–[Hawk & Cromwell: Deck 12]–
The Excelsior-class was the last vestige of a by-gone era. The elder statesman of Starfleet, she was the last class of vessel still on active duty that could trace her lineage back to the days of James T. Kirk, Hikaru Sulu, John Harrimen and the like. Her designers could never have imagined how successful a class of ship she would become, having become the back-bone of the entire Federation fleet for nearly seventy years. She had seen other ships like the Ambassador-Class - would-be usurpers - rise and fall on her path to lasting glory. Only time could eventually bring her days of prominence to an end, as newer ships like the Galaxy and Sovereign eclipsed her.
If not for the volume of Excelsior's lost in the Dominion War, she might have even managed to hold on to her crown for another decade or so in spite of the newer, sleeker and more advanced ships. Alas, there where fewer than thirty of her left in active service after all this time. Starfleet had already decided a half-dozen years ago in the immediate aftermath of the war that any of her class to suffer significant damage from there on out where to be retired rather than repaired and refit for the umpteenth time. A rule that was unlikely to be rescinded even if not for Vladimir Kostya's marching orders via the tactical imperative doctrine.
As with older ships of her era like the Constitution or Miranda class, the location of the Excelsior's heart - her warp core - was not set back deep within the secondary hull, but rather forward of what had become it's standard place aboard modern ships. Stretching from the top of the very aft portion of the saucer down through the 'neck' of the ship to 'sit' just above the main deflector housing. The older layout felt sloppy to many new designers and most officers, but it had it's purpose in productivity and efficiency, allowing warp power to more capably be redirected to the impulse engines or deflector array as needed. Such an advanced placement had become unnecessary by the 2320s though, and thus few understood that.
As Nathan Hawk and Leon Cromwell stepped up to the large set of blast-doors that separated the corridor from the main engine room, neither officer's thoughts or concerns where on such matters, but rather on what else they would find aboard this vessel. With the bridge having been destroyed, control of the ship would have shifted automatically to main engineering. It was also the fall-back location of choice in a catastrophic disaster such as had occurred to the Fearless. Meaning that their ultimate best chance for finding anyone alive would lay beyond the thick blast-hardened doors before them. Failing any survivors being found, it would at the very least be their best chance to download the ship's logs for analysis in figuring out what - or likely rather who - had done this.
Holding his retrofit tricorder up to the doors, the boxy device looking like it too was of a by-gone era long ago, Leon Cromwell read over the results displayed on the tiny pressure-hardened screen on the devices upper left-hand side. It was with a degree of surprise that he reported, “I'm reading habitable atmosphere and temperature readings on the other side.”
Hawk turned his head - which meant turning his whole torso due to his space suit - to look upon his friend and colleague as he asked hesitantly but hopefully. “Life-signs?”
Slowly shaking his head from side-to-side in his suit, Cromwell gave voice to the ambiguous readings he was receiving. “Too much interference from this damn solar system to tell. I can't get a reading beyond five meters in any direction.”
Considering the minimal atmosphere throughout the rest of the ship that wasn't exposed to space via a hull breech, getting inside the engine room would prove tricky if they wanted to keep the atmosphere on the other side of the doors from evaporating. In a more normal situation, they would simply beam from point-to-point, but thanks to the ever-present interference surrounding them, that wasn't a viable option. Turning to look up and down the corridor they stood within as if to find an idea there, Hawk actually did.
Stepping down the corridor a few paces, he looked up at a divide between corridor segments. The corridor they where currently in was an H-junction, with the door to Engineering set in the middle of that H. Every starship was outfitted with emergency bulkheads at variable intervals throughout the ship, in the event of a hull breach that couldn't be sealed by emergency force-fields. Around locations such as engineering or sickbay, those bulkheads where more numerous. They where also designed to function with null power aboard ship, held in place by manual controls and magnetic locks.
“If we drop the bulkheads at either end uh this junction,” Hawk thought aloud, “we could expand the atmospheric envelope out inta the corridor here.”
