Despite its foreboding nature, the gravimetric distortion was a terribly beautiful and awe-inspiring sight to behold. It looked like someone had simply taken the fabric of space and shoved it aside, revealing a massive white hole in its place. Ashen beams of twinkling 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 she had ever witnessed in her many years. It was hard to imagine something so inherently beautiful could be a gateway to something as inherently evil as the Elorg’s subspace domain. As such, beauty was irrelevant. The rift needed to be sealed.
Even though it seemed the distortion was completely unrelated to the Elorg Rift in the Alteran Expanse, its continued presence would be a navigational hazard for any starship traversing the sector. Furthermore, the distortion might one day—tens of thousands of years down the road—expand. Such distortions were difficult to predict. It might expand a few kilometers or a few light years. Either way, the potential for extreme destruction certainly existed… and tens of thousands of years down the road, such a cataclysmic event would be nearly impossible to stop. Right now, it was a fairly simple matter.
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 a few years ago. She also recalled how miserably that plan failed in the long run.
Her gaze wandered about the shuttle cockpit for a few moments before finally catching Christopher’s curious gaze. They exchanged relatively blank glances before Keller finally decided to voice her concerns: “Captain.” She specifically avoided calling him sir, not only because he apparently disliked the title, but because it was the least she could do, given the fact she was about to tell him his plan to collapse the distortion was dead wrong. “I was reviewing our tactical analysis and I think that a resonant anti-graviton beam will result in failure.”
Christopher flashed a quaint smile. “Oh, really?”
Keller nodded. “Really,” she confirmed.
“Would you care to enlighten me, or are you going to keep this little revelation to yourself?”
Folding her arms beneath her breasts, Keller slowly turned her chair 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,” Keller agreed. “And as I recall, your method didn’t work too well…”
Ouch. Suddenly, Christopher wasn’t so sure he wanted to have an extended conversation with Keller. “I should like to remind you—that distortion was five times bigger than this one. We barely had enough power to seal it. In this case, we have a much smaller distortion and twice as much power.” He flashed a reassuring smile. “I think this will work.”
“You think.” Keller arched a curious brow. “If we don’t change our tactics, I think this thing could reopen at any time, and six months… a year down the road, we could found ourselves right back out here again.”
There was a moment of silence. Keller was waiting to see what Christopher would do next. Christopher was waiting to see if Keller had any more attitude up her sleeve. When it became obvious the opening volley of their little argument was at its end, Christopher took the initiative. “Okay. Fine.” He folded his arms upon his chest. “What do you suggest?”
Pleased with her little victory, Keller allowed a slight grin to touch her lips as she brought up her revised deflector schematics on the monitor between their workstations. “I’m not proposing a massive deviation from your plan, but it would require a lot more power.”
Christopher glanced at the readout.
“A phased anti-graviton beam?” He cringed.
Keller hoped her face wasn’t conveying as much bewilderment as she presently felt—but given the curious look upon Christopher’s face, it was obvious that her bewilderment was quite apparent. “It’s experimental, not extreme,” she promptly clarified.
Christopher casually inspected her calculations a second time. 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 bright blue eyes. Though Christopher was oblivious, Keller saw his eyes darting back and forth between the lines. At the very least, he was reading it.
And a few minutes later, Christopher pulled his eyes away from the schematics.
“Well?” she demanded.
There was a blank look upon Christopher’s face—and when he neglected to answer Keller’s question, the subsequent silence was easily the first bit of quiet that Keller had come to dread since they left the Starlight.
He shrugged. “I’m not much of an engineer,” he admitted. “But everything looks okay to me. Do it.”
Keller grinned, and excitedly turned back to her station. “Bringing the deflector modifications online,” she chirped before intercepting yet another one of Christopher’s curious gazes.
“You mean they’re already done?” he asked in disbelief.
Keller flashed an enigmatic smile. “Well…” Her thoughts hung there for a long moment as she fabricated a diplomatic response to Christopher’s inquiry. “I guess I might have been reconfiguring the deflector the past few hours,” she sheepishly admitted.
