Despite its foreboding nature, the gravimetric distortion was a terribly beautiful and awe-inspiring sight to witness. It looked like someone had simply taken the fabric of space and shoved it aside, revealing a massive white hole in its place. Beams of twinkling white light were bursting through the seams, spilling out into the vast vacuum of space, where they quickly became lost in the glittering stars.
Erin Keller regarded the sight as one of the most serene and mysterious ones she had ever witnessed in her lifetime. It was hard to imagine something so inherently beautiful could be a gateway to the subspace pocket inhabited by the Elorg. But she didn’t let those thoughts stand in the way of her duties. The rift needed to be sealed—even if it wasn’t related to the Elorg in any way, shape, or form.
As had been pointed out by several starships passing through the area, the distortion’s continued presence would be a menace to navigation throughout the entire sector. Furthermore, it could expand, perhaps in a cataclysmic fashion, and envelop the nearby star systems—summarily eradicating whatever life may exist on within them.
While it would take millions of years for any of that to happen, Keller knew it would be infinitely easier to end the threat right now, rather than wait for its eventual expansion. Unfortunately, Keller had her doubts about the Captain’s plan. As she recalled, Christopher used a resonant anti-graviton beam to “neutralize” the Elorg rift while it was in its formative stages. She also recalled how that plan failed—miserably, nonetheless.
And so, she slowly came about to catch the curious gaze of Alan Christopher. He locked eyes with her and cast a blank look in her direction. She returned the favor, and then stared back at her station. “Captain,” she said slowly, recalling his disaffection of the title ‘sir.’
He was obviously humbled by her attempt at politeness, but Erin felt it was the least she could do, given the fact she was about to tell him his methodology in this situation was incorrect. She waited a few additional moments before parting her lips.
“I was reviewing our tactical analysis,” she started, “and I feel that a resonant anti-graviton beam will result in failure.”
Christopher smiled quaintly. “Oh, really?”
Erin nodded. “Really,” she confirmed.
“Would you care to enlighten me, or are you going to keep this little revelation to yourself?”
Erin carefully folded her arms before allowing her chair to slowly swivel its way around to face Christopher. “If my memory serves me right, this is the same method you used on the Dark Star three years ago, correct?”
She stared at Christopher with a placid, yet accusing glare that prompted a rather sudden response from the Captain. “It is,” he confirmed. “That’s a good memory you’ve got.”
“It is,” agreed Keller. “And as I recall, your method didn’t work too well…”
Christopher nodded his understanding, but did not yield so easily. Instead, to Keller’s apparent consternation, he opted to defend himself. “But that distortion was five times larger than this one,” he explained. “We barely had enough power to seal it. In this instance, we have a much smaller distortion, and twice as much power. I think it will work,” he said adamantly.
“You think,” Keller mocked. “If we don’t change our tactics, I think this thing could reopen at any time, and we’d find ourselves out here in this same predicament all over again!”
Keller waited patiently to see what Christopher’s next move would be. At first, it seemed as if he was about to rebut her statement, but was pleasantly pleased to hear him say, “Okay, fine. What do you suggest?”
Reveling in her victory, Keller allowed herself an innocent grin as she brought up her revised deflector schematics on the monitor between their two respective stations. “I’m not proposing a massive deviation from your plan, but it would require a lot more power.”
“A phased anti-graviton beam?” Christopher read off the screen in disbelief. “Erin, this could blow out the deflector! A bit extreme, don’t you think?”
Keller hoped her face wasn’t conveying as much stupor and surprise as she felt, but given the reaction that Christopher made upon seeing it, she knew her attempt to occlude her emotion had failed. “It’s experimental, not extreme,” she corrected after a moment of silence.
She watched Christopher casually inspect her calculations in the moments that followed. He was bobbing his head indecisively the entire time, giving Keller no hint as to what he was thinking—if he was thinking anything at all.
She carefully peered into his eyes. Though Christopher ignored her, Erin saw his eyes bobbing back and forth between the lines. At the very least, he was reading it.
But finally, Christopher raised his eyes from the schematics and locked eyes with Keller. “Well?” she demanded.
He only offered her a faint smile before a tense silence filtered in around them—the first silence Keller had come to dread the duration of the trip thus far. Even so, she waited patiently for what seemed like eons for the Captain to respond.