Considering the suggestion and running a few quick calculations in his head, Leon finally nodded in agreement. Engineering was their final destination and their ultimate goal. From it's confines they could access any systems still functional on the ship, as well as copy the ship's logs in the hopes of deducing what had happened. They had brought transport enhancers with them in the event that they found any survivors, in order to beam them back to the shuttle directly. So they could use such to transport themselves out when they where finished, thus negating the problem of sealing themselves in behind the heavy bulkheads.
Setting off towards opposite ends of the junction, each man begin to arduous task of lowering the bulkhead into place. The artificial gravity systems on a starship where, along with life support, the most hardened aboard. Designed to function in situations when virtually nothing else aboard was. So the bulkheads tended to use that factor in sealing themselves, allowing their own bulk and weight to propel them closed. Sans artificial gravity though, they would have to be manually sealed. This meant cranking a hand level again and again to apply the force no longer present, in much the same way one might have jacked up an old earth automobile to change a tire.
It took the two Republic officers nearly five full minutes to each coax their respective bulkheads down into place, both men working up a bit of a sweat from the physical exertion despite the lack of atmospheric friction. Not being able to wipe one's brow when coated in a sheen or perspiration was just another annoyance of working inside an environmental suit. Finally though, with the bulkheads sealed at either end of the corridor junction, both men returned to the large double-wide blast doors separating them from main engineering.
Drawing out their connective cables from the belts of their suits, Hawk and Cromwell each attached one chord to one another, and then their individual primary anchor chords to the hail-rails running along the corridor. There was little actual risk of being thrown about by the force of atmosphere rushing in from the engine room, but it was better to be safe than sorry in these situations. Once confident they where each secure, Hawk gestured to the manual release panel set next to the door. “Manual release is right b'hind that panel,” he said to Cromwell as he gripped the corridor hand-rail opposite the entryway with one hand, and took aim with his hand phaser with the other. “Ready when you are, doc.”
Removing the outer casing that allowed access to the mechanisms, Cromwell secured his own position with his free hand as he took hold of the release lever with the other. Counting off, he gave it a firm yank towards the deck. Instantly, there was a rush of atmosphere venting from the engine compartment into the sealed-off section of the corridor they stood within as the doors retreated to either side. The force of such strong enough to knock both men off their stance a bit, but thankfully not much more than that. Beneath their feet, the ice crystals that had frozen to the deck as the temperature had slowly plummeted crackled and flew about in the zero-gravity of the corridor like a sudden indoor blizzard as they came into contact with the considerably warmer air.
On first glance, main engineering looked more or less as Hawk had expected it to.
Dim emergency lighting from chemical back-ups designed for critical situations gave the entire section an eerie red glow. The layout of the room was a cross between the engineering sections of a Galaxy and an Intrepid class. The main area was a long wide space with two work stations on either side. Between the first and second station, a ladder on the left and a one-man lift on the right gave access to the upper level, where other more compact work stations mirrored their placement below. Just beyond the first level work stations was a large situation table in the shape of a hexagon, with a double-side transparent cutaway diagram of the ship set length-wise into it's middle. Opposite either side of the situation table where alcove sections off to either side that curved around the inner sanctum housing the warp core, a transparent aluminum barrier - open in the middle to give access to the core - on either side interposed between the alcoves and the core room.
Stepping forward to the door-frame, Hawk and Cromwell looked into engineering and quickly deduced that gravity had been maintained within judging by the bits of debris and work items strewn about the floor, and most notable the six bodies draped tightly with emergency blankets set side-by-side, three and three, along the main area work stations. For the first time this day, Hawk found himself grateful for the environmental suit he wore and thus the independent oxygen he breathed. The stench of death must have been unbearable after a months time. If anyone was still alive within, he didn't know how they could stand it. Stepping forward, both of their stomachs turned at the sudden shift from zero-g to standard gravity. Once on the other side of the door frame, both men deactivated their magnetic boots, thus allowing them to move about more normally.
Casting a wary eye upward towards the second level, Hawk did a quick visual sweep with his hand phaser raised and at the ready just in case as Leon moved between the blanket-shrouded bodies, scanning each with his tricorder to record their DNA and confirm what they already knew from the visual evidence, that they where in fact deceased.
