The USS Valentine was flying at high warp en route back to Earth.
In his ready room Captain White was sitting at his desk, his eyes fixed on a small device in his hands, rotating it between his fingers, examining. The door chime went off. White moved the tiny piece of technology out of sight.
The door slid open and Commander Heather Low came into the room.
“You asked for me, Sir?”
“Yes, Heather, please sit down”, he answered while indicating the seat across the desk.
“I am afraid I haven’t been very cooperative lately”, he told her with a slight hint of shame on his face.
Low looked at him curiously.
“During the course of our investigation at Khefka IV, I let you pretty much run ship operations in my place, especially after the accident so I could recover and focus on the other tasks at hand. There was a reason for not informing you earlier about my continued investigations into the Phoenix case, as well as our progress and latest findings on the Khefka IV attack.”
“I think I understand, Captain. It’s your ship, you are free to delegate any authority you like, especially during such a difficult mission. Of course I would have appreciated it more, if you would have admitted me into your confidence, but considering our diverging points of view regarding Phoenix, I might have done the same in your place. Think nothing more of it, Sir.”
“Thank you, Heather, you are very kind. But that is not exactly what I meant.
You see, I was dishonest about our reason for leaving Khefka earlier than expected. In fact the on-site investigation has been completed and we are returning to Earth.”
Commander Low frowned in disbelief.
“So, you are not meeting up with the Intelligence team on Starbase 56?”, Low asked him.
“No, I’m not.”
“Then what was all this about, this incontrovertible evidence against Director Jefferson?”
“It was a ruse to draw out the spy aboard this ship. The person who also sabotaged us. We have been able to identify the one responsible”, Captain White announced.
The door opened again and Lieutenant Commander Soman entered, accompanied by two security officers, as well as Chief Engineer Aq’Numi. Low gave Soman a cold look which he returned.
“So it is true. I had my doubts about him from the beginning”, Commander Low remarked.
Captain White got up and said:
“So did I. It just fit in too well. He is assigned here, out of nowhere, and very soon odd things start happening. Tiny glitches at first. Things that should make me turn the ship for the nearest shipyard for inspection, while at the same time I had been conversing with Jones and Mettus about our ongoing efforts to dig more into the Phoenix case. It was all designed to prevent me from interfering anymore and from finding the truth.
Remember those coordinates Phoenix gave us. One of them was an abandoned underground intelligence installation on the planet in the Argus Sector. The last Station Chief in that sector was William Jefferson. Shelk and I went there. The only evidence of value we could find was a list of names belonging to the final duty roster. We downloaded the data. It had a number of familiar names on it. Names of people who were popping up here and there during the hunt for Phoenix and the attack on the President’s ship. People like Major Winslow who got arrested for assisting in the attack on USS Leeds, or Petty Officer Tass, who gave crucial witness testimony against Phoenix at Antares. And as if my miracle, all of them had found themselves at the same assignment many years ago. As if that place used to be some sort of transit camp and meeting place for Starfleet officers working for a secretive organization. Some of the data was damaged though, obscuring one last name on the list. So I asked that kid down in sensory control to restore it, which he did a while ago, he is very gifted. It was your name, Heather.”
Whites face darkened, his eyes now fixing Commander Low like sharp daggers.
“That’s absurd. What are you talking about?”, she countered.
“Yes, I thought that too. But then it crossed my mind how much you criticized the first clues Phoenix gave me and how much you insisted on not believing even one word he was saying. Back then, for a while, I genuinely thought you were right and that I was acting foolish. But with this new revelation I began to doubt you. It was not easy to allow myself the thought that you of all people could have betrayed me. And after I got out of sickbay, hearing about more sabotage, I realized there was a connection between the latter and my communications with Starbase 56, someone on this ship knew I was in contact with Jones and Mettus and wanted to prevent it, even put the ship out of action, so my hands would be tied. I remembered that most of the communication with the others originated in this room, so I searched it for any hints of foul-play. And with the suspicions I had about you, I really hoped I would NOT find anything. Yet I did.”
He pulled the small device out of his pocket and tossed it to Commander Low who caught it, her face in shock. White continued:
“A bug, rather old-fashioned I must say, but very sophisticated: high performance recording equipment, built-in visual camouflage. Just put it in a corner somewhere and it becomes invisible. I found it in the spine of the book you returned to me. I had Aq’Numi replicate one just like it. We placed it in your quarters the other day. And soon enough you were telling Jefferson where I intended to go.”
Captain White now switched on his desk monitor and turned it for Low to see a recording of herself, in her quarters, sitting at her desk and giving said information to Jefferson who readily acknowledged it.
“We also retraced the sabotage back to you. You were careful enough not to use your own access protocols and replace it with those that might implicate someone else. And when Aq’Numi suggested Soman as the perpetrator, you just had to take the opportunity. She had told me right away about you and her being the only ones capable of such a level of sabotage. We laid the trap for you.”
