Star Trek: Pioneer
Rating: R (For language, sexual references, and Sci-Fi violence)
Aligning the Chakras
The tradition of shipbuilding is one of the few things that systematically and consistently searches for the perfect balance of science and art. Science and mathematics produce structure, propulsion, and aesthetics. The art of shipbuilding is more a reflection upon the crews that endow a ship with function, efficiency, and that most elusive and enduring soul.
-Master Shipwright Vice Admiral Koichi Otoma
SCE Handbook 1st edition 2210
USS Pioneer: Cove system
The refit was going well, but the progress was far slower than Eddie liked. Tylan was doing her best to speed things along, but there was only so much she could do before he had to break out his tools and start working instead of supervising.
“I’d rather have you with me while I go over these things,” she told him as he slung his tool belt over his shoulder on his way out of his office.
“Why? Everyone’s grown accustomed to you by now,” he said absently.
“It’s your timetable,” she reminded him.
He turned to face her with a wide smile on his face. “Last I checked it was shot to hell,” he chuckled.
Tylan stamped her foot in frustration. “They’re blaming me for that!”
She was about to say more when he placed a finger to her lips and made a shushing sound. “I’m not,” he said quietly. He watched her expression soften from hard lines of strain to one of the newer emotions she’d gradually allowed herself to show in the last few weeks. It was one of relief mingled with a dab of self-satisfaction. He withdrew his hand from her lips and shrugged. “It’s a big job, Ty,” he reasoned, “if anything must go wrong, I’d rather it be the schedule over the end product. Agreed?”
She made a disgusted smirk he found both shocking and adorable on her pretty face. “Agreed,” she sighed. “What do I do when everyone blames me for a delay?”
“Let them,” Eddie said matter-of-factly. “Just don’t let them get so overwhelmed they stop thinking through the problem.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Delays don’t equate to failures,” Eddie explained. “So long as they finish the work, they’ll be satisfied with their efforts. If they lose that, this girl’s never getting out of here.”
Tylan’s mood turned sullen. “That still leaves me with a bunch of shit dumped on my head every day,” she grumbled. She was growing profane now that she could express her emotions. He found it cute.
Eddie wanted to say he’d make it up to her, but he had no idea how he could do that. She was vulnerable at the moment, and she was likely to get the wrong impression if he made such an offer. Eddie felt he owed her more than that. In the last few weeks she’d told him her story, and he had to admit she’d been grossly taken advantage of. Her parents, M’rath, and the Tal’Shiar had expected nothing short of complete obedience from her, and she’d dutifully complied for all of her sixty-five years. It was about time someone offered her the unconditional friendship she deserved, he reckoned.
There was another part of him that felt a deep longing for her. Tylan had always struck him as somehow… fractured. There were parts of her that managed to peek through her dispassionate veneer for years though he lacked the understanding to recognize the full extent of it. He had been, and still was, drawn to her. He sensed she needed a friend. Since she was an attractive woman to boot, it was easy to confuse his feelings with amorous desire. Lust wasn’t something he trusted in himself, so he did his best to squelch it.
Eddie’s romantic life wasn’t something he was proud of. He’d had the occasional girlfriend, but they always left him for someone else just about the time he felt a deep connection forming. Over time he’d developed the notion the problem was with him. He was a forgiving man after all, and he didn’t like to think less of the women he felt so deeply for. Tylan was the only woman so far he’d managed to forge a relationship with that he trusted wouldn’t come back to hurt him.
“What could I do to make you forget about it?” he asked cheerfully.
Tylan stared at him for a long time before answering. Was there something she wasn’t telling him? Finally she made a defeated sigh and said, “Rub my feet when you come back.”
He nodded. “Sure thing,” he said. On impulse he kissed her forehead before marching out the door. He missed the stunned expression on her face as she watched him go.
He made his way to deck 2 and surveyed the progress there. “Erratic” was the best way to describe the tangle of structural supports, power conduits, network nodes, and hull plates that was supposed to be a finished deck plan three weeks ago. The problem was they had to string the new twelve-phase conduits through the ship, but all their equipment ran on the old two-phase power. As a result, they were building temporary lines throughout the ship to fabricate the new sections, and then stripping them out once they were close to being finished. Also the replicators were being pushed to the limit fabricating hull plates, structural braces, and all the heavy materials they needed. Compounding the problem was all the new hardware they were making to adapt to the new power grid. It was enough to make him regret ever having made the suggestion of a refit to the Captain in the first place, but there was no stopping the project now. At least they would have a first rate ship once they worked all the kinks out.
“Koon to Gordon,” his com badge chirped.
He tapped it, “Go ahead.”
“The antimatter just arrived,” Koon informed him.
Eddie breathed a sigh of relief. The antimatter could simplify things immeasurably. With the new core working, they could stop all this nonsense of the temporary power grid and work apace with the new grid. “Not a moment too soon. I’ll be up shortly.”
When he arrived in the hangar, he wasn’t surprised to find Hurst and Forte discussing the mission next to the shuttles. He was a little surprised to find Kree talking to Cabrillo. Rumor had it the two were romping. Scenes like this only added fuel to the fire.
He was about to move past them into the first shuttle when Kree stopped him. “Did you look at the headdress, Commander?” she asked.
“Headdress?” he asked irritably.
“The feather headdress we found on Cove-3,” Cabrillo explained.
“I don’t have time for archaeology,” Eddie muttered, and moved to step inside the shuttle again.
Kree stopped him and produced a silver feather. “It was made of these,” she explained.
“While it’s well-crafted, Lieutenant, I don’t see why…”
He trailed off as Kree crushed the feather in her hand, twisted it viciously, and then allowed it to return to its normal shape. The feather looked just as delicate and unblemished as before. “We thought this might be useful if we could understand why it’s so tough,” she explained. “Armor this light and this resilient would be invaluable I should think.”
Eddie took the feather from her with renewed interest. He examined it carefully, and flexed it gently in his fingers. He tried twisting it apart, pulling off parts of it, and crushing it like she had, and still the feather returned to its original shape. “I see,” he said thoughtfully. “This is a thorny development. What’s this made of?”
“Silver,” Cabrillo said, “I scanned it to make sure.”
“Silver isn’t this resilient,” Eddie protested.
“I know,” Cabrillo said.
Eddie considered the feather in his hand for another moment before pocketing it. “Thank you both,” he said. “I’ll see if we can’t learn something from it before long.”
He could see it wasn’t the answer they wanted from him, but he had more immediate problems to solve. He moved past them and quickly pulled the antimatter hopper out of the shuttle. He scanned the contents of the device briefly before handing it off to a chief to take down to the new core. He did the same with the other shuttle and emerged to face a beaming Dr. Cole Spaulding.
“I trust you found the antimatter to your specifications,” Spaulding gloated.
“Not a bit of it is cracked,” Eddie replied referring to the habit of antimatter to revert to matter by “cracking” into plasma. “Thank you, Doctor.”
Spaulding continued to stare at Eddie as if expecting him to say more. Finally the man broke down into a disgusted smirk. “Ingrates!” he snarled before storming off.
On impulse, Eddie stopped him. He produced the silver feather. “Could you examine this more carefully, Doctor?” he asked.
Spaulding was incredulous. “Why?”
