FEDERATION'S END III: TWILIGHT
by E. L. Zimmerman
"Damn those lower decks!" Captain Joseph Yanello swore as he lost his footing, the deck of the USS Vandemark lurching beneath him, and he found himself thrown into the nearest turbolift walls. He slammed into the surface hard, cracking his skull thankfully against the cushioned matting, and he dropped to the trembling floor. Beneath him, he felt his ship shivering from whatever danger the junior officers had found.
"Damn those Starfleet directives!" he muttered about the latest philosophy which stressed granting junior officers increased command time at the conn ... unobserved. "This is the absolute last time I leave them in charge of anything!"
To his surprise, another quake struck the Vandemark.
As the shock caught him while he was climbing back to his feet, he angrily stumbled forward, flailing for the handrail but missed, and rammed into the opposite wall, again smacking his head into the cushion. Again, he slumped to the floor, rolling over onto his back, and, licking his stinging lip, he tasted his own blood.
"What the hell are they doing?"
By the time the lift reached the Bridge, he had found solid footing and watched as the doors whisked open. Incensed, he stormed onto the Bridge, red alert klaxons sounding all around him.
"Captain on the Bridge!" Ensign Takamura announced, rising from the captain's chair with an expression of relief on his face.
Pointing at the ensign, Yanello shot, "Stow the protocols until your next review!"
Scurrying, the ensign trotted quickly toward the Tactical Station.
"Murphy!" the captain shouted, the deck wobbling once more beneath him. "What's our status?"
Glancing back at him from her post at the helm, Lieutenant Bonnie Murphy kept one hand on the drive console as the other viciously tapped commands to the ship's propulsion system. "A spatial anomaly formed out of nowhere, captain!" she explained. "We were just sitting here, and it decided to join us!"
"Where?" he asked.
"Just off our port bow!"
Ignoring his own safety, Yanello marched forward and leapt the railing, thundering onto the lower platform. Certain that he wasn't about to be propelled by another quake, he moved toward the conn.
The viewscreen blinked.
Suddenly, Captain Yanello found himself staring ...
... down the drain?
A tremendous blue cloud, large enough to engulf the Vandemark, swirled angrily before him. The anomaly crackled with energy that reminded him of lightning storms he had grown up with in rural Arizona during the monsoon seasons. The energy sparkled, stretching nearer and nearer his ship, but the ship's shield bubble absorbed any harmful effects ... except every time lightning struck, the inertial dampeners couldn't compensate fast enough, and he guessed that the lightning was the source of the quakes.
"Captain," Commander Redek, a Vulcan, said from her post at the Sciences Station. "Lieutenant Murphy is correct. We were conducting cursory scans of the system when anomaly formed."
"What were you doing?" the captain asked.
Glancing toward the helm, Redek explained, "I had detected faint traces of graviton particles, which we moved closer to scan."
"Moved closer?" Yanello queried. "Redek, haven't you ever heard the Earth expression about what curiosity did to the cat? Why in the name of Sarek would we move closer to investigate graviton particles?"
"For reasons unknown, I was experiencing tremendous difficulty in achieving a full sensor analysis," the Vulcan continued, busy manning her console. Her black Vulcan bangs shook as the ship trembled, and she steadied herself by pressing her back deeper into her chair. "I suggested that if we were to move within one thousand meters of the particles that the sensors might have been able to filter out the distortion. Lieutenant Murphy obliged, and that is when the anomaly formed."
Bringing his attention to bear on the viewer, Yanello studied the cloud. What he saw was a blossom in space. It slowly started to swirl, to spin on its own axis, trailing feathers of blue plasma in its wake. As he watched, he noticed the revolutions beginning to increase, and, for his own safety, he leapt for the command chair.
"Well, Redek, as long as we're out of the frying pan and sitting in the fire, I'll give you twenty seconds to cook. Analysis of the phenomenon?" he demanded.
Forcing himself to relax, he listened as the Vulcan tapped out several key sequences at the Sciences console.
"Captain, I'm reading a sudden increase ... a massive influx of graviton particles," Redek confirmed. "The resulting gravimetric distortion is pulling the Vandemark in."
Indulging his ire, Yanello snapped, "Commander, that much I can tell without the aid of sensors."
"Apologize later. Scan now."
On the screen, the cloud spun before his eyes, tiny comets of matters being swept into its opening maw.
"Do you have any idea of what it is, Redek?"
