Quicksand, Part IV

Quicksand

Part IV

“Somebody explain to me how the hell this happened!”

Captain Bao rested his weight on his knuckles, leaning over the conference table. He was as angry as Sivath had ever seen him. He glared at each of the officers in attendance in turn: Dayr, then Sivath, then Nim. The collegial atmosphere of the ready room was under some strain.

When nobody volunteered to go first, he bellowed, “Well?!”

Sivath decided to step up. “The prisoner’s escape was my fault, sir,” he said. This drew a stunned look from Nim. “After completing our inspection of Hehx’s shuttlecraft and finding evidence that its engine trouble was the result of deliberate sabotage, Lieutenant Commander Dayr told me that it was his intent to finish the repairs. It is his job to fix broken things; I should have instructed him to leave the shuttle inoperable in this case, but I was distracted at that moment by the intrigue of discovering foul play aboard the ship, and left to assist with the arrest. Had I kept my wits about me and considered the matter more carefully, Hehx would have had no means of escape.”

Nim made a tiny sound of disgust at the insignificance of Sivath’s mea culpa. The captain waved dismissively, as well. “I don’t give a damn about the shuttle right now. That idiot Ferengi flew straight into the anomaly, so she’s as good as dead. I want to know how she got out of her cell in the first place.”

Dayr straightened in his chair, clearly eager to contribute to the part of the conversation that wasn’t about anything he’d done wrong. “Virus at work very curious species. Antique design, but sophisticated. Keeps adapting to containment strategies devised by ops. Critical functions like life support, warp core control, weapons, all secure from infection so far, but less restricted systems going haywire right, left. Working hypothesis: electrical grid outage on deck six was not random. Too convenient, must have been targeted strike. Probably EPS overload that caused backup battery failure too. Surgically precise attacks hidden among noise and chaos.”

Bao pinched the bridge of his nose. Sivath knew he found Dayr’s resistance to using the universal translator very tiring. “Alright,” he said with clenched eyelids, “so the virus took out power in the brig. Lieutenant Nim, any explanation for how a little old Ferengi lady took out the trained Starfleet security guard responsible for watching her?”

It was clearly not lost on Nim that even here in the privacy of the ready room, Bao was using her full rank instead of calling her Vera. She squared her shoulders, becoming defensive. “First, I’d like point out that this little old lady is clearly a trained espionage operative. She has unexplained mental conditioning, firearms training, a working understanding of mechanical sabotage and possession of what looks to be a military-grade computer virus. Granny played us all for fools from the moment we picked up her distress beacon.”

“Fine,” Bao conceded.

“When I briefed you earlier,” Nim continued, “I was operating under the assumption that Hehx waited until the lights went out and attacked my guard. He’s awake now though, and he tells me that he was fired upon while holding his own phaser. I’ve double checked his weapon and confirmed that it was only discharged once; the ship registered two shots fired. By itself I’d chalk the discrepancy up to viral japes, but in concert with my boy’s story it suggests that Hehx was already armed when the power went out.” Nim leaned forward, planting her elbows on the table. Her eyes were intense. “Sir, I will stake my career on the certainty that no security officer under me would ever allow a prisoner to smuggle a weapon into a cell. We scanned her top to bottom, she was clean going in. That means somebody on this ship slipped her a weapon somehow.”

Nim didn’t look at Sivath. She didn’t need to; he knew she thought it was him. But Sivath had never handed Hehx a phaser. He made certain his thoughts on this subject were quite clear.

Bao frowned. “I know you’re new here, Nim, and I appreciate that you aren’t having a very good day. But if you’re going to bring me paranoid fantasies involving Starfleet officers serving under me, you had better have some damn compelling evidence to back them up.”

“I’ll get it,” she asserted. “Bet on that.”

“Captain,” Sivath interjected. Both Nim and Bao looked at him. Sivath focused his mind. “I believe I can account for the prisoner’s weapon. I have been working with ops to identify and isolate the systems affected by the virus. One of the infected systems was deck six replicator control. The data logs were partially corrupted, but there was a record of brig cell three’s replicator assembling some complex device. When I left to join this meeting the pattern buffer was still being analyzed to determine the nature of this device, but given Lieutenant Nim’s findings, I believe it is likely that we will learn it was a phaser.”

“There, you see?” Bao said to Nim. Nim’s jaw set. Sivath had just taken her legs out from under her and she knew it. Any further pursuit of a Starfleet conspirator was going to look like cryptozoology now. Bao settled heavily into his chair, the fire having left him. He just looked tired now. “Do we have any indication–anything at all–of what the point of all this was? Of what she wanted?”

