– IV –
Michael Owens stifled a yawn as he looked over the padd in his ready room.
It had been a long day and the only reason he was still up was because Eagle
was mere minutes away from entering the Aphrodite nebula, one of the most mesmerizing and remarkable spatial phenomena in the quadrant. Due to the high background radiation prevalent in the beautiful, multi-colored cloud and because standard shielding could not adequately protect a crew for long, no manned vessel had ever entered the nebula for any prolonged period. Even unmanned probes had not survived longer than a few hours within its hostile environment.
However thanks to some ingenious shield modifications by Doctor Erez Rosenthal, a man often credited as the inventor of muliphasic deflectors now standard on all Starfleet vessels, Eagle
would be able to safely operate within the nebula for up to ten days and complete the construction on a long-range sensor array.
No, it wasn’t an exploratory mission in the grand Starfleet tradition which seemed almost forgotten after over a year of fighting an uncertain war. But it was the closest Eagle
would get to one in what he feared a very long time.
And if the spy array worked as Doctor Rosenthal had advertised, they’d also be able to give Starfleet a significant edge in the war effort.
But for now Michael entertained a new proposal by his sedulous first officer. One of many she had brought to him since permanently joining his crew three months earlier.
She stood in front of his desk as he scanned that padd, he’d asked her to relax a number of times but she remained as stiff as a board. “As you can see I have already run this by department heads and most agree that this will increase efficiency across all personnel on Eagle
The captain glanced up at her. “Most?” he said with a smirk. “Any dissenters?”
The red-haired Trill frowned. “Lieutenant Nora feels that the current shift arrangements are sufficient for the security department. But she’s the only hold out. I’m sure I can make her see the rationale of a four-shift rotation.”
Michael doubted this very much. The lost love between his fiery Bajoran security chief and Commander Star was well known on the ship. And rationale had very little to do with the two women’s feud.
“Mmm,” was his only comment as he glanced back at the padd, keeping himself purposefully uncommitted.
“This setup worked very well for me on the -,” she interrupted herself. “On my previous assignment,” she added after a short pause.
The captain didn’t miss the fact that she couldn’t say the name of her previous ship. That fateful assignment that had ended in such disaster that it had very nearly axed her Starfleet career. Star had served as the captain of the Sacajawea
for only four months before she lost it all after going rogue and trying to apprehend a dangerous and wanted criminal by herself. This mission had gone sideways and she not only lost the man she had gone after but also her entire team. Many also blamed her for a number of casualties on two other starships which had attempted to stop her.
She had served six months of a five-year sentence at the Starfleet Stockade at Jaros III before being released due to the outbreak of the Dominion war and reinstated as a commander in the Border Service. After she had decided to break with her unscrupulous intelligence boss who had arranged for her to be temporarily assigned as Eagle
’s acting first officer, he had found a way to make the assignment permanent as a punishment.
After Owens had agreed to give her a chance to prove herself, she had made it clear to him that she’d do whatever it would take to redeem herself as a Starfleet officer and she certainly had worked hard since she had made that vow.
And yet something Amaya had said kept teetering on the edge of his mind. “When it comes down to it, when everything is on the line, your ship, your crew, the people you care about most, do you trust her? I mean completely trust her?”
Michael decided it was too late to ponder those questions now and looked up at the expectant face of his controversial XO. “Tell you what, I look this over tonight and we’ll discuss this first thing in the morning. 0900 okay for you?”
“Good,” he said and placed the padd on his desk. “Now how are our civilian engineers settling in?”
“They’ve practically thrown themselves into work,” she said. “Hardly even exchanged pleasantries. According to Doctor Rosenthal, he and his people will have hardly enough time to sleep in order to finish that array by their deadline.”
“Hopkins giving them all the support they need?”
She nodded. “She’s got an entire taskforce of engineers ready to work at the project around the clock,” she said. “But our chief engineer seems a little depressed that she isn’t being consulted more.”
Michael stood. “I’m sure she’ll get over it. Besides nothing good ever came out of putting too many geniuses in one room,” he said as he headed for the doors. “You’d be able to measure the ego with a tricorder.”
Star followed the captain on the bridge where they found their chief science officer, smartly getting out of the captain’s chair. “Sir, I was about to contact you. We are three minutes and forty seconds from dropping out of warp at the edge of the Aphrodite nebula.”
