–[U.S.S. Fearless, Starboard Airlock: Deck 9]–
What little atmosphere remained aboard the former starship was less than one-fourth the level needed to sustain humanoid life. Add to such the fact that the life support systems had either terminated or been rerouted well over two weeks past, and the resulting internal temperature so far as they could scan was all of twenty degrees Kelvin. Which made the cumbersome environmental suits they wore as they stepped through the docking collar that connected the shuttle craft MacFarlane to the manually over-ridden airlock of the Fearless much more preferable than the alternative of death by exposure. Still, the repetitive sound of ones own breathing reverberating inside of a helmet quickly grew annoying to most people after twenty or so minutes. Not to mention the other unpleasant realities of spending any measure of time inside of such an enclosure.
Ranging from the trivial annoyance of not being able to scratch an itch, to the unpleasant discomfort of the built-in waste extraction systems, to the psychological issues such as claustrophobia… time in an environmental suit was simply not something anyone looked forward too. At least, not if they where sane or lacked masochistic tendencies. Never the less, they where a necessary evil even into the late twenty-fourth century. Starfleet had of course experimented now and then with technologies such as close-contact force fields and the like, which would have provided a much more comfortable alternative. But those technologies had always proven unreliable at best, and often with rather messy and deadly results when such devices failed. By comparison the discomforts provided by an old style 'space suit' as they had one been dubbed where seen as minor.
The sound of his own breathing reverberated inside his helmet, as Lieutenant Commander Nathan Hawk stepped through the inner hatch of the airlock, the rhythmic sounds of his respiration broken only by the strange zoomping sound generated by the magnetic boots on either foot at they contacted the frost-covered traction carpet of the corridor. The thin sheen of ice particles that coated the deck plates sparkled like diamonds as Hawk ran the palm-beacon light strapped to his wrist over the darkened corridor. That they extended part-way up the corridor walls until they faded gradually mid-way up served as an indication that the artificial gravity had held long enough for the water molecules in the air to freeze and fall slowly. As the diminished sounds of Lieutenant Attos Ragnar stepping up behind him sounded through the minimal atmosphere, Hawk imagined it was but one of a multitude of unnatural and unnerving sights they would behold this day.
“With respect Commander, I must repeat my request that I be allowed to take point as Chief of Security,” Ragnar said, his voice rendered hallow-sounding through the comm-circuits of their suits as he moved a single step in front of Hawk, his EVA-phaser rifle extended beyond him. Hawk had rejected the lieutenant's request upon their disembarking from the Republic a little over half-an-hour ago in haste, and had done so a second time already when they had departed from the MacFarlane a few minutes ago.
First Officer's prerogative was how Hawk had responded before, spinning the old axiom of Captain's prerogative to fit his status instead. It was a flimsy justification, and both Hawk and Ragnar knew it. But with rank did come privilege, even if such was only to not have one's orders questioned - or at least countermanded, in this case, since Ragnar had just questioned such in as appropriate a manner as possible for the third time in an hour. Feeling irritated and challenged beyond the point that he was willing to tolerate, Hawk decided a more forceful response was in order on this occasion. “Lieutenant, I've heard yer argument twice now. I ain't listenin' fer a third go-round. Ma orders stand. If ya can't follow 'em, I'll make sure ta note that in ma after-action report when we get back ta Republic.”
The veiled threat of being put on official report for insubordination was apparently enough to finally chastise Ragnar - or at least enough to finally shut him up on the subject. “Understood sir,” he replied formally. No doubt if not for the cumbersome suit he wore and the EVA-rifle magnetically strapped to his arm, the Angosian would have saluted for emphasis. As it was, he simply stood watch as Doctor Leon Cromwell and junior Lieutenant Jarin Cail joined them inside the corridor. Both men had heard the exchange as clearly as if they had been standing next to either men due to the networked open comm-channel they all had piped into their suits speakers, but neither offered any comment. Something which Hawk found a bit surprising of Leon Cromwell, considering how well the two knew one another. The physician had been rather remote, if not downright distant since coming aboard the new Republic.