The captain’s communicator chirped before anybody could answer. “Bridge to Captain Bao. We need you out here, sir.”

Everyone rose at once and edged awkwardly toward the door.

=/\=

The freighter hailed again. Static filled the main viewscreen. Silhouettes of humanoid figures and short bursts of speech managed form briefly, only to dissolve back into noise.

“. . . en-berg, ‘Ij’a’? . . . HoS ghaj . . . nIS? taQne . . . HvaD.” The image switched back to a magnified view of a distant cargo hauler approaching cautiously.

“Anybody catch that?” Bao asked.

“Sorry, sir,” ops apologized, “the subspace interference is garbling the message, making it difficult for the U-T to parse the language.”

“It’s Klingon,” Loh’at said. “I’m pretty sure they’re asking if we need help.”

“Warn them off,” Bao said quickly. “We don’t want them getting too close to the anomaly.”

While ops dispatched the message, Sivath studied the freighter. “They will not understand us,” he speculated.

“He’s right,” Loh’at agreed. She didn’t sound happy about it, but that might have been because of the imminent danger to the freighter. “Even if they have a Federation Standard speaker on board, the interference is going to be much worse for them. We’re receiving their signal at an angle roughly two radians from the graviton ellipse. They’d perceive us as less than half a rad from the source of the interference. We’re going to be lost in the noise.”

“Can we boost the signal?” Bao asked.

“Only by restoring power,” Sivath said.

“Getting no response, Captain,” ops reported.

“Alright, people, put your heads together. How do we warn this ship to keep its distance? There has to be a way.”

“Captain?” called helm. “The anomaly, sir . . . it’s starting to move again.”

“Confirmed,” Loh’at said. “It’s attracted to the freighter.”

“Damn it.” Bao paced the command area slowly. “These merchants are as good as dead if we don’t do something. Can we push them away with our tractor beam?”

“The Klingon freighter is far beyond our range, sir,” ops said.

“It would also require powering up,” Nim said.

“Is there anything we can do without powering up?” Bao demanded.

A moment of silence. Loh’at broke it. “We should power up,” she said quietly.

“What was that?” Bao asked.

“We should power up,” Loh’at repeated, louder now. “We should power up and run.”

“That’s suicide,” helm protested. “That thing nearly ate us last time.”

Sivath didn’t like their chances in a rematch against the anomaly, but he knew Loh’at was right. “I concur with the Lieutenant, Captain,” he said. Loh’at gave him a look he could not read. He continued, “We have put considerable distance between ourselves and the ellipse since powering down. We have a greater head start than when we first encountered it. If we power up now, we can tow the ellipse away from the freighter, removing the threat to civilian lives.”

“At the cost of our own,” helm said.

“Maybe not,” Loh’at countered. “Right now the ellipse and the freighter are pulling on each other, If we power up and run, we’ll be the larger and nearer mass, but the freighter will still provide some counter-force. It’ll be a drag on the ellipse’s pursuit of us. It might be enough.”

“Might be?” Bao repeated. He sighed. “At this moment the anomaly presents an unacceptable risk to the freighter. It is our duty to put their lives before our own. Lieutenant Loh’at has proposed a course of action. Does anybody have an alternative suggestion?”

Another moment of silence.

“I have a full salvo of photon torpedoes loaded,” Nim said. “But I like her plan better.”

Bao touched his communicator. “Bridge to engineering,” he said.

“Um,” Dayr said, hovering near the door to the captain’s ready room. “Already here, sir.”

“Engineering here,” said a voice on the communicator. “What can I do for–”

“Shut up a second,” Bao snapped. “Dayr, get down there and give us all the power you’ve got. If we want to survive this we need to run hot.” He turned his head to Sivath. “Commander, I want you down there helping him. You two work your voodoo. Go.”

Sivath left the bridge with Dayr. Loh’at watched him go.

=/\=

The engineering team was already buzzing around the warp core when Dayr and Sivath arrived. “Reaction chamber primed?” Dayr barked out, his long legs carrying him along so quickly that Sivath had to jog to keep up.

“Almost, sir. 2.2 million Kelvin and rising,” an engineer called back.

Dayr whirled on Sivath. “Must oversee impulse reactors. Commander, will need high-energy warp plasma to reach maximum impulse while dragging anomaly. Need you to manage intermix ratio.”

