Uhura was running a simple array diagnostic, the third in as many days, when she heard it.
She was sure Spock would call off the search any day now, and paranoia had her worried even the simplest system hiccup would make her miss something. She didn't need practice running the tests, and really could have handed them off to one of the junior communications crew, but it was something to focus on other than how they were going to abandon Kirk to whatever fate had befallen him.
At first she thought it was just another random noise. Space was a morass of random noises, after all, and even for someone as skilled as herself it took concentration to sift relevant signals from the rest. With everyone stretched so emotionally thin, concentration was something she had in short supply.
She had an instinct for noise, though, and that instinct pushed at her now; it told her to focus and listen.
Uhura canceled the test and leaned closer to her station, cupping her hands over her earpieces. She kept her breathing slow and steady, lest the pounding of her own heart drown out the faint sound. One by one she adjusted the array’s settings, making minute changes.
No, she wasn’t imagining it.
“I think I’ve got something.” She felt everyone on the bridge stop whatever they were doing to stare at her, even Sulu from his spot in the captain’s chair.
Another finite adjustment, and the signal strength doubled. “Gotcha.” She swept her hand along the panel, sending the coordinates to Chekov. There was a sense of something like panic as the rest of the crew waited, afraid after all this time to hope for even a second.
Chekov’s hands had a fine tremor as he put in the changes. Sulu moved to his station, leaning over to help Chekov. They waited for tense seconds as the long range sensors recalibrated and began their sweep.
“There, there,” Sulu said, pointing at the panel that bridged the helm station. Chekov tapped on a readout and adjusted the sensors further, and the signal resolved. “On screen,” Sulu said.
A pathing map overlaid the viewscreen with a ragged series of numbers and lines, tracking the data they’d been following through the nebula and into a small star system. The last mark on the trail was a particularly bright point: an active warp signature.
Sulu let out a shaky breath. “Sulu to Commander Spock.”
"Jesus Christ would you look at that thing," Scotty breathed.
The alien vessel was twice the size of the Enterprise, and Spock saw nervous energy in the eyes of everyone on the bridge no matter that they were half a system away and (as far as they could tell) undetected. It was made of sweeping lines, with a tall, inverted teardrop bow, a long body bearing an ovid bulge at the center, and a flared stern. It was also completely black, lit only by patterns of viewports and its engines, and if it hadn’t potentially been the ship imprisoning their captain Spock might have made a complimentary comparison to a planet's nighttime sky.
Within a few minutes data began to trickle back from the sensors; Scotty and Chekov had spent over two hours reconfiguring the scanners so they wouldn't alert the other ship. Chekov read off the highlights as they came in.
"This warp core is very different from ours, I've never seen a reading like this. It looks...rotational somehow, like they have particle streams orbiting one another, and an interaction between those orbits, or maybe changes in their speeds, is what creates the warp field."
Scotty leaned in past Chekov. He read over the data, then made an infuriated sound and slapped the station. Chekov scrambled to silence the panel's numerous complaints.
"Of course, those tricky bastards. There's no stream collision to detect except when it happens as a byproduct, and then it’s probably rare and tiny." Scotty straightened and moved towards the turbolift, telling Spock, "I'll get you new settings for the long range scanners. Now that I know what I'm looking for, it'll be easier to keep an eye on them."
Spock nodded to Scotty, and though he hated to put a damper on everyone's growing enthusiasm there were practicalities to attend to. "Is the captain on board that vessel?"
He thought he could feel them all hold their breaths.
"Not...sure..." Chekov ran his finger down the display, tossing results they didn't care about to another screen. “Here." He stabbed at a line, and the skeletal diagram of the ship highlighted a point buried somewhere in the thickest section of the body. "That is a lifeform signature not like the rest. Sixty percent match to human with our current data. Sixty-five now."
Sixty-five percent wasn't enough to justify any kind of interaction. It was, however, enough to justify more snooping. "Lieutenant Uhura, is it possible for us to pick up their communications signals?"
"Already done, Commander. I have a translational learning algorithm running its first pass."
"Please keep me updated. Once you have enough results send them to the computer engineers. I want access to their ship's software systems as soon as possible."
"Yes sir." Uhura turned back to her station, looking more energized than she had in weeks. He told himself it was too soon to hope, though not too soon to make plans, and looked to Sulu and Chekov.
"Lieutenants. I need a way onto that ship."