a a a
Somehow, that further piece of information seemed not to fit in McKinney’s brain. He stared blankly at the communicator, still wondering exactly what he was supposed to say to get the people in the house to come out. And still wondering if they could get the princess home in time to have her baby. And still wondering if they should destroy that alien robot, or just get the hell out of the system as...
"Can you ID the ship, Eng?" If it was Gorn they were screwed. He couldn't fight the Breitling in her condition. If it was a Starfleet ship, they were screwed if they --
"Yessir, it’s one of ours. It’s the Yorktown."
He knew of her. One of the later Constitution class cruisers. One of the few that hadn't bee retired to training and replaced with an Excelsior class of the same name. Smaller than the Breitling. He pictured the ten-meter hole in his own ship superimposed on a primary hull three-quarters the size. He pictured the Harrington’s Home – if a ship the size of the Colombia was hit where the nacelle pylons joined the hull…
"Hail them, Eng, fast. Tell the to shut down impulse drive. That alien thing homes on it. Tell them now."
"Aye, Sir, standby," Eng said quickly.
Standby stretched. McKinney waited out a full minute of silence, at least. Far too long under these circumstances. He pictured the Colombia's warp nacelles thrown in opposite directions as that Gorn drone blasted into her spine. He pictured her antimatter bottles rupturing. Hell, he'd probably be able to see an explosion that big from right where he was, like a second sun. "Eng?" he prompted just as Eng started talking, startling McKinney.
"Eng here, Sir. Yorktown 's okay. That thing took a run at them when they came into the system, but they got their shields up in time. They shut down impulse on my advice and they're coasting in-system just like we did." McKinney felt himself breath. It was starting to occur to him that having an intact starship in the system was going to be a plus for everyone. "They wanted to pursue, but it got off their screens before they could recover. They have some damage, but they have full propulsion. They'll be coming alongside us in about ... four hours, twenty, Sir."
McKinney felt his mind shuffling priorities, and it was as if an index card dropped out of the stack every now and then. Another thing he wasn't good enough at to be in command. He knew he had shortcomings, he just wished they wouldn't all be exposed in the course of a few days. He could offload the princess' party to the Yorktown and have them deliver her home while the Breitling stayed here for repairs. He hated to admit failure like that, though. But of course the princess' life was more important than his pride. He didn't feel right leaving these people he just discovered. And he didn't feel right leaving this booby-trap intact.
T'Lar broke his musing: "Daniel, the Yorktown will have to use its impulse engines to brake for orbit. The Gorn drone will attack it."
"The captain should have enough sense... Eng, who's the captain of the Yorktown?"
"Captain Grey, Commander. Um... Robert Grey."
"Advise him to enter orbit far away from us, will you? Tell him to expect that thing to attack again when he fires up his engines for orbit."
"Aye, Sir. He's already thought of that," Eng answered.
"Okay, thank you Mister Eng. McKinney out."
He pocketed the communicator and found himself staring at the Roman brick house in front of him. The third little pig built to last. Did somebody blow down the other houses? Or did they just collapse on their own. No, looking at them one saw only decay, not violence like back at the complex of buildings.
"My head hurts," he muttered.
T'Lar studied him, trying to discern if he was complaining of an actual illness or using a quaint human colloquialism. "Again," she decided to answer, "I am not a doctor. What shall we do, Daniel?"
"Well," he mused, "we have four hours to kill. Let's talk to these nice people."
With that, the front door opened.
a a a
Robert Grey was forty seven years old, twenty three pounds overweight, and surlier than usual since his ship got diverted from halfway across the sector to come looking for the missing USS Breitling. Starfleet Command had babbled something about a diplomatic emergency, so he burned subspace at warp seven and followed Dubronin’s reported flight plan into this damned nebula. Breitling’s impulse wash led them the rest of the way. That and that crazy distress signal, which is obviously what diverted them from their diplomat-delivery mission. He thought of those missions as Limousine Service, not exactly what a multi-billion credit starship was meant for.
All that was bad enough. His current mission had to be delayed for the week or so he’d be off chasing Valentina Dubronin’s missing ship. But to break into that clear bubble of space inside the nebula only to be shot at, was just too much. Starfleet was going to get an earfull when they got out of this communications dead zone. Thank God he kept his deflectors up in strange situations, that thing had come out of nowhere.
But then he’d contacted the Breitling and found out what had happened to her, and what had attacked his ship, and what was going on. His surliness got knocked down a peg to merely gruff. Val Dubronin was a friend, and he’d miss her. But the wet-behind-the-ears first officer of hers, McKinney, was a cipher to him. And Grey wasn’t encouraged about the guy’s command abilities by the fact that he had his helmsman speak for him while he stooged around planetside looking for clues to a hundred year old mystery. Where were this guy’s priorities?
"Leslie?" he asked the officer on weapons station.