“Understood,” Sivath said. He charged ahead to the primary warp core control console; the ensign there moved aside to make room for him. As had been reported, the chamber was almost warmed up. The engineering team had kept the EPDN flowing while the core was shut down, just so that they wouldn’t have to make a cold start when the time came to power back up. Sivath made a mental note to mention that in his log; whoever was responsible for that idea deserved more than a pat on the back. He felt a gentle tremor shake the floor; the anomaly was getting closer again. As he watched, the reaction chamber’s internal temperature ticked over to an ideal 2.5 million Kelvin. “Reaction chamber primed,” he bellowed.

“Impulse reactors coming online,” Dayr called down from the level above. “Start M/AM reaction in eight . . . six . . . four, three, two, one, mark!”

Sivath’s fingers danced over the controls before him, manipulating the injector coils to release streams of matter and antimatter into the dilithium articulation frame. The warp core glowed to life, its gentle hum music to Sivath’s ears. He started with a gentle 20:1 ratio, not wanting to take any chances with an overload on a newly primed core. He called out, “16.41 teradynes.”

“Going to need much more!” Dayr shouted from above.

Sivath was already slowly increasing the antimatter flow. The reaction taking place in the core in front of him became more animated; it thrummed with energy. “172.79 teradynes,” he reported when his ratio reached 10:1 M/AM.

Another tremor, stronger now. “Bridge to engineering,” Bao’s voice intruded.

“Go ahead, Captain,” Sivath answered.

“We definitely have an admirer of the subspace gravimetric disturbance variety. Helm can’t break one quarter impulse yet. At this rate the ellipse will intercept us in seven minutes.”

“Understood, Captain. Stand by.” Sivath shouted up to Dayr, “Ready to equalize intermix ratio, is the EPS routing ready?”

“Ready now!” Dayr called back.

Sivath increased the antimatter flow further. It was a delicate thing to control, as much an art as a science; he had to react in real time to sudden energy spikes or canyons resulting from the chaotic mix of matter and antimatter taking place in the reaction chamber. His eyes weren’t on the graphs ticking along on his console, they were on the assembly itself, on the patterns of light churning within. His ears were tuned to the slightest variances in frequency. He would hear or see something and ease off the injection a fraction of a second before the readout on his console registered the spike. The intermix would stabilize before any warning chimes sounded. It was risky to scale up the reaction this quickly, but Sivath kept on top of every blip and bump.

“One to one!” he called out when he reached M/AM parity. “2691.44 teradynes!” A quake hit, strong enough to force Sivath to grab the edge of the console to steady himself.

Normally plasma this energetic was fed to the warp nacelles; this intermix was sufficient to maintain warp eight. But with the gravimetric interference of the ellipse preventing the formation of a warp bubble, the best use for the plasma was to feed it to the impulse engines. It was well above the maximum charge rating of the impulse engines, but Dayr was monitoring the reactors to keep them from overloading.

“We’re up to half impulse now, but the anomaly is still gaining ground. Can we give it any more beans?”

“Yes, Captain,” Sivath responded, “but at the risk of damage to the impulse drive.”

“Would you say that risk is a greater or lesser concern than getting crushed by a big orange space football?”

“I would evaluate these concerns as approximately equal, sir, given that one undesirable outcome would quickly follow the other. We will push the engines as far as we can.” He looked up to the impulse reactors. “Dayr?”

“Heard him,” Dayr snapped. Another tremor shook the ship. “EPS conduits already too hot. Redirecting coolant to compensate. Don’t think going past 3,000 would be safe.”

Sivath could work with that. He gradually increased the matter and antimatter flows in equal proportion. The plasma flow from the core became increasingly energetic. Sivath could feel the temperature in the core rising. A quake struck, the strongest so far; Sivath had to cling to the console to keep his feet. He called out, “2973.82 teradynes!”

Above, Dayr sounded stressed. “Can’t get heat buildup under control. Coolant close to boiling. Reactors still within operating tolerance for now, but driver coils overheating.” Dayr didn’t need to explain to Sivath what would happen if either impulse engine’s driver coil assembly cracked.

“Take over,” Sivath said to one of the engineers nearby. Now that the intermix ratio was equalized there was no art to maintaining it. He swiftly scaled a ladder to the next level up and found Dayr at the impulse reactor controls. He said, “What have we got to cool it down?”

“Already using reserve coolant,” Dayr grumbled. “Only other fluid available is atmospheric. Don’t want to cook crew.”

