- VI -
“Damage report,” Star barked as she picked herself up from the floor. There was no immediate response on the darkened bridge and it took her a moment to realize why that was. Nobody was at their station. The Risian pilot was still sprawled out on the deck, dead or unconscious, Star wasn’t sure. Stanmore sat slumped over the operations console but at least he was stirring slightly, meaning that he was still alive. She couldn’t see Trinik. Her first thought was for the captain however and she felt immense relieve when she spotted him, just a few feet from his chair, attempting to stand.
She nearly jumped to his side to help him up. “Captain, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” he said but was cut off by a coughing fit, no doubt brought on by the smoke and fumes of burned-out plastics now filling the air. Star helped him sit in his chair and he quickly waved her off. “Check on the others and then give me a damage report.”
She nodded and attended to Aliris first. She found a steady pulse but she was bleeding from her forehead and unconscious. “Bridge to sickbay, medical emergency. Get somebody up here on the double,” she said and didn’t wait for a response as she moved on to operations.
“This is sickbay. A team is already en-route.”
Star carefully pulled Stanmore off the console and back into his chair. “Lieutenant?”
He nodded slowly. “I’m okay, I think. Just got the wind knocked out of me,” he said, attempting to sound nonchalant.
When she turned to look towards tactical she could see that Trinik was back at his board. There was green blood trickling down his mouth and nose but it didn’t seem to slow him down. “We have suffered a direct hit to deck eight. With additional damage reported to deck twelve, fifteen and sixteen. I am reading multiple hull breaches. Emergency force fields have engaged. Sickbay is reporting multiple casualties on all decks. No fatalities have been reported however three crewmembers are currently unaccounted for.”
“Do we have … do we have the runabout?” Owens said.
Stanmore responded. “We have it, sir.”
The ship jolted once more.
“Status of shields?” Star said.
“Thirty-two percent,” the Vulcan said.
Star looked towards the captain and immediately knew what he was thinking. Was it enough to get them out of the nebula in once piece?
He pointed at the helm. “Commander, get us out of here, full impulse.”
Star didn’t hesitate and took the chair behind the CONN. It had been a while since she had steered a starship but it came back to her as quickly as riding a bicycle. The ship was facing the wrong direction after they had turned it to align with the incoming runabout. It took only a moment to fire the thruster and have the bow facing the quickest route out of the nebula again. But when she fired up the impulse engine she realized that it wasn’t giving her nearly enough power. She shook her head in frustration. “Impulse engines are operating at forty percent efficiency only.”
“Owens to engineering, we need more power to the engines.”
Hopkins was on the line momentarily. “I see what I can do but we’ve taken a lot of damage, sir. We have multiple overloaded or damaged EPS conduits and we were still affecting repairs from the damage we’ve taken a few days ago. Most of our systems are running on emergency power at the moment.”
“Prioritize impulse engines and shields. We need to try and get out of the nebula. All other repairs can wait until we’re clear.”
“Understood, sir. Hopkins out.”
The forward turbolift doors opened to allow DeMara Deen to step onto the bridge along with a medical team which quickly tended to the fallen Aliris and the other injured.
“Dee,” Owens said and stood on shaky legs. “Are you alright?”
“Felt better but I think I’ll pull through,” she said with a smirk.
“Long story. Srena took the worst of it. She’s in sickbay,” she said and didn’t miss that Lance Stanmore turned to look at her at the mention of the Andorian pilot, deep worry lines crossing his brow and she quickly recalled what she had said about the young operations officer and how they had only recently started seeing each other. “I think she’ll be alright.”
He gave her an appreciative nod even though his concern was clearly not completely alleviated. He turned back to his station to distract himself with his work.
“What about the others?” Owens said.
“Leva has a broken arm. He should be back on his feet soon.”
She didn’t respond to that straight away. “He’s still on the planet.”
Star stood from the helm after handing it off to another crewman. “What planet?”
“As I said, it’s a long story,” she said and then nearly lost her balance when the ship was struck yet again.
“Shields down to twenty-six percent,” Trinik said.
