The rest of the shift proceeded smoothly, as did the impulse engines. Lt. Hawser’s back-flushing of the tanks proved successful and Kearsarge
proceeded quickly out of the system before jumping to warp.
With all systems functioning normally, Norden fell back into the role of passenger. He called up the notes on the briefing he would have to provide to the senior officers about the experiment. The words were confident, comforting and vague.
Frustrated, he closed the file. And once again, that sense of unease crept upon him.
You’ve just got a case of nerves,
he chided himself. It’s been months since you logged a star hour. Just do your job, keep out of trouble, and you’ll be off to your next assignment in six weeks, tops.
The fact that he had no idea what his next assignment might be did not trouble him so much. What did bother him was that the idea he would be moving on after six weeks rang false.
Dan had no idea why he felt this way. He was more annoyed than troubled, and forced his attention back to the engineering station. He could at least review the Miranda-class tech manuals to re-familiarize himself and shift his thoughts away from fanciful nonsense.
* * *
The officers’ mess was nearly deserted when Lt. Norden entered. He made his way to the bank of replicators on the far wall and ordered a chicken sandwich on wheat and a side of cole-slaw. A cup of coffee rounded out his evening meal and he took his tray to an empty table.
Across the room, two junior officers ate and conversed in quiet tones. At another table, a Bolian female wearing the blue trim of science/medical perused a pad and sipped at her drink.
Dan glanced idly around. On the walls were vintage photos of Kearsage’s
predecessors. Two ocean-going vessels from Earth’s past were displayed – an Essex-class aircraft carrier and a later LHT. There was a painting of a sailing ship and an early Starfleet vessel that looked to be at least a century old. He did not know the history of the Kearsarge
name, but it apparently had a storied past.
As he absently chewed his sandwich and pondered the lineage of Kearsarge
, the doors to the mess slid open and a tall Denobulan entered. He wore a blue lab-coat and lieutenant commander’s pips on his collar. Norden guessed (correctly) that this was Dr. Jurnux, the CMO.
The surgeon spoke briefly with the Bolian woman before getting his dinner from the replicator. Turning, he spotted Lt. Norden and began moving his way.
“You must be our Mission Specialist,” he began. “I’m Dr. Jurnux, may I share your table?”
Norden gestured for him to take a seat. “Dan Norden, Doctor. Nice to meet you.”
The CMO smiled. “Thank you. I make it my business to get to know the crew – it helps should I ever need to provide medical treatment.”
“I’m TDY, Doctor. I probably won’t be here long enough to visit sickbay.” At least, I hope not, he amended, silently.
Jurnux tucked a napkin into his collar – something that Norden recalled his grandfather doing at Thanksgiving meals. “Nonetheless, I’m pleased for the opportunity to get acquainted. I’ve already reviewed your medical records – do you mind?”
“Mind wha - ?” Without waiting for permission, Dr. Jurnux took Dan’s hands and carefully examined them – turning them over and back, making small noises of satisfaction.
Norden dutifully allowed the exam, suppressing a sigh.
“Very nice work,” murmured the CMO. “Whoever did this must have used the new Mark IV dermal regenerator.”
Dan smiled. “I couldn’t tell you, Doc. I was unconscious for most of my hospital stay.”
“Indeed. Any pain or numbness?”
“None,” lied Norden. He didn’t think the tingling sensation worth mentioning and he really didn’t want to get into a medical conversation. He decided to change the subject.
“How long have you served on Kearsarge
“Just over five years. There aren’t too many of us left on Kearsarge
from the pre-war days.”
“Some. Mostly transfers after the war ended and the ship was laid up for repairs. Off to bigger and better things, I suppose.” He popped a piece of raw meat into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Besides Captain Poiroux, Lieutenant Sybok and myself, all the senior officers are new to the ship.”
“Our Chief Operations Officer. He usually has bridge duty during Gamma Shift. Typical Vulcan – reserved, logical, highly intelligent – a very competent Ops manager.”
Dan decided to go out on a limb. “Has Captain Poiroux always been so . . .”
“Crusty?” finished Jurnux with a smile. “I’ve always liked that Terran euphemism – yes, he’s always been somewhat rough around the edges, but he’s a fine C.O. and a fair man. I think he’s showing more signs of stress regarding this mission, though.”