"Nothing, Sir," she answered, scanning her sensors. "Whatever it was, it’s gone into the clouds."
"Keep watching. Breitling said it homes on impulse exhaust, so when we brake for orbit I want phasers and torpedoes ready."
He recognized the bleep of an incoming call, which right now could only be from the Breitling. He waited for his comm officer, Mesrobian, to tell him before he said anything. A little protocol was a good thing.
"Put them through," Grey said. "Grey here, Breitling, go ahead."
"Hello? Is this the Captain of the Yorktown?"
Grey looked over his shoulder at Mesrobian. The lieutenant shrugged.
"Yes, this is Captain Grey," he answered expectantly.
"Captain, my name is Anthony Van der Roll. I’m the personal physician to Princess Elayna."
The voice had an edge to it that Grey recognized as nervousness, perhaps fear.
"Princess Elayna, sir?"
"Yes, I’m sorry, I assumed you knew. Um. The princess is being transported home aboard this ship. That was the mission of this ship. Well, you can see there’s a problem now and the Breitling can’t take us. Take her. Home. Captain. It’s vital that we get back to Groningen as fast as possible. Our government’s future depends on it."
"All right, Doctor, I see. What are you asking?"
"Well, that you take us. Please. We’ve been delayed too long already."
Grey stewed a little before he answered. This guy was a civilian passenger. There was no way in hell he was using the ship-to-ship with any officer’s permission. So this civilian was trying to go over the head of Breitling’s commanding officer. And even if the Breitling’s commanding officer was an idiot (which Grey only had marginal evidence to support at this time), that just wasn’t right.
"Very well, Doctor – Roll?"
"Van der Roll. Three words. Dutch origins."
"Excuse me. Doctor, I will be glad to discuss that option with Breitling’s commanding officer when I speak with him next. Until then, I would request that you keep the official channels clear, thank you. Yorktown out." He stabbed the cutoff on the arm of his chair. "Damn civilians," he muttered to himself. "Don’t belong on a starship."
Anthony Van der Roll sputtered a few more incoherent words, but he knew the channel was dead. He hung his head and heaved a mighty sigh that came all the way up from his knotted soul. He sat back on his bed and stared at the anonymous art print on the opposite wall.
"Satisfied?" Dockray asked, more gently than was usual for him.
"No," Van der Roll choked, "but thank you for rigging it up for me."
"Easy," Dockray shrugged. "I had to let you find out for yourself that you have only one option: let the crew do their jobs, and wait till they get us out of this."
"I know. I do know that … intellectually. In my head. But in my gut, it burns. In my chest, it chokes me."
"Do you have a sedative you can give yourself?"
"I’ve been taking anxiety suppressants."
"No, a sedative. To put you to sleep."
Van der Roll shook his head and lay back. "I can’t sleep."
"No, I mean, I want you to take something that will unequivocally put you out, unconscious, period, for at least twelve hours."
The doctor looked at him suspiciously. "You want me out of your way, in other words."
Dockray sighed. "Not out of my way, Anthony. That’s much too harsh. I want to … not have to worry about you so I can do my job."
"That shows how over the edge you are. I’ve never heard you say an unkind word to anyone. And saying one to me is … not advisable."
Van der Roll looked at the armsman. They'd never had a relationship that went beyond polite deference. They were coworkers, and that was that. The doctor briefly wondered if Dockray was giving him a friendly jibe, but the serious look on the man's face instantly ruled that out, and Van der Roll knew that, if he'd been clear of mind, he'd be afraid. "I apologize, Leftenant."
Dockray nodded cordially. "I see no need to mention this to Elayna. She has enough on her mind."
Van der Roll suddenly sobbed a huge, wracking breath, and a tear broke loose from his eye. "Oh my God, you're right. I'm so damnabley selfish." He pointed to his satchel. "There's a green phial in the left outside pocket. Six CCs will put me out for the twelve hours you want." Dockray had the case open before Van der Roll had finished. "If you want, you can give me another when I wake up."
"We'll see, Anthony," Dockray said. "Maybe the rest will let you work it out. Get yourself comfortable."
The doctor lay himself down on his bed. "I love that girl like she was my daughter, you know. I hope she knows that."
"We all love her," the bodyguard smiled as he pressed the hypospray to the doctor's neck. "And she knows it."
Anthony Van der Roll closed his eyes for the first time in two days.
a a a
Julius Bedford was the grandson of Marcus Bedford and a surviving crewwoman named Elinore Gugelberger (who, Julius said, was delighted to rid herself of her father's name for something more dignified). Tia Bedford, his wife of thirty years, was the granddaughter of Captain Chen Zhu and his wife Lanei. They were both in their fifties, though they both looked the worse for wear. They wore homemade clothing that was perfectly presentable and brightly colored – why McKinney had imagined them wearing burlap sacks or animal skins he couldn't say. People had been making clothing without machines for millennia.
