condition. After showing their guest around the three-room suite, Princess Elayna invited them to sit for few moments. "I certainly have to," she joked. She dismissed her armsman, who went to get settled into his own quarters across the hall and meet with the Breitling’s security chief.
Falling back indulgently into the room’s single easy chair, the princess sighed and said, "I hope my need to return home isn’t interfering too much with your patrol routine, Captain Dubronin,"
"We were in the neighborhood," the captain assured her. "In fact you would be surprised how many of our orders include the phrase ‘you’re the only ship in the sector’."
This produced a gentle little-girl laugh from the princess which made McKinney smile despite his nervousness. Yes, he thought, I guess this isn’t going to be so bad.
Princess Elayna rested a hand on her bulbous tummy. "Did your people tell you why I need to get home so urgently?"
"Not specifically. They mentioned you were with child. I assumed you simply wanted to have the baby at home?"
"Oh, it’s more than that I want to, Captain. I’m not so self-important that I would ask the Federation council to reroute a starship at a personal whim. I am the wife of the King’s firstborn son, and my son will be the heir to the throne of Groningen after my husband. But our laws of succession are very strict and they require that an heir to the throne be born on the homeworld."
McKinney looked reflexively at her enormous belly. My God it looked like she was about to pop! They’d never make it. The princess saw his expression and giggled. While his face reddened she told him, "I’m not due for two weeks, Commander McKinney. Please don’t panic."
He lowered his eyes in embarrassment. "All the same, ma’am, I think I’d better tell the engineer we’ll be pushing his engines hard."
They laughed together, and suddenly he felt the ice break.
"May I ask," Captain Dubronin said cautiously, "What brought you here to Pelora Three so close to your time?"
"I think the expression is ‘affairs of state’ isn’t it? We have a very old trade agreement with Pelora and I was pledged to officiate at the commissioning of a new trade ship before I became … expectant. Then there were the usual delays. The ceremony was only concluded two days ago your time, I’m afraid. And my family’s yacht…" she shook her head. Her short, light brown hair was tightly curled and the curls bounced like coiled springs. "… for all her venerability and luxury, she can’t go much faster than warp four. The trip home would take three weeks." She shrugged. "The Federation has always been a friend to Groningen – we are after all an old Earth colony – and the council was very cooperative when we asked for help getting the future King…" pat the tummy again "… home."
"Well then, we’re glad we can help," the captain said.
The princess asked if the tour of the ship could be put off until she’d had a good night’s sleep, and Dubronin and McKinney took their leave of her.
On the way to the turbolift McKinney mused, "An old Earth colony, yet a monarchy. I didn’t think there were any monarchies left on Earth when space flight and colonization began."
"I don’t think there were," Dubronin answered. "Groningen was settled by an expedition of Dutch and Belgian pilgrims in the late twenty-one-hundreds."
Dutch, McKinney thought, That’s what the princess’ accent was based on. Should have realized when I heard the ‘Van Der’ in the doctor’s name.
Dubronin was saying, "They had probably intended to set up a democratic society, but somehow a benign monarchy formed around the group’s leader, Johann Demerest. There are some heroic stories of how he tamed the wilderness and aboriginal natives."
McKinney was startled. "They displaced indigenes? That’s horrible!"
The captain nodded. "We would say so now, but keep in mind this was before Starfleet and the Prime Directive. The ships were slow and limited. The trip had taken years. Once they’d arrived they were forced to stay. There was some fighting at first, but I’ve heard it said that the locals and the colonists live together with little incident even to this day."
Captain Dubronin went on to the bridge, and McKinney went to sick bay to see if Doctor Van der Roll was ready to be shown to his quarters. McKinney was feeling considerably better than he had that morning. The "diplomat" had turned out to be a delightful young woman who didn’t seem to be about to cause trouble. The mission seemed a milk run, at least on the face of it. No way would it take two weeks to get where they were going. Maybe he’d even get more than three hours of sleep tonight.
In the turbolift car, with deck level indicators flashing past the little frosted window, the doctor said, "I was surprised at the size of your ship, Commander."
