Drone: Chapter Six
by Paul Darcy
Picard listened as Riker finished his conversation with Barclay. It would appear that the forward shields were now operational and so far no ship, cube-like or otherwise, had followed them from the asteroid field. Picard didn't know wether to feel relieved or not. Rising from his command chair, he moved forward and joined Riker behind the ops station. Any response to their message from Starfleet would take too long to reach the Enterprise and Picard wasn't about to wait. Turning partially around, Picard spoke. "Mr. Worf, please send another message to Starfleet. Inform them we are returning to the asteroid field and will contact them again when we are able."
Taking a deep breath, the captain moved back toward his command chair but remained standing. "Ensign, Mahoney. I want you to manoeuvre the Enterprise as deeply into the asteroid field as is safely possible. Farther, if you can."
"Aye, sir." Came Mahoney's eager reply. The ensign quickly plotted a course and began to move the Enterprise.
Picard addressed his first officer. "I take it Mr. Barclay has returned our shields to normal?" He already knew the answer to this question but wanted it confirmed non the less.
Will glanced at Worf who performed a quick check and nodded back at Will. "Yes, sir. All shield functions are normal. Mr. Barclay will not be conducting any more tests today." Will said with conviction and a bit of sarcasm.
Picard raised his eyebrows slightly and continued. "Well, then, we should be back in the asteroid field momentarily, and since you were so keen on leading the rescue, number one, I want you and Dr. Crusher and whomever else you need to take out a shuttle and recover Data and Geordi."
Riker grinned like a wolf that had just spied a large lone sheep and nearly ran from the bridge. He was tapping his communicator and calling the Doctor as the turbolift doors closed on him. Picard had always known Will was more a man of action as he himself had once been in his earlier years. A distant painful memory made him think of the artificial heart beating in his chest and he secretly hoped Will would be careful. Enough damage had been done already.
Ensign Mahoney had plotted his best course into the asteroid field and managed to nestle the Enterprise quite a distance amongst the tumbling rocks, but was having difficulty getting any farther. He had squeezed them in as far as was physically possible while still retaining some margin of safety, though a small one. He stopped the ship and waited for further orders.
Worf's voice broke the relative quiet of the bridge and ensign Mahoney relaxed slightly as the Klingon's words were directed towards the captain not himself. "Captain, the derelict warbird has drifted farther and is now fairly close to our current position." Ensign Mahoney confirmed that with a check of his own. The readings from the derelict were so faint that he had first mistaken it for a small asteroid. He would have to watch such things in the future. Looking at the readings again, he could tell it was completely dead in space. It had moved, but definitely not of its own power.
"Worf, are you sure there are no life signs from that Romulan ship?" Picard asked Worf as he decided to sit in his command chair.
Worf checked again to confirm. "No life signs, sir, but this could be a trick to lure an away team over to the wreck. That alien vessel could be a new Romulan weapon and this," Worf indicated the destroyed Romulan vessel barley registering on the main viewer, "could have been a target ship. If that is so then other Romulan ships may be in the area, and cloaked. We would not be able to tell through all of this interference." Worf offered Picard a lot of speculation and the captain could well imagine Worf going over all the possibilities and deciding to voice his opinions. Any comments from his crew could be worthwhile, but Picard had to keep in mind that, where the Romulans were concerned, Worf had a special animosity and could be jumping to conclusions. Like he had about the possibility of the Borg?
Picard, hand on mouth, twisted sideways in his chair before he commented. "Then, if this is a Romulan ploy, would they destroy one of their own warbirds? And to what end? To lure us to it? If the Romulans wanted us in a trap they could easily have sprung one upon us by now. No, let us assume that the - alien vessel - the same one that destroyed the Tecton also destroyed this Romulan warbird and attacked our shuttle. That would leave us only one question to ask about the Romulans. Why are the Romulans here in this asteroid field in Federation space?"
Worf immediately offered more of his speculations. "Perhaps this asteroid field, with its near impenetrable interference, would be an excellent arena for testing a new weapons or a staging area for an invasion." Picard was growing a little weary of Worf's suppositions. What he needed was solid proof.
"Worf, can our scanners tell us if that warbird is a mock-up?" Picard asked.