The inside of the house was brightly lit by numerous glass windows and skylights, and oil lamps filled in the shadows with flickering yellow flame. Some walls were painted a pale rose color, but most were the white of natural plaster. Patches were visible all around, but at least Julius Bedford had the desire to keep the place in repair for he and his wife. The four of them sat at a table built sturdily of local wood, in comfortable chairs of the same origin. The walls were decorated with needlework, though how they made the thread was a question that McKinney was willing to leave till much later.
Tia Bedford set cups of a sweet-smelling tea before them as she took her seat.
"I've never met a Vulcanian," she said shyly. "You're the first alien I've ever seen!"
"That is indeed unusual to hear," T'Lar said, sampling her tea.
"Vulcanian?" McKinney said, "I've always heard it said 'Vulcan'."
"Both were used in the early years of Vulcan/Human relations," T'Lar explained. "Convention settled upon the latter over the years, and the former fell into disuse."
"Probably because it's ... shorter," Julius said, "easier to say. Humans can be ... um ... lazy." He was having to stop and think of words fairly often. He hadn't had a conversation with anyone other than his wife in two decades. He'd swirl his hand in the air and snap his fingers once or twice as the word came to him, and look annoyed with himself.
T'Lar went on, "Neither, of course, is the word native Vulcans use."
"Oh?" Tia said brightly, "What is?"
The word T'Lar uttered was too long and full of glottal stops for any of the humans to master, though McKinney himself came close.
"A close approximation, Daniel," she said, almost wryly. "Perhaps there is hope for your future in politics after all."
McKinney decided there'd been enough small talk. "Julius, Tia, We've pieced together what happened to your grandparents through the log recordings on the Harrington's Home..."
Julius' sudden look of shock stopped him. "God," the survivor descendent whispered. "Daniel, you've been to The Ship?" McKinney nodded, afraid to speak out loud. "It's still up there." Another nod. Julius shook his head, eyes closed, unknowable emotions playing behind them.
McKinney said, "I told you we followed the distress beacon in."
"Yes you did. I guess it just didn't ... sink in ... until you said you'd been ... ON the ship. All these years, I didn't think it would still be up there. It's like... I don't know if I can ... explain. Words are ... escaping me."
McKinney thought he understood. "I don't know how much Earth history you know. But it sounds like a descendant of the pilgrims finding out the Mayflower was still standing in Plymouth Harbor."
Julius had to search his memory, and seemed to be drawing a blank. Tia offered: "I know the story, Daniel, but neither of us are descended from Americans."
"Oh. Me neither, actually." McKinney looked at T'Lar. "Don't count on that diplomatic career just yet."
She raised an inscrutable eyebrow. To the Bedfords she said, "Your ancestor's ship is in synchronous orbit directly above the building complex."
Now Tia looked spooked. "It's been right over our heads all our lives," she pronounced with awe.
McKinney decided to press on. "I have a team at the base camp going over things now, but we need to know what happened after the original survivors landed."
"Tell your people not to, um, touch anything, Daniel," Julius said. "We don't know what they did all those years ago, but they brought down the, ah... the wrath of God doing it."
"Can you tell me anything about what happened?"
Tia got up from the table and walked away from them. McKinney could see it was painful for her to get up, and she favored her right hip when she walked. But why was she leaving? Did he upset her? "Tia?" he said tentatively.
She turned, realizing. "Oh, I'm sorry, Daniel. I'm just going to get something. My manners! it's been so long since I had to relate to anyone other than that old log." She nodded at Julius affectionately.
"I'll give you..." he stopped himself from finishing and turned bright red. Then he winked at McKinney and smiled devilishly. "We don't have much to do here."
Tia called from the next room. "Julius' father kept a diary. He felt it was important if we were ever found. It would be..." she came back into the room with a bound paper book "well, it would be World History, wouldn't it?"
She sat back down, lowering herself carefully. McKinney recalled the face of her grandmother from Harrington Home's tapes. Still a lovely Polynesian-looking face, two generations removed and fifty-odd hard years old. She winced as she settled herself.
"I cracked my leg about fifteen years ago," she explained. "No chance for it to heal right here."
"Local years?" T'Lar asked. "I don't see how you would be able to determine Earth years."
"Easy," Julius said. "The ship's chrono. They brought it down with them, and now we have it in our bedroom. Still going."
"Here's the passage you're interested in, I expect." McKinney reached for it, but Tia held it back. "Oh, you'll never be able to read his handwriting, I'll do it. Some World History, eh? If only I can read it."
"I can read it too!" Julius looked slighted.
McKinney smiled assuringly. "We'll get it transcribed on the way home."
Slowly, Tia's face melted. Tears welled up, and ran down her cheeks. McKinney felt panic rise. What did he do? How to fix it? "I'm... I'm sorry. I.."
She held up a hand, holding in a sob. Julius took her other hand. "This is home," the man said. "We... don't know any other. Just stories about Earth the old folks told us. But we've talked about getting ... rescued ... for our whole lives."