“Then we need to radiate the excess heat,” Sivath said. “Perhaps utilizing the phaser array.”

Dayr shook his head. “Emitter tolerances lower than driver coils’. Heisenberg not built for heavy combat.”

“The deflector dish, then,” Sivath countered.

“Hm. Maybe. Will require many hands.” Dayr glanced around. “Don’t have many to spare.”

“I will see to that. Keep putting out fires here.” Sivath slipped back down the ladder and charged out of engineering. The air in the corridor outside hit him in a sudden cool blast; he hadn’t noticed how hot it had been in there. He used his sleeve to dry the sweat from his brow and tugged the zipper on his uniform jacket down to mid-sternum. “Sivath to bridge,” he said with a touch to his communicator. A tremor shook the corridor, causing Sivath to stumble and fall in the midst of his headlong sprint.

“Go ahead,” Bao replied.

Sivath picked himself up off the ground and kept running toward the ship’s fore. “Sir, we cannot push the impulse engines further without overheating. The driver coils cannot handle warp plasma this hot. I believe we can bring the coolant temperature down by radiating heat via the deflector array, but I require assistance to do so.”

“Security will lend a hand,” Bao said. “They’re on their way down now.”

Wonderful. Sivath supposed that working in close proximity to Nim was preferable to being crushed and/or irradiated to death, but only just.

=/\=

The computer displays in deflector control were all flashing nonsense when Sivath entered. Damn, he’d forgotten about the virus. He hurried forward to the primary console and used his override code to render the virus dormant for the moment; he couldn’t afford to have it getting in his way in a situation this dangerous. The system rebooted normally.

Sivath set to work defining the energy profile he intended to project from the main deflector. It wasn’t long before Nim arrived with three other security officers. “How can we help?” Nim asked. Sivath was surprised to find her eager to cooperate, though he supposed he shouldn’t have been given the situation.

He pointed to the consoles on either side of the room. “Ready the subspace accelerators to emit tetryon particles. I will publish an energy profile plan momentarily; it is imperative that each of you follow it to the smallest detail. The smallest irregularity in the energy signature we build could rip the ship in half.”

“Should we evacuate the secondary hull?” one of the security officers asked uncertainly.

“Are you sure we’re the right people for this? Wouldn’t some sci guys be better at this?” asked another.

The room shook violently. Bodies were thrown into each other. It took several seconds after the turbulence passed for everyone to disentangle themselves and get back on their feet. Leaning on his console, Sivath looked around at the faces in the room and said, “Every person on this ship is doing the job they need to be doing to keep us all alive. That includes each of you. No one is evacuating, because if we fail it means death for the entire crew one way or another. You are Starfleet officers. You can do this.”

“You’re damn right we can,” Nim said. She didn’t sound like she appreciated getting a pep talk from Sivath of all people. “At your stations. Step lively.”

Sivath turned back to his work, building the profile parameters for each emitter while the others prepared to execute his plan. He had nearly finished when his console went dark. “What–?” he blurted.

The screen came back on, displaying a progress screen as the system rebooted. Sivath felt a cold dread settle into his stomach. He’d disabled it . . .

“Disabled what?” Nim asked, coming to peer over his shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

Damn it. Sivath reigned in loose thoughts. “This system is not immune to the virus, it seems.”

“How did you disable it?” Nim pressed.

“I thought I’d managed to quarantine deflector control before infection when I was working with ops earlier,” Sivath lied. “Clearly I was mistaken.”

Nim’s eyes narrowed. “We’ll talk about it later,” she said, returning to her own console.

The system was back online. Sivath quickly reviewed his profile to confirm that he hadn’t lost any data. A few more lines of input and he was finished. He started to key them in and was interrupted by another quake. This one was so strong that he thought he left the floor momentarily. Clinging to the console for support, Sivath frantically gave it the last few commands necessary and published the plan to the other consoles. “Deflector control to engineering. We are ready to begin. Start routing coolant through the subspace accelerators.”

“Hurry, Commander. Impulse reactors approaching meltdown, driver coils critical.”

“Begin stage one,” Sivath instructed the security team. “Sound off upon reaching emission-readiness.” He switched his console to monitor the contributions of each accelerator.

“Ready,” Nim reported. The others followed with confirmations over the next few seconds.

“Begin stage two on my mark,” Sivath said. “Three. Two. One. Mark.”

He watched the flow of tetryon particles from each subspace accelerator join together into a coherent beam from the deflector dish. The beam was a huge power draw, leaching energy from the EPDN and superheated coolant alike.

