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Chapter 6

Jessica shivered in her seat, rubbing her arms furiously in the cold. Around the conference table, the rest of her senior staff were similarly engaged in keeping themselves warm, most of them bundled up in winter gear usually reserved for away missions.

"Th-th-the asteroid is n-now two hours f-from striking th-the planet," Jessica briefed, struggling to speak. "H-have we received word from the Guad...a...Guada...from the runabout?"

M'Ral shook his head, the only one in the room seemingly unaffected by the frigid atmosphere. "They landed on the asteroid at the preplanned coordinates and, from what we can tell, immediately began drilling into the rock. They should have avoided the main deposit of kelbonite in the area of the landing zone, but we have no way of knowing until they can cut through the interference."

Jessica nodded her head jerkily and turned towards Nizeri. "Wh-what else did y-you learn about the comet?"

Nizeri shivered in her seat. "The s-surface is ice, but most of that h-has already been ejected from the rock itself." She unfolded a piece of torn paper that sat in front of her, reading off her scribbled notes. "Uridium, kelbonite, magn-n-nesite..."

"A smorgasbord of s-sensor interference," Seurer quipped with a small chuckle and a sigh.

"That sounds v-very unappealing," came a reply from the door, and all the heads in the conference room turned to look.

Jessica stood, smiling warmly. "Dossu...what are y-you doing?"

Obruz shrugged a little, smiling slightly. "Can I j-just say that it is utter hell b-being cold and having ch-chattering teeth with a bruised j-jaw?"

Jessica shook her head. "Dossu, you're supposed to be in s-sickbay still..."

Obruz rolled his eyes and waved her off, pushing past her to his normal chair. "It won't m-make much difference," he said, sitting down. "Die of cold down th-there, die of cold up here. At least I can d-do something useful b-before I meet the P-prophets."

Jessica shook her head again, smiling a little more. "Thank you."

Obruz nodded. "It's probably already been said. Guadalupe?"

"On the asteroid..."

Jessica cut M'Ral off; she knew what Obruz had really been asking. "Sonia's s-still keeping to the plan. No deviations f-from what we could t-tell so far."

Obruz nodded. "Good to hear..."

"That's just it, it's not good!" Nizeri interrupted, shaking her head. "This asteroid is off course!"

Everyone around the table was quiet for a moment. Jessica blinked a few times. "What are you saying?"

"Wh-whatever happened on its trip around Allebin, this comet isn't on the c-course our and the Etamba's models predicted. They're not completely safe - it could still get caught in the gas giant's gr-gravity and veer into Etam - but the majority of the simulations we've run with this n-new data show the comet completely missing Etam." She shook her head. "That is, assuming we d-don't try blasting it apart."

Jessica's eyes went wide. "Don't blast it apart?" She swallowed the lump in her throat. "We need to get a hold of the Guadalupe. M'Ral," she turned to the Caitian, who was beginning to stand. "G-get the transceiver back online - take power from life support - and t-tell me when you've reached the runabout. Go!"

M'Ral nodded and left the room as Seurer shook her head. "We won't be able to get f-free unless we blow that rock to p-p-pieces. How long until it's s-safe to do that?"

Nizeri frowned sadly. "To ensure Etam d-doesn't get hit, a m-minimum of five more hours."

Seurer cursed, putting her head down on the table. "Might want to get c-comfortable then. Th-this ship is going to be a tomb in three."

"What is the absolute m-minimum amount of time to p-prevent a world-wide c-c-cataclysm?" Jessica asked.

Nizeri stared open-mouthed at her. "You can't be serious."

"I want to m-minimize the damage as m-much as possible..."

"So we wait the five hours, Commander!" Nizeri shook her head. "The Prime Directive got us in this mess at the start, and it'll keep us in it now. We can't risk any damage to these people just to save ourselves!" She looked around the table. "We knew what we were getting into on this mission. What is it that Vulcans say? 'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?' We're the few here; we can't risk the lives on Etam just to save ourselves!"

Jessica deflated a little, sinking back in her chair as she looked around for any support. Seurer nodded. "She's right, Jess."

"I agree," Wirstowx rumbled with a shudder - the only shudder Jessica had seen from him since heating had been lost. "Our mission was to save these people. We cannot condemn them to death - even a handful of them - when we gave our word to protect them."

Jessica closed her eyes. "You're all signing your death certificates."

"We can't all live forever," quipped Obruz with a shrug.

Jessica looked around the table at her officers. They watched her quietly, waiting for her final decision. She shook her head, letting out a ragged breath. "You're right." She winced. "Elaina; how much time can you c-coax out of life support? If we can hold out till we're clear of Etam..."

Elaina looked up, trying to think of a quick answer before shaking her head. "I could...try...something?" She looked back at Jessica sadly and shook her head again. "I'm already out of options, Commander. I'll see what we can do, but I've exhausted everything keeping us going this long." She stood slowly, shivering in the cold air. "I'll come up with something."

