Read Star Trek: The Empty Chair Online

Authors: Diane Duane

Tags: #science fiction, #star trek

Star Trek: The Empty Chair (4 page)

BOOK: Star Trek: The Empty Chair
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“So he’ll live.”

“Oh, I’d say that seems likely enough—until we get into the next battle, anyway. After that it’s up to you.”

Jim raised his eyebrows. “I’ll do what I can.”

“He wants to see you, by the way.”

Jim blinked. “He’s conscious already? Shouldn’t he still be in the Romulan version of a healing trance, or some such?”

“Oh, he went straight into that as soon as we killed the
anesthetic field, and even then the state only lasted him about nine hours. Nearly decked M’Benga, too, when he was waking up. But after that he started having a sequence of micro-trances—not sure whether this is a typical occurrence or something secondary to the severity of his condition when he came in. I need to talk to Ael’s surgeon about that. Anyway, when he’s been conscious, the Praetor hasn’t said much—doesn’t surprise me, he probably feels pretty awful—but that request to see you has come up a couple of times, and it’s been emphatic.”

“Well, if he wakes up again in the next few hours, tell him I’m glad he’s still with us, but I’m likely to be busy for a while. After that he and I can have a chat in sickbay, or some other venue. Not, I hope, a hotter one.”

“I’ll let him know. But there’s no rush. I’m not going to take the chance of unduly disturbing his healing cycle. Meanwhile, Jim, we’ve been getting ready for casualties. When the balloon’s about to go up, let me know.”

“Will do, Bones. Out.” There was one more matter on his mind. “Uhura, what have we heard from Starfleet recently?”

“Nothing’s been directed at us, Captain. There’s a lot of data traffic passing in Federation space at the moment, though, using the new code.”

Jim breathed out.
They’re waiting for me to report before sending me any further information,
he thought.
Maybe I should be grateful.
“When you can, see what you can discover about what’s going on back in home space. Passive means only.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jim turned his attention back to the schematic on the screen. Less of it was showing now, as
Enterprise
and
Bloodwing
followed
Sithesh
into the asteroid belt. Jim watched Sulu with some interest; he was both piloting and carrying on his discussion with Khiy, though more sporadically now. “We don’t need to itemize them farther out than a hundred
thousand kilometers on either side, Khiy. The odds are too low of our being able to do accurate just-in-time predictions of crossthroughs out there, and I bet you they won’t bother. The action’s going to be closer to the facility—”

“But if we notate a few of the big ones, Hikaru, it’ll surely do no harm.”

“Oh, why not. Pick your favorites. I’ve got most of mine in the machine at the moment. We’ll sync the databases and start an automated scan—”

“Mr. Sulu,” Jim said, “some elucidation would be of assistance to me. As well as reassurance.” Some of the rocks they were passing, at nearly half impulse and rather closely, looked very big.

“Yes, Captain. Khiy, finish up at your end, I’ll get back to you.” Sulu turned as Jim stepped down to look over his shoulder.

Spock straightened up from his scanner. “Mr. Sulu, one caution. The abnormally high dilithium content of these asteroids is likely to make an automated scan give incorrect results for the medium-size bodies’ mass-volume ratios. You must correct for this when you process your statistical sample.”

“I’ve got a correction for that in the program already, Mr. Spock. I’m passing it to you now. If you’d evaluate it…”

Spock glanced up at the screen over his station, which instantly started to fill with figures.

“Mr. Sulu,” Jim said, “I can’t avoid the impression that you’re counting all the asteroids in this neighborhood.”

“Not counting them as such, Captain. We’re building a recognition database, tagging the asteroids with nominal IDs, and noting their masses for future reference. If you know an asteroid’s mass within a couple of significant figures, you can very quickly calculate what kind of forces would need to be applied to it to make it move. Once Khiy and I get them all tagged, or all the ones in this area, we can
get the ship’s computer to alert us when an enemy vessel is getting close enough for one of the asteroids to be a threat. Then either
Bloodwing
or
Enterprise
gives the necessary rock a pull with a tractor or a push with a pressor…”

Jim grinned. In slower-than-light combat, the lightspeedor-faster weapons came into their own, as long as you kept away from the higher, near-relativistic impulse speeds. “You’re concentrating on the asteroids nearer to the processing facility, I see.”