Low looked at Aq’Numi in dismay, who, before leaving, commented in disappointment:
The Captain continued:
“After you left Soman alone in that section of the starboard nacelle to work, we beamed him off the deck, removing him as a suspect for the moment, leaving you as the only person in the entire compartment and sure enough, another attempt of sabotage was made, in that section, with Soman’s authorization, which you, as First Officer, have access to.
Commander Low gasped in bitter resignation.
He now got right into her face.
“Needless to say, I was speechless. You have been my First Officer for seven years. I consider you my friend. How could you stab me in the back like this? Goddammit Heather, what devilish nonsense have these bastards been feeding you that you would compromise your most basic duties? That you would violate your virtues? Your loyalty to me, your duty to this ship, your duty to the truth?!”
Commander Low could give him no reply.
White looked at Soman and the security officers and resolutely ordered:
“Take her to the brig.”
At that moment an intense tremor rocked through the entire ship which dropped out of warp seconds later. The attendees including Captain White were almost knocked off their feet. White stormed through the door onto the bridge.
“Warp engines went offline, Sir. We are dead in the water!”, the helm officer responded.
“Engineering, what’s happening?”, the Captain demanded to know.
“I don’t know yet, must be some kind of feedback surge in the warp plasma conduits”, the Chief Engineer answered over the intercom.
“What is the condition of the core?”, the Captain inquired.
“Stable, for now, but antimatter containment might fail, if there is another surge.”
White glared at Low who was quick to explain:
“This should not have happened. The tempering I did was only meant to cause minor malfunctions!”
“Well, it looks like your sabotage came back to bite you and the rest of us.”
He turned to the Second Officer:
“Commander Soman, you take over up here. Initiate emergency evacuation procedures, if necessary.”
“Yes, Sir. Where are you going?”, Soman replied.
“I’m going down to Engineering, Heather, you’re coming with me. Let’s see if you can rectify some of the damage you’ve done.”
He grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her to the turbolift, a security officer followed them.
Arriving in Main Engineering they found the entire crew there working feverishly to prevent a catastrophe. Chief Engineer Lieutenant Commander Aq’Numi shot orders to her staff in maschine gun mode while quickly tapping on the main console. The bulkheads were shaking. The blood-curdling howl of the alarm sound was blaring without end, warning of the impending overload in the overheated plasma conduits.
“Coolant discharge is 23% below specified minimum!”, a technician yelled to Aq’Numi.
“Vent the ducts, purge the plasma manifolds, now!”, she bellowed.
The ship groaned. White pushed Commander Low over to a console.
“Make yourself useful!”, he told her.
Low went to work alongside the other engineers. The whole compartment shuttered, then everything began to calm down.
“System slowly returning to normal levels, Sir”, one technician stated with relief.
“Plasma venting did the trick.”
“This is the Captain, I want damage reports from all departments!”, White demanded over shipwide comms.
Suddenly, there was another mechanical whine, everywhere around them, getting louder, approaching. The Captain was just about to ask what it was, when the corner wall connecting the engineering operations center with the warp core assembly room exploded, blowing wall panels to pieces, spouting a huge flash of bluish plasma fire and sending several engineers flying across the room. Pandemonium. White raced to the wounded, giving first aid, helping them on their feet. Only seconds later, a group of medics entered and began taking the wounded to sickbay.
“What went wrong? I thought you had it contained?”, the Captain asked agitatedly.
Chief Engineer Aq’Numi was already consulting her readings.
“The main starboard plasma assembly must have melted before all the plasma could be vented. It must have disabled the internal sensors nearby, giving us no prior warning.”
She now looked at him in great distress, reporting:
“Captain, there might be more plasma surges travelling through the conduits, bouncing back and forth. If one hits the reaction chamber or the injector assembly, it will rupture the core!”
“Can you protect those systems from any more surges?”, White asked her.
“Negative. That last explosion took out the starboard forcefield projectors around the core as well. Which means we can neither erect a force field protecting the core nor seal off the compartment for standard core ejection.”
“Captain to all hands. We are looking at a warp core failure. Evacuate immediately. I repeat, evacuate the ship!”
He looked around in the room, the remaining technicians had frozen at the order.
“This means all of you too! Abandon ship!”, the Captain screamed. Crew members began to scramble for the exits.
“We may not have enough time, Sir. I’m going to eject the core”, Aq’Numi said while beginning to hit buttons on the console, trying to initiate the core ejection procedure.
The computer responded to her actions with an acoustic sound of disobedience.
“Automatic ejection system offline.”
The Chief Engineer looked at the others with painful resolve and declared:
“I stay behind and eject the core manually.”
Captain White shoved her away from the console.
“No, you won’t. Captain goes down with the ship. I’ll stay.”