Eddie repeated the demonstration Kree had shown him and watched Spaulding’s interest climb. Arrogant or not, Cole Spaulding had an acute sense of curiosity and the intellect to produce answers to the questions he posed. “There’s no reason why this should be so resilient. It’s only made of silver,” he pointed out.
Spaulding took the feather and repeated the punishment. “Fibrous structure, interlocking mesh, and yet the texture is preserved along with malleability,” he reasoned aloud. “This could be a heretofore unheard of forging technique.” He stroked the feather thoughtfully before adding, “We could build the ship out of this stuff.”
“Silver?” Eddie said unconvinced.
Spaulding shook his head. “You’re an engineer, Commander. You should know if silver was forged to this strength, other metals can be as well. I’ll look into this at once.”
The scientist made his way out of the hangar.
Eddie pushed the thought of the silver feather out of his mind. He had a warp core to start up. The two hoppers of antimatter amounted to about one and a half times what he needed in the strictest sense, but he’d have preferred more. The new core was not all that well understood yet.
It took about an hour to fill the antimatter tanks around the new core since the feed lines were all linked to the large buzzard scoops on the noses of the main nacelles outside. There was also the added complication that the new core didn’t have a single tank like the old linear core.
The old core was the simple vertical column standardized in Starfleet for almost two hundred years. Antimatter was fed into a dilithium crystal about halfway up the core and combined with a trace amount of matter to produce a release of energy that was channeled up and down the column producing the two phases of power that ran the ship from top to bottom. It was a design refined over the years to a peak of efficiency and output, but it had its flaws. The two phases of power were interdependent in the warp drive. The disruption of the field in one phase caused the failure of the other in short order. Eddie had redesigned Pioneer’s core to produce a more fluid field. Primarily what he’d done was to allow the output of one phase to make up for a draw on the other so that the disruption on a single phase simply caused a draw on the other phase instead of collapsing the field. It worked fairly well, but only up to a point.
The new twelve phase core was a new beast entirely. Before his demise, Lieutenant Commander Garrett had come to the conclusion the most efficient engine in nature (and thereby the most stable) was the hurricane. There was much credence to his thoughts. Hurricanes drew and dispersed massive amounts of energy once they stabilized into a recognizable structure. If they could continue to draw energy from the space around them, they could continue to function in perpetuity. The hexagonal storm at the north pole of Saturn was firm evidence to support this notion along with the corellas storm over the south pole of Vulcan’s primary gas giant of Khush. Designing a warp core that operated on this structure had never been attempted. Garrett had worked through the details, found a few points of inspiration from Gordon’s modifications to the existing warp core, and produced a masterpiece.
For the first time, they would have a three-dimensional output from the core instead of simple straight lines. Energy would be vertical, horizontal, and in depth as well as rotate in all axis.
Eddie had taken the added precaution of linking the outputs from the old core into the new one just in case there was a need to bolster the reaction.
As impressive as the new core sounded, it was surprisingly small. The old linear core had taken up fifteen decks and was three meters across at the reaction chamber. The hurricane core was a meter and a half across and a hand span thick. In fact this was three times the size of the original design Garrett had produced. Eddie and his engineers couldn’t quite fathom such a small dynamo powering a ship the size of Pioneer, and had studiously gone back to the drawing board to pad their figures to an acceptable comfort zone.
Eddie took his place near the controls. “Everyone ready?” he asked.
A series of “Aye-aye’s” circulated around the room.
He keyed the first sequence.
Inside the core three rings of dilithium crystals began to rotate opposite to one another. Another crystal, barely two points of a carat in mass, began to spin wildly in the middle of where the “eye” of the hurricane would form.
He checked the gauges carefully before keying the next sequence. Antimatter was injected into the central crystal along with a trace amount of matter. The familiar blue glow of an antimatter reaction filled the room as the new core began to power up. He watched the gauges again and was shocked at the output he was seeing. “Increase power to the rings,” he ordered. The three rings’ alignment was crucial to this core and the output from the central crystal was starting to disturb them.
Satisfied with the reaction, he started the next sequence and fired up the outermost ring. The deck thrummed with a pleasant vibration as the second ring began to produce energy. Eddie glanced through the top of the reactor and saw the familiar shape of a storm forming inside. He checked the gauges again and was satisfied all was alright. He keyed the next ring.
The output from the core quadrupled instantly. The thrum through the deck was replaced with a roar not unlike standing behind a rocket engine. This was a shock. The alignment of the crystals began to waver. The meters indicated they were beginning to descend into the central crystal which would mean a breach.
“Full output from the core to the alignment grid!” he shouted above the din.
He watched his battered, often repaired, barely functional linear core flash to life in a massive pulse of hot white energy. He knew it didn’t have the fuel for a burn like this, but the new core had to stabilize. He watched the alignment grid waver, and solidify for just an instant before he keyed the final ring into life.
The gauges instantly pegged themselves to redline as the output jumped by an unheard of six orders of magnitude. The roar was replaced with a loud BANG. The deck jumped under his feet sending him two meters into the air along with everyone else in the room. He landed in a heap on the controls just as the old core coughed, popped, and went dead.
He stood up cradling his arm which had taken a nasty crack on the console and surveyed the gauges. His ears were ringing from the din so it took a moment to realize the room was quiet. To his astonishment, the output from the core remained exponentially high. He checked all the twelve phases and saw each was producing more energy than the old core had ever hoped to give. The crystal alignment had sorted itself out once the proper balance had been struck and the input feeds to maintain the hurricane had automatically powered down to a negligible level.
Eddie felt awed. He sent a silent breath of thanks to his old, regrettably gone subordinate. Garrett had been irritating, lazy, and a constant trial to command, but his genius had produced this amazing thing. He looked with wonder down into the core as the eye of the hurricane opened. The churning energy inside the core began to settle down into the lazy swirl of a cyclone. Blue-white tendrils of energy resembling cigarette smoke emerged in the core as the reaction began to normalize. Everyone around the room drifted towards the core to gaze at the spectacle of it. The sight stirred a primal curiosity in all of them, and they stared, amazed and afraid, at the unfolding spectacle of light and turbulence before them.
Emily Blackburn was the first to speak. “Beautiful terror,” she sighed.
“Amen,” the others said softly.
The next day Okuma demanded a status report on the refit. She’d been out near Cove-9 and missed the activation of the new core so a fresh perspective was in order. She examined the new core and it was a striking sight, but the tumble-down condition of the ship was alarming. Everything was behind schedule. She demanded Gordon and Tylan present themselves in her quarters (her office was demolished never to be rebuilt) and was pleasantly surprised when Spaulding and Koon decided to attend.
The news was not what she’d hoped for.
“We’ve drained the old core starting up the new one,” Eddie explained.
“Does that pose a problem?” she asked. She was under the impression the old core would be set aside once the new one was up and running.
“Initially no,” Eddie admitted. “We can strip all the two phase conduits in short order and start powering up all the new systems we’ve installed so far.”
“It’s a safety issue that worries us,” Tylan pointed out.
“The new core’s not safe?” Okuma asked. Surely that wasn’t the case.
“If it continues to work we’ll be fine,” Tylan said.
“But we’ll never get it started again if we need to shut it down without the old core,” Eddie explained. “I can rebuild it so we don’t have to burn it out next time. Bear in mind it was low on fuel to begin with. With a proper primer of antimatter, it would operate flawlessly.”