“Oh, how magnanimous of you,” Christopher moaned. “Well, bring the modifications online and prepare to fire.”
Keller complied, her deft fingers gliding over the computer console. “We’re good to go,” she said a scant moment later.
Christopher glanced at the maelstrom of white light stirring out the cockpit window. Beautiful as it might have been, it had to go. “Fire.”
With a few quick keystrokes, Keller sent the computer all the targeting and dispersion data it would need to complete the task at hand. Once it successfully processed the data, the computer chirped, and Keller tapped the large reddish button on her console labeled ‘FIRE.’
A blazing beam of ragged pink light suddenly shot away from the shuttle. Keller was forced to avert her eyes for a moment while they adjusted to the intense light—but they never did, and each time she looked away the beam, she found a terribly annoying spot in her vision.
Still, spots and all, it was an incredible sight to behold. The pulsating deflector beam drove into the distortion like pestilence, generating a wispy, hurricane-like maelstrom around its shrinking perimeter.
“It’s working,” Keller said as she glanced at the sensor data flittering across her computer console. “The distortion has shrunk about fifteen percent.”
Christopher nodded his approval. “Good.”
Infinitely pleased with herself—and her little victory—Keller allowed a devious little smile to creep across her face. Christopher certainly took notice, but before either one of them had a chance to react, a few shrill sensor alerts blared from the computer.
“What is it?” Christopher demanded.
Keller glanced at the wealth of sensor data flitting across her console. “It’s the rift,” she said instantly. “It’s collapsing too fast—the energy inside doesn’t have enough time to dissipate.”
Christopher flashed a devious little glare of his own—and left it at that. They had more important things to worry about than some petty little argument.
“I’m raising the shields,” said Keller. She was still confident that she might somehow be able to stabilize the rift—and the shields could buy her just enough time to get the job done.
Tendrils of white-hot energy arced around the mouth of the spinning vortex, many of them coming within a few hundred kilometers of the Hawking. Sitting so close to the rift was risky, but it was a risk that Keller was willing to take.
Much to her chagrin, Christopher was not. “I’m pulling us back five thousand kilometers,” he said, tapping the requisite commands into the helm.
But instead of moving away from the gravimetric distortion, the shuttle suddenly lurched forward—barely at first, but it very quickly set into a more definite forward motion. Keller clenched her jaw. “The beam is fluctuating,” she said, watching as the pinkish beam flittered in and out of existence. “The helm is offline! So are weapons!”
The shuttle started to vibrate. The deck plates rattled; the bulkheads creaked and groaned. The Hawking was suddenly in a very bad way; both Christopher and Keller knew it. While Christopher braced himself for a possible impact, Keller was still sifting through the wealth of information displayed on her computer screen, desperate to find a solution.
Unfortunately, they seemed to be totally screwed. “Damn,” Keller muttered under her breath. “I think I can get our damaged systems back online, but it’ll take a good fifteen minutes.”
One of the energy tendrils suddenly lashed into the shields. There was a ZAP of blazing white light and enough energy behind it to rock the shuttlecraft halfway to oblivion.
“I don’t think we have fifteen minutes!” Christopher exclaimed. His workstation flickered for a few seconds before going completely dead. “By my estimate, we’ve got about one minute before a level three shockwave reduces us to a smoldering cloud of debris!”
Keller could have noted that, given their close proximity to the violently dying distortion, they would likely be completely vaporized… but since they just might have the opportunity to witness the event first hand in a few seconds, Keller decided to save her breath. Besides, the constant roar of the Hawking being torn asunder would have drowned out her voice, anyway.
The shuttle suddenly jolted. Another flash of light blasted the shield grid—and Keller’s grip on her workstation faltered. The following moments were little more than a blur, but they concluded with her backside smashing into the workstation behind her. The computer console crackled and shattered, glittering sparks erupted from within. Keller felt a stab of pain in her back…
And then everything stopped.
Ignoring the pain, Keller scrambled back into her seat. She brushed the thin layer of soot and debris from her workstation just in time to see the few remaining vestiges of the gravimetric distortion implode in a gulp of pinkish-white light.
