It was hour five of the runabout Namsen’s as-yet fruitless search of the nebula tendril, and though boredom hadn’t officially set in, glimpses of it could be seen on the horizon. Quietude had led to conversation, and given the personalities involved, conversation had invited friction.
“I don’t want to be lectured,” Raffaele insisted, running the same scan cycle for the fifth time in as many minutes as a form of distraction.
“I’m not lecturing,” Cybel insisted. “I’m simply pointing out that the premise of your thesis was fundamentally wrong, nearly laughably so.”
Raffaele finally tore his eyes away from his display to stare daggers at the XO in the pilot’s seat. “Take that back! I graduated with honors, fourth in my class, and my thesis is still being taught at the academy as an example of divergent cognition.”
“I will not,” Cybel replied calmly. “I’ve run eight hundred and fifteen simulations of your equation over the years, having accounted for all possible variables to the input parameters, and the end results remain inconsistent. That’s not a verifiable result. It looks like a verifiable result if you take it at face value, but dig deeper and it all falls apart. Hence, your unsupported opinion does not constitute a scientific fact.”
“I’ve seen your simulations,” he snapped, “and you’ve failed to take several factors into account, which we have already discussed ad nauseum on several occasions!”
From behind them at an auxiliary console in the cockpit, Ressessk inquired innocently, “You are both ssscertain this is not a mating ritual?”
Raffaele yelled something incoherent in response, slapping his hands atop his console.
“This,” Cybel said, looking back to Ressessk, “is a primitive homo sapiens behavior known to Terran psychology as, ‘a tantrum.’”
“You are infuriating,” Raffaele seethed.
“I don’t think that’s the word you wanted, Rafe. I believe the word you are looking for is ‘superior.’ For what it’s worth, I know.”
“You know what?” Raffaele spun the co-pilot’s chair towards Cybel, gesticulating furiously, but before he could launch into his diatribe an insistent cry from his console diverted his attention.
“Sensor contact,” Cybel announced, beating Raffaele to the punch. “Metallic object measuring five meters in length, comprised of duranium and tritanium.”
He intensified the runabout’s scans of the object, saying, “Reads as a Starfleet Class-7 log buoy, modified.”
“Modified how?” Ressessk asked.
“It appears that additional protective layers have been added to the exterior of the buoy to safeguard it from the corrosive gasses in the nebula,” Raffaele replied. “We’ve had to refit a number of the probes we’ve been using in here for the same reason, though ours had a much shorter exposure time. Judging by the significant level of degradation, this buoy looks to have been here for years.”
“Itsss been here the whole time?” Ressessk sounded incredulous. “We’ve had probesss ssscouring thisss area for daysss, why have we only found it now?”
“Because we stumbled right into it,” Raffaele remarked, hands flitting across his console as he tweaked sensor parameters to get a better reading on the buoy. “We didn’t pick it up until we were less than three kilometers from it thanks to the interference from the surrounding nebula.”
“We’re being scanned,” Cybel noted. “The buoy is requesting Starfleet authentication codes.”
“Sending the appropriate countersigns for codes of that time period,” Raffaele answered. “Authentication confirmed.”
Cybel watched as the runabout’s computer linked with that of the probe. “We’re receiving an encrypted download from the buoy; data files, sensor logs, personal and official logs from Europa… two years, seven months and sixteen days worth. It will take a few minutes to complete the transfer.”
She looked across at Raffaele. “Your graduate thesis. It was an elaborate practical joke, wasn’t it? A joke that lives on to this day. Each time another academy class is exposed to your theorem, the joke is perpetuated.”
A smile spread slowly across the man’s features in response. “The most brilliant minds in the Federation. Vulcans, Bynars, other AI’s, and you’re the only one who’s managed to figure it out in nearly a decade.”
Warning tell-tails began to flash red across both their consoles simultaneously, strobing in time with an audible alert klaxon.
Cybel frowned, her brow furrowing in confusion. “Something just seized control of the navigation and helm. We’ve been hacked by the buoy!”
“Were our infiltration firewalls offline?” Raffaele asked.
“No, they’re working,” Cybel countered. “Whatever this is, it got past them.”
From behind them, Ressessk monitored the engineering systems and announced, “Our navigational deflectors are being retuned to a higher energy frequensssy.”
“Someone must have compromised the buoy,” Raffaele offered as he tried in vain to stop the cascade failure of command and control systems. “Nothing I’m doing is slowing it down.”
Cybel set her hand atop the console to establish a physical link and interface with the computer directly. “I’ll try some countermeasures, but I can’t risk exposing my own operating systems to this virus.”
Twin beams flared to life, projected from Namsen’s two navigational deflectors located on the craft’s engine pylons. They lanced ahead of the runabout and intersected some five kilometers away where a swirling aperture began to form.
“Impulssse enginesss coming online,” Ressessk noted with concern.
“Cybel?” Raffaele urged. “I really don’t want to go in there!”
The android drew her hand back from the console in alarm. “No choice I’m afraid. I just tried an emergency shut down of the computer core, but we’ve been locked out.”
