Quicksand, Part II

Quicksand

Part II

“Commander, I’m picking up a distress beacon. Ping only.”

Sivath straightened in the captain’s chair. He had just been pondering how he was going to find a new variation on “no notable discoveries” for his next log entry after two weeks of fruitlessly combing the Japori Sector. Apart from some curious subspace disruptions which were defying Loh’at’s attempts to catalogue them, there had been precious little to report.

“Location?” Sivath asked. He was a Starfleet officer, so it was his duty to help any vessel in distress; yet he was also deeply grateful for a break from the monotony of scanning the void.

“Approximately two parsecs from the Suliban Helix system, sir,” ops reported. “Our present course will take us within 0.35 light years of the source.”

“Hail them.”

A brief pause. “No response.”

“Continue hailing and adjust course to intercept. How long to reach the source at maximum warp?”

“About 26 minutes, sir,” helm reported.

Sivath opened his mouth to confirm, but stopped short. His suspicious mind was turning.

“Engage maximum warp, sir?” helm asked.

“No,” Sivath said quickly. “Warp five.”

“Five, sir?” ops asked.

“One cannot set a trap without bait,” Sivath said. He tapped his communicator. “Bridge to Captain Bao.”

“Bao here,” the response followed.

“We have detected a distress beacon near Suliban Helix. Heisenberg is moving to assist, but I have set a cautious pace to give us time to scan for threats.”

“I’m on my way up. Please alert Lieutenant Nim as well.”

Sivath gave a nod to tactical, who made the summons on his behalf. He rose, stretching his legs. “I want continuous sensor sweeps until we arrive.” He folded his hands behind his back reflexively. He was eager to see what they would find. Perhaps this was the break they needed in their investigation. Perhaps when Heisenberg went back to studying quasars, Nim would find a more suitable assignment.

The turbolift doors opened eight minutes later.

“Captain on the bridge!” Sivath called out.

Bao and Nim stepped out together. “At ease, everyone,” Bao said halfway through the synchronized rise of every officer on the bridge. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

Sivath stepped aside from the captain’s chair. “Starfleet regulations–” Sivath began to say.

Bao cut him off with a dismissive wave. “Not today. Anything on sensors?” He dropped heavily into his seat. Nim exchanged a few quiet words with the tactical officer on duty before relieving him and taking his station.

“I’m picking up a small craft on long range sensors now, sir,” ops reported. “It appears to be the source of the beacon. Readings at this range are inconclusive but it looks like a Ferengi shuttle dead in the water.”

“No other threats on scope?” Nim asked.

“Negative, just more subspace chop here and there. Can’t find any reason for it. This area’s pretty empty, there aren’t a lot of hiding places to stage an ambush from.”

“Glad to hear it,” Bao said. “Keep scanning, don’t want to get caught with our trousers down.”

Sivath took his place in the first officer’s chair. Captain Bao shifted in his seat, making himself comfortable. A busy quiet settled upon the bridge as a half dozen people separately went about their work. Those without immediate responsibilities waited for new developments in silence. Mostly.

Bao leaned toward Sivath. “Happen to catch the game?” He spoke in a conspiratorial hush that nevertheless managed to carry to every corner of the bridge.

“Rakantha won in overtime, sir,” Sivath replied. The captain was an avid follower of Bajoran springball and he liked to be able to talk sports with his officers, so Sivath kept abreast of the latest developments. Bao scowled. He was a Hedrikspool fan.

Sivath caught Nim watching him again. She held his gaze for a moment, her expression amused, before returning her attention to the console before her.

=/\=

When Heisenberg dropped out of warp, both the captain and Sivath rose from their seats. “Report,” Bao said.

“Confirmed Ferengi shuttle, sir, operating without main power. It’s adrift. Life support still functional, one life sign aboard. Still not answering hails. It may be that the shuttle’s comm systems are down. Maybe to conserve power, maybe damaged by whatever took the engines offline.”

“Tactical assessment?” Bao asked Nim.

“Weapons and engines are offline, no unexpected hazardous materials detected on board. The shuttle’s no threat. No sign of any other presence in our vicinity.”

“Commander, your thoughts?”