“No, I will”, Commander Low calmly said from across the room.
She walked over and got right in front of White, staring in his eyes.
“I did all of this. It’s my fault and only mine. I’ll do it.”
“Without the force fields the entire compartment will be exposed to open space, you’ll be blown out along with the core assembly!”, Aq’Numi yelled.
White acknowledged it while fixing Commander Low with his eyes he decided:
“We are running out of time. We’ll do it together.”
He addressed Aq’numi:
“You get your people out, right now, that’s an order!”
The Chief Engineer obliged and while looking at the two senior officers heavy heartedly she hurried the last of her staff out of Engineering. The only other person left in the room was the security officer who had accompanied Commander Low the whole time, apparently refusing to leave the arrested woman. His continuing presence went unnoticed by the Captain.
Captain White and Commander Low were now working side by side, tapping on the main console in quick succession.
“Engaging auxiliary power, I’m shutting off the injector nozzles. You take care of the release clamps.”
“Already on it. Ejector port hatch control standing by.”
“If we had more time, we could reroute the controls to a console outside the room and seal the blast door behind us.”
“Yeah, but we don’t have the time. Another surge could hit the core any second.”
At that moment they could hear the whine again, closing in on the fragile systems around them. The sound increased in intensity.
“Get down!”, the Captain shouted before a second stream of hyper-heated plasma hit the towering pole of the warp core. The explosion blew away the remaining plasma conduits coming out of the reaction chamber and caused cracks in its semi-transparent casing. The cracks soon began expanding, with a spider web pattern, the fissures were slowly writhing in all directions like on a damaged piece of glass under pressure. On the coolant ducts small ruptures began to form, spilling thick white clouds of vaporized coolant. Large gulps of plasma were pouring out of the shattered conduits, setting ablaze the mid-section of the core assembly and its surroundings, the entire compartment began to fill with black smoke. Alarm sounds were deafening. The computer voice was stoically announcing the upcoming warp core breach.
“Status of the release clamps?”, White asked.
“Clamps released at 75%, it should not take more than another 15 seconds.”
Another plasma conduit exploded in the rear end of the chamber, spilling shrapnell in their direction. White ducked for cover quickly.
Commander Low used the distraction and flattened the security officer next to her with a lighting strike of her elbow. She pulled the phaser pistol from the man’s holster and pointed it at Captain White. He looked at her with fuming rage.
“What the hell are you doing? Get back at the controls, we don’t have time for this!”
“Get out of here, Captain!”, Low ordered him with cold determination.
White tried to approach the console, tried to resume his work again. Low fired a shot at his feet, he jumped back.
“God dammit, Heather. I’m not gonna let you do this alone. You hear me? Now drop that thing and get back here. That’s an order!”
“No more orders, Captain”, she looked at him with a range of emotions: dead-serious and determined, pleading, tears beginning to well up in her eyes. She knew this was the great good-bye.
“Get him out of here”, she said while pointing at the guard lying next to her, the Captain finally surrendered and began to drag the unconscious security officer towards the adjacent corridor. Heather Low watched them leaving.
“I’m sorry, Jeffrey. For all of this.”
She turned around, sobbing quietly, she pushed a button and the massive blast door began to close slowly.
Captain White deposited the man next to a wall and then quickly turned around again and yelled after Commander Low through the ever closing gap of the blast door:
“Heather, don’t do this, please. Get out of there!”
Even though all hell was breaking loose around her, she could hear him, but did not listen. The computer voice again warned of the warp core breach, now only seconds away. As soon as the door to the corridor was shut and sealed, Commander Low closed her eyes and took a deep, final breath. She hit the button for the ejector port hatch.
On the belly of the Valentine’s secondary hull the large rectangular hatch blew away and the warp core assembly soon followed, dropping out like ordnance of a bomb bay, tumbling away from the ship and finally rupturing in an intense antimatter explosion which lit up the surrounding space like a new sun, the tremendous force of the shock wave hit the ship, the impact flaring up the shields, Valentine pitched and rolled, but then began to stabilize. Outside engineering, Captain White was banging at the blast door, almost denting its massive duranium walls.
“Warp core ejection successful”, the computer voice calmly announced.
White began tapping the control panel of the blast door.
“Come on, open up!”
“Main Engineering has been depressurized. Initiating emergency force fields. Initiating repressurization”,
the computer explained before unlocking the door a few seconds later. White stormed it and looked around.
“Heather? Heather? - Computer, locate Commander Low!”
“Commander Low is not on board the ship.”
“Locate her, scan for lifesigns outside the ship!”
“Unable to comply. There are no lifesigns in the ship’s vicinity.”
Realizing that his friend and comrade for many years had been blown out by the explosive decompression along with the warp core and incinerated by the explosion, Captain White sank to his knees and began wailing in devastation.
TO BE CONTINUED...