UES Enterprise. Orbiting Herroton.
29th November, 2151.
In operation, the small hooded viewer attached to the science station made a variety of noises. Murmurs, hums, whirs, chirrups and burbles all combined into a melodic, even lyrical, whole. Yet gradually this morning those pleasing sounds had become obscured by the frustrated mutterings of Professor Partridge as she stared angrily into the device. Abruptly she straightened up, pushing herself back in the chair and slapping at the off switch. She missed, catching the console instead, and bit back a curse as she shook her sore hand.
"No luck then?" Commander Hernandez asked sympathetically.
Partridge didn't turn, but took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No. Not really. Thank you for asking." she said in the tight, precise, controlled tones of someone trying very hard to stop themselves shouting.
Hernandez looked around the bridge. Everyone was studiously monitoring their own stations, not willing to risk getting involved. "But didn't you say you'd found something earlier?"
"Yes, on the passive scans. Observations in visible light and infra-red show a variety of phenomena. Regular shapes that would seem to be artificial in origin. The ancient remains of roads, aqueducts, maybe even cities. Or possibly some geological process inherent to this world. To determine which, we'll need more data than the passives will give. Yet when we try to run active scans...we get practically nothing back. At best, resolution is so low as to be worthless. In some cases, we are getting no return at all. We're trying to map a planet and it's all blank spaces. What can we do?"
Mayweather said "You could do what they always used to. Write 'Here be dragons'."
Partridge spun in her chair, staring straight at him for an uncomfortably long time, jaw clenched. Then a smile flickered across her face. "Good idea."
"So, what do you reckon?" Hernandez said. "A system fault?"
Partridge rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hand. "Must be. Can't think of anything else that would do this. Mind you, the system worked well at Galador, so it must have gone wrong between there and here. Dammit, that means a full diagnostic. Or recalibrate the....no, no, that won't work, I'd need to run it at full power to get a benchmark. Too dangerous for the people on the planet. So it'll have to be a diagnostic. A complete pain in the....Ah, I can do without this." She stood, and stretched, working the kinks out of her muscles with several audible clicks. "Ouch."
"Admit it." Hernandez said. "It was a good idea to reposition your viewer."
When first installed, the viewer could only be operated from a standing position. This proved unsuitable for two reasons. Many bridge crew found the sight of Partridge standing, bent almost double, legs splayed wide, to be most distracting. This was especially the case for those at the helm and navigation consoles, located directly behind her. It was bad enough when she wore her typical catsuits, but so much worse on those occasions she donned her distressingly short mini dresses.
It also became quickly apparent that operation of the device in that position was not conducive to good posture. Several officers who used the viewer quickly complained of back ache. Partridge herself, who possessed a physique susceptible to bad backs at the best of times, admitted that she too had had problems. So the viewer was relocated to a more convenient and comfortable position.
Still, several hours hunched in the chair had an effect. Partridge bent back as far as she could, pressing her fists over her kidneys, and groaned. "It's no good, I'm going round and round in circles here. Need to do something else, take my mind off it...Blimey, I'm parched. Any one fancy a brew?"
That threw Hernandez, until she realised what a Brit would mean by that. "A cup of tea. Yes, I would, thank you."
Partridge looked round, counting up those who wanted one. "Right, I'll stick the kettle on then."
After she'd left, Moshiri asked "OK, hands up every one who thought she was going to hit Lieutenant Mayweather?"
There were chuckles, and several hands raised.
"I hope she figures it out soon." Hernandez said. "You know what she was like the last time she got stuck on a problem."
"I hope she doesn't. For the same reason." Mayweather smirked.
Along with Tucker, Partridge had been instrumental in developing a solution to the warp drive problem. For some reason Hernandez did not understand, her contribution had involved securing a long piece of spare piping vertically in the obs. dome, arranging several tables in a circle at it's base, and writhing around it to the accompaniment of excessively loud music. And, indeed, it had been whilst spinning upside down during a fast tempo version of 'Fly Me To The Moon' that she'd had a moment of insight, that later, with much work, had proved crucial. The presence of numerous baying crew-members and marines was, apparently, essential to the process. That at least was what she had said when pocketing the money they'd thrown.