“But we don’t need it!” Okuma protested. “We can’t cram that thing back inside the new design!”
Tylan and Gordon exchanged a satisfied glance. “We may have a solution to that,” Tylan said.
“Garrett didn’t expect we’d need a separate source of power to operate the new core, but he did design another core just the same,” Eddie said.
“Go on,” Samantha snapped. She was growing impatient with this.
“Garrett designed a new linear core for the shuttles that if we scaled it up would work perfectly,” Gordon said.
Samantha stared at Eddie before turning her astonished gaze to Peyter. “I can’t believe he’s telling us this, Captain,” she growled.
Eddie didn’t let Koon reply. “I can build it in less than a day,” he offered.
“How much power do you need?” Okuma almost shouted at Gordon. “You’ve spent the last three months telling me this new core will solve all our problems and now you’re telling me we need another one?”
“Garrett didn’t expect the new core required so much energy to get started,” Tylan repeated.
Okuma stuffed down her temper before allowing herself to speak. “No,” she snapped. “Build the rest of the ship and get us underway before you start frittering your time away on another gadget.”
“We’re going to need it,” Eddie protested. “If the new core needs to be shut down…”
Samantha cut him off. “Don’t shut the damn thing off then!” she barked angrily. She turned her attention to Koon. “You can’t expect us to swallow this one, Captain.”
Koon turned thoughtful. “It’s a risk,” he said at length. “But I see your point, Commander. We can’t stay here tinkering with the ship forever.”
“But, Captain!” Eddie pleaded.
Koon raised a hand to silence his chief engineer. “Voyager can’t wait forever, Mr. Gordon,” he said flatly. “They’re taking just as many risks to get home as we are to find them. We must advance the schedule some if we expect to be of any use to them.”
“Aye, sir,” Eddie said sullenly.
Satisfied she’d made some progress, Okuma moved on to the next point. “How is the deck plan moving along?”
Eddie and Tylan exchanged another glance. This one was anything but amused. Tylan was about to speak when Eddie beat her to it. “We’re a month behind schedule.”
“Six weeks,” Tylan corrected.
Samantha was too stunned to be angry. She cast a shocked stare at Koon and saw he was just as surprised as she was.
“It’s the old design,” Eddie explained. “The structure isn’t matching what we’re expecting to find under the bulkheads.”
“We have a full set of schematics from Utopia Planitia,” Okuma protested.
“And they are all WRONG!” Tylan snapped angrily. “I’ve covered them exhaustively, and almost every print of the interior is markedly different from what we’re finding.”
“Such as?” Koon asked.
“Lattice frames where structural ribbing should be, stressed skin hull plating where there should be structural fields, and power conduits where there should be utility lines to name a few,” Gordon muttered. “Most of this wouldn’t matter if we were talking about a compartment or two, but the refit is all across the ship. My people have been griping for years about the little stuff around here, but now that we can see under the bulkheads, I’m shocked we ever made it out of Martian orbit. We’re several thousand tones overweight and nothing like what our design should be.”
“Well,” Koon said slowly, “this is only the third ship of this class out of the yards.” Thinking aloud he continued, “Matter of fact this was launched ahead of schedule. USS Phoenix was supposed to go into service before us, but Captain Shivek rewrote the mission requirements for this class during the shakedown cruise of the Nebula. We wound up getting out of the yards before Yoyodyne finished working out the kinks in the Phoenix. All this could be a symptom of that process.”
Okuma decided to sidestep this alarming news and move onto the next issue, “What about building the new design?”
“We’ve been occupied with demolition work for the most part,” Tylan said. “We have main engineering and the hangar completed, but that’s about it. It’s a lot of heavy work we needed to get out of the way, but most of those compartments are just open volumes of air surrounded by armored bulkheads.”
Okuma glared at Tylan. She didn’t trust the Romulan woman even if Eddie and the Captain did. A woman in her position could sabotage their efforts easily.
She was about to point this out to Koon when Spaulding spoke up. “Perhaps I could offer a solution,” he said with a broad smile. His cheerful demeanor derailed the escalating argument by sheer force of surprise.
“Like what?” Eddie asked.
Spaulding held up the silver feather Kree and Cabrillo had found on Cove-3. “The structure of this feather is perfect, Commander,” he almost leered. “Strong, light, and easily replicated. I promise you this could be an invaluable asset.”
“How so?” Eddie asked.
“This material isn’t forged, it’s spun.” Spaulding produced a PADD. “The feather itself is made up of tiny filaments of spun silver. The filaments are formed much along the lines of ordinary proteins. Those structures are combined into microscopic, three-tined hooks that interlink and help align one another. I’ve never seen a structure this perfect since I examined Tholian textiles under a microscope.”
“Does that include the quill of this feather?” Koon asked.
“That’s even more interesting,” Spaulding gushed. He brought up a magnification of the quill on his PADD. “The silver is structured into another protein along the quill that automatically shifts to the feather protein once it’s separated from the surrounding material. This stuff is better than memory wire. Whoever forged this to begin with figured out a way to make the material itself know what it was supposed to be.”
“Do you know how they did it?” Koon asked.
“That’s something I was hoping Commander Gordon could explain,” Spaulding admitted. “Honestly, I was hoping he could show me this process in action.”
Eddie studied the data carefully. Tylan stepped up next to him. Much to Okuma’s annoyance, Eddie slipped the Romulan woman in front of him and peered at the PADD over her head while he drummed his fingers thoughtfully on her shoulders. It was a gesture entirely too intimate for Okuma’s liking.
She preferred Eddie maintain a professional distance from the woman, but it wouldn’t be the first time she’d find herself frowning at the clownish ways of her Chief Engineer. It was safe to say she would have made the life of Lieutenant Commander Edmund Gordon intolerable if she’d had her way all these years. It was the one sour part of her relationship with Koon. Peyter had entirely blocked her from imposing her will on the Engineering staff. She knew her Captain intentionally kept Gordon away from her. While she considered this terribly unfair and unprofessional, Peyter never told her why he gave Eddie preferential treatment. She considered it a slap in the face, but she couldn’t bring herself to resent Peyter for it. He had a way of turning on his considerable charm when he saw her growing upset. Typically anything she brought up with him that he didn’t allow her to deal with, he resolved more or less to her satisfaction by himself.
Faintly she noticed Tylan’s expression. The woman’s face showed stark confusion that only drifted towards blank incomprehension the longer she studied the data. Tylan started casting glances at Spaulding and Gordon that betrayed her growing disbelief.
Okuma saw Gordon nodding. His eyes danced with new ideas as more and more of the feather’s structure became apparent. Having only recently shot down one of his wilder ideas, she was miffed she had to confront another in such a short span of time. “This’ll never work,” she muttered.
Koon turned thoughtful. “Your thoughts, Eddie?”
“The tooling for this would be a cinch!” Gordon exclaimed. “One low-power replicator could spool out this stuff by the ton while we formed it into what we want.”
“That doesn’t sound very strong, Eddie,” Tylan said with a frown.
“We can make this work,” he insisted.
“Are you sure of this, Doctor?” Koon asked sounding doubtful himself.
“Dr. Totem concurs, Captain. This method of fabrication could save weeks of time and make the ship immeasurably stronger,” Spaulding promised.
