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Distant night, the most distant. Today, a giant's finger of tractless lingering haze dusted space deep cobalt blue, painting the otherwise ink matte of weeks past. Everything changed day by day, even space itself.
Or perhaps it was only anger.
Prowling the central command deck, surrounded by a raised walkway that supported all the consoles and monitors that showed him the universe, Captain James Kirk bedeviled his starship's forward viewscreen with a punitive glare, as if he could mentally brutalize what he saw into submission.
"Red alert," he ordered, "again."
"Captain," Lieutenant Commander Uhura broached from the communications post, "we never stood down from the previous one."
Kirk ignored her. "Get the owner over here right now. Sulu, detonate those shots."
The starship's bridge pulsed with activity. Colored lights winked, and soft mechanical noises sang in the background, a self-driven symphony of never-ending background music that could seem either comforting or nerve-racking, depending upon the construction of any given peace or panic.
Today, Kirk let his nerves go ahead and rack. Somehow it was a message from the ship that she would act out his will, that he was still in charge.
"Mr. Spock," he asked, "is that drone automated or manned?"
On the upper deck walkway, watching the main screen like a cat on the hunt, the starship's first officer was as much comfort as Kirk would get on this mission. Sharp-eyed and dynamic, standing out on a bridge otherwise manned by humans, the Vulcan posed a narrow form particularly imperial in the new Starfleet colors of brick and black. His slick black hair, cut in the style of banks and points that now was famous in the Federation, caught a band of light from the red-alert beacon, which also framed the triangle of his left ear as he turned. "We're not certain whether it's manned, sir. Sensors pick up no life signs, but may be fouled by the industrial machinery on board. Some of Mrs. Webb's factory ships do have security guards stationed with sensitive data files."
"Then we can't blow it up -- yet. Invasive maneuvers, Mr. Sulu, get between that drone and Oregon Trail. Double shields port, right now."
"Port double shields, aye," the steady helmsman answered. Kirk was glad Sulu had come on this mission. Even though the course was essentially straight out into the middle of nowhere at noteworthy speeds, the helm at the hands of Hikaru Sulu somehow behaved just a thought better than at anyone else's.
The reassuring repeat of orders gave a sense of control to an uncontrolled situation. The starship moved forward through a magnificent funnel of spacefaring ships, every size and construction, that now moved aside for her. The view from here was eerie -- dozens after dozens of ships flooding past, heading back as the starship headed forward. At the helm, Commander Sulu hammered coordinates and traffic directions into his computer console, sweeping the flotilla away from the danger point.
Though only a few seconds of pause lay before him, Kirk stole those moments to commune silently with the great entourage of ships he was here to lead. Huge Conestoga-class dormitory ships, with their bird-beak bows and bulbous living sections, plowed past with deceiving grace, each pushed by brilliantly conceived devices designed just for this journey by Engineer Scott -- two detachable "mule" engines, huge rocks of unadorned muscle that could tow or push at fantastic ratios. Thus driven, the big people-mover ships were incarnations of the first iron horses steaming out toward treacherous frontiers, over scorching deserts, windy plains, and frozen mountains, hoping they'd make it to the other side.
Sprinkled among the Conestogas were private yachts, tenders, industrial drones, the mercy ship, the garden ship, the governor's VIP transport...What a sight. More than seventy ships, clustered in one area of space. Even after five months in space, it was shocking to look at them all, moving together in a great flock. Kirk was used to being in space, but alone out here, with his one powerful vessel, and the family of crew. Though the crew of four hundred had always seemed bulky as ships' complements went, Kirk had found new epiphanies in the past months, leading a convoy of over sixty-four thousand colonists to a promised land -- a land they had promised to themselves and were determined to settle, a dream they themselves had conjured and hammered into shape.
Here came the coroner ship, sedate and dignified in its promise to do whatever sad jobs came its way. Kirk tried to ignore the passing of Twilight Sentinel, but her presence off his starship's port bow jolted him back to the cold fact that he was facing a tragedy in the making and if he made the wrong decision, that ship would be full of bodies.
He pressed his hands to his command chair and pushed to his feet as the privateer ship Hunter's Moon slid past, her scratched black and green dazzlepainted hull gliding by at what seemed like arm's length. There, in the open space as the privateer cleared the viewscreen, was the tortured Conestoga Oregon Trail, being assaulted by a drone ship that had lost its mind. The functional-ugly drone, with its retractable docking claws all out, clutched at the Conestoga like a headless insect. Its flashes of torch phasers, several time brighter than they should be, crashed across the hulls of both free-floating vessels. Sparks danced into space, clouding the view. If those torches cut through the Conestoga's hide, this malfunction could quickly become a disaster.