"Moon's coming up." Moshiri commented conversationally.
Indeed it was. Herroton had two satellites, though one was small and distant, only just visible with the naked eye from the surface. The other, about half the size of Earth's moon, was considerably closer. It was also remarkably brighter. As it rose over the horizon of it's home world, it appeared as a featureless, almost luminous object.
"Darken the view screen." Hernandez ordered. "Lord, that's bright."
"Yes Ma'am." Moshiri operated the relevant controls. "Unusually high albedo for an object of it's type. I'd reckon that down on Herroton it would literally be bright enough to read during a full moon."
Now the light levels had been reduced, it was possible to make out some variation. Most of it was still featureless white, but now a darker area could be made out, still bright, but much more like the surfaces of other lunar bodies Hernandez was familiar with.
There was a warbling from the sensors station, next to the science console. Ensign Kaufman checked his readouts. "Automated report from the courier Ma'am. It's reached it's departure point and will be going to warp shortly."
"A little behind schedule, but at the speed those things go that won't matter much." Hernandez mused. "It'll be...what? Warp five?"
"Yes Ma'am." Moshiri confirmed. "Back to Earth in four and a half days."
"I've been meaning to ask about that." Kaufman said. "How come the couriers are so much faster than us? Even the Vulcan's haven't got anything that fast. I know they're a lot smaller and lighter, but there's got to be more to it than that, surely?"
"Well, mainly it is the small size and low mass," Moshiri explained, "but it's also to do with the time barrier."
"The time barrier?"
"Yes, it's something that that has been observed empirically for---" Moshiri began. She was interrupted as Partridge returned with a tray.
"Tea's up! I've brought biscuits as well. Hands off the jammy dodgers, they're mine." Apart from a plate with assorted biscuits, the tray held a milk jug, sugar bowl, and several mugs. She went round the room, handing them out to the crew. "There you go, strong enough to stand a spoon up in. When you're tired of tea then you're tired of life, as the song goes."
Hernandez accepted a mug with thanks, added a touch of milk, no sugar. The tea was a rich, full brown, almost orange. After a moments consideration she selected a chocolate biscuit.
"Polly, you understand the time barrier don't you?" Moshiri asked.
"Of course. It's part of my curriculum at Cambridge." She sat, and took a long sip. "Aaaahh."
"So could you explain it to Mr Kaufman?"
Partridge paused, swivelled in her chair to look at him, and blew out her cheeks. "No offence, Simon, but the people I usually teach have just spent years training their minds to the point that they can even begin to comprehend the physics involved. It's not the sort of thing one can easily clarify with a quick chat. Why the sudden interest?"
Kaufman shrugged. "I was just wondering how come the couriers were so fast compared to us."
Partridge waved airily. "Ah, well. They're smaller and lighter. More important though, they are unmanned. Entirely automated. Ask me why that is so significant."
"Why is that so significant?" Kaufman asked, looking round for moral support.
"Because of the time barrier!" Partridge said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Aren't you paying attention? Honestly, and to think we rely on you to keep an eye out for alien ships sneaking up on us and whatnot. We're doomed. All of us, doomed."
"Professor..." Hernandez chided.
"Oh, all right then. It'll take forever and a day to explain why
things happen, so I'll just get on with what
happens. To cut a long story short, when a ship exceeds a certain speed, the warp field begins to generate chroniton particles. The exact speed depends on a variety of factors: size and mass of the ship, power output, warp dynamics and so on. With me so far?"