“This isn’t the time to start toying with the design!” Okuma protested.
Gordon shook his head. “This would integrate the structure and the hull to an unheard of degree, Commander,” he said. “In terms of fabrication it means we only have to make one kind of material instead of replicating separate parts of the hull and structure. One man could have a compartment the size of crew’s quarters done in an hour. It takes five of my people all day to finish a room.”
“Proceed,” Koon ordered.
“WHAT?” Okuma blurted.
“I’ll get started right away,” Eddie said. He turned to Spaulding. “Would you come with me, Doctor?”
The two men left the room merrily chatting about the new process.
“This is a mistake, Captain,” Tylan said.
Koon shook his head. “Have a little faith, Lieutenant. Commander Gordon wouldn’t lead us down the wrong path. He would stroll down a longer one with more scenic vistas perhaps, but not the wrong one.” He smiled.
Samantha noticed his hair again. It was almost entirely iron gray now. Was the stress getting to him?
He nodded to Samantha and Tylan and made his way out of the room.
“We have to stop this,” Tylan said once he was gone.
For once Samantha agreed with the Romulan, but she was slowly resigning herself to the inevitable. “I’ve tried to overrule Gordon for several years, Tylan. The Captain never takes my side on engineering issues.”
“He just took your side about the linear core,” Tylan pointed out somewhat petulantly.
“Only on the timing,” Samantha said. “Eddie will get to build the new core in due time. If it were up to me he’d forget about it.”
“The computer core isn’t reliable enough to handle this yet,” Tylan insisted.
Samantha glared angrily at the Romulan woman. “Tough shit, Lieutenant,” she snarled. “If it were up to me you’d be in the brig or off the ship. With that in mind, who do you think has the credibility to stop Eddie from wasting as much time as he likes?”
Tylan regarded her impassively for a long moment. “I will obey your orders, Commander,” she said calmly. There was anger bubbling beneath the surface of the words, but there was pain as well.
Samantha felt a bitter rush of self-satisfaction knowing she’d stung Tylan in any way. “Fine,” she said coolly, “then either talk Eddie out of this madness, advance the schedule, or fix the computer core. Dismissed.”
Tylan got up to leave but hesitated at the door. Without turning around she asked quietly, “Commander, what has M’rath told you about me?”
Samantha saw no need to sugarcoat the truth. “He said you were provided to him by the Tal’Shiar to tend to his ‘needs’ as he put it. You were his designated concubine if I read him right.”
Tylan stood stalk still for a long time before leaving without a word.
The three figures shimmered into existence atop a 300-meter tall dune crest. The eastern horizon was only just beginning to show the first signs of dawn, and the air was cold and still. Koon and M’rath kept a careful eye on Heartshock as the bulky alien surveyed his surroundings.
Heartshock drank in huge lungfuls of the desert air. His keen eyes picked out the distant peaks of mountains surrounding this place. The tops of those peaks were dusted in golden sand instead of snow despite a chill down here in the basin that made his breath come out in clouds. “This is Sanctuary,” he confirmed. “There is no other place I know of this arid.”
“I see,” Koon said with a smile. “That’s reassuring.”
Heartshock stretched his bulky frame instantly sending the diminutive M’rath into a tense fighting stance. He laughed. “No need to worry about me attacking you, Lieutenant. I’m simply glad to have a chance to use up as much space as I can. My cell isn’t anywhere near the size of my former lodgings.”
He strolled a few steps away from Koon and M’rath along the crest of the dune admiring the deceptively smooth texture the surface of the abrasive sand presented. “Why did you bring me here, Captain?”
“I thought you might like a chance to stretch your legs, Heartshock,” Koon explained.
It was a point of some annoyance Koon never addressed Heartshock as “My Lord” or “Lord Heartshock.” As one who felt entitled to such courtesies, the Hirogen grew angry. “I will accord you the privilege to explain your insolence but once, Captain. Why don’t you acknowledge my station?”
Koon’s brows shot up in surprise, but he didn’t answer immediately. After a long moment of consideration he admitted, “I come from a nation plagued with despots, Heartshock. I was taught to revere the Tzars and dictators from history when I was a child, but my father never saw a use for them. He would tell me about Peter the Great and Alexander II in terms of what it meant to our family. Every one of those men who felt it was their birthright to be better than my ancestors did their best to exterminate us to further their ambitions. My family has had less and less use for “great men.” Stalin nearly wiped us out during the Battle of Moscow. My great-great-great-great grandfather Anatoly watched all fourteen of his sons killed by commissars before they could raise a hand to defend our home against the invaders. He moved to the frozen mountains of Siberia to escape them and taught his new family to admire the man in front of you for the worth he demonstrated not what he claimed was his due.”
“I’m not sure I follow this ‘commissar’ business. Should I feel insulted, Captain?” Heartshock asked.
“Chances are you will be insulted no matter how I phrase it,” Koon admitted with a chuckle. “But the fact of the matter is you are not measured by your social standing on my ship. You will be accorded whatever esteem you demonstrate yourself to be worthy of.”
“I’m a prisoner,” Heartshock pointed out.
“You were planning to kill my crew,” Koon shot back. “I would earn a place in Hell for ignoring that.”
“A place reserved for fools,” M’rath added.
Heartshock considered his place in that structure carefully. He had to admit Koon was being generous to a fault by allowing him to live at all. Furthermore he didn’t have the obligation to explain himself to Heartshock. It slowly dawned on the Hirogen the extent to which Koon was willing to set aside his first impressions. Had their positions been reversed, Koon’s skull would be displayed in a case. “You’re about to offer me something,” Heartshock declared. “You wouldn’t have brought me here if that wasn’t the case.”
M’rath’s stony expression cracked a trifle to expose a brief flash of surprise. Koon’s expression turned serious.
“Very perceptive, Heartshock,” Koon admitted. “We’re about to travel into the Delta Quadrant. I’m willing to admit our knowledge of the region is next to nothing. I’d like to grant you a place on my crew if you’d agree to serve as a guide.”
Heartshock stared at Koon. “Guide?” he asked quizzically.
“You are a hunter,” M’rath pointed out. “You do have guides in your society?”
Heartshock stared at the two men for so long they realized he had no idea what they were talking about. “I’m unfamiliar with the term,” he finally admitted. “Is this some form of diplomat?”
Koon and M’rath exchanged a dazed glance. “It can be,” Koon said. “More to the point we want you to tell us what to expect and how to get where we’re going in the fastest and safest way possible.”
Heartshock’s mind still didn’t quite grasp what he was being asked to do. “Is this some sort of tracking you speak of? Are you looking for something in the Delta Quadrant?”
“In a manner of speaking that’s exactly what we’re saying,” Koon said.
“Planets and stars aren’t hard to find, Captain. I don’t see how you would need me,” Heartshock admitted.
“We’re not looking for a planet or a star. We’re looking for some of our people,” Koon said.
Slowly Heartshock understood the full magnitude of what he was being asked to do. “I can’t grant you safe passage through Hirogen space, Captain.”
“Pity,” M’rath sneered bitterly.
“Is there a way around your space, Heartshock?” Koon asked.
“Depends on where you’re going,” Heartshock allowed.
“Is there a way we could buy our way through Hirogen space?” Koon asked. He had no way of knowing either way so he figured it wouldn’t hurt to offer that option.