While Nat certainly understood his desire to avoid the bridge in order to avoid interacting with Vlad the Incompetent's resident interloper Chase Meridian, the doctor had also been rather withdrawn from interacting with the crew in anything but a professional capacity as well. How much of it was simply the ways in which people change, and how much of it was being back onboard a ship named Republic in the wake of John Carter's loss was something Nat wasn't equipped to determine. Still, he had expected at least some level of their friendship to break through after all the time they had spent working along side one another. Besides their service on the former Republic, they had spent months with virtually no one else for company but each other on the devastated planet Ash'aaria in a desperate and wholly unlawful bid to save the native humanoid species from extinction.
No one else, except…
“I'm still not reading any signs of life,” Leon Cromwell announced to them as he manipulated the controls of his larger and bulkier EVA-tricorder. Neither the normal models, the Mark XI whose most recent incarnation more closely resembled data PADDs with a flip-up sensor array on top, nor the previous Mark X 'clam-shell' models had ever been designed for use by the bulky gloved fingers of the environmental suit in mind. With such tiny controls, all of the designs dating back to the Mark VII had proved difficult to use over the past few decades. Only recently had Starfleet R&D come up with the somewhat simplistic solution of retrofitting one of the older boxy designs of the mid 2300s with larger control surfaces like those found on the surface of the environmental suits themselves. “Then again, with no shields, the interference from this system is penetrating the hull. Which means unless we literally trip over someone…” Cromwell added, the end of his statement trailing off as if he didn't wish to finish it for fear of making it all the more real.
Looking up and down the long straight section of corridor in which they stood, articles of debris ranging in size from bits of grit to data padds floating aimlessly along such, Nat considered their available options. They needed to look for survivors despite the likelihood that all they would find was corpses. With the ship in it's current state, the location any survivor would have chosen to fall back to would have been the main engineering department a few decks down. At the same time, he catastrophic hull breach that had claimed the entire forward half of the ship's saucer section - as well as the main bridge's forward quarter - had likely played a significant role in the ship's demise. Determining it's cause was also a high priority. Doing that though meant ascending a few decks though. Which left only one real avenue to pursue in order to avoid wasting time or energy frivolously.
“Cail,” Hawk called out to the dark-skinned, bald-headed Bajoran operation's officer, “I want you n' Ragnar ta head on up ta that breach in the saucer. Find out what ya can 'bout how it was caused, what state the ship was in when it happened.” the first officer ordered. “Doc, yer with me. We'll head ta engineerin' ta look fer survivors n' try ta recover the ship's logs.”
As the Bajoran lieutenant nodded in understanding, and Leon took a step aside to let him pass, the tan-skinned security chief stood firm for a moment with an expectant expression across his features. Hawk knew what the Angosian wanted to say; he wanted to object - yet again - to Hawk's orders. To protest the group splitting up, and likely more to the point, the two senior-most officers heading off without his protection. Returning the lieutenant's gaze, Hawk's features where steeled and determined. He wasn't interested in another debate, and Ragnar already knew it. As Cail passed by Hawk on his way to fulfilling his orders, Ragnar finally moved to follow the junior lieutenant whom Hawk had improperly directed the duo's orders towards.
Stepping towards Cromwell, Hawk lead the way for them down the corridor in the opposite direction, towards the nearest turbolift. Though the system was more than likely unpowered, if not blocked by a lift cab, the shaft itself would offer an optimal means of descending towards engineering thanks to the lack of artificial gravity.
Stopping at the set of doors, Hawk tried entering the manual override sequence into the control panel next to it. Not even a null response tone greeted him in response to his efforts though, indicating that literally any shred of power left in the ship was being routed elsewhere. The pertinent question though was if that had been done in an effort to save the ship, or if it had been done after her fate had been sealed in order to increase the odds of survival by routing everything left to a single location or system - like life support in main engineering.
Popping open a small case set upon a near-by bulkhead, Leon Cromwell retrieved two sets of magnetic hand-grapplers designed for just such occasions as the need to force a door. Handing one to Hawk, he placed the other upon the surface of the doors near to where the two split down the middle. Counting down from three, the two men pulled in opposite directions simultaneously. Despite this, the door held firm for a few seconds before it finally gave way. Once it had, Nat peered into the pitch-black darkness beyond. Activating the over-head lights on his suit, he directed his gaze down the length of the shaft and was thankful to find it showed a clear path for at least as far as the light shone.