She said, "Don't know if we'd know how to live anywhere else."
McKinney relaxed. they did want to leave, then. "Don't worry about that," he assured them with an honest smile. "You'll have plenty of help."
Tia wiped the tears away and gulped down the last of her herb tea. "Sorry," she muttered. "This is all so strange and wonderful; you finding us." She smoothed out the pages of her father-in-law's journal with reverence, and read:
July 14th 2335 – 34 years 171 days Earth; 16 years 87 days Harrington time.
Father keeps warning them, but since when did they ever listen to him? Every time they clean out a collapsed area of the Control Center they fiddle with things to try to make them work. Father keeps telling them they’re going to find the self destruct without knowing it. They tell him they got lights and heat working in the Apartments, all without anyone who can translate alien languages, so be grateful and quit annoying them (he says that’s when he decided to come out here and build his own house away from them all).
Chen Wei uncovered a hidden access door to an underground complex. You would think that would make them cautious, but he and his friends have been exploring it as freely as a deserted cave. Captain Chen says he tried to remind "the kids" (that’s me and the rest of the First Generation – "the kids" – even though we’re all in our twenties and thirties and half of us are parents) about how we got here – by screwing around with an unknown alien device. He says it’s probably even still up there somewhere. Nobody takes him seriously because he’s an old man. Father too. I mean, nobody takes him seriously either, because he’s always been the complainer of the lot. "Oh, Marcus is whining again, what a surprise." To which he points out that he was right about the alien spaceship. I guess it’s just not real to us "kids" because we never saw the bloody thing. It all happened before we were born.
Wei and Bobby and Shiro are going to "explore the hell" out of the underground complex. They think it was a military headquarters or something. They found a weapons locker full of slug-thrower rifles and for a while we were hopeful we could use them to hunt the bears better. Nobody could find any ammunition for them though. Bobby told me they’d found a huge control room down there. And what looks like a communications center (compared to what we’ve seen above ground).
Mrs. Harrington thought there might be a subspace radio down there – the above-ground center only has local comms. That got everybody’s hopes up too. So some of the committee is going to go down there again today with their (as Father puts it) "Imperfect knowledge of the alien writing, poking around in the dark with controls that could get us all killed." He told me to stay away from the Main Camp today, like he's going to do. We need to clear another few square meters of brush to plant peas today anyway. None of the Four Families are going near the Camp much any more anyway. Who needs them? We have water and crops for ourselves, and they’ve been getting more and more obnoxious towards us, even though we give them some of our food. When we do go "into town" (as Mrs. Wanderer says), they razz us and call us outsiders, partly just to be wise, but you can tell they mean it a little. Father says it’s remarkable that human beings can create divisive cliques with a starting group of only twenty five. I think he may have missed that he created one himself, but that’s my father.
Jeannie Wanderer has volunteered to mind little Ralph and Jenna while we all clear the bush for our new plot. I love the way the Four Families help each other out here. I wouldn’t want to live in "town" with those snobs. Oops, I guess I’m guilty of cliqueing as much as anyone.
Okay, secretly, I admit it, I want to go explore old secret underground military complexes with everybody. But, as much as everybody thinks Father is just a cranky old blowhard? That’s how much I respect him. He’s made it seem easy to live here, and I believe him when he says how hard it is compared to what they had planned.
July 15th 2335 – 34 years 172 days Earth; 16 years 87 ½ days Harrington time.
I don’t know how to write this. I don’t know what they did. It was late afternoon. There was a bang and a rumble. Mother thought she saw a light toward town, but I missed it. We all were afraid something bad happened, but it’s an hour’s walk, so we kept on working. If they needed us, they’d come out with the tractor and get us.
Fifteen minutes later, I just happened to be looking in that direction. A shaft of light – I guess it was light. I don’t know, I’ve never seen a laser beam or anything like that. A shaft of light came down out of the sky – I guess; it was just there suddenly. I don’t think it went UP. The light came straight down over the town. Bright white. I heard another crack and a rumble. This time, we saw smoke. We started running. Well, we Seconds started running, the older folk can’t run because the air’s thinner than they grew up with. Jeannie stayed with the babies.
We ran at a jog for fifteen minutes, and then we heard it again. The trees blocked our view in that direction, and the sun was too bright for the flash to show, but I knew it was the same light beam, because it was the same sound. Like the sound of distant thunder. Another fifteen minutes later we heard it again. We’d slowed down to a walk by then, all five of us, panting and aching in the lungs. But the crack and rumble made us run again. Etiénne Berté yelled something like "what the hell is it?" but how could anyone answer? After another fifteen, it happened again, and this time there was a really big explosion following the rumble. We could see heavy black smoke through the trees. Marie Berté was crying. She was going to marry Bobby next month, and he was down in the underground complex.
