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By David Mack
Pocket BooksCopyright © 2004 David Mack
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"U.S.S. Lincoln to Vulpecula, the Arch-Merchant has dropped out of warp again. Let's circle back on impulse and see what's broken this time."
Second Mate Wayne "Pappy" Omthon muttered a curse and shut down the Vulpecula's warp drive. The freighter shuddered and the lights on the cramped bridge flickered as it shifted to impulse.
Pappy turned the command chair to face the sensor console and get a fix on the Arch-Merchant, wincing at the chair's squeak. He'd get it oiled as soon as he had time.
The image on the screen was fuzzy, so Pappy slapped it with the flat of his pistachio-green hand, a practiced maneuver that instantly, if temporarily, cleared up the image. He'd earned the nickname "Pappy" by being far younger than the captain and most of the crew serving under him, a point he was still defensive about. But he prided himself on knowing the ship's quirks as well as any old-timer.
The Arch-Merchant was venting plasma coolant. Pappy sighed, ignoring the sensor display, which had gone all fuzzy again. "That ship," he announced, without a trace of irony, "is a piece of junk." He slapped the sensor display again, then put in a call to Captain Rivers in her cabin to advise her of the situation.
Rivers was, as he'd expected, mildly drunk. The captain instructed him to use his own judgment, and not to call her again unless there was a core breach. Pappy grunted as the intercom screen went blank, then set a reverse course. It was business as usual.
Both the Vulpecula and the Arch-Merchant were privately owned freighters operating on the edge of former Cardassian space. The fall of the Cardassian Union and the aftermath of the Dominion War had thrown the region into chaos, creating lucrative new trade opportunities, and new dangers as pirates and raiders moved in.
Federation starships were spread thin and overworked, so freighters often formed small, impromptu convoys for mutual protection and safety. Pappy didn't fear the danger much, but he was just as happy when they were transporting some cargo important enough to Federation interests to warrant a starship to escort their convoy.
On this run, the two ships carried power station components, Cardassian war salvage from abandoned bases now needed to rebuild Cardassia Prime. If Pappy found it ironic that the Federation was paying to ship Cardassian war materials to restore Cardassia, he never would have said so. It was exactly the sort of situation a tramp freighter captain lived for. It was Pappy's ambition to buy the Vulpecula from Captain Rivers one of these days. His share of profits from this run would be one more step in that direction.
If they ever got to Cardassia.
"Vulpecula to Lincoln. How long are we going to be delayed this time?"
One of the secondary viewscreens cleared, and the angular features of a human Starfleet officer appeared. "This is Captain Newport. Shouldn't you be addressing that question to the Arch-Merchant?"
Pappy grinned, he hoped not too much. "Since it's my guess your engineers will be doing the repair work, I thought you'd know best."
Newport chuckled. "My chief engineer is putting together a repair party right now. We should know more after they beam over. Tell me, why is it -- " He hesitated. "How to put this politely?"
"I won't make you ask the question, Captain. The Arch-Merchant is a corporate ship. She looks clean and sharp for the stockholders, but she's lucky to make it out of orbit without shedding a nacelle. We're a tramp, and independent. Our ship looks like the rattletrap she is, but we keep the important systems in top shape, appearances be damned. Most of the time, we're all we've got out here."
Newport nodded. "Well, thanks for being the less troublesome part of this mission." He glanced to one side. "Looks like the Arch-Merchant managed to plug the plasma leak on their own. Uncommonly resourceful of them. Now if we can just -- "
The screen went blank. No static, no interference, no sign of a problem on the Federation ship. It just went blank. Startled, Pappy glanced up at the main viewer. He could see the Arch-Merchant's plasma cloud, a tiny smudge against the darkness, glowing in reflecting starlight, but the Lincoln was gone.
He slammed the intercom panel. "Condition red, all crew to emergency stations. Possible hostiles incoming!" Then, after a moment's hesitation, "Captain to the bridge."
He knew the result of that last command: the captain would at least attempt to sober up first. If he was lucky, he might see her on the bridge in an hour or so.
He hailed the Arch-Merchant. "Did you see what happened to the Lincoln?"
The reply was audio only and crackled with static. The voice was high, tinged with incipient panic. "No, Vulpecula, our sensors are down too. Are we under attack? We can't see anything. We're dead in space! Don't leave us!"