“Excellent. And I see I’m not the only one staying up for the occasion,” said Owens.
The Vulcan raised an eyebrow. “Using a manned spacecraft to enter the Aphrodite nebula is a significant scientific event in astrophysical research. The discoveries we may make here could help us make important advances in understanding the composition of certain stellar phenomena.”
“Do I hear passion in your voice, Commander?” said Star with a smirk.
“That would be improbable, sir.”
Owens and Star exchanged a quick smile before the captain took a seat. “Let’s put it on the big screen, shall we?”
Xylion quickly moved to his science station at the aft part of the bridge.
A swirling mass of crimson, emerald and azure, all mixed into one extensive cloud, appeared on the main view screen. Aphrodite was different to other nebulas by its relatively small size. It was only a few light-years wide at its most expansive point and even though colorful and bright, it was actually not very well visible from a distance and without powerful sensors due it being surrounded by especially heavy concentrations of dark matter.
One of its most impressive characteristics and the main reason it had been given its name, were those multi-colored twinkling lights which popped up at seemingly random intervals all over the cloud. It reminded Michael of Christmas lights and he quickly realized that it was a quite mesmerizing show. After the nebula had appeared on the screen, every set of eyes on the bridge had been drawn to it and now watched the spectacle in awe.
It wasn’t until the aft turbolift opened, disgorging half a dozen men and women, speaking in fast and hectic voices that the quiet spell was broken.
Michael rose from his chair to see who had intruded onto his bridge in such a brazen manner.
“Doctor Rosenthal, may I present Captain Owens,” said Tazla Star once she had spotted the scientist among the civilian team having stepped out of the turbolift.
Rosenthal was man of middle age, fifty-five, maybe sixty, with high cheekbones, thinning dark hair and a pointed chin beard. He wore an old-fashioned brown, three piece suit made out of cotton but perhaps most unconventional were those round eyeglasses sitting on his large nose.
“A pleasure, I’m sure,” said the engineer as he stepped down the ramp to head towards the command area of the bridge.
Michael reached out to shake the man’s hand. “Welcome aboard, Eagle
, Doctor. We’re all very excited to have you onboard. I didn’t realize you needed access to the bridge tonight.”
“Ah, thank you, Captain,” he said. “I apologize for the intrusion, I do understand how sacred Starfleet considers their starship bridges but it really is the best place to ensure my shield modifications are correctly calibrated before we enter the nebula.”
Owens offered an easy smile. “I wouldn’t say sacred, Doctor. Just a little heads up would have been nice.”
“That’s my fault, I’m afraid,” said a woman who quickly stepped up next to Rosenthal.
“Ah, please allow me to introduce my chief advisor on this project, Miss Colcord,” said Rosenthal.
Michael shook hands with the attractive blonde woman who he couldn’t help but think was a little too young to be an advisor to an engineer of Rosenthal’s acclaim. He thought he saw her flinch a little at being called an advisor but it was late and he may have misread her. “Nice making your acquaintance.”
“Likewise. And thank you for hosting us on your fine vessel. Again my apologies,” she said in a rapid-fire tone which he found difficult to follow. “Liaising with your crew is my job on this project and therefore it was my oversight to not inform you of our intentions of attending the bridge. We’ve had very little time to prepare the shield modifications since coming over from the Agamemnon
“Well, yes, I understand,” he said, his mind still spinning slightly at the pace of those words coming over her lips. “And by all means my bridge is yours. Let me know if you need anything?”
“Thank you, Captain. In fact we would greatly appreciate if you could drop us out of warp as soon as possible to give us the time we need to finish the shield modifications,” she said.
“Naturally,” he said and turned to his first officer. “Commander?”
Star nodded smartly and then turned to the helm were an alluring, caramel-skinned Risian woman was handling things during Gamma shift. “Ensign Aliris, drop to impulse.”
The ship decelerated out of warp not a second later.
“How long until we reach the threshold at this speed?” Star asked.
Rachel Milestone, a petite brunette and the nightshift’s operations manager responded quickly. “Forty-three minutes, sir.”
Michael turned to look at Rosenthal and Colcord.
“That’ll give us the time we need, thank you, Captain,” said Rosenthal just before he and his advisor joined the rest of their team which had practically taken over the aft stations of the bridge.