Worf's theory seemed to loose its plausibility once he confirmed all the readings he had obtained from the destroyed warbird. He reluctantly reported his findings. "The warbird appears to have been a fully functional vessel as we know them."
Picard now voiced his own opinion. "The Romulans would surely not destroy one of their own warbirds to test a new weapon. I believe what really happened to that ship, the Tecton and our away team was something else entirely. And we will find out what it is, of that I have no doubt" Nobody offered any other comments. Picard crossed his arms and leaned back into his chair, trying his best to relax. He resisted the urge to call Will. The rescue team would report as soon as they left the Enterprise and had something to report.
A moment later, Picard uncrossed his arms and began to idly drum his fingers on his console, staring at the fuzzy images on the main viewer.
* * *
Riker sat in shuttle three in the main shuttlebay unnecessarily checking shuttle systems. He paused, looked across the bay, but didn't see anybody coming yet. He touched his communicator. "Riker to Dr. Crusher and ensign Tomlin, are you ready yet?" Riker was slightly annoyed at their tardiness and tried not to let it show in the tone of his voice, but suspected that he had failed.
"We'll be right there, commander. Tomlin and I had to stop off in engineering to gather the proper supplies for commander Data, sorry." Crusher was also trying not to sound irritate but failed as well. Both she and Will had fears that this mission would be more one of recovery, as apposed to rescue, and it was affecting them.
In a few moments the doors to the shuttlebay whooshed open and admitted Dr. Crusher carrying an assortment of medical supplies. Ensign Tomlin accompanied her and carried a large metal briefcase.
Once Tomlin and Crusher arrived beside the shuttle Riker stepped out and forwarded an apology to them. "Sorry I was so short with you two. I should have realised that Data would need special care."
"That's all right, Will," the doctor answered for them. "We are just as upset as you are." All three quietly entered the shuttle and, once settled, Riker contacted the shuttlebay operator who promptly opened the shuttlebay doors.
The shuttle launched from the Enterprise like a bee from the hive. Riker, though he seldom had the opportunity, enjoyed piloting. If his mind weren't so absorbed with other thoughts at the moment, he might have even found flying into the asteroid field exhilarating. Riker wasted little time in achieving maximum safe velocity.
Back on the bridge, Picard had waited for what he felt was long enough. He had promised himself that he would allow Will to call first but he could not sit idly any longer. He checked. It had only been ten minutes since Riker had left the bridge. It seemed like an hour. He touched his command console. He noted the shuttle had cleared the Enterprise a minute ago. "Picard to Riker. How do things look out there, Will?"
Will's voice came through with a slight static background for accompaniment. The shuttle was not far enough out from the Enterprise for the interference to significantly hamper the signal yet. "If you are asking if I see any Romulans, Captain, that's a negative. We are just entering some denser sections of the asteroid field now, and should be at Geordi and Data's last location in about, twenty minutes. We'll keep you informed of our progress. Riker out."
The captain felt it necessary to give the away team one last set of orders. "Good luck. And if you encounter the alien vessel, do not engage. Return at once."
"Understood." answered Riker, and then there was nothing left but to wait for the rescue team to call them with any further information. Picard pulled his uniform down tight and waited. He hated waiting, but sometimes, it seemed, there was nothing else he could do.
* * *
"So this is the inside of the Altronin asteroid field?" Dr. Crusher looked out of the shuttle's windows and asked more to break the uneasy silence than anything else.
Will was busy manoeuvring the shuttle, so it was ensign Tomlin that answered. "Ya, this field is only six thousand years old. Barely a flash in the history of the universe. Still it is incredible though, such power in this star's nova to literally tear the planets into asteroids. One very odd thing though, the radiation readings in this field are extremely high." Tomlin was looking now at his readouts and spoke his last sentence so quietly that the doctor and Riker didn't even hear him.
The doctor began to busy herself, checking through her medical supplies and equipment. It all appeared to be in perfect working order, for the third time.
Tomlin addressed Riker with some of his findings. "Radiation levels reaching point five of shield maximum, commander. It seems that the closer we fly to any particular asteroid the higher the radiation level as though we were experiencing severe electromagnetic feedback."