Realizing that the sounds of Cail and Ragnar on the comm-channel had ceased, indicating that the two where out of range of the local network's automatic pick-ups, Hawk turned back to face Cromwell. “Goin' down, next stop, men's ware.” he said with as much wit as he could muster under the circumstances. Cromwell's reaction was to roll his eyes in response. While not a laugh or a snort, it was at least something indicative of the man Hawk knew, and he took what he could get.
Stepping out over the threshold into the shaft, Nat deactivated his mag-boots and pushed off the top of the door frame to give himself some momentum. Once he had drifted down a few meters, he looked up through the transparent visor of his helmet and watched Leon follow suit. It would take them a few minutes to traverse the distance given their lack of propulsion beyond their inertia, but it was a hell of a lot easier than climbing the entire route in jefferies tubes…
–[Cail & Ragnar: Deck 5]–
Acquiring a firm grip on the nearest rung of the jefferies tube ladder, Cail Jarin brought his upward momentum through the series of tubes and conduits to a halt. Though not as torturous on the knees or hands as it was with artificial gravity engaged, wending ones way through the access ways of a starship was never a totally pain-free experience. The lack of force holding them in place had allowed the Bajoran and Angosian each to ascend the half-dozen decks through the neck segment connecting secondary and primary hull with less physical exertion, but it had been far from a graceful journey. The cumbersome suits and narrow hatches had resulted in a number of bumps and stops along the way. Thankfully, without any real force behind them the clumsy impacts hadn't done any damage to either man - save to their egos, perhaps.
Pushing himself down onto the metal deck plate, Cail reactivated his magnetic boots with an energetic swoosh followed by the dull thuds of contact being secured before releasing his hold on the ladder rung. Stepping over to the corridor access door, he maneuvered his other gloved hand around the manual release lever next to the door frame and pulled with as much force as he could. The lever refused to wiggle more than a centimeter in response to his efforts though. “This is embarrassing,” Cail said aloud, his words reaching his colleague and technical superior Attos Ragnar through the short-range network comm-link between their suits, “I work out, I'm no slouch. What is with these manual releases?”
Pulling himself up through the sides of the hatch-way rather than using the ladder as Cail had, Ragnar was in mid-ascent between the deck below and their destination deck - upon which Cail stood - as he answered. “It's not you, it's the metal. It's as frozen as everything else.”
“Oh,” remarked Cail with some relief, “well that makes me feel better.”
Out of the hatch-way, Ragnar pushed with both hands against the ceiling until he felt the resistance of the deck plate beneath him, then slapped at the control pad on his right thigh and activated his own mag-boots once more with the same swoosh and thud sounds. “I'm thrilled I could help reassure you, lieutenant,” he said as he knelt down to seal the hatch. “Now if you'll step aside…” Ragnar trailed off.
Cail stepped aside without further comment to allow the stronger, larger-build Angosian a clear path to the door and it's manual release lever. No sooner had he done so than the hulking security officer had taken hold of such and yanked it down in one swift motion. The door jerked a little in response, but didn't open. Restoring the lever to it's upright position, Ragnar gave it another try. This time the door did part down the middle - by about three centimeters. As it happened though, the mechanism's failure to cooperate was for good reason, as the diminished force of decompression pulled at the thin residue of atmosphere trapped with them. Nearly knocking both men off-balance in the process. Thankfully, the force was minimal and the gravity boots they wore more than enough to secure them to the decking.
Once the force of the minimal atmosphere's expulsion from the small access room had subsided, Ragnar side-stepped over in front of the doors and inserted his insulated-gloved fingers into the divide between them and forced them apart further. Wedging himself in between the doors once there was enough room for him to fit, he pushed his back against one door as he applied both hands to the other until both sides retreated fully into the bulkhead. His task complete, Ragnar loosened the straps that held the EVA-phaser rifle to his back with some assistance from Cail and brought the defensive weapon to bare before setting out into the corridor beyond.
Making their way down the curved stretch of corridor, Ragnar scanned visually with the assistance of the light source atop his rifle while Cail scanned with his own bulkier model EVA tricorder for signs of life or any potential hazards - of which their could be numerous - aboard the wrecked starship. The ship was eerily quiet due to the lack of even residual atmosphere on this deck, and the darkened corridors with their curved A-frame shape felt more like caverns; or worse, catacombs. Oddly though, they had yet to encounter a single corpse or even part of one. With a crew compliment of seven-hundred-fifty, that didn't make much sense to either man.
