World 7: Star Trek TOS – Episode 10

WHISPER IN THE DARK

Previously: Episode Nine

JUMPER’s LOG, Star Date 2271, April 14th (5 Years, 8 Months, 15 Days)

At the end of the Potemkin’s five year mission, we had a change of command; Captain Rademacher got bumped up to Commodore and we got Captain Braunstein. Woooo.  Send in the clowns.  Sorry, that’s not fair to Sherwood.  She was a fine commander… just a little… Have you seen M*A*S*H?  A little Henry Blake.  Good heart, competent… just a little argumentative at times and often… scatterbrained. Flashes of brilliance sometimes though.  Insight you wouldn’t believe.  A Mustang… she’d worked her way up from enlisted to command rank.  Hard as hell to do, but she’d done it.

For weeks we’d been tracking an anomalous ion signature as it meandered across several star systems, twitching and jinking around as if it was an object spinning slowly on all three axes while at warp.  That was, in fact, what I suspected it was, but with scant evidence.  We finally lost the trail as it entered an area of utter blackness. Our scans couldn’t penetrate the darkness, low power phaser bursts did nothing to it, and, as we slowly mapped its fringes, we became aware of just how massive it was.  It was an irregular blob of space, sixteen to eighteen light years across, and utterly blocked all signals of any kind from passing through it.

After much consideration, Captain Braunstein ordered us to lower a probe into the cloud on a tether.  We did so, ready to sever the connection if anything untoward were to happen.  Nothing did, and when the probe was withdrawn it seemed unharmed by the experience.  Safety relatively assured, we slowly entered what we were fairly certain was a Dark Matter Nebula.

For half an hour, everything seemed to be going well. Our ramscoops were pulling in trace particles and we’d isolated them in forcebottles for later study… and then our Warp Core died, and with it our shields, deflectors, and impulse engines.  The ship immediately switched to internal back up, but that was a finite resource.

For several days we worked round the clock on the problem, our fevered brains coming up with more and more exotic and outlandish attempts to get the engines restarted.  We tried launching photon torpedos into the darkness to try and blast holes in it, but if they exploded, we could not tell.  We tried it again with fusion bombs, but either the circuitry failed, or the darkness ate the explosion.  By the fifth day, the air was growing stale, the lights had been cut to 10% in all crew areas, and a pervasive odor of onions could be sensed at the back of your tongue.  We’d switched to rations rather than use the energy needed to run the food synthesizers, and the temperature aboard the ship was rising.  I was doing my part, generating Ice where I could, but my reserves were limited, even with magic.

By the 6th day, we’d begun sealing off sections of the ship, moving people in towards the center where it was cooler and where life support could be more easily maintained.  Much of the crew were now reduced to huddling around chemical lights, waiting for the inevitable.

Part of the problem was that there was no way of knowing just where we were.  We’d been under one quarter impulse for half an hour, travelling which meant we were somewhere near 2 light minutes into the cloud, and we’d probably been slowed to a stop relatively quickly, or the dark matter would have ripped the ship apart when the deflector died.  That gave us a small but significant window of space to somehow cross.  And that assumed we were still pointed in the same direction.  I’d tried the few divinatory spells I knew, but none of them had that kind of range.

Finally, with things getting desperate, I asked Zane what he’d do.

“I uno.  You’re the brains of this operation.  I’m the brawn.  You’re the steering, I’m just the speed.”

I laughed “Does that make us a car?”

“Yeah, well, if we are, we need a-” we looked at each other, then grinned.  “A tow.” we said together.  It was a testament to how long we’d worked together, because never once in the 45 years we’d been together had either of us owned a car or ever had a breakdown that would have required a tow.  The closest thing we had ever had was the Mako, which was (with enough Omni-Gel) self repairing.

“Right… hmmm… let me think.”

