Dan had not intended to visit Sickbay while on this mission, but he dreaded the thought of another sleepless night hounded by bad dreams. The medical ward seemed somehow familiar, but then, the same design was common to hundreds of ships.
Dr. Jurnux seemed pleased to see him. “Ah, Lt. Norden – I hope Mr.Hawser wasn’t too rough on you in the meeting.”
Dan shook his head and smiled. “Not at all. If I were in his shoes, I’d have the same concerns.”
“Regardless, I thought you did an excellent job explaining the process, though I know about as much of Black Clusters as I do animal husbandry.”
“Thanks – I, uh, hope I didn’t catch you at a busy time.”
The Denobulan lifted an orange eyebrow and glanced around at the empty bio-beds. “I take it your visit to sickbay is not just a social call.”
“Bad dreams, Doc. I’ve had them since – well, since I was put out of action during the war. I was hoping you might be able to give me something to help me sleep.” He did not go into detail, avoiding the very strange nature of his most recent nightmare.
The CMO regarded Norden thoughtfully for a moment. “Let me do a quick work-up and see what I can do for you.”
Reluctantly, Lt. Norden submitted to a few minutes of Dr. Jurnux’s scanning, prodding and poking.
“You’re in good health, Mr. Norden, although I can tell you are under stress – no surprise considering the experiment you must oversee. As I’m sure counselors have told you, the nightmares are a normal response to emotional trauma and should fade in time. That being said . . .” He walked over to a medical replicator and inputted a series of commands. A small vial of capsules shimmered into existence. He held them out to Norden.
“It’s a concoction of herbs and natural ingredients from three planets – completely safe for Human use, non-habit forming, and quite effective. It has a tendency to suppress dreams, which should be a bonus feature for you. Take one about an hour before you go to bed. Come back to see me if you’re still having difficulty sleeping.”
Dan glanced at the vial with a degree of skepticism. “I figured you’d just give me a shot or something.”
“Nonesense. There’s nothing physically wrong with you, Lieutenant. I prefer not to administer sedatives to my patients unless absolutely necessary – even the mildest can have side effects.”
Norden forced a smile. “I’ll give them a try. Thanks, Doc.”
“Don’t mention it. Sleep well, Mr. Norden.”
* * *
The CMO’s concoction worked as advertised. Dan enjoyed sleep untroubled by dreams the next two nights.
On the third day our from Deep Space 3, the Kearsarge
dropped out of warp.
“One half impulse,” ordered Captain Poiroux. “Maintain course. Ops, what do you get on sensors?”
“No other vessels in scanning range. Reading energy fluctuations ahead – range, 278 million kilometers.”
“Maximum magnification on viewscreen.”
The image shifted and wavered. What was initially a small, dark smudge amidst the stars became a massive area of swirling gasses against a field of utter darkness.
Once more, Dan felt an inexplicable sense of dread – his anxiety level rising almost to the level of panic. He swallowed hard at the beautiful/terrible sight on the screen.
It took a moment for him to realize that Captain Poiroux was speaking to him.
“Norden – quit gawking and get with the program!”
“Sorry, sir. You were saying?”
“I asked how close we’re to get before we try this hare-brained stunt.”
Glad for the chance to avert his gaze from the viewscreen (and the smoldering glare of Captain Poiroux) he turned to his console and entered a series of commands.
“Our first run should be at 10 million kilometers. We should make a warp-one burst across the event horizon of the Cluster, then run a diagnostic of our engines before moving in closer.”
“How close to you intend for us to get?”
“If each test goes well, we should attempt a run through the Cluster.”
The Captain grunted. “That’s what I was afraid of. Very well. Helm, take us to the 10 million klick point and hold station.”
“Aye, sir,” replied the Caitian helm officer.
Dan kept his focus on the engineering console. It wasn’t necessary for him to do so, but he wasn’t quite ready to face the intense darkness on the main viewscreen.
You’re nuts, Dan, you realize that, don’t you? It’s just a natural phenomenon created by collapsed protostars billions of years ago. There’s nothing to fear.
