Wednesday, December 06, 2006

My ST:TNG Novel Drone - Chapter Twelve

Drone: Chapter Twelve
by Paul Darcy

The red alert klaxon had been silenced at Picard’s request, but the lights continued to cast their red hues intermittently around the bridge like flashes of blood.

The Enterprise’s shields were almost gone and they were running on impulse and reserve power only, but most of the small fires on the bridge were now under control, and those that weren’t would soon be put out by the emergency crews already at work.

A quiet foreboding settled over the ship as though it had just entered the eye of a storm. But instead of another storm front moving in, it was over. Riker and the away team had performed a miracle with the Krestfir. But at what price?

Picard inhaled slowly and looked around him. Many were injured and the hum of the Enterprise didn’t feel quite right. She had been damaged. Looking behind him Picard could see Worf busy at his console, blood dripping from his forehead, ignoring the nurse which had approached and then withdrawn from him when she could tell he would not cooperate. Picard was sure Worf was frantically searching for any survivors, vigilant as always at his station.

But how could any have survived? Even if the away team had somehow managed to get back aboard the shuttle, the odds of them surviving a plasma torpedo explosion at close range was minimal not to mention the subsequent close range detonation of the Krestfir.

It had been a very intense battle and were it not for the unexpected explosion on the enemy’s vessel and Riker’s incredible restoration of the Krestfir, Picard was not sure they would have come away from this battle victorious.

The Krestfir.

Riker and the away team.

Data and Geordi.

They had not even determined the origin of the cube like vessel, Borg or otherwise, and the mission was in ruins. Their orders were to investigate and report, not engage the Romulans, endanger the Enterprise and lose crew members. Picard took another deep breath to steady himself after the adrenalin rush of the conflict. He was the captain. It was his responsibility and he would take it.

Worf finally broke the silence disrupting Picard’s dark thoughts. "Captain, another vessel has just entered sensor range. It is heading toward us from the debris area of the Krestfir."

Picard could only hope, "the shuttle?"

Worf spent an agonizingly slow moment gathering information, then answered, "no, sir." He sounded dismayed and slightly alarmed. "It is a small cube shaped vessel." The tension on the bridge grew almost palpable.

"What?" Picard shared Worf’s alarm. He wondered if they had only been passing through the eye of the storm after all. "A Borg scout? Are there any other vessels?"

Picard half expected Worf to inform him that a full sized Borg vessel was close behind, or perhaps that was his own worst personal fear. He tried to expel that thought from his mind but was only partially successful. "On screen, Mr. Worf."

"Aye, sir." A fuzzy, magnified image of a square vessel took shape amid the asteroids and debris. It was surrounded by a pale blue nimbus; raised shields.

Worf increased his number of sensor sweeps. "No other vessels registering on sensors, captain. Also, I have been unable to pick up any life signs in the area of the Krestfir, however, there are life signs emanating from within the cube."

Picard almost blurted out, ‘are they Borg?,’ but managed to stop himself. Instead he asked in a calm voice, "can you get a good enough reading to tell what type of life signs?"

Worf stabbed at his control panel obviously frustrated. "Interference is making it impossible to tell how many or of what species. All our sensors can determine is that there are life signs aboard." Worf scowled.

"Hail them," Picard ordered, not wishing to delay this encounter any longer.

Worf touched his controls. "Not responding." They watched as the cube drew slowly closer to them becoming more defined on the screen, larger and more ominous. Worf relayed more information. "I am now reading a good deal of external damage to the cube. Whoever is on board may not be able to return our hails."

Picard watched the slow but steady approach of the vessel. Who were they? Then, Worf suddenly exclaimed, "Captain, I am getting a weak signal." On the screen the pale blue nimbus disappeared from around the cube. Worf continued, "The signal is audio only. Definitely coming from the cube and, it is on a federation communicator frequency." Worf twisted his head and punched at a couple more keys. "Captain, it is La Forge’s communicator!"

All eyes looked nervously about the bridge as though expecting an assimilated La Forge to beam over and inform the Enterprise that resistance was futile. In their current damaged state they might easily overwhelmed.

