Rocketship Voyager

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction' started by Odon, Jun 28, 2020.

  1. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Reprinted from the October 1954 edition of "Incredible Tales of Scientific Wonder", here is the classic sci-fi serial by K.C. Hunter that inspired the 1990's UPN television series.
    ===============================================================

    ROCKETSHIP VOYAGER
    A thrilling Tale of Transgalactic Adventure by K. C. Hunter.


    Once they had been bitter enemies. Now they were stranded on the far side of the galaxy, and must work together to survive!

    Chapter I: FASTER THAN LIGHT

    Through the trackless void between Jupiter and Mars hurtled the cigar-shaped vessel that was UNRS Voyager. A thousand feet of gleaming hull and glowering rocket-tubes, swept-back wings and sleek gun blisters, spinning radar dishes and slender antennae. A vessel built for peace but ready for war, now halfway from one to the other.

    Buried deep within the rocketship was the control-room known (for reasons lost in the vanished past of the pre-Atomic era) as the Bridge. At the helm was Tom Paris, a dashingly handsome Space Lieutenant with a bold shock of sandy-blonde hair. His steady hands gripped the control and thrust levers; his earphones were attuned to the maneuvers relayed from Astrogation.

    To his left sat Hyun Kim, a callow ensign from the megacities of Pan-Asia whose almond-shaped eyes took swift readings from the electroptical board that monitored everything from life-support systems to hull integrity. An alteration in the oxygen-helium mix of the synthetic atmosphere, a shift in balance off the rocket's axis of thrust, a flux in the electromagnetic fields of the Cochrane Drive: all could spell disaster if not reacted to decisively.

    Around them was arrayed a hemispherical display of scopes and telescreens, where commtechs scanned the electromagnetic spectrum and radarmen kept an omni-directional watch for any rocketship or meteorite. But it was the man lying on an acceleration couch with his eyes closed to the distracting sight of those screens who first detected the danger. Tech Lieutenant TuV'k—whose dark skin and sharply-pointed ears presented a satanic visage to those unfamiliar with the serenity and mental discipline of a Martian Adept—wore the copper skullcap of an eloptic field amplifier on his shaven head, wired into the Hieronymus Machine that projected his extrasensory perception across the immensity of Outer Space.

    "Object on intercept course," he warned. "Mr. Kim, sound General Quarters."

    "GENERAL QUARTERS! GENERAL QUARTERS!" blared the bullhorns on every deck of Voyager. "ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS! OBJECT ON INTERCEPT COURSE! SET MATERIAL CONDITION ZEBRA THROUGHOUT THE SHIP!"

    Men and women tumbled from capsules where they had been resting after months of combat and raced for their assigned station. Those already on duty strapped on safety webbing or anchored themselves on the handgrips recessed into every surface—an essential feature on a space vessel which could change in an instant from constant acceleration to the weightlessness of free-fall. As each compartment was manned its collision-hatches were sealed, isolating them in case of a catastrophic hull breach.

    "Captain on the Bridge!" someone announced. A scuttle-hatch in the deckplates had swung upward to reveal a bouffant of Titian hair surmounting grayish-blue eyes that scanned the Bridge the moment they came level with the tween-deck. Fingers tipped with clear-polished nails gripped a handhold, and with a practiced movement a slender figure sprung onto the deck: a handsome woman in her late-thirties, the austerity of her space-black uniform failing to conceal the feminine curvature underneath. She had the short stature of a veteran spacer, and her voice cracked with the authority of one used to command.

    "Tactical Psionics, report!" ordered Captain Kathryn Janeway.

    "Unknown object approaching incredibly fast," replied TuV'k. "Gun batteries loaded and radar-locked. A-missiles primed in tubes Three, Five and Seven."

    "Adjust our heading, Mr. Paris. See if it follows. Ship's status, Mr. Kim?"

    "All decks secure, ma'am. All stations manned and ready."

    "The object is altering course," said the Senior Radarman, peering into the hood of his scope. "Matching velocities with us. That's no meteorite."

    "Steady as you go, Mr. Paris." Captain Janeway strapped herself into an acceleration couch, swung the lap console over her chest and keyed the intercraft. "Bridge to Astrogation, give us a look at our visitor. It seems determined to have a look at us, after all."

    Thermoscopes and electronic telescopes tracked and locked on target, and the resulting image relayed to the telescreens on the Bridge. Magnification was unnecessary: the intruder Brobdingnagian in its dimensions. At first they could not comprehend what they were seeing. It was as if someone had erected a vast wall in Space to block their path. Then details became apparent: parallel surfaces forming the shape of an enormous cube, covered in a latticework of girders, transit-tubes, sensor antennae and radiator panels. A triumph of function over form, assembled without thought to aesthetics like an industrial plant of the 20th Century.

    "What do you make of it, TuV'k?" asked Janeway. "Could that be a Jovian vessel?"

    "Negative, Captain. Its appearance does not match any vessel encountered by Spacefleet."

    "Motive power?"

    "Unknown. I can detect no emission trail from a reaction drive."

    "It's massive!" exclaimed Kim. "Radar measures its size at almost seven cubic miles. There could be thousands of people living on that thing!"

    "It must be a generation ship," said Janeway, her scientific curiosity aroused. The nuclear rocket and the contraterrene drive had opened the Solar System for exploration and settlement, but travel to other stars remained the mere speculation of science-fiction writers. A journey to even the closest star was beyond the lifespan of any human crew, but in theory it was possible if the vessel was large enough to house a self-sustaining colony within its own bulkheads. Could this be Humanity's first contact with an interstellar species? How many years (centuries even!) had they been traveling? "Sparks, try hailing them."

    "On which frequency, ma'am?"

    The question threw Janeway for a moment. Did these extraterrans even use radio?

    "Start with the Intersolar Distress Frequency," she said, "then use your discretion. Try Terran-English, Esperanto, High and Low Martian... anything you can think of. Maybe these aliens have been monitoring our broadcasts like in those old scientifilms."

    The commtech never had a chance to try any of them. A shockwave rippled through the Bridge that hurled the crew against their safety webbing. A radarman who had unbuckled his restraints to pick up a dropped grease pencil was thrown clear across the deck. He got to his feet, turning the air blue with curses... then gaped in astonishment as he found himself standing halfway up the bulkhead, as if Voyager had been toppled on its side.

    Kim stared at his board, unable to believe what the gauges were telling him. "Captain, we appear to be caught in some kind of... gravitation beam!"

    "I need a better description than that, Mr. Kim!"

    "I can't explain it, ma'am... an intense gravitational field just appeared out of nowhere! It's somehow focused on Voyager... it's dragging us towards that cube-ship!"

    'He's talking nonsense', thought Janeway. Gravity could not be switched on and off like an electromagnet. Yet the repeaters on her lap console told the same story; every gravimeter had jumped into the red zone. "Helm, any heading; just get us out of here!"

    Paris slammed forward the thrust lever and felt his couch shudder as the hydraulics absorbed the shock of acceleration. Emitting more radioactive energy in a microsecond than was expended in World Wars Two and Three, the Cochrane Drive hurled Voyager against its confinement.

    "We're free!" Paris exclaimed. "We're moving, we're..." His jaw dropped. "By the Twelve Moons of Jupiter!"

    The cold pinpoints of distant stars had blurred into incandescent blue lines streaking across the telescreens, while the rearward-pointing electroscopes showed those same lines shifting to a crimson red before vanishing into a blackness darker than the far reaches of the void.

    'We're moving so fast that light-waves can't catch up,' thought Janeway, stunned at the implications. 'That's impossible... WE'VE CROSSED THE THRESHOLD OF LIGHT SPEED!'

    Only one thought motivated her. They had to stop, before Voyager got so far from Earth they could never return!

    "TuV'k!" shouted Janeway. Automatic restraints had pulled her tight into the couch; she hit the release button and twisted herself around against the G-forces to face her Tactical Psionics Officer. "Find out where that gravity field is coming from and get us a firing solution!"

    Beads of sweat glistened on his ebony features as TuV'k tried to shut out his extrasensory awareness of the mind-warping speed at which they travelled, to focus all his attention on the alien colossus. His dark eyes stared sightlessly at the bulkhead as his hands roamed across the ballistics integrator, adjusting dials and Vernier scales. Janeway held her breath as if even a single exhalation might distract him from his task.

    "I have a solution," gasped TuV'k, "but at this speed I would not advise__"

    "FIRE!"

    The rocketship rang like a carillon as the torpedo tubes hurled their atom-tipped missiles into Space, the dirigible rockets blazing to life the moment they were clear of the hull. The telescreens flared with a terrible radiance and pain burst in Janeway's skull as the couch smashed into her and then there was only blackness.
     
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2020 at 11:56 AM
  2. TheLoneRedshirt

    TheLoneRedshirt Commodore Commodore

    Joined:
    May 22, 2007
    Location:
    Here and now.
    Wow! Exceptionally well written and a fantastic homage to old pulp sci-fi mags of the 50's and 60's. More, please!
     
  3. Tribble Threat

    Tribble Threat Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Mar 11, 2020
    I like it!
     
  4. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Chapter II: FREE-FALL

    Captain Janeway woke to a nightmarish sight.

    She was naked, her body impaled like a butterfly on a slender needle descending from the incandescent glare of a luminous ceiling. Around her were members of her crew, each floating naked inside a membranous sac pierced with needles and tubules. Janeway kicked; struck out with her fists, lashing helplessly against the slick amorphous material that enveloped her.

    Her struggles drew the attention of a giant metal spider, its eight eyes glowing a baleful red as it scuttled across the ceiling towards the helpless woman and said: "Please state the nature of the medical emergency."

    "You're the Autodoc—you tell me!" snapped Janeway. "Get me out of this stupid bag!"

    "Voyager is currently under null-gravity conditions," the robot replied in the grating tones of its voder-vocoder (whoever designed their Autodoc had not placed much emphasis on a bedside manner). "That pressure balloon is protecting you from infection by floating blood and other atmospheric contaminants. Furthermore there is a risk of catastrophic pressure loss. While I would remain impervious, the effects of explosive decompression on you would be most unpleasant, albeit short in duration."

    "We're in free-fall?" Janeway suddenly realized the floating sensation she felt was not due to medication; it was because her body was weightless. Normally the thrust of the Cochrane Drive held the crew pressed against the deckplates but that was a pseudo-gravity, lasting only as long as they were under acceleration. "Then we're adrift in Space. Where exactly are we?"

    "In the mess." Voyager's messdeck could be converted into a casualty ward if required. It had happened several times over the past couple of months, but this was the first time Janeway had been here as a patient. "Sickbay is no longer operational. A fire broke out at__"

    "I mean what's our location in OUTER SPACE?!"

    "I'm an Autodoc, not an astrogator!" the robot retorted.

    Keeping four of its limbs attached to the ceiling with sucker-tipped hooves, the Autodoc lowered the other four down to Janeway's pressure balloon where they inserted through the air-lock valves and blossomed into an array of micromanipulators and photocell receptors. Tell-tales and tubules were removed, the vampire gauge plucked from her chest with the delicacy of a girl picking a flower. An electro-scalpel cauterized the puncture wound while simultaneously another manipulator shone a light in her eyes to study pupil dilation.

    "No concussion. You'll be fine."

    "Good." Janeway grabbed the manipulator and used it as leverage to tear open the thin veil of fluorocarbon plastic. The oxygen pump shut down as it registered the drop in pressure, and all of a sudden she was bathed in the ozone smell of ultraviolet radiation which could not quite mask the acrid stench of blood and burnt flesh. Janeway flinched as cold fingers seized her arm, though the robot's tactile sensors ensured the digits were exerting just enough pressure to restrain her without bruising the skin.

    "Captain Janeway, just where do you think you're going?"

    "To the Bridge, of course."

    There was a clicking of relays as the Autodoc consulted its compassion-protection algorithm. Eventually it replied: "I cannot permit you to leave at this time."

    "Unhand me, you tinpot tarantula—that's an order!"

    "I should remind you that I am exempt from the Second Law of Robotics in the absence of higher medical authority."

    "Then get the Chief Medical Officer!"

    "Dr. Fitzgerald is no longer functioning. Resuscitation was attempted via electro-stimulus and mechanical ventilation with no success. I have filed him as deceased from shock and third degree burns at 1447 Shiptime. Corpswoman Jia Li is filed as non-operational due to inhalation of noxious fumes. Her condition appears stable but she is unresponsive to stimuli. There are three rescue teams who are operating beyond my visual range. Space Lieutenant Paris was designated to assist me as he is listed as having emergency medical training, however he left this room 13.09 minutes ago without telling me where he was going or allocating a replacement medical assistant. Most inefficient!"

    Janeway stopped struggling. "Fitzgerald is dead? How many casualties are there?"

    "Eleven personnel are filed as deceased, one patient is comatose, twenty-three other patients also required hospitalization, and nineteen casualties were treated and released from my care. According to a Zeroth exemption in my triage algorithm I refrained from allocating time-resources to Ensign Ahni Jetal who is filed as deceased from shock at__"

    "You let her die!"

    "Jetal was trapped on Deck Twelve. At the time I was required here to perform an emergency surgical procedure on Ensign Hyun Kim. I designated Kim's treatment a priority and relayed instructions by intercraft to the crewman attending Jetal, but he was unable to stabilize her."

    "Hyun?" Janeway twisted in the Autodoc's grip, staring about her until she located the young ensign lying in a clamshell restraint that had been lashed to the floor.

    "I should remind you that my abilities are limited," the Autodoc said in a somewhat querulous tone. "I was designed as a short-term emergency supplement to your medical team. I recommend you arrange for a replacement medical staff at the earliest convenience."

    "That might take a while. Give me a list of the deceased."

    A line of paper tape chattered out of a slot in the Autodoc's chassis. Janeway tore off the tape and scanned it intently. As a university graduate, she had enough fluency in machine languages to understand what she was reading.

    Space Commander Cavit had died from the injuries he had received on Vesta, slipping into death unnoticed while his biomonitor was damaged. Dr. Fitzgerald had died of asphyxiation when a battle-shorted instrument panel had overheated, starting a fire in Sickbay. Space Lieutenant Star'Di had survived months of peril as a shuttleboat pilot, only to break her spine and then drown in a floating bubble of engine lubricant.

    There was Timothy Lang, the Negro sergeant who had saved her life on Ceres. Commissary Officer Mbuangi, with two wives and seven children back in the Reunited States of Africa. Chief Engineer Hans Ziegler from Peenemunde in East Germany. CPO Dragan Horvat from Yugoslavia, and Air Tender Tran Lee from a tiny hamlet in South Vietnam.

    There was Ensign Ahni Jetal and Computerman (F) Lyndsey Ballard and... Spaceman Second Class Frank Darwin? Just who was he? A combat replacement no doubt, killed before she ever had a chance to meet him. Two months ago, Voyager had a crew of 141 plus a 40-man platoon of space marines. She had shepherded them through an intersolar war losing three shipmates and fourteen marines and considered herself lucky. And now this.

    "What's the current status of Voyager?"

    "I'm a doctor, not a damage control officer. With the death of Space Commander Cavit, Tech Lieutenant TuV'k is filed as Acting Captain until you are fit for duty. I have informed the Bridge that you have regained consciousness, however I cannot certify you as fit for duty. I had to strap three ribs and conduct a tri-dimensional X-Ray of your skull. You need to remain here for recuperation and observation."

    "Give me some dexedrine and I'll be as right as rain. Now unless you have a Zeroth exemption for the Third Law of Robotics, I suggest you get out of my way."

    "Is that a threat?" The Autodoc spun its upper turret to bring a bell-shaped nozzle in line with the captain.

    "Are you threatening me, you wretched robot? Sedate me and I'll have you dismantled!"

    "Actually, I was going to suggest you get dressed. Unless you're planning to establish a nudist colony on Voyager?"

    Janeway raised her hands in mock surrender. "Fine, get on with it."

    She grimaced as a spray of blue foam shot from the nozzle and splattered across her naked chest. It was freezing and the Autodoc did not bother lessening the impact on sensitive areas. The foam started to set the moment it made contact with her body heat, hardening into a dermaplastic skinsuit. It occurred to Janeway that the result was hardly less titillating than if she had chosen to walk around in the buff. She resolved to change to a uniform as soon as possible.

    The Autodoc used its manipulator arms to rotate Janeway in mid-air, moving the spray across her back and buttocks, then down her legs to her feet. While it worked the door swung open to admit Lieutenant TuV'k.

    "TuV'k, get this mad machine off me!"

    "Mr. TuV'k, kindly talk sense into my patient! The captain is not yet in a condition to resume her duties." Its task completed, the Autodoc released its grip and skittered away to check on the other patients, though it kept a wary photocell pointed in Janeway's direction.

    "You must rest, Captain." Even with the legendary mental disciplines of his race, the Martian was fagged. There were dark hollows under his eyes and grime smeared his usually immaculate uniform. "The immediate danger has passed, and you have not gone off duty since our battle with the Valjean."

    "And how long have you been on duty?" asked Janeway, glancing at the two-dial chronometer on the bulkhead. One dial was synchronized to the atomic clock on the Computer Deck, the other adjusted to the standard time of the nearest space station or planetary LowPort—in this case the Vesta colony. Had it only been forty-seven hours since they had brought that traitor Chakotay to heel?

    The thought started unpleasant scenarios running through her mind. "The prisoners, are they secure?"

    "They are secure and uninjured. I checked on them personally. I have maintained the guard on Cargo Bay 2 even though we do not have personnel to spare." They had left most of their marines on Vesta to assist the evacuation, with only a token force on Voyager to guard the prisoners until they could be handed over to the authorities on Earth.

    He handed over a sheaf of damage report forms. Janeway flicked through them, picking out the matters of life-and-death for a spacer: life support, hull integrity, power maintenance, electromagnetic field integrity, radiation shielding, communications, astrogation...

    "Where in Space are we, TuV'k? How far out from Sol?"

    "We appear to be somewhere on the Galactic Rim. Astrogation has still not fixed our position."

    'That can't be good,' thought Janeway. The stellar cartographers kept an up-to-date catalogue of every star visible from Earth. All they had to do was take spectrostellographs of whatever stars could be seen from the astrodome, then compare their spectra to those listed in the catalogue. Only three stars were needed to pinpoint their location in Outer Space. So what was taking them so long?

    Tom Paris returned with a pretty yeoman, the bright-red tatters of a decompression shelter-balloon still clinging to her body. Janeway interrupted his efforts to chat up the grateful damsel so she could get some idea of where they were.

    "I tried to have a word with the girls in Astrogation, but Hansen threw me out on my ear." Paris brought his head close to the captain and whispered, "Jenny told me she can't hear her sister."

    The Delaney twins were an experiment in using telepathy to communicate with deep space vessels. While Jenny Delaney worked as a chartsman on Voyager, her sister Megan resided in a Spacefleet PsiDome on Mars. In theory, there was no limit to the range of telepathic communication, but no-one had ever tested that outside the Solar System.

    Janeway kept her expression neutral. "Despite what the psychotechs claim, the Science of the Mind is not an exact science. Return to your duties, gentlemen. And next time you decide to play the hero, Mr. Paris, tell the Autodoc where you're going first."

    "Try to get some sleep, Captain," said TuV'k before he left. "You will need all your strength in the time ahead."

    Sleep did not come. Alone with her thoughts, Janeway had nothing to do but mull over the decision that had led to the deaths and injury of so many of her crew.

    'I should have given the order to fire the second they locked on that gravitation beam. Or I should not have fired at all. They hadn't fired on us... maybe they were just curious about us. We could have negotiated, talked them into taking Voyager back to Earth...'

    Janeway cut off that train of thought. "Never second-guess your decisions," her first captain had told her when she was fresh out of Spacefleet Academy, "because others will be only too willing to do so. Make your choices and move on."

    She had to resist the urge to pick up the intercraft phone and give orders, demand reports, demand action. The last thing her crew needed was a captain nagging her subordinates from the comfort of a hospital ward. Instead Janeway made the rounds of the wounded: raising morale, making light of her injuries, fobbing off the questions she was unable to answer. Where are we? Who brought us here? How do we get back home?

    She leaned over the clamshell litter that was keeping Hyun Kim immobilized. "Fight on, Mr. Kim. That's an order."

    "Umma...," he moaned, not opening his eyes.

    The young North Korean bore little resemblance to the inscrutable fanatics that Janeway's grandparents had described to her as a child: brainwashing UN prisoners and throwing their lives away in human wave attacks. Instead Kim had talked of his mother's kimchi and learning the oungum, of games of tag played on the endless slidewalks of Pyongyang, of mass dances beneath the rainbows that formed under the city-dome.

    'I will get him home,' Janeway swore to herself. 'I will get them all home, no matter what.'