Riker turned his head slightly to reply keeping most of his attention on piloting the shuttle. "Record all that information for review later. It might give us a clue. And keep us informed of any dangerous radiation levels." Riker smiled after giving his orders, remembering his junior years and eagerness. Tomlin responded by paying even more attention to the readouts.
"Riker to Enterprise, we will reach the last recorded shuttle coordinates in ten minutes. Also we are experiencing very high radiation levels the closer we get to any of the asteroids."
"Can you see anything visually yet?" Picard's reply was growing steadily more garbled with distance, but Riker could still make him out.
"Nothing yet sir, I'll let you know the second I do." Riker dodged several more asteroids while Tomlin busied himself recording the radiation fluctuations. The doctor sat quietly, her inspection complete.
* * *
Barclay watched Julie-Anne's animated face. "Then I attached two type three manipulator arms with micro servo controllers onto the agrav unit and interfaced it optically with Apur's brain so he would have full control of the limbs." Julie-Anne finished her detailed description of Apur for Barclay in the hopes that he would think of a way for them to find him quickly.
Prusing his lips, Barclay nodded his head. He had decided that informing the captain of Apur would only compound his problems right now. It would appear that Julie-Anne, however young, was capable of creating Apur as she had just described him. Their immediate concern was to locate the errant robot before it caused any more minor problems. He had also gleamed form Julie-Anne that the programming she had done to Apur's brain would alow it to learn and adapt. It had also been clear from their conversation that she had ordered Apur not to be seen, which would complicate things.
"Well, that is very fascinating. I'm sure your teacher and parents will be very proud of your achievement. Apur sounds like a very intelligent ro..... android." Barclay had to be careful in choosing his words. Julie-Anne seemed very sensitive about making sure Apur was acknowledged as an android, like Data. She was so certain that Apur was sentient, and for all he knew, maybe she was right. Apur had managed to enter the jefferies tube, avoid any contact or notice from the ship's personnel while rearranging his work.
"What I'm going to need from you, Julie-Anne, are all the schematics of Apur. I know the construction of a normal agrav unit but it sounds like you've made considerable alterations. The specific details are necessary if we want to create and accurate detector. We need to devise something specific for Apur or we will detect every agrav unit on the ship, and there are an awful lot of them. I know, I perform diagnostics on them occasionally." Barclay's mind was beginning to fog from lack of sleep. He was hoping she could get the information soon and that a solution would be found rapidly.
Julie-Anne's expression suddenly changed. "I almost forgot. I have to meet my parents for lunch. But as soon as its over, I will go and get the designs. I can meet you in the arboretum in, say, two hours?"
"That sounds okay. I'll see you then, two hours." Barclay watched as Julie-Anne walked away. He was a bit like her when he was a kid. He turned the other way and went off towards his quarters for a couple of hours of much needed sleep.
* * *
Apur, his job completed, scanned the intricate tunnels and found no life forms present. Heading off in no particular direction he began to search for disorder following a downward grade. The sloping tunnels were almost endless and Apur noted that the walls, ceiling and floor were quite regular and so pressed farther downward looking for something to tidy.
After a few hours of travelling, Apur drew close to a grill set in the tunnel wall. His sensors had registered two life forms earlier and he could now tell they were more or less directly opposite this grill. Maybe there was disorder there as there had been the last time he surveyed a stationary life form. Moving up closer to the grill, Apur tuned in and listened to what the life forms were saying.
"Okay, Janson. That completes the shield array diagnostic. I'm heading back to engineering. When you finish the calibrations meet me there."
"No problem. This should only take me another fifteen minutes, or so."
When one life form departed, Apur could detect with his visual sensors a panel holding various small rectangular blocks. These, he noted, were definitely out of order. The colours were not aligned as he thought they should be. Apur was learning to interpret more and more of the life forms language and reasoned, from the conversation he had just heard, that the remaining life form would not be staying in this position indefinitely. Since Apur had been ordered not to be seen, he would have to wait until this one left to begin his work.
Possessing infinite patience, Apur used his time to examine how he might neatly remove the grill so he could replace it exactly as he found it after he finished the job which needed doing beyond.