As they neared a T-junction, dark black marks on the glinting stainless-steel surface of the corridor wall caught Ragnar's attention. Casting the light from atop his rifle over the markings, he recognized them as scorch marks. More specifically, blast patterns from hand-held energy weapons fire.
“What do you make of these?” Cail asked as scanned them.
Gesturing to an assortment of about a half dozen markings that resembled a starburst pattern, Ragnar identified the recognizable burn marks. “These are definitely Starfleet. Compression phaser pulses, I'd say setting 8 or 9.” Directing his light to the more unusual and scattered patterns that dominated the handful of Starfleet made burns, Ragnar had less definitive answers to offer. “These though… I don't recognize the impact pattern.”
Scanning these more closely, Cail furrowed his brow at the negative recognition report from the tricorder's search of the database. “The residual energy signature reads as tetryon based.”
Running his gloved fingers over the blackened metal, Ragnar traced the wide distribution pattern as it ran along the bulkhead. A sudden flash of memory, the echo of screams long silenced, rushed to the forefront of his conscious mind. Startled, he drew his hand back as if the metal had been hot to the touch.
“Lieutenant?” Cail asked, noting his colleagues sudden movement with concern.
Looking away, Ragnar directed the beam of light that flowed from atop his rifle down the T-junction. “We should keep moving.”
–[Hawk & Cromwell: Deck 12]–
It was the first thing they saw upon exiting the turbolift shaft back onto the decks of the Starship Fearless.
Blood. Emerald green. Cast off upon the corridor wall in at least a dozen or more thin arcing lines extending from shoulder-high all the way up to the ceiling. A few meters beyond, a bloody hand-print stood out against the stainless steel wall. Another just behind it, this one smeared downward towards the deck. And just beyond it, covering the traction carpeting of the deck for at least two cubic meters, a large stain where the life-giving liquid had pooled and saturated. Around the pool of blood that had long frozen into ice along with the water molecules in the air around them were foot-prints of some kind. Larger than average in size, they where too smeared and over-lapping to discern any visible tread pattern from. They continued down the corridor further until they faded after about a a dozen meters.
“Definitely Vulcan,” reported Leon as he passed his bulky EVA-tricorder over the various splatters, smears and stains. He took care not to tread upon the large frozen pool on the deck despite the fact that it was frozen solid. Reading the results that scrolled across the small screen, he reported his findings. “Male, in his early to mid twenties. Adrenaline levels where through the roof.”
“Attacked?” Hawk asked, seeking confirmation of his own suspicions as he gripped his type-II hand phaser a little tighter, even though it was highly unlikely whomever had done this was still aboard. The last thing he wanted to do was be caught unaware and thus provide Ragnar with something to gloat about.
“I'd say so. ” Cromwell informed him as he kneeled down next to the large blood stain on the deck to get a better reading on it. Vulcan adrenaline isn't released in this quantity upon injury alone, not even when serious or likely fatal. One of the evolutionary benefits of two-thousand-years of repression.“ Wiping away some of the excess ice particles accumulated atop the sample, he held his tricorder close to such and initiated a more intensive scan. After a minute, he reported. “I've got a DNA profile, so I should be able to identify the specific crewmen once I'm back in sickbay and can access the Starfleet Medical database.”
“How long ago'd this happen?” Hawk asked, tensing his grip on the type-II hand phaser in his hand, having drawn it on instinct when the depth of the violence that had occurred here became readily apparent. Even this close to the neutral zone, even once they had seen the state the ship was in, Hawk and everyone else had wanted to believe that whatever had happened was an accident. Some tragic confluence of events that could not be truly blamed on anyone or anything. A random happenstance, or a bit of bad lock. What they had found here though was indicating their worst fears. That this ship and this crew had been claimed not by an accident, but by intent.
“Twenty-eight days, eighteen hours,” answered Leon as he pushed himself back up to his feet, careful to avoid touching any of the blood stains as he used the bulkhead for purchase out of respect more than forensic needs.
