Lieutenant Willow Rosenburg had no idea when she woke up that morning that her first solo mission was going to be her last.
"It's just a small ion storm, sir," she had said on the bridge of the Hannibal, the viewscreen showing the diaphanous, multicolored disruption. Her voice had a wheedling sound to it that she herself despised, a tone not lost on the captain and the chief science officer. Over their shoulders, she could see her best friend, Lt. Summers, sitting at the tactical station, pretending not to listen to the conversation, rolling her eyes at Willow's pleading.
Captain Francisco Cumberland gazed at the young officer, bemused more than anything else. "Oh, a small ion storm. That's like having a small black hole, or only having a small pregnancy - no offense to those crewmembers of the feminine gene," he added offhandedly. His eyes, hazel and somewhat almond-shaped, rolled in exasperation at the boundless enthusiasm of youth, ignoring the fact that he was not yet forty Standard years old himself. His nonregulation beard, just managing to cover the facial scars inflicted upon him some years ago by some nasty Kzinti, seemed to twitch as he smiled benignly at the young officer.
Commander Max Cochrane, the ship's second officer, chief science officer and Willow's direct superior, replied his commanding officer and friend with his usual nonchalance. "It doesn't appear likely to escalate beyond force three, Captain. As ion storms go, that's pretty minor-league." His demeanor would have given a casual observer the notion that Cochrane was bored; that notion would be mistaken, as this was his customary mien. Contrary to the popular notion that brilliant science officers tended to be hyperactive - like Willow Rosenburg - Cochrane bordered on being leisurely, if not entirely lackluster. An acquaintance of theirs had once remarked that Cochrane did not seem complete unless he was wearing an old raincoat and carrying a cigar in one hand. Neither Cochrane nor Cumberland had yet figured out what that was supposed to mean...
Cumberland shrugged. "Okay, fair enough. Why do we need to send out a pod? Why not just a probe, if that?"
Willow jumped in then, decisively if not prudently. "Sir, regulations require that all ion storm activity be fully investigated, that is, by qualified onsite personnel, and I think I'm qualified, sir, not that Commander Cochrane isn't qualified, no, sir, sirs! In fact, I'm thinking Commander Cochrane is really, if anything, over-qualified, I mean, this is just an ion storm, so it really makes sense to send me out in the shuttlepod instead of -"
"Rosenburg, as you were," Cumberland said in his best command tone. The young lieutenant promptly closed her mouth and assumed her best at-attention stance.
Cochrane raised an eyebrow, a sure sign he was about to make a wry comment. "You think if we hooked her vocal cords to the engines, we could do away with the warp core?"
Buffy Summers gave the backs of the two senior officers a sharp look, not feeling confident enough to voice her opinion of the unseemliness of them making fun of Willow. She glanced over at Ensign Xander Harris at the helm, Willow's childhood friend and classmate to them both from the Academy. He was looking back at her, his expression conveying his sympathy for Willow's eagerness and Buffy's protectiveness.
Cumberland mock-scowled at Cochrane, fairly certain that he was merely teasing his eager young subordinate. "Now, now, Max. Be nice. Okay, Rosenburg, you've sold me. You get to take out the shuttlepod, take all the instrument readings you like, and Summers, quit scowling, your face'll freeze that way and it's a very unattractive expression!"
Summers snapped herself forward towards her station, her eyebrows shooting up self-consciously. Looking over to Xander as much as she dared, she managed to see Xander likewise looking sidelong and trying not to get caught at it, mouthing to her, He sees everything.
In less time than she would have thought possible, Willow found herself in one of the Hannibal's shuttlepods, skirting the edge of the electromagnetic disturbance. She wasn't a pilot really; the pod's course had been pre-programmed, needing only basic instruction, leaving her free to take readings and relay them back to the Hannibal. For this type of ion storm, standard procedure dictated that piloting the starship into the highly unstable EM field would be too disruptive to provide clear readings; a short-range shuttlepod would be far less intrusive, gravimetrically speaking, and not so hazardous as to preclude sending out a lone science officer.