Jessica nodded. "Thank you. Whatever you can do, just pass the word to M'Ral on the bridge and we'll work it." She looked back at the rest of the officers. "Nizeri, continue to monitor the asteroid's course. If there is a chance we can break free earlier without endangering the planet, let me know. Wirstowx, be ready to fly on a moment's notice. Dossu," she paused at her first officer and sighed, shaking her head. "Go back to sickbay and make sure S'Tel was done with you."

Obruz rolled his eyes and sighed heavily with a smirk. "Yes, ma'am."

===


"Incoming message, Lieutenant," Thoobor called over his shoulder. "Rafale is hailing us, but there is a lot of interference."

Seymour nodded, motioning towards the crew rest area. "I'll take it back here." He turned to Keith, who was still working with Alyssa and Timothy selecting the next drilling site. "Keep working, we have to finish this fast."

They nodded and went back to work as he stepped into the rear compartment of the ship and the door closed behind him. He moved to the large display on the wall and activated it, sitting on a crate of explosives. Behind him, Justine looked up from where she had been seated with her head on the table, red-faced and bleary-eyed.

The monitor came to life with static, eventually clearing enough to show the bridge of the Rafale. Jessica was standing in the middle, bundled up in cold weather gear and shivering every now and then.

"Seymour, can you hear me?"

Seymour cleared his throat and nodded, slightly annoyed. "Loud and clear, Commander. Why are you wasting power checking up on us?"

"Had to give..." The image went to static, cutting Jessica off mid-sentence.

Seymour sighed, waiting for the picture to return and the sound of static to die before continuing. "We'll have the last of the charges placed within the hour, and then we can blow this rock. Rafale should be able to break free then."

Jessica sighed in frustration, motioning to M'Ral behind her. The picture began to clear more as the Caitian boosted the signal. "Negative, Lieutenant. Do not destroy the asteroid!"

Seymour stood, and he heard Justine behind him push her chair out to stand as well. "What?"

"We think the asteroid's natural path around the sun, or Rafale's presence this close - whatever - caused Praxt's course to change. It's no longer a threat to Etam."

Seymour furrowed his brow. "You wouldn't be telling me to not blow the rock, then. What's the catch?"

"The catch is, you can't safely destroy the asteroid and free the ship for another three hours without putting Etam at risk from debris. You can't detonate it before then; the resulting fragments will make planet fall, and they will cause a cataclysm."

Justine was next to him then, and he felt her small hand clutch his arm fearfully. "So we wait three hours to blow it up. We can do that." She looked up at Seymour, who nodded. She looked back at Jessica. "Just sit tight and stay warm. Right?"

Seymour knew the answer that was coming before Jessica even needed to say it; the look on her face was telling enough. "Justine...we're doing everything we can."

"No." Justine shook her head. "Don't."

Jessica wiped her face, getting frustrated. "We're going to run out of air in an hour. We're all consolidated to the primary hull, and we're pumping air out of the engineering section and back to the primary hull as best we can. Most of the crew are in EVA suits, but those won't last very long, either."

"Escape pods?" Seymour asked, for Justine's benefit. He knew the answer to that question already, too.

"Useless. Same for the shuttles. Only the Guadalupe is equipped for energy drain and system interference like that from the asteroid. We'd have the crew in a bunch of coffins instead..."

Justine's clutch became a death grip, and she screamed at Jessica. "Just stop it! You're not going to die, not you too!"

Jessica shook her head. "We're doing everything we can. Once life support fails, we might have a bit more time to use up what's in the ship, but..." She trailed off, shaking her head. "We'll do what we can. But you cannot destroy the comet."

Justine let go of Seymour's arm and turned around, covering her face as she sobbed louder. Seymour swallowed the lump in his throat. "When is the absolute earliest we can free you, while minimizing damage to the planet?"

Jessica shook her head. "Under no circumstances are you to try that. Three hours. That's how long you wait."

"But we can't just sacrifice you if the asteroid isn't going to destroy this planet now!" Seymour rubbed his shaved head for a moment, thinking aloud. "We have plenty of explosives here; give us another hour and we can pack this rock so full it'll be completely obliterated. Whatever would be left would burn up in the atmosphere."

"The risk is too great. We can't do anything that would endanger the Etamba."

"But at the cost of the Rafale and your crew?"

"She's right," Justine interrupted, turning back around to show her tear-streaked face. "We can't interfere now; our interference could be what destroys the planet." She looked up at the monitor, locking eyes with Jessica for a silent moment. Finally, she nodded. "We have to wait."

Seymour frowned. "They're going to die, Justine!" He glared at Jessica. "You're going to make them all die for this?"

Jessica shook her head. "I asked the same thing you did. They told me what I'm telling you."

"So over-rule them! You're the commander!"

"No, Lieutenant. We can't do this." She straightened a little, doing her best to appear as authoritative as she tried to sound. "Do not destroy the asteroid until it is no longer a threat to Etam. That's an order." She looked down. "And once you do blow it...get back to Federation space. Take care of your crew, Lieutenant Sonia."

"Jess..." Justine stepped forward, reaching out.

If Jessica had appeared conflicted before, she was extremely emotional now. Tears came freely now as she took a small step forward as well. "Justine, I..."

"Please...don't..."

"We'll do our best over here. But if..."

"Stop it!"

