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First Officer’s log. Two standard days into the mission and, believe it or not, no glitches. We have to pass through the fringes of a nebula this afternoon, which should at least be pretty to look at. We have to slow to warp 4 for the transit, which should last about a day at that speed. With shields at full I don’t foresee any difficulty. As I’m saying that, of course, I’m thinking things like "famous last words" and "don’t jinx it."
The princess has, oddly enough, struck up a friendship with T'Lar. I swear I saw Lara almost smile once or twice – oh, we’ve been having formal dinners in the officers’ lounge every evening. The senior staff, with the princess and her people. I think I’m almost getting to enjoy it, though I’m still not very comfortable with the formality. The doctor’s a good guy, he’s easy to get along with. The security guy too, but he’s necessarily a little – well, guarded, in his demeanor.
Only a few more days. Then we can get back to star charting and other nice, uneventful pastimes.
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McKinney’s intercom bleeped. As it always happens, he was two paragraphs from the end of a chapter in the book he was reading. "Bridge to First Officer," the captain’s voice announced.
"McKinney," he acknowledged, hitting the com button.
"Daniel," Dubronin said, "Something interesting. Come up here, please."
Interesting usually meant mysterious and possibly dangerous. That’ll teach me to think everything was going well, he thought.
"On my way."
"The signal is so weak," the communications officer, Koike, was saying, "that I almost thought it was background noise from the emission nebula. We’re getting a lot of that across the bands."
They’d been inside the nebula for less than two hours. The main viewscreen wasn’t entirely useless, as they’d feared – visual cameras still worked fine – but electronic sensors were out of commission from the nebula’s energized hydrogen clouds. The main screen showed visual information, but blurs of gas flaring off the deflector shields at warp four were almost unbearable to look at, almost like having a sparkler jammed against your eyeball. The screen’s gain was tuned down to keep the flashing lights from making the bridge look like a dance hall.
It was a radio signal they were hearing. The bridge speakers laid static over the room, with only an occasional, barely recognized syllable, sounding like English, squeezing itself from between the roar of white noise.
The comm officer’s burly face was pinched in concentration. He touched a control, slid a vernier, tapped another pad. "Hear that echo effect?" he asked generally. Dubronin shook her head. McKinney concentrated harder. It was possible to hear the same – phrase? – repeated at least three or four times in an echoing effect. "I think the nebula is acting like an echo chamber," Koike postulated. It’s an RF signal, maybe bouncing around inside the hydrogen cloud.
Koike sighed. "It would be easier to hear if we could drop out of subspace for a moment. We’re outrunning the signal on one side, and running into it too fast on the other." He looked an inquiry to the captain.
She shook her head. "No. After we drop the princess off, we can come back this way and try to pick up the signal again. But first things first. Any RF signal bouncing around in here must be decades old, just to get from one side of the nebula to the other."
Koike nodded, "Possibly."
McKinney felt those old familiar butterflies again. "What if… no. Never mind."
Dubronin eyed him. "Finish, Daniel, you know how I hate that."
He smiled. "I just imagined – well, maybe I read too much fiction, but – what if this signal is an old warning from someone who encountered some danger up ahead? They’ve been dead for decades, and we sail into the same trap because we’re not willing to listen."
There was an uncomfortable silence. The comm officer could be heard to stifle a snicker. Dubronin continued to eye her first officer. Then she said, "Helm, all stop."
The image on the viewscreen resolved from a manic blur to an uneven rose-colored glow. They were inside a hot blob of hydrogen, after all. But the molecular hydrogen cloud was not so dense as to be opaque, or navigation through it would have been impossible. Stars pricked their shining presence through the diffuse mist.
At once the static’s pitch changed. The voice underlying it increased in volume. It was still all but indiscernible as words, like listening to everyone talk at a party all at once, with frequent dropouts of nothing but hydrogen hiss. Koike spiked another control, tuned down the squelch on the service noise. Eventually, as he played his controls like a concert pianist, voice fragments began to emerge from the mist of static.
That last syllable caught McKinney’s attention. Was it…?
Dubronin hung her head. "Well, that’s that then. We can’t ignore a mayday, no matter how old we may think it. Mister Koike, can you track the signal?"
A look of mild panic flashed on the officer’s face and he swallowed. "I’ll do my best, ma’am. But in here? It’s like locating a voice in a cave. It’s all echoes."
"Well, do your best then," she said mildly. "It’s probably many years too late for whoever it was, anyway. But we have responsibilities."
"Yes ma’am," Koike nodded, obviously relieved that the captain understood the futility.
McKinney knew what he had to do as well. "I’ll go tell the princess there’ll be a slight delay," he said. "It will be a slight delay, I hope," he finished, not expecting an answer. He got none.
"Oh, you’re making me very nervous, Daniel," Doctor Van der Roll said.
"You don’t have to tell me, Anthony!" McKinney answered emphatically.
The princess was all light and reason, a beaming smile on her bright face. "Please relax, Anthony," she said, putting her hand on his. "A small delay to help some people. How can we not?"