Sivath thought carefully about his response. His gut told him that this craft was trouble, but he had no rational justification for it. “There is no indication at this time that the shuttle is anything but a stranded vessel in need of aid. We are duty-bound to assist.”

“Agreed. Tractor the shuttle in.”

“Sir,” interjected Nim. “With all due respect, I think that would be premature. Let me beam over with a security team first.”

“Very well. Take two security officers and a medic over. Can’t be too careful.”

=/\=

An hour later, Sivath stepped out of the turbolift into the shuttle bay. The Ferengi shuttle sat on the landing pad, having cleared Nim’s inspection. Its’ sole occupant had been a Ferengi woman who reportedly blamed her engine trouble on the cheating ship dealer who sold her the shuttle. While she was being checked over by the ship’s medical staff, the captain had asked Dayr to look into the cause of the malfunction. Sivath volunteered to help; the alternative was scanning empty space some more.

He found Dayr already at work as he ascended the ramp and entered the shuttle. The lanky Rivosian engineer had removed a wall panel and was rooting around inside. “No mystery here,” he said when he caught sight of Sivath. “Noticed bubbling in panel finish. Burned out catalyzer in port compression coil. Heat buildup melted shielding on EPS conduit, here. Flow disrupted, no choice but to dump antimatter core.” He yanked at the scorched part, pulling it free on the third tug. Dayr gracefully redirected the extra momentum of the pull into tossing it to Sivath.

Sivath caught the part and turned it over in his hands. “This appears to be a nitrium-chrondite catalyzer,” he observed. “One does not often see them in service anymore.”

“For this reason exactly,” Dayr agreed. “Small power spike, disaster. Fortunate that pilot reacted quickly.”

Rolling up his sleeves, Sivath set to work helping Dayr check the shuttle’s EPS conduits and plasma shunts, verifying the integrity of each. They went over the intermix chamber and the plasma injectors, inspecting that these were intact down the molecular level. By the time they were done they had disassembled much of the shuttle’s interior, but had verified that the damage could have been much worse.

“Last thing,” Dayr said, straightening up as much as the low ceiling permitted. “Captain mentioned communication trouble.”

“That is correct. The shuttle did not respond to Heisenberg’s hails. Nothing we have observed would account for that.”

“Insufficient battery power?” Dayr suggested.

“That hypothesis was proposed. I will locate the backup cells.”

Sivath picked up a tricorder and recalibrated it to scan for energy signatures. He began sweeping it around the dismantled cargo area while Dayr set to putting things back in order. Finding nothing, Sivath drifted toward the fore, where the living quarters and cockpit were.

The shuttle’s living quarters were modest and efficient. Various creature comforts indicated that this space was the pilot’s home for long stretches of time, but also exposed how light she travelled. Sivath was reminded somewhat of his own quarters, though those seemed spacious by comparison.

Sivath swept the tricorder back and forth. A small spike appeared in the reading. Sivath paused and swept slowly back in the other direction. There. The signature was faint, coming from behind the dresser. He set the tricorder on top and stooped to shift it away from the wall. Removing the panel there, he was perplexed to find blank bulkhead behind it. Sivath picked up the tricorder again, but could not find the reading when pointing its field at the wall.

He found it when he pointed the tricorder at the dresser.

Cautiously, Sivath opened the top drawer. Beneath the clothing, in a compartment hidden by a false bottom panel, Sivath found a disruptor pistol and a compact subspace transceiver. The transceiver was a metal cylinder, ten centimeters long and two in diameter. There were dull bands at each end which he knew would pulse with green light if it detected an incoming signal on its dedicated frequency. Sivath knew this because it was identical in every respect to the one he had disintegrated two weeks before.

Horror dawned slowly on Sivath. Devices of this particular design were not available to the public. They were manufactured in limited quantities by–no, he stopped himself from finishing that thought. But it was quite impossible that the Ferengi pilot of this vessel would have one unless she, too, got it from the same source Sivath had.

“Commander, observe,” Dayr called form the cargo area. Startled, Sivath stuffed the cylinder hastily into his pocket and shut the drawer. He put his shoulder into the dresser to force it back into position as quickly and quietly as possible. Sivath parted the curtains and returned, tricorder in hand.