    A voice crackled from the intercraft. "Astrogation to Captain Janeway."

    Without moving from the patient it was attending, the Autodoc shot out a telescopic arm, snatched the wireless handset from its cradle and passed it to the captain.

    "Janeway here."

    "Tech Lieutenant Hansen, ma'am. We have established Voyager's position."

    Janeway braced herself for bad news, noting the uncharacteristic quaver in the voice of the blonde ice queen who ran Astrogation with Teutonic efficiency. But nothing could prepare her for what followed.

    "Captain, we are over 70,000 light-years from Earth. We're on the other side of the galaxy!"
     
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2020 at 12:23 PM
  5. admiralelm11

    admiralelm11 Captain Captain

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2009
    Location:
    Vancouver, WA
    Oh, no, not 70,000 light-years on the other side of the galaxy! They'll never get home! Just kidding. Of course, they will. :)
     
  6. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Chapter III: THE MAQUIS

    The deck was pitch-black but for the glowing arrows of radium paint that pointed the way to air-locks and decompression kits. Captain Janeway clicked on the flash-lamp strapped to her wrist and swept its beam around her. She saw shattered light-tubes, gray bulkheads lined with pipes and ducting, globules of hull-sealant left by the damage control teams, and floating blobs of water that Janeway assumed were from fire-fighting efforts until she noticed their greenish tinge. Algae that was essential on a spacecraft, to make food and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. How much had they lost?

    She had peeled off the skinsuit and was back to wearing the zip-fastened coverall that was the most practical clothing for null-gravity conditions; space-black in color, with red shoulder-boards bearing the four gold stars of a Spacefleet captain. On the left sleeve was a shoulder patch showing a winged rocket over a trio of colored circles (green for Venus, blue for Earth, red for Mars) and beneath it the words: To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before. It had been the motto of Spacefleet since its foundation in 1966, when the only space exploration Humanity had to boast of was the Big Wheel space station, a struggling colony on Luna and the Martian fiasco.

    Janeway's tread was more cautious than bold as she picked her way down the Stygian passageway, placing her feet carefully so the magnetic-heels on her boots would keep her stuck to the deckplates, until she came upon a pair of space marines standing guard before a massive steel hatch stenciled with the words: CARGO BAY 2.

    At the sight of their captain the two men brought their submachine guns to port-arms. On Janeway's order they undogged the hatch and the three of them entered, threading through a spiderweb of plastiform mesh that interlaced the cargo bay. Bound to the ringbolts that lined every surface, the mesh stopped their cargo from shifting during acceleration or null-gee. The plundered wealth of the Asteroid Belt: high-grade steel and tungsten alloy from the atomic mills of Ceres; radioactive ore pressed into lead containers, seized from the spacedocks on Pallas; sacks of gold dust from the mines of Psyche. Janeway and the marines passed this fortune without a glance, working their way to where an open space had been left over the cargo-loading hatches. Open but not unoccupied, for as they entered this area they were confronted with a cacophony of abuse.

    "Traitors! Space pirates! Federation lackeys!"

    "Cut us down, you b***ds! How long are you going to keep us like this?!"

    "Spacefleet swine! Why don't you just air-lock the lot of us?!"

    Instead of cargo, men and women were heat-sealed between the layers of mesh, suspended helplessly above the deck where all they could do was shout at their captors. Yet it was this confinement that had proved their salvation, as the force of the decelerating rocketship had been absorbed by the elastic webbing. Thirty-six Maquis fanatics, ready to wreak havoc on Voyager.

    Opening the hatches to the vacuum of Space would be one solution. It was time to find another.

    Ignoring hurled insults and spittle, the space marines clambered hand-over-hand through the bound prisoners to one particular man. Unlike the others his demeanor was serene, his eyes closed in meditation. The marines disconnected his waste and feed tubes, then cut him free with their vibroknives.

    "Leave him alone!" shouted a fierce-eyed brunette with the body tattoos of an Amazon of Venus. "Where are you taking him? Chakotay! CHAKOTAY!" Taking no notice of her cries, Janeway and the marines dragged their prisoner through the hatchway and slammed it shut behind them.

    The Captain's Cabin was a welcome oasis of tranquility, albeit one so small the marines had to stand outside the door. On a rocketship every square inch was rationed and even a captain's personal quarters had the bare minimum: a memex-desk for the avalanche of paperwork that plagued any modern leader, racks of book-spools on subjects ranging from astrogation to xenobiology, a telescreen in the shape of a mock porthole. A sleeping capsule, vacuum toilet and refresher were discreetly hidden behind foldaway panels, and on the deckhead a scuttle-hatch with retractable ladder provided ready access to the Bridge above.

    Janeway had done what she could to make the place more homely: a Venerian climbing orchard, a null-gee coffeemaker (an antique GE Nebula she had picked up for a song on Deimos), and a videograph of a handsome man in a tan zipsuit, a puppy gamboling at his feet. Fixed to the bulkheads were framed 2-Ds of her idols: Marie Curie, discoverer of radium and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize; the aviatrix Amelia Earhart; and in pride of place above the door—the astronaut Shanna O'Donnell, the first human in Space.

    In the pioneering days of space exploration, the only means of escaping Earth's gravity had been crude rockets fueled by chemical reaction. It had been crucial to save every gram of weight, and so women were used to pilot them due to their smaller stature. Studies conducted during the Second World War had also shown that women could cope better than men with extremes of temperature and long periods of isolation.

    Even when larger rockets driven by atomic energy were built, married couples were preferred for emotional stability on voyages that could last years. There was Friede and Wolf Helius, who stayed behind on an airless Moon so their compatriots could return safely to Earth. The Norwegian explorers Magnus and Erin Hansen who launched the first deep space mission to Pluto, the legendary ninth planet of the Solar System. Their daughter Annika had been born on the journey, and now served as Voyager's astrogator.

    After extensive computer and psychological tests, two hundred men and women had been pair-bonded for the Mars Expedition Fleet. And when others were calling for nuclear retaliation on the aborigines who massacred those ill-fated colonists, it was the Japanese linguist Hoshi Sato who averted war by performing the first Martian-Terran melding-of-minds, the telepathic connection required to create true understanding between human and alien.

    But the mores of society were starting to change. When the scientist Zephram Cochrane invented the electromagnetic field technology that enabled the safe use of contraterrene, the Solar System finally became open to large-scale colonization, and women were once more seen in their traditional role as child-bearers to be cosseted from danger. A recent UN committee had recommended that only men be accepted for promotion to command rank "due to their natural authority", though women should continue to be included in crews "for reasons of psychological stability".

    'Natural authority! That's what happens when men are raised in community crèches by robots, instead of at home by their mothers,' Janeway thought bitterly. 'They want us to be cheerleaders instead of partners in the opening of the Final Frontier. Not on my watch!'

    Leaving the prisoner floating to inhibit any aggressive intentions, Janeway strapped herself in behind her desk, grimacing as the webbing tightened on her damaged ribs. The only thing she found annoying about space travel was the need for all these safety belts. She hadn't worn them groundside since her fifteenth birthday, when Father taught her how to fly the family car.

    Unlocking the safe with her palmprint, Janeway took out an air-tight cylinder of pre-ground coffee, leaving the door open for ready access to the Colt .51 recoilless she also kept in there. She connected the cylinder to the Nebula, screwed on a drink bulb, switched on the pumps that enabled percolation in the absence of gravity and retracted the lead shielding from the radium element. As she waited for her coffee to boil, Janeway studied the man whose identity she was familiar with even before her marines had dragged him from the radioactive ruin of his rocketship.

    Chakotay wore the synthileather clothing and WW3-surplus gear typical of a civilian spacer. His coppery skin and Indianesque profile would have been a familiar sight to her ancestors who settled the American West, yet Chakotay had been born in an asteroid mine a hundred thousand miles from Earth. Like many youths raised in the Spartan conditions of the Belt he had left for the inner worlds at the first opportunity, and like many Belters he found the shining lights of the megacities soon paled beneath their disease, high gravity and excessive bureaucracy.

    So Chakotay had joined Spacefleet, winning fame in the pacification of Venus and the rescue of the Ares IV expedition, rising to the rank of Space Commander with an assured career path ahead. Then had come his unexpected resignation and public defection to the Maquis cause. As captain of the atomic rocketship Valjean, he had wreaked havoc for over a month until Janeway had brought him down on Vesta. If she had been one of the freelance bounty hunters circling the conflict like vultures around a corpse, she'd be a rich woman now. There was a hefty price in radioactive metal on this man's head.

    "Can I offer you something?" asked Janeway. "I run a dry ship for the most part, but there's coffee in that Nebula. The real thing, not synthokaf. One of the privileges of being captain."

    "I'll have a cigarette if you don't mind," replied Chakotay. His voice was softer than she would have expected from a rebel. "The air-renovators on your rocketship are a lot better than those in the asteroid mines."

    She could have refused, not least because cigarettes were being sold at the outrageous price of a dollar a packet; tobacco was a luxury when every acre of arable land was needed for food crops. But her mother had raised her to be a gracious host, so Janeway slid open a drawer in her memex, pulled a deck of Spaceport Classic from its spring clip and floated it across to him. "Be my guest."

    Chakotay's hands were steady even though his eyes were red with fatigue. Snatching the packet out of mid-air he tapped the lid, causing a cigarette to pop out of the dispenser hole. He broke off the ignition tip and pushed the burning ember into another hole in the bottom of the packet where a tiny fan spun into life, drawing oxygen across the ember to stop it being smothered by its own smoke in the absence of gravity, while sucking the ash into an asbestos catch-pocket so it wouldn't float around the room and get in people's eyes.

    "You need our help," he said.

    "I beg your pardon?"

    Chakotay savored the tobacco for a moment, then blew the smoke towards the nearest air-renovator. "We're a long way from Earth—a very long way. On the far side of the galaxy, I hear."

    "Who told you that?" Janeway shot an angry look at the space marines. The Maquis prisoners were supposed to be kept in isolation.

    "My father."

    "Your father?" Chakotay's father had died when the Jovians first turned their attention on the Asteroid Belt. Spacefleet's failure to avenge his death and the 173 other colonists on Hygiea Station had prompted Chakotay's defection.

    "He spoke to me in a vision," said Chakotay, realizing that elaboration was required.

    Janeway knew from his dossier that Chakotay had taken up the spiritual beliefs of his Lakota ancestors. For some reason religions that had all but vanished on Earth had been taken up with fervor by those who lived offworld. It was just another eccentricity of these libertarian Belters, who believed that everyone should be guided by their personal morals instead of a centrally-imposed authority. How they justified such an attitude in an environment where a single error or act of malice could kill not only yourself but everyone else was a mystery.

    "Your dead father told you that Voyager was on the far side of the Milky Way?" Janeway could not hide the skepticism in her voice. Like most people born on Earth she'd been raised as a Scientologist and found it difficult to take these wacky religious cults seriously.

    "No, he told me to wake up and listen. When I got everyone else to shut up and do so, we could hear your damage control teams talking. The pipes in the bulkheads conduct sound."

    Janeway's look could have melted the shielding on an atomic pile. "My First Officer, Aaron Cavit—a man I served with for over three years—is dead thanks to you. So you'll excuse me if I don't appreciate your twisted sense of humor."

    "Thanks to me? Or thanks to a captain reckless enough to set off an atomic torpedo while we were travelling at supra-light speed?"

    "I did what was necessary to protect my ship!"

    "And I did what was necessary to protect my people."

    "By inciting an intersolar war with the Jovians!"

    The Jovians were the name the Tri-World Federation had given to the arcane aliens who inhabited the turbulent gas clouds of Jupiter (what they called themselves was anyone's guess). Thriving in an environment hostile to any anthropoid life, they lacked only the minerals that existed in abundance in the asteroids that orbited between their planet and Mars, to which they laid claim due to their ancient victory over Phaeton—the planet whose destruction had originally formed the Asteroid Belt. Without prior warning or declaration of war, a torchship manned by a suicide pilot traveling at three-gee's of constant acceleration had struck the space station orbiting the asteroid mines of Hygiea, instantly obliterating both vessels.

    It had taken the Electronic Minds only seconds to arrive at a decision. Spacefleet had neither the strength nor the ability to attack Jupiter, or defend the widely-scattered space colonies at such a distance from the inner worlds. The Asteroid Belt would have to be sacrificed in the name of appeasement.

    The Tri-World Federation was able to negotiate a two-month grace period to evacuate its citizens, offering financial compensation to the Belters, even amnesty for anyone facing criminal charges on their homeworld. The Belters had not proved open to reason. Taking their name from the French insurgents who resisted the Nazi jackboot, the more militant among them had formed the Maquis.

    Spacefleet had been prepared for riots, protests, sabotage; even outright war. But this was a war they had never envisioned: where the enemy wore no uniform, where atomic demolition charges were hidden in the luggage of evacuees and a thirteen-year-old girl with a beam-drill could kill a space marine. The dead language of the war-torn 20th Century was resurrected once again: kamikaze, terrorism, population resettlement, guerrilla warfare.

    In Outer Space the firepower and discipline of Spacefleet had proven superior, but the Maquis had used the Belt to their advantage, fleeing from one hollowed-out asteroid to another, mining them with contraterrene dust and launching ambushes with magnetic-launchers and torchship engines. The conflict had dragged on with both sides becoming ever more desperate and brutal as the deadline approached.

    Janeway knew that atrocities had happened out of sight of Voyager's electroscopes: habitat domes blasted open to the vacuum and rocketships packed with refugees destroyed by tired and angry space marines unwilling to risk the death-trap confines of an air-lock. Soldiers from a world that had forgotten how to fight a war, dressed in bright-red space armor designed by the psychotechs to intimidate food rioters. A world that enforced peace through the threat of orbiting A-bombs, that entrusted questions of life and death to soulless thinking machines who knew nothing of the passions that drove men and women to die for a bunch of rocks they thought of as their home.

    Her coffeemaker chimed and Janeway used the distraction to get a grip on her thoughts. She replaced the lead shield, unscrewed the drink bulb and attached a one-way valve, which she put to her lips and drew on avidly. Chakotay watched the process with mild interest.

    "I need some additional crew members," said Janeway. "A dozen-or-so to make up our numbers until our wounded have had a chance to recover. We don't have the resources to waste on people who aren't willing to contribute to the welfare of this vessel." She left the threat behind those words unspoken. "On the other hand, those of you who help Voyager return safely to Earth will find their efforts taken under consideration in their sentence."

    "That will be a great comfort when my friends are having their personality demolished by UN psychotechnicians. I want amnesty; not just for me, but for my crew. All of my crew."

    "If amnesty is granted to the Maquis rebels it will be a matter for the Federation Council__"

    "Outside the boundaries of Federation territory, the captain of a Spacefleet rocketship is the Tri-World Federation, and no-one's as far outside as we are now. I want them pardoned for any actions they took during the Asteroid War__"

    "Resettlement," corrected Janeway.

    "__and relocated on Venus or Mars__"

    "Earth, I think. That way we can keep an eye on you." Janeway consulted the microfilm files in her memex. "I'm willing to offer parole to yourself and a select few who have useful skills. This Venerian half-caste, B'Elanna Torres? I see she has advanced engineering qualifications."

    "All of my people have useful skills or they wouldn't be in my crew. B'Elanna Torres is the best engineer you could have when you don't have a spacedock handy. Seska Pamyatnykh is a Computer Programmer First Class. Miguel Ayala and Kurt Bandera... good men to have at your side when your back is to the wall. Lon Suder is a crack shot, Matthew Hogan is a weapons techno, Michael Jonas is an excellent mole__"

    "Mole?"

    "Asteroid miner. You're going to have to find and harvest contraterrene for your Cochrane Drive, or were you planning to run this rocketship on vacuum? Just a single gram of CT coming into contact with any gram of normal matter is enough to annihilate your entire ship. It's not something you can entrust to an amateur, and it's not a job you do at gunpoint! I want equal status between my crew and yours—there's no way this will work otherwise. And while we're at it, I'd like my old rank back. It appears you could use a new First Officer."

    "To Manhattan with that idea!" The thought of this traitor taking the place of the man he had killed made Janeway's blood boil.

    Chakotay kept an impassive Indian face to her wrath. "I'm not going to be your Quisling while my friends are held hostage in Cargo Bay 2. Either we all work together, or not at all. There's going to have to be a certain amount of trust between us, Captain."

    "YOU talk of trust... How do I know your people won't try to seize Voyager the moment you're free?"

    "And man it with a crew of thirty-six? It would just be the reverse of the situation you're in now, except we'd be worse off. Do you know why Belters don't need Electronic Minds to tell them what to do? Because fools don't live long enough in Outer Space to cause a problem for anyone else. There's no mollycoddling for morons, unlike on Earth." He took a final drag on his cigarette, slid the butt out of the packet and flicked it into the vacchute.

    "Face it, Captain Janeway. If you're not willing to space us, then we're stuck with each other."
     
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2020 at 12:26 PM
  7. Nerys Myk

    Nerys Myk Tomorrow Never Knows Premium Member

    Joined:
    Nov 4, 2001
    Location:
    Here, There and Everywhere
    :techman::guffaw:
     
  8. TheLoneRedshirt

    TheLoneRedshirt Commodore Commodore

    Joined:
    May 22, 2007
    Location:
    Here and now.
    This really has a retro-vibe to it, an interesting re-imagining of the Voyager pilot. Even the social more's fit the 50's/60's perfectly. Great imagery and dialogue, too.
     
  9. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Yes, I couldn't work out how to fit that line in until I realised that "Nebula" is just the kind of silly brand name a company would give to a zero-gravity coffee machine.
     
  10. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Chapter IV: LOST IN THE STARS

    'Captain's Log: July 14, 2020. Contrary to my fears, the Maquis and Spacefleet crews are working remarkably well together. Some, however, are finding it easier than others.'

    "She's not just out of control, she's out of her mind!" Blood floated in tiny bubbles from the nose of Tech Lieutenant Carey. "Get this cailín dUsachtach out of my Power Room!"

    B'Elanna Torres backed away, swearing in Portuguese and several Venerian dialects. A burly Machinist's Mate reached out for the girl. She ducked under his grasp, grabbed the recessed handholds in the deck, flipped upside-down and slammed a magnetic heel-plate into his jaw.

    The impact in null-gravity sent them both flying in opposite directions, but B'Elanna self-rotated her body so she impacted on the bulkhead feet first, locking on with her magheel boots. Then while everyone was still gaping, she walked straight up the bulkhead and dived through the tween-deck hatch.

    She found herself in the Central Passageway that ran up the spine of the rocketship to ensure quick transit for damage control teams—the so-called 'jerry tube'. The collision-doors had been latched open and the passageway was choked with spacers in brightly-colored coveralls, stringing power cables and breadboarding circuits. The ship's autodoc was scampering across the deckhead above them, a crate of freshly-milled machine parts clutched in its multi-jointed limbs.

    "This is outrageous! It is not part of my programming!" the robot protested to everyone in earshot. "I'm a doctor, not a porter!"

    "Make a hole!" shouted a slip of a girl towing a plate of radiation shielding that would normally require a crane to lift. Null-gee had advantages when it came to repairs, though most regarded it as nuisance. Tools had to be tied to the user with lanyards, while dirt and oil floated about getting into eyes and circuitry. But Voyager would not have gravity until they were under acceleration, and that would only happen once their captain was convinced her ship wouldn't fly apart in the process.

    "Stop her!" came a shout from behind. Without turning to see who it was, B'Elanna grabbed a null-gee cable and pulled herself hand-over-hand along the jerry tube until someone seized her ankle.

    "And where do you think you're going, missy?" growled a space marine.

    B'Elanna stifled her initial urge to sink a boot into his face. The Terran was twice her size and if Maquis propaganda was to be believed, these space marines were constantly on the verge of psychosis from their amphetamine pills and hypnotic indoctrination.

    "What's going on here, soldier?"

    "This g*d**n jungle-creeper broke the Chief's nose and knocked out Ashmore!"

    Everyone had stopped working to stare at her. B'Elanna felt the arboreal claws slide out of her palms and her third lung pump extra oxygen into her blood, readying her to run or fight. Someone put a hand on her shoulder and she whirled to confront them.

    "What, this little girl?" At the sight of the handsome Terran smiling at her, B'Elanna retracted her claws a fraction. "That will be all, Corporal Rico. I'll handle things from here."

    "I bet you will," someone muttered.

    "Sorry? I didn't catch that, crewman."

    "Nothing, sir!"

    "Don't you all have work to do? Voyager doesn't magically repair itself, you know."

