a a a
They fell. Technically they were falling toward the star itself, being drawn in by its immense gravity. But as they got ever closer to the planet, its smaller – but closer – gravity well would pull at them more insistently. Without propulsion they had exactly the same chance of survival as any other piece of space flotsam that fell into a planet's atmosphere: none. An Excelsior class starship would certainly make an impressive meteor. The density of the atmosphere they hit and the angle at which they hit it would determine how much of the ship was left when it blew a crater in the surface. It would certainly break into pieces as it slammed into air at almost half the speed of light. Would any of the ship make it to the ground? More likely at this speed, it would convert much of the mass to energy and create a Tunguska-style fireball high above the ground, and wipe out everything in a 50 kilometer circle. At least there was no antimatter aboard.
McKinney had received the damage control teams' report within an hour after power had come back on line. It was as bad as he thought. The beam had indeed blown a hole straight through the saucer, but the wound wasn't clean. The colateral pressure caused by the blast had blown walls out between sections and traveled down corridors and turbolift tubes before pressure doors had closed. So rather than a neat 10-meter hole, there was death and damage for 50 meters around it as well, on every deck in the primary hull. Doctor Alejandro's report of the injured was equally as bad. Many were radiation burn victims exposed to the mystery beam's high gamma dosage.
And the dead. They had to be listed as missing, although they would never be found.. Sixty-seven souls. If McKinney himself was furious with the fates over turning this milk-run into a disaster, he imagined how those poor souls would feel. The thought at least forced him to feel ashamed to indulge in self pity, and thus snapped him out of it.
He felt less than useless sitting in the captain's chair in auxiliary control.
Doctor Anthony Van der Roll stood. Leftenant Dockray eyed him speculatively. The doctor raised a placating hand to the armsman. "I’m sorry for my earlier outburst, everyone," he said. Melody and the princess cooed comforting rebuttals, and Dockray nodded an acknowledgement. Van der Roll continued, "If everyone will excuse me – Elayna, if you don’t need me …"
"Of course I need you, Anthony," she smiled.
He responded with a smile that seemed to fight its way through clouds of gloom. "Thank you, dear," he said sincerely. "If you all don’t mind, I think I’d like to go to my quarters and – at least try to relax."
Dockray nodded. "It’ll probably be some time before we get any news."
Melody jibed, "Take a pill or something, Anthony. You’re too wired."
He nodded without looking at her. "Well," he said, putting a period on the discussion. He went through the door without another word.
The two guards were still there. They said hello and asked if he was all right. He told them he was just going back to his quarters. The guards exchanged questioning looks. One said, "Our orders are to keep an eye on all of you, sir. I’ll escort you."
That’s not what Van der Roll had wanted to hear. "I’m just a few doors down, officer…"
"’Crewman’ is fine sir. I’ll get in trouble if I don’t."
"Oh all right."
It was only a walk of twenty yards, but the guard positioned himself behind and to Anthony’s left and shadowed him. Van der Roll felt himself stiffen a little more. The guard made him nervous – a reminder that they were in a crisis. Not that he needed a reminder. "Have you gotten any word on what’s happening?" He decided to ask the crewman.
"Just a little, sir. We’re pretty sure we’re not being boarded, and that the attacks are over for now. So you and your party should be safe enough."
Safe as the ship itself, anyway. Well, that was something. Van der Roll nodded thanks, and by that time they were at his door. The guard said "Have a nice night, sir," and took up a vigilant position next to the door. The doctor stopped and stared for a moment. "You’re not going to stay there, are you?"
The crewman looked mildly insulted. "I’ve got orders, sir."
"Yes." Van der Roll sighed and went inside.
The guest quarters were a two-room affair. Anthony assumed they were similar to officer’s quarters. A sitting room with a desk and workstation, with a gridded decorative partition separating a bedroom, just big enough for the single bed. There was a lavatory attached to the bedroom with a sonic shower. Compared to Anthony’s home it was a claustrophobic closet.