Jurnux hesitated. “Really, I should not say too much. It’s not doctor-patient privilege, exactly, but . . .” He leaned forward in a conspiratorial whisper. “Captain Poiroux is angry that Starfleet is using his ship as a . . . how did he put it? ‘A goddam guinea pig for dangerous and unnecessary experiments.’”
Norden snorted. “Between you and me, Doc, I don’t blame him.”
The CMO looked troubled. “Do you believe it is dangerous and unnecessary?”
Dan shook his head. “Dangerous? No, not really. 90% of the modifications are software upgrades. The hardware changes mainly involve links between the navigational array and the warp-field generators. We should know pretty quickly whether we can maintain a stable warp-field as we enter the Black Cluster. If we can – the experiment is a success and we collate a lot of arcane data for future tests. If not, we drop to impulse and limp out of range of the energy fields before heading back to Deep Space 3.”
Doctor Jurnux looked relieved. Lt. Norden sounded more confident than he felt as he reassured the CMO. In truth, he had no idea what the worst-case scenario might be.
Nor did he really want to know.
They chatted for several minutes more. Jurnux was quite personable and seemed genuinely interested in Norden. Dan found that he liked the talkative Denobulan – a surprise, since he had become somewhat gun-shy around medical types.
The surgeon excused himself to return to sickbay. Dan put the remains of his sandwich in the ‘cycler and returned to his cabin for a night’s rest.
* * *
Dan sat bolt upright in bed – his heart hammering and sweat pouring profusely from his body. He gasped for air as the remnants of the nightmare began to fade.
“Lights,” he whispered hoarsely. The darkness was pushed back, dazzling Dan’s eyes. “Half intensity,” he ammended, squinting. The lights dimmed to a less painful level.
He threw his legs over the edge of the bed and waited for his pulse-rate to recede. Norden had suffered from nightmares for a time while recovering from his injuries, but nothing this intense or frightening.
Although the dream was fading rapidly, he could still hear the sound of alarms and the strident voice of the Captain ordering, “Eject the warp core, eject the warp core!”
His gut clenched and he hurried into the head. He collapsed before the toilet just as his stomach violently ejected the remnants of his meager supper. He gagged twice more, producing only dry-heaves before his mid-section finally relaxed.
He sat on the cool floor, waiting for the wave of nausea to subside before standing at the sink and splashing cold water on his face and rinsing the foul taste of bile from his mouth.
As he straightened and glanced into the mirror, his eyes widened in shock at what he saw.
The wall behind him was gone. So was his cabin. Instead, there was only blackness – an inky, featureless void that seemed to go on forever.
Norden tried to scream and . . .
* * *
Dan sat bolt upright in bed – his heart hammering and sweat pouring profusely from his body.
He blinked in terror, his body still shaking violently.
What just . . .
His stomach lurched and he raced to the head, just making it to the toilet to empty the contents of his stomach.
As the commode automatically dispatched the remains of his sandwich, he rose and went to the sink, splashing cold water in his face and rinsing the foul taste of bile from his mouth.
Another wave of terror washed over him. He kept his eyes squeezed tightly shut and gripped the edge of the sink so tightly his knuckles turned white.
No, no, no, no,
he thought. This isn’t real.
Forcing himself to breathe deeply and slowly, Norden eased open one eye.
He saw his reflection in the mirror – pale and wet, but otherwise normal. More important, he saw the reflection of the wall, the door and his cabin beyond.
Dan sagged with relief. He began to giggle but clamped a hand over his mouth as the sound was jagged and unsteady.
Regaining control even as the memory of the nightmare faded, he moved back into the main room and sat at the desk.
“Computer, what time is it?”
“Ship’s time is 0352 hours. Stardate 53377.48”
“Thanks,” he said, unnecessarily. He laughed at himself for doing so, but at least the sound no longer had a hysterical quality to it.
He sat in the dim light, trying to recall the dream – a mostly futile effort. He vaguely recalled the order to eject the warp core. That was common enough to his nightmares following the destruction of the Horatio
, but there was something different . . . a detail had changed.
Dan closed his eyes, trying not to remember the details – just to listen. There was only a slight echo of the dream left in his conscious memory. He tried not to think, just to allow his mind a chance to grasp the small thread.
His eyes flew open in sudden realization. The voice in his dream – it was different.
In all his previous dreams, Captain Tarkalian’s voice had invaded his sleep. But not this time.
