Part of USS Endeavour: A Handful of Dust and Bravo Fleet: The Stormbreaker Campaign

A Handful of Dust – 20

Main Engineering, USS Odysseus
January 2400
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They had made it through to the same deck as Main Engineering, the long corridor ahead leading to the double doors of their destination, before Valance grabbed Airex’s elbow. ‘Before we go in there, I need to know I can count on you.’

He frowned. ‘I wouldn’t volunteer if you couldn’t.’

‘Dav, how long were you down here? On your own?’

He looked away for a moment and drew a deep breath. ‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘At one point it must have been my perception of time that was warped; I’d been separated from Templeton after… a month? Scrounging rations from an emergency pack in one of the offices. Power went from the room, it was completely black, and when it returned the display said only an hour had passed.’ His gaze went distant for a heartbeat, before he shook his head. ‘It was longer. I expect the same happened to Templeton.’

‘I understand that.’ Valance swallowed. ‘If he snapped…’

‘People don’t just snap and lash out indiscriminately. He has lost all trust that his surroundings adhere to any rules of reality he’s lived his life by. Time and space have no meaning, and he’s so prone to hallucinations he can’t trust his own senses. His conclusion that he should destroy the Odysseus to end this torment – maybe for more than himself, maybe for all of us – is a warped reasoning, but it is a reasoning.’ Airex met her gaze. ‘I’m not going to suddenly decide he’s right, or turn on you, or break under pressure. My reasoning is that our mission is to save our people.’

She dragged her eyes across his face, his features craggier, hair longer and even greyer than she remembered. ‘Don’t come with me because you feel you should. I have no time for you trying to prove yourself if I can’t rely on you.’

His eyes narrowed. ‘You and I are due a conversation when all of this is over,’ said Davir Airex in a soft voice. ‘But trust that everything I have done has been to keep people safe.’

That took a leap of faith Valance wasn’t sure she had in her. But she could, at the least, use an extra gunman in the situation ahead, and she turned back to the main doors. ‘We have numbers, but we can’t assume we have the element of surprise. There’s no telling how successful Cassia has been in cutting Templeton off from ship systems down there; he might have access to internal sensors and know we’re coming.’

‘We don’t have time to do anything clever,’ said Airex. ‘So sometimes the best answer is overwhelming force.’ He unslung his phaser rifle, shifting it in his grip with a smoothness she hadn’t seen from him before.

‘We storm in there and he tries to use someone as a hostage -’

‘Then I will shoot him.’

She had never heard Airex speak so casually or confidently about violence either, particularly not his own use of force. But Valance knew she didn’t have a better idea, even as doubt wormed through her gut and up her spine at the changes in her friend.

She turned to the double doors. ‘Swift and sure it is.’

* *

Cortez slid across the alcove in Main Engineering where Templeton had put them, positioned now so he could keep them in his line of sight as he worked at the main warp core console. ‘I think,’ she hissed to Kharth, ‘he’s getting through some of the encryption.’

Kharth scowled. ‘What do you think has been keeping him out?’

‘I don’t know, but the problem is that whatever security program or person’s trying to lock out his access codes, they need to do it to everything. There are about a million ways he could kill us all right now, considering how delicate our predicament is.’

‘Okay.’ Kharth glanced up and around the chamber for the umpteenth time. It did not give her answers. ‘I’m going to need you to distract him.’

Cortez winced. ‘Are you actually thinking of rushing him? We have no idea why he’s kept us alive. That might change real fast.’

‘Preserving my neck for so long he manages to kill us all is not a great survival strategy. I don’t know, try to be helpful, talk to him. I’m feeling better after that Stun.’

‘For the record, I hate this.’

‘You’ll hate dying more.’