    As the onlookers returned to their duties, Tom Paris cast an appreciative gaze on the cause of the trouble. The Maquis girl was slight in stature but highly feminine, her coverall tight to avoid snagging but with the front zip pulled well down to expose the body tattoos that illustrated her lifetale (he was surprised to see the crucifix of the Christian sects of Earth among them). Dark brown eyes studied him with a feral wariness, and her face had that exotic Venerian allure (but not too alien for discomfort thanks to her human blood) framed by the bob cut preferred by girls who had to wear space helmets on a regular basis. The beam-proof goggles perched on her head made her look like an aviatrix from those illegal comics he had devoured in his misspent youth, and her magheel boots were calf-hugging synthileather that went up over the knees—with matching wrist and elbow bands, Paris noted with approval. Too many spacers damaged their joints pulling over-enthusiastic maneuvers in null-gee.

    "Saluton, mi nomigxas Tom Paris," he greeted her in Esperanto, the lingua franca of the Three Worlds. "Kiel vi nomigxas?"

    "B'Elanna Torres," she answered. "And I speak Terran-English. The Society of the Sacred Heart saw to that. What do you want, space-jockey?"

    Paris had thought his days as a rockrider in Pallasport would give him common ground with these Maquis, but they only regarded him as a Federation stooge because he hadn't defected to their cause like Chakotay had done. Some he'd rather not have as shipmates at all. Jonas he wouldn't trust as far as he could throw him on a three-gee planet. Seska seemed friendly enough, but beneath the attractive face he sensed the cunning and ruthlessness that came naturally to a Russian. And that Suder guy acted like he'd kill you just for looking at him the wrong way. Still, he was determined to make friends with some of them. At least the pretty ones.

    "Chow, actually. I've just gone off watch. The wardroom is still taped off but I hear they've finally got the messdeck up and running. Care to join me?"

    B'Elanna glanced back at the hatch to the Power Room, which was now dogged shut. "Looks like I've got nothing better to do."

    Sickbay had been repaired so the messdeck had returned to its original function. The casualties had been moved, the stewards had cleaned and radiation-sterilized every surface, and the white walls had been repainted to the gay apple green approved by the psychotechs as most suitable for morale (though Martian spacers always complained that it should be red). The blue glow of ultraviolet lights had given way to a blue haze of cigarette smoke. Wallscreens that usually displayed nostalgic landscapes of the Three Worlds now showed propaganda extolling the conquest of Space: a Von Braun ferry rocket blasting off from Johnston Atoll, astronauts assembling the Big Wheel space station, a huge glider landing on a polar ice cap of Mars. The Kosmokrator orbiting Venus was a grudging nod to Eastbloc efforts, but even as Paris watched someone changed the screen to a vidcast of last year's World Series.

    He cast an eyeball over his fellow diners. The marines had formed their usual clique, playing pinochle with magnetic cards and shooting hostile looks at the Maquis who were mixing freely with the Spacefleet personnel. Two computers were playing chess on a tri-dimensional board. TuV'k sat alone, intent on an esoteric Martian puzzle. Hyun Kim had recovered from his surgery and was floating across the room above their heads, strumming a lute and singing:

    I've been walking through the night, through the day
    Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey
    And sometimes it seems maybe God's gone away
    Forgetting the promise that we've heard him say
    And we're lost out here in the stars
    Little stars and big stars
    Blowing through the night
    And we're lost out here in the stars.


    Planting his magheels before the galley slots, Paris punched the order button. "Mess inspection, Cookie. I'll have beef fresh from the Martian ranges with corn, mashed potatoes and peas."

    "Very amusing, sir." A wiry Filipino with the rating badges of a Cook First Class (Null-Gee Qualified) shimmered into view on the photophone. "The meat vats have to be recultured and Keshari says fresh vegetables won't be available for another week. I'm afraid we don't have algae either, sir. Half the tanks were shattered and Life Support confiscated whatever was left for CO2 conversion. All that's left is zymoveal."

    "Yeast!" Paris grimaced. He had been raised on raw yeast mush in the Unemployment Barracks and had a visceral loathing of the stuff. "Only if it's been used to ferment glucose."

    "Man does not live by bread alone."

    A couple of minutes later a hatch opened and out slid a plastisteel container. A transparent lid showed the contents: a protein box still steaming from the high-frequency radiation used to cook it, a syringe of hot sauce (condiments made all the difference, Paris had learnt long ago), the usual vitamin and mineral supplements (the closest they ever got to the food pill of science-fiction), freshly-sterilized cutlery and a silver-colored squeeze-tube. Paris picked up the container and surreptitiously dropped a tenner through the hatch before it closed.

    "Did he smuggle that from Earth?" whispered B'Elanna. "Maybe you should ration it."

    "There's a vacuum-still hidden somewhere on board—or maybe outside on the hull—that our Master-At-Arms has yet to track down."

    Once B'Elanna got her own meal they were preoccupied with the difficulties of finding an unoccupied table, strapping themselves in and then eating. The containers and cutlery were magnetic, but getting the food into one's mouth could be a difficult process. If the diner failed to concentrate, they would end up chasing their food around the messdeck with the handheld vacuum-sweeper that everyone dubbed the "phaser" because of its resemblance to a fictional raygun used in a popular space opera series. So it was only after they had finished eating that Paris tried making conversation. "What do you think of Voyager?"

    "It's quite a ship."

    "Intrepid Class," Paris said proudly. "Fifteen-deck tailsitter with variable-thrust Cochrane Drive—take you from Earth to Pluto in just over a month. She can take off and land on any planetary surface up to 1.3 Earth gravity, has a psionic-guided weapon system, and the vacuum tubes on our Computer Deck have been replaced by transistors: they're compact, shock-resistant, and speed up our response time as we don't have to wait for the tubes to warm up."

    "I already know the specs, space-jockey. Seska got them for us long before we came on board. You can thank those transistors you're still alive, or we'd have caught you with your pants down on Vesta."

    "I'll drink to that."

    "You read my mind."

    With the aid of the moonshine Paris was able to coax out her story. B'Elanna's mother was an Amazon warrior from the Vepaja Morass, her father a lonely prospector from Brazil who had abandoned his native wife and child once it was time to return to Earth and his real family. B'Elanna had been raised in one of the convent schools that had sprung up across Venus as the Roman Catholic Church tried to spread its influence over new worlds to compensate for its fading influence in the old one.

    On her fifteenth birthday—the symbolic Age of Ascension to adulthood for an Amazon—her mother had turned up with a war party, slaughtered the convent sisters, and dragged the children into a jungle of which they had no experience. Most never lived to be sixteen; falling prey to disease, the voracious wildlife, or the endless tribal warfare. Under the protection and tutelage of her mother, B'Elanna had managed to survive for three years until she finally had a chance to stow away on a Brazilian rocket-freighter with the help of a sympathetic crewman. "His name was Antonio," she said, a ghost of a smile lighting her face. "He's the one who got me interested in rocket engineering."

    Antonio had been her first love, but B'Elanna had found out the hard way that such rocketship romances only last the length of the journey. The shining city of Brasília of which her father had often spoken proved as alien an environment as the jungles of Venus: a bland desolation of concrete buildings and open parks, devoid of the lush greenery she had known. Drifting on the fringes of society, she might have ended up an indentured worker in the uranium mines of the Andes had not the ruling technocracy of Brazil undergone one of those spasms of social conscience which inflict superpowers from time to time.

    Half-castes like B'Elanna were now regarded as innocent victims of a regrettable era of colonialism. She had been enrolled in a government education program where she proved an exceptional student except for a tendency to lose her temper, which was dismissed as a legacy of her Venerian blood. A recruiter for a mining corporation sponsored a degree in spatial engineering at the University of San Paulo, and B'Elanna might have had a promising career had not the Jovians sent the entire asteroid mining industry down the vacchute.

    "When you were in Brazil, did you ever go looking for your father?" asked Paris.

    "I did," she replied. "I wanted him to see what I had become."

    "He must have been proud that you were a spatial engineer."

    "Oh, I didn't mention that. At the university, I also learned the martial art of Capoeira. It was a very short reunion."

    Paris had to laugh and B'Elanna favored him with the same smile she had when talking of the long-lost Antonio. That looked promising.

    "So, what's your story, space-jockey?"

    Paris could have told her about his father, a World War Three ace with seven kills to his name... but they were not fighter planes but entire cities destroyed with H-bombs and radiological dust. Or their hand-to-mouth existence in the Unemployment Barracks after interceptor missiles and orbital A-bomb platforms made the United States Air Force obsolete. And how if it weren't for Spacefleet's desperate need for pilots for the evacuation of the Asteroid Belt, he'd be facing a court-martial right now for that incident on Deimos.

    But he didn't. Girls liked a shoulder to cry on, but had little patience for a man who poured out his own troubles—those were for bartenders. Instead Paris turned the discussion to the mysterious cube-shaped spacecraft which had brought them all the way across the galaxy. B'Elanna listened with keen interest.

    "You say TuV'k couldn't detect any engine emissions?"

    "That's straight," said Paris. "Sounds like a Dean Drive to me, but I thought they couldn't get that to work." According to rumor (and the occasional crackpot on the tellycasts), Spacefleet had been working in secret on a reactionless drive and had somehow managed to instantaneously transport a submarine from the depths of the ocean to the orbit of Mars, killing the entire crew in the process. Realizing they had a weapon that any country could use to hurl enemies into Outer Space or objects down on defenceless cities, the whole project had been buried deeper than a Martian catacomb.

    "Crank science. No-one's been able to get past Newton's Third Law."

    "No-one's been able to crack the Light Barrier either, yet here we are."

    "Well there are several theories on how you could. Imagine this is Voyager..." B'Elanna picked up her spoon, then reconsidered, replacing it with the squeeze-tube which was more appropriate to Voyager's shape. "Imagine this table is Outer Space." She slid the tube along the table. "Even using the Cochrane Drive, it would take longer than our lifetime to get to the next star system. If that cube was travelling at the speed of light (that's 186,282 miles a second), it should still have taken us over four years just to get to Proxima Centauri. And according to a Terran theorist called Einstein, any object that weighs more than a photon can't get near that speed in the first place."

    "Yeah, he said the closer you get to the speed of light, the more your mass increases." Every space-jockey who dreamed of travelling outside the Solar System knew the constraints of the Special Theory of Relativity. "So you have to expend more and more energy for less and less result. You'd need an infinite source of power, and not even contraterrene can provide that."

    "But what if you could work around Doctor Einstein's theory?" B'Elanna nudged the squeeze-tube just hard enough to break its magnetic base free from the table. "Say there was another universe operating adjacent to our own, a 'subspace' with different physical laws where you're not bound by the speed of light. Scientists are still divided on the subject, but there's a theory that the Universe was created by a cataclysmic explosion (the so-called 'Big Bang') and then expanded outwards from this single point of origin. Therefore if this subspace universe was younger it could also be a lot smaller, because that universe hasn't had the time to expand as much, you see? You could cross over to that universe, use it as a shortcut, then duck back into ours."

    "So how do we get into this subspace universe?"

    "No idea." B'Elanna snatched the tube before it drifted too far and squeezed a bubble of alcohol from it. It floated in mid-air between them, presenting a distorted view of her face. "Here's another possibility though. Instead of travelling to another universe, you create a pocket universe around yourself; warp Space into a bubble around your rocketship. Then you distort that bubble..." She flicked a finger through it, stretching the bubble into a teardrop shape for a moment before it returned to a sphere. "...so that Space is shrunk in front of your rocketship and expanded behind it, moving you forwards. That gets around the Special Theory of Relativity because Space itself is what's moving, not the rocketship. Though it wouldn't be a rocketship at all, actually. More of a starship."

    She licked up the alcohol that surface tension had stuck to her finger. Paris leaned across the table and sucked the bubble into his mouth, not breaking eye contact with her.

    "Warping Space? Is that even possible?" he asked. The only warping he knew was done with a mooring line when you wanted to dock a rocketship without wasting thruster fuel.

    "Sure, that's what gravity does. Especially very intense gravity, like you get when a star collapses into itself. And here's something even Einstein said was possible. Back in Terra-1935, he and this guy Nathan Rosen theorized there could be tunnels in space-time..." Paris listened politely as she spoke of 'exotic matter' and 'negative energy density' and 'non-spinning wormholes'. It was a matter of faith among space-jockeys that the technos babbled on like this to make everyone believe they understood things they had no explanation for.

    Realizing she was not getting through to her audience, B'Elanna produced the obligatory slide rule that all rocket engineers carried and pulled it open. "Look, just imagine this slide is 70,000 light-years long. Earth is here—on the right index, while Voyager is here—on the other end of the slide. That's a long way to travel, unless you can fold Space so that both points..." She snapped the slide rule together. "...are now adjacent in space-time."

    "But can you fold Space like that?"

    "Someone must have worked out how to do it, or we wouldn't be here. Up till now all these theories have been woolgathering; just a way of deluding ourselves that we won't be stuck in the same Solar System forever." B'Elanna shrugged. "It's a moot point. Whoever those aliens were, they're probably in the Andromeda Galaxy by now."

    "Why not talk it over with the Glowing Gang?" Paris suggested, before remembering the altercation earlier. "Speaking of which... what happened between you and Joe Carey?"

    "I've got a Master's degree in rocket science, and your Acting-Chief Engineer had me stripping asbestos off the heat vents because he says it's not safe to work on the Cochrane Drive!"

    "Well a rocketship's power room can be a bad place for a pretty girl. They say there was this clumsy ensign on the Enterprise who got a high dose of radiation and ended up with three breasts!"

    "Really?" B'Elanna looked skeptical. "The last time I heard that story, she had two heads! Did this ditzy dame have a name?"

    "Dunno... Sonya, maybe?"

    "That's funny, you'd think men would pay more attention to a girl with three maracas. Answer me this, space-jockey. How come everyone keeps telling me about some stupid girl whose name they never seem to remember, but I never hear the one about the dumb Terran who killed three people while hot-rodding a torchship on Deimos?"

    Paris flinched.

    "Can't seem to remember his name either." B'Elanna floated the squeeze-tube over to him. "Thanks for the drink, space-jockey."

    "My name is Tom."

    "Well I'm glad you made that clear. We wouldn't want every man barred from doing their job because of your goof." She unbuckled herself from the table, grabbed her food container, and pushed off in the direction of the recycler.

    "Crash and burn, space-jockey!" gloated a Maquis at the adjourning table. "Don't feel bad. That dame's as prickly as a Martian cactus."

    "Maybe." Paris was too experienced a Lothario to give up at the first knockback. "Half-Venerian, half-Brazilian, and raised as a Catholic schoolgirl. Could be interesting..."
     
    Brennyren and TheLoneRedshirt like this.
  11. Ensign Rougechemise

    Ensign Rougechemise Ensign Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Oct 24, 2019
    This is amazing, I enjoyed the read so much and really hope this continues. Im excited to see where its headed! Thank you!
     
  12. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Chapter V: THE BLACK STAR

    Inside a hollow, soundproof sphere that filled almost two entire decks of Voyager, Captain Janeway stood in the center of a hemispheric ring of white couches. Around her, the girls from Astrogation struggled with the precarious task of loading punch cards and tape reels in a null-gee environment, while an electronicist sweated away with a soldering iron on the cabinet-sized microcomputer that synchronized the 3-V projectors, high-fidelity speakers, odorophonic nozzles, and pneumatic feedback circuits of the ship's Illusionarium theater.

    To Janeway's mind the Illusionarium was more trouble than it was worth. It was expensive to maintain, took up much-needed space, and broke down at regular intervals causing the exact morale problems it was meant to solve. The present generation of spacers were a pampered lot, she mused. In her grandparents' day, a television receiver showed a poor-quality monochrome image on a tiny cathode-ray tube screen; now they had full-color tri-dimensional with Sensurround couches to provide sound, scent, and even tactile perception. If one believed the publicity hype, Hollywood was developing tri-videos that would be indistinguishable from real life, with the viewer as a character within the story itself.

    Spacefleet regarded such luxuries as a necessary evil, undertaken only after several outbreaks of so-called space madness: a catchall phrase for the stresses and phobias that were inevitable when you confined people in a metal prison and cast them into a deadly vacuum whose infinity was incomprehensible to the human mind. And that was when the Three Worlds were only weeks or months away. How would her crew react once it sunk in just how far they were from home?

    The electronicist switched off the vacuum-sweeper whose asbestos-clad hose had been sucking up any stray particles of hot solder. "It's ready to roll, ma'am," he said, reeling in the tools attached to his belt. "I'd like to know whose bright idea it was to install an entertainment device with an incompatible power system." The notorious unreliability of the Illusionarium was not helped by the fact that it ran on the 60 hertz frequency used in North America, whereas the rest of the ship used the 50 hertz required by its state-of-the-art Eastbloc electronics.

    "That's fine, Petty Officer Nesterowicz. As long as it lasts through the briefing without breaking down." Janeway pressed down on her toes to break the grip of her magheel boots and floated towards a randomly-selected couch. It splayed open at the push of a button and she slid inside, pneumatic sensors adjusting its form to the shape of her body. A keypad whirred into position under her right hand, and the speakers played an advertising jingle until Janeway switched them off in irritation. "You can let the others in now."

    The light above the door changed from red to green and the curved hatch hissed open. As the girls filed out there was a quiet gasp and a loud slap. Tom Paris floated through the entrance, rubbing his cheek. "So which vid are we watching this time?" he asked, pulling himself along the null-gee cable to his favorite couch. "I vote for The Adventures of Captain Proton."

    "How about that new space opera series?" suggested Ensign Kim as he followed him inside. "A Trek Through the Stars."

    "Come off it, Hyun! That show will never last."

    Janeway cast an eyeball down the vid list taped to the back of her keypad. There were adventure sports (Pilot hypersonic planes through the storm clouds of Venus! Travel in an atomic submarine under the North Pole! Enlist as a crewman in the Transolar Rocket Race!), historical documentaries about long-extinct animals (Thrill to the man-eating lions of the African veldt! Caution: not recommended for children), public service vids that nobody watched unless ordered to and an 'educational' feelie (The shocking sybaritic rites of the Amazons of Venus!) that everyone watched and pretended not to, a haunted house mystery set in pre-Atomic England, and the usual space operas, quiz shows and melodramas. Janeway made a mental note to remove Insurrection Alpha from the vid library—no point in giving these Maquis any ideas. Should she remove The Green Hills of Earth as well? Would it be better or worse to be reminded of what they had left behind?

    "Captain Janeway!" Startled, Janeway looked up to find her Chief Science Officer, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, was hovering above her. His white coverall was gray with filth and his bald cranium sported an impromptu combover. "I must protest over members of my department being taken off their studies to carry out mundane tasks! Dr. Harren has five advanced degrees in theoretical cosmology, yet Mr. Chakotay has him working in the power relay room! My chief mathematician was reassigned to the Computer Deck just when he was on the verge of solving Fermat's Last Theorem, and my xenologist Samantha Wildman has vanished who knows where! And let's not mention what he's had me doing!" he raged, before proceeding to do just that. "I've just spent four irretrievable man-hours scrubbing the conduits in Waste Recycling! It was worse than when you shanghaied me to work in that field hospital during the Resettlement!"

    "Let me guess: you're a doctor, not a doctor?"

    "Exactly! I joined Spacefleet to study light rays and electromagnetic fields, not stick vampire gauges in people! Or scrub waste conduits!"

    "And yet when you first came on board, you told me you were a man of unlimited talents."

    "Talents which are being wasted! I've seen the report from Miss Hansen—there's a unique stellar phenomenon within this very solar system, yet I'm informed you have our electroscopes scouring the void for that cube-ship! You're throwing away a priceless scientific opportunity!"

    "I haven't forgotten our scientific duties, Dr. Zimmerman, but my first priority is to get this ship back to Earth, not investigate every spatial anomaly we come across. Furthermore, I remind you of your contract, which states that while serving on a Spacefleet vessel you may be reassigned in an emergency to whatever duties are required by the ship's officers."

    "Those duties could have been done by any rating! Do you think I can't see what is happening here? It's the same old story: pure science is a waste of time, so let's have the eggheads doing something useful for a change! I shall be making a full complaint to the Office of the Scientist General the moment this vessel returns to Earth!"

    "Well you'll be pleased to know those mundane tasks you performed have helped bring that moment a little closer. Now if you would just take a seat, Doctor, you'll find your concerns will be addressed during the briefing. Dismissed." When he made no effort to move Janeway added, "That's Spacefleet for 'sit down and pipe down!' Now can you make your own way to your couch, or do you want me to give you a push?"

    Dr. Zimmerman clenched his teeth, then self-rotated his body until he could grab a handhold, moving hand-over-hand to a couch directly opposite. Janeway wondered if the good doctor had a point—surely Chakotay could have put their Science Department to better use in the current circumstances? When your nearest neighbor was a million miles away, a spacer had to be willing to change a diaper, patch a spacesuit or program a computer with equal proficiency, so there had always been a disdain among Belters for the overly-specialized researcher who did not appear to contribute anything useful to the community.

