a a a
McKinney found the princess’ quarters open, and her full entourage with her, huddled in the dark. No, Dockray didn’t huddle. His weapon was in his hand, though he had the presence of mind not to point it at McKinney when he appeared in the doorway. The security man was nervous, but not paranoid. McKinney figured the leftenant had read up enough to know how to get the door open, and yelled instruction through the door. So it was pointless to ask. Two of the ship’s security guards stood at either side of the door with phasers. They snapped to attention and McKinney nodded to them and smiled a "well done" to them.
Dockray said, "Just tell me we’re not being boarded."
McKinney was surprised by the specificity of the question, but shook his head. "Not to my knowledge, but that doesn’t cover a lot of ground right now. I assume you commandeered these men as they ran by?"
"Hope you don’t mind," Dockray smiled.
"I’m just ashamed I didn’t think of it myself in the confusion. Sorry." He addressed the apology to the princess.
"Were we attacked?" Elayna asked.
"I don't know. We’re dead in space. I have to assume that they – whoever – would have finished us off already if that was the case, for whatever that’s worth."
"Not worth much, Daniel," Van der Roll groaned. "If it’s the Chorks, they’ll want Elayna dead, and by Almighty God, Daniel, if that happens I’ll find a way to take Starfleet down…"
"Anthony"!" Dockray snapped, "Overreact much? The Chorks don’t have spaceships. They're lucky if one of them can scrounge a car." To McKinney he said, "Commander, I wouldn’t tell you your business, but in your place, I’d assume an attack, and the enemy would be boarding."
McKinney sighed. "You’re right." Into his communicator, he called, "McKinney to security."
Once again, an annoying lack of immediate response. The equipment's usual efficiency had left him too used to instant gratification.
In a moment, though, "Security, Lieutenant Karr, Sir. What’s going on, Sir?"
"In a nutshell, something punched a hole through the saucer section, the bridge is gone, the captain's probably dead, and the ship is dead in space. If it's an attack, and that's a big if," he looked reassuringly at the princess with that, and she smiled a thank you at him. "... the lack of follow-up attacks could mean the enemy is either done with us or will be boarding us. That’s all I know, Lieutenant, but I’m ordering Security Condition One. Comm’s down so use communicators. Arm your staff with phaser rifles and body armor and assume there will be boarders. If I’m wrong about that, well, good. Get on it."
"Yessir, we assumed the same. We’re halfway deployed."
Thank heaven the crew knows their job. "Excellent. McKinney out." To the security men beside him: "You two got that?" They snapped simultaneous yessirs. "Good. Close these doors, keep them safe." He saw the two men had communicators on their hips. Was he the only one who didn’t think of that? To the princess’ group: "Stay in these quarters. Nobody get trigger happy; as far as we know there’s nobody aboard but us. I have to get to auxiliary control and see if we can still fly this puppy. This ship." He thought about Dubronin – don’t call my ship ‘puppy.’
Fourteen levels down, through ladderway after dark, red, ladderway. McKinney’s impatience grew with each deck. He was dropping most of the distance to each deck by the time he was through the ship’s neck section. His impatience, and his anxiety, grew with each level.
He wasn’t ready for this. It's only been a year since his promotion to first officer. It’s not that he didn’t know his stuff; know his job. He knew the Breitling inside out, even where it diverged from other Excelsiors due to upgrades and field mods. He knew how to do his job. But responsibility. Responsibility was the thing that worried him. He’d never had much of that in his life. Starfleet had trained him for it, exposed him to it, taught him how to handle it. No one who knew him knew his fears, he wouldn't let that show through, not even to T'Lar. Responsibility and dealing with VIPs – there were the two big ones. Maybe he’d thought that by embarking on the path to command he’d be able to overcome them through having them forced on him. Yeah, good plan.
He wasn’t ready for command of a ship, and he sure as hell wasn’t ready to command five hundred people on a crippled starship during a crisis with a princess aboard.