The internal pep-talk helped some. He forced himself to turn and face the viewscreen.
The Black Cluster did not seem quite as threatening, though Dan’s anxiety level was still high.
In short order, the Kearsarge
arrived on station – ten million kilometers from the Cluster.
“All stop,” ordered Poiroux. He tapped his combadge. “Engineering, are you ready for phase one?”
“As ready as we ever will be,”
replied Philo Hawser. “Warp core is running at 100%. Navigational deflectors are synchronized with the warp field generators. If Lt. Norden’s computer subroutines are running properly, we’re good to go when you say the word.”
“Stand by.” The Captain turned and lifted an eyebrow at Norden. “You heard the man. Well?”
Dan re-checked all the readouts at his station. Everything appeared to be operating smoothly. He gave Poiroux a nod. “We’re a go, sir.”
Captain Poiroux turned back to the viewscreen. “Helm, input course for phase one.”
“Course plotted and laid in, sir,” replied Lt. H’Raahn. The Caitians ears were laid back on his head – indicative of his own nervousness.
Kearsarge, jumped to warp.
“Thirty seconds,” announced Norden, as he watched a stream of data flow across the display. “Warp field holding.”
The brief warp jump was smooth and uneventful. As Kearsarge
dropped out of warp, Dan felt a wave of relief wash over him.
“All systems report as normal,” announced Lt. Sybok from Ops. “No reports of damage or injuries.”
“One down, four to go,” muttered Poiroux. “Helm, move us to five million klicks for phase two. Sybok, run system diagnostics. Norden, do the same with the engines.
The two officers complied and turned their attention to the stream of data collected from their first run. After an hour, the results were in.
“During our 30 second run, we encountered 1,642 energy anomalies. The Athena system worked flawlessly, adapting our warp field and preventing any subspace eddies,” reported Norden.
The Captain nodded. “In other words, so far – so good. What would have happened without the system?”
“We would have been forced to drop out of warp,” replied Sybok. “However, none of the energy bursts were severe enough in output or duration to have caused serious damage to the ship.”
Poiroux chewed on his ever-present toothpick. “So you’re saying we haven’t really done much yet?”
“It’s a good start,” allowed Norden, “but we haven’t really faced the heavy stuff.”
The Captain nodded. “I thought as much. Okay, prepare for phase two.”
Over the next few hours they proceeded with phase two and phase three, each time enjoying smooth warp jumps with no damage or malfunctions. For the first time, Norden actually felt optimistic about the test.
“On to phase four,” ordered Poiroux. Even the crusty Cajun was sounding chipper. “Helm, bring us to 500 thousand klicks and hold station.”
The Black Cluster now filled the viewscreen. But Norden’s exiliration over the positive results thus far dampened his sense of unease. He actually grinned as he checked the data-stream.
The ship rocked slightly. “Gravimetric shear,” announced Sybok. “Level four. Shields and structural integrity fields holding.”
“Now the fun really starts,” muttered Captain Poirou,. his brief display of good humor fading. “What about it, Mr. Norden? Ready to tempt the Devil again?”
Poiroux chuckled. “That’s what I like about you, Lieutenant. You don’t mince words. Helm, stand by for my order to go to warp one.” He tapped his combadge.
“Bridge to Engineering.”
“Engineering, go ahead.”
“Ready for the fourth phase, Mr. Hawser?”
“Yes sir. Ready when you are.”
Even the normally dour Lt. Hawser sounded upbeat.
“Good. We’re about to commence phase four. Bridge, out.”
Poiroux adjusted his frame in the command chair. “Helm – take us to warp one for thirty seconds.”
“Warp one, aye,” replied H’Raahn. He brought a hairy finger down on the control panel.
jumped to warp.
And all hell broke loose.
* * *
Klaxons sounded frantically while warning lights flashed from nearly every station.
The ship was not merely vibrating, she was shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. Several of the bridge crew including Norden found themselves sprawled on the deck. The engines wailed like banshees, and the lighting on the bridge began to distort, leaving ghostly trails that put everything out of focus.