Right after that we broke through the clearing to see the town in ruins. Everything. The control center was burning, and all the buildings were collapsed. It wasn’t lost on me that the beam came from the sky every fifteen minutes, and it was five since the last one. I yelled that to everybody, but Marie was running for the burning building. We all scattered to look for survivors.
I found Wei running with his clothes in tatters and burns blistering his back. I asked him what happened. He was pretty out of it, but he said they had indeed found a subspace radio, but they couldn’t figure out how to work it. The alien controls were too strange. He’d just come up above ground and was going to go get his father. Captain Chen should know how it works, right? That’s when heat and concussion threw him away from the building.
Five times I’d heard the thunder. I looked around to see five ruined buildings, including the apartments where most of the people lived. They weren’t smoking like the Control Center. Maybe whoever was shooting at us had hit the ammunition that we couldn’t find in there.
I helped Wei. We had to move out of the town area. I shouted to everyone I could see, but there weren’t many people moving in the open. Marie was probably under the burning building already. Why didn’t I think to stop her? I wanted to run into the apartments and see if I could help anyone, but I was afraid. The light would be coming back any minute. Etiénne appeared out of nowhere and took Wei’s other arm to help carry him. He asked where Marie was and I told him. He stared at me for a second. Was he accusing me of not stopping her? I’ll never know because he ran off after her. I yelled for him to stop, but he disappeared into the smoke.
Oh, I can’t remember everything now and it was just yesterday. There are still pictures in my mind of the worst of it, but so much is foggy already. I saw a group of about five people coming out of one of the buildings just as I’d gotten to the edge of the forest. It was time for another strike from the sky. And sure enough, it hit that very building. I saw the five people fly into the air away from the impact, but it blinded me too much to see where they landed. I ran back in, but the heat kept me back. Then I found one of them – Mr. Cummins – but he was dead, burned and missing his legs. Like an idiot, I started looking for them, but I realized they were burned away, not cut off.
It stopped after that last attack. I’ll never forget the screaming, and the smell of Wei’s burnt flesh. And Mr. Cummins. I stopped looking for people after I found him. I just went into the woods and threw up a lot. The Firsts arrived pretty soon after that, and Captain Chen kept his cool and got everybody organized and accounted for.
Tia flipped a few pages ahead. "The death toll was, well, most of them." She shut the diary, deciding not to read any more. Her voice had the detachment that time and not having been there brought to tragedy. "The few left came out here to live with us, and we never went back. But that was almost fifty years ago. As you can see, everyone else died. We’re the last."
"Well." McKinney said. "I think I can say the attack was from that drone we encountered. The same one that destroyed the Harrington’s Home."
T’Lar added, "The fifteen minute timing between attacks still puzzles me."
"But it fits in with my theory," McKinney said. "The drone has only enough hydrogen fuel for one shot of its big gun. Whether that’s a design feature or it’s degraded performance from hundreds of years in orbit, I don’t know. But every time it’s shot at us, it’s immediately disappeared into the nebula."
"I see," T’Lar said, "to scoop up more hydrogen and recharge its gun."
"And fifteen minutes was the time it took to do so.’
Julius shook his head. "If you two say so. I’m just a farmer. I haven’t even seen an electric light since I was five."
"Okay," McKinney sat up. "I think we have enough for now." He pulled his communicator. "McKinney to landing party."
"Freeling here, Sir."
"Freeling, we found some people living about a mile outside the camp."
"I'll be damned."
"They say don't touch anything. Apparently they brought the attack on themselves, possibly by activating a subspace radio in an underground complex."
"Yessir, we're there now," Freeling advised. "Well, we're at the bottom of the stairs, I should say. The whole complex has been caved in. This is as far as we can get."
"Lieutenant, do you think you have enough information for now?"
She must have had to ask around, by the moments of silence. "We have a good start, sir. It'd take a couple of weeks to do justice to an investigation, and you're about to tell me we don't have that kind of time."
McKinney laughed out loud.
Julius grinned. "Hell of a crew you have there, Daniel."
"I do indeed," he said to his new friend. "Okay, Freeling, gather them up and stand by to beam up."
Tia looked panicked. "Oh," she worried. "Does that mean you want us to go right away?"
McKinney said, "No, not right away. We still have days of repairs left, and I wouldn't ask you to tear yourselves away from home so suddenly." She smiled gratefully and touched his hand, making him blush. He spoke into his communicator once more: "Breitling, this is McKinney. Get a fix on myself and Commander T'Lar. Beam us up, and beam up the rest of the landing party as well."
a a a
First officer's log. It's been seven hours since we beamed up. To my amazement, I've gotten six hours of good sleep! I think it's because I have a handle – well, I think I have a handle – on the whole situation, finally.
The Yorktown has finally pulled alongside. Captain Grey tells me that the Gorn drone did indeed make a pass at them when they burned for orbit. But, like us, they cut their thrust in time to confuse it. It computed their projected course and fired anyway, but they were lucky enough to get a clean miss. And again, it disappeared into the nebula.