"Let’s hear it, Mr. Worf." Picard pulled down on his uniform and steadied himself once more. He must appear confident to his crew, especially during moments such as these.

The hissing, broken audio signal faded in and out of hearing for a frustrating minute. the speech was so broken up none could tell what words were coming through. All that was clear was that the message, whatever it held, was being repeated. But, with the cube drawing steadily closer the signal was slowly becoming clearer. Words began to make sense. Picard’s first thought was that he would hear the assimilated voice of Geordi demanding that they surrender and prepare for assimilation. Painful memories began crawling from the dark corners of his mind where he had thought them permanently banished them.

Then as suddenly as his fears arose they receded. It was definitely La Forge’s voice, but it was the La Forge he knew.

"La Forge, to Enterprise. Come in." Definitely La Forge and only La Forge, unaltered, unassimilated. Picard smiled releasing tension.

Picard wasted no time responding. "This is the captain. Geordi, are you all right?"
"I am now," came Geordi’s relieved reply. "Data and the away team are here as well. We have sustained some minor injuries, but the doctor assures us we are okay. With your permission we would like to come aboard, sir."

"Permission granted." Picard had no hesitation. He knew this was not the Borg’s way. This was no trick. But he was very curious to know how they had ended up aboard this obviously alien craft. He would know soon.

Geordi’s cheerful voice broke in again. "Great, we will be in range in about two minutes. See ya then, La Forge out." The signal ended.

Picard turned about and faced Worf. He should order him to sickbay immediately to tend to his cut, but he needed to know how the Enterprise had faired first. And Worf would not like Picard pointing out that he needed medical assistance while an emergency was going on. It could wait a little longer. "Damage report, Mr. Worf."

Worf took a moment to complete his analysis. "No crew lost. Only four serious and several dozen minor injuries reported. Warp drive is still off line. Our shields are so low we may as well not have any and we sustained significant damage to the secondary hull as well as minor structural damage to the port nacelle. Apart from that, we are in perfect shape." Picard raised an eyebrow. Could this be Klingon humor? Perhaps this was Worf’s way of showing his relief that the lost crew members would be returning soon also.

Picard was relieved to know that no crew were lost. The ship could be repaired, crew members could not be brought back from the dead. It was one of the greatest fears a captain had, facing the surviving families of a lost crew member. It was never easy and he was glad to have been spared.

What happened next was unexpected. The bridge of the Enterprise was suddenly more crowded as five rapid flashes of light revealed Riker, Data, Geordi, Crusher, and Thompson in rapid succession. They were all wearing their environmental suits and when they removed their helmets they looked disheveled and tired except for Data who strode forward, his usual vibrant self.

Data looked behind him at the main viewer and spoke so all on the bridge could hear him. "The alien vessel is no threat. The Klangosians provided us with it to return to the Enterprise. It is programmed to return since I did not specifically command it to stay." As if to add validity to Data’s statements the alien cube backed away and began to glow a blueish hue, then it shrunk to a point and disappeared.

Before Picard and the bridge crew could sort out their emotions, Data had begun again. "Captain, we have much to relate . . ."

Picard held up his hand smiling, "Save it for now, Mr. Data. I think it is safe to say we are all glad you are back safely."

He looked over at the tired and injured crew and made his decision. "Ensign, Mahoney. Take us to a safe distance outside of this damned asteroid field."

"Aye, Aye, sir," Mahoney answered enthusiastically and plotted a weaving passage out of the field toward Federation space. It was far easier now to navigate with no enemy to avoid. The ship responded sluggishly but steadily.

Picard, convinced now that the situation was well in hand and looking specifically at Worf suggested, "Let’s get our injuries looked after." He turned back to the returned away team. "Then, in four hours, we will convene in the observation lounge for a full debriefing. And, Mr. La Forge?"

"Yes, captain," Geordi answered.

"Please ask Mr. Barclay to attend also." Picard added.

"No problem." Geordi and the away team as well as the injured from the bridge headed toward the turbolifts and sickbay. After a low growl and quick glance at Picard, Worf reluctantly followed.