“No,” Heartshock said flatly. “The Clans barely speak to one another let alone to outsiders. Even if I were able to settle a deal with my own Clan, I’d never be able to make the others agree to a uniform price. They might barter for my life, but I have rivals that would just assume I die.”
“Is the situation really that chaotic?” M’rath asked incredulously. His orderly Romulan mind was appalled at what Heartshock was telling him. It was one thing to go into the Delta Quadrant through unknown space, but it was quite another to sail headlong into anarchy. Even when he was plotting against the Federation, the Tal’Shiar knew they did so in an orderly manner so as not to create a mess they would have to clean up once their plans bore fruit. What his Imperial masters did was statecraft set to the tune of crisis. The Tal’Shiar could operate against the Federation knowing full well humanity and its allies would respond as a nation-state. If what Heartshock implied was true, there would be no way to understand the Hirogen except in the laborious face-to-face, individual method. It was a strategy doomed to attrition. M’rath knew as well as Koon attrition would destroy Pioneer before they got anywhere near Voyager.
Heartshock chose to ignore M’rath and spoke to Koon. “These people of yours… where are they exactly?”
“We know they were passing through Ak’Ar space a few months ago,” Koon explained. “I’m not sure you’d know of them.”
Heartshock allowed himself to express the shock he felt. His eyes went wide, and his hands fell limp at his sides. “How did they get out there?” he asked in stunned disbelief. It was unimaginable that one of Starfleet’s ships had arrived in a place so deep inside the Delta Quadrant without the Hirogen eliminating them. From what he knew of Earth, any vessel from that place would have spent several decades dodging clan after clan of Hirogen. It was unheard of they would have survived let alone remained obscure enough for him to be oblivious of humans.
“Long story,” Koon sighed. “The short version is they arrived on the far side of the Delta Quadrant by a way we can’t duplicate, and they’re making their way back home.”
Heartshock nodded. The elements of what Koon was asking settled into his mind. He knew the humans were overly sentimental, but he had no idea it was quite this strong. Since he’d always framed his exploits in terms of a hunt and the attendant glory, he shifted the facets of what was needed to suit a hunt. By any measure it would be difficult. Even with the Hirogen net, finding a ship (large or small) wandering blind through space would be the challenge of a lifetime. It would require traversing territory he’d never seen and never studied in detail. Several of the Clans would bar the way. Those pesky Borg would have to be dealt with at least a few times. The grandiosity of the task appealed to him.
On the other hand he’d have to live and work with this crew for the rest of his life. They would insist he change his ways to suit them rather than the other way around. He wasn’t sure he could do all that. “May I have some time to consider your offer, Captain?” he asked.
“All the time you need, Heartshock,” Koon said. “For the time being I thought you might like to have a little time alone.” He tossed Heartshock a com badge. “We’ll call you when it’s time to go. Be sure to contact us if there’s anything you need.” Koon motioned to a satchel on the ground. “This should be enough food and water for a few days. If you need more, don’t hesitate to get in touch.”
Heartshock shook his head in amazement. “You are the most interesting prey I’ve ever encountered, Captain. I’ve never had someone I’ve shot at be so generous to my needs.”
Koon smiled. “That’s just the thing, Heartshock, I need far more from you than the sum of my blood.” He waved a farewell, tapped his com badge and transported away.
M’rath remained behind. “Consider the offer, Heartshock,” he urged.
“You of all beings should know what I’m capable of, Lieutenant,” the Hirogen warned. “It’s not like this is a simple shift of allegiance to another clan.”
“I know full well what you are,” M’rath said. “You’re a wild animal. I might add you’re the kind who isn’t one to be tamed. The Captain and I disagree on this point.”
“You don’t think he should’ve given me this offer?”
M’rath shook his head. “Captain Koon has more faith in you than I do, Hirogen. I think we’d be better off leaving you here, but he won’t allow it.”
Heartshock smiled. “You could kill me right now,” he pointed out. “The Captain is a forgiving man. I doubt you’d suffer for it.”
M’rath nodded. The Romulan looked suddenly exhausted. “It’s what I should do, but that would deny you a rare gift, Heartshock,” he sighed.
“What would that be?”
“That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself,” M’rath said. “In my case it was a chance to live as myself and not someone else.” He took a deep breath and let it out in another great sigh. “The strange thing is the Captain values who I am even now.”
“Meaning he has a use for you,” Heartshock pointed out sharply.
M’rath nodded. “True enough, but I don’t believe he would discard me if he didn’t find a niche for my skills.”
“What do you believe?”
M’rath shook his head. “I don’t know. I really don’t. Most likely he’d find something I could do until I figured out something I was content to apply myself to.”
“I’m a hunter,” Heartshock pointed out.
M’rath brightened. “We’re on the hunt for something. Show us the superiority of your skills, and I promise the Captain will make full use of them in the years to come.”
The Romulan tapped his com badge and transported away.
Alone for the first time in weeks, Heartshock surveyed the dunes again. He took a deep breath, picked up the satchel, and began running for the tallest mountain peak in the distance just as the sun peeked over the horizon. He’d give the Captain his answer once he reached the summit, he resolved.
Eddie was half right as it turned out. The tooling for the new material Spaulding had dubbed fibercore, was a cinch to produce. The production of hull plates, decking, structural ribbing, and all other parts of the ship’s shell could be accomplished with one small replicator and about half a dozen form machines. The replicator could be small and simple because its sole products were long strands of millimeter-thick threads of pure fibercore. These strands could be fed into what were essentially high-tech looms. The looms could produce any shape from large sheets to thick cables and tubes of the fibercore. From there the raw product was taken from the fabrication shop. Since the raw product was pliable as cloth, lugging the fiberercore forms around the ship was no more complicated than folding and unfolding the rough forms. From there the forms were set in place, and cut to size with a precision plasma cutter. Next the fibercore was quenched into its final shape. It amounted to heating the soft forms to a near molten state, and then cooling it off slowly. This could be accomplished with simple structural fields modulated into precise shapes.
It took a team of sixteen engineers a day to complete deck 1. That belied the fact it had taken thirty engineers working in shifts a week to demolish the old deck plan. By the time they started on deck 2, the entire engineering staff was confident the new hull design would be completed barely a week behind the projected timetable.
That left the outfitting of the ship as the one snag in getting Pioneer flying again. While the new twelve-phase power harness wasn’t hard to install, the computer core and network was not working as hoped. Barring the laborious task of shifting personal belongings and equipment from compartment to compartment to allow room for construction, the computer core was the single most labor-intensive, and by far most ambitious, project on Eddie’s plate. The physics of the new core were understood well enough in abstract, but nobody had ever constructed a twelve-phase power computer core on this immense scale. Designing it had taken half the scientists and all the computer specialists every waking moment since they discovered what the specifications would be. Some were convinced it would never be completed, but would remain a work in progress for the rest of their careers.
Indeed the term computer “core” was misleading. The projected design wasn’t expected to be constructed for at least a year while it was modeled and tested on a smaller scale. Instead the computer team had decided to build several small nodes to be placed strategically about the ship and networked via data leads that would serve as the new core’s network once it was completed. It sounded entirely feasible at first, but the nodes were crashing with increasing frequency as the demand on them ramped up for operations. Eddie was resigned to this sort of trouble, and was confident it would be worked out in time. Computer science was more art than science at this level, and no amount of ball-busting would iron out the trouble any faster.
