Tales of the USS Bluefin "TEN HOURS" Author's Note: It has been two years since I last wrote a sentence about the Border Cutter, USS Bluefin, and her crew. My interests flowed into other areas and, as I recently resumed writing, I have delved into other stories and characters in the vast realm of Star Trek. In observance of the 10th Anniversary of United Trek, a group of writers of which I have the privilege of being a member, I decided it was time to re-visit the aging Border Cutter and tell a tale that goes back to their roots. Hopefully I can still do justice to Captain Akinola and company. This story takes place approximately six months after the events in the (unfinished) Bluefin story, Trajectory. -TheLoneRedshirt Stardate 55088.6 (2 February 2378) USS Bluefin NCC-4458 The First Hour Captain Joseph Barabbas Akinola sipped absently from a cup of tepid coffee as the stars on the main viewscreen streamed past. The Nigerian C.O. was beginning to feel the effects of nearly 24 hours without sleep. The lines that creased the dark skin of his face were joined by pronounced bags under the somber brown eyes. The caffeine merely fueled the acid churning in his stomach and his already sour mood. The Albacore-class border cutter was at yellow alert with first and second watches active. A recent flourish of pirate attacks in the sector had put the Border Service on high alert. Added to the challenge of dealing with the pirate insurgency, ion storm activity was at its highest peak in nearly a decade, making the already treacherous Molari Badlands a frightening maelstrom of ionic bursts and monstrous gravity waves. In the past two days, the crew of the Bluefin had been involved in three rescue efforts of which only two were successful. The loss of the third ship which had blundered into a force-five ion storm, losing power and ultimately its shields, life-support, and the lives of her crew, had been a tough blow for Akinola and his Border Dogs. The cutter rocked as a gravity wave caught them at an oblique angle, eliciting an audible rumble through the ship. A petty officer traversing the upper level of the bridge found himself grabbing the pit rail for balance. “Mind the shear, helm,” ordered the Captain as he expertly steadied his coffee cup. “Aye, sir,” remarked Lt. Bralus, the Bolian helm officer. “Mr. Bane, can we expect more of this?” queried Akinola. “’Fraid so, Skipper,” replied the Australian Operations Officer. “There’s a ripping ion storm off our port bow, bearing 310 mark 28. Intensity is currently force three but conditions are ripe for it to intensify. Chances are high we'll encounter more as we near the badlands.” “Give us a wide berth around the storm, Mr. Bralus. Five degrees to starboard and maintain speed.” “Five degrees starboard, aye.” The Bolian made a quick input into the helm and the cutter obediently responded. The turbo-lift doors opened and Commander Inga Strauss, Executive Officer of the Bluefin, stepped onto the bridge. She received a friendly nod from the handsome Australian at Ops and she returned a subtle smile before stepping down into the pit to join Akinola. “I’m ready to relieve you, sir,” she said. “How’s the ‘weather’?” “Abominable,” Akinola replied. “We just steered away from a force three storm. If we take much more of a pounding, we’ll be the ones needing a tow.” Strauss cocked an eyebrow at her Captain. “Really, sir?” she teased, “That attitude hardly exemplifies the ‘can-do’ spirit of the Border Service.” Akinola stood and rolled his neck as his knee joints popped audibly. He favored the petite Commander with a wry grin. “You’re right of course, XO. Now if you’ll excuse me, your crotchety old commanding officer needs food and a few hours of sleep to get his head screwed on properly. But call me if anything serious comes up.” “Aye, sir. Enjoy your breakfast.” Akinola grunted in reply. Ever since they had lost their cook, Tony Merino, to Starbase 10, he had been forced to eat from a replicator. While not a Luddite, he had a visceral dislike for technology that took over areas of life he considered to be the domain of people, not machines. Food topped that list. As he approached the turbo-lift, the doors opened and Senior Chief Solly Brin exited. The tall, broad-shouldered, red Orion inclined his head as he passed Akinola. “’Morning, Skipper.” “Senior,” replied Akinola. “How are things below decks.” “Ship shape as always.” “Hmm,” murmured Akinola, dourly. “Someone is full of himself.” “Careful Skipper, you’ll hurt my delicate feelings.” Akinola snorted and shook his head at his old comrade in arms. “I didn’t think Orions had feelings.” “Oh, yes sir. In fact, I was hoping you would join me and the other NCO’s in the armory at 