* * *
Now that the alien vessel had begun to move, Geordi wasted little time in preparing for a look around. He took all of the supplies he could carry, and headed for the interior of the ship, hoping to find answers before it was too late. His first order of business was to try and communicate with the Enterprise. He had to warn them of the danger should they attempt to send another shuttle.
He left Data in what he believed would be a comfortable position, then picking the easiest path through the ship he began to walk holding the tricorder before him. The gravity was marginal within the vessel. He guessed it to be about one quarter of standard and confirmed that it was .20 on the tricorder. Not too bad he thought to himself. This ship obviously had some form of artificial gravity though he wasn't sure why. He grew nervous feeling the thrusters vibrating as the vessel manoeuvred some more. He had to contact the ship before he was so far away he and Data could never be found.
Access through the ship's winding ways was difficult in some places, even in the low gravity, and it wasn't for some time before he found something that he felt might help. He double checked a reading on the tricorder he had ben looking for. His best guess was that the hexagonal box he had just scanned at a junction was a receptor unit of some sort, and if so, then it may be possible that he could make it transmit also, as long as he could figure it out how it operated.
He used the tricorder to locate the main energy feed for the unit and followed it up to what he believed would be the processor. He experimentally touched a few leads on the circuit panel and got quite a jolt for his efforts. However, he was making headway. He wished Data could help him since he was much quicker than himself and had a natural affiliation with computers, but Data wasn't in any shape to render assistance. Geordi would just have to do it on his own. He set down his pack and began to take more accurate scans. Strangely enough, it wasn't his sense of self preservation which drove him on, but the thought of failing Data.
"Well here goes nothing," he said aloud and began to open the casing of the box.
After a great deal of trial and error Geordi was satisfied. That ought to do it, Geordi thought to himself as he made the last connection. He had rigged his suit communicator into the alien box and reconfigured the internal crystal structure of the box in to what he believed was a correct configuration to enhance his transmission.
Now came the moment of truth. He connected his suit communicator to the boxes internal circuits and switched it on. "Geordi to Enterprise, come in Enterprise." He was answered only by static. Come on Worf. "This is the away team to Enterprise, come in please." Geordi waited a few minutes then slumped back, temporarily defeated. There was no reply. He felt a slight change in the ships's direction again and switched off the communicator fearing that it may overload. He examined the arrangement again, thought of a few more adjustments he could make then got back to work. Giving up was not an option.
Twenty minutes later, Geordi had tried just about all the things he could think of and a few he just guessed at. His years as an engineer had taught him that no matter how impossible a solution seemed, there was always one, however improbable it may seem. Geordi chuckled to himself. I've been hanging around Data too long he thought to himself. I'm starting to sound like him.
He reconnected his communicator to the makeshift amplifier, and tried again. "This is Geordi, do you read me. Come in Enterprise." To Geordi's surprise he got a response filled with static. But it had definitely been a response.
"This is shuttle craft four. Geordi is that you?" Riker tried his best to communicate and fly at the same time and decided it would be best for the doctor to take over.
"It sure is commander. Boy am I glad to here from you. I've got to warn you though, Data and I managed to get inside the alien vessel. It's not Borg, but it sure looks like it. If you come close to the vessel it will attack. I believe its collecting metals. Stay away anyhow, until I can find out more of its purpose. The ship shields us from most of the radiation, so we still have a time left. Data has shut down but should be alright. I've had a lot of time to think over here and I would suggest that you construct a shuttle out of as little metal as possible and come back for us. Geordi out. Don't be too long." Geordi was relieved and scared at the same time. The shuttle was so close but the transporters were useless in this soup of radiation and ion feedback, and there was no way he and Data could float out to the shuttle with no operational thrusters. He would just have to wait.
"Understood Geordi, we'll be back as fast as we can. Hang in there." Riker looked at the relieved faces of Beverley and Tomlin and spun the shuttle around as quick as possible to head back for the Enterprise. "Mr. Tomlin as soon as we are within communication range of the Enterprise would you relay what we heard to the engineering group. We need that shuttle built as fast as possible."
Tomlin was glad to be of use. "Yes, sir." His enthusiastic response was perhaps a little too enthusiastic, but Riker and Crusher hadn't noticed behind their smiles of relief. Geordi and Data were not out of danger yet, but they were alive.