* * *

Data stood at the rear of the conference room to one side of the large wall monitor. Geordi stood beside him while Barclay and the rest of the senior staff were randomly seated on either side of the conference table. Picard, as usual, was seated at the head of the table. He took a quick look about him at the assembled staff and then began the meeting.

"Well, I'm sure we are all interested to hear your reports," Picard said. "This session should prove most enlightening. Please proceed, Mr. Data, Geordi." The captain sat back in his chair and raised a his hand to his chin. Finally the mysteries would end.

Geordi started the account, "As you know, our shuttle was destroyed in the asteroid field by the alien cube, and once destroyed, Data and I had no choice but to go over and into the alien cube because of the radiation. Data’s environment suit was badly damaged and breached in the attack and once we were aboard the alien cube he had to shut down."

"To preserve my positronic circuits from the vacuum," Data added helpfully.

"My suit," Geordi continued, "thanks to Data’s quick reflexes, remained intact except for some of the radiation shielding that was burned off the legs. Once inside the alien and making sure Data would be relatively safe, I toured the interior taking readings and making recordings with my tricorder as I went. It was eerily similar to the inside of a Borg cube, but different."

Geordi paused to activate the main view screen and bring up one of the visual recording that he had made aboard the alien cube vessel. "This is what I recorded inside the cube."

An internal schematic of the alien cube displayed itself beside Geordi’s visual recording playback. Much of the schematic was solid blue showing no detail since it was an extrapolated interior of the alien cube rendered by the ship’s computer as far as could be determined using Geordi’s recordings. Geordi continued again, "one definite difference between this vessel and a Borg cube was the total lack of an advanced propulsion system. No warp or impulse drives. Just thrusters for maneuvering. For a vessel this large to have gotten here on thrusters alone undetected, well, that didn’t make any sense until after we experienced the jump."

"A dimensional jump?" Riker asked looking for Geordi to clarify.

"That’s right," Geordi answered.

The doctor spoke up. "You mean a dimensional jump like the one Kyril Flinn and his terrorists was using on Rutia?" the doctor asked. If it were true the implications were starling. "Organic DNA mutates with repeated usage to the point of death." That implication precluded the possibility of it being the Borg. Since they were partly organic and they wouldn’t be able to survive prolonged usage of a device like that.

"That’s true," Geordi commented. " This dimensional jump seems very similar," Geordi answered, " and it became clear to us that the alien cube needed only thrusters because it could be placed with this dimensional jump and retrieved again when it finished its mission. It needed only thrusters to maneuver locally for its purpose, which we determined was mining."

"For the dilithium crystals in the asteroids?" Troi asked making a reasonable assumption.

"Actually no, not for the dilithium crystals," Geordi pointed out. "As you will hear in a minute they had plenty of crystals. It was the heavy elements they were mining for in the asteroids, and unfortunately ships."

"Of course," Riker surmised, "they would read the hull of a ship as one very rich source of heavy elements. But why would a race capable of building a ship like that use it to attack other vessels to gather their hull materials? If they wanted to do that what is the point of being in the middle of an asteroid field?"

"Exactly," Geordi agreed. "It doesn’t make much sense until you realize that this was an drone ship with a simple mining program. And with the powerful shielding system, and massive plasma laser to cut up asteroids, it was a not hard to determine that it was a mining vessel. There was no provision in its program to allow for other ships since it was never supposed to encounter any, like you said, in the middle of an asteroid field. And further proof that it was a mining vessel," Geordi pointed at his tricorder display now showing a large compartment. "A spherical storage bay loaded with heavy elements. It had been in the asteroid field collecting these elements when the Tecton, and the Krestfir encountered it. An unfortunate accident."

"You make this vessel sound like a simple robot." Picard stated. "Did you encounter no life forms at all while on board?" Picard was as curious about these aliens as every one in the room. Geordi had earlier mentioned a we, but as yet had not revealed who or what they were.

"None at all," Geordi answered. "Nor was there any likely place for a life form as we know it to be." They all had to agree looking at the visual recording. The interior of the alien cube was cramped and riddled with dead ends. Geordi had had a hard time maneuvering through the ship. "We believe it was a fully automated." Geordi stated plainly.