Let's hear it for Standard Procedure.
Aboard the ship, Buffy Summers kept an eye on the tracking scanners, charting the course of the shuttlepod as it traversed the outer edge of the ion storm. As much as she wanted Willow to prove herself, a part of her dreaded the thought of her friend being out there alone. Of course, she was barely ten thousand kilometers away from the ship, well inside transporter range. A long-range sensor sweep had confirmed that there were no vessels, unfriendly or otherwise, anywhere near them. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell this to her palms, which insisted on sweating so much that she kept having to wipe them discreetly on her trousers.
Captain Cumberland stalked around the bridge of the Saladin-class destroyer, trying to peer at every instrument and display without looking like he was. One thing he had always loathed as a junior officer was the type of commander who felt the need to micro-manage, and he swore he would never succumb to that neurosis. Nevertheless, the thought of One Of His out there alone and possibly in danger tied his insides into knots. Yet, showing his crew that he had so little faith in his people wouldn't be good for morale, either. Whose idea was it to take this job? Cumberland wondered for the thousandth time. He glanced over at his first officer, Commander Jerald Thomas Stewart, whose helmet of thick black hair gleamed under the bridge lights. J.T., manning what was nominally an engineering subsystems station, returned the glance with a shrug and a What do you want me to say? expression. Yeah, big help.
For her part, Willow was having the time of her life. After ensuring that the pod was on course, she tapped buttons with the grace of a concerto pianist, directing the onboard sensor pallets to gather the raw data on EM distortions, quark population and subspace field stresses.
Strange. There was a large indication of graviton emissions coming from the center of the ion storm. Given that this was almost purely an electromagnetic phenomenon, there shouldn't be any significant gravimetric distortion. But...
"Shuttlepod to Hannibal," she said, keying the comm system open. "I'm getting some goofy readings here."
Cumberland's head snapped up from his reverie at the sound of Rosenburg's voice. "What did she say? 'Goofy'? Dammit, I must have been sick that day at the Academy when they taught the Goofy Protocols!"
In spite of everything, several people on the bridge, including Buffy and Xander, chuckled at the captain's quip. He let the mirth hang in the air for a couple of seconds, then indicated to the communications officer to open the ship-to-ship. "We read you, Lieutenant. Transfer your telemetry to Mr. Cochrane. Can you be, uh, more specific?"
Before she could answer the captain, Max Cochrane had read the telemetry and drawn many of the same conclusions. "Captain, the ion storm is emitting high concentrations of gravitons. Recommend we go to yellow alert, sir."
Buffy looked over at Xander, who stared back. The mutual question What's going on? flickered, unanswered, between them.
Cumberland nodded at this science officer's suggestion. "Yellow alert," he called out, watching as the bridge light subtly changed in response to the heightened state of awareness. He strode over to where Stewart was coordinating with ship's departments. "Mr. Stewart, report to Transporter Room One. Assist Chief Connelly."
The first officer opened his mouth, about to protest that the captain needed him here on the bridge; however, if it was one thing J.T. Stewart knew about, it was Cumberland's talent for spotting - if not actively seeking out - trouble. "Aye, sir," Stewart said, getting up and heading for the turbolift.
The captain's renowned early-warning system was indeed rumbling at this point, although not loud enough to drown the rational part of his mind that some people thought of as mere rumor. Gravitons in an ion storm - unusual, but hardly dangerous at this level. Not like it's a black hole... His mind tried to balance the safety of his crew and his faith in their ability to do their jobs and take care of themselves. "Shuttlepod, report status," he commanded over the channel.
"Nominal, captain. I've, uh, just finished my initial... maneuver, if you can call it that. Gravimetric stresses well within tolerances. I'm preparing to make the second pass now. I want to try a particle-trajectory analysis, sir." Typically, Rosenburg had her "eager young space cadet" voice on, which Cumberland had always found cute. All it did now was worry the hell out of him, that she would be too busy playing Junior Scientist to watch her back.
