As he sat in the center seat of the U.S.S. da Vinci's bridge, the young officer knew all eyes were on him. The bridge personnel had turned from their flashing consoles and even away from the main viewer to focus their attentions on the "big chair." Their hands were stayed from taking action as they awaited his next words. Silence hung in the air.
The officer smiled. Above all else, Kieran Duffy lived for a captive audience.
"So there we were at the bar, the three of us, and for whatever reason, the Andorian woman's face turns this almost royal blue color..."
"It couldn't have been that she was embarrassed," said Ensign Robin Rusconi, seated at the da Vinci's conn for her usual gamma-shift duties. "I can't imagine your open speculations about an Andorian wedding night would have upset her sensibilities."
Duffy looked to the conn officer and knit his brow. "What, you're not curious?" He smiled, letting his eyes drift up to the viewer and the comforting stream of streaking stars it provided as the ship traveled at warp speed. "Ensign, I wasn't trying to pick a fight. I was trying to initiate a cultural exchange."
"You're lucky you didn't get your chronometer cleaned," Bart Faulwell said from his seat at the bridge's communication station. Duffy laughed a bit, knowing that Faulwell had sat through his rendition of this particular encounter maybe a dozen times. While he'd always been indulgent, Duffy was pretty sure that the linguist had not volunteered for a late-night turn of duty on the bridge just to be regaled by tales of the crew's extracurricular antics.
"Okay, okay, forget the Andorian," Duffy said, trying to regain his listeners' focus. "This is where it gets good. In walks this pair of Tellarites, and Fabian perks up in his seat. Don't ask me why, but the guy finds Tellarites endlessly fascinating. You know he can even speak some of their language?"
Faulwell laughed this time. "One of their languages, anyway. Ever since our last trip to Maeglin, I've been giving him lessons. And he makes me listen to him in our quarters, usually when I'm trying to sleep."
A look of understanding spread across Duffy's face as he regarded Faulwell. "Ah hah! So that's why you're up here tonight. You're trying to ditch your roomie."
"Not in so many words," said Faulwell. "But I am glad to be here if only so I may report back to Fabian that you succeeded in relaying this story to each member of the da Vinci crew."
"I'm goal oriented," Duffy replied as he turned back to his audience. "So Fabe launches from his stool and says, 'Watch this.' He walks up to the pair and, well, grunts out something. Carol, who's next to me, can only sit there stunned at the whole thing. She just can't believe it's not me doing something dumb in front of the Tellarites."
Faulwell laughed despite himself and shook his head. "He'll never get the hang of declining his verbs properly. And people ask me why I dislike first contact missions so much."
"So time just freezes. Then the bigger Tellarite -- "
A sudden blaring klaxon cut Duffy off, jolting everyone on the bridge. Rusconi's eyes glared wide as she spun toward the console and others on the bridge followed suit. Forgetting all notions of finishing his story, Duffy straightened in the command chair.
Ensign Joanne Piotrowski, the gamma-shift tactical officer, called out over the alarm without looking up from her console. "Long-range sensors have detected a vessel, approaching fast. Estimated speed is warp eight-point-eight and it may be climbing."
Duffy turned to face her. "A ship? What kind?"
"It doesn't match anything in the ship-recognition database. Whatever it is, it's not very big, probably only large enough to carry a few dozen humanoids." Studying her tactical displays for several more seconds, Piotrowski added, "There's no indication they're doing any scanning of their own, or that they've locked onto us as a target. But there's no variance in its heading." She tapped a command into her console. "Its speed is definitely increasing, but minutely."
Duffy saw Faulwell sweep up a Feinberg receiver from the communications console and slip it into his left ear. Though it was a throwback to Starfleet technology almost two centuries old, Faulwell was one of the few Duffy knew who still used the tiny tuner consistently. It seemed to help focus his attention on transmissions intercepted by the da Vinci while filtering some of the noise from elsewhere on the bridge.
"I'm picking up a signal from the ship, Commander. It will take the UT a bit to sort this out, though. It's a language I've not heard before."
If Faulwell had never heard this alien tongue, Duffy knew that posed a new set of variables. Given his background as one of Starfleet's premiere cryptographers, let alone his linguistic training, Faulwell had been exposed to the languages of countless races across two quadrants. Duffy wouldn't have been surprised if Faulwell doped the language out before the Universal Translator.