‘Only because I won’t be able to say “I told you so.” Just imagine that as the noise the phaser makes when he shoots you.’ But still Cortez lifted her hands enough to not make a sudden movement for Templeton, and began to rise. ‘Hey, Rob – if you’re having trouble with the systems access -’

Even at that gentle shift, he’d stopped his work to bring his phaser to bear on her. ‘Shut up. I don’t want to hear it.’ Kharth could see Cortez swallow but not back down, and she slid away, trying to look like she didn’t want to be in the path of Templeton’s response.

‘Look, I’m not the Chief Engineer here, but I am a Chief Engineer -’

‘You’re just trying to distract me,’ Templeton snapped.

‘Maybe if I’m not real,’ Cortez tried, ‘then I’m here to help. Like a manifestation of your subconscious mind that’s very good at tech.’

It didn’t need to work as a line of argument, Kharth reasoned, as she began to slip around the curve of the alcove, further from Templeton’s direct line of sight. If she could make it a few more metres before he clocked her, then she could push off from the bulkhead, and even if he rounded on her, Cortez was on her feet, one of them could –

Then the doors to Main Engineering slid open, and in burst Valance and Airex, rifles raised. Kharth’s heart lunged into her throat with a combination of shock and relief, and even as Templeton rounded on the interruption, his phaser didn’t come up before they could open fire, before phaser blasts lanced across the distance –

– and slowed. And as Valance and Airex surged forward they, too, slowed.

‘I hate space-time things,’ Cortez had time to whimper before she dove to the deck.

It was child’s play for Templeton to step to one side, out of the path of the blasts – which after a matter of metres, cannoned towards the space he’d been at top speed. From the look on his face, he was as surprised as any at the local temporal dilation effect, but with Valance and Airex moving slower, he had the time to reach for a new panel.

Kharth took a step forward, but his phaser snapped towards her. ‘Please don’t make me kill you, Saeihr,’ he entreated, before hitting a button.

The forcefield sprung up to divide Main Engineering in two before Valance and Airex could burst out the other side of the pocket of time dilation. Valance had shot again, her phaser blast impacting harmlessly off the invisible barrier, then they both skidded to a halt, aghast.

‘Rob!’ called Airex, voice sharper than she’d ever heard it. ‘Everything’s different now, you have to see this!’

Robert Templeton still had his phaser levelled on Kharth, but his expression screwed up. ‘You left me again, Dav. You said you wouldn’t, and you -’

‘You were shooting at us. Yes, I ran away.’

‘Stop talking,’ snapped Templeton. ‘All of you stop talking.’ He stalked back to the main console at the warp core, voice dropping to a mutter only Kharth was close enough to hear. ‘So many fucking voices, how am I supposed to get anything done…?’

Her breath caught. ‘Rob. I’m real, this is all real, which means the ship’s not a prison any more, which means you can -’

But he hadn’t stopped working as she talked, hands moving back across the console, and Cortez rose with a fresh alarm to exclaim, ‘Oh no, don’t do that -’

Then the deck rumbled underneath.

Valance was scanning the area just as Kharth had before, and didn’t seem to be finding anything new. ‘What did he do?’

‘Slowed the antimatter injection rate, because he can still do that within safety parameters, but that’s going to make our power level fluctuate,’ Cortez said in a panicked ramble. ‘Which is real bad news for the stability of our warp field, thus the ship, the Rift… everything.’

Valance looked sharply to one side. ‘Dav, get this damn forcefield down.’

Kharth went to lunge again, but Templeton had clearly identified her as his biggest threat, phaser snapping back up to lock on her.

‘Move again,’ he said in a low, hoarse voice, ‘and I will kill you.’

‘Even if I don’t move, you’ll kill me,’ she replied in a similar tone, hands raised calmingly. ‘But it’s easier to push a button and we all blow up, than watch yourself turn me to dust.’ Her gaze flickered to Cortez. ‘Isa, how long do we have?’

‘Power fluctuations should kick in within two minutes. After that? No idea.’

The deck rumbled again, and Kharth inhaled sharply through her nose. ‘Two minutes, minimum. Then you get what you want, Rob.’ She looked from the barrel of his phaser, up to his eyes, and forced herself to not look away. ‘So what’s the harm in using this time to talk?’