Leftenant Dockray’s expression looked like an overcast promising rain. "If the mayday turns out to have any substance, this could require you to mount a rescue, yes?"
McKinney nodded. "Of course, if there are lives at stake."
Dockray uttered a low rumble. Thunder? "All right. Well. It can’t be helped, obviously. We still have plenty of time, as you say, Highness."
"Can you call in another ship?" The doctor asked – nearly pleaded.
McKinney shook his head. "Not from inside the nebula." The doctor’s shoulders slumped. Melody remained quiet through all this, but watched Elayna closely, probably for signs of stress.
Elayna sat heavily in the easy chair in the main room of her quarters. To McKinney, she looked more ready to pop out that baby than ever. He tried to give her an encouraging smile, and when she saw his expression she smiled and waved a hand in royal dismissal. "Don’t worry about me, Commander. You do your job as you need to. Things will attend to themselves."
He bowed slightly. "Yes Princess," he said uncertainly, and retreated from the room.
Koike pressed his earbug deeper into his head. A screen on his panel showed a schematic of the surrounding area – as best the ship’s sensors could produce in the jamming environment of the nebula – with a series of complicated colored tracks flashing in and out of existence. The computer was trying to determine where the strange signal was coming from.
"Not so much a voice in a cave," the comm officer said, "as a bullet ricocheting around a room."
McKinney watched the screen on the comm panel. Certain parts of the paths were common to each other. The computer had figured out the most recent ricochets, and was trying to fill in the earlier stages.
A technician at the science station spoke up. "Ma’am?" he addressed to the captain. "The signal strength seems to have a general upswell in one particular direction." Dubronin crossed to the science station and examined the readouts. "It’s not as specific as we’d like," the tech went on, "but – well, it’s like an RF glow in this general area, maybe seven light years across."
"That makes sense," Koike added. "The tracks seem to be converging on that area as well."
McKinney asked the navigator, "Tomba, what’s in that direction?"
She switched the main screen to a sensor schematic. It was much more sparse than McKinney was used to seeing, owing to the massive degradation of the nebula. But stars – the strongest energy sources in the area at any wavelength – showed plainly enough. "Three stars, sir," Tomba said. "All within the fringe of the nebula. Two are a binary system, the other about three light years from the binary. Can’t get a read on planets in all this." She swept her hand to indicate the clouds outside the ship.
Dubronin turned to Koike and the science tech. "Are any of those stars near where the signal may be from?"
"Yes ma’am." Koike said, "The single."
"It’s nearly dead center to the RF glow," the tech added.
The comm officer postulated, "If someone were broadcasting a general omnidirectional mayday, while at the same time beaming a directional message toward home, that would account for the two different types of signals we’re receiving."
The captain grunted understanding. "Helm," she said, "come about to – two-seven-nine mark four-zero. Proceed at warp two."
Princess Elayna was wearing an extremely fluffy bathrobe and matching slippers. McKinney hoped it was because she was feeling comfortably informal around him. The robe was perfectly fitted so it still closed over her belly, saving him from having to pretend not to see Her Highness’ slip. If in fact she was wearing… no, leave that thought where it belongs. The ever-present Melody was folding clothes on the bed in the other room, visible from the couch in the quarters’ front room, where McKinney sat. She glanced over her shoulder when the first officer had come in.
"I was surprised there’s an actual laundry aboard, Commander," she said pleasantly.
"Rarely used," he admitted, "except for guests and our dress uniforms. I’m not sure why that is, though; the dress maroons aren’t made of anything that isn’t in the duty kit."
"I know most starships use – whatever you call them – recyclers?"
"Yes, it’s a transporter offshoot. It beams the dirt out of the clothing, basically. Good enough for service clothing."
"Well, it’s a pleasure to find the real laundry. We’re used to packing a great deal of clothes for long trips on anything but the royal yacht. We got caught short this time; not knowing we weren’t taking the yacht back, we only packed a few days’ worth." McKinney had seen the princess’ luggage beamed aboard. There were trunks enough for him to pack everything he ever owned. But he admittedly didn’t own much.
Elayna asked, "How’s your search going, Commander?"
"Ah," he said, pointing at her, "Exactly why I stopped by." Then he hoped it wasn’t too rude to point at a princess while speaking to her. Was there a royal etiquette book somewhere in the ship’s library? To atone for the pointing, he braced his hands behind his back in a formal at-ease posture. "So far, it looks like it may only take us a couple of days total to check this out. We’re on our way to the source of the signal, with an ETA of about ten hours."
"But then you may have to rescue God-knows-how-many people," she said in a half-question.
"We really don’t think that’s likely, Princess. Best odds are the signal is very old, and has been bouncing around these gas clouds for centuries. But Starfleet regs still require us to check it out."