"Well, I doubt anyone would announce a sneak attack," Duffy said. "Thanks, Bart." He settled a bit back into his chair. "And would you mind turning off the alarm before it wakes up everyone on the ship?"
Faulwell regarded Duffy with an amused expression. "Isn't that the point of a red alert?"
"Sure, but this isn't anything gamma shift can't handle on its own." The klaxon went quiet, allowing Duffy to once again hear more typical bridge sounds: chirping consoles, the chatter of shipwide communications, the hissing door of the turbolift. "No reason at all to disturb the beauty sleep of our shipmates."
"So the lieutenant commander thinks my appearance would benefit from some shut-eye?"
Duffy snapped up in the center seat, instantly recognizing the voice. He spun to face Captain David Gold, who stood at the entryway of the bridge appearing ready for anything.
Or at least as ready, Duffy thought, as a beige textured-cloth bathrobe and slippers allowed a commanding officer to appear.
"True beauty, Mr. Duffy, is reflected in the soul."
"Captain!" Duffy cleared his throat a bit, hoping to suppress the giggle he so wanted to release. "There's a ship of unknown origin on a course intercepting ours. Sensors recognized nothing about it, so the alert sounded." He tried to talk around that giggle, but failed miserably. "It doesn't appear immediately threatening, sir, if you'd like to head back to bed."
Gold narrowed his eyes at Duffy, a signal that he was there strictly for business and not for a crack at his expense. "Just when will we cross paths with this vessel?"
Duffy looked to Piotrowski, who was ready with the information. "Unless we alter course, about twelve minutes, Captain."
Gold looked to Faulwell next. "And we haven't made contact with the vessel yet?"
"No, sir," Faulwell replied, two fingers helping to keep his ear receiver in place. "I'm still working to sort out its transmissions. Whatever the message might be, it appears to be running on a repeating loop. It may be steadily broadcast or programmed to sound whenever something enters that ship's sensor range."
The captain nodded and smoothed the front of his robe as Duffy rose from the command chair to make room for him. "Oh no, Commander, keep your seat. It's about time that something interesting took place during one of your quiet gamma shifts. I'd suggest you risk disturbing a few more of your shipmates, though. Abramowitz and Stevens in particular would be helpful." To the rest of the bridge crew he offered, "We may have a first contact situation this evening, folks, so let's put on our best faces. I'll rejoin you in a few."
Duffy's verbal impulses finally got the best of him. "And we can't have our new friends greeting the captain in his...um...babushka."
"Leave the Yiddish to the experts, boychik." The captain allowed a smile as he reentered the turbolift and let the doors close behind him.
A loud sigh escaped from Faulwell's lips, catching Duffy's attention. The linguist shook his head and turned to the communications console. "Splendid. My favorite. A first contact on the late shift. I thought working gamma was supposed to be relaxing."
As the rest of the bridge officers worked at their various stations, Duffy could do nothing except look to the main viewer and wait for the situation to develop.
"Guess the Tellarite story will have to wait."
It took less than five minutes for Captain Gold to return to the da Vinci's bridge, this time properly groomed and wearing a more familiar Starfleet uniform. Duffy rose from the center seat and the two officers exchanged silent nods as he walked to the bridge's engineering station. From there, he could monitor the da Vinci's propulsion and other systems as events warranted.
While not the ship's chief engineer, Duffy took personal pride in the efficient and smooth operation of the warp drive on the Saber-class vessel. Chief Engineer Jil Barnak never got territorial over his habit of wandering into main engineering just to fine-tune intermix ratios or tweak frequencies of fields within the ship's warp core. As he often noted to his fellow crewmembers following his transfer from the U.S.S. Enterprise, taking the boy out of engineering rarely translated to taking the engineering out of the boy.
"Duffy," Gold called out from the center seat, "what can you tell us about our friends out there?"
Turning back to face his captain, Duffy replied, "It's not like anything with a Federation registry, that's for sure. Its outer hull appears to be electrically charged, very similar to the way our older ships used to polarize hull plating before we developed shield generators." It was a means of ship protection that recalled for him the twenty-second century and the beginnings of deep-space exploration for the people of his world. "We're not picking up any kind of sensor capabilities, either."
"What about propulsion?"
"Looks to be driven by ion reactions, Captain. Their drive system appears to use magnetic fields and electrically charged gases rather than one fueled by mixes of matter and antimatter." Ion drives in Duffy's experience were connective technologies; ones that races used until finding something superior, as did the Jem'Hadar, if his memory served. Technologically, this race looked to be far inferior to most others encountered by the Federation, he decided.