The Van der Roll estate on Groningen covered forty hectares adjoining the Demerest Chateau grounds. It was granted him upon becoming Physician to Elayna shortly after her birth. It featured a main hall whose roof was entirely transparent skylight. The sun that blessed Groningen with five percent more light than Earth’s sun, and stayed in the sky for twenty percent longer each day, painted cut glass sculptures in the foyer and reflected faceted highlights onto the beautifully patterned wallpaper. The house, patterned after a classical European mansion, had fifteen rooms on three levels and its own fusion bottle for power. His wife had a whole wing devoted to her crystal sculptures, and all the rooms had enormous light-gathering windows, with views looking out over many kilometers of fields and forests. Anthony loved the sunlight, and the views, and the green.
He didn’t mind space travel while he was part of Elayna’s entourage, but he didn’t choose to travel at all, given the choice. He found spaceships confining and dreary. He’d much rather be at home, or at his work. This little cubicle (though he was told it was among the larger guest quarters aboard), pressed in on him, squeezing beads of sweat from his brow. Maybe he should have stayed with the others. Maybe company would help him feel less closed in. But he was ashamed to let them see him getting more and more nervous. It wasn’t only the enclosed space of a ship, it was the uncertainty of the situation. It was fear for Elayna’s safety if the child came too soon. Fear for Elayna’s life if the ship was in danger. And firmly gripped over it all like a stranger clutching his arm in a dark room, was the fear for his own life. He felt himself shaking.
He wished he could think of something to do about all this.
Leftenant Dockray found himself staring at the closed door that Van der Roll had left through. The poor guy was a nervous wreck., trying hard not to show it. Dockray didn’t think anyone in the room hadn’t noticed, though. Years in the Army, and further years in the service of the Royal Court, had taught the bodyguard how to deal with uncertainty, and how to sit through long periods of doubt like this. Few people had that advantage. He gave the princess credit – most girls her age would be gibbering with fear in her position. Yet Elayna kept a calm face and an even voice. Some day she’d rule Groningen very competently at her husband’s side. If she got the chance. Even Melody was holding up under the strain, but Dockray suspected that Melody’s strength came from her love of the princess, and the maternal need to be strong for her. If Elayna wasn’t here, maybe they’d all be gibbering with fear! Well, for all that, if Elayna wasn’t here, none of them would be in this situation.
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"Commander," Zaccaria’s voice quavered. "If we don’t do something soon it’ll be too late."
The planet that would kill them soon filled the view screen. It was already too late to fall into a trailing LaGrangian orbit; their only option now was to orbit the planet itself, with whatever aggressive enemy there may be down there on it. They still had time to make the course and velocity changes for that. But Zaccaria’s panic told McKinney that he was being a bad commander. He should be able to think of something to keep these people busy with something beside worry. But then, he thought, they should be professional enough to not fall to pieces.
Who was he kidding? His own stomach felt like a sailor was practicing tying knots in it. He’d told the engineer not to bother him if it would distract him from the work, and he’d look weak in front of the bridge crew if he initiated a call down there.
Zaccaria whined, "We have about 20 minutes, and it’ll be too late to correct."
Eng looked at Zaccaria as if trying to decide what to say to him.
McKinney decided to save him the trouble. "Thank you, Mister Zaccaria. How long after that until we hit the atmosphere?"
Zaccaria looked over his shoulder at the commander, his expression wide with disbelief as the dispassionate way he’d asked. You don’t hang out with a Vulcan for a year without learning something, McKinney thought. The navigator sputtered a few syllables, then checked his readouts. "Five minutes, plus or minus one. Sir."
McKinney nodded. Calmly, he said "Thank you, navigator." Use calm to engender calm. Yelling at the guy would just make him more frantic.
Everyone in the room would be put at ease if McKinney checked in with Tchalabi, he realized. It only served his ego to keep waiting. He hit a key on his chair’s arm. "Tchalabi."
"Yessir, we’ve almost got it, sir."
"We have … fifteen minutes, Dennis."
"If you don’t have it in ten, my resignation will be on your desk in the morning. Out."