“Doesn’t look like we have time for stories,” said Deen. “Where do you want me?”
“Ideally sickbay,” said Owens. “But we could use an extra hand at science if you’re up to it.”
She offered a sharp nod and then headed for the aft station.
Meanwhile Star had handed over helm duties to Petty Officer Waldorf. The middle-aged NCO was usually in charge of piloting the ship during the night shift and it didn’t escape her that with Culsten restricted to quarters, as to her own orders, and both Srena and Aliris incapacitated, they were growing thin at that position. She made a mental note to get some backup to the bridge as soon as possible. “How long until we clear the nebula, Mister?”
“Impulse engine is not yet fully restored. At current speed we won’t clear it for at least another hour.”
Star glanced at Trinik next and she didn’t have to put her question into words.
“At the present rate of attack, shields will last another sixteen minutes and twelve seconds before total collapse,” he said. “I will attempt to divert additional power but it is unlikely that we will be able to keep the grid energized until we are free of the nebula.”
“And we’re not even sure yet if the attack is in fact linked to Aphrodite. For all we know it might be something else entirely which will keep attacking us until the ship is destroyed,” said the captain. “We need to find out what we’re up against.”
Star noticed that Deen was hard at work at the science station. “Lieutenant, any thoughts?”
“Maybe,” she said. “How long has the ship been under attack?”
Owens took that one. “It’s been nearly five hours now. On and off. It seemed to lessen when we were headed towards the boundary of the nebula and it picked up again when we headed deeper into it.”
“And we had multiple instances of crewmembers acting erratically over the last few days, purposefully attempting to damage the ship. Lieutenant Gedar was killed,” said Star but then regretted mentioned the engineer’s death when she spotted Deen’s shocked reaction, forgetting for a moment that she must have known him quite well as they had been in the play together.
Owens had left his chair to head towards Deen and then placed a hand on her shoulder. She knew what he was doing. They needed her focused on the problem at hand and not distracted with the death of a fellow officer.
Deen looked up at the captain.
“You mentioned you had some ideas?” he said.
It took her a moment to recover. “Actually it’s something Srena said. She’s been spending some time studying the nebula and she may have found something,” Deen said and then turned back to the science station. Star noticed that she was setting up an interface with the runabout computer. The small vessel was in a worse shape than her mother ship but fortunately the computer core was still active and it didn’t take Deen long to get access to its main memory circuits. “At first I thought what she said was that she was glad that she was still alive but now I think she meant to say that the nebula itself is alive.”
“You think the nebula is a life form?” said Owens.
“It wouldn’t be the strangest thing we’ve seen,” she said as she went through the runabout’s computer to try and find the research Srena had been working on.
Star had a sudden thought and turned to tactical. “Trinik, give me the visual sensor readouts just before the latest attack. Directly aft, from where the attack originated.”
The Vulcan had the requested data up in an instance and transferred it onto the main view screen to show what the sensors had picked up just a few minutes earlier. A large ball of crimson energy, the size of a shuttlecraft was pulsing with what appeared to be massive amounts of pure energy just a few short kilometers from the ship. It accelerated suddenly towards Eagle
where it hit the shields with such force the visual pickup blinked out.
“Go back and freeze the image on the object,” said Star.
The screen turned back on to show the pulsing mass of light.
“That looks familiar,” said Owens.
Star nodded. “Because we’ve seen it before. In fact we’ve seen it everywhere we’ve looked. Lieutenant, maximum magnification on the outer edge of the object.”
The screen zoomed in to reveal dozens of smaller specks of light racing towards the larger one to create the phenomenon which had attacked the ship.
“I think those are our life forms,” said Deen and then turned back towards the science station. “That’s what Srena was talking about. She believed those specks of light we’ve seen in the nebula are sentient.”
“But why are they attacking us?” asked Stanmore from the operations console.
“They must see us as a threat,” said Deen. “After all we’ve invaded their home.”
“And they may have already tried to communicate with us,” said the first officer. “Perhaps to warn us.”
Owens turned to look at the Trill. “Explain?”