Then again, isn't that what I'm here for? Cumberland wondered.
Over at the tactical station, Buffy Summers had had enough. "Willow," she said, keying her intercom to the ship-to-ship frequency, "never mind that stuff, just get your butt back to the ship!"
"Buffy, I'm fine. Really. You know me, I'm not Danger Gal."
"Rosenburg, hold your position until further notice." The captain made a hand-signal at the comm officer to mute the channel, then strode over to Summers. She tried not to visibly gulp as he approached, knowing that she had committed a breach in protocol by speaking online without permission.
Cumberland stopped to rest his hands on the railing near her station. His voice was low, even soft, but still carried the timbre of command. "You can't hold her hand forever, Summers. It's not what's best for either one of you, and all it will do is make one of you resentful of the other."
Buffy's lips tightened as she nodded. "Yes, sir," she whispered.
Cumberland's eyes held hers a moment longer. Another beat passed, then he said, "Get a tractor lock on the pod. Anything else 'goofy' happens, yank 'er back."
Her enthusiastic "Aye, sir!" bounced off his departing back.
Willow vacillated between being annoyed at Buffy's overprotectiveness and feeling loved because of it. And, yes, the excitement of being on her first solo mission. Ever since the Academy, and since being assigned to the same ship as Buffy and Xander, she had always felt overshadowed by her friends. She reveled in this chance to shine on her own.
Still... these reading were starting to worry her, at least a little. This was not your typical flash-in-the-pan ion storm. Besides the gravitons, there were indications of unusual stresses to the local subspace field that had no clear cause. She was beginning to think that this "ion storm" was actually the accidental by-product of something much more energetic, much more intriguing and probably much more dangerous.
Oh, poo. Would Buffy bug out at the first sign of trouble? Heck, no. And the captain? They don't call him "The Space Case" for nothin', ya know. She was still under orders to remain at her present position, but she could still take sensor scans of the... anomaly, as she now called it. She was setting up a preliminary scan when the general alert beeped for her attention.
The science readout caught her eye. The numbers started changing there, faster than she would have believed. "Oh oh," she said to herself. "This can't be good."
Back on the Hannibal, Max Cochrane had been monitoring the telemetry from the shuttlepod, and he didn't like what he saw any more than Willow did. "Captain," his slow, even tone nevertheless conveying a sense of extreme urgency, "I'm getting high concentrations of tachyons coming from the ion storm!"
Cumberland made up his mind. "Hannibal to Shuttlepod - Rosenburg, head back to the barn, pronto! Summers, tractor beam! Transp--"
That was as far as the captain got before the universe seemingly busted a seam in the seat of its pants. A large, angry-looking maw suddenly opened up in the middle of the "ion storm," dwarfing both the shuttlepod and the starship. It swirled against the darkness of space like a lake beneath a waterfall, turbulent, unstable, violent.
The energy it released knocked the destroyer back almost ten thousand kilometers from its present position. Perversely, the dark matter microfragments at its event horizon pulled the shuttlepod in the other direction.
In spite of the best efforts of the inertial dampening field, everybody on the bridge was thrown to the deck, except for Buffy, owing to the forward-facing aspect of the tac station enabling her to basically wedge herself in place. She saw Captain Cumberland fall; only later did she find the time to be amazed at how smoothly he turned the deckward plunge into a shoulder roll to end up on his feet.
Xander was at the base of the helm console, dazed and trying to get his breath back. Cumberland managed to lunge to the helm and enabling the emergency stabilizers. Slowly, the Hannibal stopped spinning and re-oriented itself.
Xander reached up, to haul himself back into position, when he felt a hand seize his and lift him on his feet easily. Somehow Cumberland managed, without even leaning to support the load, to get him and seated back at the helm. A quick pat on the shoulder, a brief indication to the astrogation monitor, and the captain was gone. Xander forced his head to stop spinning; then, he saw how far away from the shuttlepod - and Willow - they had been thrown.
"Damage report!" Cumberland cried out.