"That would explain why they could use a dimensional jump," the doctor interjected. "With no organic life on board there would be no DNA mutation to worry about."

"Precisely." Data said. He looked over at Geordi quizzically. "May I?" he asked Geordi.
"Sure. Go ahead, Data." Geordi moved aside and let Data continue their experiences.

Data started, "the technology used to transport the alien cube was, as the doctor stated, a hazardous dimensional jump, one that would do harm to organic life after prolonged and repeated usage. Our exposure to the jump was limited to four instances not severe enough to be life threatening. Based on earlier discussion It is logical that the vessel was indeed a drone. If it were manned, it would take a large rotating crew to operate. Although Geordi did not encounter any life forms while he toured the vessel he covered only a small portion so life could have been present on board, however, it would be highly improbable to train and rotate such a crew for mining operations given the risks. Also, I was repaired to perfect specifications, indicating that their machine technology is so advanced that they would have no problem creating a large automated mining vessel."

Data slowed down watching all the heads in the room nodding in agreement, then he continued, "What I have discovered, once Geordi and I had returned and I could study the star charts of the Enterprise, is that we were transported to another time via a stable temporal dimensional jump vortex. How this vortex is created or sustained is, I believe, beyond our current understanding. Though Federation scientists have developed a dimensional transporter it is limited to transport in space not, as the Klangosians does, in time."

Data turned and activated a control on the view screen. The view changed from Geordi’s recording to that of a simulation of the local systems in reference to the galactic core. "It was not at first apparent to Geordi or myself, once we regained consciousness, that we had traveled in time. We both believed that we had been transported through some sort of jump displacement to a different location in space. At the time I was not able to match the constellations to any currently known to Starfleet which I had access to in my memory. That lead me to believe, falsely, that we had transported a great distance, perhaps even as far as the delta quadrant. Since we were only there for a short duration, I did not discover the truth until we had returned."

Troi asked, "How far in time did you and Geordi travel?"

"Allow me to illustrate. At our present time," Data pointed to a highlighted spot on the display, "we are located here. The configuration of the constellations is well known from recent astrogation charts." Data started the simulation of the star field on the viewer. The galaxies began to rotate counter clockwise about the galactic core. Data brought up another display of the current constellations beside his rotating simulation. "As shown here. Now," Data pressed another key, "if the Altronin system located in our region of systems rotates precisely once around the galactic core backwards in time we arrive at the same location in space with regards to the galactic core."

The viewers display rotated three hundred and sixty degrees and stopped highlighting the same solar system again. "It takes two hundred and sixty million years for the Altronin or any other system to arrive at the same location in space again. That is how far in the past Geordi and I had traveled, and it is at this time in the past that the configuration of constellations I observed during our visit occurred. It is also true that the Altronin sun went supernovae at that time which Geordi and I witnessed while passing into the jump vortex." Data showed a satisfied grin upon finishing his explanation. The assembled crew looked partially stunned.

"That’s incredible." Riker couldn’t help saying expressing what they all felt.

"Yes, quite intriguing." Data agreed. "What Geordi and I passed through was the time vortex device which the Klangosians, using the power released by the supernovae of their sun, used to travel in time. Essentially we did not change our position in space at all, only in time."

Geordi added, "and the moons we described were made almost entirely of dilithium. That’s why these asteroids, two hundred and sixty million year old are so high in dilithium content. They are the remains of the moons and the Altronin home world."

No comments were forthcoming form the assemble crew so Data continued. "In a sense the Klangosians are very much alive, at this very location in space, but two hundred and sixty million years in our past."

Picard, relief and excitement showing on his face at this news that the Borg were not responsible, commented. "Absolutely fascinating, Mr. Data. Did you or Geordi encounter this alien civilization or its inhabitants while you were there?"

Data readied his response in a millisecond. "Unfortunately, we did not make direct contact. We were spoken to in our own language though we could not see the speaker form our location inside a small domed building. We were informed that a mistake had been made, and that we would be returned to our proper place, which they made possible by providing the small alien shuttle. I was programmed with the necessary Information needed to pilot the small cube vessel back to our present time. We were guided aboard by my program and we used the time vortex to return."