“All humans, four female and two male, all mid-to-late twenties by my estimate.” Cromwell reported of the remains as he finished his grim task and stepped up to join Hawk. “Nothing from my scans indicates any evidence of mutilation or injury, though decomposition could be masking something. Without an actual autopsy I can't confirm cause of death, but my money would be on exposure.”
Stepping up to the situation table, Hawk checked the right side alcove next to it first and found nothing. Turning to his left, he quickly spotted another body, though this one was in an environmental suit and slumped over the chief engineer's duty console. As he moved closer though, movement caught his eye. Though subtle, it was instantly recognizable. The body in the space suit was breathing.
“Doc!” he called out with excitement as he rushed forward and holstered his hand phaser, “we gotta live one here!”
–[Ragnar & Cail: Saucer Section]–
The incandescent beam of golden-orange energy emitted by Cail Jarin's hand phaser provided some extra illumination to the upper saucer of the Fearless, which had become engulfed in shadow as it's slow tumble end-over-end in space had turned it away from the system's star. No longer careening end-over-end at high velocity thanks to a series of tractor beam pulses they had directed from the shuttle upon their approach, the derelict starship now maintained a relative position half a million kilometers from the Republic. Cutting away a section of the battered ship's hull felt wrong to the Bajoran man. Almost like grave robbing or something else disrespectful of the dead. But a full metallurgical analysis in one of the science labs back aboard ship would answer some lingering questions that his tricorder scans couldn't answer. With only a hand phaser though, it was going to take a while.
Being confined to the space suit, cutting into the hull of a dead starship that he stood upon in the dark no less, all worked together to make him anxious. And when he was anxious, he tended to talk or pray. With a network comm-link to Ragnar though, that meant talking to himself under his breath would be transmitted back to the other man. Not wanting to look like a lunatic, and getting the sense from the Angosian that prayer made him a bit uncomfortable, that left only actual two-way conversation as an option for Cail to calm his own nerves. He just hoped his first impression that conversing with Ragnar would be like pulling teeth wasn't totally accurate.
“So… you're Angosian, right?” he asked his colleague, regretting almost instantly how stupid he sounded asking something with such an obvious answer. 'Of course he's Angosian, you nit-twit. You read the roster. You know that.' he thought to himself.
After an uncomfortable pause, the security officer finally responded from his place inside the open-ended corridor a few decks below. “Last time I checked,” he answered dryly, his voice coming in loud and clear over the speakers in Cail's helmet.
“What I meant was, you're an Angosian veteran, right?” Cail asked, hoping to salvage things. As he did so, he moved his grip on the piece of protruding hull fragment down a few centimeters, wanting to keep his hand as far from the point he was cutting with his phaser as possible. Though a severed limb could be surgically reattached, he wasn't eager to have that particular experience.
With a bit of a sigh that was amplified by the comm-circuits, Ragnar replied to the latest question, “If you mean a veteran of the Tarsian war, then yes, I am.”
Stopping for a moment, Cail adjusted the beam width setting on his phaser to narrow it slightly, before resuming his task. “So how'd you get into Starfleet then? I mean, with the ban on genetic engineering and all that…”
Down below, in the exposed segment of Fearless corridor, Ragnar checked the integrity of the connective cables for the twelfth time in the past half-hour, the large-build Angosian accepted the inevitable. There was no way to avoid the inane conversation, not while his only duty at hand was making sure the cables didn't spontaneously snap in two with no reason. “Tarsian war veterans are exempt from the ban since the modifications where made well prior to Angosia joining the Federation.”
“Oh,” replied the Bajoran man. He hadn't known that, but it did make a degree of sense. As a globule of molten metal drifted upward and away from where the hand phasers concentrated beam continued to dutifully super-heat the piece of hull plate, Cail leaned back to give it a wide berth as it quickly cooled in the frigid void of space, rapidly going from white-hot to ember red as it drifted off and away. Considering something for a moment and doing some easy math, Cail wondered aloud, “So how old are you anyway?”
Pacing back and forth slowly in the gravity and atmosphere absent exposed corridor of the Fearless, Ragnar answered the operations officers latest interrogatory. “I turned forty last month.”
