Part One: Trust No One
Humans, he believed, referred to it as giddiness, a word that had quite a different, almost opposite meaning on Vulcan where it was most often associated with an illness and not with the obvious state of excitement he had observed in Louise Hopkins recently whenever he had visited Eagle’s main engineering deck.
While the emotion was mostly foreign to him, he could appreciate why the chief engineer had been in such a positive mood as of late, considering that Eagle had just days ago completed a three week, major systems overhaul at Earth station McKinley which most notably had led to the complete replacement of the ship’s primary power plant, the matter/anti-matter drive assembly.
The new class-ten warp core which was a significant improvement to Eagle’s previously outfitted and now outdated class-eight drive which, even though upgraded and refined many times over the years by starbase maintenance crews as well as by Hopkins and her team of engineers, could simply no longer match the newest and most advanced drive Starfleet had designed in both raw power output and performance.
“This baby is using a tricyclic input manifold, producing four thousand five hundred teradynes per second at peak efficiency and will give us a top speed of warp nine point eight five and an emergency speed of warp nine point nine six for up to six hours," said Louise Hopkins as her eyes almost reverently followed the multiple deck-high and horizontally aligned assembly.
“Any more than that and the nacelles will come flying clean off,” said Lif Culsten, the ship’s flight control officer who stood just next to her.
Xylion understood that the young Krellonian man had most likely meant his comment in jest since it was accurate that Eagle’s over twenty-year-old Nebula-class spaceframe would likely begin to show signs of significant structural failure if exceeding those speeds even if there was no evidence to suggest that either of the warp nacelles, slung underneath her saucer-shaped primary hull, would physically detach themselves from the rest of the starship if exceeding maximum warp velocities.
“Still,” the silver-haired helmsman said. “I wouldn’t mind pushing her to the limits and see if we can break any speed records.”
“That seems unlikely, Lieutenant. The current warp speed record was set by the USS Enterprise in 2364 when, assisted by the entity known as the Traveler, the vessel was able to accelerate at speeds beyond the warp scale.”
“Having some super-powered being turbo-charge the warp drive is hardly fair,” he said, throwing Hopkins a pointed look. “I’m talking about a naturally aspired speed record. How about it?”
But the chief engineer quickly shook her head. “No dice. Not going to let you do that to my new engine, super-powered or otherwise. Besides, we’ll need to do a whole host of reconfigurations and adjustments to the injectors, the regulators, the intermix chamber and a bunch of other components before I fully trust this thing. She may look shiny and new now and she may be behaving nicely while we’re cruising leisurely at warp six, but she won’t reveal her true character until we really let her loose. And I want to make sure she doesn’t blow up in our faces once we do.”
Culsten grinned at her. “Admit it, you’re looking forward to playing around with your new toy.”
The young engineer kept a stern visage. “I’ve spent five years fine-tuning our old engine. It’s probably going to take me just as long to get this one purring like the old one did.”
“Yeah, but you’re going to have a whale of a time doing it.”
Her stern expression broke to be replaced by a large smirk. "It's going to be a blast."
“The swirling is going to need some getting used to,” said DeMara Deen.
Xylion considered the Tenarian operations officer for a moment. On what already was a relatively young senior crew, Deen was by far the youngest but not necessarily the least experienced. She also tended to be the most high-spirited member of the senior staff, exuding an optimism which he had felt on occasions bordered on what humans liked to refer to as Pollyannaism. He had not failed to observe that her usual buoyancy had been much less obvious in recent years which he attributed to the general downturn in ship morale during the Dominion War. And while Xylion, as a Vulcan dedicated to the stoic lifestyle of his people, could not claim to be a great student of emotional intelligence, he had noticed that while the end of the war had significantly increased the general mood onboard, DeMara Deen’s recovery had appeared much slower than what he would have expected from her.
She was of course entirely correct in her remark that due to the tricyclic nature of the class ten warp drive, the matter and anti-matter flow visible through the blue, tubular magnetic construction segments feeding into the central core assembly possessed a distinctively swirling motion instead of the steady and regular pulse on the previous drive.
“I don’t mind what it looks like as long as it gives us enough power for our overhauled weapons and the new transphasic shields,” said So’Dan Leva, the half-Romulan tactical officer who stood at the master control station which some engineers had nicknamed the pool table due to its vague resemblance to the popular gaming accessory. “If you ask me this is by far the most interesting update we’ve received.”
“Agree to disagree,” said Hopkins.
“I’m sure you’ll see things my way if we should ever find ourselves surrounded by enemy ships and those impenetrable shields are the only things standing between us and certain destruction,” Leva said.
“The transphasic shields do not, technically, provide impenetrable protection,” said Xylion who was quite familiar with the design since Eagle had been used as a testbed for the technology during a mission into a nebula containing radiation which would have been deadly to the crew without it. "Its rapid frequency shift into alternate phase states has shown a nearly sixty percent increase in blocking beam and projectile impacts as long the significant power input the emitters requires can be met."