Zaccaria almost shrieked: "We’re going to die and the engineer is making wise cracks? What the hell…?"
Eng’s grip on his arm stopped the smaller man in mid sentence. But Zaccaria yanked loose. "Don’t you grab me! I’m not –"
"Zaccaria!" McKinney shouted. He immediately knew he shouldn’t have, but a person can only take so much before he loses it – as they were both demonstrating."
"Zack, wait," Medoff said from her station. "Didn’t you hear the engineer’s voice? He wasn’t worried."
McKinney almost yelled at Medoff for interrupting, but realized what she was saying through a haze of anger.
Medoff went on, "He cracked a joke because he knows he can make it. He’s incredibly tired and maybe it wasn’t the best judgement to say it, but it means we’ll be all right."
McKinney realized she was right. She was a pretty good communications officer after all. One had to know more than how to route calls. He realized he was sitting up in an aggressive gesture toward Zaccaria. He sat back, a little more hopeful.
Zaccaria looked at Medoff. "You think so?"
"You can read stars, I can read voices," she shrugged.
The navigator glanced at McKinney, then turned back to his console.
McKinney told him, "Keep updating the insertion track, will you? Be ready at a second’s notice."
He looked over his shoulder again, gauging his commander’s mood. At last he said "Aye, Sir," and turned to his work.
Tchalabi’s voice rang over the control room speakers: "Impulse power on line, Commander!"
The chrono showed ten minutes to spare. Ten minutes between safety and death wasn’t much, but it looked like forever now.
"Mister Eng, Mister Zaccaria, do your stuff." He said with a laugh that released four hours of nervous tension. "Thank you very much, Dennis!"
"Coming about," Eng said.
Tchalabi's voice, exaggeratedly blasé: "No problem, Commander."
The Starship Breitling’s navigational thrusters puffed gas into the void and spun the ship on its vertical axis. The screen-filling ball of the planet slid sideways out of the viewscreen. The picture of empty space was quickly replaced with a schematic graphic showing the planet’s gravity field, the Breitling’s track, and the course she needed to correct to for orbital insertion. A second series of puffs checked the rotation with the ship’s impulse engine exhausts aimed in the direction the ship was falling, and angled to change its direction precisely. The icon on the screen representing the ship blinked green. Figures appeared in a window on screen.
"We’ll need a 157 second burn at one half impulse, Sir," Zaccaria reported.
McKinney nodded. "Execute." As Eng activated the maneuver, Zaccaria cast a strange look at McKinney. Daniel was about to get mad when he realized what he’d said. "Okay, maybe ‘execute’ was the wrong word." A chuckle made its way around the room as they felt the rumble of the impulse engines transmitted through the hull into the seats.
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Out in the nebula, past the wall of hydrogen and dust held at bay by the star’s ionized winds, hovering unseen, a sensor detected, a program ran, a propulsion system came to life. For the second time this day, a sleep that had lasted ninety three years was interrupted.
a a a
"One minute," Eng called out.
"On track," Zaccaria added happily. "Orbit in ten minutes."
Greengrass sang out, "Movement in the nebula at three one five mark four zero."
McKinney felt his heart sink. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment against the world, then opened them and accepted it for what it was. "Let me see it."
Greengrass took over the viewscreen and moved a camera. The image stabilized, zoomed. "Wait," she said, "it’s gone to warp… warp two. Shifting to subspace sensors."
McKinney didn’t wait. "Shields, maximum," he ordered.
Greengrass complied and muttered, "I’ll be damned, they’re working," as if she didn’t expect them to. McKinney sympathized; he had expected to be dead by now.
The image on the screen resolved. It was the ship that had shot them before. It had been lurking out in the nebula, waiting … for what? Why didn’t it finish them off before? What made it come back now? The impulse engines! They’d been on during the first attack, and the second one was coming after they were fired up again. They’re sensors must have keyed on the plasma exhaust.
"How long till it gets here?"
"Not while it’s at warp, sir, can’t get a lock."
"The moment it downwarps, then."
