– III –
“I thought we’d have more time,”
said the young man on the screen.
The connection was already mostly garbled and she had found it more and more difficult to make out the face of the dark-haired man, but now the sound was beginning to fade out as well. “Not in this soup,” she said. “This nebula is different to most others we’ve encountered. It has some fairly interesting attributes; unfortunately they affect most of our equipment, including sensors, communications and engines.”
His smirk was noticeable even through the deteriorating com-channel. “Look at you being the big scientist all of sudden.”
She responded with her own little smile. “Hardly. I did write a paper on proto-nebulae in my sophomore year, took me almost the entire semester to do research on it, too.”
“Must be why Commander Xylion chose you,”
he said, “I didn’t know you had scientific ambitions.”
“I was considering it back at the Academy,” the Andorian said. “But then the war happened and I had to choose a focus. I figured I was more likely to make my mark as the best pilot in Starfleet instead of a second-rate research assistant.”
The connection cut out for a moment before his face popped back up. “It’s going to go any moment now.”
“Listen, you watch yourself out there, okay?”
She nodded and then offered a wide smile, showing off her pearly whites against her dark blue lips. “It’s just a survey mission,” she said. “It’s not like I’m piloting a combat shuttle against Jem’Hadar warships.”
His concern was obvious, after all he was one of the few people who knew about her combat mission a year earlier when, after her shuttle had been nearly crippled, she had been ordered to carry out a suicide run against a Jem’Hadar ship threatening to destroy Eagle. He knew that the mission had affected her greatly, maybe even changed her forever, for the first time understanding that Starfleet was much more than just an adventure. It had become a life and death struggle for those fighting the war against the Dominion.
“I don’t want you to worry,” she added quickly.
“I’ll try not to. And just to make sure you come back in one piece, I may have a surprise in store for you once you return.”
“Ah, the anticipation is going to kill me.”
“Make sure it doesn’t. I see―“
The comm. system finally gave up compensating for the interference caused by the nebula’s radiation. The shield modifications made sure that they remained relatively safe inside the runabout but it could do nothing to prevent it affecting their communications.
But the connection was dead. When she tried to re-establish, the computer quickly advised her that it was unable to comply and she knew she wouldn’t be able to see or talk to him again until they returned from their mission.
When she heard the approaching footsteps, she quickly ceased her attempts. She was supposed to pilot the runabout, not chat with her friends back on Eagle.
DeMara Deen took the seat next to her. “Anything to report?”
“No, sir … I mean, Dee,” she said, correcting herself quickly. “We’re still two hours out from our destination.”
She nodded and looked over the latest sensor readouts. The sensitive high-resolution scanners they had installed on the runabout before departure were running nonstop to collect as much data as possible about the nebula. They weren’t as efficient as usual due to the strong radiation but they were able to learn much more than they would have if they had stayed on Eagle
“How are people back on the ship?” she said without taking her eyes off her screens.
“They’re fine,” she said without thinking. Then her head jerked up. “I mean … I think … I think they’re fine,” she added looking at the beautiful, golden-locked lieutenant to her right, trying to appear as clueless as possible and of course failing miserably.
Dee looked up. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing part of your conversation with Lieutenant Stanmore. I know it was rude but I didn’t want to interrupt.”
Her mouth opened and then closed. “How much … how much did you hear?”
“Just the last bit.”
Srena’s face gained some color. Bad enough that she had been caught red-handed chatting with her boyfriend, as it so happened, DeMara Deen was Lance Stanmore’s boss. “I’m so sorry, sir, I swear it won’t happen again.”
She offered a sweet smile. “Don’t worry about it. In fact I think you and Lance make a great couple.”
Now she turned periwinkle. “We’re not … I mean, not really. Actually I don’t know what we are.”
“Well, it seemed pretty obvious to me that you two care a great deal for each other,” she said. “And there is nothing wrong with that.”