Around him, the starship's refitted bridge glowed with the scarlet hue of red alert. In his misty mind, Kirk sometimes expected to see this place as it once had been, with its rows of etched black screens, the red rail, muted carpet, and grade-school colors that had seemed so crisp and happy. The refit had made the bridge more technical, more cold and metallic, but under the skin she murmured to him that she was still that old ship of his many adventures, the sturdy grand dame that had serviced the Federation so dependably. She recognized him despite the change, and he felt more at home by the hour.
At the engineering post, the convoy's senior engineer, Montgomery Scott, turned his iron-gray head and looked at the drone ship on the main screen harassing the Conestoga. Irritably he reported, "That damned box has sealed all its hatches now, sir. The hull's electrified and it keeps evading grapples. Nobody can get inside while the shields are up. The thing's gone completely raving."
Spock turned again. "Captain, I estimate eleven minutes to critical overload of those industrial phasers at this enhancement level."
Kirk flattened his lips. "Nothing compared to what'll happen when I get my hands on whoever enhanced them. Ah -- Captain Kilkenny."
"Kilvennan," came the correction. "Michael."
On the upper deck, just coming out of the turbolift, was one of the privateer captains, in fact the captain of Hunter's Moon, which had just sailed past. Escorted by Lieutenant Chekov, with shaggy long hair and a musketeer beard, Michael Kilvennan was everything James Kirk imagined the captain of folklore to be -- a mold that, ironically, he had never quite fit. Kilvennan wore a brown turtleneck and a belted sheepskin vest, setting him instantly apart from the starship's crew in their fitted blood-red uniform jackets and black trousers. In fact, the privateer captain looked uneasy standing next to the perpetually tidy Chekov.
"You better have a word with Mr. Chekov here," the privateer demanded. "Beaming me off my ship without permission -- "
"We don't have time for permission, Captain," Kirk told him sharply. "And I have emergency authority." He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the scene on the main viewer. "That one of your drones?"
"My mother runs the line of trailing industrial drones," Kilvennan confirmed, watching the action before them in space. "Helen Kilvennan Webb. She works on the CP Crystobel, but our family lives on the Yukon. She's the one who should be here. Those drones trail after the commercial pilot -- "
"Like little ducks," Kirk nodded. "You'll do for now. Yukon's under medical quarantine."
"I'll 'do'? Just because Mr. Chekov's handling Expedition security doesn't mean he gets to yank people off their own ships and haul them around the fleet."
"Yes, it does. Your mother's drone is attacking one of our passenger ships. I need to know what's on it right now and whether I'm free to destroy it if I have to."
Kilvennan scowled. "Who cares what's on it? Blow the damned thing up!"
A voice entered the argument from the upper deck. "Captain, you can't!"
Kirk turned -- so did everybody -- to the future colony's young governor as he raised a hand from where he stood next to Scott. An idealist's idealist, Evan Pardonnet was a man for whom youth provided a shield against the digs that picked away at beliefs and dreams. He had planned this massive one-stroke colonial movement, overlorded its every development, and bristled at the Federation's inclusion of Starfleet into the mix at the last minute. James Kirk had cast away his mantle of admiralty and once again put on a captain's hat, and accepted command of the Starship Enterprise to go into deep space, escorting and guarding the greatest colonial project in United Federation of Planets history.
Easy on the drawing board. Reality was a picker bush. For five months Kirk and Pardonnet had wrestled over who had authority to do what. In a crisis situation, should the colonists look to their fleet captain, or to their governor? Was there time for a committee meeting? The governor now argued his point in his usual way -- passionately.
"Mrs. Webb's line of drones," he protested, "is manufacturing things we'll need almost immediately to set up a decent first year on Belle Terre! We've got to protect it!"
"Blow it up," the owner's son repeated. Kilvennan seemed relaxed, but his eyes were fixed on the ghastly scene playing out in space, the drone ship carving plates off the Oregon Trail's weakening blue side. "Webb Three's a manufacturing plant making subassemblies for industrial goods. Kitchenware, that's all -- "
"Our ovens, ranges, refrigeration units!" The governor clenched and unclenched his hands until his palms were red. "Filtration systems, hydrators, dehydrators, waste-recyclers -- we need those, Captain Kirk!"
But Kilvennan stood his ground. "What good's that stuff if you let it kill three thousand colonists?"
Kirk swung to him. "What kind of phasers has that thing got, Kilvennan?"
"Ah...level-six cutting torches, I think -- "
"How'd they get up to level three?"
Pulling his hands from his pockets, Kilvennan bumped forward against the bridge rail. "Level three! That's impossible!"