I've invited Grey and his staff over here for a téte-a-téte, to brief him on what we know, and discuss courses of action. I think the princess and her people should be there as well. They certainly don't deserve to be left out of the loop.
Everyone stood, remembering their manners when Princess Elayna entered the briefing room with Leftenant Dockray at her side..
"Oh good God, she is pregnant!" Captain Grey blurted.
Elayna smiled broadly and laughed. "I see Starfleet trains its officers to be observant," she poked.
Grey colored, and harrumphed, embarrassed by his social faux pas. "Please excuse me, Ma'am. It's been a hell of a day. I mean..."
She waved off his embarrassment. "Don't fret about it, Captain Grey. We've had a hell of a few days ourselves. Please call me Princess Elayna."
There was some general milling about as introductions were made around the conference room. Curiously, as Dockray shook hands with Captain Grey, the armsman leaned in and whispered something to the captain. McKinney would have to ask about it later, if it was any of his business. Soon they were all seated around the oval table.
McKinney asked, "Where's the doctor?"
"He's finally getting some sleep," Dockray said. "The man's a nervous wreck over the delay, so I finally talked him into taking something."
"I can sympathize with him," McKinney joked. "All right then. I'll summarize for our guests," McKinney went on. A hologram of the alien drone appeared over the table. "This is what's caused all our troubles. Based on the evidence we've collected planetside and what the locals have told us, here's what we've come up with:
"Two hundred and fifty years ago, a Gorn scouting task force came here. They were looking for an advanced base to use to scout even deeper into this sector. A hidden star system like this was just perfect – they could hide in the nebula from any locals while sending out probing missions. At that time the Gorn were in an imperialistic period, trying to expand their borders and seeking out resources. Yes, this area is very far outside their current territory, but back then it was their standard practice to send probes out this far.
"They built a base camp on the surface below us, and stationed this sentry drone in synchronous orbit above the base. I personally don't think it's working at a hundred percent, for which, I guess, we can be grateful. I'm sure it was designed to intercept a broad range of 'enemy' vessels, but by now its sensors have degraded so much that it can only detect the plasma exhaust from our impulse engines. It may be able to detect a warp drive in action, but we haven't been able to test that."
Tchalabi raised his hand. "As to that, Sir, we'll be up and running in another six hours, guaranteed."
McKinney smiled broadly. "Wow, good news, what a shock. Good work, Dennis."
The engineer shrugged and smiled. "Good team."
McKinney nodded and continued, "It's possible that the drone was designed to shoot several shots per charge, but now it shoots its whole load at once. It seems to be a hydrogen-fueled nuclear reaction. You get a ten-meter wide beam of nuclear plasma hitting you at very near the speed of light. But those clever Gorns built it so it can recharge its gun by ducking into the nebula and sucking up more hydrogen."
"Which means," Grey asked, "It has an FTL drive to be able to get there and back."
"Yessir," McKinney acknowledged. "We've clocked it at warp two on its second attack."
"Same here, Sir," Grey's tactical officer, Bakry, said.
"Well then," Grey continued, "All we have to do is outrun it."
"If that’s its top speed, yes, Sir. But hear me out."
Grey folded his arms and looked disgusted. "I get the feeling you're not going to make me happy, McKinney."
McKinney shook his head. Superior officers were such a pain in the ass sometimes. "Well, Sir, I wasn't happy when I got all the pieces together.
"The Gorn apparently didn’t find anything to their liking out here, so they packed up and went home. But they left the base intact for potential future use, and they left this sentry drone on station. To their credit, they powered it down. Then a hundred and three years ago, the colony ship Harrington's Home came here. Now, they were on their way to another star system, but they wanted to investigate this nebula-bubble on the way. Purely for scientific curiosity."
"Gets a lot of people in trouble," Grey huffed.
"Yes, Sir. Well, they woke this thing up accidentally. You've seen the wreck." Grey grimaced. McKinney continued, "They had no choice but to settle here. Twenty five survivors out of a group of two hundred colonists, most of whom were killed in their sleep, by a booby trap set a hundred and fifty years earlier by a very nasty bunch of people. So they lived here, totally unable to contact Earth, ever. They had children, they struggled to survive. This planet's biosphere is high in heavy metals and thin in oxygen, so the people from Earth had a hard time. Remains we've scanned show high incidence of cancer, and deaths in their fifties or earlier." That stirred a mumble from those assembled. Nobody died much under a hundred these days. "The second and third generations adapted to their environment, being born into it. But they didn't get much of a chance. Thirty-four years after landing, they found an underground control room, under the Gorn main building. It had a subspace radio.