Zaccaria read off their impulse burn as it ended, counting down from twenty to zero. The engines cut off.
The alien ship came out of warp a thousand kilometers away and bore down on them at high sublight speed. Then it paused.
It aimed at where they’d been when the engines cut off.
Greengrass said, "Phasers locked."
McKinney raised a hand, "Wait. I think it tracks our impulse exhaust. It may not see us."
"Well that’s just silly," Zaccaria said, "Why wouldn’t it have other sensors?"
The alien abruptly rotated toward them. The viewscreen flared like a nova.
Zaccaria screamed at the same pitch as Medoff. Eng and Greengrass muttered curses. McKinney grabbed his chair arms with a death grip and thought it was a crying shame that his first command had to end this way.
The ship bucked. But not as severely as the first time.
And that was all that happened.
McKinney opened his eyes. They were still alive. "Eh? Um. Report!"
"Peripheral hit on the aft shields," Greengrass read from her screen. "Same beam, same power as before, but a glancing blow. We’re rotating off axis a little, Mister Eng."
"Oh." He collected himself and corrected with thrusters.
"Orbit achieved," Zaccaria said rather sheepishly.
Greengrass continued, "The alien has warped away! He’s heading for the nebula wall again."
"What the hell?" several people said at once.
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"Can we get alongside that shipwreck without using the impulse engines?" McKinney asked.
Eng and Zaccaria checked some figures. "Yessir," they both answered. Eng finished, "It’ll take a lot of orbits with only thrusters – about ten hours – to catch up to it on thrusters only."
The disparity of speeds in space was one of the things McKinney always marveled at. Cross a stellar system in minutes at warp, but once you're in orbit of a planet, you have to stay within the relative snail's pace of its orbital velocity. Too much faster and you leave orbit, too much slower and you fall. What would take you seconds at the ship's cruising speed takes hours in orbit.
"Okay, do that please," McKinney ordered. He keyed his comm. "Planetary sensors section."
"Sensors, Aye," replied a disembodied female voice smartly.
"This is the first officer. Everything working down there?
A chuckle of disbelief. "No, Sir! The main sensors were on the bottom of the primary hull, which, I'm told, has a big hole in it, Sir." When McKinney didn't answer right away, the technician rightly assumed he was formulating a creative way to end the tech's service career, so the woman continued quickly, "But, uh, the backup suite in the belly is functional. it's much more limited, Sir."
McKinney let his breath out and decided the technician could continue to live. "I’d like as thorough a scan of the planet as possible. I want to know if anybody lives down there. Level of technology and potential threats in addition to the routine stuff."
"Aye sir." McKinney expected a "We'll do our best," but the woman wisely added only, "Out."
He swiveled his chair to face Greengrass. "Sue, get everybody in the tactical section working. I want you to keep an eye on the surface. Keep the shields up, keep scanning for threats. Do you still have that alien ship tracked?"
"No Sir," she answered, "I have the location where it re-entered the nebula, but I lost it after that."
"Right. Damn. Well, have your people keep an eye out for that thing too, all right?"
She nodded and turned back to her console.
What else? He realized he was actually functioning pretty well. The decisions were coming pretty naturally and the busier he got, the less nervous he was. Was he forgetting anything?
"Engineering," he called, "What’s the antimatter situation? How long till we have warp power?"
Tchalabi’s voice came after a moment. "We’re starting the antimatter generators up now, sir. We dropped everything like you said to get impulse power on line, so we’re just starting on the warp problem. Still have that control circuit problem to the intermix chamber anyway. I’ll still estimate it at the better part of a day."
"Okay. Keep me posted."
"Aye, Sir. Out"
McKinney wondered if he should have taken a hard line there and demanded Tchalabi get it done faster. A day? You have 12 hours, mister, now get cracking. What good did that do? Tchalabi knew the situation as well as he did and McKinney didn’t imagine the engineer would be inclined to drag his feet getting them out of there. McKinney was working on the theory that the alien ship would only attack if they lit off the impulse engines. If the alien proved him wrong, well, he’d have to rethink his theory!