* *

‘Captain?’

Endeavour had sat at the mouth of the rift for days now. Only by their most careful of scans were they sure the Odysseus was still there, and only by the occasional, very faint shift in tetryon emissions were they sure anything was happening over there.

They had sat on the bridge in silence for most of this shift, so after all this time, the uncertain tone in Graelin’s voice was a whole paradigm shift. Rourke looked over at his science officer, only to see his expression shift from curiosity to horror in a heartbeat. ‘Commander?’

‘How is this happening so fast -’ Graelin stopped his own mutter, head snapping up to Rourke. ‘Massive tetryon emissions from the rift, sir; it looks like it’s reopening in front of us.’

‘The Odysseus?’

‘Still there – clearer on our sensors, but their warp field is unstable, they’re no longer securing the rift, and -’ Graelin’s hands flew across his controls as tectonic shifts in circumstances occurred in moments. ‘That energy’s going to rip them apart.’

Rourke shot to his feet. ‘Red alert. Modifications were finished to emit a dekyon pulse? Activate it now.’

‘Aye, Captain.’ Graelin sucked on his teeth, and there was a hum through the deck as Endeavour’s power grid and deflector systems took a sharp swerve in their purpose. ‘Dekyon pulse is stopping the rift from expanding, Captain. If I increase the intensity, I can contract it.’

‘What happens to the Odysseus?’

‘I don’t think they’ll survive.’ With the initial shock over, Graelin’s voice was returning to his confident drawl. ‘But already I’m picking up a massive ionic front forming between us and Whixby; the nebula particles were still agitated from the tetryons, it’s not taking much for the storm to reform.’

Rourke clenched his jaw. ‘Can you raise the Odysseus, Elsa?’

‘Still no response, sir.’

‘We have time,’ he said firmly, seeing the look in Graelin’s eye. ‘Whixby has its new weather control system, so the ion storm has to be significant to disrupt the atmosphere; it might be forming fast, but not that fast.’

‘No,’ said Graelin begrudgingly. ‘But we don’t have forever, Captain. I can close the rift from here.’

‘We’re not at that point yet, and you’re still not sure why a dekyon pulse from outside didn’t work when the Odysseus tried it.’

‘Our ship is considerably more powerful.’

‘That’s a guess,’ Rourke pointed out. ‘And while we still have time, I am not condemning everyone on that ship to death.’

Graelin straightened with a scowl. ‘Then what’s the plan, sir? Wait and see if the Odysseus does something, after days of nothing?’

‘If the rift has reopened, then something’s changed,’ Rourke retorted. ‘If they’re trying something, then they can fix this.’

‘Or the ship’s systems have degraded too badly to maintain the stoppering effect. We can’t assume we can count on them.’

‘Then find me a different way,’ Rourke barked, ‘or find me a new Science Officer.’

Graelin stood ramrod straight, expression twisting in indignation. Then he bowed his head. ‘Yes. Captain.’

Lindgren cleared her throat a moment later. ‘Captain. I’m receiving a distress call from the relief team. Lieutenant Adupon is reporting… a failure somewhere in the weather control grid? Storms are already forming on the surface of Whixby.’

Of bloody course. Rourke bit his lip enough to almost draw blood. ‘Tell them we’re in no position to move, and direct them to fix the damn weather control grid.’ He drew a sharp breath and looked at his bridge team – aside from Lindgren, he had the senior staffer he trusted least and a group of relief officers. ‘This is bad,’ he accepted. ‘But we have time before we’re looking at a fully-formed ionic front, or hurricanes tearing across inhabited Whixby. Our job is to stop this from getting worse, and if we have to, we will close that rift to save this ship and all the people on that colony. In the meantime: buckle up, people.’ He resumed his seat and gripped his armrest time. ‘We’re in for stormy weather.’