Maintaining her Vulcan composure, Redek glanced at the screen.
"Captain, we could be looking at the formation of an unstable wormhole."
"Unstable?" Yanello asked.
Again, the ship quivered under his feet, and Yanello found himself clutching the arms of his chair.
"How would you know that it's unstable?"
"Elementary deduction, captain," the Vulcan replied. "As there have been no reports of irregular graviton particles or stationery wormhole activity in this sector during our previous scans or this area's history, I can make a summary judgment that this distortion is highly localized and unpredictable. Its appearance is unprecedented. Also, while the anomaly continues to draw the Vandemark closer to its opening, sensors clearly indicate that it is not growing in size." Quickly, she tapped a few keys. "Based on my understanding of wormholes - as you may know, I completed a research thesis on the Bajoran wormhole - I project the opening of the wormhole to be quite small, not to exceed three meters."
Uncertain if he had heard his Sciences Officer correctly, Yanello jerked his head in the direction of Sciences.
"Did you say three meters?"
Nodding, she answered, "That is correct, captain."
Turning back to the main viewer, he argued, "That's impossible, Redek! How can a single wormhole with an opening that small produce such a strong effect on the Vandemark?"
"For that question, I do not have an answer," Redek explained.
"That's not the answer I wanted."
"My apologies, sir."
Grimacing, Yanello gave in to his twisted sense of humor and said, "We're about to lose a terrible amount of ensigns."
He watched Takamura swallow.
"I lack the information to even support a hypothesis," the Vulcan replied.
"Murphy!" the captain barked, back in command mode. "I want maximum power to the shields!"
"Full reverse on engines! Let's see if we can't break ourselves free!"
Wiping the sweat from her brow, Murphy punched the propulsion activation queue, but nothing happened. She tried boosting the auxiliary power, but it had no effect. "I'm trying, sir, but the ship's not responding! We're still being drawn into the anomaly!"
"Murphy," Yanello tried, softening his tone but projecting loud enough to be certain that she would hear him over ship's waling alarms, "I trust you heard Redek clearly? The opening of that wormhole, if that's what it is, will only be three meters wide."
"Yes, sir! I heard that!"
"I don't think that I need to remind any of you that this ship won't fit through an opening three meters wide, and that means we'll be ripped to shreds in the wake of the distortion!"
"Understood, sir!" she shouted. "But I still can't break free! It's almost as if -"
Suddenly, a brilliant light flashed on the viewscreen.
Bringing a hand up, Yanello diverted his eyes, but the glare still burned across the expanse of the Vandemark's Bridge. Fighting it, he closed his eyes tight, and he saw red, light so intense that it shone literally through his fleshy eyelids.
"Redek!" he cried. "What's happening?"
Eyes closed, Yanello listened to the patient tweets and chirps of the Sciences Station.
"Captain, something's emerging from the wormhole!" the Vulcan exclaimed. "Lieutenant, hard to starboard! Repeat, hard to starboard!"
"I'm trying! I'm trying! The ship won't -"
Without warning, Yanello lurched, thrown from his captain's chair into the air, and he collapsed in a heap onto the hard deck. A tremendous 'clank' reverberated in his ears, and he brought his hands up to cover them. The sound faded slowly, like the vibrations ending on a tuning fork. He lowered his hands to the deck, and he felt the ship's trembling starting to subside under his fingertips.
The bright light softened, dissipating, and he opened his eyes.
"What the hell was THAT?"
On the screen, the murderous blue cloud stopped spinning.
Now, like a series of leaves wafting on a breeze, the visible distortion dissipated, sending tufts of energy clouds and lightning bolts harmlessly in all directions ...
... like ripples expanding on the surface of a pond.
It was dying.
The wormhole was dying.
"Redek," the captain tried, slowly climbing to his feet.
"What was that? What just happened?"
"A moment, sir," the Vulcan replied.
Murphy turned to look at her senior officer.
"Captain ... it's just ... leaving ... vanishing ... without a trace." She pointed at the screen. "It's gone, sir, as quickly and as unpredictably as it appeared."
Straightening his uniform top, Yanello turned and walked back to his chair, sitting down.
"I believe I have completed my analysis, captain," Redek offered flatly.
"This I want to hear."
"What we experienced was, as best as I can determine at present, an unstable wormhole," the Vulcan concluded. "Without warning or precedent, the anomaly appeared. It could not establish itself within the operating parameters that we attribute to wormholes, requiring what physicists have termed a 'gravitational anchor,' so it did not sustain itself but for a few seconds. However ..."