    Even in Spacefleet she had to face the prejudice of the old-time jetmen over having gained her commission as a university graduate. The whole issue was frivolous to her mind—the conquest of Space was a team effort, whether it involved married couples or Joe the Jetman and Bill the Boffin. No doubt there had been plenty of competent men who thought that Goddard or Tsiolkovsky were wasting time with their rockets and space travel fantasies.

    The object of Zimmerman's ire floated through the door, gave a polite nod to the captain, and took his couch. Chakotay now wore a black Spacefleet coverall with three gold stars on the shoulder-boards. It had irked Janeway to return his previous rank, but anything less would imply a lack of confidence in her new First Officer, which could affect his authority.

    And there was no denying the man knew his job. He had proven adept at improvising repairs and getting the two crews to work together, and wasn't above enforcing discipline with his fists if needed—he had already decked one man who had the effrontery to address him as "Big Chief Chakotay" instead of "sir".

    He was accompanied by B'Elanna Torres, though she had not been invited to this meeting. Chakotay had wanted Torres for the position of Chief Engineer, but while the girl had impressive credentials she hardly had the seniority to command the respect of the Glowing Gang. What most of the crew thought of as Voyager—its fifteen habitable decks—was only a fraction of its total size, the rest taken up by the engineering spaces containing the fuel and propellant tanks, the heat radiators, the emergency atomic pile, the electromagnetic coils that entrapped their contraterrene and shaped the reaction jet, and the chemical rockets and ramjet engines for flying in atmosphere. The rough-hewn men who worked those deadly realms thought of themselves as the real crew, and everyone else as passengers. And just as women had a natural aptitude for nursing or astrogation, men enjoyed tinkering with machines and so the Power Room had always been a male domain. After what happened on the UNRS Valkyrie, Janeway was wary about putting a female officer there unless she had what it took to assert herself. There were too many men who were eager to project the faults of one woman onto all of them, and she could not afford to undermine her own authority in the current circumstances.

    The other department heads trickled in over the next few minutes. Agritech Keshari, who tended the hydroponics garden and algae tanks that made Voyager self-sufficient in food and oxygen. Majel Barrett, the ship's Computer—her predecessors had made the calculations for the first rockets to launch into Space, in an era when the fair sex was thought to be too irrational for such precision thinking. Sergeant VanBuskirk, a squat muscular man of Dutch-Venerian stock who commanded their few remaining space marines. Joseph Carey as Chief Engineer. TuV'k in charge of Tactical Psionics (the department formed by the recent merging of the Gunnery, Missile and ESP divisions) with Ensign Vor'K present as his understudy.

    TuV'k she had known since her student days on Mars, but Janeway feared that Vor'K lacked the requisite maturity for his job. The young ensign had been given a high esper rating by the Rhine Institute, but when dealing with the so-called Science of the Mind, it was far too easy for results to be skewed by emotions or wishful thinking.

    She worried too about Ensign Kim. The position of Operations Officer would normally be held by a Space Lieutenant with several years of rocketship experience, whereas Kim was fresh out of the Academy. He had risen admirably to the task after Lieutenant Toporov was killed in a riot on Pallasport, but he was still a boy of 21—barely old enough to vote.

    Last to appear was Tech Lieutenant Annika Hansen, who had just finished polishing the astrodome. The slightest flaw in the glass could lead to a navigational error of millions of miles, and she would delegate the task to no-one else. In Janeway's experience such women tended to overcompensate in their quest for perfection, but there was no-one else she would rather have plotting their course.

    As always, her presence caught the attention of every man in the room. The blonde Norwegian beauty had the delicate features and statuesque carriage of those raised in a low gravity environment, and like other Spaceborn she disdained the clumsy space armor used by most astronauts, wearing only an elastic silver bodysuit that covered her curvaceous figure like a second skin. The chestplate that put pressure on her lungs so she could draw breath in a vacuum only enhanced her bust, and when wearing a bubble helmet and oxygen tanks she might at first glance be mistaken for the cover girl fantasy of a science-fiction magazine of the pre-Space era.

    Close inspection however revealed differences that most men found disturbing. Her right arm ended not in a hand, but in a cluster of servo-mechanisms and micromanipulators, enabling delicate repair work that was impossible using the crude pincers of space armor. She bore surgically-implanted waldo nodes for the atomic-powered exoskeleton she required to function in Earth-like gravity. There were thermal-regulation wires woven through her skin, vampire gauges to monitor her biochemistry, and her chestplate held the switches and dials of a Haberman scanner so she could adjust that biochemistry like a mechanic would tune an aerocar. The Spaceborn regarded themselves not as astronauts but an entirely new species of Humanity, fully adapted to Outer Space via surgical modification and artificial prosthesis.

    Janeway called the room to order, then listened with half an ear as the department heads gave their reports. As captain she had already received them—this meeting was to get everyone else up to speed. She paid more attention to the demeanor of those speaking, the reactions of the listeners. Who was paying attention, and who was letting their fatigue dictate a lack of it?

    Hansen maintained her usual air of icy hauteur. Chakotay masked his thoughts behind the classic stoicism of the Red Indian. Paris looked bored, but that was normal for him during staff meetings—she knew he was paying attention. Kim looked a bit pale but seemed determined to soldier on despite his recent injuries. Dr. Zimmerman was scribbling away with an electrostylus, either taking notes or writing out his letter of protest. Carey kept glaring across at Torres, who had disappeared into her couch and seemed grateful to remain silent there.

    'Lack of confidence coupled with a violent temper', thought Janeway. 'Not a good combination in a potential officer.'

    She would have to make some field promotions soon, and Voyager needed officers who could solve problems instead of creating them. They still needed a Commissary Officer, a Morale Officer (a bland euphemism for the Chief Psychotechnician), and there was a chronic shortage of medical personnel unless you counted that irritating autodoc. Keshari and Paris had medical training, but could not be spared from their current positions. A Pharmacist's Mate could be utilized at a pinch, but the experience and fine motor skills of a space surgeon were not something that could be taught with hypno-educator tapes. And of the two candidates for Morale Officer, one was a psychiatrist and the other a Dianetics auditor. The brouhaha that would erupt if one was promoted over the other was not something Janeway was looking forward to.

    Still, she had a good crew despite everything that had happened. The only wild card was these Maquis. They had shown a willingness to pitch in and help, but chafed at Spacefleet procedures and paperwork. Most disagreements had been minor, but those were the ones that festered when people were confined together for long periods of time. Captain Janeway intended to make that time as short as possible.

    "Well, ladies and gentlemen," she said when the last speaker had finished, "as the saying goes: there's good news and bad news. The bad news is we're a long way from home. The good news is that despite being dragged across the entire galaxy, we've ended up in a inhabited solar system." A sigh of relief made its way around the circle of couches. "Lieutenant Hansen, you have the floor."

    "My department has conducted a detailed astrometric survey," said the blonde astrogator in perfectly enunciated Terran-English. She tapped the buttons on her keypad and the lights dimmed. In the exact center of the Illusionarium, a stereographic projection of the Milky Way shimmered into focus. Her audience could not repress a shudder at seeing how far they were from their own solar system, isolated on the Outer Rim with their backs to the void between galaxies.

    "This is our current position, over seventy light-millennia from Earth," said Hansen. "The nearest Sol-type star is fifty light years away—even with the Cochrane Drive it would be impossible to reach within our lifetime. However, through a combination of infrared photography and stereograph interpretation, my department was able to detect an artificial structure orbiting a star a mere two hundred million miles away."

    "Is that all? Let's get out and walk."

    The astrogator ignored Paris's impromptu commentary. Her slim fingers danced across the keys, and the Milky Way expanded around them, stars and comets hurtling past into nothingness as they disappeared from the projection zone, until all that was left was a black void surrounded by the smoky haze of distant nebulae.

    "But there's nothing there..."

    "Incorrect." At the turn of a dial the stereograph began to rotate, and as it did the audience saw something strange: stars that winked out of existence only to reappear, other stars distorting into rings of light around a perfect circle of absolute blackness.

    "What in the name of L. Ron Hubbard is THAT?"

    "That, Mr. Paris, is a black star," said Janeway.

    "Actually Captain, the correct term is 'gravitationally completely collapsed object'."

    "I prefer something that's less of a mouthful, Dr. Zimmerman."

    "I've never seen anything like it!" exclaimed Kim. "How can a star not give off any light?"

    TuV'k leaned over the side of his couch and spoke quietly to the young ensign. "Mr. Kim, that is a comment we would prefer not to hear from a Spacefleet officer. It makes the crew nervous."

    "A black star forms when a star exhausts its nuclear fuel and collapses in on itself," Dr. Zimmerman was saying, "creating a supermass whose gravitational attraction is so strong even light waves cannot escape, making it invisible to the naked eye. Until now its existence has been purely hypothetical."

    "If that's the case then you haven't seen anything like it either, TuV'k." Kim smirked. "Don't worry, I won't tell the crew."

    "But you said there was a space station orbiting it," said Keshari. "If the gravity is as intense as you say, wouldn't it just get pulled in?"

    "As long as the structure remains outside the gravitational radius of the black star, its centrifugal motion will counteract the star's pull. The structure can no more fall into the black star than our Moon can fall into the Earth." Hansen tapped a few more buttons on her couch's keypad and a hazy thermographic image hung before them: a space station that bore little resemblance to the Big Wheel orbitals they were used to.

    "The structure is vast. Radar measures it as twenty miles long, almost five miles in diameter. It appears to be a cylindrical habitat of the kind theorized by Hohmann and Oberth in the early 20th Century. However, there is a puzzling aspect in that habitats appear to have been constructed on the outside of the cylinder, not the inside where the inhabitants could use centrifugal force to create pseudo-gravity. This, and the lack of observed rotation, suggest the structure is a null-gee environment. It is either manned by robots, or beings like the Spaceborn who have adapted to such conditions."

    "A riddle of a space station, orbiting an enigma," mused Janeway. "So, what's it doing out here in the middle of nowhere?"

    "Obviously it's a scientific research station for studying the black star," pronounced Dr. Zimmerman. "The very nature of a black star makes it difficult to observe such phenomena at interstellar distances."

    "Not sure I'd want to get close enough to see it," muttered Paris.

    "The value to Science would be immeasurable, Mr. Paris. Gravity is the force that binds the Universe together. Its study is fundamental to understanding the nature of the Universe itself. There is nowhere that gravity is more intensely concentrated than a collapsed star."

    "And you want us to walk up and knock on its door? How about we just contact this space station via radio?"

    "And say what: Take me to your leader?" Zimmerman scoffed. "I doubt these aliens speak Esperanto. We've no way of translating any signals we might pick up, assuming they were even legible at this distance. We need the help of someone local, either through instruction or the Martian melding-of-minds."

    "So we just need someone crazy enough to share his brain with TuV'k here."

    "Thank you, Mr. Paris—that will do!" said Janeway in a sharp tone. Paris fell silent, retreating back into his couch under the captain's glare.

    "Those aliens... or robots, maybe... do they know we're out here?" asked Kim, trying to change the subject.

    "They will the moment we fire up the Cochrane Drive," said Carey.

    "It is likely they know about us already," said Hansen. "Any rocketship or space station generates heat from the power and life support systems needed to keep it functioning. If we can see them on our thermoscopes, they can certainly see us."

    "Then there's no point in dallying here. Miss Hansen, I want your department to plot a brachistochrone course at one Earth-gee of pseudo-gravity to that... structure, whatever it is."

    "It is already plotted, Captain."

    "Of course." Janeway gave a wry smile.

    Chakotay spoke up. "Captain, I recommend we use a Hohmann trajectory instead. It might take longer, but we don't know how these extraterrans will react to a strange vessel blasting directly at them from out of the void. A more indirect course would conserve delta-V and give us time to finish our repairs and gather more intelligence about this region of Space."

    There was a gleam in the captain's eyes that had been absent over the past few months of war and turmoil. "At Spacefleet Academy they taught us that establishing relations with an extraterran society is a slow and delicate process," said Janeway, "but over the years I've learned there are times you just have to jump in feet first. The longer we delay, the colder the trail to that cube-ship gets. Mr. Carey, start firing up the Cochrane Drive. The rest of you, return to your stations and fasten everything down. I want this ship underway in 90 minutes... that's 90 minutes and not one more!" Janeway repeated to quell the inevitable protests.
     
  13. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    "Before you go," she continued, "there's one thing I want to make clear, and I want all of you to reiterate this to everyone under your command. We are not lost in Space. We are explorers of the final frontier of Man. This is a unique opportunity to make contact with life-forms and civilizations that Spacefleet has never encountered before, and might never have encountered in a hundred generations. So we're not going to tiptoe through the dark like frightened damsels. Let us go boldly into the unknown, like the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus when he sailed for the New World__"

    "It's not a research station," B'Elanna interrupted.

    Janeway looked at her in some annoyance. The Venerian girl had been quiet for so long Janeway had forgotten she was present. "I beg your pardon?"

    B'Elanna's face flushed but she didn't back down. "Sorry Captain, but I don't think that's a black star we're looking at. Someone's created a traversable Einstein-Rosen bridge."

    Dr. Zimmerman laughed. Hansen raised a skeptical eyebrow. Everyone else just looked puzzled.

    "How did we get here in the first place?" asked B'Elanna. "Voyager was transported across the entire galaxy to where we are now in just a few minutes. That's not a faster-than-light drive; it's not anything that involves traversing normal Space. That black star must be the portal of an interstellar transport network."

    "Young lady, I don't think you understand," said Dr. Zimmerman in a condescending tone. "Any object that falls into a black star is not coming out again. The intense gravitational force would shred it down to atoms. If even light cannot escape its gravity, then no rocketship can either."

    "That's exactly the point: gravity! The cube-ship that brought us here, your helmsman said it had the power to manipulate gravity, to focus it on this ship like a beam." B'Elanna spoke faster, as if trying to get her words out before someone ordered her to shut up. "Let's suppose there was an alien race... they would have to be advanced far beyond us... suppose they had the technology to fold Space, using the most powerful gravitational force in the Universe to create a passageway between two disparate points in space-time thousands of light years apart! In tri-dimensional space the entrance of the passageway would appear as a sphere, like a black star!"

    "A passageway through what?" scoffed Carey. "Subspace? Hyperspace? That's just nonsense they make up for scientifilms!"

    "Maybe we should listen to what she's saying," said Paris. "Show them that thing with the slide rule..."

    "You try flying Voyager into that black star, Paris, it'll fold, spindle, and mutilate us!"

    "Actually, the correct term is 'spaghettification'," chimed in Dr. Zimmerman.

    "Then let us go boldly into the unknown like the Italian who invented carbonara."

    "Oh that's right, space-jockey; make a joke out of this! I explained it to you in the messdeck! You need matter with exotic properties to stabilize the Einstein-Rosen bridge, something with negative mass... yes I know that violates known laws of physics but it's been theorized__"

    "That's enough!" Captain Janeway didn't know whether to feel anger or pity for the girl, but she was going to have Chakotay's hide for a skinsuit for bringing her to this briefing. "I'm not going to waste our time on wild speculation. We can find out what that space station is when we get there, and the sooner the better." She glared around the room. "Well, why are you all still here? To your stations!"

    "NOW HEAR THIS! ALL HANDS SECURE FOR ACCELERATION! SET MATERIAL CONDITION YOKE THROUGHOUT THE SHIP!"

    Throughout Voyager hatches were dogged and collision-doors sealed. Null-gee cables were stowed and safety rails erected around hatchways that would become hazards in the presence of gravity. Petty officers roused sleeping spacers who grudgingly stretched safety webbing over bodies that had been adrift in the blissful comfort of null-gravity. Everyone regardless of rank or rating looked about them for loose objects, no matter how small, that could become lethal missiles.

    One by one, the calls came through to the Bridge: "Astrodome secure... Radar Room secure... Forward Torpedo Room... Aft Torpedo Room... Magazines One and Two... Dorsal Battery... Ventral Battery... Central Passageway... Sickbay... Computer Deck... Hangar Deck... Messdeck... Galley... CPO Mess... Wardroom... Main Radio Room... Emergency Radio Room... Auxiliary Control-Room... Science Laboratory... Life Support... Waste Recycling... Air Garden... Illusionarium... Gymnasium... Cargo Bays One to Three... Berthing Compartments One to Seven..."

    "What's the hold-up in Engineering?" asked Captain Janeway. She was strapped down in her acceleration couch, scowling at the tell-tale lights on her lap console, one of which was still red.

    "Burial," said Chakotay, sotto voce.

    Janeway bit her lip. She had almost forgotten—the funeral rites of the twelve dead spacers (Jia Li had never woken from her coma) had been held over a week ago. A generation raised in the shadow of nuclear holocaust had learned to detach the disposal of the dead from the rituals of mourning, more so when a decomposing or radioactive corpse could contaminate the closed environment of a rocketship.

    But spacers had their own rites; bodies were not set adrift in the void or launched into the Sun (which could be billions of miles away) but wrapped in dermaplastic and fastened outside the hull until they could be recycled as reaction mass for the ship's engines—or in the case of a torchship, placed where they would be cremated by the exhaust plume. What had been cold-blooded pragmatism in the early days of Space exploration was now a hallowed ritual.

    'Those we loved are gone, these bodies are but empty shells,' thought Janeway. 'We consign them to the fire to be scattered across the stars. Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust...'

    In the control-room crammed up against the massive radiation shield that separated the habitable compartments of Voyager from its Cochrane Drive, men in sweat-soaked coveralls hunched over shining instrument boards, their gaze fixed on flow gauges, pyrometers, magnetometers, rad-counters and gamma-ray detectors; the TV eyes and electronic sensors that monitored areas too dangerous to station personnel, where only robots or remotely-operated waldos could carry out adjustments or repairs. A telescreen view of the reaction chamber cast the unearthly blue radiance that gave the Glowing Gang its name: a lethal genie trapped within the invisible confines of its electromagnetic bottle, dancing and swirling like a fiery elemental, the monstrous energy released by the collision of matter and anti-matter.

    At the Chief Engineer's station, Joseph Carey clutched the red-lit lever that if pulled would jettison the Cochrane Drive and its contraterrene fuel-trap with explosive bolts and booster rockets. No-one knew if that would actually work in practice. Such methods might have served for atomic engines, but a contraterrene-powered torchship was an entirely different matter. Everyone in the Glowing Gang suspected that if those electromagnetic fields faltered for so much as a microsecond, they'd all be obliterated before anyone could even think about pulling a lever.

    'And the Space Commander wants to put that crazy Venerian in here,' thought Carey. The last thing he wanted was the lads distracted by women. Such power was not to be taken lightly. As a child, he had watched the sky glow from across the Irish Sea as England burned, and the energy confined in the Cochrane Drive made a fusion bomb look like a firecracker.

    A light flashed red above a lead-lined hatch stenciled with the warnings: HIGH RADIATION AREA and NO MAGNETIC BOOTS BEYOND THIS POINT. Carey heard the chug-chug of pumps as high-pressure hoses went into action. The light turned green and the hatch hissed open. Three figures stepped out of the decontamination chamber; slick with detergent, grotesque in their lead-and-cadmium armor, their suction-boots squelching on the deckplates.

    "We lost Ballard," said one of them. His voice was overly-loud and metallic, projected through the speaker grill from the man encased inside. "Her tether must have come loose."

    It took Carey a moment to remember who he was referring to. Lyndsay Ballard, the dead computer tender. Now her corpse would drift forever, incorruptible in the vacuum of Space. "Keep it to yourselves," he ordered, without taking his eyes off his board. "If anyone asks, she burnt up with the others. Are we all clear on that?" There was a general murmur of affirmation. His lads were a tight-knit group; he knew none of them would speak out of turn. Carey waited until the three men had been helped out of their rad-suits and strapped into acceleration couches, then keyed the intercraft.

    "Power Room to Bridge. Ready to engage thrust. Throttle control transferred to helm."

    "My course is set for an uncharted sea," quoted Captain Janeway. "Mr. Paris, you have the conn."

    With an intense expression that bellied his usual demeanor, Tom Paris unclutched the flywheel and in obedience to Newton's Third Law of Motion—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—the thousand-foot rocketship began to turn in the direction opposite to the flywheel's spin. When the correct position was reached he locked the gyros, waited for Astrogation to verify their heading, then flipped the switch to turn control over to the robot-pilot. As the preprogrammed tape began to spin in its reel, Paris keyed the PA toggle on his intercraft. "Now hear this! All hands, brace for acceleration! Engaging thrust in ten seconds... Nine... Eight... Seven... Six..."