And finally, he did. “Do it,” he said simply.
Keller grinned, and excitedly turned back to her station. “Bringing the deflector modifications on line,” she chirped before intercepting yet another one of Christopher’s curious gazes.
“You mean they’re already done?” he asked in disbelief.
Now it was Keller’s turn to smile enigmatically. She did so, and then bit her bottom lip in hesitation of her coming response. “Well, I guess I’ve been reconfiguring the deflector the entire time,” she sheepishly admitted.
“Oh, how magnanimous of you,” Christopher moaned. “Well, bring them online and prepare to fire.”
Keller complied. “Modifications are complete,” she chimed as the computer displayed its message of readiness. “Let’s rock and roll.”
The phrase sparked a curious grin from Christopher, though he didn’t choose to pursue his obvious interest. Instead, he focused his attention on the helm in front of him. “Fire,” he said simply.
After tapping a short sequence of commands into the computer, sending it all the targeting and dispersion data it would need to complete the task, Keller touched the large button labeled ‘fire,’ and then sat back in her chair to watch the fireworks begin.
The beam was a terribly luminescent shade of salmon, and forced Keller to temporarily shield her eyes from it until they could adjust to the intense light. They never completely adjusted, however, as each time she looked away, Keller found an annoying spot in her vision where the beam’s rays had temporarily stunned the rods and cones in her eyes.
Still, spots and all, it was an incredible sight to behold. The swirling beam drove into the distortion like a hot knife through butter, generating a hurricane-like maelstrom around its shrinking perimeter.
“It’s working,” Keller said as she glanced down at the sensor display. “The distortion’s size is down to ninety-five percent… ninety… eighty-five…”
Pleased that her course of action had turned out to be superior after all, Keller finally allowed herself to gloat. She smiled deviously at Christopher for several seconds, basking in her own evil satisfaction. But to her dismay, the moment was cut short by the computer’s urgent call.
“What is it?” Christopher demanded.
Keller peered down. “The rift,” she said instantly. “It’s collapsing too fast—the energy inside doesn’t have enough time to dissipate.”
Christopher immediately shot her his own version of the evil glare. Keller ignored it and turned to the tactical display. “Raising shields,” she said calmly, not quite ready to accept defeat.
Christopher turned away moments later. “I’m pulling us back five thousand kilometers,” he said a moment later.
But instead of moving away from the gravimetric, the shuttle lurched forward. Keller gritted her teeth as she realized what was happening. “The beam is fluctuating. It’s knocked flight control and weapon systems off line!”
Christopher suddenly placed his hands on either side of his station and braced for impact. Moments later, the shuttle started to vibrated under the increasing turbulence. Keller performed a similar maneuver, and then stared down at her station in search of a possible solution.
“Damn,” Keller muttered under her breath. “I could get the systems back online, but it would take a good fifteen minutes.”
“Well, if we don’t get out of here, we’re going to be pummeled by a level-three shockwave in less than one minute! We’d be lucky to make it out in one piece!” Christopher shouted over the ever-growing racket.
“This close to the distortion, we’d be lucky to make it out in a thousand pieces, let alone one!” Keller retorted just as the fiercest wave of turbulence yet slammed into the Hawking.
Keller briefly lost her grip on the edge of her station. She hastily reached for it, but found it to be rather absent. Instead, she crashed into the tactical station behind her, feeling the displays go dead as the force of her impact destroyed their interfaces. A brief surge of pain soared through Erin’s back, but she was relieved to note that her uniform had absorbed the majority of the damage.
Their wild ride died down for a brief moment, long enough for Erin to return to her position beside Christopher and see the shuttle aimlessly pivoting about the dying gravimetric distortion.
“It worked,” Keller moaned as the very last beams of light soared out of the maelstrom of energy. Moments later, the entire rift imploded—and then, it was just gone.
But the tranquillity lasted only a moment. Not even a second later, before Keller or Christopher could react, the aforementioned shockwave belched out of the fabric of space and stormed at the shuttle like raging tsunami.
The last thing Keller remembered seeing before the shuttle’s inertial dampers could no longer compensate for the extreme conditions was the sight of one of their warp nacelles disintegrating as it flew across the viewscreen.
And then, everything went dark.