“It’s just a theory of course, but consider the evidence. They made contact with you first. Logically really, seeing that you are the captain. When this failed they became more and more desperate, eventually leading to attempts to destroy the ship, first from within and now from without.”
Deen seemed in agreement as she nodded along. “I think the commander is right. These are all signs of an intelligence at work. A life form quite possibly trying to defend itself.”
trembled hard as it was hit yet again. All three officers were forced to hang on in order as not to lose their balance.
“Shields now down to eighteen percent,” Trinik said.
“Alright,” said Owens, “so we’re dealing with some sort of incorporeal life form currently dead set on seeing us destroyed. And they want us out of the nebula. But we’re already on our way and yet they’re still attacking us.”
“They’ve become desperate,” said Deen.
Star nodded. “We need to find a way to communicate with them, to let them know that we are no threat and that we are happy to leave the nebula.”
The turbolift doors opened, this time to deposit Katanga on the bridge. The doctor was still wearing his surgical gear. He spotted the three senior officers assembled around the science station and headed their way.
“Doctor, how’s the crew?” said Owens. “What’s Ensign Srena’s condition?”
“No fatalities, thank the Maker. The ensign is going to pull through as well. In fact she’s the reason I’m up here. When she came to for a short while she made me promise I come up here and tell you about her theory that the nebula is home of …” he stopped himself when he noticed the readouts on the science station. “Ah, I can see you already figured it out.”
“Thanks to Srena’s analysis,” said Deen. “We need to find a way to communicate with them.”
“I take it just opening a hailing frequency is not going to do it,” said Katanga.
Deen shook her head. “They are, by all indications, free floating, incorporeal life forms. They are likely to have just a little facilities to pick up subspace radio signals as we would without any equipment.”
“But they are able to temporarily inhabit a corporeal body and use it for their purposes,” said Star. “We may be able to communicate with them in that manner.”
“I’m not sure I like that idea very much,” said Katanga.
Another hard jolt nearly caused Katanga to the floor had it not been for Star catching him in time. “I don’t think we have much of a choice at this point,” she said.
“You want to allow an alien life form we practically know nothing about access to one of our bodies to do with them who knows what? We don’t even know what kind of long-term effects this could have on the host body,” said the doctor, clearly not willing to sign off on this plan even given the deteriorating circumstances.
“Doctor, you have thoroughly examined everyone we believe to have been taken over by these life forms, including myself, and found no ill-affects, isn’t that right?” said Owens.
“Yes but we don’t know about long-term—“
But Star cut him off. “We’re explorers, right?” she said and looked at Owens. “This is the core of what we are all about. Making contact with new forms of life is why we’re out here in the first place. Not only do we have an opportunity to do so now, our own lives may very much depend on us doing so successfully. I volunteer.”
“I still think this is a terrible idea,” he said and then continued before Star could interrupt again. “But fair enough, I can see why our options might be limited right now. But you’re not a good choice, Dez,” he said, using the name of her previous host. “From what we’ve seen, these life forms prefer a body with low serotonin levels. That’s not you. Our best bet is to go with somebody we know has already been taken over. Their levels should still be fairly low and I could lower them a little further temporarily to make them even more appealing. But it would have to be a short session. And I would have to monitor that person throughout the process.”
“Than I’ll do it,” said Owens.
Star immediately shook her head. “Sir, that’s too dangerous.”
“Besides,” said Katanga. “Your possession, if you will, took place ten days ago which means your serotonin levels back to a reduced levels are nearly back to normal. It would be easier if we picked somebody with a more recent experience.”
Owens nodded reluctantly. “Alright, who do you suggest? It can’t be Hopkins, we’ll need her in engineering.”
The first officer tapped her combadge. “Star to Lieutenant Culsten,” she said and then looked at Owens who offered a nod of agreement, letting her know to go ahead.
“Culsten here, sir.”
“Lieutenant, I believe I still owe you an apology. In return would you mind terribly in helping us save the ship and everybody on board?”
He hesitated for only an instant. “Tell me what you need.”