It was simple math from there. Fearless had been missing for sixteen days when Republic had been tasked with finding her. It had taken them eight to get here and five more days of searching the system to stumble upon the remains of the Excelsior-Class ship, very nearly with serious consequences for their own sakes when they finally did. Whatever had happened to this ship and her crew had happened long before they or anyone could have known something was wrong or render aid. And though that gave him some satisfaction that it had always been out of their hands to make a difference in saving the ship or it's crew, it was small comfort when placed next to the tragic - and now it seemed, intentional - events.
Shining his wrist-mounted palm-beacon down around the corridor before them, an unusual metallic glint further down the was caught the light and Hawk's attention. Stepping around the pool of blood, Hawk made his way towards it cautiously. As he got closer, he at first identified it as a piece of debris sticking out of the conduit interface panel. Once he was on top of it though, he could see clearly that it was no simple hunk of metal. He could also see what it was pinning to the plastic panel it was embedded in.
“Is that a weapon?” asked Cromwell as he came up from behind.
A single piece of mirrored metal flowed up from the handle just barely before quickly diving down sharply into a hook-shape arc that ran across the fingers, tapering off to a considerable point. Another tiny point jutted up a few centimeters from the top of the blade at the point it began to curve downward. The edge was coated in a thin stain of emerald blood. None of that was as shocking or horrifying as what was pierced through upon the blade's tip, tacked to the bulkhead as if a piece of paper on an old-style bulletin board.
“My god…” gasped Cromwell as he, too, identified the pieces of humanoid flesh skewered by the strange hand weapon. “You think they belong to…?” Cromwell trailed off, glancing despite his helmet back down the corridor the way they had come, as his tricorder scanned and recorded data of the gruesome scene.
Looking upon the pair of pointed-tipped pieces of flesh-covered cartilage, Hawk felt his stomach churn at the reality of a pair of bloodied, frozen and nearly vacuum-exposed Vulcan ears. Who or what would do something this barbaric? For what purpose? On the circumstantial evidence they had, the individual to whom these ears belonged had been brutally murdered - hopefully prior to having his ears excised - so what reason would the killer have for such post-mortem mutilation?
“Hawk ta Ragnar,” the first officer said, his voice raised a degree thus telling the comm-circuits to establish a wider network than just between himself and Cromwell.
After a moment, the Angosian replied. “Ragnar here, go ahead commander.”
Turning away from the ghastly scene, Hawk looked back down the corridor the way they had come as he asked Ragnar for a report. “Find anything… unusual?”
“No sir, nothing. Which considering the circumstances is, I guess, unusual of itself.” the Angosian answered from a few decks above. “Situations like this, all the escape pods intact, I'd expect to find… well, to be blunt, corpses. We've not seen any indications of the crew thus far though. Have you?”
Exchanging glances with Cromwell, Hawk answered back, “Yeah, we have. Dunno what ta make of it yet, but… keep yer eyes open. Whatever happened here, it's lookin' less n'less like an accident…”
Once the security chief had acknowledged, the distance comm-line was cut and the local one between Cromwell and Hawk restored.
“C'mon,” Hawk said as he set off down the corridor once more, leading away from the bloody scene, “lets get ta engineerin'…”
–[Cail & Ragnar: Deck 5]–
It was like standing upon a precipice looking out into oblivion. Because that was exactly what it was.
Behind lieutenant's Cail Jarin and Attos Ragnar lay the broken wreck of the U.S.S. Fearless, and not but one meter beyond them lay the great beyond of deep space. Or at least, the Arcadia system in it's temperamental and mysterious glory. Both men had secured connective cables to different sides of the corridor behind them, and then one between them both, but beyond that lay open space. For the moment, they maintained their magnetic lock to the decking beneath them and simply gazed out upon the void. It was a sobering thought that someone, some fellow Starfleet officer, may well have died here as they had gone about their duty, never expecting the starship they served on to simply break open and vanish before their eyes.
What had their last thoughts been? Who had they been? What where their dreams, their hopes, their fears? Whom had they left behind?
“Jia kasha tren tolaren, lapor ilani kor. Enna tana talinok. Jia kasha treyna tolaren, lapor ilani kors, enna jia kasha tren…” whispered Cail Jarin in his native tongue, his head bowed within the confines of his helmet. Opening his eyes, he looked out upon the stars once more and took a deep breath before letting it out slowly. “A prayer to the Prophets,” Cail explained to his Angosian comrade without being prompted for such an explanation.