McKinney tried to project pride, but he hated talking about the ship with civilians. "Yes, Sir. The Excelsiors are the biggest ships in the fleet."
"I hope it is fast as well." The man shook his head in mild frustration. "I told Elayna not to wait so long to leave, but a princess can be a willful creature." Now he smiled affectionately before going serious again. "I hope your ship is fast enough that we can avoid disaster."
This brought McKinney up short. While he’d understood the need to get Princess Elayna home in time, nothing in her demeanor had hinted at disaster. "What disaster?"
"Her child must be borne on Groningen of course. If he is not, He forfeits the crown. The laws of succession are very strict on this point. In a way, the future history of our world depends on you, Commander." The doctor smiled playfully.
"What happens to the princess if that happens? Nothing bad I hope?" He was picturing her banished to an asteroid or beheaded – this whole ‘king’ and ‘princess’ business had him thinking positively medieval!
The older man sighed. "No. But the nature of royal marriages can be uncertain. Elayna and Roger married more for political reasons than affection. I think they do love each other in their way, but they are very young and he is very temperamental. I wonder if he might not divorce her if the child is born offworld."
The turbolift stopped near their destination. As the two men stepped out into the corridor, the princess’ bodyguard was himself heading toward the party’s quarters. He nodded as he fell in step with them. "Gentlemen."
"Lieut – Leftenant," McKinney responded. "Anthony was telling me about Groningen laws of succession. No offense, but this off-planet rule seems awfully strict, considering the modern interstellar community."
"Strict," Dockray agreed. "I would ask you make good speed for home, Commander. This worries me."
"I think we can get you there fast enough to avoid a royal divorce, Lieut – Leftenant."
The guardsman looked at the commander sharply. "Divorce?" Then he looked at the doctor. "That’s all you’re worried about Anthony?"
McKinney felt his stomach roll again. "Why? Is there more? No, wait, I don’t want to know. Oh hell, yes, I need to know. What else?"
Dockray had to shake his head to clear it of McKinney’s fit of rambling, but he answered promptly, "There are militant factions within our government who would love to see the monarchy fall. There are still other factions who don’t care about that, but dislike Prince Roger and his potential heir. The royal family has other, younger sons who don’t already have their political agendas fixed in stone like Roger does. All these factions are looking for an excuse to start trouble."
The doctor interrupted. "Do you have something concrete?"
"We have some… things. The government isn’t as mired in dogma as some people think – if the baby is born offworld, it’s possible that the traditional laws may be amended. Everyone likes Elayna, there may be enough support to allow the baby to assume his heritage. But he’d face hell governing as an adult with that stigma. But if that happens, though – if the baby’s born off world and the government allows his succession…" he drew an uncomfortable breath "…the Royal Guard has reason to believe it could be the trigger for the Antiroyalist faction to attempt an assassination of Prince Roger. Maybe more."
"More?" McKinney croaked.
"The Chorks?" Van der Roll asked.
"The Chorks?" McKinney said in confusion.
"The Chorks," Dockray said. "The natives. I suppose they’re vaguely comparable to the Indians of old Earth – a developing bronze age culture when we landed and took the planet. Never been happy with us humans. It may not be an all-out revolution, and they may not be able to get a lot of modern weapons, but it would be real ugly."
McKinney decided he would go see the engineer. Let’s see if the ship can manage warp eight for the whole trip. He also decided he might not get as much sleep as he thought.
a a a
"You surely project confidence, Elayna," Melody said as she ticked through her princess’ schedule book. "Is any of that real?"
Elayna toshed her friend’s affectionate jibe. "I’m a princess royal, my dear. Confidence is in the job description."
"That’s not what I asked," Melody chided. "I like this job; I’d hate to have to look for another princess to take care of at my age."
Princess Elayna sighed and shifted in the easy chair, trying to find a comfortable position for the baby, who was apparently playing soccer in there. She and Melody shared an affection that Elayna hadn’t felt with her own mother. Duchess Van Blarkum had been far too wrapped up in her high society intrigues and social maneuvering to spend much time with her daughter. She had Melody for that. When she’d first joined the household as a nanny, Melody’s talent for organization quickly showed that she was useful for more than just babysitting. Though the Duchess hadn’t noticed, Elayna’s father had. He was a far sharper businessman than her mother was a socialite. As Elayna approached maturity and responsibility, and needed a nanny less and a secretary more, Melody – who knew her charge’s mind better than anyone on the planet – became the natural choice to promote into the job.