“And that’s the crux of the matter,” said Hopkins. “The new warp core gives us quite a bit of additional punch, but even that won’t be enough to run those shields for much longer than a few hours. And that’s while not at warp and under optimal conditions.”
Alendra nodded. “In my, admittedly limited experience, optimal conditions go out of the airlock the moment you have engaged in battle.”
Lieutenant Marjorie Alendra was one of the most recent additions to Eagle’s crew. The blue-skinned and bald-headed Bolian officer had come onboard a few months earlier on Lieutenant Commander’s Leva recommendation who had served with the woman briefly on the USS Sacajawea when he had been made her first officer in an assignment which had lasted a mere days before the ship had been destroyed. According to Leva, Alendra had served on the other vessel in multiple roles at various times, including as a pilot, as an engineer, a tactical officer, as well as at operations and even as the executive officer, mostly due to the shortage of experienced officers during the war years. On Eagle, she had ostensibly become Leva's deputy tactical officer but her versatility had allowed her to pick up various tasks as required.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Leva said. “You’ve seen plenty of combat during the war.”
“Enough to last me a lifetime. I’d be happy not to get into another major battle for the rest of my career.”
“I can’t promise that,” said the tactical officer. “What I can say is, regardless of how long the transphasic shields last under fire, even having just a few additional seconds during a heated battle can mean the difference between life and death.”
Culsten nodded. "Agreed. A little bit of extra security doesn't hurt, especially since we're about to embark on a mission which will literally take us where no one has gone before." He quickly continued when he noticed Xylion raising his eyebrow. "Except for maybe automated probes and whatever indigenous people call it their home."
He offered a short nod at his accurate correction.
“But we’ll be the first Starfleet ship crew to get to see the Seven Sisters with our own eyes. Now, I don’t know about you guys, but that’s what got me really excited,” he said.
Xylion had always found it somewhat peculiar that Lif Culsten, as a Krellonian and non-Federation citizen, seemed to exhibit a surprising comfort and familiarity with human traditions and customs instead of displaying much of his own people’s heritage, almost as if he had chosen to fully assimilate into a culture not his own. This was evidenced once more by his decision to refer to the star cluster they had set out to explore by its human nickname.
“I would be more excited about this if we didn’t have to rely on untested technology to get there,” said the chief engineer. “Whoever thought that using a warp sled to travel space was a good idea?”
“I think it only adds to the appeal,” Culsten said.
To that Alendra shot him a puzzled glance. "I'm surprised to hear you say that. All the pilots I've ever known hated the idea of surrendering control of their vessel to anyone else, especially a machine."
"There is that," he said, nodding slowly. "But the idea of going faster than even Lou's new drive could possibly make us go? I don't know, it makes me feel giddy, I have to say. Come to think of it, maybe that's the way to break those speed records, huh?"
But Hopkins crossed her arms in front of her chest, not nearly as excited about the idea.
“As long as we get to be explorer again, I don’t think it matters too much how we get there,” said Deen. “It’s what we are supposed to be doing. I mean, when was the last time we had a chance to live up to the Starfleet charter and discover actual new worlds?”
“Three years, ten months and fourteen days,” Xylion said.
“Way too long,” said Culsten, nodding in agreement.
Alendra nodded as well. “For me, it’s the first time, so I’m definitely excited.”
“Let’s focus on the task ahead first. Before we even get a chance to seek out new life and new civilizations we will need to travel through occupied Cardassian space which these days is some seriously dangerous territory,” said Leva, who to no one’s surprise, was focused primarily on the tactical situation of their upcoming mission. “Warp sled or not, we may easily find ourselves in a sticky situation before we even get to where we need to be going. We’d be lucky if we’ll be able to speed our way through that hot zone.”
“No kidding,” said Alendra. “We’ve already lost two ships, the Phoenix and the Sojourner earlier this year, not to mention Point-Station Epsilon and the destruction of the Klingon headquarters on Lakesh.”
“But we’ll be mostly traversing Romulan occupied-space,” said Deen. “Isn’t it much calmer on their side?”
“The only reason for that,” said the Bolian, “is because they tend to squash any sign of trouble with the use of disproportional force. And since violence only begets more of the same, I think it’s only a manner of time before things will spiral out of control in their territory as well.”
Leva didn't seem to like what he was hearing, or perhaps the tone of Alendra's voice. "There are Romulans who are trying to make the occupation work and are genuinely interested in helping the Cardassians rebuild. I think it's an unfair characterization to paint them all with the same brush."
“I suppose you have some special insight into that situation,” she said, sounding, at least to Xylion’s ears, surprisingly confrontational.
“Just because my mother is Romulan doesn’t mean I have a greater insight into how that half of my people conduct themselves,” he shot back.
She shook her head. “I meant to say that you have friends in the Romulan Guard.”