Riker raised a question. "Is it possible that they may have been Borg? Say the Borg of the past? Two hundred and sixty million years is a long time." There seemed to be an unlimited number of questions.

"That is a possibility," Data said, "however, I believe there may be a more plausible explanation for the similarities between Klangosian and Borg ship designs. When asked if they had ever lost any of their drone mining vessels, the Klangosians replied that they had. It is quite probable that one of their automated mining drones was captured by the Borg and their technology assimilated some time in our past. As I have stated before the Klangosians are extremely far advanced technologically. If the Klangosians are the Borg and had possessed technology that advanced two hundred and sixty million years ago, they would be unstoppable by all except maybe the Q Continuum now and we know that to be untrue of the Borg."

Picard raised his eyebrows and sat up straighter in his chair. "So it would appear that the Borg captured one of these Klangosian mining ships, copied its technology and assimilated its design years ago. This is very fascinating." Picard raised his eyebrows. "So these Klangosians send automated mining ships into the future to mine for materials they need in their present, and were, are able to harness the power of their sun’s supernova to travel in time. That must have been some experiment. They would have only had one chance to get it right and apparently they have. Remarkable." Picard leaned farther into the table, "and when you and Geordi returned..."

Data continued where the captain left off as if on cue, "we flew back to the rendevous point and found the Enterprise and the Actos engaged. The superior sensors of the Klangosian vessel were able to penetrate the interference and we were able to remain undetected and learn that commander Riker and the rescue team were onboard the derelict Warbird, Krestfir." Data said.

"After we boarded the Actos and met up with the rescue team we were able to enable the Krestfir’s disruptors, lower the Actos’s shields, and damage her enough to force the Romulans to brake off their attack on the Enterprise."

"Yes. And not a moment too soon." Picard stated bluntly rubbing his chin. "Data, Geordi, I would like the rest of your report finished and then transmitted to Starfleet. We will also need to gather samples of the crystals in this asteroid field before we return."

"Now," Picard turned to face Mr. Barclay squarely who had up until this point been making himself as inconspicuous as he could possibly manage. He had been hoping to go unnoticed, but apparently that was not to be. Picard held his gaze on Mr. Barclay. "There is one more set of mysteries which I believe you may be able to clear up, Mr. Barclay. If you would enlighten us as to the nature of the shield malfunctions during and after your tests?" Picard smiled, but Barclay could sense that the captain wasn’t happy.

"Ah, yes." Barclay suddenly felt as though a wad of sandpaper had been stuffed down his windpipe. He was quickly transforming from meekly unnoticed into flamboyant spectacle. He coughed twice, fumbled for a glass of water on the table, spilling most of it, then somehow managing to dribble what little was left down his throat. He beat his chest with a free hand and cleared his throat several times before he could speak again. Croakingly he got out, "ah, well, captain. You see it was, ah, well, not exactly, a mal, malfunction." Barclay’s eyes and hands had suddenly become animated taking on a palsied life of their own. He twitched and fidgeted nervously extremely conscious of scrutinizing eyes.

Riker, feeling little sympathy, took up his attack where he remembered leaving off with Barclay. "You already told us as much before. You said that somebody tampered with your work. Is that right?"

"Ah, yes, well, yes." Barclay choked out avoiding Riker’s gaze unsuccessfully.

"Mr. Worf," Riker continued drilling holes through Barclay with his eyes, "did your security team find any signs of intruders or tampering where Mr. Barclay had indicated?"

"No intruders, sir. We did find one unusual theta radiation reading in the upper EM bandwidth, but we attributed that to the shorting out of the couplings with the wall materials." Worf still appeared somewhat annoyed at not having been able to confront any of this missions problems with his bare hands.

"Curious," Data suddenly interjected. "I also detected a theta radiation in the high EM bandwidth, but not on the Enterprise. I picked up such a reading with the Klangosian sensors on the hull of the Actos seconds before her explosion."

"Now that is odd." Picard commented.