Tylan was not so sanguine. Day after day she pressed the computer specialists to make headway, and day after day they insisted there was nothing but time that could solve their problems. After her discussion with Okuma, she resolved to sort out the impasse herself. She returned to her lab and spent sixteen hours modeling the various components. Then her node seized up and crashed. While the data was intact, the delay only demonstrated how far they had to go. Exasperated, she returned to Eddie’s office for her shift coordinating the various projects around the ship.
She found Eddie awake and annoyingly buoyed by the day’s progress. “Morning, Ty,” he greeted her cheerfully. He cast a skeptical eye over her. “Didn’t you sleep?”
With a disgusted grunt she brushed past him and settled in for another long day of fielding questions. She sat there for several minutes when she noticed the intercom was surprisingly quiet. “Did the intercom crash?” she asked with an irritated humph.
Eddie stared at her carefully before answering. “What have you been doing?” he asked.
“I asked you a simple question, Eddie!” she snapped. “I’m trying to do my job here and you’re wasting time trying to chat.”
Eddie was taken aback by her temper, but he composed himself quickly into a concerned expression. “Things are running fairly smooth since we finished the looms,” he said patiently. “Most of what I’ve been working on all day is the network and the power hub. The demo crews are still creeping along, but feeding junk in to reclaimers isn’t all that complicated. Most of those guys are just resigned to sorting out a mess anyway.”
The intercom on the desk chirped. “Mixaz to Commander Gordon.”
Chief Mixaz was the head of the demo crews. “Speak of the devil,” Eddie muttered. He leaned forward and tapped the intercom. “Go ahead.”
“We’ve found something. You must come and see this.”
Eddie sighed. “Want to field this one?” he asked her.
Tylan looked away. She was tired, angry, and in no mood to be reasonable.
Eddie keyed the intercom again. “I’m on my way,” he said and shut the panel off.
He turned to her. “Get some rest, Ty,” he ordered.
“There’s too much to do,” she said sullenly. She moved to turn the panel back on when his hands snaked over her shoulders and began rubbing. Tension she was scarcely aware of uncoiled from knots in her neck and upper back as if by magic. Eddie moved expertly from one knot to another until she slumped into the chair and let her head loll against his forearm.
“Don’t think you’re not appreciated, Ty,” he said reasonably. Tenderly he stroked the soft skin of her neck with his fingers. “You’ve earned a break.”
“Shi hetch mana joxha, pick,” she muttered drowsily. Shut up and fornicate with me, you fool.
Eddie cocked his head quizzically to the side. “I’ll never win an argument in your language, Ty, so I’ll just agree with you.”
Tylan giggled. “Gla hoo?” Is that so?
She was about to explain herself when he did something unexpected. He kissed her lightly on the lips. Her eyes which had begun to drift shut, popped open in surprise. “Why did you do that?” she demanded quietly.
“Been dying to do that for years,” he said flippantly. His expression grew thoughtful. “To tell you the truth I’ve been having these dreams where you kiss me in my sleep. I was curious how it would feel.”
Tylan felt a stab of panic. Maybe Eddie didn’t sleep quite as soundly as she thought. He slipped his hands off her shoulders and moved for the door. On impulse she blurted, “So how did it feel?”
He pivoted on his heel and flashed a charming smile. “Effortless,” he said.
Tylan was suddenly indignant. She slipped her shoe off and flung it at him as he darted playfully out the door. It bounced off the bulkhead and he could hear his good natured chuckle drifting back up the corridor as he marched away. After a time she felt secure enough to allow herself a laugh. It felt good. Furthermore it felt even better to reflect on the kiss he’d stolen. She wasn’t sure how she would broach the truth with him, but she was confident it could be managed now that he was almost in on the game. A few more steps and he would claim her. She allowed a brief fantasy to play out in her mind how that might play out. Her experience with men was extensive to say the least, and she was wondering how she might mollify his fragile ego. All men had fragile egos after all, and it was the duty of a woman to accept them both intellectually and physically. She hoped he wasn’t the type that became belligerent in bed, but she was besotted enough with Eddie not to care. She’d have to step carefully around him if…
“Step…” something tickled at the back of her mind. “Intern step…” she said distantly. Where had she heard that?
In a flash of recognition it dawned on her: “Totem!”
“So what the hell are they?” Koon finally asked.
Eddie opened his mouth to answer, shut it when nothing came to mind, and gave a hopeless shrug. “I wish I knew, sir,” he said with a disgusted sniff. He used his Cockney accent to better emphasize his dilemma. “Fookin’ widget’s draw’n nuff’ juice to pull the sun outada’ sky tho’.”
“They’ve been aboard since Mars, I take it?” Koon asked.
“Would they have anything to do with the structural differences you described earlier?”
“’Twould explain a lot, yes,” Eddie admitted. “The power these things process has a different amplitude than that of the rest of the grid.”
“Have they been exposed to the new grid?” Koon asked.
“I’ve had this section offline since the Hirogen attack, Captain,” Eddie said looking both relieved and grim. “I think it was Heartshock himself who beamed in a few compartments over that way.” He motioned off to his right vaguely.
“The function of these devices has to do with networking and power,” Chief Mixaz asserted.
“I’ll take your word for it, Chief, but networking what?” Koon asked.
The Ro engineer slapped his hands on his thighs in his peculiar form of a shrug. The young alien had a doleful expression permanently etched on his face thanks to his exoskeleton. It was accented by a bright blue line etched into the red bone as a symbol of his exile from the Ro homeworld. The rough equivalent of a tattoo for the alien. Mixaz had applied for this mission right out of technical training on Jupiter station, and begged Koon to take him along. He’d been expelled from his home as a heretic, and rather than seek forgiveness he wanted to indulge his curiosity about the wider galaxy. The Ro disapproved of curiosity on some vague spiritual doctrine. While the race was respected, there was no denying they were the most reticent species in the Federation. Intensely private and widely regarded for their technology, the Ro had made a name for themselves building ships for Orion, Andorian, and Tholian firms for hundreds of years. Still they were so insular that contact with them had only happened twenty years before despite their home being located along one of the busiest trade routes in the Alfa quadrant.
Mixaz turned out to be a thoughtful engineer. He thrived on intricate problems that took patience and application to sort out. Usually Gordon had the Ro working in the clean room fixing things that everyone else was too exasperated to deal with. In his spare time Mixaz read histories, star charts, and listened to concerti. He’d been the first to point out to Eddie there was something strange about Pioneer’s structure two years into the mission, but even Mixaz didn’t see a reason to tear the ship apart to figure out why.
When the opportunity to demolish the old frame had come along, Mixaz’s curiosity demanded he be a part of the process if for no other reason than to figure out why Pioneer’s design was so odd. Even Mixaz was shocked at just how extensive the discrepancies were. Even so he’d discerned a pattern as he worked patiently away destroying his beloved home in exile. He’d adjusted the demo timetable to get to the root of the matter and discovered the devices that he’d called Gordon up to see. They were so unexpected Gordon had called the Captain in for a look.