Right through the saucer, Tchalabi had said? God, how many people did it kill? Whatever it was. It hit dead center and went almost straight through. The bridge, quarters on several decks, some labs. Sick bay! The medical complex wrapped the saucer’s central hub all the way around, it had to be holed at some point. Lara! The bio sciences section was attached to sickbay, T’Lar would be there. No, wait, it isn’t her shift. But she works whenever she has to, not following any shift schedule. Would she be there?
He had to find out. At deck twelve he stopped on the ladderwell floor and drew his communicator. To his surprise, his voice wouldn’t come. Strange that, after a year aboard the Breitling, Lara was the only one he thought of as a friend. The only one he could relate to was an alien woman who kept her emotions in strict seclusion. What did that say about him?
"McKinney to T’Lar," he said into the tiny box in his hand.
Would she think to get a communicator? What would her logical mind decide was the best course of action? Stay put? Go to her general quarters station? Why isn’t she answering?
He climbed down the last few decks one-handed, leaving the communicator open in case she answered.
Responsibility. It was tugging him toward the control room when his conscience was screaming to find out if his friend was alive. He didn’t like it.
Auxiliary control was down in the secondary hull, centrally located away from the outer hull to protect it in a fight. It was there in case what happened to the main bridge... happened. Now that it had happened, auxiliary control would be McKinney’s bridge. He tucked the communicator away and dropped to the corridor outside the control room. The main doors were open. Faces turned to look. The control room was fully manned. Everyone must have gotten the word about general quarters. He looked at the five faces turned to him, panting from his exercise on all those ladders. His first thought was, why is everybody looking at me? He froze for a second, then nodded his approval to them. A good crew. Better than him, he thought ruefully.
Lieutenant Eng, normally the gamma-shift helmsman, was in the center chair – somebody had to be. The lean Chinese man vaulted out of it the instant he saw McKinney. "Commander, thank heaven. What’s happening, Sir?"
McKinney gave his nutshell summation again. There were gasps and a choked moan at the word that the captain and the bridge crew were dead, and who knew how many others. A look around the room showed nothing lit except the red emergency lights. "Does anything work?" he asked desperately.
He sat heavily in the command chair. A part of him was grateful it wasn’t the main bridge. He’d feel thoroughly awful taking the captain’s own chair when she was…
No time to mope. He pressed comm buttons on his chair’s arm, knowing they probably wouldn’t work. They didn’t. Use the communicator. "McKinney to engineering."
"Tchalabi," after a pause while the engineer picked up his own communicator.
"Status." Too tired and nervous to be polite.
A sigh from the other end. "Okay. Sir. Um… The only problem is a control circuit one. Nothing’s physically damaged down here. But an EPS plasma surge completely burned out the propulsion control circuits. The intermix chamber is fine. But the safety systems ejected all the antimatter tanks when the EPS surged. So there’s nothing we can do to make the reactor run at the moment. We'll need about a day to regenerate enough antimatter. Luckily there’s plenty of hydrogen for that."
"About... six hours. The fusion reactors shut down cold. Plus the control system damage. It would be asking for an explosion to start them up without a thorough checkover."
Meanwhile he had no way of controlling the ship, and didn't know where they were in relationship to things they could hit. McKinney was trying real hard to not think about that.
"Okay. Thank you. Can you get us lights? Sensors?"
"Yessir, we should have the power generators back in about a half an hour. It’s all tied to the main computer, and all we have to do is get the backup computer on line. We’re having a bit of trouble getting it to boot up."
"Okay, we wait then. If you can, keep me updated. If you have to stop working to update me, don't bother. Thank you, Dennis."
a a a
McKinney thought about going to check on the princess, but the thought of climbing those ladders again – not just the physical exertion, but the depressing shafts they were housed in – changed his mind. He settled for calling the security guards outside her room. They assured him the princess’ people were all where he left them. The doctor had wanted to come find McKinney, but Dockray had planted a hand on Van der Roll’s chest and made him sit down, with some unambiguous warnings. Fine.
Check-ins with the rest of the security personnel had shown no sign at all that the ship was being boarded. The quiet showed that they weren't being attacked. He’d thought about sending crews out onto the hull to get an eyeball look at the situation. But without first checking with cameras, he didn’t know if he’d be sending them out to their deaths. Too many variables and uncertainties. He was going with the asteroid impact theory for the time being, but he didn't want to be responsible for getting people killed.