The Namsen thrust ahead, pierced the veil, and vanished.
* * *
A bright white light suffused the cockpit of the runabout Namsen, causing Raffaele to cover his eyes while Ressessk’s nictating membranes slammed shut to protect her sight, an evolutionary safeguard of her species’ vision designed to thwart the glare of their bright white native star.
“I’m polarizing the viewports,” Cybel informed them as the cockpit grew substantially darker.
Raffaele blinked, his eyes watering. “Thank you. That was… intense.”
All at once, the cockpit’s interface panels went dark. After an agonizing moment, they returned to life as systems rebooted.
Cybel made a musing sound. “Full system restoration, apparently.”
“I think I sssee ssstarsss,” Ressessk offered uncertainly as she gazed out a now tinted viewport. “Thossse dark pointsss.”
Cybel joined her in looking out the window. “I believe you’re correct. Those dark points correspond with the locations of stars in this and adjoining sectors, though we wouldn’t have been able to see them from within the nebula. It’s as if the visual spectrum here has been inverted, and wherever this is, there’s no corresponding gas cloud. This may be a completely new dimension to us, or we might be slightly out of phase with our own dimension.”
“We aren’t the first to come here,” Raffaele observed with an odd note of disbelief in his voice.
Cybel turned towards him. “What?”
“Well, it’s a starship,” Raffaele replied slowly. “Just… not the one we were looking for.”
Three sets of eyes were now focused on the unlikely sight of what was unmistakably a Federation starship, a four-nacelle Constellation-class exploratory cruiser. It drifted less than a dozen kilometers away without running lights or any observable sign of active power.
Cybel squinted as her cybernetic eyes enhanced the image of the ship’s registry. “NCC-2748, USS Caelestis.”
“What in the seven levels of hell is she doing all the way out here?” Raffaele murmured, before adding, “wherever this is.”
One of the forward monitors activated, and the face of a male human Starfleet officer addressed them. “I apologize for the unexpected transition here to what we’ve named nullspace, but I decided it was easier to show you what we had discovered than simply try and explain it.”
“Wait,” Raffaele looked dumbfounded, “that’s—“
“It sssertainly appearsss to be,” agreed Ressessk, equally stunned.
“I am Captain Zeischt, commanding the Federation starship Europa. As our logs will explain, we were drawn to this location by persistent dreams through which several dozen members of my crew experienced inhabiting the bodies of members of Caelestis’ crew in the weeks leading up to the ship’s disappearance in the Beta Quadrant in 2295. We haven’t yet discovered how this is possible, or why, only that these experiences by the crew had become increasingly frequent and visceral.
“When we finally located Caelestis, we were being actively pursued by an Amon faction and could not remain here long without endangering the ship. We’ve included our initial findings so you may determine if there’s been any change in the ship’s status since we happened upon her.
"I have included star-charts of those areas I plan to explore next, provided the Amon allow us that opportunity. Additionally, we have begun to endure our own inexplicably troubling events aboard ship. I fear that the malevolent force that tormented Caelestis’ crew and then swept them into the LMC has now turned its attentions on Europa.
“I’ve also included detailed instructions on how to recreate the trans-dimensional portal that brought you here so that you may transit back and forth to our home dimension at will. I sincerely hope you are able to revive Caelestis’ crew from whatever manner of stasis has gripped them, should they still be in the same state as we discovered them.”
The image winked out, leaving the three officers deep in thought.
“The LMC continues to surprise me,” Cybel confessed.
“I must admit, I did not see that coming,” Raffaele offered.
“Ssshit,” added Ressessk.
* * *
The team which discovered Caelestis had returned to Valhalla to report their discovery and upload the data from Europa’s log buoy. Izawa was unwilling to risk the entire ship in this little-understood nullspace, and had instead sent a more robust exploratory team in the runabout back to Caelestis’ location.
The reconnaissance drone swept the starship’s bridge with fanning blades of sensor energy, analyzing the vessel, its atmosphere, and its crew down to the subatomic level. After ascertaining there were no detectable threats present, the drone vanished in a transporter beam as the away team materialized in its place.
Maddox, Ressessk, and Dr. Zelbin were all clad in hardened environment suits, while the engineer and Cybel appeared in standard duty uniform, the engineer’s presence courtesy of his mobile-emitter.
The team spread out throughout the darkened bridge, playing their wrist-mounted lights across the lifeless LCARS displays, which were frosted with ice crystals due to the temperature having reached near absolute zero in the compartment.
Caelestis’ bridge crew remained immobilized, presumably in the same positions and postures they’d assumed nearly a century earlier in the Milky Way galaxy. They, too, were coated in sparkling ice, like so much crystalline statuary. They were clad in the old belted, maroon military-style uniforms favored at the turn of the century, festooned with rank insignia, length-of-service pins, and department noted by turtleneck undershirt color. Most sat or stood at their control stations, some appearing to have been speaking and others inputting commands when the mystery event seized the ship and froze the crew like insects in amber.