“It worked!” Keller was more than a little surprised by the turn of events. Despite everything, the rift actually collapsed. But the tranquility was fleeting.
Not even a second later, the shockwave arrived. It belched from the defunct rift like a raging tsunami, hurtling toward the shuttle with a vengeance. It came with a deafening roar. The lights flickered. The deck jolted with unfathomable violence. Bulkheads began to snap. Keller briefly glimpsed a disintegrating warp nacelle fly in front of the shuttle…
And then everything went dark.
When Alan Christopher parted his eyes, he was relieved on several counts. Most importantly, he was still alive and in one piece. The same could not be said for the Hawking. Though the shuttle wasn’t entirely destroyed, it was immediately obvious they weren’t going anywhere fast. None of the computer workstations were online. None of the lights were on. In fact, he wasn’t entirely certain where, exactly, in the shuttlecraft he was located.
He was on his back.
And it was dark.
He cautiously extended an arm, slowly surveying his uncertain surroundings—and he almost immediately came upon something cold and hard just a few feet above him. Was it the underside of the helm?
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Christopher was ultimately able to determine that he was, indeed, underneath the helm. He had no idea how he got there… just that he did. Slowly, Christopher reached for the wobbly chair that he had been sitting in—but nearly every muscle in his body summarily protested in the form of dull aches and stabbing pains.
In that instant, Christopher was very tempted to go back under the helm and stay there until somebody rescued them… Of course, unless someone activated the distress signal, the chances of being rescued were remote.
And so, Christopher wearily climbed into the wobbly, dust-covered chair. When he sat, a plume of dust mushroomed out of the cushion and roiled in the stale, acrid air. He cringed. “Lovely.”
Next door, Commander Keller was already hard at work on her computer console. About a quarter of the control interface was aglow and somewhat functional; the remainder of the console looked like a total loss. Brushing some of the dirt from her face, Keller wearily turned her gaze upon Christopher. “It’s bad,” she muttered.
It didn’t take a genius to figure that one out. Even so, Christopher was curious to see just how bad. He tapped at the console in front of him. The action didn’t seem to do anything, but a damage report nonetheless flittered onto the display between him and Keller. And it really was bad.
“Life support has been completely destroyed,” he grumbled. “One of our warp nacelles is gone… and waste extraction has been reduced to a pile of smoldering ash.” Taking his bladder into consideration, Christopher wasn’t sure which of those three evils 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 a bathroom was equally unhappy.
It was then that Keller decided to share the only piece of good news that had surfaced thus far. “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 about 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 directed his attention toward the damage report. “We only have ten hours of air left in here,” she reminded. “At impulse, it will take at least twenty-two hours to get to the planet. 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 Keller put the situation in such blatant (and grim) terms, it made Christopher’s decision-making process that much simpler. “I think we’ll opt for the warp engines,” he said without much thought.
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 Rachel Meyer and Jason Ramsey aboard the Dark Star, it was a rare occasion for him to be making extensive repairs. But now, it was only Commander Keller and himself—and the clock was ticking…
Thankfully, Erin Keller was a very competent woman. Had she not been so proficient, Christopher would have been forced to rely on his own less than perfect engineering skills. Things didn’t look so rosy then…
Still, Christopher had a fair idea of what needed to be done. Sure, he didn’t know exactly how to do all of that stuff, but… he was certainly knowledgeable enough to provide Keller with some assistance. “I’m transferring all available power to the warp drive and containment fields. The last thing we need is a warp core breach.”
Keller barely nodded her acknowledgment. She was far too consumed with her work to be bothered—and it was a rather impressive display. Her fingers cruised over the barely functional computer console like she repaired half-destroyed ships on a daily basis—a feat that was even more impressive considering she wasn’t exactly an engineer.
When Keller finally looked up, there was a slight grin upon her face. “Got it,” she said. “It’s not pretty, but I think I’ve bypassed most of the damaged systems.”