The room lights came up. The doors snapped shut with a startling hiss and a clap.
Only 20 minutes since Tchalabi had said half an hour.
A collective sigh of relief hissed from the control room crew. The dead silence was quickly replaced as all the sounds of readouts and equipment ramped up to its normal volume. McKinney had almost forgotten how loud it could be. He started to reach for his communicator, but realized it wasn’t necessary now. He tapped the comm button on his chair.
"Good work, Dennis! Thank you!"
Sounding slightly giddy on the other end, Tchalabi’s voice answered, "It was nothing."
He punched up intraship speakers. "Commander McKinney to crew. I don’t know how much of what’s happening has managed to get around by word of mouth, but it’s like this:" Again he recited the nutshell rundown. "So," he concluded, "Maintain general quarters until I say otherwise. I’ll keep you informed. Out."
He looked at the crew around him. They were all busy getting their stations booted up. He tapped another key. "McKinney to T’Lar." He closed his eyes.
The silence seemed to stretch, the bridge sounds pause.
"Yes, Commander?" she answered.
"You all right?" he asked.
"I am well. Thank you for asking, but I’m sure you have other priorities."
"Yes I do. Where are you?"
"In my quarters. I found my duty station unreachable."
"Good. Um. Do me a favor. Would you go to the princess’ quarters and look after her? Somebody from the ship’s company should be with her besides security guards." That was more of a quickly invented excuse for calling her. She might not understand that he was actually concerned. Plus he did feel he ought to post someone from the staff with Elayna for political decorum, and not just leave her and her people wondering if they’d been forgotten. And Lara and Elayna liked each other.
"Of course, Daniel, I understand. And thank you for your concern. T’Lar out."
She could still surprise him.
A small island of relief in a sea of anxiety.
To business. "Viewscreen on, please."
The sudden appearance of rapid motion was startling. The viewscreen showed the nebula wall, swirling past. The system’s star, much closer now, whizzed through the screen at a diagonal. The ship was tumbling. The star went by again. One tumble every ten seconds. The ship was made for worse stress. The helmsman, Eng, was already working on it. In fact, recovering from a tumble was a one-button operation. If the computer was working.
"Status, helm," he asked.
"Tumbling, sir. I’ve… got it." The spinning image on the screen slowed and stopped. The ship assumed a "rightside-up" attitude in relation the galactic up and down. Eng checked some readouts. "Impulse engines not available, but thrusters are all green."
The navigator, Zaccaria, interjected, "Sir, we’re falling on a gravity track toward the innermost planet. The ship must have been set up for orbit insertion when the power failed."
"Okay. May as well continue to orbit. It’ll be easier to get crews out and do damage control when we’re not worrying about navigating in a system. Are we set up for orbit insertion as well?"
Zaccaria checked. "Oh damn. Damn. The track wasn't finalized, but..." (checking) "but we're going in at..." (checking) "four-tenths Cee." His voice went up an octave. "We need the impulse engines to brake for orbit, or we'll hit it."
"Hit it? The planet?"
McKinney rolled his eyes. "God, give me a break! .... how long till we need the engines?"
Checking. "Four hours forty-five, Sir. Four forty-five."
Everyone in the room had heard the engineer earlier.
McKinney punched his intercom button. "Tchalabi, I have a new time table for you," he said.
"Beg pardon, Sir?"
"We're going to hit a planet in four and a half hours. Put everybody on the impulse engine problem."
"Oh, for ... yessir. Out."
Where there would have been a science station on the main bridge, auxiliary control had a tactical station, assuming that if auxiliary control was being used it was a military situation, not a research one. The tactical station compiled sensor data to develop what had been known as "Situational Awareness" since the days of jet fighter pilots – meaning, basically, knowing everything that’s going on around you so you don’t get killed. Greengrass was the name of the woman at tactical.
"Greengrass," McKinney said, "Can you scan for what hit us?"
Greengrass shook her head. "Commander, I’ve scanned the whole system. The only sign of anything is a cloud of debris from us a few hundred thousand kilometers astern – where we were hit."