Though Cybel’s mouth did not move, the team heard her voice clearly over their shared comms-channel. “So far, everything appears exactly as the team from Europa found it nearly three years ago.”
“Did we expect anything different, Commander?” Zelbin inquired.
“There was some thought among Europa’s science team that this might be an example of a highly localized temporal flux; basically time moving much more slowly than normal for Caelestis’ crew. However, what we’re seeing here isn’t consistent with that phenomenon.”
“No power to the ship’s systems,” the engineer noted over comms, though he went through the pantomime of moving his lips despite the lack of atmosphere. “From the scans we took aboard the runabout, there’s an active matter/anti-matter reaction taking place within the M/ARC chamber in main engineering. From a physics standpoint, it’s impossible to stop such a reaction in mid-stream, unless you create a complete temporal stasis field.”
“Thisss isss not sssuch a field?” asked Ressessk.
“No,” Maddox spoke up from where he was scanning a darkened console with a tricorder. “If such a field existed around Caelestis, we’d be affected by it, too.”
The muzzle-like protrusion of Ressessk’s mouth bunched in the Selay variant of a frown, visible from within her EVA helmet. “Then how isss thisss posssible?”
“No idea,” Maddox and Cybel answered in unison before pausing to share a smirk from opposite sides of the bridge.
Zelbin swept his medical sensor wand over the inert form occupying the captain’s chair as Cybel stepped over to join him.
“No cellular activity, no neural activity either, but no signs of necrosis. There is also no indication of the kind of cellular damage one would expect from biological tissues exposed to temperatures of minus two-hundred seventy-three degrees Celsius. From a medical standpoint, sir, they are neither alive nor dead.”
Cybel grunted in response, “Schrödinger’s crew.” She took a moment to examine the unmoving form of the man in the center seat. Through the semi-opaque covering of ice, Cybel could make out a Caucasian human male of average height with light curly hair marked by a receding hairline.
“Captain Marshall Abrahamson. I doubt this was the way anyone at the time would have foreseen his career ending.”
“Was he notable in some way?” Zelbin asked as he checked his readings on a medical tricorder.
“Quite, for his time.” Cybel rejoined. “He was promoted to captain fairly young, after distinguishing himself during the Cormara Incident when that rogue Klingon faction tried to seize Zouérat Station. Over the next decade he made a name for himself as a deep space explorer, always pushing back the frontiers of science and diplomacy.”
Zelbin smiled. “Sounds very much like our commodore.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “in many ways, though somewhat more flamboyant in that inimitable 23rd century fashion.”
“The Kirk era of dashing daring-do?” Maddox asked.
“Precisely.” She activated comms to the runabout. “Rafe, you getting our data signal?”
“Confirmed,” Raffaele replied from aboard Namsen. “Telemetry link is active and stable.”
The work continued quietly for some minutes, with team members engrossed in their own analyses. Finally, Raffaele broke the silence by asking, “So, Sandhurst is back aboard Europa, and in command? How did that happen?”
The query was directed toward Cybel, who was the only member of the crew who’d had access to the sum total of Europa’s logs and the ability to absorb them in their entirety.
“Not easily,” Cybel replied, engrossed in her tricorder’s readings. “Brief power struggle, threats of mutiny, nothing that will benefit any of their long-term career prospects.”
“Probably not their first priority, given the circumstances,” Raffaele pointed out.
Cybel allowed, “Probably not.”
“I’ll admit, I was surprised we found a viable clue to Europa’s whereabouts so soon, or at all, really. Hopefully the info they left will help us to narrow our search parameters.”
“Hopefully,” Cybel echoed. “Sandhurst did identify some other nebulae where they might have left us other log buoys, circumstances permitting. A least we’ve a better idea where to look now.”
“And the Amon?” Raffaele pressed for greater details. “What kind of threat do they pose now?”
“The ones from the cube that managed to survive Lar’ragos’ virus were understandably put out. Saying that they’ve declared a holy war on Europa’s crew might be painting too rosy a picture of the situation.”
“Ah,” Raffaele replied, “vengeance with religious overtones. A tried-and-true classic.”
Cybel moved to scan the armrest of the command chair, tempted to take a sample aboard Namsen to see if there was any detectable evidence of whatever phenomenon caused this event that might become apparent if a piece were removed from the influence of the ship itself. She withdrew her phaser, and set it to an appropriate power-level and beam width. “Be advised,” she warned the others. “I’m taking a material sample.”
She began to cut into the armrest, producing a flood of sparks as the tritanium yielded to her beam. Suddenly, the layer of ice clinging to the captain’s form broke free and began to float away as the body began to shimmer and vibrate.
Cybel called out over comms, “Namsen, emergency transport of the person in the captain’s chair. Put him behind a containment field and have the runabout’s EMH on standby!”
The weirdly pulsating form vanished in a cascade of transporter energy. Cybel turned to look at the others, her expression sheepish. “Oops,” was all her higher-order intelligence could think to offer in the moment.
* * *