Half an hour later, I took the proposal to Captain Sherwood.  “That’s insane.” She commented. “It is.” I agreed.  “It is also the only thing I can think of that might work.” She grunted, then chuckled “Okaaay.  If you think you can do it, go ahead. But if it doesn’t work, don’t come crying to me.”

I laughed “If it doesn’t work, I’ll be crawling back for a very long time.”

Do you know how long 2 light minutes is?  It is 40,475,000 kilometers.  Imagine you had a rope a centimeter thick.  Do you know how much space that would take up? The answer is 3,178,899 cubic meters… or roughly a cube 147 meters on a side.  My proposal was nothing less than to fabricate  such a cord, made of carbon fiber… and with it tow the Potemkin out of the darkness.   There were only 4 small problems with this plan.

  1. There was no ship waiting outside the nebula to tow us clear. 2. There was no way to get such a rope to the ship even if the ship was there.  3. there wasn’t enough carbon on the ship to make such a rope, even if there was a way to get it to the ship that wasn’t there. 4. While carbon nanotubes are incredibly strong, with a tensile strength on the order of 300 Giga Pascals, towing a ship that’s the better part of a kilometer long would take waaaay more than that.

But I had a completely insane plan for each of those steps.  Step 1 relied on seeing just how fast we could get a shuttle craft going before it exited the hangerbay.  Step 2 relied on making a rope not 1 centimeter thick, but 2.5 millimeters thick… and 40 million kilometers long.  At 1/64th the volume, it would fit, barely, inside a shuttlecraft, and with a high power feed, should play out fast enough.  Step 3 would be easy, with the reduced mass requirement.  All we needed was a block of refined carbon 2.3 meters on a side… or 4.  Step 4… was the tricky bit

We worked nonstop for the next 8 hours, every second seeming like an eternity. We stripped the ship of every source of ready carbon it contained, the food, the sewage, hydroponics… we even scrubbed all the CO2 out of the atmosphere and shaved people’s hair.  I even snuck in as much carbon as I dared from the warehouse. Carbon Nanotubes are incredible things.  One of the strongest substances in the universe… and, when very very tiny… among the best electrical conductors known.  2.5 millimeters may not seem like much, but when you’re talking about nanometer channels for energy, 2.5 millimeters is bigger than it seems.  And we had six shuttle craft.

One by one we launched the shuttles, each on a slightly different but perfectly parallel course.  Four of them trailed tiny tiny wires, whisker thin, as they plowed through the darkness.  The other two, the heavy shuttles, carried the last of our precious generators… and me.  I knew it was cheating, but I didn’t really care.  If all else failed, I had a starship inside the warehouse and I’d use it.  I didn’t know if it would fare any better against the dark matter, but the technology was utterly different and FTL capability wouldn’t be needed to rescue the Potemkin.

We coasted through the darkness, close enough in formation to be able to see each other even through the oppressive fog. Whatever property of the cloud had killed Potemkin’s warp drive, also killed our impulse engines, but we’d already built up enough speed, and after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably closer to 2 hours, we were free of the darkness.  One by one we maneuvered the six shuttles into close alignment, killing relative velocity by use of reaction thrusters.  Then, carefully, we hooked the tiny wires to the generators… and waited. And waited… and waited.

Two days later, the mothership slowly, achingly slowly, pulled herself free of the grip of the darkness, the trickle of power we’d fed her, bolstered by the output of our own impulse once the residual dark energy had been bled from them, had done the trick.  It took nearly a week of heavy maintenance to get the warp drive operational again, and by the time we limped back to a starbase the air almost tasted normal again.  For once, I was glad to receive the medal, in this case the Starfleet Citation for Conspicuous Gallantry.  I’d earned it. But I was even more pleased for Zane, who kept polishing his medal and looking insufferably pleased with himself.  I was forced to leap on his back and apply noogies.  It’s a sibling thing, you wouldn’t understand if you don’t have one.

Next: Episode Eleven

Resources: Build, Document

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