"OK, now up to a point the chronitons are negligible. And they will naturally dissipate around the shield bubble. But eventually they build up to the point that they start to have an effect. Time will run at different speeds in different areas of the ship. And I'm not talking about Friday on the bridge while it's Saturday in the engine room. Tiny alterations, just fractions of a second, popping into and out of existence all over the place. Should they occur inside a living organism, they could cause a great deal of damage. Accelerated cells require more nutrients and oxygen than the rest of the system can supply. Slowed nerves can't cope with the excess of information. Permanent mental and physical damage will result. It could easily be lethal.
"The same goes for ships systems. Think how important it is to ensure a computer's circuits are synchronised. Timing is essential. A single alteration at a crucial point can ruin everything. Because of the physics involved, the anomalies are repelled by the energies of the ship's engines and warp core. That's not to say they can't
form there, just that it is less likely. So all the computers and really vital systems are built right next to the core. That raises a fair few engineering problems in itself, but it works."
She swirled her tea around in her mug, staring into it as if it held the secrets of the universe. "The time barrier is the single greatest obstacle to increased speed. If we can overcome that...there may be no limits to how fast we can go." She grinned ruefully. "Unless, of course, there's some further restriction we don't know about."
Hernandez thought about it. "So that's why information has to be carried on passive data chips. If it were in active memory there'd be a risk of corruption. And, I'm guessing, why the couriers have such a high maintenance requirement."
"Right on both counts." Partridge said with a cheery wink. Looking round absently, she caught sight of the main view screen, watched it intently for a moment, then slammed her empty mug down on the console. "Aha! I said earlier, didn't I, that to solve the scanning problem I'd need to do something else, yes? Well I've worked out what I should do!"
"Well?" Hernandez demanded. "What should you do?"
"I'll do something else!" Partridge replied triumphantly. "Look, the problem is, we're not getting good return on our ground scanners, and we can't run the systems at maximum output---which we need to do to establish parameters---without seriously mucking up the planets ecosphere. But, if we scan that moon instead...."
"You'd be able to get the data you need without risk." Hernandez concluded. "That moon's a dead world."
"Right. If it works, we should be able to work out what's going wrong, reset the system, no prob's. Otherwise..." she trailed off.
Moshiri cleared her throat. "Can the planetary scanners work over that range? They were designed to be used from orbit. That moon's nearly three hundred thousand kilometres away."
Partridge rubbed her chin. "I'll have to compensate for that of course, but we should get something useful. Ah. Problem. The planetary sensors are located on Enterprise's belly. We'll have to re-orientate the ship."
"Mr Mayweather," Hernandez said, thankful that there seemed to be some progress, "sound the manoeuvre alarm, then adjust orientation at your discretion. Let's give the professor something to look at."
Mayweather opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, as if choosing his words carefully, and eventually settled on a none controversial "Aye ma'am."
"OK," Partridge said, re-activating the viewer, "let's get a good look at you. There'll be a slight delay, we're using light speed sensors here, but that shouldn't...what the deuce!" She sat back, nonplussed.
Hernandez stood and joined her at the station. "What's up?"
"It's working perfectly. Well, almost perfectly, but allowing for the distance....it's working just as well as it should be."
"That's good though, surely? Means you don't have to run a diagnostic, right?"
"Well, yes. But it doesn't explain why we couldn't get a good reading from Herroton. It's bizarre!" she added with what Hernandez thought of as a 'facial shrug', head tilted to one side, eyebrows raised, corners of the lips turned down. She turned back to the viewer. "I mean, even at this range, I'm getting high resolution scans of the surface, geography, tectonic plates, chemical composi---Hello! That can't be right!"
Hernandez was getting slightly annoyed with all these mood shifts. "Oh, now what?"
"I've found out why that moon is so bright. Obvious really, on reflection. No pun intended." she added absently. "I think, before we go any further, we should get the Solar Observatory up and running. Yes, yes, I think that would be a very good idea indeed."
And there was something in her tone, in the careful way she spoke, that Hernandez found to be somewhat worrying.