As had been true in their simulations, opening the conduit was the easy part. The kind of coordination it required was second nature to this crew by now, and was aided in great measure by all of their practice. Riding the expanding wave of fractured space, however, was as difficult as they knew it would be.
They were two hours into the mission when Tom noticed the first signs of gravimetric shear. It started off as minor fluctuations in the deflector wedge, then became stronger–almost like piloting a small airplane in the wake of a large jet. Fortunately, Tom had flown ancient aircraft simulations as a teenager, and he used some of those old skills to help him navigate the turbulence. Still, if the shear increased, there was only so much good piloting could do.
“Captain, the wake is increasing. Attempting to compensate…”
She turned to Harry, as she had every time the simulation threw this particular problem their way. “Can you figure out what’s causing it?”
The one advantage the ensign now had was concrete data based on their first two hours of experience. He was seeing a pattern. “Looks like we encounter the shear every time the conduit passes near a densely-packed region of normal space. I suppose the intense gravity fluctuations could be affecting the shape of the singularity.”
“B’Elanna, Seven,” the captain called over the open comlink, “do you agree?”
They were focused on the tasks at hand and unable to review Harry’s data. “Sounds possible,” B’Elanna offered.
“If that is the case,” Seven interjected without taking her eyes off her console, “it may be possible to use the astrometric sensors to project the variances. We could use the data to remodulate the deflector as the gravimetric forces fluctuate.”
Normally, this would be a task best suited to Seven’s skills, but she had her hands full literally and figuratively in steering the deflector wedge. “Commander,” Janeway motioned to Chakotay, “take over at Operations. Harry, get down to Astrometrics. See what you can do.”
The first officer took the Ops station before nodding Kim away. Their plan had always called for Chakotay to act as what Tom called a “utility infielder,” an obscure baseball reference that aptly described someone trained for a variety of tasks. Frankly, he was happy for the assignment. In tense maneuvers like these, he preferred to participate. It made the time pass faster, and helped relieve the feeling of being a mere observer in the most important trip of their lives.
Harry, on the other hand, wasn’t as thrilled. He knew he was the best person for this job, but he hated leaving the action on the bridge. He also left the comfort of maneuvers rehearsed and rehearsed again. Unlike Tom or even B’Elanna, Harry didn’t like flying by the seat of his pants. He always believed that nothing beat preparation, and he had a lingering fear that he wouldn’t be able to come up with the right inspiration in an unrehearsed situation. No use worrying about that now, he thought. The turbolift opened on Deck 8, and the ensign ran down the corridor to his new station.
Kim was only slightly surprised to find Icheb there when he arrived. He was also slightly relieved. The cadet had an instinctual understanding of stellar geometry that rivaled only Seven’s. Harry also saw a lot of himself in Icheb: raw talent mixed with a kind of inbred self-assurance and absolute naivety. Plus, Icheb made Harry feel less like the low man on the totem pole. He may once have been as raw as Seven’s star pupil, but that was a long time ago. It made him feel good to see the view from the other side.
“Do you know the assignment?” Harry asked as he took the station opposite the cadet.
“We’re scanning for gravimetric distortions and plotting the variance.” Harry smiled. “Good. Let’s get started.”
One successful improvisation and counting.
They were now in hour four, and struggling to fight off complacency. Harry’s plan to map the turbulence was working, and–with that problem under control–they were almost surprised at how well it was going. So far they had traveled almost 20,000 light years.
Without Chakotay available to relieve him, Tom’s neck and arms were getting stiff. He had no choice but to continue, trying to focus only on the instantaneous calculations and subsequent course corrections necessary to stay behind the narrow wedge. He didn’t say anything about the pain. What good would it do?
They heard the turbolift doors open. Tom heard the familiar voice, though he couldn’t deflect his attention to look up. “Doctor?” the captain was asking, the ‘what are you doing here?’ was implied.
“I have been monitoring our progress from sickbay,” he volunteered, only slightly concerned to be caught eavesdropping again. “I know there was a change in plans. I thought maybe I could help.” He indicated his medkit, and Janeway was relieved. She had feared for a moment that he was offering to take the helm.
“Thank you, Doctor,” she nodded. “Start with Mr. Paris.”
The doctor ran a quick scan of the pilot, then pulled out a hypospray. “I’m giving you something for the muscle constriction in your neck. I’m also increasing the oxygenation of your blood. It should help with the fatigue.”
Tom tilted his head slightly to receive the hypo. He felt an improvement almost instantly. “Thanks, Doc,” he said without breaking his concentration.