At this point, Christopher wasn’t overly concerned about the technical beauty of her repairs. He just turned to the helm and plotted a course for the planet. “How fast do you think we can go?”
“Warp one,” she suggested. “Anything more than that, and we’ll probably lose the other half the ship.”
Christopher complied. “Then warp one it is,” he said.
Moments later, the glittering starscape before them streaked into a blur of colorful light as the Hawking jumped to warp.
Warp speed in a half-damaged shuttlecraft was not the most pleasant experience. In fact, it was more like an ordeal. The Hawking maneuvered like a ship fifty times its size. The helm controls were painfully sluggish. The ride was constantly bumpy. It felt like the entire shuttle could fall apart at any moment—without warning, no less…
Keller’s portion of the computer started to bleep. “I’ve got the planet on sensors,” she said. “We’re heading straight for it.”
Christopher shot her a curious glare. “As in… we’re going to crash and burn if I don’t change course?”
“That about sums it up,” agreed Keller.
And then—without warning—the shuttle started to fall apart. A fairly sonorous BOOM echoed from the aft compartment. The Hawking jolted—and immediately dropped out of warp. The helm was dead. The sensor display was dead. And much to Christopher’s chagrin, the shuttle was still on the aforementioned crash and burn trajectory.
Another explosion echoed from the aft compartment. Even without sensors, Christopher knew exactly what it was. “That would be a warp core breach,” he noted.
The planet was little more than a tiny green circle out the cockpit window—a good news/bad news situation if Christopher had ever seen one. “The good news is… we’re probably not going to crash into the planet.”
That left the bad news. “The shuttle is going to explode long before that happens,” Keller gravely continued.
The past several hours hadn’t been without trouble… but they somehow managed to keep the Hawking in one piece. It involved a lot of intricate rerouting of secondary systems, and a healthy dose of good wishes. Evidently, their good luck had reached its untimely end.
But Christopher wasn’t willing to give up just yet. After coming this far, he wasn’t about to be vaporized in a meager explosion. He was going to live. He just needed to figure out how. There was absolutely no way the Hawking could physically reach the planet—and lacking computer controls, there was no way to control the shuttle even if it could reach the planet…
That left only one viable option, and even that was iffy. Still, it was the only hope they had for survival. “Get the emergency supplies ready for transport,” Christopher said a moment later.
Keller’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Are you crazy? We can’t transport to the surface from this distance!”
sighed. They didn’t have time for
another argument. “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 Keller had paid any
attention whatsoever at
And to Christopher’s relief, Keller had been paying attention. With nothing more than a disapproving glare, she rose from her chair and gathered the emergency supplies from the small storage locker located in the back of the cockpit.
Thanks to its independent power supply, the emergency transporter was one of the few functional systems aboard the Hawking. Christopher quickly abandoned his wobbly old chair and marched over to the transporter controls—mounted on the wall in the middle of the cockpit. “This is probably not going to be the most enjoyable transport you’ve ever experienced.”
Keller didn’t look surprised, or even remotely nervous as she stepped into the tiny transport alcove. “I’m ready.” She really was a good officer when she wanted to be.
Christopher gave the warp core a few more seconds to do its thing before instructing the computer to seek the most desirable coordinates on the planet surface. The computer lodged a quick protest over the extreme transport distance—but Christopher overrode those protests with a few quick keystrokes and then started the transport process. He quickly hopped into the alcove and shimmered away…
The Captain had been right about one thing. The transport was not a pleasant one. Even before her molecules left the Hawking’s tiny little transporter alcove, she could sense the journey wasn’t quite right.
Like most transporter trips, perception of time was 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 to the transporter beam, and felt an acute case of dizziness prompt an equally acute case of nausea.
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. Keller 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 considerably.
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. Towering conifers climbed high into the cerulean sky… but Keller glimpsed something else up there, high above the trees…
Shooting through the atmosphere was a single twinkling star, visible despite the broad daylight. As it soared through the air, trails of billowing smoke snaked toward the earth as chunks of debris fell from the azure sky. The Hawking was no more…