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Ring Around the Sky
by Allyn Gibson
As Tev woke from his nap, he smiled and felt completely refreshed. The past few weeks had been trying, and to be able to sit, lean back, and relax for hours on end put him quickly to sleep. He snorted, clearing his nose, and stretched his facial muscles to loosen them. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. This had been a very good nap.
He turned to the Kharzh'ullan seated next to him. "How long until we reach the base station?" he asked.
The Kharzh'ullan checked his wrist chrono and frowned. "I never was good at math. Should be soon. Half an hour, perhaps."
"Good," said Tev as he leaned back into his seat and closed his eyes. He had traveled from Kharzh'ulla to the Ring and back many times in his life, and he had always enjoyed the passenger cars. They were oriented differently than subway trams he had used in and around San Francisco when he had been at Starfleet Academy-the subway trams had seating on a single, long level, but the Kharzh'ullan passenger shuttles had seating on five levels, with chairs arranged in a circle around the central ladder that ran from level to level, and the conductor's station at the base of the passenger car. Like the trams, the Kharzh'ullan shuttles traveled through tunnels, but where the San Francisco trams traveled beneath the city, the Kharzh'ullan shuttles moved through the space elevators between the planet's surface and the Ring.
The passenger beside him shook Tev's shoulder. Tev sat up, turned his head, and half-opened his eyes. "If you wouldn't mind my asking...?" Tev's neighbor said.
"You're an off-worlder," said the neighbor. "Have you been to Kharzh'ulla before?"
Tev smiled. "Many times." He leaned back in his seat, his eyes focused on some distant point beyond the central ladder. "I used to live on Kharzh'ulla. In Prelv, actually."
A skeptical look crossed the Kharzh'ullan"s face. "Been away long?"
"Why did you leave?"
Tev sighed. "Starfleet." It wasn't the complete answer, but it would suffice for a stranger.
His companion nodded. "What brought you back?"
"Business," said Tev after a lengthy pause, his voice low. He closed his eyes. His companion seemed to take the hint, and said nothing more.
Tev had spent too long in space. He could feel the shuttle's movement through the elevator just as he could feel a starship's, down the superconducting magnets that ran thirty thousand kilometers from surface to terminus at the Ring.Tev's eyes shot open. Something felt wrong. Very wrong.
"Aeh-hvahtin," said Tev.
"What are you talking about?" said his companion.
"We should be decelerating, but we're not." He did a quick mental calculation-the passenger shuttle should have been decelerating rapidly from its speed of five thousand kilometers per hour. If the passenger car didn"t begin braking soon it wouldn't have the time or space to slow to a stop when the car reached the elevator's base.
Tev unfastened his shoulder harness and began to rise from his seat. A hand on his shoulder stopped him. "What do you think you"re doing?" his companion asked.
"There's some sort of problem, probably with the passenger car's brakes. I'm a Starfleet engineer. The conductors need my assistance."
The other passenger unclasped his hand from Tev's shoulder. Tev nodded in wordless thanks and lunged for the ladder.
The climb down the ladder felt endless. Time seemed to slow for him. What should have taken at most a minute, from the fourth passenger level to the conductor's booth, seemed to take hours. Tev heard the voices of the other passengers, their fright and anger as they too realized that the passenger car was in grave danger, that their lives might soon end. He paid them little attention; he was an engineer with a job to perform, and he would save them.
The conductor's cabin was dark, with computer monitors ringing the compartment. Some consoles flashed red, others were dark. A Kharzh'ullan stood over one of the consoles, his hands frantically working the controls.
"What's happening?" Tev raised his voice over the din of the cabin's alarms.
The Kharzh'ullan turned, startled. "Who are you?"
"Lieutenant Commander Mor glasch Tev, Starfleet Corps of Engineers." Tev steadied himself against the base of the ladder as the passenger car rocked.
The conductor nodded, his eyes dark. "The brakes appear to have failed." He paused. "We're in free fall."
"What of the emergency brakes?" Tev asked, referring to the friction brakes that explosively deployed against the interior of the elevator shaft.
The conductor shook his head.
"There must be something we can do," said Tev.
"Your ship," said the conductor. "Can they beam us away?"
Now Tev shook his head. The superconductive sheathing of the elevator shaft made transporter locks on objects within the shaft difficult, and with the passenger car increasing its speed with every passing moment, such a lock would have been impossible.