"From what we've been able to piece together from surviving computer records down there, from an interview with the last two people alive on the planet – " and again, that drew a gasp " – they activated the subspace radio and attempted to call Earth. Or anybody. But even though they figured out how to operate it, they didn't know how to read Gorn very well. The sentry drone intercepted the message. Only the message didn't have the proper Gorn military code attached."
"Oh Jesus," the princess whispered.
McKinney nodded at her. "Yes. It assumed a hostile power had taken the base. It came back and blasted the base camp – which had become the colonists central town – to ruins. Repeatedly. It looked like a preprogrammed pattern to hit all the buildings. With two generations of children, they had grown to a population of a hundred and thirty. Four families, a total of eighteen people, lived outside the main camp, but ran in to help. After the attack ... " he couldn't help it, his voice began to swell with anger " ... after the attack the, uh, the total population of Harrington's Home was thirty."
Elayna clutched her hand to her mouth to hold in the cry she was about to utter. Even Dockray looked sallow, but furious.
"Only two people live there now," McKinney went on. "A lovely couple in their fifties named Julius and Tia Bedford. They have no children – they decided against condemning another generation to solitary confinement, as Julius put it. They've been alone for about eighteen years, since everyone else died."
"Do they want to leave?" Grey asked.
McKinney nodded. "And how."
Grey mulled over the new information for a while. "Princess Elayna," he addressed her, "Do you want us to take you in the Yorktown and get you home right away? That was, after all, the mission in the first place."
McKinney felt worried, but he wasn't sure what he wanted her answer to be. He'd be relieved if she went, yet thoroughly disappointed. But he knew he'd be complimented if she stayed.
"Thank you, Captain," the princess said firmly, "but there's plenty of time. The Breitling committed to taking me home, and I'm perfectly willing to allow Commander McKinney to see that assignment out." McKinney beamed a huge, honest smile at the young lady. She finished sadly, "and … I liked Captain Dubronin very much. I'd hate to ... disappoint her by not seeing her last mission completed."
McKinney almost felt like crying in gratitude at the girl's compassion. What a great leader she was going to make.
"Well," Grey said, "She was my friend too. Regardless, McKinney, I have a horrible feeling you want to wrap everything up in one fell swoop. Rescue the survivors, get the princess out of here, and kill the Big Bad Wolf all at the same time."
McKinney saw T'Lar raise an eyebrow.
"Curious you should use that analogy, Sir, but, yes, I do."
"And if I order you to skip that last part?"
"I'll be gravely disappointed, Sir."
"But you'll follow my orders?"
"I will, Sir. But whatever shape she may be in, I will bring this ship right back here afterward and blow that wicked thing out of the sky."
Tchalabi rolled his eyes, hung his head, and muttered a Syrian curse.
Grey eyed the engineer briefly.
"Captain," McKinney said, anger still pulsing in his heart. "I'm not sure why I'm taking this personally. Maybe if you’d gone planetside with us and seen what happened down there, talked to those two wonderful people, you'd be feeling the same. I don't know. But it infuriates me that those poor colonists spent eight hard, hopeful years looking for a home and found nothing but death, disease and hardship. All because of a carelessly abandoned piece of military hardware. Now, if I could take it out on the Gorns personally, I'd do it. Come to think of it, maybe I will do that someday. But right now, one thing I can do is make sure that thing never hurts anyone again."
Grey said, "Lord save me from a man with a mission. You have a plan?"
"You know he’s right, Elayna," Melody chided as McKinney escorted his three passengers back to their quarters on deck six.
The princess argued, "Melody, how can two great big starships have a problem with a little thing like that … whatsit? … drone?"
"Look around you, Princess," Dockray said. "They’ve already had quite a bit of a problem with it."
"I just hate to be displaced again." She said. It was the first sign of petulance McKinney had seen from the serene young lady since he met her. "Besides, I have faith in Commander McKinney."
"Well," McKinney said, "Thank you for that. But it’s simple regulations. I can not take my ship into combat with civilians aboard, given any alternative."
She sighed. "I hate to impose on those people. They’ve been alone all those years, and to drop a royal party of four on them like this…"
McKinney shook his head, "Tia and Julius are happy to have any guests at all, trust me! You’ll be a real thrill to them. Oh." They’d come up against a sealed-off section. He’d been so busy it had slipped his mind that part of his ship was missing. Damage control parties had welded steel plates across the corridors to keep the pressure off weaker interior doors, pending shipyard repairs. They’d have to walk around the hub of the saucer to get from the briefing room to the guest quarters. Not for the first time it occurred to him that the drone’s blast could just as easily have gone through his own quarters, or the princess’.
"I see what you mean, Leftenant," Elayna sighed, indicating the patched damage. "Well then, We should collect Anthony on the way, I suppose. He may even appreciate some time off the ship, even if the air is too thin. He hates being closed in."
"He should still be knocked out for a few hours, Princess," Dockray told her. "Commander, couldn’t we leave him be? He’ll sleep through whatever happens, if what he told me about the medication is true."