As Christopher finally awakened, he was relieved on several counts—one, he was still alive, and equally important, perhaps even more importantly, the Hawking seemed to have survived the blast relatively intact. Without a ship, that would effectively kill both Christopher and Keller, given the fact neither one of them were very skilled at surviving in a vacuum.
When he finally opened his eyes, Christopher was instantly greeted by the underside of the helm. He wasn’t sure how he ended up there—nor was he certain he wanted to know, even though none of his body parts felt contorted or out of place.
Despite that fact, when Christopher grabbed the wobbly chair that he had been seated in at one time, almost every area in his body screamed with a dull pain. He almost decided to fall back under and simply wait for rescue. But then again, unless someone activated the distress signal, the chances of being rescued were remote.
And so, Christopher climbed into the dust-covered, wobbly chair and plopped down in it, intently watching the plume of dust soar out of the cushiony seat into the atmosphere around them.
Beside him, Christopher noticed Commander Keller had already situated herself in her seat, and had managed to at least start some repairs on the shuttle. But it didn’t look like she had made much headway.
“It’s bad,” she muttered before Christopher could even check the damage report.
It didn’t take a genius to figure that one out, but even so, Christopher had to see for himself the extent of the damage. The display in front of him, one of the few still operational, readily displayed the entire list of nothing but bad news.
“Life support systems are destroyed,” he read off first. “We’re down a warp nacelle, and waste extraction has been reduced to a smoldering ash,” he continued. Taking his bladder into consideration, Christopher wasn’t sure which of the three he cited qualified as the worst. In the long run, a ship without life support was in general, not a very happy ship. But for the short term, a ship without waste extraction was equally unhappy.
It was at that moment when Keller decided to share the only piece of good news that had surfaced in the moments after the blast: “We are very near a Class-L planet,” she said.
Keller frowned. “Six million kilometers. If we can get the warp engines running, we can be there in five hours.”
Christopher immediately saw a problem with that. “That’s going to be difficult with only one warp nacelle.”
Keller tugged at his arm and pointed at her monitor. “We only have ten hours of air left in here,” she said. “At impulse, it will take at least twenty-two hours to get there. So it’s up to you. We can sit here and suffocate, or we can try to bring the warp drive back on line and at least try to save ourselves.”
When Erin put the situation in such blatant terms, it made Christopher’s decision that much easier. “Then we’ll try,” he said simply.
It had been quite some time since Christopher had been called in to do the dirty, life-and-death repairs of a starship. Even when he was on the run with Meyer and Stinson on the Dark Star, there was always someone else there to conduct the necessary repairs. But now, it was only Commander Keller and himself—and the clock ticking slowly in the background.
Thankfully, Commander Keller was there, and not someone less proficient in such necessary repairs. Otherwise, Christopher might have been forced to rely on his own less than perfect engineering skills.
Still, he had a fair idea of what needed to be done, and was sure he would be of some assistance to Keller. “I’m transferring all available power to the warp drive systems and containment fields. The last thing we need is a warp core breach.”
Keller nodded affirmatively as she furiously tapped on her station. Christopher was even more thoroughly impressed by her demonstrated knowledge of the engineering skills, given the fact she was not an engineer. Even if it failed, it was by far the most commendable attempt Christopher had ever seen to save his life.
Keller finally looked up. “Got it,” she said hastily.
Christopher turned to the helm. “Setting a course for the planet. Warp…?” he said, his voice trailing off as he awaited an answer from Keller.
“Warp one,” she suggested. “Anything more than that and we’ll tear this puppy apart.”
Christopher complied. “Warp one,” he said.
Moments later, the relatively motionless stars before them streaked into a blur as the Hawking jumped into low warp.
It wasn’t the most pleasant ride Christopher had ever been on. The shuttle was vibrating constantly and very hard to control now that they were without one of their warp nacelles.
“I’ve got the planet on sensors,” Keller called out a few seconds later. “We’re heading straight for it.”
Christopher looked at her curiously. “As in, we’re going to crash and burn if I don’t change course?”
“That about sums it up,” agreed Keller.
But before Christopher could take any actions to alter their course, the one thing he truly hoped would not happen, did. A fairly sonorous boom emanated from behind, followed in short succession by a wave of sparks rolling into the cockpit. The shuttle immediately dropped out of warp, continuing to hurtle toward the planet.
“We’ve got a warp core breach,” Christopher shouted over the growing racket of the explosions.