Tev staggered against the g-forces toward one of the computer readouts. The electromagnets that slowed the passenger car showed a reversed polarity-instead of breaking the car against the shaft's sheathing they were accelerating. "I think," said Tev, "if we restart the computer system, we might be able to restore the electromagnetic polarity." He reached over to the next console and began a shutdown sequence. The console went dark.
The cabin rocked again as the passenger car bounced off guide rails. Tev fell to the floor. He felt a stabbing pain in the right side of his chest. One of his ribs might have cracked. He tried to push himself up, but his right arm felt weak. He looked across the dim cabin and saw the conductor leaning heavily on one of the consoles.
"Can you restart that console?" Tev's voice was muffled as he felt his mouth fill with blood. The broken rib must have punctured one of his lungs.
"I don't know how," a voice said.
"What?" said Tev, uncomprehending. The conductor had been male, yet this was a female's voice he had just heard.
"Tev? Tev, I don't want to die," said the conductor, and she turned.
Tev's eyes widened as they lost their focus. Tev couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"Mother?" he said as he reached out across the cabin with his left hand. His mother had slumped to the cabin floor and rested her back against the base of one of the control consoles.
"Tev?" she said again. "We're not going to stop, are we?"
Tev's mind felt dizzy and disoriented. "We will," he said, his voice hollow and weak.
Everything stopped as the passenger car plowed into the base of the elevator shaft at seven thousand kilometers an hour.
Tev sat up, his eyes open wide. "Fvirhiehs!"
The covers of his bunk were drenched with sweat. He felt his heart hammering in his chest. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath.
He had had the nightmare again.
"Computer," he said as he rubbed his eyes, "how long since I doused the lights?"
Tev frowned. He sighed and lay back on his bunk.
He first had the nightmare five years before, while he served aboard the Madison. It resurfaced from time to time, especially when he was under great stress, but he hadn't had the nightmare for over a year, and he thought himself past it. But this mission, to return to Kharzh'ulla, to return to that very place where his mother died, Tev had been expecting the nightmare.
What he hadn"t expected was for it to be quite so vivid.
Lying on his bunk, Tev stared at the ceiling. He had thought he might be able to squeeze in an hour-long nap after his bridge shift before presenting the Kharzh'ullan mission briefing. Re-experiencing the nightmare, though, removed that option. He needed to put his mind on other things, alleviate the emotional pressure.
He turned his head and looked at the clock on his desk. The mess hall would be empty this time of morning. He could prepare the briefing there in relative peace.
Sonya Gomez stopped by the mess hall to get herself some tea, and found Tev sitting alone at one of the corner tables. Something that looked like a plate of twigs sat untouched on a plate next to him as he riffled through several padds at once.
"Mind if I join you?" she asked.
He looked up from the padds and flared his nostrils. Placing all but one of the padds on the table, he said, "I am endeavoring to complete my mission briefing, Commander. Is there something you want?"
Gomez sat down across from him. "How's the briefing coming along?"
Tev snorted. "It will be ready in time for this afternoon's meeting."
She reached across the table and began to pick up one of his padds until he snatched it away from her. "I just wanted to take a look at your progress," she said as she pulled her hand back.
"My presentation," Tev said, his voice heavy, "will be ready."
"Is there a problem, Tev?"
Tev fell quiet and said nothing. Gomez sighed. It always seemed to be one step forward and two steps back with her second officer. Every time she thought he was making progress in integrating himself with the rest of the crew, his behavior would remind her that he was still the insufferably arrogant twit who had reported to the da Vinci at McKinley Station weeks ago.
"Commander," said Gomez, "we can stare at each other across the table all day if that's how you want to play it. If there's a problem, I"d prefer to know about it now, when we can do something about it, rather than later, when the mission's on the line."
Tev took a deep breath and scrunched his snout. "I request that I be taken off this mission," he said at last.
"Why?" Gomez asked as she shifted in her seat.
Tev looked at her quietly from behind impassive, bleary eyes. Finally he spoke, with a depth of emotion that Gomez had never heard from the Tellarite before. "Had Starfleet given me any choice in the matter, I would have chosen not to be here, Commander." Gomez began to cut him off, but he held up a hand. "Yes, I was raised on Kharzh'ulla. But I left there many years ago, and I would prefer not to return. My life there-" He paused, then continue... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.