McKinney shook his head. "And if he gets killed in his sleep, what will your government say to mine? No, I’ll help you carry him to the transporter room if it comes to that."
Dockray nodded assent.
Eventually, they came to their section, as McKinney’s crew buzzed around the group, nodding to the guests and their Commander, anxious to do their parts to get out of the mess they were in. The ladies continued on to Elayna’s cabin while Dockray knocked on Van der Roll’s.
"Anthony? Are you up?" No answer.
"How long was the drug supposed to last?" McKinney asked.
"Another four or five hours." Dockray pulled a small electronic gadget to override the door, then realized the ship’s commanding officer was standing next to him. McKinney recognized the jimmy for what it was and gave the bodyguard a wry frown at the same time Dockray gave him an embarrassed shrug. Dockray pocketed the device and held a hand out, inviting McKinney to open the door.
"Computer," he said into a nearby comm panel, "McKinney here. Open the door to cabin six-dee-twenty-nine."
With a beep, the door slid back. Dockray gave a theatrical head-nod of acknowledgement, indicating McKinney should precede him.
Doctor Van der Roll was right where Dockray had left him, on the bed, on his back, sleeping soundly. "I don’t know if you can even wake someone up from this drug. Anthony?" He sat on the edge of the bed. "Oh crap." Dockray laid a hand on the supine man’s face. "Oh, crap! He tricked me!"
"Wha.." was all McKinney could think to say. "What is it?"
"The bastard! The coward! He used me!"
Understanding dawned on McKinney. He stared at Van der Roll. He glared at Dockray. "He’s not, is he?"
"Stone cold, Commander."
"Oh, it’s just one thing on top of another this week, isn’t it!" McKinney groused, diving for the comm panel. "McKinney to sick bay! Medical emergency in six dee twenty-nine."
An anonymous voice acknowledged "On our way," and bleeped off.
"Oh, it’s way too late for that," Dockray said. "He’s been dead for almost eight hours."
"The shot you gave him?"
"The shot he tricked me into giving him." He paced, while McKinney stared at the corpse.
The man was paler than anyone he’d ever seen. His lips and nails were blue. Dead, all right. Another person dead. This just had to … stop! Enough was enough! God, this story was brutal – mass slaughter of innocents in hibernation, decades of struggle and suffering ending in more slaughter. Death from sickness, death from old age at only fifty or sixty. Years of loneliness for the last people. Now, even suicide.
I’m gonna kill that goddamn evil thing, McKinney swore to himself, then I’m gonna go to the Federation Council and get me some scaly Gorn hides to hang on my wall.
"I thought I knew people well enough," Dockray ranted at himself as he paced, "but they always surprise you. I thought, yes, his nerves were shot, but he knew we’d get out of this soon. But he couldn’t wait. It was too much for him. I never thought he’d go this far. Damn. I was afraid he’d do something stupid like that Marcus guy did in the tapes – something stupid that would get us all killed. That I was watching out for. That I thought I could prevent by letting him know I knew what he was thinking. It probably just made him feel more cornered. Ohhhh, hell, what will I tell Elayna?"
McKinney’s eyes snapped to the armsman’s, his voice firm and commanding: "You’ll tell her we couldn’t wake Anthony up, and I changed my mind and decided to let him sleep. That’s what you’ll tell her."
Dockray stopped pacing and locked McKinney’s eyes. It occurred to McKinney that he hadn’t seen Dockray so much as a little bit ruffled before this, and now he seemed more upset by his own failure to prevent the doctor’s act, than by the doctor’s death itself. It also occurred to him that, five days ago, he never would have had the nerve to talk this firmly to an armed professional bodyguard, much less stare him down like this. Dockray still scared him a little, but something in McKinney had changed. Something about all this had hardened him.
"You’re right, of course," the Leftenant said. "For now. But I’ll have to tell her some time."
McKinney didn’t see another way. He’d love to hide the truth from that sweet, innocent girl, but how? He could claim Van der Roll was killed in the battle to come, but only if that battle was severe enough to cause fatalities. And he was determined not to let that happen. Besides, did he himself really want to take the political fallout of having a guest killed aboard ship? The truth was probably the best course. Elayna was tough enough to deal with it.
"Fine," McKinney answered. "But not now. I don’t need to worry about her any more than I already am."
The medical team arrived outside the door at a full run. McKinney looked up the hall to make sure Melody or Elayna hadn’t noticed. He and Dockray gave them room, and McKinney explained the situation as they examined Anthony Van der Roll’s body. It only took a moment. The medtech agreed with the two men’s amateur diagnosis: stone cold dead. McKinney told them to put the body on ice for now, and ordered them to keep it quiet for the princess’ sake.
He and Dockray then went about helping the ladies collect their essentials for their brief stay on the surface and escorting them to the transporter room. All the while McKinney kept shaking his head, trying not to think the words, what else can go wrong?