Barclay stopped twitching his hands and head long enough to break into the discussion. "Ah, I think I can explain." It was the time for the truth regardless of the circumstances. He took a deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth to steel himself for what he had to tell, then continued. "The shield malfunction was caused by accidental reconfiguring of my connections by an altered agrav manipulator robot." There. It was out.

"Are you saying a robot malfunctioned and rearranged your test connections?" Picard looked concerned, then looked over at Geordi.

"Actually," Barclay began, "the robot, android actually, performed as it was programmed and instructed to do."

Before he could explain further Geordi broke in, "Reg, are you saying one of our robots was programmed to sabotage your tests? By whom? Do you know? Where is this robot or android or whatever it is now?" Geordi hated when things happened in Engineering without his knowledge, even if he was away from the ship at the time.

Barclay consciously tried to calm down and in the attempt he locked his hands together so that they wouldn’t move around. Then, head down and staring at the table top, he proceeded to tell the gathering the entire story. He left out no details as far as he knew them from his own experience as well as talking with Julie-Anne in sickbay before coming to this debriefing. When he had finished a silence hung over the gathering. Barclay’s hands tried to escape each other in the ominous silence, but he forced them through an act of will to clutch each other tighter. What was taking the captain so long to issue his reprimand and court martial for negligence. Barclay continued to examine the table top not daring to look up and meet anyone’s gaze especially Rikers.

When Barclay thought the silence was about to kill him, Picard finally spoke in a slow easy manner. "An android created by a child reconfigured your work, defied detection from security, escaped out of the shuttle bay, made its way to the Actos and caused one of its torpedoes to explode in the launch bay?" Barclay couldn’t form the captain’s tone whether he was about to break into a fit of rage or laughter.

Barclay swallowed hard. "Yes, sir. I, I realize it is all my fault. I should have reported what happened right away, as soon as I found out." Barclay thought that would put the finishing touches on his doom. His holographic fair well on a holographic bridge was about to become a reality. He would loose his commission and spend the rest of his life on a Klingon outpost fixing food replicators.

"Well, Mr Barclay." Neither rage nor humor tainted Picard’s voice. He seemed quite neutral as he spoke. "I’m not sure what to do here. It was clearly your duty to report what you knew the moment that you had found out, however, you didn’t and, had you done so, this Apur would never have made its way to the Actos to cripple her torpedo launcher. And if that hadn’t happened, well, this meeting may not have taken place at all." The assembly understood what the captain had implied by his last remark. The hull of the Enterprise would have most likely been undergoing sectioning for transport to Romulan space where it would later be reassembled and displayed in the central square on Romulus.

Picard rubbed his face with a hand and continued, "so taking into consideration that your failure to report this Apur actually aided the Enterprise you will of course have this episode recorded on your permanent record and," Picard paused. This was it Barclay thought, the moment he would hear, ‘pack your stuff and ship out’, but instead Picard continued, "since we have such an eager child aboard, self admittedly a friend of yours, I am appointing you as her tutor." Riker managed to contort his ear to ear smile into a marginally detectable grin knowing the kind of trouble Wesley had given him over the past few years. This Julie-Anne didn’t sound much different.

Barclay sat stunned for a moment. He could not believe what he had just heard and absently his hands escaped each others grasp to start squirming about the table top. Picard carried on ignoring Barclay’s flailing extremities. "I would like for you to explain to this Julie-Anne that no more unauthorized androids are to be built. You will be her personal mentor and supervise her projects. She is obviously gifted but could use your experience and expertise as a Starfleet officer. Do you understand, Mr. Barclay?"

"Yes, sir, captain." Barclay finally took a full breath of air. He had been growing dizzy running out of oxygen while Picard was speaking to him.

"Now," Picard said with finality, "I believe all our mysteries are satisfactorily solved and we have a lot of work to do. Dismissed." Picard was the first to rise and as he did so Barclay called out to Data. "Do you have a moment?" Data stopped.

"Yes." Data answered. "What can I do for you, Mr. Barclay?" The rest of the crew filed out of the conference room.

"I have a favor to ask of you, in aid of my new assignment." Barclay was pleased with himself while Data studied him with his best quizzical look.

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