After a considerable silence that betrayed her unease, the princess said, "They’ll get us home in time."
Melody sat on the edge of the bed and put her papers down. "Honey, I’d like you to do me a favor, and just spend a little thought on what you’re going to do if they don’t get you home in time."
Elayna seemed rapt in adjusting the way her bathrobe fell over her lap, but her pinched expression showed that her mind was working and she was considering avoiding the question. Melody knew her too well. "Elaynaaaa," she warned.
"You know I’m not the kind of person to avoid things I have to do, Melody," the princess said at length, "but I’m going to avoid thinking about that until I have to. I don’t need anxiety on top of pregnancy, especially after spending the last week being the good little politico representing the Crown." She apparently settled on an arrangement for her clothing and stopped fidgeting. She still hadn’t met Melody’s eyes. "I’ve heard," she began brightly, as if it were time for a whole new subject, "that there are girls my age back home who have nothing to worry about except what to wear, who to go out with, and whether school will be snowed out tomorrow."
"Does it get to you very badly? The responsibility?"
"Oh no! I was just thinking, those poor things have no idea how much fun they’re missing!"
Melody barked a most unladylike laugh. "A moment ago you were complaining about having to be the good little politico, now you’re pitying the people who aren’t."
"I’m pregnant," she joked, "I have mood swings."
Melody picked up her paperwork to get back to it, shook her head. "That you do!"
a a a
The bridge screen showed a schematic of the route between Pelora and Groningen. Captain Dubronin and McKinney stood side by side before it, considering the fastest route, while the navigator operated the display. The two star systems were separated by a convoluted expanse of dust clouds and emission nebulae and several hundred stars of types ranging from main sequence through dying red giants. The comfortable route taken by the Groningen royal yacht, blissfully avoiding the whole mess in a wide hyperbola swinging to galactic "down," was marked as a red line. The navigator rotated the view to many angles to give his commanders a complete sense of the area.
McKinney mused, "No wonder it takes them three weeks."
"Any reason not to follow their route?" the Captain asked. "Even at a comfortable cruise of warp six we can be there in just over one week."
"Have you spoken to her doctor and her guard? They’re so nervous they’re making me nervous. The leftenant is afraid of an all-out coup if they don’t make it in time for the birth. I’d just as soon find a more direct route and crank this puppy up to warp eight. We have a huge advantage in shields and deflectors over their yacht; we could cut through the thinnest parts of the dust cloud…" he pointed with a stylus and the screen traced a line "… then maybe hop over this denser area of the emission nebula. From there it’s a straight run to Groningen. It could cut the trip down to three or four days; that would certainly make the princess’ entourage happier."
"That would be a bonus," she agreed. "I’m not entirely sure I like my ship referred to as ‘this puppy’ though," she finished with a smile.
"How about ‘this old scow?’" McKinney prodded. The navigator snorted.
Dubronin folded her arms in thought, still looking at the screen "I’ve been meaning to transfer more of my work over to you, maybe now is a good time."
McKinney laughed nervously and pointedly returned to the subject. "In any case, that’s my recommendation for a course, Ma’am. We can cut a few days off the mission time and return this fine vessel – this shining example of technological superiority – to fleet duty all the sooner."
The navigator laughed out loud, cutting it short self-consciously when he realized it was too loud. Dubronin smiled. "Very well." She turned to the still-smiling navigator. "You have your course Mister M’Fosa, when you gather your wits, please plot it." M’Fosa cleared his throat and went about his work. "Helm," Dubronin continued, "Warp six. Adjust for best safe speed when we encounter the dust clouds."
"Only warp six?" McKinney asked.
"I see no need to strain my ship. Six will do, with time to spare."
"Yes Ma’am," he conceded.
"And, engage, please, gentlemen," Dubronin ordered.