"I'm not leaving anybody, but I'm busy here. Save your questions and send out a distress call for me, will you?" Pappy closed the channel and turned his attention to the sensor screens. No hostiles, no radiation or debris, no cosmic storms, nothing that would account for the Lincoln's disappearance.
He reviewed his own sensor logs, replaying the event. The Lincoln vanished, without violence or explosion. He slowed down the replay, then slowed it again. He squinted. The Lincoln didn't just vanish. It was as though it had run into an invisible rift in space and been swallowed. A wormhole? He shook his head. He should have picked something up on sensors.
He heard the bridge doors slide open. The Vulpecula was highly automated, and the tiny bridge had only two stations. The second was staffed only during shift changeovers or critical operations such as docking. Or during emergencies, so he wasn't surprised to hear someone slide into the seat behind him. He was surprised to catch a strong odor of Saurian brandy.
Turning his head, he caught the captain's eye.
"Carry on, Pappy. I took a handful of stims, but she's still your ship for now." She tapped the controls to activate her station. "Just tell me what you need."
That explained the smell. The stims were burning the alcohol out of her system. Pappy tapped at the command console, transferring information to the secondary station.
"The point at which the Lincoln disappeared is on your sensor display. Run a detailed scan on the area in front of it. Look for anything unusual." Pappy ordered all stop, and kept his distance. If something had pulled the Lincoln in, it wouldn't do to be pulled in as well.
The secondary consoles chirped and beeped as the captain entered commands. Finally she looked up at him, her dark eyes red and tired, but sobering by the minute. "There's something out there, a discontinuity, like somebody blew an invisible bubble and the Lincoln just ran into it."
Pappy frowned, his sharp eyebrows drawing together into a vee. "How big a bubble?"
The captain consulted her displays, rubbed her eyes, then checked them again. "I'm reading a sphere a hundred kilometers across. We just missed running into it ourselves." She sighed. "This is trouble."
"Our convoy partner is disabled, we're facing off with an invisible threat the size of a moon, one that just took out an Intrepid-class starship without firing a shot. Yeah, that would be one definition of 'trouble.'" He tapped the thruster controls.
It was the captain's turn to frown. "What are you doing?"
"Getting in closer," he replied. "Somebody may need rescuing."
The U.S.S. da Vinci was a small ship. Even with a limited crew of about forty, its interior was crowded and cluttered by Starfleet standards, a situation not improved by the preponderance of engineers in its crew. In general, they were pragmatic about their use of ship's spaces. It wasn't unusual to see someone overhauling environmental suits on a briefing room table, storing salvaged alien propulsion components in a corner of the transporter room, or playing Andorian Juggle-ball in the shuttlebay.
Lt. Commander Kieran Duffy could even remember a time when all the corridors of deck six had been briefly converted into a miniature golf course, complete with holographic windmill. The exception to all this madness, by unspoken consent, was the mess hall. Not that it was reserved solely for eating, not at all, but it was reserved for quiet conversation, reading, social gatherings, and the occasional spontaneous musical interlude. No plasma torches, no alien artifacts, and no extreme sports allowed.
That was why Duffy liked it there, why it was the place he retreated when he needed to work or think, when his quarters became too cramped or lonely. The lights were kept low, the dark maroon chairs were inviting, and the clusters of small tables fostered quiet conversation. It was the da Vinci's living room, the place he came to bask in the feeling of family, and be reminded why he really liked having one of the few private cabins on the ship.
He'd picked a choice seat for himself near one of the scattered windows, where he could watch the stars, and ordered a quinine water from the replicator. Leaning back in the lightly padded chair, he put his feet on the table and sat back with an oversized design padd propped up in his lap.
He'd just gotten comfortable, opened his work space, and managed to move exactly one line in the display when he sensed someone standing behind him, and a very familiar scent of herbal shampoo. Commander Sonya Gomez leaned into his field of view, looking at the padd.
"What're you doing?"
He pulled the padd protectively to his stomach. "Nothing. Just doodling."
Gomez glanced at the table, and Duffy hastily put his feet on the floor. "That was a starship. You're doodling a starship?"
"Pretty elaborate doodle. How long you been doodling?"
He sighed and lowered the padd back to working position. "Six months."