1900. We’re having a poetry reading. I understand there will be wine and fermented dairy products.” Akinola took a sip from his now cold cup of coffee, his face expressionless. “That would be cheese, Solly. Man your station, Senior Chief.” “Aye, aye.” The burly Orion made his way to the tactical station as the lift doors slid too with a muted hiss. As the turbo-lift descended, Akinola chuckled to himself. “Poetry. That'll be the day.” * * * Ore Carrier SS Forty-Niner Molari Sector, bound for Klaamet IV Engineer Tyna Miller was worried. For the third time in an hour, the port nacelle nearly went into shut-down as internal sensors indicated a harmonic imbalance in the warp field. She had managed to flush the vents each time which stabilized the problem but only temporarily. Now she was getting master warning lights on the inter-cooler itself. She silently cursed the ore carrier’s owners, The Paleon Consortium, for their propensity to defer maintenance nearly to the degree they also overworked crews in violation of Federation safety statutes. Forty-Niner’s main drive had not seen a proper overhaul in eight years, three years beyond the allotted maximum. It was a minor miracle that they had not faced an inspection stop from the Border Service, which would have earned them several fines, multiple citations, and an involuntary tow to the nearest station. Perhaps it was less a miracle than the fact that their Captain, Hoyt Goertzell, knew every off the lanes short-cut through the sector. Unfortunately, most of these involved traversing the badlands – dicey enough during normal times but downright terrifying during periods of high ionic activity. Like now. The harsh buzz of the inter-ship comm caught her attention. She removed her hearing protectors and moved toward the wall panel, hitting the comm button with more force than necessary. “Miller here.” Captain Goertzell’s voice crackled over the open channel. “Tyna, we need warp six and we need it yesterday. We’re going to slingshot around G-4225 and try to get ahead of this next storm.” The engineer blanched. “Hoyt, we’re about to lose the port nacelle! I can’t push her past warp four.” “Just give me factor six for five minutes. That will line us up with the event horizon of the star’s gravity well.” “If I give you five seconds at warp six the drive will implode. It's a long way to walk home, Hoyt.” “She’ll hold. Make it happen, Miller.” Goertzell cut the link and Miller slammed her palm against the hard gray bulkhead, stinging her palm. “Are you okay, boss?” Miller turned to face her assistant. Thurn was short, even by Tellarite standards. The magnifying goggles he wore gave him a comical, wide-eyed expression. But there was nothing comical about their current situation. “Thurn, I want you to prep the escape pods. I have a bad feeling we’re going to need them.” The Assistant Engineer merely blinked in acknowledgement, then ambled off to do his job. Miller liked that about Thurn – he was spare on words, especially for a Tellarite, but he was damned good at his job. She returned to the master systems display and the myriad controls for both the vessel’s impulse and warp drives. Far too many indicators were in the yellow. Two were already creeping into the red. “Frack,” she muttered to herself. Flipping up two protective covers surrounded by yellow and black warning tape, she gained access to the emergency switch to jettison the warp nacelles and also the control that would eject the warp core, should the worst case scenario appear. Taking a deep breath, she advanced the anti-matter flow and watched as their speed increased. Warp 4.5 . . . 5 . . . 5.5 . . . A warning klaxon sounded and she silenced it, as the trouble it indicated did not fall under the category of cataclysmic. There was a disturbing harmonic in the warp field that troubled her. As the indicator reached warp 6, she activated a count-down timer and set it for five minutes. Miller then closed her eyes and did something she had not done since she was a little girl on Proxima Beta II. She prayed. * * * USS Bluefin Captain Akinola stopped by the main mess hall and stared at the bank of food replicators with disdain. The units were housed where the old galley was formerly located. He missed the smell of cooking food and brewed coffee. The replicators, though efficient, lacked the comforting ambience of the old galley. With a sigh, he ordered scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, grapefruit juice, and coffee. A tray materialized with his breakfast order, complete with faux butter and faux jelly. Faux me, he thought, ruefully. He was beginning to behave like one of those old space-crazy boomers that lived their entire life on freighters