"Bridge, sensor section," his comm chirped. He acknowledged.
"We did a fast preliminary scan Sir, from horizon to horizon. This hemisphere, at least, is devoid of any kind of civilization."
"Really?" He was genuinely surprised. With that ship out there he'd expected something.
"Yessir. Class M, breathable atmosphere. Heavy jungle in the tropic zones, high Oh-Two levels. One large ocean, so far, on this side. Nice place, but no people. At least not on this hemisphere, or in big enough groups to register on a general sweep. From the prelim atmospheric spectra, we can almost assure you there's no industry down there anywhere. Detailed scans will follow, Sir."
"Okay. Thank you."
Medoff had put a view straight down on the main viewscreen. He watched for a few moments. They were in a flat equatorial orbit, and the view was rather beautiful. Very like Earth over the Amazon basin – lush greenery, dappled with patchy cloud cover, highlighted by lightning-shaped flashes of sunlight as it glinted off stretches of jaggedly meandering rivers. Jungle too dense to live in, probably.
Looking at the screen, his eyes drifted up to the chrono above it. God, it was oh-six-hundred! He'd been getting ready for bed when this all started!
Drowsiness hit him like a phaser stun. How long had he been awake? His shift started at oh six hundred. He got up and moved toward the doors. "Okay, folks, we’ve been at this for … six hours. If anyone wants to be relieved go right ahead and call your standby. I for one have been up for twenty-four hours, and I need a couple of hours of sleep before we catch up to the other ship." Not to mention a few hundred other things to check on. "Eng you have the watch, unless you'd like to call your relief."
"I'm fine, Sir," Eng said, "Now that the fun's over." That raised a nervous chuckle around the room. Rather than taking the center chair, he stayed at the helm. Quicker to react from there, McKinney presumed. "I don't have to tell you; call me if it goes sour." He turned to the doors to leave. Stopped. The captain would say something else to them. He turned back. "Good job, everybody."
For some reason he couldn't quite fathom, he felt good. In fact he felt very good. Almost cocky. They were still in deep trouble, but he'd managed to survive being in command during a real crisis. Maybe they were only in a pause in the crisis at the moment, but he had a feeling of success. He decided to ride the wave a little. He figured it would break soon enough.
a a a
T'Lar was sitting, as she always sat, stiffly and formally, in the easy chair in the princess' front room. Her eyes were closed in meditation, hands folded together in her lap, but McKinney knew she was probably aware of her surroundings and his arrival. Melody was asleep on the couch, and the princess was presumably asleep in the bedroom. It gratified McKinney that the princess had felt safe enough to sleep. Dockray sat on the floor, back against a wall, arms and legs folded, eyes on McKinney. He'd probably been asleep too, but he must have been the one who told the door to open. The armsman took his hand away from his weapon, moved his eyes toward the bedroom and made a hushing gesture at the Commander. McKinney nodded and sat carefully on the arm of the couch at Melody's feet, trying not to wake her. He was too tired to keep standing, but he knew if he sat on the floor next to Dockray he'd probably be asleep before he could start a talking.
In a very soft voice, T'Lar said, "Good morning, Daniel."
He smiled. She was never unaware of her surroundings. "Hi, Lara," he whispered. "Thanks for VIP-sitting." McKinney briefed Dockray on their situation so he could pass on reassurances to the rest of the royal party. He knew he only had to whisper loud enough for Dockray to hear him, T'Lar, who's ears were evolved to hear long distances in Vulcan's thin atmosphere, would hear as well.
She rose and stretched, worked a kink out of one leg. "I should be helping in the bio-sensor section." He nodded his approval of her suggestion. "Have you gotten any sleep yet?"
"I'm on my way. I should be able manage a few hours."
"I shall walk with you and make sure you get to your quarters."
He laughed. Only he would realize she was showing actual concern. "I have to go to engineering first. Tchalabi deserves a personal thanks. Hell, he deserves a kiss on the lips."