For the next forty minutes the bridge crew remained at their posts while the civilian engineering team was hard at work, walking back and forth between the various aft stations, reading out status updates, shield frequencies and liaising with their remaining colleagues in engineering and deflector control even while the magnificent Aphrodite nebula steadily grew larger on the screen.
"Captain, with your permission we are now ready to engage the transphasic shielding," Rosenthal finally announced.
"By all mean, Doctor, please go ahead," Michael said.
"Initiate the main deflector and get ready to activate the transphasic emitter," Rosenthal said which immediately prompted another flurry of activity.
"Deflector engaged and running at optimal operational output."
"Transphasic emitter within standard parameter."
"Powering shield grid."
Owens had made his way to the aft science station, careful to stay out the engineers way. He found Xylion working on his console and leaned in next to him, momentarily studying the readings on his screen. "I may not have read the mission briefing as carefully as I should have. What's a transphasic shield, Commander?" he said, keeping his voice low enough to hopefully not out himself as an ignoramus in front of Rosenthal and his team.
"A fairly new concept in deflector shield technology first proposed by Doctor Rosenthal three years ago, it is based on frequencies which shift approximately every 10.4 picoseconds, allowing the shields to momentarily exist in an asymmetric superposition of multiple phase states. This in turn allows the shields to deflect certain types of radiation, including thermionic radiation prevalent in the Aphrodite nebula.”
Owens nodded. He didn't have a science background but he could understand the basic concept. The shields would keep his ship and crew safe, that was all he really needed to know.
"The truly groundbreaking technology here is the level of miniaturization," said Rosenthal who may not have overheard the question but hadn't missed the Vulcan’s answer. He turned to look at the captain and took the moment to remove his eyeglasses and clean the lenses with a cloth he kept in one of the many suit's pockets. "The emitter itself is, well just about the sizes of my spectacles here and still powerful enough to protect the entire ship by utilizing the existing shield grid. This will allow us to use the same shield technology on shuttles, workbees and even EVA suits while we construct the sensor array."
"Doctor, the transphasic shield is running at 97.8 percent power and is now stable," Colcord said.
"Excellent, Charlie," he said and looked back at he captain. "At you leisure, sir."
Michael gave the man a curt nod and headed back towards his seat. "Distance to nebula threshold?"
"250,000 kilometers," said Milestone.
"Ensign Aliris, get us to the threshold at full impulse and then slow to one quarter to take us in nice and easy," he said and took his seat.
"Yes, sir, increasing to full impulse,” the Risian said enthusiastically.
After that it didn't take them long to get there.
"20,000 kilometers to threshold," said Aliris. "Slowing to one quarter impulse, 2 minutes until we enter the nebula."
"Captain, even with the transphasic shielding we can expect to encounter strong spatial turbulence while we cross the outer periphery," the science officer said, "I recommend we transfer auxiliary power to inertial dampers.”
Owens nodded. "You heard the man, Ensign."
"Transferring power," Milestone confirmed.
Not a few moments later Eagle
encountered the promised turbulence like a ship entering rough waters. Michael couldn't help but be reminded of the play they had watched earlier in the day and hoped that their travels would fare much better.
"Now passing nebula threshold," Ensign Milestone said.
"And down the rabbit hole we go," said Star.
Michael found that to be an apt metaphor and didn't regret his decision to stay up late to watch Eagle
slip into the Aphrodite nebula. It was Wonderland indeed. While the nebula had looked spectacular from afar, it was even more amazing seeing it from the inside. The many multicolored lights were revealed to be countless specks of varying size and ever changing shades as they swirled around the ship. Some just by themselves while others seemed to be traveling in seemingly synchronous formations not unlike swarms of fish under the sea.
Every few seconds, kilometer-long strands floating through the nebula would spontaneously erupt in a bright flash and quickly burn themselves out again, creating a never ending series of spatial fireworks.
"Its absolutely gorgeous," said Aliris.
"Never seen anything like it," agreed Milestone next to her.
Star caught the large smile plastered on the captain's face. "Sir?"
He aimed that grin right at her. "It's been a long time since we could say that we've gone where no man has gone before."
"Sir I must point out that we are not the first manned spacecraft known to have entered this nebula," said Xylion. "While we may be the first Federation vessel able to withstand the radiation for a period of time, other starships have -"
"Commander, it's the sentiment that counts," said Owens, interrupting the Vulcan. "Now how about we just enjoy the view?"