That didn't change the fact that they were now a few minutes from intercepting what appeared to be one of the fastest space vessels they had ever encountered.
"So how can that thing be traveling so fast?" Duffy had spoken aloud without realizing it, and he looked up sheepishly. Maybe no one had heard him, he thought, until he saw the smiling face of Carol Abramowitz as she worked at the nearby communications station with Faulwell.
"I don't know, Commander. Maybe they got a push?"
Duffy gave her a friendly smirk. "Don't you have a call to make?" He was well aware that Abramowitz had been tasked with contacting the craft once Faulwell and the computer's linguistics banks had cracked the language barrier. The endlessly repeating series of calls had been found to be cries of distress, but few other details were to be had.
"Don't start on me, mister," she said. "I'm not even supposed to be here today." They shared a quiet laugh as she turned back to her console. "They're not responding to our hails, anyway. I'm hoping it's a matter of their communications systems and not because we've been rude."
Considering Abramowitz's expertise as a cultural specialist and the starship's best liaison to other races, it did not surprise Duffy that she would be concerned with the aliens' issues of perception. Abramowitz worked hard at understanding even the subtlest nuances of behavior or voice inflection that might inadvertently belie one's actions and intentions toward others. Her poise and politeness on duty frequently made Duffy smile, though given her usual behavior when he "got her out of the house" as he called it when they laid over at the occasional station or starbase, she tended to be a different person.
Certainly those Tellarites would agree.
A rise in Gold's voice drew his attention back to the situation at hand. "Abramowitz? Any luck in contacting the ship?"
"None, Captain," she answered. "Still working on it."
"I know that you are, and I appreciate your persistence." Gold then looked at the second officer. "Duffy, we've plotted the other ship's likely course and I aim to bring us alongside her as she passes. Are the engines up to sustaining the speed we need to do so?"
"Yes, sir," Duffy replied. "It shouldn't pose any problems for us to shadow them. My readings have their speed at just a shade below warp eight-point-nine. We can maintain that level for twenty hours or better."
"Good." Gold nodded firmly as he settled into the center seat. "Let's get moving, then. Rusconi, start along a course parallel to our projections and let's get our speed up to warp eight...oh, let's say point three."
Rusconi attended to Gold's orders as Duffy again watched over the fluctuating graphic displays at the engineering station. The da Vinci smoothly came to speed and he allowed himself some inner satisfaction as the gauges did not waver from tolerance levels.
A flash from the viewscreen made him snap his attention forward. A blip of speeding light had shot from the viewer's left side, and it now was tracing a path toward the center of its star-streaked image.
Piotrowski indicated the screen with a nod of her head. "Captain, the ship just passed us."
"Then let's catch up," Gold replied. "Match course and speed."
In a matter of moments, the streak of light took shape in the main viewer as the da Vinci came alongside the alien vessel. The silvery, wedge-shaped craft sported small, swept-back wings that appeared more aesthetic than functional. Several window ports peppered the outer hull of the ship, and its sleek skin looked to Duffy as though it could almost be cast from liquid mercury. He appreciated their approaching from the ship's aft as the view allowed him a lingering look at its engines, which appeared to be exhaust ports rather than nacelles.
Whatever is coming from those ports, he thought, had to be more than this ship was built to handle.
Abramowitz spoke to break the silence on the bridge. "Captain, I'm getting a hail from the ship. It's coming in on a low-frequency audio band. Maybe they couldn't respond to our subspace transmissions."
"Maybe so," Gold said, his eyes not leaving the viewer. "Put them on, Abramowitz."
Speakers on the bridge crackled a bit as static filtered in and out of words translated by the da Vinci's computers. "Greetings, unidentified vessel. This is Daltren. We are of the Senuta. We are in great need of assistance and we hope you are here to help us."
Gold tipped his head up to the ceiling of the bridge, as if that might make him better understood. "We certainly are here to help, Daltren. I am Captain Gold from the United Federation of Planets. My crew is ready to assist you with whatever you need. Can you tell us what the trouble is?"
"We cannot stop."
Duffy sat and laced his fingers. That surely would pose a problem, he thought, but one that they should be able to solve without breaking a sweat. Seeing Gold's questioning glance, he nodded in response. "We're on it, Captain."