T'Lar made an uncertain face. She shook her head. "Humans suffer greatly from non-cyclic mating habits. You crave physical contact and the most inopportune moments."
They heard the princess laugh out loud from her bedroom.
"Oh God," McKinney muttered. "I'm sorry we woke you, Princess Elayna."
They heard sheets rustle, and she appeared at the room divider in the same bathrobe he'd seen her in earlier. She was smiling radiantly. "Not at all. I really couldn't sleep. You think we're out of danger for the moment?"
He nodded. "For the moment."
She studied his face. "You, sir, look a wreck. You should get some sleep."
He rolled his eyes (and stopped himself from finishing the gesture with a start – don't roll you're eyes at royalty!). He cast a glance at T'Lar, waiting for him by the door. "So I've been told. But I have..."
"Daniel," the Vulcan said, "you are no good to anyone in your current state of fatigue. I am much stronger than you, even when you are fit and can stand without wobbling. Shall I carry you to your quarters?"
Dockray stared with utter disbelief. The princess giggled. Oddly, Melody hadn't been bothered by the talking and continued to sleep.
McKinney walked up to T'Lar, his fists on his hips. "You know, I'm tempted to call your bluff and make you do just that." She bent to grab him by the legs. "BUT," he continued, and she froze, "I'd never be able to look the crew in the eyes again if they saw that."
She gestured to the door and raised a tapered eyebrow.
She entered his quarters with him and stood at a formal-looking at-ease at the door as it closed behind her.
"You're not going to try to put me to bed, are you?" he asked worriedly.
He sat heavily on the edge of the bed and started to yank his boots off. "I am going to call engineering and check in with Tchalabi. Tell him to take a break too. We've probably both been up the same amount of time. His crew doesn't need him hovering over them to get the job done."
"That is logical." She watched him.
He sighed. "Don't worry about me, Lara, I couldn't possibly not sleep at this point. I am so tired."
She shifted her stance slightly. He recognized it as something she did when she needed to choose her words carefully. Anyone else would have missed it, of course. "I have seen how the human mind can – how your mind specifically – can override your body's needs. You were only just returning to a normal diurnal schedule after many days of sleeplessness. You allow your doubts to plague you to the point where it endangers your own health. It is absurd."
He tossed a boot into a corner, a little more forcefully than he'd intended. "Lara, I ... I agree! But I was brought up in Ireland, not on Vulcan. I can't throw a switch on the stress and go to sleep!" Her expression remained as neutral as ever, but he knew he shouldn't have said that. He tossed the other boot gently. "Don't tell me Vulcans never have self-doubt."
"Oh of course we do, Daniel. But it is simply not logical ... please stop laughing, it is the only word for it."
"I'm sorry. I know. It's become kind of a Vulcan cliché over the years, though."
"Ah. Like the way your people enjoy drinking themselves into catatonia."
"Point taken!" he slumped back onto his bed. He'd like to take his clothes off but he wasn't going to with Lara standing there. He'd probably fall asleep before he could get his shirt off.
"Daniel," she said as calmly and stoically as ever, "just because I have been trained to control and suppress my emotional responses does not mean that I don't have emotions."
He looked at her sideways through sleep-heavy eyelids. He must have upset her; she used a contraction! He wondered if she was going to realize she was defeating her own purpose by keeping awake to yell at him.
"And right now," she continued, "I am frustrated and concerned for you because you will not help yourself. Now ... well, I see you are in fact falling asleep. Good. Will you promise me that if you cannot stay asleep, you will contact sick bay for a sleep aid?"
His lids were almost shut. "Lara?" he said, his voice a sleepy, gravelly burr.
"I ... don't want to die out here. Out in the middle ... of nowhere. Where nobody'll ... ever ... find us."
The last thing he saw before his eyes closed of their own weight was T'Lar's face. She actually had an expression. It was pure surprise. He loved surprising her.
The last thing he heard in the fugue state between drowsiness and sleep was her voice. Was there a break in it? "Nor do I, Daniel."
He didn't here the doors as she left.