Ragnar didn't say anything in response as he didn't want to offend the operation's officer. In his opinion, religion was nothing more than ignorance and mysticism. Not everyone felt that way though, and hard-headed as Ragnar could be about a lot of things, he was also tolerant of ideas – so long as they didn't harm anyone. Angosian's had done away with such beliefs centuries ago, although the concepts had never been forbidden.
Shifting the focus of communication to the task at hand, the larger man crouched down and scrutinized the mangled edges of the corridor before them. “So what do you think caused this?”
Looking up at the torn metal above his head rather than down at such at his feet like Ragnar, Cail Jarin considered the force necessary to breech a starship's hull. It could be done of course by a number of things, but usually anything that broke through the hardened hulls of starships involved some sort of energy. Whether weapons like phasers or torpedoes, or the physical forces emitted by tractor beams. The alternatives for penetrating a hull required physical interactions, like an object or other ship crashing into such.
Jarin had been on his first assignment as a newly minted ensign at the European shipyards in Earth's orbit when the famed Starship Enterprise had been brought in for extensive repair work following it's lethal confrontation with the Reman warlord Shinzon. A confrontation in which the ship's captain, the illustrious Jean-Luc Picard had been forced to resort to ordering a collision course with Shinzon's massive and heavily armed Schimitar. So he had seen first hand for three months straight the type of damage caused by such an impact, and could thus tell from just a glance that such had not been the case with the Fearless.
Lifting his bulky tricorder over his head, he ran the scan emitters back-and-forth parallel and about a meter away from the broken and twisted hunks of metal that jutted outward. Lacking any burn marks for as far as the eye could see, he was reasonably confident that the catastrophic hull damage had not been caused as the result of weapons fire. Never the less, he had to be sure - and he was as soon as the tricorder analysis was complete. There was however an energy trace reading, but this far from the outer hull, he couldn't get an accurate scan sample, which he reported to Ragnar as the senior officer between them.
“I'm going to have to go up there,” he deduced, “if I'm going to get an accurate reading.”
With no other available options, Ragnar agreed. Detaching the Bajoran from the connective cable between the two of them, Ragnar re-attached the open end to Cail's cable that was anchored to a corridor hand-rail. He then watched as the operations officer crouched down before deactivating his mag-boots, and then finally pushing off the end of the deck plate in what resembled a slow-motion jump due to the absence of gravity or atmosphere. Craning his neck awkwardly inside the confines of his helmet, Ragnar struggled to keep an eye on the other man as he seemingly flew upward like some mythic hero of old, the connective cable spooling out further and further from it's anchor-point as he did.
Despite the grim situation and inherent danger of what he was doing, Cail Jarin had to admit he found a certain rush of adrenaline as he was propelled upward by nothing more than the force of his own momentum, free of the confines of gravity. Who didn't at some point during childhood dream of soaring through the clouds, after all? Though there where no clouds here, the basic idea was the same, and no understanding of physics or the realities surrounding him could dampen the illusion. At he passed the edge of the the outer hull, Cail activated the emergency maneuvering jets built into the back-plate of his suits solid conformed upper section, and gently guided himself back down towards the saucer, re-establishing his magnetic boots when his feet made contact with the surface hull plates.
“Contact secured,” he reported to Ragnar, whom by now could no longer see him - only the connective cable that drifted upward in his wake.
Standing there on the saucer section of the noble ship, he turned to his right to look upon the raised bridge dome set atop it's center some sixty meters away, the forward quarter of which had been torn away along with so much of rest of the saucer's hull. He could just make out the familiar landmarks of the helm and operations consoles just poking out from the relative protection of the remaining three-quarters of the dome. One of the two being his own post back aboard Republic, he wondered what had become of his counterpart aboard this ship. Had he survived the destruction, clinging to his console against the rush of atmosphere until the emergency force-fields could spring into place? Or had he suffered a far worse fate, and been ripped from his post and hurled out by the forces of escaping atmosphere into the merciless void?
Shaking the thoughts off, Cail turned back ahead and slowly stomped forward to the furthest edge of the saucer's jagged hull to begin his analysis…
To Be Continued…