“We work together,” Srena said. “And I’m sure if Commander Star found out; she’d give me hell over it. She’s singled me out as a special project of hers and I know she’d be rather displeased if I let myself get distracted like this.”
“Distracted?” she said with a smirk.
“Well, I’d imagine that would be what she’d call it.”
Deen nodded. “Your secret is safe with me. But if you ask me, you shouldn’t have to hide things. Fraternizing with a fellow crewmember is not a taboo, and we live in the kind of times we can’t take anything for granted.”
The Andorian nodded thoughtfully. It was a conclusion she’d arrived at herself, especially since having come within inches of dying in a fiery kamikaze attack.
“How do you do it?”
The Tenarian glanced at the young ensign with a little twinkle in her eye. “Do what?”
“Uh, I mean, aren’t you with anyone right now?”
Deen’s face turned thoughtful for just a brief moment, almost wistful. It was quickly dispelled but not quickly enough to not make Srena feel extremely uncomfortable, even embarrassed at having asked the question. She quickly turned back to her instrument. “I’m sorry that was way out of line. It’s none of my business.”
Dee quickly shook her head. “No, not at all,” she said, sounding like her good-natured self again. “And I’m not seeing anyone. What would make you think I was?”
“Well,” she said, starting out carefully now. “I suppose I just assumed because you are, you know …”
“I was going to say beautiful and sensual,” she said and suddenly felt like sinking into her seat until she disappeared.
She uttered a little laugh. “Thank you, Srena,” she said. “I shall take that as a compliment. But I have you know I haven’t been in any kind of relationship since my early days at the Academy.”
“Oh, ok,” she said. “Now I feel stupid.”
“Don’t. I just haven’t found the right person yet. Clearly you have and you should take full advantage,” she said but even Srena could tell that there appeared to be more to what she was saying than she let on, no matter how much Deen tried to pretend otherwise.
“Right person for what?”
The two turned to see So’Dan Leva stride into the compartment. A large smirk was plastered on the half-Romulan’s face, as if extremely intrigued at the conversation between the two young women.
Deen frowned at him. “Girl talk,” she said. “Not for your tapered ears to hear.”
“What a shame, I’m sure it would’ve made great material for my personal log.”
The Andorian giggled, realizing perhaps for the first time that senior officers weren’t really all that different. Even the usually dead-serious half-Romulan tactical officer was much less intimidating up close and the normally stoic Vulcan science officer actually had a sense of humor, even if it was so subtle, one blink and you’d miss it.
She wasn’t entirely sure if these usually stone-faced men had let their guard down thanks to Deen’s inherent charm or if this simply was the way these people carried themselves when they were socializing among themselves and not faced with the latest crisis.
After a couple more minutes of light banter, the small crew of the runabout fell into their various roles, mostly observing and analyzing whatever information the sensors were able to gleam from their marvelous surroundings and Srena, too, decided to apply some of her admittedly limited astrophysics background to the study of the nebula while keeping at least one eye on the navigational data least they’d run into some unexpected trouble.
The truth was that she had always been fascinated by stellar phenomenon which couldn’t be neatly classified or categorized. It was why she had developed an interest in travelling the stars and becoming an explorer in the first place and what had led her to consider a science career while at the Academy. In fact her paper had focused on nebulae with unexpected and unexplainable attributes just like Aphrodite. Lance had probably been right when he had guessed that her work at the Academy had likely garnered her the spot on the away team.
After just a few minutes of analyzing the wide-band EM spectrum sensor results she found something very odd about the composition of this particular nebula. It possessed all the elements one would expect from a proto-nebula of this size and type, including dust, hydrogen, helium and a variety of other ionized gases but there was another element here not usually observed in nebulae. Those bright little sprites of various colors which gave Aphrodite their unique look were for all intents and purposes plasma fragments and most likely a holdover from a planetary body, possibly a gas giant, which had dissolved and helped create the nebula.