His task nearly complete, Cail adjusted his tenuous grip on the section of hull plate he was about finished extricating from the wrecked starship's hull. Though unlikely that it would go tumbling off absent any force to propel it, he wasn't eager to take the minimal risk of losing it and having to start all over again. Especially since his phasers charge was nearly depleted after such sustained and focused use. “So how long have you been in Starfleet then?”
For the first time, Ragnar actually considered Cail's question before he answered it. “Well I guess that all depends on how you look at it,” he told the dark-skinned man. “Originally, I joined Starfleet's enlisted infantry program back during the Dominion war. Starfleet and the Federation had done so much for those of us who had fought in the Tarsian war, first by de facto forcing the Angosian government to actually deal with us instead of just locking us away in penal colonies, and then by pioneering the research that lead to our psychological conditioning being neutralized, that a lot of us felt a duty to help out. And since we had those skills and still had the genetic modifications like strength and stamina… it just seemed right lend a hand where it was needed most.”
As the piece of hull plating came free, Cail deactivated his phaser and clipped it back inside it's mag-lock holster on his waist. As he did so, he let the most recently fired-upon edge of the super-heated piece of hull plating cool to a dull red before informing Ragnar of his impending return to where he had left the large-build security officer. “All done up here, coming back down.”
Releasing the magnetic seals that kept his boots in contact with the hull as Ragnar acknowledged, Cail stepped off into nothing before activating his suits emergency thrusters. As he did so, he triggered the retractor sequence for his anchor cable bolted to the corridor hand-rail decks below with Ragnar.
“So how'd you become an officer then?” Cail asked, resuming their dialogue as he was slowly reeled in like a great fish on the line.
Monitoring the cables retraction to ensure it didn't accelerate unexpectedly or become caught on any of the exposed hull elements, Ragnar explained. “Well I didn't, not at first anyway. After the war was over, the vast majority of the enlisted infantry corps was discharged. At the time, I didn't really consider being an actual full-time part of Starfleet. Like a lot of veterans, I was tired of conflict. Tired of fighting. So I went home to Angosia. My people are artists and thinkers, and as a boy I'd always had a gift for the arts, so I tried going to school to pursue that passion I'd left behind to defend my people. I had the technical skill, the hand-eye coordination, even the talent but… everything I painted ended up the same. I'd start out wanting a pastoral landscape or a pleasant still-life and… invariably, end up with an apocalyptic war-zone or a decaying bowl of fruit.”
“Side-effect of the psychological conditioning?” Cail asked, as he neared the half-way point of his return trip.
“Something like that,” Ragnar replied, not wanting to go too much further into the nitty-gritty details of his psychology. He had already said far more than he normally told anyone save a counselor or medical officer. “Anyway, after a year or so I gave up on my art and settled into a pretty bland job in planetary security. On a planet like Angosia though, there wasn't really much to do in such a position though. Like most federation worlds, the only crime was accidental. Orbital traffic violations and the like.”
“So how'd you end up back with Starfleet?”
“I was recruited, actually,” Ragnar told him, becoming uncertain of how much further he could go. He knew the other man had served aboard the previous Republic, but was uncertain of he had been a member of the skeleton crew assigned during her final - classified - mission to Ananke Alpha. Though renowned through rumor and myth, the ultra-maximum security facility did not official exist. Outside of Starfleet's top-tier of Admiralty, only members of the Federation Security Council and the President even knew of it for certain. Which made explaining that he had been specifically recruited to join Starfleet and attend an advanced placement academy alternative in order to serve as one of the most elite security officers in the entirety of the Federation rather… difficult.
As the Bajoran man's boots came into view from overhead he asked, “So did they tell you about where you would be assigned, or did you only learn that when you stepped through the airlock into one of those weird disappearing corridors?”
Grabbing hold of the operations officers ankles to guide him in steadily, Ragnar's pulse quickened. All of his training told him to deny and obfuscate. That it was his duty to protect the security of Ananke Alpha, which included protecting it's very existence from becoming public knowledge. That anyone who indicated they knew of such was lying - or worse, an enemy agent.