Buried in the bulkhead were two large, lozenge-shaped devices of a type he’d never seen before. There was something distinctly unsettling about them even at first glance. To begin with: they both looked filthy. The dark metal of the devices had a dull, oily finish that reminded Koon of cockroaches, excrement, and garbage. Next they had distinctly insectilline architecture. The structural ribbing around the casing was jointed like the legs of a spider and the shape itself resembled a cocoon. Ribbons of sickly green light traced the objects in hexagonal patterns that reminded her of terrestrial honeycombs. Thick chords of conduits wrapped around the bottom and top of each device. Given the slimy appearance of the devices themselves, the jumbled mass of lines resembled anacondas wrapped about each other in a mating ball.
“Its design has the mark of Starfleet,” Eddie said idly. “I scanned the materials and came up with where they were refined. The plastic came from New York, and the metals came from Detroit. Much of the more exotic stuff came from Sri Lanka and Malaysia though I can’t pin it down much further than that. My guess is it was built on Earth, possibly Trieste Station or McMurdo in Antarctica, and transported to Mars while the ship was being built.”
“If they were bombs, they’d have been detonated by now,” Koon reasoned.
“So what are they doing here?” Eddie asked.
“It stands to reason we were meant to take these as far away from the Federation as possible,” Mixaz said quietly.
Koon shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Until we know what they’re for, put them in a class 2 storage container and keep them completely separate from the controls of the ship.”
“Expecting these to come back to haunt us, Captain?” Eddie asked. “It’ll take half the day to build one of those this size.” A class 2 storage container this size would be a headache anyway. Primarily used for biological and hazardous wastes, there were few things as resilient as a class 2 container.
Koon nodded. “Yes I do expect these to haunt us, but until I know why I want them in my pocket instead of floating around for someone else to figure out.”
Dr. Totem fussed about his lab absently while Tylan waited for him to recognize her. It was the good professor’s habit to shut out the outside world while he was working through a problem. He’d made it clear in the past few years he expected others to understand this. So when Tylan stepped into the lab she wasn’t surprised to see the reptilian alien stooped over an experiment, deep in thought, and hissing thoughtfully to himself.
Tylan stood quietly in the doorway. The fastest way to break through to Totem when he was in such a state was to simply wait until he reached a stopping point. This strategy sometimes backfired. Dr. Spaulding once spent two days camped out in Totem’s lab waiting for the slightest recognition, but normally it took a few minutes. This time it took half an hour before Totem raised his head from his work.
“Hello, Lieutenant,” he lisped.
“You mentioned an intermediate step to help with the computer core transition, Doctor,” Tylan announced. It was better to get right to the point with Totem since he was fiercely conservative with his time.
To the professor’s credit he could shift gears with remarkable speed. He nodded half a dozen times to himself before he gave one definitive shake of his head as the proper project came to mind. “Is the core ready for it?” he asked.
Tylan was too tired to beat around the bush. “The new core’s nowhere close to completion. We’re working on the network, and even that’s causing trouble.”
Totem broke into a wide smile. “Perfect! We’ll be permitted an added experiment at this juncture.” He marched across the room and produced a small box from a cabinet. “Install this at any node of the network. I’ve adapted the power to accept twelve-phase links. Depending on the condition of the node it should take only a few minutes to integrate it.”
Tylan took the box and opened it. The object inside confused her. “What is it?” she asked. It looked like a head of cabbage made of metal and dotted with lights.
Already distracted by another project, Totem waved her absently from the room. “It’ll help,” he said.
Tylan was at a loss. She examined the device carefully. The output jacks were labeled well enough so installing it was self-explanatory. Just what its function was though was not. It had to be some sort of processor due to the nature of the outputs, but if so it was enormous. Puzzling as it was, she had no reason to doubt Totem. The professor was reliable to a fault. He was the one person aboard who never fell short of his duties. If he said he’d done something, it was done above and beyond what was required. With a sigh, she closed the box and made her way to the computer compartment.
She never understood where the human tradition started, but she’d never stepped into a den of computer science without feeling some of society fall dead at the threshold. Pioneer’s computer staff were all eccentrics. Some were painfully shy, others were loudly opinionated and at odds with reality; all of them were men. None of them were exceptionally popular with the rest of the crew. They lived in their own little world day after day, and shut all others out.
The ones Koon had recruited from the outset had been some of the most reclusive in Starfleet. They were a team, but everyone from Koon on down had to approach them with care. To a man they were priggish and stiff with outsiders. Even Eddie didn’t quite know how to deal with them. They filed reports couched in jargon so obscure nobody could decipher them without a painful migraine. They routinely derided the errors of the rest of the crew when they were asked to fix a problem. Nobody enjoyed dealing with them, but there was no denying they were masters of their art. Of all the things that had gone wrong with Pioneer the computer core had been as solid as granite for seven years. Problems were usually in the operators, not in the hardware or software.
Tylan stepped inside the door and immediately noticed the dimmed lighting. This too was typical of the computer science cult, and she found it irritating. Tired and stressed she saw no reason to pander to these men. “Gentlemen!” she snapped.
A dozen eyes glittered out of the dimness. Half of them stared at her with undisguised lust. Nobody responded to her beyond that even though she outranked all of them.
“I have some hardware for you to install,” she announced. She proffered the box.
The eyes shifted in unison to the object. They all gained a childish glint of greed. She could read their expressions as if they were of one mind. They all wanted to play with the new toy. One of them snatched the box from her hands and opened it. The others clannishly huddled around him peering inside. “This is a posatronic brain,” one of them announced with evident shock.
“Impossible,” another sniffed. “We haven’t built one.”
“Dr. Totem built this,” Tylan explained.
The assembled technicians groaned in unison. In an instant they were babbling jargon to one another like chattering birds. She swore they adopted an accent when they did this. All the consonants grew harsh and flat and all the vowels were muted. It was something between a Chicago accent, and a Texas drawl. And I trust these guys with a posatronic brain! She marveled.
She was about to interject an order to get started when the computer scientists went to work. They plugged in the brain and placed it gingerly on a rickety table. They continued to babble about letters and numbers until a new voice softly interjected over the speakers.
“Hello, how may I be of service?”
The computer scientists went silent in apparent shock.
“Who is this?” Tylan asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” the voice replied politely. “What is my function?”
“You are to assist the crew of USS Pioneer,” Tylan explained. “You are to perform the primary functions of our computer core until we can fabricate a new one.”
The voice paused thoughtfully. “It is my understanding I am the core processor of this network.”
The computer scientists began babbling in their jargonese making their own more concise explanations to the brain. One by one their attention gradually drifted to the workstations around the room, and they fell silent. Before long they were working frantically.
“I will be the primary control of USS Pioneer,” the voice announced. “I will perform the upper functions of the computer net of this ship. As such, I am the ship. Therefore you may call me Pi. What can I do for you Lieutenant Tylan?”
Tylan was taken aback. Was this gadget self-aware already? “You can start by introducing yourself to the crew.”
The voice modulated slightly. It gained a distinctly feminine quality. “Is there anything else?”
“So far as I’m concerned, anything you can do to advance the timetable for this refit would suit me just fine,” Tylan muttered flippantly.
“What is my long term mission?” Pi asked.
“You need to talk to the Captain about that,” Tylan said.
“Pi,” Koon said thoughtfully in his quarters a moment later. He rolled the name around trying it on like a new garment. “I like it,” he announced with a smile.
“I was instructed to ask you for my mission,” Pi explained.