In her paper, Srena had speculated that similar plasma fragments could exhibit an almost instinctive movement pattern not unlike single-cell organisms, traversing their environments not just randomly but with some sort of purpose. And this seemed to be the case here as well. Perhaps even more so than in the examples she had studied and she couldn’t help wonder if there was more to this than she had theorized in her thesis where she had attributed these patterns to an electromagnetic attraction, like protons constantly racing after oppositely-charged electrons. But there were no signs of electromagnetic radiation in Aphrodite significant enough to explain those movements. There had to be another explanation for how and why these little sprites roamed across the nebula.
Srena’s considerations were cut short when the runabout trembled suddenly and caused a loud warning siren to echo across the cockpit.
“What’s going on?” said Leva from his station, clearly startled by the unexpected turbulence.
The Andorian pilot cursed herself for having been so distracted with her findings, actually having taken her eyes of navigation completely for a while. She quickly turned back to the helm controls and sensors. “We’re running into gravimetric sheer,” she said. “I … I don’t understand where this came from.”
Deen shot her an encouraging look. “It didn’t show up on sensors.”
She replied with a thankful nod at the revelation that while the operations officer had been keeping her eyes on the navigational instruments, it hadn’t made much of a difference.
The small vessel began to heave and shake, forcing the occupants to hold on tightly to their stations.
Srena couldn’t help but be reminded of the unnatural storm in the play she’d watched a couple of days ago and a ship, albeit a much different one, getting into a tough scrape with nature they’d ultimately lose. She tried to ban those thoughts out of her head. “The sheer is intensifying; navigational deflector is losing power and forward momentum has increased by thirty percent.”
“I’d say we’ve found the source of this mysterious gravimetric disturbance,” said Deen even while her fingers raced over her console, trying to compensate for the increasingly rough ride.
“Excellent,” said Leva sarcastically. “Now that we’ve felt it, can we move on?”
“Helm is responding very sluggishly,” Srena said. “Whatever this is, it’s as if it’s pulling us in.”
Deen’s efforts to stabilize the ship also bore little fruit. “There’s more to this than just some spatial disturbance.”
Srena turned to see that Commander Leva had stepped up right in-between her and Deen, grabbing the back of their chairs to maintain his balance while his eyes were focused on the forward viewports.
She followed his gaze, curious at what had made him get out of his chair under these conditions. The thick, colorful gasses making up the nebula pulled back like a veil to reveal something she had not expected to find here. A planet.
“Sensors are confirming a rogue planetoid dead ahead,” said Xylion, his voice sounding surprised at this discovery. “It appears to be surrounded by significant electromagnetic disturbance.”
“Lightning,” said Srena who couldn’t find a better analogy as she saw the massive, bright discharges which rippled across the space around the planet.
“And we’re heading straight for it,” said Leva.
“Ensign, change your heading to four-six mark one-eight seven.”
She quickly entered the course correction but to her frustration found that the runabout hardly responded to her prompts at all. The nose turned far too slowly.
“It’s not working, the gravimetric sheer is pulling us in,” said the operations officer.
“Ensign, full reverse, all thrusters.”
Srena shook her head when that too made little difference. “It’s not significantly arresting our momentum.”
“Switching to full impulse,” said Deen.
The runabout lurched hard and a new alarm klaxons alerted the crew to a possible catastrophic structural failure.
“It’s ripping the ship apart!” Srena shouted.
“Lieutenant, terminate the impulse engines,” said the Vulcan just as they were struck by the lightning-like discharges surrounding the ever increasing orb they were approaching.
Srena lifted her fingers off her controls as powerful electric currents began to course through them, flicking them on and off.
“No need,” said Deen. “We have massive system failures all across the board.”
Srena was close to panic. “We’re losing helm control.”
“This is going to get a lot worse,” said Leva and the Andorian knew exactly what he was talking about when she looked back up and out of the viewport. They were now tumbling uncontrollably towards the surface of the planet.
Xylion put into words what everyone was already thinking. “Brace for crash landing.”