“It's alright,” Cail continued, as he pulled himself down to eye-level with the security chief, “I was on Republic's last mission. I know all about… you-know-where.” Activating his boots magnetic seals as his feet brushed against the deck plate, Cail breathed a sigh of relief at being back inside a starship. Even if it was absent any heat, atmosphere, and exposed to space only a meter behind him. “Lets set up the transport enhancers and get back to the shuttle. I can do some cursory tests.”
The expression on Ragnar's face was stony and placid, and took Cail by surprise after the rather pleasant chat they had just had. It was only when he realized his knowledge of Ananke Alpha's existence must have been quite unnerving for the Angosian did Cail understand why. Stepping close to Cail - which wasn't difficult since they where only a meter apart already - Ragnar's piercing gaze met Cail's between the transparent face-plates of their helmets as he spoke with unfeeling, unflinching, downright frigid indifference. “Whatever you think you know… forget it. Whatever you saw, whatever you heard… you didn't. And if you don't want to take that advice for it's own sake, than take it as an explicit order from myself, or from the Captain, or from the head of Starfleet Security. Whichever you prefer.”
Without another word, he turned on his heal - a difficult maneuver no doubt in magnetic boots - and set about disconnecting the safety cables from the corridor hand rails.
Cail offered no response to the Angosian's stern warning as he meanwhile set about setting up the transport pattern enhancers in their customary triangular arraignment. Without another word between the two men, the signaled the shuttle's computer and disappeared from the Fearless' corridor in a magnificent swirl of energetic particles.
–[Hawk & Cromwell: Deck 12]–
Grabbing the space-suited individual by the shoulder, Hawk pulled them up into a sitting position as Leon rushed after him with his tricorder at the ready. Unconscious, the man in the space suit slumped back in the chair and threatened to topple backward before Hawk stabilized him.
Running the tricorder over him, Leon reported on the scan results as Hawk looked through the grimy face-plate of the helmet at a dangerously thin light skinned man with a scraggly beard over gaunt cheeks in his mid-thirties. “Human male, severely dehydrated and malnourished.”
Handing the tricorder over to Hawk, Leon fumbled with his med-kit courtesy of his suits gloves and cursed as he dropped it and spilled it's contents across the deck. “Son of a bitch!”
Fed-up and not about to defer his patient's care a split second longer, Leon began tearing at the seals of his gloves to remove them as he ordered Hawk to take off the other man's helmet. Doing so, Hawk tore off the man's head piece as quickly as he could with his own gloved hands and tossed it off to the side. Leon's now bare hands retrieved a hypo-spray and measured out the appropriate dosage of of a condensed mixture of neodextraline and polynutrient solutions before hastily putting it to the man's neck and thumbing the injection trigger. He then grabbed the tricorder back out of Hawk's hand and ran a more intensive scan.
“Is he gonna make it?” Hawk asked.
Nodding his own still-helmeted head in the affirmative, Leon gave voice to the gesture, “He's in rough shape, but I'm not reading any injuries. Still, I've got to get him back to Sickbay aboard Republic as soon as possible.”
Taking a look around the engine room, Hawk decided on their best course of action. The type-11 shuttle was laid out much like a runabout on the inside, with a forward cockpit and an aft section that closely resembled the aft of the Flyer-class shuttle - complete with a retractable medical bio-bed and an emergency medical hologram. “There's a bio-bed in the aft compartment uh the shuttle, beam back there with him now an I'll get the logs n' join ya in a few minutes.”
Though it wasn't sound away team protocol to leave someone alone in a situation such as this, and not eager to do such, Leon couldn't argue with the strategy proposed. The sooner he could get his patient to any sort of medical facilities, the better off his prognosis would be in the long run. “Help me get him on his feet.”
Sliding his arms under the the limp form of the gaunt man, Nat picked him up with ease - a testimonial to his dire physical condition and how much weight he had lost - and helped Leon get a firm hold of his patient. Once the doctor had the other man's dead weight balanced properly, Hawk withdrew the small half-meter high transport enhancers from the back of Cromwell's suit and set up the triad of devices around the two men before activating them. Beams of bright blue energy promptly emitted from each device forming a line-of-side triangle around the two men.