"You're looking at it."
"Those are supposed to be level-six industrials, defensive at short range to deflect meteors! Cutting phasers, that's all!"
"Captain Kilvennan," Spock interrupted, "if your mother's had her phasers enhanced, she's in violation of Belle Terre Colonial Expedition statutes."
"And," Kirk firmly finished, "she'll be held criminally responsible for any deaths caused by that drone."
Kilvennan met him with a gale-force glare. "Who in hell do you think you are, making a charge like that? If those phasers are enhanced, they'll overload! Don't you think we know that?"
Meeting the other captain's anger point for point, Kirk snarled, "Is there any living person on board? Anyone at all?"
"Nobody. Webb Three, Four, Six, and Nine are all completely automated. My parents run them by telemetry from the CP."
At the comm station, Uhura had her hand to her earpiece. "Sir, Captain Briggs is hailing from the Tugantine. Should he move in with Norfolk Rebel and pry that drone off the Conestoga?"
"Not even the Tugantine's engines could break that drone's tractors," Kirk calculated. "Not under fire, anyway. Tell him to stand by."
Scott poked at his engineering controls and scowled. "The drone's tractored itself directly to the Conestoga's hull, sir. There's not two inches between them now."
Irreconcilably prowling the command deck, Kirk seized the problem and applied his pure will to it. The chilling sight of the factory drone chewing at a ship with three thousand passengers on board -- they might as well have been watching a cougar gnaw the leg of an elephant. Was there anything more frightening than a machine that had lost its mind?
Even through the gap of space between him and the Conestoga, he sensed the shrieks of fear, the huddling in horror, the confusion and desperation aboard that dormitory ship. He felt in his bones the painful thrumming of vibration from attack as it ran through the skin of the ship and up through the feet of those people and into their shuddering limbs. They were scared. He felt that. They needed him. He felt that too.
The bridge was all lit up with "windows" out to space. He saw all that was around them, all the ships of the Belle Terre Colonial Expedition, the thousands of civilians standing side by side with their spouses and children, watching what he would do next to save their neighbors, depending on him and judging him based upon the coming few minutes.
He hated an audience. Missions could be handled. Shows were messy.
Were they all thinking about the good old Earth they'd left behind, sinking into a gemlike backdrop, likely never to be seen again? Or were their minds on the planet they were heading toward, another Earth with clear skies and gleaming oceans, continents flushed as if they'd just been kissed?
Kirk was jolted as the last few ships cleared the way. The Conestoga Lakota, with her warp mule engines driving like Hadrian's elephants. The industrial ship Macedon towing an iceberg -- their water source in space. The huge Olympian, repository for thousands of micro-scaffolds growing body parts for cryo-freeze. The coroner ship Twilight Sentinel with her elegant purple hull and white lights, the dairy barge loaded with real cattle and real cowboys. Wreckmaster Briggs moving his Tugantine out of the way. Finally the Starfleet combat support tender Beowulf skimmed past the starship and flashed her running lights in a good-luck salute.
Beowulf was the last of the Expedition ships blocking the way. Now the Conestoga Oregon Trail and her bulldog attacker stood alone on the vista of space, glowing in the airbrushed light of a sun they were passing, and Kirk was at center stage.
"Nine minutes to overload." Spock's baritone voice pretended emotionlessness, but that was a lie.
"Captain," the governor pressed, "I know what you're thinking and I don't like it. The colonists are depending on those drones. Webb Three's the only one manufacturing appliance subsystems. The Webbs have spacedock facilities, computer components, all sorts of things critical to our setting up a viable spaceport in record time! Please don't fire on their factory drone!"
Ignoring him, Kirk turned to the privateer captain. "When did you first notice its erratic behavior, Mr. Kilvennan?"
"It's Captain Kilvennan, and my mother's sensors noticed the rogue at the same time you did, Captain Kirk."
Suddenly ferocious, Kirk snapped, "Don't get provoked with me. I'm having a bad week and I'm not in a good mood."
Though Kilvennan visibly boiled under the skin, he offered helpful information. "My first mate wondered if maybe the lightship's signal scrambled Webb Three's autonav. I told him I didn't think we were picking up a signal yet from the Hatteras."
Spock turned to him. "We've been receiving a phase-distant homing signal from the lightship for nearly four days, Captain Kilvennan. Only this morning it finally went to proximity one. The lightship uses extreme-range sensors to gather information, then broadcast them to anyone who might need them."
"Not now, Spock," Kirk preempted. "We're not sure what set that drone off, but no stray signal's going to change level-six torches to level-three disruptive phasers. So somebody's been tampering. Now the ship's gone rogue and it's trying to cut up a people-mover with three thousand passengers on board."