    There was nothing to do but wait as the numbers counted down. The Cochrane Drive would fire automatically on the exact millisecond and for the exact amount of time that had been calculated by Astrogation. Paris would only take over if something went wrong, which now that he thought of it was highly likely. His palms felt damp on the levers and his stomach was doing skew-flips. Had their mismatched crew of Spacefleet and Maquis misfits goofed somewhere? A stuck solenoid, a misaligned component, an unsecured latch? Were they about to go up in the biggest blast since Manhattan Island?

    "...Five... Four... Three... Two..."

    Paris was drawing breath to shout "One!" when he was slammed back into the acceleration couch. Something small and metallic smacked into his cheek hard enough to draw blood, clanked off the deckplates and instead of floating free, rolled along what was now the floor until it dropped into a crawl space from where it was later retrieved after a good deal of effort and cursing by the shamefaced crewman who had failed to tighten the nut properly in the first place.
     
  14. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Chapter VI: AMAZONS

    Hail Mary, full of grace,
    The Lord is with thee,
    on Venus and among the stars...


    B'Elanna Torres had been confined to quarters. Her quarters were a six-foot long capsule that a Jap wouldn't sleep in, yet she was expected to rest and even entertain herself there. Not that the capsule was short of amenities. Ultraviolet lamps and a hypno-sleep light were fixed into the ceiling, the mattress had a built-in automassager, and there were book-spools and music-tapes slotted into the sponge-rubber padding that lined every surface. The psychotechs were supposed to screen out anyone who suffered from claustrophobia or pathological solipsism, but B'Elanna couldn't help wondering how many cases of space madness were caused by the inability to get out and run around whenever you wanted. Perhaps these Terrans didn't see the need, raised as they were in air-conditioned megacities that always felt too cold to her, using photophones to talk and slidewalks to walk and illusionariums to experience lives they were too lazy to live themselves.

    Blessed art thou among women,
    And blessed are the fruit of thy womb, Jesus of Terra...


    The music included Noisy Rhysling, the post-atomic melancholies of Starr Anthim, Venus Exotica that didn't sound like anything she had heard on her homeworld, and a tape labelled Songs of Space which for some strange reason included Also sprach Zarathustra (what did Nietzsche's ramblings have to do with Outer Space?). From the girly pin-ups and book-spools of trashy adventure tales set on 'frontier Mars' and the 'exotic jungles of Venus', she concluded the last occupant of this capsule had been a male Terran, most likely a space marine. As she was now using his quarters, he had either been left behind on Vesta to force Belters onto the evacuation rockets at gunpoint, or his expectations of adventure had come to a sudden and unwanted end.

    Holy Mary, mother of God
    Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death...


    Someone knocked on the outside of the capsule. B'Elanna quickly hid the rosary under her mattress, shoved a bookphone in her ear and adopted a bored expression.

    "Who is it?"

    "Chakotay. I need a word."

    The privacy screen slid open to reveal Chakotay standing on the short ladder that allowed access to the capsules, racked three high on either side of a narrow aisle. He wore Spacefleet dinner dress, the custom-fitted jacket and trousers fresh out of the ship's mecho-tailor. The technology that enabled an electro-mechanical milling machine to produce a custom-made replacement part from a block of steel could also be used to make clothing, using a pre-programmed pattern adjusted to the wearer's measurements. Most of the Maquis had been happy to exchange their filthy and irradiated synthileathers for a brand-new coverall, though some had made a point of removing the Spacefleet shoulder patch. Chakotay had kept his patch, B'Elanna noticed, but his jacket was bare of medals and on his feet were a pair of non-regulation moccasins that made an incongruous contrast to his formal attire.

    "Did you hear the story about the ensign with three breasts?" asked B'Elanna.

    "All I keep hearing about is the Venerian with no brain."

    B'Elanna sat up shouting, "Lieutenant Carey is an OWWW!" as she banged her head on the capsule's ceiling, trailing off in a string of curses. Chakotay informed her that Carey had never been groundside on Venus, so was unlikely to have had intimate relations with a mudsucker eel.

    "I thought I'd earned your loyalty, B'Elanna. Pulling stunts like this make the Maquis look bad—me especially, because I keep having to defend your actions."

    "I didn't notice you defending me at the senior officer's briefing."

    "I know when to speak up and when to shut up. If you had a theory about that black star, you could have told me afterwards instead of trying to show up Zimmerman and brass off the captain."

    "I'm sorry, did I interrupt her speech? I heard all that let-us-boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before from so-called explorers in the Vepaja Morass. There were little girls like me there already, but no-one ever named schools on Terra after us."

    "I don't want to hear it!" barked Chakotay. "Right when I've finally gotten everyone working together, you assault two people and get these Spacefleet people riled up at us! Now I've got a captain who wants you court-martialed, when I'm trying to convince her to make you Chief Engineer!"

    "I've already been hauled over the atomic pile by the captain. She gave me another speech and told me to get my engrams cleared. The Dianetics auditor saw my tattoos and started lecturing me about how Catholicism was a conspiracy by aliens to control the human race, so I told him he peddled a quack psychology cooked up as a money-making scheme by a megalomaniac pulp novelist." B'Elanna fell back onto her mattress. "At least no-one's using your religion as a therapy tool, Chakotay."

    "So, were you planning to spend the entire trip in this pod?" Chakotay asked. B'Elanna didn't answer. "If you want to be any kind of engineer on this rocketship, you're going to need the support of the Glowing Gang. You might want to put some effort into bonding with them instead of handsome space-jockeys." He ducked as B'Elanna threw her bookphone at his head.

    "I am not going to bond with any of these idiots! If I have one more Terran male ask me about the mating rites of the Amazons, I'm going to break his jaw!"

    "Then change the subject. Talk about soccer, how boring the weather is now it's controlled by Science, the practical applications of folding space."

    B'Elanna just stared at him.

    "Spacewarp drive," said Chakotay. "Can you make it work?"

    "You... you can't seriously believe I can invent and build a supra-light drive in Voyager's machine shop! This is real life, not Captain Proton!"

    "We're fifty light years from the nearest Sol-type star," said Chakotay. "So how did that space station get here? When that star collapsed the shockwave would have destroyed any planet in its habitable zone. No civilization would send out a generation ship to travel for centuries to a solar system they can't colonize. Either your theory is correct and that's an interstellar portal, or these aliens can travel faster than the speed of light. If we could get hold of a drive unit, you could reverse-engineer it."

    "And just what are we going to buy it with: mirrors and glass beads?" B'Elanna ripped a pin-up from the ceiling of her capsule: a National Geographic 2-D of a female Venerian bedecked in jewels, a sword harness, and not much else. "Beautiful, isn't she? The famous Amazon warriors of Venus. Do you know what diamonds are, Chakotay?"

    "Sure. They're used as an abrasive in asteroid mining tools."

    "On Venus they're jewels: starfires, we call them. Terran traders would buy whole acres of jungle with those shiny chunks of crystalized carbon, clear the ground with slave labor and grow food crops under sundomes to ship back to Earth. My mother boasted of her hoard of diamonds. She must have slaughtered and enslaved half the tribes of the Vepaja Morass to get them. She thought she could use them to buy modern firearms and the traders were happy to string her along. I tried to tell her they're worthless because you Terrans can make diamonds in a laboratory; you don't have to dig them out of the ground anymore. She didn't listen; she just ended up doing their dirty work. That's what happens when a primitive culture meets an advanced technological society."

    Chakotay could have told her something different. The Amazons he'd fought had been covered in blood, not diamonds, screaming like banshees as they swarmed through the Edenglass, hacking down settlers with their double-bladed scimitars. They had spent months searching for the culprits with 'copters and amphibious-tanks and orbital platforms; all the technology of Terra useless against an enemy that hid in the swamps and jungles. Eventually Spacefleet had defoliated everything in a twenty-mile radius around the New Earth colony, and that had worked well enough until the never-ending rains turned the ground into a quagmire infested with bloodworms and mudsucker eels.

    Memories came flooding back... heaving gold ingots over the side as their swamp-tank sank into the mud... the siren song of the Shambleau calling him into the darkness... slaves screaming under the electrolash of a Nigerian overseer... two armies pausing in battle to watch his duel with Ke'Shaan at the Cytherean Gate... Von Stauffen lying back against the A-bomb as it ticked down to oblivion, saying in his clipped Prussian manner, "I think it's time you left, mein Herr." The cultural engineers preaching their grandiose schemes while mutant children begged for scraps in the LowPort... Ke'Shaan tearing herself from his arms to stride to the gibbet with her head held high. "Venus is not a goddess of love, Ch'Kotay. On this world, one embrace's death." He wrenched himself back to the present with an effort.

    "Those aliens aren't going to hand over their technology to a bunch of savages who can't even make it out of their own solar system," B'Elanna was saying.

    "I wasn't suggesting we ask politely."

    She gave Chakotay a skeptical look. "You think Miss Bold Explorer is going to engage in space piracy?"

    "I think this captain will do whatever needs to be done to get her crew home," said Chakotay. "What do you know of the Valkyrie disaster?"

    "Just the Hollywood tri-vid. Meteorite kills everyone in the male berthing compartment, captain goes nuts, the girls take over and wacky hijinks ensue."

    "I doubt Captain Janeway remembers it that way." The disaster had involved murder, mutiny, radiation sickness and a lottery of death right out of the horror tales. "She was on the crew that brought the Valkyrie back to Equatorial Station. They were lucky to escape court-martial."

    The verdict of the board of inquiry was that no mutiny had occurred: the senior officers had succumbed to space madness and the crew had confined them for their own safety. Two officers had died trying to retake the ship and one had committed suicide, so Captain Qu had been the sole remaining witness against the accused. Months of solitary confinement in an air-lock had left their toll, and Qu's belief that he was an omnipotent being who could change the Universe with a snap of his fingers had not left a good impression.

    "I'm going to have dinner with the captain now," said Chakotay. "I think she wants to mend some bridges. So if she agrees to let you out of this capsule, I want your word that you'll fix things up with Carey."

    "Dinner with Janeway, huh? You always had a thing for redheads."

    "I'm waiting for an answer, Torres..."

    "YES!" shouted B'Elanna. As Chakotay continued to stare at her she mumbled, "I mean, yes sir..."

    "I'll hold you to that."

    Chakotay shut the privacy screen and dropped his moccasin-clad feet onto the deck. It wasn't an Amerindian thing; moccasins were more comfortable than magheel boots now that Voyager had returned to pseudo-gravity. The ship was only accelerating at 1G so that repairs could continue, but it still felt like he had lead weights on his feet after all that time in free-fall. And moccasins had the added advantage of making less noise on the deckplates. Spacers valued their sleep.

    His feet might have been too quiet. As Chakotay made his way through the berthing compartment, a stall slid open and out stepped a stark-naked girl, her pale skin and auburn hair gleaming from the refresher.

    "Comrade Chakotay," she greeted him, as casually as if she had been fully dressed. "I've been looking for you."

    "Hello Seska," replied Chakotay, feeling an inexplicable embarrassment. There was little room for privacy on a spaceship, and crew quarters were no longer segregated after what happened to the Valkyrie, but they had been lovers when he first joined the Maquis, until he became her captain and had to break off the relationship. The need for genetic diversity in the tiny Belt colonies had caused spacer women to adopt the pragmatic morals of the ancient seafaring Polynesians, and he could not help wondering who was sharing her affections now.

    "Look what I found." Seska stepped past Chakotay, her nude body tantalizingly close in the narrow space, and used her palmprint to key open a locker. From it, she removed a small bundle of Martian leather, bound with a cord. "I believe this belongs to you."

    Chakotay took it reverently from her hands. "I thought I'd lost it back on Vesta! Where did you find it?"

    "Janeway's marines stripped the Valjean of anything that might be of intelligence value. I was able to convince my kinesic-interrogator that the items were purely personal. After we were set free, I was able track it down in Waste Recycling before it got burnt up as reaction mass."

    "Thank you," was all Chakotay could say. That a Communist who had renounced all religion had been willing to spend hours sorting through the trash to find his sacred bundle meant a lot to him. He pressed his fingers against the leather pouch, verifying the contents by touch. The items inside were private, not to be shown even to this woman with whom he'd shed blood and shared oxygen. A fish carved from asteroid rock by a boy who had never seen an ocean. A love knot from the girl who had made him a man—so he would remember her name, she said, but he had forgotten it anyway. The eagle feather he had stolen as a feckless youth from a well-guarded aviary on Earth. The bloodstained cloth Ke'Shaan had used to bind the wound she had given him. A half-melted stembolt from Hygiea Station.

    Love, death, pain, regret, counting coup. Medicine for a vision quest.

    He would have to find a place to meditate, Chakotay thought; somewhere with a view of the stars. The astrodome would be ideal, but Hansen guarded it against all intruders regardless of rank, ostensibly to prevent damage to the delicate instruments and photographic plates (he suspected the real reason was to stop amorous spacemen from distracting the legendary beauties of Astrogation). Perhaps he could find a suitable porthole, but there were precious few of those on a rocketship for the simple reason that there was seldom anything for a crew to look at until they reached their destination.

    Seska was taking her time getting dressed, displaying her svelte curves for his appreciation as she slipped into shorts and a shirt and pulled on her calf-boots. Hailing from the polar city of New Leningrad, Seska was the end product of an economic system that conscripted its best minds into science and industry while the West saw their talent wasted in advertising and entertainment. Despite the early lead the United States had in the Space Race, by the 1980's the Sino-Soviet Union was racing ahead in the fields of electronics, computer technology, and the safe production of atomic energy. Seska's specialty was cybernetics, the interaction between humans and machines. A report she submitted on the Electronic Minds had resulted in her exile to the Asteroid Belt. "The Presidium didn't like the suggestion that they were no longer running things," she had told Chakotay.

    Whether this tale was the truth was another matter. Seska had proven adept at gathering intelligence about Spacefleet activities during the Asteroid War: tapping computers and photophone lines, interrogating prisoners and (Chakotay suspected) drawing on a network of spies and fellow travelers working for the Soviet KGB. No-one queried her success. Too many Belters had their own murky pasts and dubious associations. Chakotay had even wondered if B'Elanna wasn't secretly working for the Brazilian government.

    For all the talk of the Jovian menace, everyone knew that the greatest threat to peace in the Solar System was Earth itself. The orbiting A-bomb platforms of Spacefleet had made wars of conquest obsolete, but not the pressures that caused them. Cold War hostilities threatened to erupt anew on other worlds, while young superpowers like India and Brazil were flexing their might. Africans and Asians who had been freed from the yoke of colonialism were establishing colonies on Venus and Mars, seeking to depose civilizations they viewed as primitive or decadent. Famine loomed on Earth with over seven billion people crammed into megacities and not enough arable land to feed them. Scientists had invented the birth control pill but it had little effect on the morals of society. It was more politically expedient to support off-world emigration than unpopular measures of population control.

    All of these interests were threatened by the Tri-World Federation: an organization where Earth, Venus and Mars held equal political status, backed by the military power of Spacefleet. There were plenty of countries who had been eager to help the Maquis give the Federation a bloody nose. But despite all the speeches in the UN Council, the support had been lacking when it most counted. The Belters had been willing to put their lives on the line, but with the horrors of World War 3 still in the memory of most Earth citizens, the politicians had preferred to keep the conflict hundreds of thousands of miles away.

    "What's going to happen to B'Elanna?" Seska asked.

    "I don't know yet," said Chakotay, "but let me handle it."

    "I've been talking to the Voyager crew." Seska stepped close to him and lowered her voice. "None of them are happy about this fix their captain has gotten them into. There are a number of comrades here from progressive countries. With the right encouragement and the support of the Maquis, they would be ready to back you."

    'Conspiracy is as natural as breathing to these Reds', thought Chakotay. "Back me in what, exactly?"

    "Should you want to take control of Voyager. People feel better when there's a man in charge."

    "I'll remember that next time you tell me what I should do."

    "You're a soldier!" snapped the Red redhead, her nostrils flaring. "I've seen Janeway's record. She's a scientist. She never came up the ranks the hard way like you did."

    'And that's why I underestimated her,' thought Chakotay. He had hoped to take Voyager by surprise while her crew was assisting the evacuation of the Vesta colonies. Instead, Janeway had attacked with a boldness that surprised him, right up to the moment an atom-tipped torpedo ruptured the hull of the Valjean. The thought of all those who had died because of his mistake made Chakotay's response harsher than he intended. "If I ever hear you talk that way again, I'll personally throw you in the brig for mutiny!"

    Seska's eyes went wide. "You'd put me in the brig... after all we've been through?" Chakotay didn't answer. "That uniform has got you thinking you're one of them again. Just remember—when your cause needed help after Spacefleet betrayed you, my people were the ones who came to your aid."

    "I remember," said Chakotay, "that when it came down to a veto in the United Nations, the Sino-Soviet Union chose to abstain."

    "That was the Presidium's decision, not mine!" She placed a hand lightly on his chest. "I stayed with you till the bitter end, didn't I?"

    'And why did you stay?' Chakotay wondered. 'Was if for me, or some enigmatic plan by your superiors in New Moscow? Do you even know yourself?'

    "Then stay with me now," he said in a softer tone. "I'm trying to get this crew to work together. Don't undermine what I'm doing."

    "Fine, just remember whose side you're on."

    "There are no 'sides'. No Maquis and Spacefleet, no Eastbloc or Western Alliance. It's just us; stuck on this rocketship on the edge of nowhere. Splitting this crew into rival factions is going to get us all killed, and I, for one, would like to get home."

    "And then what?" Seska shot back at him. "Do you seriously believe that so-called pardon of Janeway's is going to keep us out of a re-education clinic? When this rocketship returns to our Solar System, YOU need to be in charge." Without waiting for a response, the Russian girl spun on her heel and strode off down the aisle, her back straight with anger despite the womanly sway of her hips.

    Chakotay watched her go, his face pensive.
     
    TheLoneRedshirt likes this.
  15. Angry Fanboy

    Angry Fanboy Commander Red Shirt

    Joined:
    Feb 15, 2012
    This is absolutely superb. Really enjoying it!
     
  16. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Chapter VII: A MEETING OF MINDS

    "Captain's Log: July 26, 2020. Our journey home is several weeks old now, and I have begun to notice, in my crew and in myself, a subtle change as the reality of our situation settles in. Here on the other side of the galaxy we are virtually the entire family of Man. As such we are more than a crew, and I must be more than a captain to these people. More than ever now, they need me to be larger than life. I only wish I felt larger than life."


    Janeway swung the speaker cup away from her mouth and switched off the sonotyper. In the videograph on her memex-desk, Mark Johnson smiled his bashful smile while playing with the Irish setter puppy they had rescued from a termination clinic at Manhattan Memorial Crater. Mollie had died of cancer despite their efforts and their relationship had not lasted much longer. They had signed a six-month marriage contract, but she had balked at making their marriage permanent as she would have had to resign her commission.

    Mark had never understood, and how could she ever explain to someone who was not a spacer? What it was like to feel the terrible power of a rocketship unleashed, to slip free the binds of gravity, to experience the humbling infinity that transformed one's soul into a saint or a madman. There were times she wished the videograph was only a still-life image. Mark and Mollie's never-ending frolic seemed a lost opportunity trapped in a loop of time. The Bureau of Eugenics would never give her permission to bear children now, given the risk of exposure to cosmic radiation in her career.

    'I only wish I felt larger than life...'

    Janeway frowned, having second thoughts about leaving that last sentence in her Log. She threaded the recorder spool through the editing block and was trying to splice and tape the offending section when the Chief Steward buzzed her on the intercraft.

    "You asked me to remind you of your upcoming dinner appointment, ma'am."

    Janeway uttered a Martian word they had not taught her at the Scholarium. She wasn't even dressed yet. "Thank you, Daniels. Just give Space Commander Chakotay a drink when he arrives and tell him I'll be joining him... eventually."

    Janeway made a half-hearted effort to rewind the spool before giving up and shoving the whole lot into a drawer to be taken care of later. She slid off her boots and stuck them to the bulkhead by their magheels, then stripped off her clothes and dumped them into the laundry chute.

    Stepping into the refresher she was enveloped in a warm fog and a spray of scented soap to lather her up, followed by jets of water to rinse her off and blasts of hot air to dry her, sonic vibrations to massage her body and ultraviolet radiation to kill harmful bacteria. A hood crammed with brushes, spray-nozzles and micromanipulators lowered over her head, whirred and hummed for several minutes, then raised to reveal that cosmetics had been applied and her hair had been shampooed, combed and styled into soft auburn curls that brushed against her shoulders. With the advent of pseudo-gravity, it was time to let her hair down from the updo her crew had dubbed 'The Bun of Steel'.