McKinney sighed. "Comm, what about that mayday signal?"
"Just getting my panel working, sir," the young woman, Medoff, said. "Here we are." She tapped a key. The unfiltered cacophony of the multiply-layered repeats of the message played. "Ah!" she exclaimed.
Medoff reported, "It’s easy to get a bearing on the origin now. It’s not coming from the planet, it’s coming from orbit."
Greengrass scanned. "A ship. No, a wreck."
"Can we get a visual at this range?"
Greengrass put a long range visual sensor picture on the main screen. The ship was in a few pieces, apparently joined together by a few structural members that hadn't torn. The perspective was distorted from the telephoto effect, and the ship itself showed up very small on the screen from the extreme range. The planet behind it was desert tan with a smattering of clouds, filling the screen and emphasizing the tinyness of the ruined vessel floating above it. A spherical forward section, tubular secondary hull that had been blasted to ruin, and one remaining nacelle wrenched to an odd angle.
McKinney recognized it – recognized the design, anyway. But Eng beat him to it.
"Sir, that's an old Daedalus class. It must be a hundred years old!"
"Ninety three, Lieutenant," McKinney said, remembering Koike’s last words to him with sad wonder.
Which reminded him.
"Medoff," he said, turning his chair to face her. "Can you access our main bridge recordings?"
She looked puzzled for a moment, as if trying to remember if she could do what was asked. McKinney had to remember these people were not regular bridge crew. This was their GQ stations, so they didn't get as much experience at it as the regular crew rotation. He hoped that wasn't going to bite him in the ass later. She turned to her controls without comment.
After a few moments: "I have them sir. A copy is streamed to this console live, so there's a backup even without the main computer."
"Play back the last five minutes available."
They watched. What they saw was whatever the main bridge screen had displayed. What they heard was sound recorded from an omnidirectional microphone at the center of the bridge ceiling.
Hydrogen clouds parting like curtains as they entered the void. The glaring pinprick eye of the star, still too far away to be seen as a disk. They listened as the transmission screamed before Koike – the late Koike – turned it down. The view on the screen was the same view McKinney had watched on his desktop screen. Nothing unusual but the star and the nebula around them. He listened to the familiar conversations, he heard Shankar say "Captain" as if about to warn her about something. Then the screen went dead.
He was surprised by the degree to which his heart fell when the replay went dark. He couldn't breath for a moment for fear of choking up. Greengrass, though, uttered a little sob, and he swore he heard Eng swallow hard.
Medoff, her voice unsteady, said to Greengrass, "Suzy, there's also sensor telemetry with this record."
Greengrass snapped into action getting the feed. "Yes. Something moved in right above us and matched speed."
McKinney froze. Not an asteroid then.
The tactician continued. "I get a spike in the Gamma spectrum. Very powerful. Then the sensors go offline."
He thought for a moment. He noticed he was shaking a little. He breathed out slowly, trying to let his muscles relax. "Okay. Just because it wasn't on the main screen doesn't mean one of our external cameras wasn't looking in the right direction. Medoff, run through those tapes. Play them on the main viewer."
The navigator turned nervously to face McKinney. "Sir?" he choked.
Zaccaria licked his lips. "We're... going to hit the planet. Shouldn't we be worrying about that? Sir? I mean... there must be something..."
McKinney felt a strange surge of emotion that seemed to be a combination of panic and anger. Oddly, the panic wasn't over the danger they were in, it was that this kid was about to force McKinney to act like an officer and tell him to shut up. Hence the anger as well. McKinney reigned it all in – barely – with a held breath and a hand in the air to stop Zaccaria from talking. "Unfortunately, that's entirely up to engineering right now." Zaccaria started to 'but' him and McKinney said more firmly, "We can either sit here and wait with our thumbs up our asses, or we can do something. Right now the only thing we can do is try to find out what happened." Again the young navigator opened his mouth. McKinney's hand was still in the air trying to stop the kid from speaking. He bobbed it at him again and said, "Kapeesh?"
The kid looked very confused. "What does 'kapeesh' mean sir?"
That wasn't the response McKinney was looking for, but the silliness of it broke his anger. He sat back and answered more calmly, "It's an old slang for 'do you understand?'"