"That's some doodle." She leaned closer, her body nearly touching his shoulder, and this time he didn't try to hide his work. "I didn't know you were interested in ship design."
"Isn't every engineer, on some level?"
"So you're designing a ship?"
"An S.C.E. ship."
"We've got one of those already."
The doors opened, and Gomez drew back a fraction. Fabian Stevens and P8 Blue came in. Stevens headed for the replicators, while Pattie scuttled across the floor on all legs, popping to an upright stance only when reaching Duffy's table. "Greetings. I see you are designing a ship, Commander."
"So I've heard," said Gomez. "An S.C.E. ship, I'm told."
"We've already got one of those," said Stevens, who approached the table with two cups in hand. He gave one to Pattie. "Here's your 'swamp tea,' whatever that is. I don't really want to know."
"Thank you," said Pattie.
"That's what I told him," Gomez said.
Duffy sighed. "The da Vinci is a great ship, but she isn't designed for the kind of missions we go on. No ship is, really. Tugs are slow, short-range, and don't have the shops or crew capacity we need. A general purpose design like this Saber-class is small and maneuverable, sure, but it's too fragile for heavy work, and it also doesn't have the cargo, shop, or laboratory space we could really use."
Gomez's interest was piqued. "So you're designing a ship with our needs in mind?"
Duffy shrugged. "It's just an exercise, a dream ship, really. Gives me an excuse to broaden my knowledge of ship's systems."
"It resembles a Norway-class," observed Pattie, shoving a second small table next to Duffy's.
"I used that as a starting point, but see, the engines are uprated, and the whole front of the saucer section opens up like -- no offense, Pattie -- like insect mandibles, to form a miniature drydock. We can pull things partially inside the ship for inspection or repair."
Pattie tapped a foreleg at a part of the diagram. "What are those?"
"Heavy tractor beam emitters, for towing."
"You should add six smaller ones," said Pattie, "for precision manipulation of objects in space."
Duffy nodded. "Good idea."
"And more Jefferies tubes," said Pattie. "I like Jefferies tubes."
By now, several other crewmembers had entered the mess hall, including the chief of security, Lt. Commander Domenica Corsi, and the chief medical officer, Dr. Elizabeth Lense, and all of them seemed to be gravitating to the table. Stevens shoved another table over, and sat next to Corsi.
"Idea," said Stevens. "An industrial replicator, so we don't have to replicate small parts and put 'em together into something big. And maybe a second hololab."
Gomez sighed, and Duffy imagined he could feel the warmth of her breath on the back of his neck. "A second holodeck would be nice. Then it can double for recreational purposes."
"Holodecks are nothing but trouble," said Corsi. "We'd be better off without any. More quantum torpedoes would be good, though. I'm very in favor of more torpedoes."
Lense reached across the table and tapped Duffy on the wrist. "Put in a Risa deck."
Duffy looked up at her. "What's a Risa deck?"
She shrugged. "Risa in deck form. Sounds good to me." She saw the look in Duffy's eyes. "What do you expect? I'm a doctor, not an engineer."
He looked back at his padd. "You're not taking this seriously." He scowled at her, but couldn't hold it for long. "Besides, I like my Risa in chewable, cherry-flavored lozenge form, anyway."
A faint vibration in the hull stilled the conversation, and all eyes went to the windows, where beyond the nacelle the stars shifted into streaks of light. "We've gone to warp," said Duffy.
Gomez seemed to be assessing the vibration in the deck. "About nine-point-six-five. We're in a hurry."
"The inertial dampers need tuning," said Pattie.
Stevens nodded, touching a bulkhead with his fingertips. "Somebody should check those plasma injectors too."
Corsi rolled her eyes. "How did I get stuck on a ship full of engineers?"
"Dumb luck?" Stevens said with a smile.
Captain Gold's voice came from the intercom. "S.C.E. staff to the observation lounge."
"Right on schedule," said Lense, taking one last sip of raktajino before heading toward the doors.
"Showtime, people," said Gomez, leading the rest of them out.
Duffy sighed and cleared the padd's display. "One plasma conduit," he muttered, before following the others into the corridor. "I got to move one lousy plasma conduit."
Star Trek© S.C.E.: Enigma Ship copyright © 2002 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted from Wildfire by David Mack Copyright © 2004 by David Mack. Excerpted by permission.
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