“We are to find and recover the crew of USS Voyager. You will apply yourself to that problem at every opportunity, Pi,” Koon said patiently.
Pi was quiet for a long time. “May I make a confession, Captain?” she said at length.
“I find this task… unsettling,” she admitted.
“Then you’ll allow the crew and I to take the lead on this matter,” Koon said.
“Thank you, Captain,” Pi said. “However, I must admit I should be capable of the mission alone if you desire to return to Earth.”
Koon laughed. “Tempting, Pi, but I think you’d be terribly lonely if I did that.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Pi said. She sounded genuinely relieved.
Koon paced around his quarters wondering what Pi could offer him the old computer core couldn’t. He found it impossible to believe she rendered the entire crew obsolete, but about all she couldn’t do was offer practical experience for such a dangerous mission once the ship was complete.
“May I ask what you are thinking, sir?” Pi asked.
“Just wondering how to best utilize your abilities, Pi,” he explained.
“I’m not sure about that either, sir.” Pi managed to sound apologetic.
“Then we’ll have to discover your thresholds,” Koon announced. “Let’s begin.”
The next few days saw the refit kick into high gear. The fibercore solved the fabrication problems for the hull and structure. The warp core solved the power output, and Pi solved the computer problem. Eddie was thrilled to watch three decks completed in one day. By the end of the week the ship was taking shape again. Pi was saving everyone hundreds of hours a day not only by doing the hard computations needed to complete the design, but also acting as a sort of apprentice to everyone involved. Unlike a computer which could only do precisely what you told it, Pi had intuition and imagination. Where Eddie used to have to feed in a detailed list of parts into a replicator for a job, Pi could predict what he would need and have it ready for him. If she could manage it, she could even have it delivered to him wherever he was around the ship. She didn’t so much take over the refit as much as she harmonized it perfectly. The brain could interact with everyone aboard simultaneously, and thus Tylan’s old role as the refit coordinator vanished overnight.
Tylan in the meantime was outfitting her new lab in Engineering. She spent much of her time producing and testing new hardware models for the new power grid. Ironing out the kinks instead of juggling the simple construction was more to her inclinations anyway. While the data for a twelve-phase power grid was available, it had never been tested on this scale before. As always, the gap between theory and practice left much to be desired. It occupied every bit of her time for twenty hours a day.
Eddie in the meantime found himself troubleshooting all over the ship. One of the advantages of refitting the ship to this totality was resolving trouble spots before they were buried in the bulkheads. Among other things, Eddie spent a full day redesigning the water recyclers when it was discovered they had a troublesome habit of turning a portion of the water into vapor. This could have turned Pioneer into a swamp before long, but he was able to remedy the problem in hours instead of the weeks it would have taken to dig all the hardware out of every compartment in the ship.
While the ship grew inside the golden cave, Pioneer’s scientists scoured the Cove system with a new urgency. Knowing it was only a matter of time before they all had to load up and leave, they darted about the dangerous belts of explosive gasses collecting data. Half a dozen of the shuttles scattered to the nearby stars to investigate the systems there.
The pace of activity was so energized, the crew somehow managed to forget the danger lurking outside the Cove system.
“No mistaking it, Captain,” Lieutenant Commander Green announced. “That’s one of Pioneer’s shuttles.”
Captain Semmes felt a large weight lift off her shoulders. Pioneer had to be nearby. All that was required was to follow the shuttle back to her prey and her mission would be completed.
For once, Commander King was skeptical. “Any sign of damage? They might be wandering around lost.”
Green peered at his instruments carefully. Finally he shook his head. “Possible but unlikely,” he declared. “They’re doing a standard survey of this system. I might add they’re being mighty thorough about it. That doesn’t exactly shout out disorientation.”
Lieutenant Commander Dar Moth studied the scanner activity carefully. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was their astronomer Cabrillo doing the survey,” he said with a wide smile.
Semmes was about to snap at Dar Moth to keep his opinions to himself, when King interrupted her thoughts. “Tactical, what’s that?” He indicated a blip on the fringe of the system. It faded as soon as he pointed it out.
Lieutenant Bo Lien shifted his attention to the sector. “I’m not detecting anything there, Commander… wait!” The blip teased the sensors one more time before vanishing again. “Contact of some sort. They’re masking their sensor outline in the heliopause.”
“Science?” King demanded.
Green reviewed the sensor logs carefully for a moment before turning back to Semmes. “Possible Hirogen hunter ship, Captain.”
Semmes was surprised. “How did we miss that?” she snapped.
King deflected her anger by asking, “What led them out here?”
Green and Bo Lien glanced at each other before turning back to their stations. Green was the first to throw up his hands and admit he didn’t know. Bo Lien hesitantly admitted he didn’t know either a moment later.
“Tap the Hirogen net and check our perimeter,” Semmes ordered. She wasn’t anxious to be surprised like Admiral Ward and the Constantine. The news of the battle had shocked everyone aboard especially Angela Semmes. Sitting inside the mighty Diocletian for all this time had made her so secure, she felt inviolate. After all she had the firepower, speed, energy, armor, and stealth to handle anything imaginable.
Or so Angela thought.
The stunning information that a swarm of undisciplined Hirogen had crippled one Caesar-class dreadnought and destroyed another was a notion she’d met with disbelief initially. As the reports continued to filter in, Angela began to reevaluate her odds in a pitched battle. She could inflict telling carnage on the Hirogen, but their numbers could eventually do considerable harm. If the Hirogen managed to band together against her, Angela Semmes would be in for the fight of her life.
“I suspect they’re looking at the shuttle, Captain,” Green announced. “The Hirogen net hasn’t said a thing about us or Pioneer.”
“A target of opportunity?” King asked.
“It would fit their pattern,” Dar Moth speculated.
“The Net indicates there are about a dozen Hirogen heading in this general direction, Captain,” Green reported. He didn’t add they were following the Diocletian’s approach vector more or less. Since they’d followed Pioneer’s trail out here, there was no telling what the Hirogen were looking for until they started chattering on the Net. So far it was quiet today. An unnerving change to be sure, but Green was in no mood to report it for fear of being rebuked.
The tactical image flickered for a fraction of a second, and the Hirogen vanished.
“Where did they go?” Semmes demanded.
Before anyone could reply the shuttle cruising around the system exploded.
Green and Dar Moth frantically scanned their instruments.
“WHAT HAPPENED? WHO DID THAT?” Semmes screamed angrily.
Green slowed down the explosion. There! He transferred the data to the main viewer. “What you’re seeing, Captain is slowed down to milliseconds.”
He went on to explain. The Hirogen ship appeared at high warp outside the heliopause of the system. A few seconds ahead of the ship there was an energy surge denoting a transporter beam. The Hirogen ship whizzed by the shuttle barely an arm’s length from a collision; crushing it in its wake. “It would appear they beamed off the crew before they knew they were anywhere nearby,” Green concluded.
“That’s strange,” King said thoughtfully. “Why go to the trouble?”
Semmes smiled. “Gnan,” she concluded with relish. “He took our bait after all.”
King was quick on the uptake. “We could follow them to Koon,” he reasoned.
“I concur. Mr. Green, find that ship. Mr. Dar Moth, plot a trailing course,” she ordered. “We’ll finish Peyter off if Gnan fails us.”
To Be Continued
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