Dayr, instead of putting the cargo area back together, had pried up several more panels. He was crouched astride a gap in the floor, fiddling with wires running alongside one of the EPS conduits they had checked for defects earlier. As Sivath approached, Dayr pointed.

“Look, here.”

Sivath crouched. He felt the weight of the cylinder in his pocket shift and moved a hand to steady it as subtly as he could. Luckily Dayr was focused on the cabling in the floor. Looking where Dayr indicated, he saw that there was a line splice in the electrical grid. It was obviously a quick patch job, but it wasn’t obvious where the offshoot line led, as it disappeared under the EPS conduit almost immediately.

“A curious place for a splice,” Sivath said dutifully. It was an oddity, but he wasn’t sure what about it was so interesting to Dayr.

The chief engineer reached down and grasped the offshoot with a long thumb and forefinger. The cable was striped red and black. Gently, Dayr pulled the line back and forth, but Sivath could not see motion anywhere past the point where the line went under the conduit. With his other hand, Dayr pointed toward an open panel on the wall, the one that he had been inspecting when Sivath came aboard. There Sivath could see a thin red and black cable wiggling slightly. It terminated at the port compression coil.

“The catalyzer ground,” Sivath breathed.

“Caused burn out,” Dayr affirmed.

Sivath lurched to his feet and touched his communicator. He opened his mouth and then shut it. What could he do? He didn’t want Nim crawling around this place any more than Dayr, but now that Dayr had called his attention to the line splice what choice did he have? His stomach turned as he said, “Sivath to Captain Bao.”

“Bao here, go ahead.”

“Lieutenant Commander Dayr has determined the cause of the the Ferengi shuttle’s malfunction to be . . .” He swallowed the lump in his throat and said, “. . . sabotage.”

“Are you absolutely certain?” the captain asked. Then he said, “Sorry, dumb question. Lieutenant Nim will have a word with our guest. Good work, both of you.”

Sivath looked to Dayr. “I have questions of my own for the pilot.”

“Will remain, finish repairs,” Dayr said.

Sivath left the shuttle at a determined clip. Halfway to the turbolift, he remembered the cylinder in his pocket. With a furtive glance to confirm that he was not observed, Sivath withdrew the device. He didn’t have the time or tools at hand to overload it, so disintegration was out of the question. There was another means of disposal handy, however. Sivath wound his right arm across his body and winged the subspace transceiver at the shuttlebay’s forcefield. The cylinder spun through the air, glinting, until it hit the field with a soft shimmer. It was visible for a brief moment, a rapidly shrinking glimmer in the darkness. Then it was gone.

Sivath took the turbolift to deck four. He hoped desperately that he wasn’t too late. If Nim got her hands on the Ferengi before he did . . . Sivath avoided finishing the thought. Nim might be close. It took every scrap of self control in his soul not to sprint down the corridor.

He felt the ship roll a bit. It was just a momentary sensation, but he knew it was out of place. Without breaking stride, he slapped his chest. “Sivath to Dayr. Did you feel that?”

“Felt it, Commander,” Dayr responded immediately. “Possible problem with inertial dampers.”

“Don’t speculate, be certain,” Sivath said. He reached sickbay at a pace just below a jog.

Inside, the medical staff was standing at the edges of the room, looking on as Nim, flanked by two security officers, placed an elderly Ferengi woman in handcuffs. “Just what am I accused of?” the woman asked.

“For now, deliberately sabotaging your shuttle to trick a Starfleet vessel to bring you aboard, thereby interfering with its mission,” Nim explained reasonably. “But give me a little time and I’m sure I’ll have more for you.”

Seizing one of the old woman’s arms, Nim marched the Ferengi out the door. One of the security officers followed; the other stayed behind to tinker with a computer screen near the spot where the Ferengi had been arrested.

Sivath backed away from the open door to make way for passage. Nim spared him a glance and said, “It’s under control, Commander.” The old woman hustled along beside Nim held Sivath’s gaze as she passed. In a moment they were disappearing down the corridor, and Sivath was left feeling confused. There had been something in the Ferengi’s eyes, some spark of familiarity or recognition, that he could not understand. He had never seen her before in his life. Did she know him, somehow?