Tuvok and Chakotay were next, followed in succession by Ayala, Ashmore, Tabor and Kyoto. Finally, the doctor administered one final prescription, this one gathered from inside the captain’s ready room. “I also took the liberty of bringing you this,” he said to her, indicating the tall mug in his hand. “Your drug of choice: coffee. Black.”
She smiled at her physician and marveled for a moment at how he had appeared out of the blue, with none of his usual puffery, doing exactly what was needed without being asked. He was every bit the Starfleet professional she needed him to be. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised.
“Can you check on Engineering, Doctor,” she said before he left.
“Already on my way.”
They were well into hour five when the world began to crash down around them.
It came suddenly, and not from any of the places the simulations predicted. Without warning, the major EPS conduits on decks 9 and 10 exploded, unleashing a fury of plasma, energy, and radiation. There was nothing they could do. The bridge erupted in chaos.
“We’re losing power!” Chakotay was shouting furiously.
“The helm is sluggish! I can’t hold her…!” Tom was practically standing, as if the extra force of his touch might make the ship respond.
“The wedge is collapsing! Attempting to compensate!” It was Seven’s voice on the open channel. They could hear B’Elanna frantically shouting orders to her repair crews.
Tuvok interjected, “I am reading severe radiation leakage on deck 9. Casualty reports are coming in. Structural integrity is down to 53%.”
“Captain!” It was Seven’s voice. “I think we may be able to adjust the termination point of the conduit.”
Janeway knew that would bring them home short of their target, but she didn’t see another alternative. She didn’t let herself think about the fact that their trajectory took them through the heart of Romulan space. They could be popping up in the middle of it in a matter of seconds. “Do it!” she shouted. The alarms continued to wail.
“Hull stresses are increasing!” Chakotay warned. “Whatever you’re going to do Seven, do it now!”
Tom readied himself for the termination sequence. He could barely hold the course. “Come on, Seven,” he said under his breath. “Give me the signal.”
It arrived only seconds later, and Tom and Tuvok began simultaneous, perfectly-timed adjustments to bring them back into normal space. Chakotay began the countdown, “Exiting the singularity in five. Four. Three…”
It was the last thing any of them would remember hearing.
Almost seven years of patchwork and bubblegum fixes, improvisation and inspiration, and a slow death born of deprivation, were all reaching their inevitable climax. This was the final straw. Bulkheads imploded as whole sections of the ship lost containment. And with their ship’s screams and moans, her captain and officers found themselves bombarded with thoughts and images born of almost a decade of experiences, dreams and hopes. “Captain, if these readings are right we’re over 70,000 light years…” “I have friends among species you don’t even know exist…” “Captain, we both want very much to be a part of your journey…” “That’s not who I am now; At least it’s not who I want to be…” “I guess I have to resign myself to fighting with her for the rest of my life…” “Tell them the captain sends her regards…” “I have exceeded my original programming…” “We do not stand alone. We are in the arms of family…” “The Yankees in six games…” “Akoochimoyah, we are far away from the sacred places of our grandfathers. Far from the bones of our people…”
Then there was silence.
She dreamed she was floating in space, nothing in sight but a field of stars. Yet it wasn’t peaceful, like floating in the womb. She felt a little nauseous. She reached down to hold her churning stomachs. Something wasn’t right. Her hand made contact too quickly, her abdomen was distended. Where was her environmental suit? And she had been tethered to…think…where was…Tom?
Thinking his name was enough to jolt B’Elanna to consciousness. Her slowly-opening eyes soon told her that she was floating. About six meters off the main engineering deck. On Voyager. Ugh, now she was really nauseous.
Her engineer’s mind was kicking in, though. Okay…she was breathing, but floating: they had life support but no artificial gravity. Her engines were quiet. The ship was stopped. Reflexively she hit her combadge. “Engineering to the bridge.” Nothing. “Torres to Paris…Torres to anyone.” Her heart was beating faster, which seemed to make her head throb. “Computer, locate Lieutenant Paris.” Silence.
‘Stay focused, B’Elanna.’ She looked around for her crew, but the emergency lamps in this space weren’t strong enough for her to see very far, and she could only make out a few shapes. She reached out and grabbed the railing of the upper engineering deck and pulled herself to a communications console. It lit up at her touch. ‘Thank you. Something’s working,’ she thought. She steadied herself with one hand while she tapped out the instructions with the other. Her head was swimming in time with her stomachs now. ‘Keep concentrating B’Elanna. You can do this.’ Three more instructions and it was done. ‘Someone will hear,” she thought as she drifted back out. ‘Someone has to hear….”