McKinney was proud of himself for projecting a confidence he didn’t feel. Maybe his diplomatic muscles were just rusty, and flexing them for the last few days was getting them back in shape. Deep inside, he was scared as hell that they were going to find a lost star liner with six thousand people needing rescue, or a Klingon task force aiming their torpedoes at him, or a whole planetary population with only two days to live unless the Breitling crew found a way to save them.
He really did read too much fiction.
Melody came out of the back room for a moment. "Commander?" she asked. "Forgive me, but Elayna’s my most important consideration. What if there’s something dangerous? Shouldn’t you be more concerned with Elayna’s life than an old radio signal?"
McKinney felt the walls of diplomacy closing around him, threatening to crush his chest. Despite that charm that the princess radiated and the down-to-earthness (if one could say that in space) of her manner, he knew it was possible to offend anyone in the universe with a careless word. "Her safety is never out of my thoughts, ma’am," he said earnestly. "And whatever we find, we will get you folks home in time." He hoped that sounded heroic enough. Or at least he hoped it sounded more confident than he felt. Princess Elayna favored him with a confident smile, almost forcing him to relax by will power. He smiled back involuntarily and sighed, "Really, Princess, there’s not much in the galaxy that can hurt one of these ships. And our own regs in this case are clear and, frankly quite sensible. At least we think so." That sounded a bit too flippant, and he regretted saying it at once. But the princess wasn’t offended.
"I agree, Commander, though Doctor Van der Roll and Melody have their doubts. You do what you have to. Saving lives is… well… good." She smiled lamely, realizing that words had failed her and even a princess can sound stupid. McKinney’s smile went ear to ear for a split second before he managed to reduce it to something more polite.
Van der Roll and Dockray sat together in the deck six officers’ lounge, sipping coffee that neither of them especially liked, and attempting to force down reconstituted chicken sandwiches. The two men had never been friends, but needing to collaborate during the princess’ pregnancy had created a working relationship that bordered on civility. Dockray still wore his sidearm, even though he knew as well as anyone aboard that he’d never need it on a Federation ship. It was, at this point in his life, as much a part of his clothing as the belt that held his pants up, from which the holster hung. He’d been the princess’ personal bodyguard for her entire life and planned to hold that position for the remainder of his own life. The sidearm was one means to that end.
The doctor had been a part of the royal staff only since Elayna entered puberty, but he was no less trusted than Dockray. The bodyguard had no reason to dislike the man, but Dockray was never a very social animal. He enjoyed his time alone, working out in a gym, or at shooting practice. Most of his time was spent within fifty meters of wherever the princess was, except when she was safe in her own home on Groningen. Even now he was less than that distance from her quarters, a fast run down corridor A and the sixth door on the left. The deck layouts of the Breitling were committed to memory within a day of his finding out they’d be aboard her.
When he did get free time, those times the princess was ensconced in her chateau and his daily routine was satisfied, Dockray went out. Not to socialize, but to study. As a bodyguard, he felt, he needed to be a student of people. In a crowd of hundreds, pressing the princess for a look or a moment in the Royal Presence, Dockray needed to watch the faces, and from those faces, find the one that had the desire to hurt her behind it. So he went out some nights and cruised the night spots. All kinds of night spots. He learned to recognize the people with good hearts who enjoy others’ company, the frauds who want something from you, the sad people who need someone to pay attention to them, and the bad hearts who enjoy hurting. And all the types in between.
The doctor was a good man who wanted to take care of the princess, of that Dockray had no doubt. But in the few hours since the ship’s course change, the security officer’s senses had spotted a subtle change in Van der Roll’s aura. The man was nervous about getting the princess home in time, and he was letting it get to him.
"Anthony, you’re a doctor," Dockray said flatly.
Van der Roll looked up in surprise with half a sandwich in his hands and a fresh bite in his mouth. Dockray waited for him to finish chewing and speak. "I knew you were good at your job, Dockray," he said. "When did you discover my secret?" Dockray chuckled. "You need some medical advice? I warn you, you’re not my specialty."
"Actually," Dockray said, "I wanted to give you some." Van der Roll’s eyebrows tweaked upward in curiosity. "Doctor… relax!"
"Ah," Van der Roll said, putting his sandwich down. "I know. It’s difficult. I’ve always had this little anxiety problem, but it’s not very often that anything this stressful happens to bring it out."
"Oh, I sympathize. Don’t think I’m not worried. I haven’t exactly slept a full night since we came aboard, and I doubt it’s the strange surroundings. But I think the captain deserves my professional courtesy, though, to have enough confidence in her to get the job done. I imaging she feels the pressure too."
"Do you think so? I imagine if she doesn’t get Elayna home in time, she can just go on to her next assignment and leave us to clean up the …. Well." He was going to say "mess," but as he was saying it, a vision of the worst case scenario bloomed in his mind’s eye – Elayna and Roger butchered by a mob of antiroyalists. "Dockray, I make no secret that I love that girl like my own daughter. I couldn’t bear anything bad happening to her."
"And you have about five hundred people working to keep that from happening right now. Try not to worry. Let the captain worry about it, and you just worry about your end of things."