“Yes, sir—a sphere about a hundred thousand kilometers in diameter, including almost the entire breadth of the belt in this area. Any ship outside that diameter isn’t going to be a threat to us at subwarp speeds. If they want to engage with us, they’ve got to drop their speed and come inside the sphere.”

“‘Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly…’” Jim said. “Get on with it, Mr. Sulu. In a situation like this, every little bit helps. Are you going to be able to have this ready by the time the ‘flies’ arrive?”

“We’ll do our best, Captain. There are some inconsistencies between the ways
Bloodwing’
s computer handles large amounts of data like this, and the way ours does. We’ve got to solve them on the fly.” And Sulu chuckled. “But give us at least an hour or so before we’re ready.”

“Very well.” Jim turned. “Uhura, I’ll be in my quarters for a while if anyone needs me.” He headed up toward the lift, hearing behind him the sound of
Enterprise
getting ready to defend herself. Now all he had to do was work out how best to help her do it.

Ael stood behind her command chair and watched as
Bloodwing
and
Enterprise
came in behind
Sithesh
and took up station-keeping positions near the dilithium processing facility. It was a great insectile-looking place, its central core based inside an oblong, hollowed-out asteroid some five kilometers long, with fourteen subsidiary-process struts
reaching out above and below the core in a delicate and fragile-looking construction of gantries and spars. The fragility was much on Ael’s mind, for this facility was the major economic “engine” of this whole part of space. Other systems in this part of the Empire brought here what little dilithium they managed to mine on their own worlds, glad enough to take home the thirty percent of processed crystal, which was all the Empire allowed them, keeping the rest itself.
That is going to change,
Ael thought,
one way or the other. One might suspect that the economic threat was as much a factor in those nine ships’ appearance here now as anything else. Commandeered ships or not, they would have come eventually. I am not the only excuse being invoked here.

Aidoann stepped down beside Ael and looked out their little viewscreen. “It looks all too breakable,” she said. “Nine ships would make short work of it.”

“They will not attack it until they think they are in danger of losing it to us,” Ael said. “And then, with everything they have. But how much they will have—there is the question.” She looked down at Khiy. “How goes it there?”

“We are devising some automated routines,
khre’Riov,”
Khiy said, “while the databases finish building and synchronizing. Sulu and I will be busy with other things all too often, but the systems will be able to suggest useful options to us as we work.”

“Good. How long now?”

“Perhaps an hour.”

“The fleet will be here that soon,” Aidoann said.

Ael glanced over at tr’Hrienteh. “Il’Merrin’s buoys have reported now,” the Master Surgeon said. “They will be the last warning we get. But they report the fleet on the same course, no change.”

“Good. Let
Enterprise
know, and
Sithesh
also, if they have not heard already. And I would welcome a word with tr’Mahan, if he can spare me the time.”

“Calling him for you now,
khre’Riov.”

Ael nodded. “Then you had best get young Kiel up here, tr’Hrienteh; you will be needed in your own infirmary.”

“Elements, I hope not,” tr’Keirianh said, looking wryly at Ael. “But that’s my place indeed.”

The screen lit with tr’Mahan’s image. How he could sit himself so still in his chair when combat was breathing down his neck, Ael could not tell, unless inexperience simply rendered him immune to the fear. “Courhig,” Ael said, “you have the latest tracking information?”

“I do. They will be within local sensor range in about fifteen minutes or so. After that we can perform more exact predictions, and once things start, their cloaks will not much matter. They must uncloak to fire.”

“The question now becomes, Courhig, how much you are prepared to reveal to
Enterprise
about how exactly you can predict those positions. Not to mention about how you plan to keep those ships from self-destructing. The captain is no fool, and too much accuracy on your part without proper disclosure will cause him to ask difficult questions. I daresay he’s thinking of some already.”

“Ael—”
Courhig bowed his head in uncertainty.
“You know the question my people are all asking. Can he be trusted?”