"...if we don't make it...Justine, I..."

"Don't say it..."

"I love you, Justine." Jessica coughed a little, struggling to keep her own sobs in check. "I love you. Please...please...take care of yourself..."

"Jessiy!" Justine ran for the viewscreen. "I love you too, but you are not leaving me alone again!"

The monitor went dead as Jessica turned away, and Justine beat her hand on the dark screen. "You are not going to die, dammit! You can't do this!" Justine began sobbing again, sinking to the floor.

Seymour clenched his hands into fists. She couldn't do that. It wasn't her decision to make, to sign the death sentence to the crew when there was a way to save them.

It was only a matter of time before she got them all killed. He shook his head. "Damn."

It wasn't fair. Certainly, Jessica had no way of knowing Justine would be with him for the call, but she had gotten the chance to say goodbye to Justine. What about him? Or Timothy, or Alyssa? Justine and Jessica weren't the only couple on the ship.

Justine continued to sob on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest and rocking slowly in time with her cries. Seymour narrowed his eyes; the woman had seen one lover die already. It wasn't right to see it again - and so soon. He knelt next to her, putting a hand on her back. "We'll rescue them, Justine. I swear."

Justine paused for a moment, looking up enough to recognize who was talking to her. "She told us not to do anything!"

"Well she can..." Seymour stopped, choosing his words carefully. "She can't have thought of everything. We're pretty resourceful over here."

Justine sat up, glaring at him. "Don't, Seymour. There are billions more people on the planet than there are on the ship." She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "I love Jessica, but I couldn't forgive myself if we killed people on the planet."

Seymour motioned around him. "Look in this compartment, Justine. There's enough explosive material in here to level a few cities. We can destroy an asteroid."

"So wait three hours!"

"Justine, that ship is going to be a flying tomb in two!"

"She gave you an order!"

"Well her order was stupid!"

Justine's eyes went wide as saucers. "How dare you!"

"He's right, JD." Seymour and Justine both snapped their heads to the side to look as Mosz stepped into the compartment. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned on the frame of the hatch. "She's not thinking clearly. It's cold, and they're running out of air. We can come up with a better plan over here."

"Shut up, Terry. You're not helping things."

Seymour grabbed Justine's arms, shaking her a little. "Think about this for two seconds, Justine! We can plant the extra charges, wait for the rotation of the asteroid..."

"And then blow it apart so that the pieces won't go anywhere near the planet," Mosz continued with a grin. "Make for one hell of a fireworks show."

"And then save the ship," Seymour finished. "And Jessica."

Justine shook her head. "She ordered us to wait. We've already been rushing things here; what's to say the extra charges will do the trick? We could just blow off a chunk the size of the runabout and push this rock into the planet!"

"Leave the explosive science to the experts, Justine," Mosz replied, stepping forward. "We know what we're doing."

Justine shook her head. "I can't believe you two." She stood up quickly, pulling away from Seymour. "I'm going to the flight deck. If you won't tell them to back down, I will."

Seymour grabbed Justine's arm and spun her back around. "No you won't!"

"Let me go, Sonia!"

"I'm in command here. We blow this rock."

"Then I relieve you as your 'chief medical officer.' You're unfit for..."

"On what grounds? Wanting to save the lives of our shipmates?"

"At the cost of millions of innocent lives?!"

"No one will die!"

"You don't know that!" Justine pulled free again and bolted for the hatch. Mosz stepped in front of her, grabbing her arms. "Let me go!" She screamed, furiously trying to break free from the demolitionist's strong grasp.

Seymour came behind Justine with a hypospray and pressed it on her neck. The small woman immediately stopped fighting; she swayed dizzily before falling unconscious into Mosz's arms.

"Damn, Seymour," Mosz commented, slowly letting Justine down to the ground.

"She'll be ok." Seymour bent down and grabbed her legs, motioning for Mosz to lift her up again. "Get her into a pod; she's going to be out for hours now, and I don't want to trip on her."

Once they had secured Justine in an escape pod and closed the hatch, Mosz and Seymour stepped back onto the flight deck. When the hatch opened, all eyes were on the two men.

Alyssa looked slightly alarmed. "Is everything ok? What's wrong with Justine?"

Seymour shook his head. "She's sedated; she had to say goodbye to St. Peter."

"Goodbye?" Keith looked up from where he had been working. "What's going on?"

"Rafale is going to lose life support in an hour; she'll only last about another hour after that, but there will be a few casualties if we wait too long. The only way to get her back up and running is to free her from the gravitational pull of the asteroid." Seymour looked around. "We need to pack the last of our explosives into this rock. Tim, start working out a model of the asteroid's rotation. We need to blow it apart at the right time to ensure the largest of the debris won't hit the planet."

Timothy nodded, moving to the science station in the cramped compartment. "Right."

"Keith - you, Terry, and Alyssa get the bombs ready." Keith nodded his assent. "Tompson, Thoobor; I want us ready to run as soon as the last of the charges are set and the asteroid gets into alignment. We might need to help pull Rafale free, so make sure the tractor emitter is online and ready to go." Seymour nodded once, taking a deep breath. "Let's blow this rock."

===


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