    Janeway stepped out of the refresher to find her uniform had emerged from the laundry chute freshly cleaned and pressed, but she decided instead on a more casual look: a loose-fitting white blouse, wide-legged slacks, a dark blazer cliched at the waist by a magclip belt, and a pair of jade earrings she had picked up on a weekend rocket trip to New Zealand in her Academy days. Thick-soled oxfords completed the ensemble—Spacefleet had abolished height restrictions with the advent of the larger CT rocketships, and too often now she found herself craning her neck to look a shipmate in the eye. She checked the result in a mirrored wall panel, took some painkillers for her ribs which were aching again with the restoration of gravity, and made her way to the jerry tube.

    The jerry tube was the reason female spacers did not wear skirts even under pseudo-gravity. Voyager was now a thousand-foot skyscraper shooting through space with 'down' in the direction of their Cochrane Drive, so the Central Passageway had become a vertical shaft fifteen decks high. Spacers climbed ladders recessed into what had once been deckplates and bulkheads; those going up moving to the right of each hatchway, those going down to the left. In the center of the shaft the technos had jerry-rigged a continuous belt-lift to carry supplies between the various decks. Heedless of the drop below, Janeway leapt across to a platform carrying cylinders of chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant and rode it down, stepping off as she came level with the hatchway to the officer's wardroom.

    The wardroom was more than a mess for the ship's officers; it was a place for greeting dignitaries, holding briefings or holding court if needed. As such it was the public façade of Voyager and appointed accordingly. Sound-absorbing panels hid pipelines and electro-mechanical circuits, the deckplates were covered by a carpet heated by radioactive isotopes and a luminous ceiling bathed everything in a lambert glow. Self-adjusting chairs upholstered in red Martian leather (the null-gee straps tucked away in discreet compartments) surrounded an elliptical table made of genuine tree-grown wood from Venus. Dominating the room was a framed 2-D painting: a Chesley Bonestell pastiche of Voyager flying over the rings of Saturn, its silver hull reflected by the ice crystals beneath.

    Janeway had selected the other decorations, most of them over the strenuous objections of Spacefleet psychotechs. A solar microscope from 18th Century France. A bronze bust of the Homeric hero Odysseus. A dragon carved from white jade, smuggled out of Red China before the End of History. Antique books printed on paper: Divina Commedia by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (one of the few copies to survive the pyres of the House Committee for the Protection of Youth), Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, and Twenty Jataka Tales by Nora Inayat-Khan. Sealed behind leaded glass stamped with warning trefoils was an antique parchment she had salvaged from the ashes of Milan: a flying machine sketched by Leonardo di Vinci, four hundred years before the Wright Brothers took to the air.

    Her First Officer was nursing a drink bulb and pondering the latest addition to her collection; a shipbuilder's plate that had been mounted after their recent battle over Vesta.

    N.R.S. Valjean
    No. 233 constructed by
    Deutsche Raketen AG
    Utopia Planitia, Mars
    1995


    "Perhaps you should take this down," said Chakotay, "given the current circumstances."

    "Certainly not," replied Janeway, pretending not to notice his non-regulation footwear. "I'm quite proud of that trophy. The captain of that rocketship gave us a good deal of trouble, as I recall."

    Chakotay had to smile. "I'm surprised at the books you have here. The Wizard of Oz is still illegal in certain city-domes of North America. And isn't the Jataka Tales a Buddhist text? Not the usual thing to find in a Spacefleet wardroom."

    "Well that book was written by a very brave girl. During the Second World War she parachuted into Nazi-occupied France to aid the Resistance, only to be betrayed and die in a concentration camp."

    "A Maquis supporter? A woman after my own heart."

    Janeway carefully removed Divina Commedia from its armorglass cabinet; the book was already damaged, with pages missing and Inferno appropriately charred. "So much of our culture has been lost. The history purges of the Communists, the moral crusades of the Rationalists, three world wars. Even the post-war reconstruction only led to a flood of escapist entertainment. People just wanted to forget what had happened—let the past burn and good riddance, they said. There are children these days who can't even read Esperanto, let alone these ancient European languages. They've been raised on book-spools and tri-vids."

    "Consider your origin," Chakotay quoted. "You were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge."

    Janeway looked at him in surprise. "I didn't know you studied pre-Atomic literature."

    "I don't, but I was once stuck on a long Hohmann trajectory to the New Earth colony on Venus. I must have played every book in their Arkive. Anyway, I agree with Dante. Mankind has a higher purpose than fighting and watching feelies. We would never have made it into Outer Space if we were meant to scrabble about in our own ashes."

    "A soldier and a philosopher," mused Janeway. "Your intelligence file doesn't do you justice." She turned to the first canto and read aloud:

    "In the middle of the journey of our life,
    I found myself astray in a dark wood
    where sight of the straight road had been lost.
    How hard it is to say what it was like
    in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled
    the very thought of it renews my fear.
    It is bitter almost as death itself.
    But to set forth the good it also brought me
    I will speak about the other things I saw there."


    Janeway put the book back in the cabinet, gingerly pressing the null-gee restraints against the binding. She sealed the doors and turned to Chakotay.

    "Why did you rebel against the Tri-World Federation?" she asked bluntly.

    Chakotay had been expecting the question, but had no intention of making it easy for her. "Isn't there a tradition about not discussing politics in the officer's wardroom?"

    "Or women, as I recall. I never understood why Spacefleet has to follow naval traditions. The pioneer aviators who were the first to leave the surface of the Earth: Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager, the Wright Brothers—those are the ones we should look to for inspiration."

    "Fair enough," said Chakotay. He put the drink bulb back in its slot. "I'll answer your question if you tell me why you mutinied against your captain on the Valkyrie."

    "There was no mutiny. Captain Qu had gone insane. We detained him under orders from the senior remaining medical authority."

    "Most people do go insane if you shut them in an air-lock for ninety-seven days with only a tankful of algae for company."

    "He was lucky we didn't throw him out the other side." If they had been back in the Solar System, she would have told Chakotay to go jump out the air-lock himself. But they weren't, so maybe candor was the best way.

    "Things were tense on the Valkyrie even before the disaster," said Janeway. "The wardroom was something of an Old Boys Club. In Spacefleet Academy I'd been taught that an officer should maintain a certain distance, but ours preferred the hands-on approach, if you know what I mean. There was a lot of fraternization; favoritism shown to those girls who were willing to do favors in turn. It put a lot of pressure on the rest of us who were just trying to do our jobs. Then the meteorite hit..." ('And I had to seal the berthing compartment, sacrificing everyone inside to save the ship.') Tu'Vix, the Martian lieutenant who had refused to participate in the hazing conducted by the other officers, had reached the collision-hatch just in time to be cut in half.

    Janeway took a deep breath. "The captain decided to put the Valkyrie down on Mercury to wait for rescue. The planet is tidal-locked to the Sun so one side is always boiling hot and the other freezing cold, but Qu believed (incorrectly as it turned out) there was a thin region between the two where humans could survive. Somehow this idea of waiting for rescue turned into a grand vision of the first Terran colony on Mercury, using the female crewmembers as a baby factory to consolidate later territorial claims. No-one cared what we had to say about the matter."

    "That sounds familiar."

    "Really, Chakotay? I fail to see the resemblance. Didn't you defect to the Maquis to avenge your father?"

    "My father was a spacer—so was I. Death is part of life in Outer Space. I rebelled because the government was going to take away our land, and not for the first time either."

    "They weren't the Great Plains, Chakotay. Your homeland is an airless asteroid only 270 miles in diameter."

    "Your body's only five-foot-five, but you were willing to risk your entire ship and everyone on board to protect it. Shouldn't you girls have just closed your eyes and thought of the Tri-World Federation?"

    "We didn't mu... detain our officers to protect our chastity! We knew we could get the Valkyrie to safety and we did! What were you hoping to achieve, Chakotay?"

    "Something other than abject surrender! There are times you have to risk everything on principle, or what are those principles worth?"

    The two officers stood glaring at each other for a long moment, then Chakotay sighed and planted himself in the nearest chair, fishing in his jacket for a cigarette.

    "I didn't come here to fight," he said.

    "That's good, because I came here to eat."

    The meal was elegantly served by white-jacketed stewards on china plates with zirconium cutlery, a gift from the engineers who had built their Cochrane Drive. Prime Martian beef with lightly-steamed vegetables and a bottle of red wine, followed by coffee and yeast cake. The first Martian colonists had been a heterogeneous lot: Negro farmers fleeing the lynch mobs, Brazilian gauchos whose grazing land had been seized by the factory-farms, and refugees from war-torn Europe including a family of winemakers from La Barre in France, though it had taken years of hard work and scientific research to enrich the soil enough to grow anything. The food had a faint burnt flavor from the irradiation used to preserve it for long space voyages, but neither officer complained. With the food shortages on Earth everyone had long since learned to eat what was put in front of them.

    "There was a time when every woman knew how to cook," said Janeway. "It's a lost art—all I know is how to push buttons on a menu selector. My mother was going to teach me..." (before the Bureau of Eugenics burnt the memories out of her brain—whatever happened in the bomb shelter after the lights went out—so she wouldn't pass on her trauma to her children) "...but I was more interested in tinkering with radios and chemistry sets like the other girls."

    "Well, you weren't lying about the coffee," said Chakotay. "It's a lot better than synthokaf. Is this really made from beans grown in the soil?"

    "On trees, grown on the slopes of the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. It's a good thing those hard-working agrifood executives need coffee too, or the entire island would have been turned into a banana farm. Make sure you savor that cup. I'm down to my last bag, which I'm sacrificing to you in the interests of diplomacy."

    They kept up such banter for a while, maneuvering around each other with words as they once had with rocketships, neither of them discussing the recent war or friends whom the other might have killed. Chakotay told the same old tale of his attempt to free the last bald eagle on Earth, while Janeway joked about her antics searching for non-existent treasure as a student on Mars. Chakotay found himself enjoying her company, this woman who had been trying to blast him into radioactive dust only a few weeks ago. When the captain seemed sufficiently at ease, he brought up the subject of B'Elanna Torres. "With her background and academic credentials she could work as a synthesist. There's too much narrowmindedness in the Science and Engineering departments. You need someone who can think outside the box, combine disciplines, find practical solutions. A Belter rather than an Earther."

    Janeway flicked a glance at the stewards who were standing discreetly in the background. Without a word they filed out the hatchway—only after it had sealed behind them did the captain speak again. "B'Elanna Torres is a civilian, not a Spacefleet officer; I'm not putting her in a position of authority on this ship. You've got the pardon you asked for, Chakotay. Don't let it go to your head. This is a temporary arrangement, no more."

    "Are you sure about that? We could be stuck together longer than you think. What happens if we can't find that cube-ship? It could be anywhere in the galaxy, or even in a completely different galaxy! And even if we did find those aliens, they might not be glad to see us. Last time they made First Contact with the Human Race you fired an atomic torpedo at them."

    "I'm hoping for a more peaceful approach next time," said Janeway with a confidence she didn't feel. "Anyway, if Miss Torres is as smart as you think she is, the aliens on that space station could send us home in the wink of an eye. Provided they have eyes, of course."

    "Provided they're willing to send us home at all."

    "I'll cross that Einstein-Rosen bridge when I come to it."

    Chakotay leaned forward, his dark eyes fixed on hers. "You're not thinking this through. There might not be any way back to the Earth that we know. Have you heard of time dilation? Voyager was accelerated faster than the speed of light. We could get back home and find that centuries have passed! Earth could be a world as alien as anything we could find out here."

    Janeway met his gaze evenly. "I don't know about you, but I didn't join Spacefleet to fight wars in the Asteroid Belt. I joined to be a scientist and an explorer. This crew will face whatever the future holds. And as their captain I will do my utmost to get every one of them home."

    "This crew has to be prepared for the distinct possibility that they might never get home. If that's the case we need to search for a habitable planet and establish a colony. Think about it: a second foundation of Mankind on the far side of the galaxy. Insurance for our species if Earth is destroyed by social collapse or some other cataclysm. Maybe it's fate that we ended up here."

    "I've heard this speech before, Chakotay!"

    "So I've heard, and that's the problem. This isn't the Valkyrie. You're so fixated on getting this crew home, you've blinded yourself to other options."

    Janeway forced herself to speak calmly. "You're the one who's not thinking this through. Voyager isn't a colony ship; we've no race bank of embryos, no Arkive holding the accumulated knowledge of the Human Race. We have barely enough people to establish a stable population—even counting the extraterrans in our crew—and the slightest disaster would deplete those numbers. I've seen too many colonies fail due to poor planning and genetic inbreeding."

    "Then we find a world with biologically-compatible aliens."

    Janeway was aghast. "What you're suggesting is a direct violation of our Prime Directive!"

    "Is this the right time to worry about Spacefleet's ban on miscegenation?"

    "It's right in any circumstances! Ask your friend B'Elanna how good her life has been, caught between two worlds and belonging to neither!"

    "Is that really what's bothering you, Kathryn? Perhaps you've been a Spacefleet captain for so long, you've forgotten that you're a woman with her own needs."

    "I didn't know we were on a first name basis, Space Commander Chak__"

    His arms were strong and his kiss was passionate. For a moment Janeway felt herself melting into his embrace, then she wrenched herself free and her palm cracked across his face.

    For a moment they just stared at each other, breathing hard. What might have happened next neither could say, but the harsh blare of the bullhorn put an end to it.

    "GENERAL QUARTERS! GENERAL QUARTERS! ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS! MULTIPLE OBJECTS ON INTERCEPT COURSE! SET MATERIAL CONDITION ZEBRA THROUGHOUT THE SHIP!"
     
  17. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    The alarm took everyone by surprise. When Voyager set course for the alien space station no-one expected some rocketship bristling with rayguns to appear, demanding they heave-to in the name of the Galactic Patrol. Such warlike confrontations in the depths of the void were the fantasies of scientifilm. The speed of a modern rocketship was such that a defender would have mere seconds to intercept before the two vessels shot past each other (though psionic-guided weaponry was increasing that time). It made more sense to wait for an aggressor to decelerate and come within range of an overwhelming volley of interceptor missiles. Even in the Asteroid War the battles had taken place around the space stations and asteroid mines that were worth fighting over, not empty Space.

    When the two officers reached the jerry tube they found it packed with men and women swarming ape-fashion up the ladders. Janeway was gauging her jump to the nearest belt-lift platform when the ship lurched and she would have gone headfirst into the shaft if Chakotay had not grabbed her. A pallet burst sending its contents raining down on the people below. The passageway echoed with screams and curses and the belt-lift shuddered to a halt.

    "Let me sort that out," Chakotay urged. "You're needed on the Bridge."

    "Isn't there some Indian trick where you turn into a bird and fly me up there?"

    "You're too heavy." Bracing a foot on the hatchway, Chakotay swung himself out into the jerry tube, using his body to block those climbing up from below. Ignoring their complaints, he yelled, "Make a hole! Captain, coming through!"

    Janeway brushed past him and started to climb. The rungs were vibrating as if Voyager were flying through the storms of Venus and she had trouble holding on. Weeks of null-gravity had taken their toll on her muscles and Janeway was exhausted by the time she got to the Bridge where everyone seemed to be shouting at once.

    "__intense gravimetric disturbance! Accelerometers are jumping across the dials!"

    "__coherent beam of electromagnetic radiation bouncing off our hull! They know we're here, but they're not turning away!"

    "__two vessels... make that three... four! No, five... fifteen vessels!"

    "So much for ESP! Why didn't you detect them earlier, Vor'K?"

    "They were just there, Pablo! They came out of nowhere!"

    "Everyone quiet!" ordered Captain Janeway, having regained her breath. "Helm, maintain our course and heading. If they can see us, they know to avoid us. Sound collision, Mr. Rollins; I want every section sealed whether it's manned or not. Mr. Vor'K, load all torpedo tubes, maximum yield on the atomic warheads. Sparks, broadcast a standard hail on as many frequencies as you can manage. Try the signal lamp as well."

    "Which language shall I use, ma'am?"

    "It doesn't matter; they won't understand it anyway. Just make it clear we want to talk instead of shoot." Clutching the null-gee handgrips to steady herself, Janeway struggled across the lurching deck to her acceleration couch and buckled herself in. She snapped down the intercraft toggle. "Astrogation, I want eyes on those vessels now!"

    "My God!" someone gasped, reverting to ancient superstition at the sight that appeared on the telescreens. Spacecraft like none of them had ever seen: saucers with cantilevered nacelles, spheres encircled with glowing portholes, squid-like monstrosities that looked grown instead of made. They flashed past on every side leaving Voyager bucking in the turbulence of twisted space-time, like a native canoe caught in the wake of an armada of steamships. Then in an instant they were gone, stretched into infinite streaks of blue that vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.

    "They've gone off our scopes, ma'am," said the Senior Radarman. "Whoever they were, they can outrun the pulses from our radar. That's faster than the speed of light."

    There was a stunned silence on the Bridge. Captain Janeway struggled to keep the dismay off her face. Acceleration like that should have turned the crews of those spacecraft into pulp. What kind of technology were they up against here?

    "Status, Mr. Rollins," she said quietly.

    "Damage Control says we have atmospheric integrity in all compartments. Minor damage on Decks Four and Six. Space Commander Chakotay reports casualties in the Central Passageway. No fatalities, but he'd like the collision-doors to Sickbay unsealed."

    "Do it." Janeway leaned forward to peer at a telescreen. It showed an ovoid pod tumbling through space, marked by a flashing beacon light. "It looks like our visitors have left us something. Atom bomb? Message buoy? Intergalactic garbage can?"

    "No radiation detected," said Rollins. "Radar shows no metallic reflection, but there's a thermal signature. And it's venting gas... spectrometers show oxygen and nitrogen. That pod looks big enough to hold a man if he was scrunched up a bit, but if there's anyone inside they won't be alive for long."

    "Grapple it and bring it on board." Janeway released her safety webbing and pried herself out of the couch. "Mr. Rollins, you have the Bridge. Have the space marines and a rescue team meet me outside the Hangar Deck."

    Tom Paris was commanding the rescue team but even the six-foot Terran was dwarfed by the marines in their jetpacks and space armor. Unauthorized modifications to the latter showed the bitter experience of the recent Asteroid War. The red finish that looked so impressive on the parade ground had been burnished down to bare metal, then slathered in black and grey stripes like the disruptive camouflage of 20th Century warships. Oversized pauldrons had been removed and extra radiator fins added, the fault-prone collapsible helmet replaced by a sturdy asteroid-mining helm of armorglass and boron carbide. Bandoliers were packed with grenades, breaching bombs, thermite cutters, cans of hull-sealant, and clips of explosive bullets that would shred flesh but not pierce the hull of a rocketship.

    "If possible I want a peaceful First Contact," said Janeway, feeling somewhat ridiculous addressing the towering space marines while in civilian dress. A Spacefleet captain was supposed to delegate tasks like this, to run things from the Bridge where she had all the controls and communications at her fingertips. But the past couple of months had given Janeway a crash course in leading men into danger, and she had learned the importance of letting them see you were willing to put your life on the line as well. There was too much of the old contempt for the military in Spacefleet, a residue of the atomic wars of the previous century when soldiers like these were mere radiation-fodder, controlled by drugs and hypnotic conditioning. "Even if the alien is hostile, it's essential that we take it alive for questioning. Shoot only in self-defense; I want all weapons set to stun."

    "You heard the captain," growled Sergeant VanBuskirk. "Rubber bullets and tear gas only. Make sure you aim for the torso, not the white of its eyes. Those rounds can still maim."

    "It's an alien—what if its eyes are in its torso?" asked Paris. The marines ignored him.

    Janeway accepted an oxymask from the rescue team, making sure to pull the straps tight against her jaw, both for a proper air seal and to ensure that bone conduction would transmit her words to the built-in radio mike. "Captain to Hangar Control."

    "Chief Petty Officer Nozawa here, ma'am. The pod is on board and the Hangar Deck has been pressurized. We just saw some kind of creature emerge and scamper out of sight, too quick for us to get a clear look. I could reduce the oxygen level and knock it unconscious..."

    "No, I don't want to risk harming it. Turn off the lights; let's draw our guest out into the open. Is everyone ready here?"

    "YES SIR!" was the response. Janeway had given up trying to get the space marines to address her as "ma'am". Their training was too ingrained.

    Paris spun the wheel to unlock the hatch and hauled it aside. Moving quickly despite their cumbersome appearance, the marines rushed through the dangerous chokepoint, spreading out into a defensive formation on the other side. Janeway barely had time to join them before the hatch slammed shut again behind her.

    The only light came from Hangar Control, a squat observation tower in the center of the hangar. The entire deck crew was crammed inside, peering anxiously through the canted windows. VanBuskirk switched on the blacklight projector and panned it slowly across the hangar, its infrared rays invisible to anyone who was not wearing snooper goggles. No bug-eyed monstrosity was exposed to their gaze. The only sound was the drip of condensation, the hum of air-renovators and the clinking of hoist chains in its artificial breeze. Then, faintly, came the sound of claws skittering on a metallic surface.