“We’re not going to make it,” Keller announced after glancing at the flight control data displayed on Christopher’s side of the cockpit.
“No kidding,” he agreed.
For the past several hours, they had been traveling—enduring, rather—the terribly bumpy and turbulent ride without incident, keeping the warp core intact with nothing but good wishes. It would seem their luck had finally run out.
They were still sailing toward the planet at high impulse, and without friction in space, there was nothing stopping that forward momentum. But Christopher knew that if they didn’t get off the Hawking, a very large explosion would be stopping more than the shuttle in just few minutes.
He was certain they couldn’t make it in the condition they were in, and given Keller’s silence, assumed she shared his belief. And so, that left one option.
“Get the emergency supplies ready for transport,” he called out a moment later.
Keller’s eyes bugged out of her head in disbelief. “Are you crazy? We can’t transport to the surface from this distance!”
Christopher sighed. They didn’t have time for this. “Just do it,” he said in a stern voice, making it clear this was not a suggestion or a favor—it was a very direct order, and if Erin had paid any attention at Starfleet Academy, she would follow it.
To Christopher’s relief, Keller had been paying attention. With nothing more than a disapproving glare, Keller rose from her chair and gathered the emergency supplies from the small storage locker located toward the back end of the cockpit.
“I’m boosting power to the annular confinement beams so we don’t disperse through the transporter carrier wave over the extreme distance,” explained Christopher. “But I’m warning you right now, this is going to be the most disorienting transporter experience you’ve ever had.”
Keller didn’t look surprised, or even remotely nervous as she stepped into the tiny alcove designated the emergency escape transporter. Again, Christopher found himself admiring Keller for her apparent skills. But he didn’t dare let her know that—not now. But he only wished he felt as calm as she looked.
He waited several more seconds until the warp core breach was nearly critical before rushing over to the transporter. The shorter the distance they had to transport, the less likely they were to experience complications in the end.
But it was now or never. The shuttlecraft was shaking so violently now that Christopher could barely stand erect, let along stand and operate the transporter controls. Still, he managed, and selected a pair of coordinates that he felt wouldn’t put them stranded in the middle of a sweltering desert, or freezing in a fierce winter storm. Aside from that, their destination would surprise Christopher as much as Keller, if and when they materialized on the surface.
* * *
The Captain had been right about one thing. The transport was not a pleasant one. Even as Erin felt the familiar prickling of the transporter beam plucking her every last atoms away from the Hawking, she already knew it wasn’t going to be a fun trip.
Like most transporter trips, perceptions of time were drastically altered. No matter how long it actually took, the journey always seemed instantaneous. This time was no different—only when Keller found herself on the bottom of a hard, rocky forest floor, she felt as if someone had just turned her body inside out.
She was still tingling from the prolonged exposure, and felt an acute case of dizziness prompt an equally acute case of nausea.
Slowly, Erin opened her eyes. Everything was a blur, spinning around and around. Shapes blurred together into one homogenous blob. Sounds seemed oddly distorted. Keller immediately closed her eyes, but it didn’t help. She could still imagine the world spinning around her in a dizzying array of madness. Her queasy stomach seemed to spin right along with it, sloshing its vile juices from side-to-side like a boat in a hurricane.
Again, she attempted to open her eyes. The world was still spinning, but shapes had become more definite, and colors seemed to stay within their boundaries. Erin took in a deep, soothing breath in an attempt to calm her stomach. While was only partially successful, she knew things were finally back under her control. The lingering upwelling of vomit that had been plaguing her moments earlier had finally retreated, and her pulse had slowed noticeably.
Much as she had suspected earlier, they had landed in the midst of a massive forest. It was humid, but not uncomfortably so, and a light breeze gently passed through almost unnoticed. Slowly, Keller looked toward the tops of the massive conifers to see their height. While they were high, something else a bit more dramatic caught her eyes.
Shooting through the atmosphere was a single twinkling star, visible despite the broad daylight they were currently experiencing. As it soared through the air, its brightness dimmed for several seconds before re-igniting in a massive explosion of white light. It glittered in the deep azure sky for several moments before forever disappearing from the sky.
Forever, in that Keller was almost certain she had not been witness to a shooting star. A shooting shuttle would have been a more accurate description, as Keller suspected that was the smoldering hulk of the Hawking meeting its demise in the alien atmosphere…