Now she was in Nim’s clutches. The answers Sivath needed would have to wait. Perhaps–

The floor lurched beneath him. Sivath staggered but found his balance again. That was no problem with inertial dampers.

The red alert lights came on. Captain Bao’s voice came on over the ship’s intercom. “All hands, red alert! This is not a drill!”

=/\=

In the time it took Sivath to reach the bridge, three more quakes followed, each more violent than the last. Sivath tumbled out of the turbolift as the latest tremor struck, grabbing hold of the railing that circumscribed the central command area. All around him, people were similarly clinging to consoles and other convenient anchors as violent turbulence rocked the ship.

Sivath didn’t need to ask what the cause was. On the main viewscreen, a giant, angry-looking blob of orange energy boiled against the starfield. “What is that?” Sivath shouted.

“Working on it!” Loh’at snapped. She was hunched over the science station, legs hooked around the support column beneath her chair.

The tremor subsided. The bridge crew relaxed, slightly.

“The anomaly appeared out of nowhere,” Captain Bao asserted with a slightly defensive tone, as though he could somehow be blamed for this.

“Reading level nine gravimetric distortions in local subspace, Captain,” ops said. This triggered a tingle in Sivath’s mind; an echo of a recollection, dusty and dim.

“Captain,” helm called out. “It looks like the anomaly is homing in on us. I’ve been attempting to back off, but its vector is adjusting to follow.”

“It’s chasing us?” Bao asked incredulously.

Another wave hit the ship. Sivath had descended into the command area and now had to grab hold of his seat to keep from losing his balance. This quake was noticeably stronger and longer than the last. It wouldn’t be long before the gravimetric shear would become a threat to Heisenberg’s structural integrity.

“It’s attracted to us,” Loh’at corrected testily. “It’s reeling us in; we’re towing it around.”

“Not for long!” the captain declared. “Helm, take us to warp three.”

“Already tried it, Captain,” helm replied in a hopeless tone. “Can’t even form a warp field.”

“That’s the gravimetric interference,” Loh’at interjected. Now Sivath was sure this sounded familiar; he tried to focus on the memory, clarify it by force of will. It was like trying to grab smoke.

“We’re stuck with impulse power,” helm continued, “and even that’s sluggish.”

“Engine room reporting diminished power output from the warp core,” ops reported.

“I’m running away as fast as I can, Captain. It’s still gaining on us.”

“What happens if it catches us?” Bao demanded, grim-faced.

“This grav shear is going to tear us apart before it even touches us, sir,” Nim called from the tactical station.

“And if that doesn’t kill us, the EM radiation will,” Loh’at added. “At the rate it’s climbing, emission levels will become dangerous in six minutes and lethal in ten.”

“Only bad things, then,” Bao summarized. “And we can’t get away from it, so we need to neutralize it. I need options, people.”

“I have a full salvo of photon torpedoes loaded for bear, Captain.”

“Do you think that will help?”

“No,” Nim admitted, “but it’s an option.”

A desperate silence settled upon the bridge. Then another wave hit. Sivath clung to the arms of his first officer’s chair for dear life. On screen, the ovoid anomaly rippled and rolled toward them, growing with each second. A spark from his attempts to rekindle his memory caught. “Sir!” he called out. “I think I know what this is. It’s called a graviton ellipse.”

“Excellent, son,” Bao said with forced patience. “Now explain how that helps us.”

Sivath shook his head mutely. That was all he had.

“Damn it, he’s right,” Loh’at growled. “I would have figured it out in another minute, if I could just–”

What does that mean, Lieutenant?” Bao pressed.

“We need to cut power and reverse our shield polarity immediately,” she said. Her fingers were already flying across the console before her.

“Bridge to engineering! We need to shut down the warp core.”

“Acknowledged, bridge,” Dayr’s voice responded. “Stand by.”

“Shields flipped, sir,” Loh’at reported.

“Core power shutdown initiated, Captain,” Dayr reported.

“It seems to be helping!” helm called out. “The anomaly’s net gain is diminished, but . . .”

“It’s still pulling on us,” Loh’at interrupted. “We need to lose more power.”

“Shut down everything but emergency power, engineering,” Bao ordered.