"Oh." The crewman turned around and resumed his business, chastised.
The viewscreen blinked and a slightly different view of their surroundings popped on. Medoff explained, "I've selected only the topside automatic cameras, and cued the time code ten seconds before the ... event? ... onward. Here's the portside number three camera."
Just the veil of nebula. Faint stars were visible through it. The view was locked down so nothing moved. It played for ten seconds, then went dead.
"Starboard upper, number four."
Much the same, and then dead air.
The camera was aimed straight forward, and was in fact the feed that the main screen had been displaying. Nothing new to see there.
"Bridge module external."
The view included the upper forward expanse of the saucer section at the bottom of the picture. McKinney could see the ship's name and number, albeit upside down from this perspective.
A streak. Only a streak at the top of the screen. It cued the camera's motion tracking routine, and the view tilted up quickly. There was an instant where something indefinable stopped abruptly, but before McKinney could make anything out it erupted into a blinding glare and the camera was killed. Medoff paused the tape, and began stepping backward through the data sets. McKinney was about to order her to do that. Looks like she'd pulled herself together and remembered how her console worked. When the flare had reversed back to nothing, she froze the tape. Against the magenta and rose hues of the hydrogen cloud, a tiny five-pointed star hovered, shining brightly – not of its own light, but by the light of the nearby star reflecting off its bright surface. Something built. By people.
"Enhance?" McKinney asked.
Medoff hit a key, and the object filled the viewscreen.
At first impression, it was a big white mechanical insect. McKinney got a faint chill. No, it was more like a ship with a lot of arms. There was a bulbous central body faced with some kind of dish. McKinney automatically thought of it as a sensor dish. From the body, five equally long ... arms? struts? ... extended. At the ends of each of these was a singularly nasty looking pod that could only be a weapon, considering recent events. The hull was whitish green. The central dish glowed faintly in a brighter green.
Greengrass read from her screen: "Radius 27 meters through each arm. Composition metal, unknown alloy. And that's all I can tell you from this."
"Step forward slowly," McKinney told Medoff.
As the tape advanced, they saw the weapons fire in thousandths-of-a-second frames. Each of the five pods flickered briefly, not entirely in sync, then flared hotly into blue-white light. They each projected a beam which met the other in the center, at which point the presumed sensor dish suddenly exploded into sun-bright radiance. And the picture went away.
"Wow," Eng whispered. "Not phasers, for sure."
Greengrass analyzed, "Gamma radiation spiked when it went off. I'm guessing some kind of nuclear reaction directed into a beam. Vaguely like an old H-bomb-pumped X-ray laser, but more ... alien."
Zaccaria muttered, "What's the difference?" to himself. Eng shot him a warning glance. McKinney let it pass.
So there was a hostile enemy spaceship outside. Just flaming wonderful. Well, there was no way he was sending damage control crews out on the hull with a hostile who-knew-where. Phasers were inoperable as long as the fusion reactors were offline. Torpedoes were probably useable, but problematic at close range – too little time for them to maneuver on a fast target, and one whopping big explosion that could kill them as well as the opposition.
He sat back in the chair and rubbed his eyes, too tired to think straight.
Eng spoke up. "Sir? If that… thing that attacked us is from the planet we’re heading for, I’m wondering if we should not go into orbit. They’re pretty clearly hostile. Look what happened to that Daedalus."
Damn. "Good point. Damn good point." He sat up straight. He thought he should try to look like a captain. Sound like a captain. But he wasn't thinking things through. He needed a sounding board – or to be a sounding board. The captain bounces an idea off of him and he tells her how to improve on it; bounce his idea off the captain, and she tells him what's wrong with it. Getting it complete and right all by himself didn't come easily. Hell of a time to identify yet another command shortcoming of his. "Okay, Eng, Zaccaria, the minute impulse power comes back, get us into a trailing stellar orbit to the planet. Hang back in its orbit to the LaGrangian point." That should put them a few hundred million kilometers down-orbit, almost certainly out of any sensor range of the planet.
Eng acknowledged. Zaccaria wrung his hands.
And there was still a ship out there that had killed his captain.