Xylio cocked an eyebrow. "Indeed, sir."
After a while their ride noticeably smoothed out as Eagle
traveled away from the turbulent periphery and deeper into the cloud.
"Transphasic shields are operating as expected and remain stable," said Rosenthal. "At the current level of decay we should remain safe from the radiation for ten to eleven days."
"Well done, Doctor," said Owens.
A myriad of sensor alarms from tactical and operations interrupted the serene tranquility which had gripped the bridge.
Star was out of her chair in an instant. "Report."
"I don't know what's going on," a flustered Milestone said as her fingers rushed over her controls. "I'm reading multiple fires all over the ship."
"Fires?" Star said as if to make sure she’d heard that right.
Milestone nodded. "Also reading loss of atmosphere on deck five, section twelve and failure of life support on deck nine though twelve."
"Captain, I believe I can explain," said Xylion. "While external sensors have been calibrated for the interference caused by the nebula's background radiation, internal sensors have not and are therefore providing us with unreliable readings."
"Can we recalibrate them as well?" asked Star.
Rosenthal stepped forward. "It is possible but it would be rather time and resource intensive, two things we are already short of. I recommend that we disable the internal sensors until we have completed our task inside the nebula."
Michael frowned. He didn't remember reading that he would be without internal sensors during this mission. They weren't crucial to operating the ship but without them it be difficult to find out if something went wrong.
Rosenthal seemed to notice the captain's reluctance. "I assure you that all critical ship systems will not be affected."
Owens glanced at his science officer who nodded in agreement. "There will be sufficient redundancy systems to monitor critical systems."
"Alright," he said and turned to ops, "Ensign, disable internal sensors but make a note in your station's log that I want hourly reports on all critical systems."
"Yes, sir, disabling internal sensors and making note in log."
The captain glanced back at the stunning light show on the screen and then tugged down on his uniform jacket. "That's enough excitement for me tonight," he said and glanced at his first officer, "We'll have plenty of time to appreciate Aphrodite for the next ten days."
She responded with a nod. "I've switched shifts with Commander Leva so I'll stay on the bridge to keep an eye on things."
Michael tried to figure out if Star had decided to head Gamma shift to continue to admire the nebula or if she had alternative motives. Something told him the latter to be true. "Have it your way, Commander, but I'm going to get me some shut eye. I'll see you in the morning."
"Have a good night, sir."
Back in his quarters, Michael stripped out of his uniform, took a quick sonic shower and quietly appreciated the beauty of the nebula from his the large forward facing panoramic windows. He observed as numerous specks of brightly colored light made contact with the modified deflector shield and then fizzled out with a little burst, almost like raindrops against a windshield. Albeit in much more spectacular fashion.
Then he went to bed with a little bit of light reading, in this case Commander Star's report on improving crew efficiency by transitioning to a four shift rotation.
But after only a few sentences he found his thoughts drifting off to his too short encounter with Amaya earlier. He was glad he had been able to finally talk to her about a mistake which had haunted him for so long and now seemed like it had happened a lifetime away. And she had taken the revelation in stride, not letting it affect her feelings for him in the least. On the contrary, judging by what they had done afterwards. They didn't have nearly enough time together as he would have liked as Agamemnon
had to rush off to its next engagement.
Michael hated the uncertainty of ever being able to see her again but then again that was the nature of their chosen lives, war times or not, and neither of them had regretted what had taken place between them.
He had no idea where this unconventional relationship could lead, if it had a future or, for the matter, if any of them had a future at all.
He decided not to dwell on those depressing thoughts and I instead simply appreciated how much he had enjoyed her company and how he would enjoy seeing her again.
Michael closed his eyes for just a moment and not surprisingly immediately visualized her smiling face.
"Star to Captain Owens."
Michael opens his eyes and sighed. His new first officer desperately needed to take a break, he thought. "What is it, Commander?" he said, unable to keep his annoyance out of his voice.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir,"
she said, his irritation had clearly registered. "But I thought you might want to go through that report about the shift transitions."
He couldn't quite believe his ears. "In the morning, Commander. 0900 hours, remember?"
A pregnant pause followed. "Sir, it's 1120 now."
"What are you talking about?" he grunted, swung his legs over the side of the bed and activated the chronometer only to find that she was absolutely right.