Cochrane checked his readouts. "Structural integrity at sixty-seven percent. Main power is fluctuating but still online."
"Captain!" Buffy cried out. "I wasn't able to get a tractor beam on Wi-on the shuttlepod before we were thrown clear!"
"Max - get a visual! Mr. Harris, take us in, full speed! Bridge to Transporter Room One, prepare for emergency beam out! We're going in!"
"This may not be wise, Captain," Commander Stewart said over the intercom.
"Probably not, J.T."
"Well, it was worth a try. How soon to transporter range, sir?"
Cumberland looked over to Harris, nodded for him to answer. "Twenty-seven seconds, Commander."
Inside the shuttlepod, Willow felt like a stuffed toy being shaken by a dog with delirium tremens. She clung to the console for dear life, even as she automatically made note of the wild readings still being picked up by the sensors.
The proximity detectors also noted that a large mass was heading towards the shuttlepod on an intercept course. Willow had a moment of panic till she noticed the warp signature around the object. They're coming after me? No! If anybody gets killed, it'll be my fault!
"Hannibal! Do-don't come after me! This might be a transient phenomenon anyway," she added, not believing it for a second.
"Rosenburg, be quiet and let us make like the cavalry," came the reply back from the ship. Willow would swear that she could hear the captain winking at Buffy.
Unexpectedly, a burst of energy from the center of the anomaly buffeted the shuttlepod, overloading the electroplasma conduit under the main ops console, which blew apart directly in Willow's face. Blown back out of her chair, she was unconscious before she hit the deck.
The sound of the explosion carried over the comm channel before that cut off due to the shuttlepod's loss of power. "Rosenburg?" Cumberland asked, dread already draining the blood from his face. "Rosenburg - acknowledge!" He turned to the communications officer. "Get her back!" He punched one of the buttons on his command station. "J.T.! Can you beam her off?"
"Stand by - I'm trying to boost power to the emitters," Stewart's voice was tight with pre-occupation. "There! Got a lock!"
"Energize!" Cumberland shouted, unnecessarily as Stewart and the transporter chief were already initiating transport.
Max Cochrane's voice cut through the air with unexpected volume. "Captain!"
Cumberland turned towards the viewscreen, knowing in his heart what his science officer was pointing out to him. What he was not prepared to see what was happened.
The roiling, swirling mass of the anomaly, with the shuttlepod firmly embedded within its depths, suddenly collapsed in on itself... leaving nothing but empty space behind.
"Oh my God," Xander said, stunned beyond belief.
"Willow!" Buffy nearly shrieked, bolting from her station.
Cumberland blinked twice, then came to himself with an effort. "J.T. - did you get her?"
The answer was slow in coming, Cumberland about to angrily ask again, when Stewart replied, "I don't think - no, sir. We had a lock... then, uh, she was gone."
"Right. Bridge out." He snapped off the intercom, then turned to Summers, still standing, staring at the viewscreen. "Summers."
Buffy snapped herself around. "Uh, I, yessir!"
"Institute a Phase One search on all decks. There's a chance that - we managed to transport her back, only - something interrupted the process. She may be hurt or unconscious somewhere on the ship." He paused, knowing full well - as did she - that this was somewhere between make-work and standard procedure. He looked at her face, seeing the first signs of total shock, knowing that if he let her give into the pain now, she wouldn't be good to anyone, including herself. "Vamanos, Lieutenant."
"Mr. Harris, begin a search pattern. There's the possibility that the shuttlepod was thrown clear. Mr. Cochrane, full sensor sweep." There were muted acknowledgements from the two of them, one contemplating the loss of an old and dear friend, the other of a bright young protégé.
Francisco Cumberland sat in his captain's chair, looking straight ahead but not seeing the infinite depths of space nor the bridge of the starship to which he was entrusted. Instead he saw the face of one of his crew, one who had come, despite his best efforts to keep his subordinates at a distance, to carve out her own niche in his heart. His heart now felt the void left as that face had seemingly disappeared forever.
"Vaya con Dios, mi hija," he whispered.