Governor Pardonnet sweated as he watched the Conestoga on the main screen. "Can't we have one day without an accident?"
"This is no accident," Kirk rejected. "If it were just a malfunction, that drone would've snatched one of its own line of drones or some ship close to it. Instead it went right for the Oregon Trail, ignoring ten other vessels in its way."
Before them as the starship drew cautiously nearer, the chunky manufacturer ship, with its thick arms and pods extended like claws, assaulted the helpless Conestoga. Flashes of torch phasers, five times brighter than they should be, brightened the flanks of both vessels. At the helm, Sulu settled down to concentrate on moving just the starship now that the rest of the Expedition ships were out of the way.
Kilvennan asked, "Can't you fry its autopilot with a microburst?"
"As you pointed out," Spock answered, "enhanced phasers are quirkish. A burst might set them into critical mode."
Hearing their voices as if detached by a thousand miles, James Kirk gripped the back of his command chair as the starship pulled closer, narrowing the distance between itself and the crazed drone. The Conestoga loomed so large on the screen that he could count its hull bolts.
"When it flew off on its own," Kilvennan offered, "my mother contacted me and told me to broadcast commands in our private code when it came past Hunter's Moon, but it wouldn't accept. Instead it passed right by the other ships and went for Oregon and started opening up."
"Seven minutes," Spock reminded.
Kirk almost snarled at him to quit counting, but held back. "Chekov, go down to auxiliary control and use the battle targeting computer to take a pinpoint firing fix on that drone. Contact us the minute you've pulled it up."
"I'll be there in thirty seconds, sir!" Chekov brushed past Kilvennan and plunged into the lift. With a hiss he was gone, and the young privateer captain stood alone on the aft walkway.
"Mr. Kilvennan," Kirk summoned, "would you come down here and take his post at weapons and navigation."
Startled, Kilvennan stepped back. "Nah, you don't want me. Never even been on a starship's bridge."
"And I've never been a privateer. The seat's right here. You're the one who wants to blow it up, and I need somebody to push the button when I give the order."
Making a decision he didn't like, Michael Kilvennan stepped down to the lower deck, grumbling, "Bet you haven't heard the word 'no' in twenty years." He slipped into the nav chair next to Sulu and tried to make sense of the multilights on the board before him. "Why don't we just blow it up now? Why wait?"
"We've got to get it off Oregon Trail's hull," Kirk said, "or it'll rip a hole in that ship the size of a gymnasium. There's Chekov's tie-in. He just connected."
Pointing at a grid on the right side of the board, Kirk moved around to Kilvennan's side, feeling compact and chiseled in comparison to the lanky hired gun with his long hair and rugged clothing.
"You're in my way," Kilvennan accused.
But Kirk didn't move. He paused in midstep, fingertips of his left hand poised on the nav console. He was looking up at the science station.
The ultimate of verticality, Spock continued to look down at him as if they had all the time ever made. Had they both stopped breathing? Kirk felt the eyes of Scott and Uhura, who knew them both so well. Governor Pardonnet was watching him too, but in a completely different way. So was Kilvennan.
"It did go straight for the Oregon Trail," Kirk murmured. "Didn't it?"
Spock peered at him. "The ID beacon?"
Kirk slapped the helm with a flat palm. "Try it, Spock! Sulu, shields down!"
"Our shields, sir?" Sulu asked. "Oh -- of course! Shields down, sir!"
"Phaser overload on the drone," Spock ticked off, "within six minutes."
Six minutes, and the factory drone would blow itself up without help.
"What's going on?" Kilvennan asked.
Spinning to face the main screen again, Kirk quickly said, "Something must've told that drone which ship to attack. That means specific signal identification!"
"And that means programming," Scott punctuated.
Suddenly they were all milking their consoles, concentrating on prying that dangerous drone off the skin of the Conestoga. Again Kirk took his spare two seconds to empathize with the people on board that dorm ship -- emergency evac drills, abandon-ship procedures, waking the children and fitting them with EV units --
And Uhura sitting up there at her post as if she were just a switchboard operator, showing none of the fabulous power of action she possessed as the Expedition's drillmaster and safety tsar. Were her drills coming to good use over there? Would lives be saved?
"Sir," she called, "Mr. Chekov signals he's ready."
"Have him stand by." Kirk's voice was gravelly with anticipation. He wanted to shoot at something. "You heard that, Kilvennan?"
"Still trying to figure out these lights. Don't count on me."
"Right there." Kirk pointed at an amber control grid. "That's the important one for you."