Another wave hit. The lights dimmed, and for a moment Sivath thought some damage might have been done. But Dayr clarified, “Operating at minimum power, Captain.”

“Impulse power is gone,” helm reported. “We’re drifting at roughly a quarter impulse. The anomaly does not appear to be pursuing.”

“We’ve neutralized the ellipse’s attraction effect, sir,” Loh’at confirmed. “We’re still going to feel the gravimetric interference waves for a while yet, but they’ll lose intensity as we skate away.”

“So what now?” the captain asked.

“According to Starfleet records, a graviton ellipse lurks around in subspace until a big enough mass teases it out. The effect only lasts a matter of hours, though; it should collapse back into subspace soon, at which point it will be safe to power up and warp away.”

“Leaving a great big ‘wet floor’ sign behind us,” the captain chuckled nervously. “Good job, everyone.”

The bridge crew collectively breathed a sigh of relief.

“Captain,” Sivath said, prying his fingers free of the impressions he’d left in his armrests. “It would seem that we have discovered the likely cause of the disappearances in this sector.”

Bao whistled. “A stellar hazard invisible to sensors until you stumble right into it, and then it’s got you no matter how hard you struggle. It’s like quicksand. Alright, everyone. Stand down to yellow alert and advise all departments to expect further bumps for a while yet. Those you who are supposed to be off duty, get off my bridge. Get some R and R while there’s nothing better to do.”

Nim approached, stepping down into the command area. “Captain, would this be a good time to report on the Ferengi situation?”

“Oh, if you must,” Bao replied with a sigh.

Sivath rose from his seat, steadying himself as another wave struck. He tried to find a way to hang around without hanging on Nim’s words. Thankfully, Loh’at gave him the pretext he needed. “I would have gotten it,” she said, coming to stand beside him. She folded her arms and nodded at the viewscreen.

Sivath studied the ellipse. “I do not doubt it.”

“–a spy on our hands, sir,” Nim was saying. “I found her accessing the computer in her examination room. She’d bypassed security somehow and was scrolling through personnel–”

“How did a grease monkey like you even hear about a graviton ellipse?” Loh’at asked. “It’s an obscure bit of trivia even to science officers.”

“That’s a serious accusation, Lieutenant,” Bao said. “You’re suggesting that our guest tricked us into bringing her onboard to . . . what?”

Nim replied, “I don’t know yet, sir. She’s hard to read, her thoughts are evasive. Might have telepathic counter-intrusion training. I’m leaving her to stew in the brig for a bit before I interrogate her.”

Sivath knew an opportunity when he heard one. In response to Loh’at’s question, he said, “I was attending the academy when the USS Voyager returned from the Delta Quadrant. The crew logs were a wealth of interesting reading for my classmates and myself.”

“I keep forgetting you’re old,” Loh’at said.

Bao was saying, “–keep me informed. As you were, Lieutenant.”

As the captain left the bridge, Nim stood for a moment and then turned to face Sivath and Loh’at. She approached with an exaggerated casual posture. “So, not much to do but wait. Could I buy the two of you a drink?”

Was Nim trying to be friendly? Sivath found it unnerving. He opened his mouth to decline.

“Love one,” Loh’at said first. “Though I think the tradition is that the senior officer buys. Isn’t that right, Commander?”

Both women looked to Sivath. He said, “Perhaps another time.”

=/\=

The corridors were strangely quiet. Sivath supposed many had had the same idea as Nim and Loh’at, heading for the lounge while the ship wait out the ellipse. He strode down the dim hallways of deck six, feeling strangely emboldened by the gloom of emergency power lighting. Covert business like this was best conducted in the shadows.

Sivath entered the brig at a deliberate clip. He was crisp, businesslike, in command. “At ease, Ensign,” he said to the security officer on duty. “I would like a word with the prisoner. Please wait outside and see that I am not interrupted.”

The guard left with a hasty “Yessir.” Sivath took a deep breath. He walked to cell three.

Inside, an old Ferengi woman looked up at him. She was perched on the edge of her bunk, but she rose to her feet now, stepping closer to the invisible barrier between them.

“Well well. Jolan tru, deletham.” The woman was speaking to Sivath in Romulan: Greetings, comrade.

Continued in Part III

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