and seldom had contact with other sentient beings. “Next thing you know, I’ll be talking to myself,” he muttered. He took his tray and crossed the corridor to the officer’s ward room. Lt. Commander Gralt was already seated before a bowl of what appeared to be strips of a pale vegetable slathered in a red sauce. The strong smell hit Akinola as he entered the room and his eyes began to sting. “God Lord, Gralt, what is that?” The Tellarite Chief Engineer did not take his eyes from the over-sized engineering PADD he was perusing. Through a mouthful of food he replied, “Kimchi. Best damn thing that ever came from your miserable, backward planet.” Akinola eased into a chair at the head of the long table. “Shouldn’t you wear a haz-mat suit eating that?” Gralt turned his porcine gaze toward the Captain and spoke, using his chop-sticks to punctuate his words. “You’re the one that told me I needed to branch out and learn more about other cultures.” The Captain winced. “Yeah, but I was talking about customs and manners, not weaponized food.” The Tellarite murmured something obscene in an obscure Rigellian dialect and returned to reading and munching on fermented cabbage. Akinola suppressed a grin and began to attack his breakfast. He was much-accustomed to the grousing of the crusty engineer as they had known each other for the better part of 40 years and had served together for nearly 30. Gralt had the dubious honor of knowing how to swear in nearly 27 languages, a feat that managed to instill awe in the veteran non-coms of the 7th squadron. Apparently it was Gralt’s only hobby aside from complaining. Noting Gralt’s attention to the PADD, Akinola asked, “How are we doing, Commander?” The Chief Engineer picked up that it was time for ship’s business. He lowered the PADD. “Besides micro-fractures in the nacelle struts, the starboard coolant pump acting like a jacked-up Yarliq on brain blast, and an over-stressed structural integrity field, we’re fracking great.” “That bad?” Gralt snorted in the Tellarite equivalent of a sigh. “Skipper, this is an 80 year-old spaceframe designed for 70 years of normal cruising. How many ion storms have we encountered? A hundred? A thousand? Not to mention taking more than our share of pot-shots from dozens of syphilitic mangy whore-bucket Orion raiders? Misbegotten deities, most of the primary plating on the ventral surface has been replaced because of battle damage.” Akinola nodded. “The Albacore-class was scheduled for retirement and moth balls ten years ago. The Borg incursion, Dominion War, and Talarian Incursion have delayed things a bit. The Sequoia-class ships coming on line will help but they’re not designed to take the pounding of the Albacore cutters. And the Forward-class that theoretically should take the pounding is five years behind schedule. USS Forward is still in bits and pieces at Utopia Planitia.” The Tellarite pondered this. “All true, of course. But keep this in mind . . .” “What?” “One of these days, something really important is going to break and I won’t be able to fix it.” “Let’s hope that day isn’t coming soon, Gralt.” * * * SS Forty-Niner The master display was beginning to look like a lit-up Christmas tree with a multitude of glowing red indicators. Engineer Miller could not recall seeing so many mal-function warnings at one time on the large L-CARS display. “Thurn, did you get the escape pods prepped?” “Yes, but there's a problem.” The young Tellarite replied, tension in his voice. Miller glanced over her shoulder then back to the master controls. “Talk to me, Thurn.” “The ionic radiation readings are much too high for us to launch them. The radiation shielding in the pods is not sufficient. We’ll cook alive if we abandon ship.” Tyna felt the strength drain from her body and she slumped wearily against the console. “Well, damn. That’s it, then. We ride this beast to the end, I guess.” “Sorry, boss.” She forced a smile. “Not your fault, Thurn. Run up to the bridge and see if you can get them to steer this barge someplace where we are less likely to hit a gravity wave and turn into a super-nova.” He ambled off to convey the message. She could have contacted the bridge directly, but that would have escalated into a shouting match. She wiped perspiration from her forehead. The engine room was getting beastly hot and her head was pounding. Best to keep her focus on . . . Multiple warning klaxons sounded and her eyes flew open wide. “Oh, dear God . . .” she whispered. The intercoolers had failed and the port nacelle was now trailing a stream of burning plasma. Making matters far, far worse, the auto shut-down system had failed. Of course it had. Her hand moved of its own accord to activate the nacelle jettison