    "Over there," someone said. Janeway caught a glimpse of a tail, the flash of white teeth in the dark.

    "Chief, give us some light in here."

    The glare of floodlights threw some areas into brilliant exposure, others into greater darkness. Though the hangar took up an entire deck it was congested with tanks of rocket fuel, loading mules and fire-fighting bots, racks of tools and munitions and spare parts. An ambulance pod and a marine breaching pod sat on the deck, both pitted with shrapnel scars and radiation scorch marks. Shuttleboats hung on their launch cradles: the saucer-shaped Aeroshuttle and the skeletal Type 6. The grapple-line was wrapped around the drum winch and the alien pod squatted on the arresting platform between the manipulator jaws. As the marines fanned out across the hangar Janeway went over to examine it. The pod resembled nothing so much as a large leathery egg, its upper surface splayed open in four petals. Janeway leaned over to peer inside...

    The blast of a jetpack made her start; Janeway spun round to see a marine leap into the air and land nimbly on a launch cradle. He shone his helmet lamp into the bomb-sight window of the Aeroshuttle. "Here kitty... Here kitty-kitty..."

    Annoyed at her show of nerves, Janeway went back to the pod which appeared to be some kind of bio-organic technology. It was empty except for a translucent slime that she was careful not to touch, though it could well be harmless. She knew the Spaceborn used oxygenated fluid to fill the pressure-distribution tanks that enabled torchship pilots to withstand high-G's. Was that how the crews of those spaceships were able to survive acceleration to supra-light speed?

    "Captain." Janeway looked up to see VanBuskirk towering over her. "The alien's gone to ground somewhere. With your permission, I'd like to use gas to flush it out."

    "Do it," was her curt command.

    The Y-rack launcher mounted on the sergeant's burly shoulders fired a half-dozen bomblets that bounced off the deckhead and spun into every part of the hangar, spewing clouds of white gas. Strobe lights flashed and a pre-recorded voice announced: "Atmospheric contamination (Phenacyl Chloride) detected on (Hangar Deck)! Protection Level (Charlie-Charlie-Charlie) required!", the alert repeating until Nozawa shut it off.

    There was an ear-piercing screech from the Aeroshuttle and a dark shape erupted from its air intake, slamming into the marine and knocking him off the launch cradle. His jetpack auto-fired to break his fall and he careered across the hangar, flailing blindly at the alien clasped to his face. Janeway cringed as they slammed into a rack labelled DANGER: MONATOMIC HYDROGEN sending cylinders of highly-volatile rocket fuel bouncing across the deckplates.

    "ARGHH! Get it off me!" The alien was only half the marine's size but was hissing and spitting in fury, biting and clawing at his helmet and body armor.

    "Corporal Rico, hold still!" shouted VanBuskirk. He took careful aim and the hangar echoed with the crack of a rifle shot. The creature yelped and fell to the deck where it writhed helplessly, winded by the impact of the rubber bullet.

    Janeway took note of the intruder's clothing, its omnivorous teeth and opposable thumbs and ordered: "Everyone back off. Sergeant, secure those fuel tanks, then clear the Hangar Deck. Inform Mr. Rollins the crew can stand down from General Quarters. And get Mr. TuV'k down here. Tell him to bring a portable encephalo-adjuster."
     
  18. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    As the marines filed out through the hatchway, Janeway sat herself down on a cargo pallet and studied the alien. It (or 'he' Janeway guessed from the lack of evident mammilla) had a squat body covered in yellowish-brown fur and a long prehensile tail, the rodent-like appearance scarcely diminished by plaid leggings, split-toe boots, and a rather tattered vest lined with many pockets. His face was a blunt muzzle framed with long ginger whiskers that formed a kind of beard, with a high forehead and dark brown eyes that gazed back at her with an all-too familiar intelligence. Janeway was not the type of girl to jump on the nearest chair and shriek when faced by a giant rat, but she could not deny a feeling of wrongness, of alienation—the instinctive psychological rejection of a creature that was in the form and manner of a Man, yet was not.

    Once the air-renovators had filtered out the tear gas, Janeway removed her oxymask and the alien took that as a cue to sit up on his haunches. He began to make elaborate gestures with his paws and tail, whistling and shrilling and crooning until Janeway's head hurt. She suspected that some of the sounds were pitched at frequencies too high for human ears.

    "If that meant: 'Take me to your leader', I'm already here."

    Janeway heard the hatch open and shut behind her. Footsteps crossed the deck and she sensed TuV'k's presence by her side.

    "This fellow seems quite eager to talk," said Janeway, not taking her eyes off the alien, "but I can't understand a word."

    "I have never attempted the melding-of-minds with a non-anthropoid life-form, Captain."

    "You've seen the power these aliens have: gravity manipulation, faster-than-light drive, anti-acceleration technology. Our next encounter could be a lot more dangerous. Until we can speak the language we're just blundering around in the dark. I need a Rosetta Stone."

    The Martian sat down on the deckplates in a cross-legged position, similar to those used for meditation by the ancient mystics of India. He held a squat plastisteel box that he placed in front of him. He flicked switches and twirled dials. There was a hum of power as the micratomic pile and vacuum tubes warmed up. The alien shuffled over to watch the proceedings with evident interest. A rank stench arose from his body that the two Spacefleet officers did their best to ignore.

    TuV'k put on a copper skullcap from which sprouted a cluster of trailing wires that plugged into the box. "You do not have to take part in this, Captain. Sharing one's mind with a sentient alien who is untrained in mental telepathy can be dangerous."

    Janeway wordlessly held out her hand. TuV'k passed her another skullcap, plugged in a third and held it out to the alien. Janeway placed the cap on her head and gestured for the alien to do the same. He took the cap in his paws, sniffed at it, then tasted the copper with a long pink tongue. Janeway was wondering if she was going to have to call in the marines to hold him down when he abruptly perched the cap atop his florid plume of ginger hair.

    TuV'k began to chant a mantra in a long-dead language, though Janeway knew its meaning from her years as a student on Mars: my-mind-to-your-mind-my-thoughts-to-your-thoughts-our-minds-are-as-one. These three people from three different worlds closed their eyes and saw...

    A great tree, the greatest tree in all the world, a world that was a vast forest that covered the moon of Rynax. When Father Talax was high and bright in the sky, his family would gather in song among the warrens and shelter-leaves and protein-buds: father and mother, sisters and brothers, their mother's mother, father's father, their sisters' sisters, their brothers' brothers—all the litters from all the generations of their endless family, all tending and singing to the Great Tree that loved and nourished them in return.

    (...they saw...)

    Her father was a fireman. Her father would come home reeking of smoke from the books and vids he had burnt, the ones created by the fantasists they had been warned about in school. At night by the glow of a radium lamp, he would read to Kathryn from the pages he had saved from the flames. Tales of princesses and philosophers and scientists and explorers, of men of conviction and women of courage. Of heroes who walked among the stars and were not afraid to dream.

    (...they saw...)

    For eight days and nights the students at the Scholarium ran amok. They cast down the Sentinel and pleasure-coupled in the corridors. They stole the spice reserved for vision quests and consumed it with abandon. They loudcast the strange music of Terra in the PsiDome, singing the nonsense words with voice and telepathy till all were caught in its thrall. The scholars fled the city lest their minds be swept away by the bacchanalia.

    Only the High-Master remained. He knelt in meditation under the apex of the PsiDome, ignoring the chaos, his mind disciplined against their madness. When a sandstorm forced the students there for shelter, they danced around the solitary figure and taunted him with lyrics from another world:

    Mister Sandman, I'm so alone.
    Don't have nobody to call my own
    Please turn on your magic beam
    Mister Sandman, bring me a dream.

    "Why should we listen to fossils like you?" demanded TuV'k. He had discarded his student cloak for skinsuit jeans and a floaterbike jacket with words in Terran-English printed on the back: Mars Needs Women. His mind as always was on his Outworlder classmate with her exotic red hair, who roused dangerous passions. "Our world is dying, while the Terrans are vigorous and powerful and fear nothing. Let us adopt their ways and we shall be strong and fearless ourselves."

    "You are a child," scolded the High-Master, though his voice was without rancor. "You see the freedom and strength of the Outworlders, but not what they have sacrificed to achieve it. You see their vigor but not their blindness. It is we who must teach them."

    (...they felt...)

    The sky brought flaming meteors whose impact threw up monstrous pillars of ash that blocked out the sun. The wind brought diseases that made the leaves turn brown and their fur fall out in clumps. Cloud-seeding brought torrential rains that drowned the warrens and turned the soil to squalid mud. Autonomous machines prowled the forest and patrolled the skies, slaying everything that lived.

    The Great Tree was a barren spire, strangled by vines of an alien hue sprouting poisonous seeds that they could not eat. The air changed, sucked into colossal machines belching clouds of green mist that drifted across the land, seeping into the deepest warrens, the most well-protected creche, killing all who breathed it.

    Father died. Mother died. Father's father and mother's mother and all their children died. When his sister Alixia died, he ate her flesh to fend off his hunger.

    By the time the colony ships landed, few were left alive to oppose them.

    (...they felt...)

    The captain spoke of eugenics, of a Second Foundation of Man, of the duty of Humanity to spread civilization among the stars. He was just getting to the best part—where the surviving men of the Valkyrie would breed with the most attractive and fertile women on the crew—when three figures in oxysuits and fishbowl helmets filed in through the ventral air-lock. Ensign Kathryn Janeway, Yeoman Janice Rand, and the sole surviving medical authority: Hospital Corpswoman Third Class Eve McHuron.

    "What are you girls doing here?" barked Space Lieutenant Adams. "Get back to your stations!" Perhaps he thought they were a deputation of damsels come to bleat about their virtue. If the officers had looked at their expressions instead of their tight-fitting pressure suits, they would not have been so patronizing.

    "Doctor's orders, sir," said Janeway, nodding towards Eve. She had a speech prepared, but none of these men deserved it. They had lost her respect long before the disaster that had stranded them here. "I don't know how to tell you this... but the wedding's off!"

    Eve was holding a red globe that she hurled to the deck between Adams' feet. The fire grenade shattered, filling the Bridge with choking white powder. The officers stumbled about, coughing and cursing.

    "Impetuous harlot!" screamed Captain Qu. Too late they saw the gun in his hand.

    At this range the rocket-propelled bullet had not expended its fuel when it pierced Eve's oxysuit, and the pure oxygen within went up in a sheet of flame...

    (...they felt...)

    A soundless cry of fear swept through the watchers as the giant landing glider passed silently over their heads—larger than any bird of prey, pristine white but for the blue globe of an alien world painted on the underside of its wings. A cry that spread in a telepathic warning to all parts of the city, even to those laboring in the catacombs deep under the red sand. Driven by the same compulsion men donned masks of metal and reached for their hive-guns, women smashed priceless crystal ornaments and plucked with bloody fingers the sharpest shards, children dropped toys and books to take up sticks and rocks. The thought amplified and reinforced as it passed from one Martian to the next, like white corpuscles swarming to fight an infection: 'Kill the invaders from the third planet, kill the not-people, kill... kill... kill...'

    (...they understood...)

    Capture, enslavement, fear, pain, sickness, despair. Death for many, more often through the indifference of their captors than active malice. But his people had adapted. The cities and vessels of the invaders were not unlike the Great Tree: machines that provided shelter and nourishment, and they had burrowed within them like vermin, learning their crannies and workings.

    Then came escape, and the years of scavenging and trading and grifting to survive, and all the time yearning for the song of the Great Tree, for the warmth of his kin who were long gone...

    (...they understood...)

    The convex windows showed the vista below but none of the children paid attention to the monotonous and familiar sight. Endless fields of corn and soybeans, bathed under the pseudo-sunlight of the orbital mirrors. Freight-tubes and rolling roads that vanished across the horizon, robot harvesters and factory-farms and the occasional weather control tower. Once they flew over a lake that was green from shore to shore, host to a vast algae farm.

    "I used to go fishing there with my father," said the old man who flew the school aerobus. It was the only time he had ever spoken to Janeway. "All the fish are gone now."

    (...they understood...)

    As an Adept of the Histories he wandered the ruins of Silas—the canals filled with sand, the mindscapes and observatories, the Labyrinth of Isen now open to the sky—but enlightenment did not come. Tri-vid advertisements drowned the whispers of psychic-ghosts, the libraries had been razed by Martian converts to the religions of Earth, the catacombs used to store nuclear waste. Even well-meaning efforts of the Outworlders were jarring. Safety barriers barred access to the Tesseract Maze, and the restoration of the Palace of Gi seemed incongruous without the society it had once served.

    But in a tiny courtyard that had escaped the attention of tourists and archaeologists alike, TuV'k found what he sought. A single perfect arch, the windward-side eroded to a bone whiteness, while the inner surface retained the colors of hieroglyphs so ancient even the High-Master would not have understood them. In this pristine monument to the passage of Time he could contemplate the nature of entropy, see Mars not as a dying world but a changing one, this invasion of Outworlders as just another stage in the RRRRRRED PLANET RRRRROAST, ONLY FFFFIFTY CENTS!

    Startled from his meditative posture TuV'k toppled into the sand, hounded by tri-vids that danced and spun around him. After days of fasting he began to salivate as odorophonics filled the air with the scent of cooking food. The projector was mounted on a burger-shaped bot on caterpillar treads that had followed him into the courtyard, tracking the carbon dioxide emissions of his breath. "GENUIIIIINE MEAT, GROWN IN THE VATS OF YOUR LOCAL RRRRRRED PLANET RRRRROAST!" it blared, heedless of the rocks that TuV'k hurled at its armored carapace. The robot responded with a barrage of coupons that added their own inane chatter, chorusing in tiny voices as they fluttered through the air: "Burgers-soyshakes-and-fries! Burgers-soyshakes-and-fries! Only fifty cents a burger at your local Red Planet Roast!"

    "Don't sell yourself to the enticements of decadent capitalism!" urged a sword-waving specter of the ancient heroine T'Srrn the First (though TuV'k doubted a real princess of Mars would have worn the garb of a lower caste peasant-soldier). It took a moment for him to locate the second tri-vid projector; a crab-like robot coated in chameloflage paint, color-shifted to match its surroundings. The Eastbloc robot must have been stalking its American counterpart for some time. "Join your socialist brothers on Earth who support you in the fight against colonialism! Cast off the Overmind of your Martian oppressors and establish a true workers paradise on the Red Planet!"

    "RRRRRRED PLANET RRRRROAST!" blared the American bot, raising its volume to ear-splitting decibels to drown out the Communist agitprop. "ONLY FFFFARRRGKH!!!" it cried as a messenger rocket slammed into its carapace and exploded in a shower of propaganda leaflets, sending the robot skittering out of control. TuV'k watched aghast as the battling bots crashed into the arch and sent it toppling down on them both...

    "You've never shown me that memory before," said Janeway, removing the copper skullcap from her head.

    "Were I to recall every idiocy perpetuated by your species," said TuV'k dryly, "I would have little time for more productive endeavors."

    "Astounding! Amazing! Such incredible tales!" If the memories aroused by the melding-of-minds had upset the alien he refused to let it show. "You must teach me how to use this scientific wonder! It would avert many hours of tedious translation! And to think you have come from so far away! Let me offer my services as a guide. Allow me to introduce myself." He made a high-pitched sound that seemed mostly beyond their aural range; they heard only: "Neee" and "Lix!"

    "Captain Kathryn Janeway, of the Tri-World Federation rocketship Voyager. This is Tech Lieutenant TuV'k, my Tactical Psionics Officer." She knew this alien was not suddenly speaking Terran-English; it just seemed that way as her own mind sought to put his extraterran thoughts into a familiar context. It would still be necessary to have him teach them whatever universal language was used by these aliens. "Do you know this area of Space well, Mr... umm, Nee'Lix?"

    "I am famous for knowing it well," Nee'Lix bragged. "Perhaps not that well," he admitted, after he was shown a stereograph of the cube-ship that had brought them here. "I can't say I've ever seen a spacecraft like that before... but it's a big Universe you know! Let's just say I am well-travelled... though not as well as you, of course! So... you say this vessel whisked you away from another part of the galaxy and brought you here against your will? Sounds like K'Zon space pirates to me."

    "Space pirates?" queried Janeway. Such crimes happened more often in tri-vid melodramas than in real life. Robbery on the spaceways was usually an inside job, or privateers for governments trying to muscle out rivals in their never-ending cold wars. The few criminal syndicates that could afford to buy and maintain rocketships preferred to spend their money on more cost-effective ventures.

    "The K'Zon and the Hirogen. They work as mercenaries for the Briori, the species that controls passage through the black star portals," said Nee'Lix, discussing the impossible as casually as a Terran would mention a flying car. "They use the portal network to raid other parts of the galaxy for slaves and technology, so the Briori can study them."

    Janeway was glad that Chakotay wasn't there to see her embarrassment. It looked like she owed Miss Torres an apology. "Can we use these 'portals' to travel back to our own Solar System?"

    "Certainly! Well, possibly... maybe unlikely. It all depends if you can convince the Briori... they're not the easiest people to get along with. I prefer to stay as far away from them as possible, to be honest. I was able to get passage by hitching a ride on that convoy that passed you earlier, but there was a misunderstanding about a food replicator and they dumped me here. I do hope you Federation types aren't so unreasonable when it comes to sharing your technology?"

    'Some things don't change no matter what part of the galaxy you're in', thought Janeway. "Of course, we would compensate you for your assistance. As yet we have no local currency but I'm sure some form of barter can be arranged..."

    "That sounds quite reasonable! How about we discuss the price of my services over... uh, a meal?"

    Janeway smiled. "Mr. TuV'k, notify the Disbursing Clerk that a civilian contractor wishes to discuss terms of employment. Make sure our guest has a chance to use a refresher and get something to eat before every amateur xenologist on the ship starts badgering him." She stood up to leave, then added, "Oh, and have B'Elanna Torres report to my cabin. It looks like I need to brush up on this Einstein-Rosen bridge theory."
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2020
  19. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    Chapter VIII: THE ARRAY

    According to Nee'Lix, the space station orbiting the black star had had many names over the millennia, but nowadays most people just called it the Array. It was the Outer Rim terminal of a network of portals that spanned the galaxy, the work of an ancient species whose existence would be attributed to myth were it not for this undeniable evidence of their technological prowess: a gargantuan cylinder of super-dense material allegedly mined from the collapsed star itself, impervious to Time or the efforts of lesser species to fathom its nature. Wars involving weapons of terrible destructive force had been fought over the portals without inflicting the slightest damage—except of course on the colonies that invariably clustered on their outer surface like barnacles on the hull of an ancient sailing ship. Thousands of derelict spacecraft—ranging from tiny lifepods to colossal generation ships—had been permanently moored to makeshift docking cradles and converted into trading posts and habitats and manufactories. Their portholes and beacon lights cast a baleful lumination in the absolute dark of the black star, as ugly and beautiful as an anglerfish in the sunless ocean depths.

    From where he sat on the prow of the shuttleboat, Tom Paris could see at least a dozen spacecraft lined up inside the cylindrical interior of the Array which—unlike its congested outer surface—was as bare and smooth as a gun barrel aimed at the heart of the black star. Exactly how the portal worked was a mystery. The technos and eggheads had been arguing over the subject since they first arrived, throwing around terms like 'transwarp conduits' and 'graviton catapults', but when Paris had suggested the portal could dematerialize a rocketship and beam it across the galaxy like a radio signal, the Science Department and the Glowing Gang had agreed for the first time ever by deriding teleportation as Fortean nonsense that would require more energy than was available in the entire Universe, and violated Heisenberg's Theory of Uncertainty as well.

    There was a silent flash of light and the convoy vanished before his eyes. Paris turned his head towards the black star, but all he could see were the focal points painted on the inside of his bubble helmet to avert space madness. The star was still millions of miles away and quite invisible.

    He pressed down the chin-plate to switch his radio to 'send'. "Let me get this straight, Nee'Lix. The Briori give safe passage to spacecraft passing through the portal network, while using that same network to send out their pirates to seize other spacecraft and drag them back here, so they can be stripped down and fixed to the Array like trophies?"

    "You've got it, Mr. Paris." The latest addition to their crew was peering through the viewing slit of a decompression shelter-balloon that had been lashed to the observer's seat. It was the only spacesuit available that could fit his non-anthropoid frame. "Sometimes the passage isn't that safe either. It's not unknown for a K'Zon warship on convoy escort to be attacked by another K'Zon sect out raiding. They say the Briori secretly encourage this to keep the sects at each other's throats, so they won't join forces and seize the portal network for themselves. It's an uneasy alliance all round."