Over the din, Dan could hear the Captain shouting for the helmsman to bring the ship to a stop. But Lt. H’Raahn was either unable to hear or unable to comply. If anything, it seemed the ship was accelerating.
With a surge of strength fueled by adrenaline and fear, Norden clawed his way up from the deck and back into his seat at engineering. Sure enough, the power indicators were off the charts. The warp factor reading was . . .
His eyes widened in shock. “No,”
thought Norden, “that’s not possible.”
The noise had grown so loud he could no longer understand the Captain, though it was apparent Poiroux was shouting at the top of his lungs. Kearsarge
lurched violently to starboard, over-stressing the gravity coils and sending most of the bridge crew flying.
“Emergency . . . shut . . . down . . .”
Dan could just make out the gasped words of the Captain. The increasing g-forces made speaking and breathing difficult.
Norden tried to focus on his panel but his vision was blurring. He finally called up the over-ride protocols and keyed in his command code.
But nothing happened. The over-ride failed. He turned back to Poiroux. The Captain saw the stricken look on Norden’s face and understood.
“Can’t . . . over-ride . . . failed . . .,” Dan gasped. The pressure on his chest was unbearable, making breathing almost impossible.
On the viewscreen, an explosion of light burst from a pinpoint in the middle of the darkness, twisting and morphing into impossible shapes and colors. Dan averted his gaze before the barage lest his senses become overwhelmed.
He wondered how the ship was holding together. Surely the structural integrity fields were already beyond the point of failure.
The cacophony increased to an impossible level, as if all the demons of all the hells were shrieking in chorus. Dan desperately tried to call up other sub-routines – anything to shut down the raging engines and slow this maddening ride. He wondered why no one in Engineering had shut down the mains? Perhaps they had tried and failed. Maybe they were all dead down there.
Darkness began to close in on the periphery of his vision as the g-forces crushed him. As though from a great distance, he heard Captain Poiroux give his final order:
“Eject . . . the . . . warp . . . core . . .”
The words from his dreams. They were the last words Lt. Norden heard before the darkness closed in.
All sensation of sound and motion stopped. The Starship Kearsarge
ceased to exist.
Yet Lt. Daniel Norden was still alive and aware on some intangible plane of existence. He had the strange feeling that he was traveling without moving. The cacophony of noise had ceased as had the hellish shaking.
Dan felt a sense of peace settle over him – the darkness was warm and comforting, not cold and frightening. A part of him found this interesting.
From an infinite distance, a pinpoint of light appeared. It remained stationary for what could have been a nano-second or a thousand years. Dan did not know. Time, for the moment, had lost all meaning to him.
The light began to grow. Slowly, almost imperceptibly it expanded. He did not see the light as such (for he was no longer sure he had eyes or a body, for that matter) but knew it was there all the same.
Time passed (or he supposed it did) and the light began to push back the darkness with a cold glare that was painful (even though he doubted he could actually feel pain).
The silence was broken by a sound. Distant and indistinct at first, it slowly grew in volume. It was a voice.
His own voice. Inside himself. He heard it say . . .
“This is a very, very bad idea . . .”
* * *
Stardate 53376.7 (17 May 2376)
Deep Space 3
. . . a very, very bad idea to Norden’s way of thinking. Not that he’d had much choice in the matter. Still, serving as Mission Specialist for Project Athena beat sitting in an office on Earth or some starbase.
Lt. Norden picked up his clamshell case and cast another look through the viewport at the Kearsarge
. It would probably be the last he would see of her exterior for several weeks – a thought assuaged by the fact that Kearsage
was uglier than sin.
As he turned to make his way to the airlock leading to the ship, he felt a sudden sense of unease – a vague feeling of deja vu.
An involuntary shiver ran down his spine and he suddenly had a strong urge to turn and walk away.
Yeah – that’s the ticket. Add desertion to your list of woes. Get your ass on the ship, Dan old boy.
He shook his head fractionally, angry at his momentary anxiety attack and walked briskly to the airlock.
* * *
The End . . . and The Beginning . . .