“Do not hesitate, station two,” Sivath warned. “Feed your accelerator more power. We cannot risk imbalance.” He saw the contribution from accelerator two match the others. “Good. Ready to proceed to stage three. It is imperative that we keep the particle feeds aligned in this final stage. Follow my rhythm and increase–”

The tremor that struck was the strongest Sivath had felt at any point since encountering the graviton ellipse. It was getting close. They didn’t have much time.

“Follow my rhythm and increase throughput smoothly by ten percent with each beat!” Sivath yelled over the groans of the ship’s hull. “Three. Two. One. Mark. Thirty percent. Forty. Fifty. Sixty, not too fast three, seventy. Eighty. Ninety. One hundred.” The console before him streamed data almost too quickly to read. The tetryon beam they were projecting was perfectly balanced. “At ease, everyone. You did it.”

Cheers and nervous laughter filled the room. Nim even cracked a relieved smile. Sivath suppressed the feeling of exultation that threatened to overtake him. This was made easier by the fact that his console rebooted again. When it started its power-on routine, he opened the panel on the underside and pulled the power connecter free. He didn’t want the virus tampering with any of their work.

“Engineering to deflector control. Coolant temperature dropping. Reactors and coils cooling off, too fast in fact. Regulating coolant flow to compensate. Good job.”

“Acknowledged, engineering,” Sivath said. He looked to Nim. “We should return to the bridge.”

“Agreed,” Nim said. “You guys–” she started to say, before being interrupted by another quake. “Stay put! Keep an eye on things and call up if you see anything change!” When the shaking stopped, she and Sivath jogged to the turbolift. “Bridge,” Nim said.

“Thank you,” Sivath said as the lift carried them through the ship. “I could not have done that alone.”

Nim regarded him carefully. “Just doing my job, Commander.”

The doors opened onto the bridge. Sivath took his place in the first officer’s chair; Nim, at her tactical console. “How are we doing?”

“Not good,” Bao said. He was leaning forward as much as his chair’s restraining harness permitted. Sivath deployed and fastened his own. “We can’t crack three quarters impulse and the anomaly is still gaining on us. The good news is–” He paused as another tremor rocked the ship, then continued, “–we have confirmation that the civilian freighter got clear. So we can take comfort in that, at least.”

Sivath realized that the captain thought they were going to die. He tapped his communicator. “Bridge to engineering. How goes the cooling?”

“Excellent, Commander! All systems well within tolerable thresholds.”

“May I conclude, then, that it would be possible to scale up the M/AM intermix further?”

“Why not? Luck is for pushing. Stand by.”

On the viewscreen, Sivath watched the ovoid energy field pursue them, growing minutely each second as it crept closer and closer. A quake the likes of which Sivath had never felt in his life hit the ship. He had to clamp his jaws shut to avoid biting through his own tongue. Sivath glared at the anomaly on the screen. Give it up, he willed at it. Give us up.

“Three quarters impulse!” helm shouted ecstatically. “Point eight! Dayr found the turbo button down there!”

Sivath kept glaring at the screen. Let us go. Let us go. Was it his imagination, or had the anomaly stopped growing?

“Engineering to bridge. Temperatures rising again. Cannot sustain reaction level indefinitely. Will maintain as long as possible.”

Give us up. Let us go. We don’t belong to you. Set us free.

“Captain!” Loh’at called out. “The waveform is collapsing!”

All eyes fixated on the screen. The orange blob of energy churned and boiled more violently than before. It seemed to swell suddenly, then it burst. But instead of ejecting energy outward, the effect dissipated almost instantly, vanishing back into subspace in the blink of an eye. A final gravimetric shockwave hit the ship, rattling its humanoid inhabitants down to their bones. Then it was over.

“It’s gone, sir!” Loh’at crowed.

Bao released his belts and jolted to his feet. “Helm, a leisurely full stop if you please. Bridge to engineering: the anomaly has dispersed. Kindly talk the impulse drive down off the ledge.”

Around the bridge, exultant cheers were going up, but it was nothing compared to the blast of celebration that came through the comm when Dayr replied back, “Acknowledged, bridge.”

Sivath released his harness and got unsteadily to his feet. All around him, ecstasy was being expressed and congratulations exchanged. Somebody clapped him on the shoulder. Someone shook his hand. He knew exactly one thing with absolute certainty: he needed to go to bed and sleep.

Continued in Epilogue

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