“Cromwell to shuttle craft MacFarlane,” the doctor spoke, addressing the ship's computer, “two to beam directly to the aft section. Energize.”
In a wash of bright pin-point particles of light that never ceased to be a spectacle no matter how many times it was seen, the two space-suit clad men, doctor and patient, disappeared from before Hawk's eyes. He knew that an instant later, they would re-appear exactly as they had been here within the aft section of the type-11 shuttle craft latched to the hull of the Excelsior-class ship a few decks above.
Gathering up the medical supplies into the kit Leon had left behind along with the doctor's suit gloves, he tossed them into the center of the transport enhancers field area so he could take them back with him upon his own transport out while he slung the forgotten EVA-tricorder's strap over his shoulder. Stepping away from the main engineering post that their sole survivor had been slumped across, Nat moved back to the situation table in the center of the engine room. Pausing a moment as he looked upon the six less fortunate souls whose remains where shrouded a few meters away, he couldn't help but contemplate his own mortality.
He had faced it many times, though none more significantly than upon the occasion of his actual literal death two years earlier. The experience he had that day while deceased was something he had never shared with anyone else, not even those closest to him. Whether it had been real or just a vivid dream after his nanoprobe-enduced resurrection was something he doubted he would ever truly know. He had come so close to his own mortality so many times before though, only to be saved at the last possible moment. What made him any different from these people? Why where they less fortunate then he, or he more so than them?
Shaking off the philosophical, Hawk leaned over the situation table and set about his task. He found the main computer like everything else on this ship to be dead, but the same jury-rig methods that had apparently kept the ship's only survivor in a habitable atmosphere allowed him to cross-circuit a few connections and get access to the hard-line back-ups imprinted onto isolinear chips. Though he had a little trouble copying the files, he was finally able to download them into Leon's tricorder memory. Though out-of-sequence now, they could be re-organized when they where analyzed back aboard Republic. The important thing now was simply to secure the data, which he had done. He had also learned the identity of their sole survivor from the last entry, a personal log that seemed to contain and last will and testament. Lieutenant Avery Hogan.
Looking about the lonely darkened engine room awash in shadow and dim red chemical light, he couldn't help but feel a combination of anger and uselessness. Anger at what had happened here, at the senseless loss of so many lives at the hands of an enemy they knew not whom. Useless that they had never stood a chance of doing anything to change the fate of this ship and her gallant crew, and that so many of their fates remained shrouded in ambiguity due to the stark lack of physical remains aboard. Had more survived and been taken captive? Or had the savage butchers responsible for the gruesome scene with the unfortunate Vulcan crewmen in the corridor taken the bodies of the dead for some reason they could not fathom?
Nothing about this situation added up in Hawk's estimation. Which made him anxious about what they may yet find in the turbulent Arcadia system. So he decided to do what any good gambler does and put an ace up his sleeve. Returning to the console their survivor had been slumped over, he accessed the controls for the ship's warp nacelles and opened the plasma vents by twenty percent. He envisioned the scene a few decks above and back along the ship's length, as the particles of ionized gas slowly began to seep out into the void. With a ship so damaged as this, it wouldn't raise any suspicions or eyebrows if anyone actually had the sensor resolution to witness such. It would also seem fairly innocuous, which was precisely what Hawk desired.
Releasing a number of manual safety interlocks at critical junctures, Hawk was satisfied with his efforts. Considering the shrouded corpses lining the primary work consoles, Nat moved to each of them an attached a transponder tag to the emergency blankets serving to conceal the decaying remains from sight. Considering how few remains had been found, he was not about to leave any man or woman behind. Once he was back aboard the MacFarlane, he could transport the bodies aboard and leave them suspended in the pattern buffers pending their transfer to Republic's transporters, which would rematerialize and deposit them in the ship's morgue.
He took one last look around the engine compartment before stepping over and into the transport enhancers field of operation. “Hawk ta Shuttle, one ta beam up. Energize.”
<TAG: Cromwell, then Tolkath>