In tonight’s nightmare, it had been the voice of Captain Poiroux ordering the warp core’s ejection.
* * *
Stardate 53377.6 (18 May 2376)
En route to the Black Cluster
Fortified with several cups of coffee, Lt. Norden entered the briefing room just before 0800. Most of the senior officers were already present, including Captain Poiroux, who somehow managed to project an aura of boredom and annoyance simultaneously.
A Vulcan male with atypical blond hair nodded in greeting before returning his attention to a PADD. Dr. Jurnux sat across the table from the Vulcan and grinned broadly upon spotting Dan. Lt. Philo Hawser, a broad-shouldered Centauran with a shaved head and bushy eyebrows glowered at Norden. Dan had the feeling that the Chief Engineer did not like him or his mission.
The XO strode in, looking somewhat harried. He took a seat at the far end of the table, opposite the Captain. Dan choose a chair in the middle, by the Vulcan Ops officer.
An Andorian female entered last, favoring the gathered officers with a bright smile.
Poiroux glanced at the woman, but his expression did not change. Clearing his throat, he placed his elbows on the table and clasped meaty hands together.
“Okay, Lt. Norden – this is your show. Tell us what we need to know about this ‘project,’” ordered the Captain.
“Yes sir,” replied Dan, turning his attention to his PADD and trying to collect his thoughts. His head was still a bit muzzy, courtesy of sleep deprivation. “Computer, begin presentation of Project Athena.”
The large wall display came to life, displaying various views of the Kearsarge
and graphic overlays of warp fields.
“The goal of this experiment is simple. To enable starships to traverse unstable areas of space such as the Black Cluster in a safe and efficient manner. As you know, the cluster was created by the collapse of several protostars, creating an area that absorbs energy and destabilizes warp fields. The upgrades to Kearsarge
will allow the warp field generators to quickly adapt to these areas of instability, allowing the ship to ‘flex’ in subspace without losing the warp field entirely.”
Norden continued for several minutes. He stuck to the script he had been ordered to present, pausing to answer a few technical questions, before he ended his presentation.
“Are there any other questions?” he asked.
Lt. Sybok spoke. “Lt. Norden – eight years ago, two months and three days ago, the USS Vico
attempted to traverse a similar black cluster in Sector 97. The Vico
– a Miranda-class vessel similar to ours, was destroyed and the Enterprise
was damaged when they attempted to investigate the fate of the ship. If these modifications do not work, what is to prevent us suffering a similar fate?”
Norden had anticipated this question. “The cluster that destroyed the Vico
is the largest in the Alpha Quadrant and fully seven times more massive than the Black Cluster we will attempt to navigate. While it is possible that we could lose our warp field should the modifications fail, all computer models indicate that our hull would remain intact and we could move away under impulse power.”
“Computer models?” sneered Lt. Hawser. “You mean there have been no unmanned probes to test this out?”
“No,” admitted Norden, “It was determined that it would take the power of a full-size starship for the equipment to work properly. Probes were not an option.”
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room as this sunk in. Norden thought his explanation sounded weak to his own ears.
“So why not take a full-size ship and run it via remote?” pressed Hawser, leaning forward. “Hell, it’s not hard to slave the navigation systems to another ship.”
Surprisingly, Sybok came to Norden’s rescue. “Because,” he began calmly, “the crew is part of the experiment. Our ability to react and make adjustments to the equipment or interpret sensor input is critical if these modifications are to become standard equipment for the fleet. Am I correct, Lt. Norden?”
“Yes, exactly right,” nodded Dan, relieved and appreciative of the Vulcan’s intercession.
Hawser was not convinced, however. “So we’re rats in a maze. If we succeed, we get a nice piece of cheese – or in our case, we come out of this alive?”
“That’s right,” growled Captain Poiroux. “And we will all do our damndest to make sure we do succeed.”
He glared around the table, ending the discussion. “I’m not crazy about this either, but we have our orders. I expect each department to be ready to proceed with this in 24 hours. If you’re not up to it, let me know and I’ll send you back to DS-3 on a shuttle.” He made eye contact with each of the assembled officers. All met his gaze, though the Chief Engineer managed to stare daggers at Norden before nodding curtly to the C.O.
“Then let’s get this done right the first time. Address your questions to Lt. Norden and your griping to me. Dismissed.”
* * *