process just as an explosion rocked the ship and she was thrown violently against the console and then the deck. A cry of pain escaped her as she felt the snap of bone in her upper right arm. The Forty-Niner dropped out of warp, still moving at a blinding rate of speed, barely sub-light. To an outside observer, it would make an impressive but frightening sight as the ore-carrier burst into normal space in a bright flash of Coriolis radiation. A streaming plume of plasma burned white-hot in its wake. The ship itself had lost steerage and was at a severe 20 degree yaw relative to their flight path. Debris from the disintegrating nacelle sparked and tumbled in the ship’s wake like small fish following a whale. Gritting her teeth against the pain in her broken arm, Miller stood on the canted deck, the gravity coils obviously damaged and mis-aligned following the explosion. She staggered to the master control panel and her breath caught. There was a breach in the warp core containment field. Her mouth dry, she managed to croak, “Computer, how much time until containment failure?” Thankfully, the ship’s dull-witted computer was still on-line. With its typical, slow deliberation, it finally replied, “At current rate, catastrophic failure will occur in nine hours, seventeen minutes.” Cradling her injured arm as best she could, Miller moved to the warp core ejection control. Reaching into the recessed compartment, she grabbed and pulled the red handle, turned it ninety degrees, and drove it home. “Warp core ejection sequence enabled,” announced the computer. “Input command authorization code.” “Chief Engineer Tyna Hayes Miller, authorization Sierra Four Nine Tango Six Five Five. Eject, eject, eject!” Flashing red lights pulsed in the engine room. A cloud of coolant filled the warp core chamber. Miller felt rather than heard the report of the explosive charges that should have sent the core out into space and away from the ship. But though the warp core wobbled in the transparent aluminum chamber, it did not exit the ship. “Warning, malfunction to core ejection system. Outer hatch failure. Warning, malfunction to core . . .” The message repeated three times. Miller felt light-headed and there was a buzzing in her head. Part of her realized it was likely the onset of shock. Part of her realized she was hearing her death sentence. “Computer, provide update to estimated time of warp core breach.” After a moment’s pause, “Eight hours, thirty two minutes until catastrophic warp core breach.” The malfunction had cost them a little less than half an hour. Not that it really mattered. Feeling dizzy and nauseous with pain, she managed to make it back to the com panel. “Bridge, Engineering, anyone up there?” There was a crackle of static but no reply. Inter-ship communications were down. Fracking typical. Since there was a good chance the captain and helmsman were incapacitated following the explosion, Tyna decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. Fortunately, she could access the subspace transceiver from engineering. Staggering back to the control station, she sank heavily into a chair. Black spots formed before her eyes. There was a first-aid kit on the bulkhead, but first things first . . . She paused as one of the displays caught her eye. "No," she breathed. "No, no, no . . ." The display indicated that four of the ship's six life pods had launched. Whoever was on board those pods were already dead. "Aw, damn you Goertzell . . ." Tears traced down her cheeks. The Captain was hardly a close friend. He was stubborn, abrasive, and a cold-hearted bastard. But he was a shipmate as were the others, now most likely dead, cooked alive in tiny spheres of tritanium. But what of Tharn? He was too smart to have jumped ship. Hell, he was the one who picked up on the high ionic radiation levels. Surely he would have warned the bridge crew and the others? The explosion must have prevented him from reaching the bridge. Miller wondered if he was alive but perhaps injured. Right now, she had other pressing matters to attend to before searching for him. Activating the sub-space com system, she was relieved to see the first green indicators in her field of view for the past few hours. Adjusting the controls to all frequencies, she began to broadcast . . . “Any ship, any ship, this is the ore carrier Forty-Niner out of Delta-Vega. Our ship is disabled. We have casualties and are facing a warp core breach in about eight Solar hours. Any ship in range, please respond, our situation is desperate. Please help us!” She set the message to repeat and attempted to stand but fell back in the chair as her vision faded to black and she slipped into unconsciousness. To be continued . . .