Satisfied with that, Gold turned his attention back to the main viewer. "My crew is already examining your situation, Daltren, and we should have a solution in short order. We'll need some information about your ship and its technology. Can you arrange that?"
"We will have to awaken Bohan, and he has been ill, but it will be done." The voice paused, but as Gold drew breath to speak, it continued. "Thank you, Captain. We have needed help for far too long."
Puzzlement crossed Gold's features. "Just how long have you been unable to stop, Daltren?"
"We have traveled this way for forty-seven of our cycles, ever since we encountered what we think was some form of electromagnetic storm."
Duffy swallowed hard at hearing those words. After moving at close to warp nine for that time, he guessed the ship could be a dozen sectors from its homeworld. Such a journey would be of little consequence for a Starfleet vessel with the latest that twenty-fourth-century technology had to offer, but who knew what kind of effect such a trip would have on the Senuta ship?
Daltren continued. "Our supplies are nearly exhausted, Captain. Our computers have locked us out of many functions. My people are ill from the journey. Three have died. We need your help."
"Count on it, Daltren," Gold said. "Get us your information as soon as you can."
The bridge crew worked in silence as they awaited the Senuta transmission. Before long, Abramowitz noted its reception and Gold waved a finger to indicate he wanted it all transferred to Duffy's workstation.
Calling the information to his console, Duffy instantly disliked what he saw.
"Captain, this just isn't good. Their engines are built to travel at about half of the speed they're moving. I don't know how it's even holding together with its low-end structural integrity system." He paused as he read more. "They don't have replicators or transporters to speak of. They don't even have inertial dampers; they use acceleration couches when they travel. No wonder they're sick. Just moving about the ship during high warp must be hell for them." He shook his head. "If we're not careful, any sudden deceleration will turn these guys into paste."
"Oy gevalt," Gold muttered, and Duffy could tell that his choice of words had been poor when he saw the glowering expression on the captain's face. "Then I suggest you start scouring the computer library for ideas if you have none of your own, Commander." Duffy's own expression must have revealed too much, because Gold added with a wry grin, "Oh come now, Duffy. Gomez tells me you love research."
"Oh, yes, sir. I'm your man." As Duffy began tapping into the ship's library computer, a thought struck him. "Carol, ask Mr. Daltren to send over ship's logs or any sensor readings they have on that storm he mentioned. I've got a hunch about something." As he browsed the library, Duffy let his mind wander.
Ion-charged engines thrown into hyperefficiency...locked-up computers...a lack of shielding on the ship...this has to be the result of an ion storm, and a powerful one at that.
He let that idea roll around in his mind as his console blinked to indicate Abramowitz had sent over the Senuta ship's latest report.
"Their sensors detected ion bombardments at levels that would have wreaked havoc on even a shielded vessel," he said aloud. It was a storm that experienced space travelers would have done their best to avoid. In this case, sheer misfortune had resulted in the Senuta being flung far from home and powerless to do anything about it.
"Give me a few minutes, Captain," Duffy said, not bothering to look up from his console. "I think I'm on to something."
"Good," Gold said as he moved toward the turbolift. "It's time to get Gomez out of bed. Once we get this ship stopped, I'm sure she'll want to beam over and have a look at things for herself. Shall I tell her you'll have your plan ready for us in, say, twenty minutes?"
"Give me fifteen, sir," Duffy said. "These people have been at warp long enough."
"That's the stuff, Commander," Gold said, smiling approvingly. "Carry on."
Duffy turned his attention back to the computer's library files on ion storm encounters, hoping that past experiences of Starfleet's finest engineers might spur his thinking. He scanned past more recent entries, dismissing accounts of ships with more advanced shielding than that employed by the Senuta. Before long, the log records began to bear twenty-third-century timestamps and four-digit stardates...and the signatures of someone very familiar to him.
"Well, I'll be...Montgomery Scott." Duffy again found himself speaking aloud to no one in particular.
"Captain Scott? Did you call this in?" Abramowitz asked, again tuning in to Duffy's spoken voice. Members of any of the S.C.E. teams welcomed any contact by Scott. As chief liaison officer for the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, he was the man responsible for assigning their missions and keeping them from running afoul of Starfleet brass when their means of accomplishing those missions turned to the unorthodox.
"No, Carol, sorry about that," said Duffy. "But I have a feeling that Captain Scott is going to help us out of this jam without his even knowing about it."
And voices from the past began ringing in his mind....
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