    Three days had passed since Voyager first matched velocities with the Array, and their arrival seemed a matter of little import. No space pirates had bothered them (apparently the Briori preferred to keep trouble far from their own bailiwick) but Captain Janeway had decided to keep the ship well clear so they would have the freedom to maneuver if needed. That meant ferrying everyone over by shuttleboat and Voyager only had three of those, one of which was being cannibalized for spare parts after sustaining damage during the Resettlement. Paris was piloting a Type 6, a bare-bones type designed to operate solely in Outer Space. Just two seats and a control board wired to a rocket engine, propellant tanks and a couple of thruster rings, all bolted to a latticework cage to which cargo pods, radiosondes or automatic cannon could be attached to adapt it to any task. Easily modified and repaired, they were the workhorses of Spacefleet.

    The radio circuit crackled with words that Paris recognized as Traben, the language of a long-vanished empire that had once dominated this part of the galaxy. Their language had persisted as a lingua franca that had been put down on hypno-educator tapes by Nee'Lix during a lengthy session with the xenolinguists. Paris still had a headache from all that sleep-learning, but the advantage of Traben was not that it was easily learned (it wasn't) but that it was capable of being pronounced by human tongues.

    "Mr. Paris, we're cleared to go."

    "...where no Man has gone before," Paris muttered. He toggled a row of oversized switches, clasped the pincers of his space armor around the control yoke and eased it forward. There was a noiseless vibration and he was shoved back into his seat as the engine fired. Back home this would all be done automatically, their robot-pilot locked onto a radar beacon, but Federation-standard electronics were not designed for anything out here.

    'This is how flying should be done', thought Paris. 'By the seat of your pants like Father did in the War'.

    As the Array filled his field of vision Paris turned on the landing beacons, the searchlights illuminating the Sargasso Sea of derelict spacecraft. He flew between the vast metal ribs of a gas giant miner, a-crawl with crab-like beings bereft of pressure suits, the blue-white flare of welding torches shining from between their claws. He saw an ocean in space, floating like a bubble inside a transparent globe tethered to the hull with gossamer cables. Swarms of podcraft maneuvered in precise formations like dancing bees. An atomic sun orbiting the Array brought an artificial dawn, invoking nostalgic memories of the ruins of New York City (though that had been behind several inches of leaded glass while their teacher droned on about the evils of global conflict).

    "Over there," said Nee'Lix. A mushroom-shaped dome was positioned clear of the hull on a slender spire. As the shuttleboat neared, it opened like the eye of a giant monster pondering the approach of prey.

    "Ahhh Mr. Paris, we need to slow down..."

    "Relax, my furry friend." Jets flared on the thruster rings and the shuttleboat pitched end-over-end; the classic 'skew-flip turnover' to reverse direction so the main engine could be used to decelerate a rocketship. A long burn and some delicate use of the thrusters brought them onto the landing pad with barely a bump. The dome slid shut above their heads and began to fill with air; silently at first, then increasing in volume as the interior filled with an atmosphere. Paris unstrapped himself and grabbed a hawser cable, only to find there weren't any cleats on the landing pad to fasten it to. Nee'Lix had said that the Array had an 'artificial' gravity—something to do with technology involving 'negative mass' (hadn't B'Elanna mentioned something about that?) but he had not believed it until now.

    The roaring of the vents ceased. Paris checked the dials fixed to the back of his space gauntlet. "Barometric pressure at 11 psi. That's a touch less than we're used to, but not enough to need pressure suits. Synthetic atmosphere consists of oxygen and nitrogen in breathable proportions." 'Well that should make talking to dames easier', he thought. Voyager used an oxygen-helium atmosphere to reduce the risk of fire, but it made you sound like Daffy Duck. He undogged his shoulder yoke and swung back his helmet, making sure to breathe slow and deep to compensate for the low pressure.

    "See, what did I tell you?" said Nee'Lix, struggling out of the shelter balloon with evident relief. "This section is specially adapted for warm-blooded oxygen-breathers like us. Now if you were a lightworlder or breathed ammonia, you'd have to land elsewhere. Why I remember this cytoplasmic life-form who had become somewhat attached to me..."

    Paris paid no attention to his rambling, stripping off the bulky space armor and superfluous magheel boots and stowing them in a container behind the pilot's seat. From underneath the seat he slid out a plastisteel box and released the magnetic seals. Packed inside was a pair of saddle shoes made of genuine Martian leather, high-waisted plasto-textile pants, and a garish shirt fastened with manually-operated buttons that he donned with reverence.

    Freed of his restraints, Nee'Lix loped to the rear of the shuttleboat and rapped a claw on the white transport pod. "Wakey-wakey, everyone! Hibernation time is over!" There was a muffled clunk from inside the pod and the clamshell doors swung upon to reveal a dozen people crammed inside, far more than the regulation six passengers or two stretcher-pods it was designed for.

    "Maybe we should buy a few more shuttleboats while we're here," said Paris, as the passengers untangled themselves. "I'm sure we can fit them on board Voyager somehow."

    He snapped up a salute as Captain Janeway clambered out, followed by Chakotay and TuV'k. All three officers were in full dress uniform: space-black tunic with mandarin collar, white magclip belt carrying a holstered pistol with a gold braid null-gee lanyard looped through the shoulder-boards, trim breeches tucked into highly-polished jackboots; even the peaked officer's cap that was usually worn groundside, and only then under open skies (headgear had long since fallen out of fashion in a society where most people lived in space stations or domed megacities). The other passengers were a far more colorful sight. Spacemen who routinely sneered at the flamboyant fashions of Terra now strutted in custom-tailored zipsuits and polychrome pants, while the girls wore spray-on blouses, titillating glimpse-skirts, and high-heeled shoes that would be dangerous in any city with a slidewalk. Paris gave an appreciative wolf-whistle as B'Elanna stepped down to the deck in a flash of brown thighs, assisted by a helping hand from Ensign Vor'K and (to his surprise) Joe Carey.

    "You look smashing," he said.

    "Thanks," replied B'Elanna self-consciously, though her dress would have been regarded as quite demure on Venus. It had taken several hours of reprogramming to get the ship's mecho-tailor to produce something other than Spacefleet uniforms.

    "Of course, nothing can quite measure up with this shirt," said Paris, puffing out his chest with pride. "This is an exact recreation of a 1954 Surf 'n' Sand Aloha. An American classic."

    Carey smirked at his gay outfit. "If you're wearing that to impress the ladies, Paris, you might as well go back to Voyager."

    "Now that's where you're wrong. You've got to be seen to get noticed, and I plan on getting noticed."

    "Looks like we've been noticed already," said Kim. A rotund cylinder was rising from the center of the landing pad. When it reached a height of approximately eight feet, twin doors inset in its surface slid apart with a hiss of hydraulics.

    "INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT!" Everyone gaped at the metal colossus that clanked into their midst, brandishing an unmistakable cluster of weaponry at the end of its accordion arms. "DO NOT RESIST!"

    "I've seen this vid!" Paris quipped. "Satan's Robot Conquers the World!"

    "An armed autonomous android?" Janeway could not believe her eyes. "What kind of madmen are running this place, Nee'Lix? Who'd be stupid enough to build a robot that isn't subject to the First Law?"

    "The Pralor, actually (it didn't work out well for them). Greetings, my mechanical friend! This is all just a misunderstanding. I speak on behalf of these aliens who are strangers to this sector and our ways."

    "MY SCANNERS INDICATE CONCEALED WEAPONRY!" blared the bot. "ALL NON-AUTHORISED WEAPONS MUST BE SURRENDERED OR SECURED IN YOUR SPACE VESSEL!"

    "I was informed that ship's officers were allowed to carry personal sidearms, unless..." Captain Janeway whirled to glare at the assembled spacers. "All right you ruffians, cough up!"

    Various pocket knives and work tools were produced with a resigned air by the Spacefleet personnel, well used to the ubiquitous surveillance of the Terran Security Administration. The Belters required some coaxing.

    "Jonas, hand over that beam-welder!" demanded Chakotay. "I don't want you getting up to mischief. You too Hogan; these aliens aren't going to eat you. I know you're carrying more knives than that, Seska. B'Elanna, why exactly do you have a micratomic null-gee power-wrench in your purse?"

    The illicit items were locked in the shuttleboat's toolbox but the robot refused to budge from its position in front of the door. The blank silver faceplate shimmered, then resolved into a photophone image of a fat glabrous face with dark beady eyes, tiny ears, vertical slits for nostrils and no neck.

    "I am Overlooker Zet of the Central Hierarchy of the Array," announced the face on the android phone.

    "An impressive title," replied Janeway, who could not help but think she was addressing a giant potato. "I am Captain Kathryn Janeway of the__"

    "Be silent!" barked Overlooker Zet. "Failure to answer the following questions truthfully will result in punitive sanctions. Has any member of your crew been exposed to the Phage?"

    "What's a Phage?" asked Kim. Chakotay nudged him to silence.

    "We have never encountered this 'Phage'," said Janeway, keeping a reign on her temper.

    "Are any of them suffering from space madness?"

    "No more than usual," said Paris.

    Janeway cast a scalding look in his direction. "That's a NO."

    "Temporal psychosis?"

    "No."

    "Telepathically-induced hallucinations?"

    "No."

    "Have any of you been exposed to theta radiation, tetryon radiation, chroniton particles, metreon isotopes, polaric ion energy, electro-kinetic discharges, macro-viruses, biomimetic life-forms or photonic fleas?"

    "I don't even know what any of those are."

    "Have you encountered spatial inversions, temporal anomalies, alternate timelines, sentient nebulas, dark matter life-forms, astral eddies, graviton ellipses, subspace sinkholes, subspace divergence fields or chaotic space?"

    "I make sure to keep well away from them."

    "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Psiborg Collective?"

    "Never heard of it."

    "Have you ever had intimate relations with a Bolian?"

    "Certainly not!"

    "State your business on the Array."

    "We wish to arrange passage to our homeworld."

    Zet raised a thin metallic slab before his eyes and stabbed it with a turgid finger. Colored lights reflected on his face and the slab beeped like an electroptical feedback panel on Voyager's Computer Deck.

    "State your destination," he said.

    "Earth."

    "The next groundside transport is scheduled for__"

    "The planet Earth! Terra, third planet of the Solar System."

    "Which solar system?!" was the irritated retort. "What are the galactic coordinates?"

    "How in Hubbard's name would I know?" said Janeway. "I can give you the spectra frequency of our sun, or local star charts if that's a help."

    Zet had no eyebrows but somehow managed to frown regardless. "Name the sentient species that occupy your solar system."

    "Terran, Martian, Venerian, Jovian, and some nasty slugs on Titan that you wouldn't want to meet."

    More frowning and finger-stabbing. "Those species are not listed in our files. We do not accept stateless persons at commercial docking facilities. Refugees, abductees, or those seeking political asylum may submit the appropriate form__"

    "Now look here, we just want to get home!" Janeway stood with arms akimbo and gave Zet the full force of her glare. "I need to speak to whoever is responsible for passage through your Universal Portal Network."

    "The Caretaker of the Array has many demands on his time. There is a three trikinn waiting period for passage through the UPN."

    "How long is a trikinn?" asked Janeway.

    "It's seventeen nameks," was the unhelpful response.

    It took some time to establish that the Caretaker would not be available for some time.

    "Do you wish to schedule an appointment?" asked Zet, after Nee'Lix and Janeway had worked out between them that three trikinn added up to forty-seven Terran days.

    "Yes," said Janeway wearily.

    "You may return to this docking facility in three trikinn."

    "We wish to enter now, thank you. My crew seeks trade and cultural exchange with the residents of this space station."

    "I have no interest in their personal depravities."

    "Oh, I give up! Just get us inside, Nee'Lix. Tell him whatever you have to."
     
  20. Odon

    Odon Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

    Joined:
    Nov 5, 2001
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    While Nee'Lix and Zet argued away, Voyager's officers sorted out the liberty arrangements.

    "Does everyone have their food tester?" asked Chakotay. "Don't just say, 'Aye, Space Commander'—show them to me." When they had he asked, "Do you all have your credit cards?" Each spacer produced a magnetic-storage card programmed with Traben Imperial Credits, accepted on the Array if not everywhere else. Negotiation of a reasonable exchange rate for a Federation-standard bar of lead-pressed uranium had taken up most of the time they had spent waiting for permission to board the Array.

    "Now show me your communicator." This was a compact flip-open device, similar in appearance to the portable photophones in vogue on Earth but without the myriad features like vidcams or music players that groundsiders regarded as necessary. Spacers preferred the 'bare-bones' model: a rugged voice-only transmitter/receiver/locator beacon with the strength to blast a signal to an orbiting rocketship. "Hogan and Jonas, you're guarding the shuttleboat. Paris and Carey, come back and relieve them no later than four hours Shiptime from now."

    "I realize you're eager to blow off steam after being cooped up on Voyager for so long," said Captain Janeway, "but remember you are representatives of the Three Worlds. For the beings that you encounter, this will be their First Contact with your species. First impressions are lasting impressions, so make sure it's a good one. More to the point, if any of you get us thrown off this space station not only will you spend the next month in rad-suits cleaning the radioactive waste vents, but there will be over a hundred shipmates who will have something to say about being deprived of their own station leave. Now, is everything settled, Mr. Nee'Lix? Good, then tell this walking water heater to get out of our way."

    The robot obediently clanked back into the elevator tube. No-one was in a hurry to follow until Janeway muttered, "Oh for Hubbard's sake!" and dived inside just as the doors began to slide shut—apparently activated by a photosensor as they immediately opened again. Five more spacers followed suit, nervously eyeing the robot's built-in arsenal.

    "What now, Mr. Nee'Lix? Do we push a button? I can't see any."

    "It's voice-activated, Captain. Just say: Promenade, Third Quarter."

    "Promenade, Third Quarter!" The doors slid shut, leaving the others marking time.

    "So just what is a Phage?" asked Kim, to fill the subsequent silence.

    "It's a disease," explained Nee'Lix. "Quite virulent, very nasty. Trust me Mr. Kim, you don't want to know what it does to you."

    "And why shouldn't you have sex with a Bolian?" asked Paris.

    "That's something I don't want to know!" snapped B'Elanna.

    "All right then... what's the Psiborg Collective?"

    Nee'Lix scratched an ear. "Umm... what would you call it in your language: a bogeyman? They existed hundreds of years ago; a radical movement of scientists who experimented with eugenic engineering, artificial augmentation, psychic gestalts... anything they thought would improve their species."

    "Psychic gestalts?" asked Kim.

    "The use of telepathy to join a group of people into a single overmind," explained Vor'K. "A dangerous procedure; the individual can lose their sense of self, whereupon the gestalt takes over."

    "These Psiborgs said that if everyone joined their minds together it would lead to peace and universal understanding," said Nee'Lix. "It was a popular idea for a while, but the authorities didn't like how these overminds were not under their control; started to fear their strength, their influence. They said the Psiborgs weren't people any more; they had become something alien. There were propaganda campaigns, mass arrests, purges, pogroms, until eventually the Psiborg Collective was wiped out. Supposedly they're still lurking out in deep space or under our sleeping capsules, but it's just a story that people like the Caretaker use to crack down on anyone they deem subversive."

    The doors slid open again to reveal an empty elevator and everyone filed inside.

    "Promenade-third-quarter," rattled off Nee'Lix. The doors closed and indicator panels flashed in a downward direction, though they could feel no other sense of movement.

    "So, the lift is controlled by the space station's Electronic Mind," stated Seska.

    "Ahh no. There's a tiny electronic brain built into the maglev car. And that e-pad that Overlooker Zet was using. And just about everything else, really."

    The Russian programmer looked flabbergasted. "You mean to say these people have thousands of electronic minds without central coordination? That is rather inefficient."

    "And you call yourself a libertarian," quipped Paris.

    "I call myself a New Soviet Techno-Socialist, you American shhh..." she trailed off as the doors hissed open and they were confronted by the sight of what lay beyond.

    It was not their surroundings that were unusual. The Promenade was recognizable as the former habitat ring of a Big Wheel-type space station, with bulkheads and collision-doors removed to create space for shops and service alcoves; nothing strange on Terran colonies where disused rocketships were routinely adapted as habitations or power sources. Neither was it the noise or the throng that was overwhelming—even the extraterrans on Voyager's crew had visited the overcrowded megacities of Earth. And every spacer (whether they admitted it or not) cultivated a self-image of being a Citizen of the Solar System, equally at ease on Venus, Mars or Terra. But the inhabitants of those planets all shared the same anthropoid form: one head, two eyes, two arms and two legs. It was only amidst this menagerie of aliens that it sunk in just how far they were from home. The crew of Voyager stood gaping like schoolchildren on their first trip to Luna as Nee'Lix scampered around them, pointing out various life-forms.

    "Those six-legged beings are Ovion, that gillman is from the ocean world of Monea, the avians are Banea, and would you believe those Drayans age backwards? Don't step on that centipede whatever you do—it's from Kelemane's World, which has a high gravity due to its extreme rate of spin, so the inhabitants are stronger than they look! Those reptilians are Voth, a species so ancient they can't even remember where their homeworld is, but I doubt it's any place you've been. Those fellows over there are Ba'Neth (they prefer to keep to themselves) whereas those Ponea are real party animals (that's literally—they're an Uplifted species). No, that's not a brain in a jar, Mr. Paris—it's a sentient sponge in a variable gravity tank. That fellow's a Malon core worker... some Kadi priests... a Mikhal Traveler... she's Ramuran I think (I can't remember anything about them). That huge rock is actually a silicon-based life-form... in fact I do believe it's a famous Tsunkatse gladiator! Those fellows are from Vega and refuse to eat meat, and those are Brenari who are telepathic, and those are Devore who don't like telepaths, and those tripeds over there don't like anyone but we don't hold it against them..."

    A spacesuited figure appeared in their path, features concealed by the yellowish-green gas that swirled inside the helmet. Those closest caught a whiff of chlorine and took hasty steps back. "Long journey ahead?" hissed a voice from the helmet speaker. "I have Rhuludian pills at a very good price. Just one can make days of tedious space travel seem like moments of exquisite rapture."

    "Beware!" Kim started in alarm as he was confronted by the proverbial bug-eyed monster, a misshapen blob covered in a forest of eyestalks that all seemed to be staring at him. "I see the many paths of your future! Seven years of torment await you! Pain, disease and death—lots of death! You shall suffer the agony of unrequited love, the machinations of deceitful women, and you won't get promoted either! Only by embracing the Way of Oooharrchalii will you be saved!"

    "Don't pay any attention, young man. Those psychics are all frauds." An extraterran of the same species as Nee'Lix sidled up to them. He wore a plaid jacket in loud colors from which he fetched a pawful of sparkling gemstones. "Now these are the genuine article! Lobi crystals, plundered by the K'Zon-Nistrim from the Crown Prince of Luria himself!"

    "They look like diamonds to me," said B'Elanna, unimpressed.

    "As if I would try that old crystalized carbon scam on such erudite spacefarers! Well if this doesn't catch your eye, young lady, how about some dilithium crystals?"

    "Can't see why I'd be interested in them."

    "Back off, Wix'Iban! These people are with me."

    "Nee'Lix, you old scoundrel! They told me the Haakonians threw you out an air-lock! I wouldn't hire this fellow as a guide, my newfound friends. He couldn't find his way through the Nekrit Expanse without a map."

    "Ask him if he saw which way the captain went," said Chakotay.

    "If you mean some oddly-shaped aliens like yourselves who came out of the maglevator just before you did, they went to the Junkers Market," said Wix'Iban. "The K'Zon dump their stolen tech there after the Caretaker has finished playing around with it. I would be happy to give you a guided tour, as you are obviously strangers to this region. There are many dealers who will attempt to swindle you, but I can introduce you to the more reputable who (due to personal acquaintance) will offer significant discounts!"

    "To Manhattan with that!" scoffed Paris. "I've only got four hours before I have to relieve Hogan. Where does one get a drink around here, Wix'Iban my man?"

    "Not a problem, good sir! I know a tavern that serves the best leola root beer you'll ever taste!"

    "You can get sozzled if you want," said B'Elanna. "Seska and I are going to check out that Junkers Market. With all those spacecraft being scavenged we might find something useful."

    "I thought you Belters were supposedly to be hard-drinking rockriders," joked Paris, "but all you want to do is shop. I guess women are the same everywhere."

    "So are men," said Seska, her scarlet lips curling in contempt. "If you want to slip away and break the Prime Directive while Janeway's not looking over your shoulder, don't let us stop you."

    "Who me?" Extraterrans of a feminine appearance were gesturing to them from the darker alcoves of the Promenade Deck, wearing gossamer gowns that writhed with the movement of sensuous limbs, or maybe sinuous tentacles... "Now that you mention it," Paris said hastily, "I think I'll go with you after all. Might as well have an eyeball at what jets these aliens have."