The Science Officer's voice trailed off, very uncharacteristic for a Vulcan.
"Captain," she finally acknowledged. "As you're well aware, we've been experimenting with some new scanning procedures."
"Yes," he said. "Sensor pulses ... but I'm not convinced what good they'll do."
"This may shed some light are their applicability. Before the anomaly collapsed, I was able to transmit a sensor pulse, and I did receive the corresponding echo." The Vulcan feverishly tapped several keys on the console before her, and she studied the data filtering across the closest display. "If these spatial coordinates are correct - keeping in mind that wormhole mechanics can wreck havoc with our current sensor technology - then it would be safe for me to conclude that the wormhole was initiated in the Delta Quadrant."
Surprised, he whirled his chair in the Vulcan's direction. "Did you say the Delta Quadrant?"
"Yes, sir," Redek answered. "May I remind the captain that it is only a supposition?"
"Understood," Yanello conceded. "But what came through the wormhole? Something hit us, and I want to know what it was."
Again, the Vulcan turned to her screens.
"A small craft impacted with our shields, captain. The craft must have had sufficient shields to protect its own integrity. I would imagine that it, merely, careened off our shields onto a new heading. A moment, sir, and I will scan for its new trajectory."
Brushing a hand across his face, Yanello sighed heavily.
'That was a brush with fate that came a bit too close for comfort in my book,' he thought. Chuckling to himself, he added, 'And I guess it isn't fair to blame it on the lower decks.'
"The craft strayed onto course three-three-nine-point-five," the Vulcan announced. "It's heading toward the Thilon System. My scans indicate that its propulsion system is failing. I can speculate that it will be caught within the gravitation pull of Thilon Five within the next two minutes. Its orbit will decay, and it will plummet to the planet's surface." Redek tapped several keys, and she read the results. "So long as its shielding is undamaged, the craft will stay intact, and it will crash land on the planet's surface."
"Thilon Five?" Yanello asked, searching his memory. The Vandemark had been out here conducting planetary surveys so long that he had, unintentionally, committed all of the star systems to memory. "That's an M Class planet, isn't it?"
Nodding, Redek retrieved statistics on the world. "It is, sir," she confirmed. "It contains a society that has not progressed to the point of first contact. In fact, the Thilons do not, to our knowledge, maintain even a space exploration program. They are primarily nomadic, moving about from location to location as the weather or environmental needs change. According to current reports, Starfleet has established a duckblind operation there for observation purposes only. The reports indicate that the Thilons are, perhaps, several centuries away from Starfleet's contact criteria."
Relieved, the captain slapped his hands on the arms of his chair. "Then if we maintain a duckblind operation, I guess it isn't our problem," he concluded. "See if you can reach them on subspace. Make them aware of what's happened, and give them our personal assurance that we'll stay on the look-out for additional anomalies. Ask them to locate the craft to see if it poses any danger to -"
An alarm sounded on the Vulcan's console.
Startled, Redek glanced down at the display. As the information scrolled, her eyes grew surprisingly more and more intense.
"Commander?" the captain asked.
"A moment, sir."
Impatient, Yanello glanced up at the Bridge's ceiling.
"Mom always wanted me to be an engineer," he muttered. "But, no. I had to pursue command."
"Captain, I'm getting additional telemetry on the craft that exited the wormhole," Redek explained calmly. "It appears to have been a Class Two Probe, Artemus Class."
Surprised, Yanello faced his Vulcan comrade.
"But the Artemus Probes are Starfleet technology, commander?"
"And they were retired from service over three years ago?"
"That is correct, sir."
Rubbing his hand across his forehead, Yanello squeezed. He didn't like what he was now hearing, and a tension headache was beginning.
"Did the probe transmit a recognition hail?" he asked.
Breathing deeply enough that her breaths were visible, Redek confirmed the information, pressing a touchplate. She sat back in his chair.
"It did, sir," he said.
"The probe was property registered and catalogue to the Starship ... Voyager."
Yanello had yet to see a Vulcan turn pale.
'I guess there's a first time for everything,' he thought.
Turning, Yanello said, "Murphy, get Starfleet Command on subspace. Priority One."
The lieutenant turned on her chair, her face bearing a quizzical expression. "Sir, what should I tell them?"
His routine science assignment had just gone awry.
"Tell them ... tell them they're not going to believe this."