Leva and Alendra stared at each other for a moment.
“One,” he finally said.
Xylion believed that he was referring to a female officer he had met during his mission to Romulus during the war and with whom he had briefly reunited a few weeks ago while she had traveled to Earth as part of a diplomatic delegation. He couldn’t be certain but it seemed as if this subject of conversation had suddenly introduced some tension between them.
“Right. Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bridge shift starting soon,” said Alendra and then promptly left engineering.
Xylion was fairly certain that her scheduled shift was not due to commence for another two hours and twelve minutes.
“I’ll better get on my way as well,” Leva said only moments after Alendra had departed so suddenly. He glanced towards Hopkins before he went. “We’ll schedule some simulations on how the transphasic shields will hold up with the new warp core before we reach Cardassian space.”
“I will make sure to make time for those.”
He nodded and left in Alendra’s wake.
“Was it just me or did that feel somewhat awkward?” said Culsten once the doors to main engineering had closed shut again behind the tactical officer. “If I didn’t know any better, I would say there is something going on between those two.”
“Best not to pry,” said Deen.
Hopkins nodded in agreement and went back to work on the master control station. “I suppose you have to appreciate that he still stands up for his people even considering he’s not fully Romulan himself.”
Xylion agreed with that sentiment, fully appreciating that So'Dan Leva had noticeably struggled with his identity and his split heritage ever since he had known the man. The fact that he was able to identify with his Romulan side was certainly a positive step in his opinion if for no other reason than to satisfy his own scientific curiosity of exploring the shared commonalities between the Vulcan people and the Romulans who after all, at one point, had all been one people.
He was just about to continue assisting Hopkins, Deen and Culsten on the work they still had to complete before Eagle could be safely coupled to the warp sled which was due to take them further then they had ever traveled before when he noticed that unbeknownst to Hopkins, Culsten was still considering the chief engineer with a skeptical expression decorating his face, apparently still considering her last words.
“Or maybe he has just taken a liking to his Romulan friend. Maybe this has nothing to do with him standing up for his people.”
She looked up at him, surprised and clearly not having expected his retort. Xylion, too, had to admit that he wasn’t certain why Culsten had insisted on making that point.
“Maybe,” she said carefully. “But then I would rather like to think better of him.”
“Defending a people who have shown a systematic disregard for the good of their own populace does not make one a better person,” he said, sounding uncharacteristically forceful considering the subject matter. Xylion had never known Culsten as a man of great convictions. That was not to say that he couldn’t be serious if the occasion called for it. He had, in the past, shown more than once his ambitions to rise above his current station in Starfleet, but it was unusual to hear him take such a strong position on what appeared to be a social or even political issue.
“Maybe defending such an institution or government is wrong, but he’s right in saying that not all people who live in such a society are necessarily complicit in the actions of that government. There’re good people in most bad societies actively trying to make a change,” said Hopkins, and surprisingly to Xylion quickly matching Culsten’s sharp tone, implying that this wasn’t the first time they had engaged in this topic of conversation.
“Well, I don’t see him trying to make a change. I think he’s mostly just content to stay out of it altogether.”
“Does he, though?” she shot back. “A couple of years ago he went back to Romulus, the very heart of the Romulan Empire, to appeal directly to their senate to enter the Dominion War.”
“On Starfleet orders.”
“From what I heard it was mostly a suggestion. Besides, he’s clearly still engaging with his own people and showing an interest.”
Culsten dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “His interest seems to have very little to do with his desire to improve the conditions of his people in general.”
Deen jumped in before Hopkins had a chance to respond, perhaps sensing the impending circularity of the argument that was unfolding. “I am going to go on a limb here and assume that we are not actually talking about Romulans anymore.”
Both Culsten and Hopkins threw her very similar blank looks which quickly turned into embarrassed expressions when they realized that they had allowed their argument to be voiced so openly.
“You know what?” Culsten said and very briefly glanced at Hopkins while doing so. “I still need to review the navigational data for our upcoming trip. I’m sure you can finish here without me,” he added and then left almost as quickly as Alendra and Leva had done before him.
“And the Captain is waiting for my progress report on the warp sled integration,” said Hopkins, picked up a padd and then headed for the exit as well, except she headed for the exact opposite direction Lif Culsten was taking.
Xylion looked at Deen at her side, the only member of the senior crew remaining with him in engineering. “I may be mistaken but it certainly appears that the tension level amongst the crew is surprisingly high considering the recent shore leave and the nature of our upcoming assignment.”
She considered him for a brief moment but then simply shrugged. "I hadn't noticed," she said and then went back to work.
As Deen was clearly not interested in discussing his observation on their colleagues any further, which in itself seemed somewhat out of character for her, he decided to join her since the unexpected reduction of their original team had now significantly increased their workload.
After all his years working alongside emotionally-inclined species, he had to admit that they still had a tendency to perplex him on a fairly regular basis.