She breathed out. “His ideas of honor,” Ael said, “are not constructed like ours. There are so many differences. But for my own part—yes, I trust him. His actions will have to make that plain to you. Then you will have to consider your economic and political needs in light of them. For the moment, though, let us fight our fight. Blood speaks, as we know. Let’s see which language his uses today.”

Courhig nodded.
“Let us do that. For the moment, though, I prefer you not mention planetary defense as such to him. Nor anything of the remote-operations modules; indeed, we dare not use those today until it’s plain no description of
their use can make it back to Grand Fleet. One use, Fleet might mistake for some kind of disaster or accident. But they’ve had some days to think about what might have happened, and if we give them any further hints, they’ll find a way to nullify this weapon. As for the rest of it…”
He sighed.
“Nothing more to say but, Elements be with you and yours in what we do today.”

“And with you and all of yours, Courhig.”

The screen went black.

Ael turned away from it in some distress, clasping her hands, and looked up to see Aidoann watching her with a very still and controlled look.


Khre’Riov,”
she said quietly. “It was not the captain he was inquiring about, was it. Not really.”

That thought had been in Ael’s mind.
It is me they fear,
she thought,
even while they use me for their purpose. They are afraid of him not only because of what he has always been, but because of what use they feel I am making of him. And they fear me because of what I may become. Perhaps they have wisdom on their side, to fear how sharply the sword may cut. But not during a battle; there is no wisdom in that…

It was bitter to be so distrusted. Yet she had to realize that this was how it would be between her and her own folk from now on, how it would always be, unless she died now.

“Aidoann,” Ael said after a moment, “how can I blame him? The future is dark for all of us right now, and he has more to fear than we. Meanwhile, let us wake up the active sensors and see what we see. We have only a very little time left. Khiy?”

“Nearly done,
khre’Riov.”

“Good.” Once again she clenched her hands on the back of the chair she could no longer sit in, and stared at the screen, now once more showing the dilithium processing facility. Kiel came in to relieve tr’Keirianh, who headed off to her surgery. “Kiel,” Ael said, “give me all-call now. Battle
stations, now, my children. Stand to battle, and the Elements with us!”

The hooting of the sirens drowned out the furious beating of her heart.

“We’ve got the asteroid database implemented,” Sulu said. “Captain, this procedure’s going to be on the opportunistic side. If the computer sees a target ship about to get into a situation where we will in turn be in a position to use a rock or two on it, it’ll alert us, then there’ll be two or three seconds for the hit/no-hit decision before we have to use the tractors or pressors.”

“All right, Mr. Sulu,” Jim said. “We’ll call them as they come up. If I don’t specifically countermand you, or you, Mr. Chekov, then go ahead and use your rocks as you see fit. But understand the priorities. I’d love to help tr’Mahan out, but if someone is threatening
Enterprise
and there’s a rock handy, or even a phaser beam…”

“Yes, Captain,” Chekov said, and “Understood,” said Sulu.

“There’s one other thing,” Jim said. “About banging these rocks together, as opposed to simply banging them into enemy ships—what happens when you do that?”

“A lot of heat, maybe some light. Possibly even some transient alpha,” Sulu said, “assuming you bang them together hard enough. Naturally plenty of fragmentation, some melting and fusing along the impact sites.”

“That I would have expected. But, Mr. Sulu, a whole lot of these rocks have crystalline dilithium in them.”

“Hmm,” Sulu said.

Spock turned around from his station, looking interested. “In asteroid-sourced dilithium, the common dihedral form predominates by some ninety-eight percent. And under certain conditions of heat and pressure, the dihedral form can become moderately unstable. Normally the rarity of dilithium militates against wasting it on casual experimentation.
But with threshold masses, and sufficient density of crystal or crystalline ore—and adding energy-state stimulation with phasers—impacts might result that could at the very least be characterized as…” He paused, looking for the right word. “…emphatic.”

Jim grinned at that. “Mr. Spock, establish the thresholds for Mr. Sulu so that he can pass them to the computer. Emphasis can be a good thing. And I have to confess to a strictly empirical interest in what happens when you knock two such bodies together.”

At that both Sulu and Spock gave Jim looks that at the very least were skeptical. “All right,” Jim said. “Maybe I really just want to know how far away we should be when it happens.”

BOOK: Star Trek: The Empty Chair
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