One wrist pressed to the edge of his board, Spock pecked at the controls. He frowned, dissatisfied. "I'm unable to shut down the Conestoga's beacon by remote. There's some sort of signal refusal."
Cranking around, Kirk grasped the back of his command chair. "Ship to ship, Uhura, quickly. Oregon Trail, this is Enterprise. Shut down your ID beacon immediately. That drone is homing in on your code."
"Enterprise, Captain Trautner. We figured that out, but our beacon won't neutralize. It's locked up. It'll take hours to purge the system. That thing's cutting through our hull!"
"Evacuate passengers to the other side of -- "
"And shut the hatches. I did, but if it breaches the hull in the wrong place, we'll have a pressure detonation. Can't you blast it?"
"Negative. The explosion would take out your port quarter. Keep working on that signal. Spock, broadcast the Conestoga's signal anyway. Maybe we can confuse that thing into letting go if it gets the signal from two sources."
Kilvennan looked up. "Why are you dropping your shields?"
"If we don't," Scott answered, "the drone won't be able to tractor onto us and it'll go looking for the Conestoga again."
Kirk's shoulders bunched under the uniform jacket. "Target phasers."
"About time," Kilvennan reminded, his hand poised over the firing control.
"Bring the ship to -- "
"Captain, please!" Governor Pardonnet's brown hair flopped forward. "We'll be cooking over open fires for a year while we rebuild that infrastructure. There's got to be a way to neutralize it -- "
"You're going to have to let me finish a sentence one of these days, Governor." Kirk gave him a mellow glance. "Mr. Kilvennan, target our phasers and prepare to detonate the beam, and only the beam, if that drone fires on us, understood? Chekov'll provide pinpoint coordinates on your upper left."
"Spock, are we broadcasting?"
"Yes, sir. The drone is unresponsive. It believes it has found its quarry and won't release."
"Boost the signal. Overwhelm the Conestoga's signal with the same code. Blast that thing in the ears. Pull in close, Sulu."
"Proximity range in thirteen seconds, sir," Sulu said, tipping his shoulders as he turned the ship.
Almost coming out of his chair, Kilvennan snatched a quick breath. "It's breaking free of the Conestoga!"
Sometimes victory could be horrifying. The angry drone ship, with its claws extended and its mechanical mind focused, clunked free of the dorm ship and turned its attack on the starship. Moving closer and growing larger by the millisecond, it was on them in instants. The starship jolted suddenly as it was struck by a phaser hit. Even a level-three phaser at this nearness could deal a bad blow. If it hit a nacelle --
"Firing on us," Sulu mentioned casually.
Spock watched his console instead of the gigantic crawling monster on the screen as it approached, then dipped below the ship's saucer-shaped primary hull. "Drone is tractoring on our engineering section. Five minutes to phaser-critical."
Tensely Kirk lowered his chin and digested the fact that they were now aboard the powerful drone's chosen target. "Mr. Sulu, bear off from the Expedition ships. Give us room to maneuver."
"Room to blow up, you mean," Kilvennan openly stated, and met Kirk's glare fearlessly.
"Target the drone's shield assembly," Kirk gnashed to him, "and fire, right now."
Kilvennan's hand went to the amber grid.
Phasers lashed from the starship's underbelly to the drone now clamped to her engineering hull. On the main screen now was a view of the drone latched freakishly on. The phaser cut a fiery line across the gap, struck the drone's shield array, and the array disintegrated. Only a scorched bruise, smoking and sparking, remained where the assembly had been mounted on the drone's bow.
"Drone's shields are down," Spock confirmed. "It's still compromising our hull. Opening fire now...four minutes thirty seconds to critical."
"I'll take care of it." Kirk took Kilvennan by the arm and yanked him out of his chair.
"What -- " Kilvennan tripped on the steps leading to the upper deck.
Kirk dragged him the rest of the way, kicked open a maintenance trunk, fished around, and pulled out a magnetic oct-shank cyclospanner, a heavy hand tool, cast in traditional black ore, that only saw use about once every decade but was the only one for the job when it was needed. It was the right shape, and didn't conduct.
"Spock, beam us over there right now."
Kilvennan wrenched his arm away. "You crazy?"
"You're coming with me, like it or not," Kirk told him. "You know your way around inside that thing."
"Beam over there four minutes from critical? You're nuts! I'm not one of your crew to order around!"
"In that case, when I come back I'm arresting your mother."
"Hell -- you mean when we get back."
"Spock, the guidance-control section, right now!"
Beside Kirk as the buzz of transport filled their ears, Kilvennan stripped out of his sheepskin vest and dumped it on the deck. "Shoulda stayed in Chicago!"
Copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.