Happy New Year! This is Part Six of The ’39, a story set in a certain sci-fi (prime) universe. just a few years before the events of an original series. I’m sure that you won’t have any difficult figuring out which universe. A new part to be published every week!
No copyright infringement intended. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise.
They stood around the science station and looked at the display in silence. The screen showed a starfield, unremarkable in itself, but in the center was a tiny flickering point of light just a few pixels across. Had it not been for the red brackets around it, Chew would have mistaken it for a star. To the right, various statistics gathered by the long-range sensors were displayed. What concerned him most were the mean radius: 175.3 ± 0.2km, the mass: 3.156 ± 0.00012 x1019 kg), and the relative velocity: 234,316 km/s.
And the fact that it was on a collision course with the planet.
“They call it ah-Kah Noh-nen,” said Jennings. “It means ‘End Bringer.’”
“How much damage we talking about here?” asked Leonova. Chew looked at his first officer. The question was purely academic. The asteroid was the size of a small moon, over 14 times larger than the one that caused the K-T extinction on Earth… and was traveling much, much faster.
Jennings exhaled heavily and made some quick calculations on her PADD. “Approximately 4.7239×1030 Joules, or better than 1 zettaton. Enough to blast the crust of the planet into space, maybe crack it in half. It’s incredible.” Noticing Chew’s dark look, she paused. “I’m sorry sir… there hasn’t been a collision of this type in recorded history. It’s so unlikely… ah-Kah Noh-nen must have had a close encounter with a black hole, or…”
“Yes, that’s all very interesting, but why didn’t we spot this before?” snapped Chew, immediately regretting his tone, but if Jennings took it personally, it didn’t show.
“I’m sorry sir, but we weren’t looking for it… in fact, we probably would have left without ever knowing it was there. With all due respect, but it’s an awfully big sky.”
Chew nodded and collected himself, making sure his voice was calm when he spoke next. “So how long have they known about it?”
“Years,” said Carstairs.
“And yet,” said Chew, looking at the image of the planet on the main screen, “they’re going about life as if everything was normal. Where’s the panic, the riots? Where are the doomsday cults?”
“Oh, there has been, and there are,” said Carstairs, “but you’ve seen… they’re a tolerant people. They don’t kill each other over having different beliefs.”
“Oh come on,” said Call. “No one’s that perfect.”
“I didn’t say they were,” replied Carstairs, “There have been some terrorist attacks by extremist groups, and some of their countries have instituted a death penalty. Others have imprisonment without trial. But as a people, they are pretty good at tuning out nonsense.”
“So… they just let the nuts babble and ignore them?” asked Call.
Carstairs nodded. “They are a practical people, more or less. For the last few years, they’ve concentrated on building the transmitters and queuing up the content.”
“So the broadcasts are a memorial,” said Leonova.
“Looks that way,” said Carstairs. “Something else I’ve found is that each transmitter is sending out different content.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense… that means that each stream is incomplete,” said Leonova.
Carstairs nodded, “Yes, but they get more of their culture transmitted that way. As I said before, we could stay here for decades and barely scratch the surface.”
“If they can send out such a powerful signal, why not send out a call for help?” asked Call.
Jennings shook her head. “All the nearby systems are uninhabited.”
“We know that, but they don’t.”
“Sure they do. They would have picked up transmissions from any technologically advanced civilization within 40 light-years. But all those systems are dark. There isn’t much point in shouting ‘help’ to an empty room. Besides, what they’re sending out is as good an invitation as anything. Better, even.”
“A message in a bottle… in an infinitely large ocean.” Lex shook her head. “Not very practical.”
“Yes, but in a galaxy this big, it’s reasonable to believe that someone would eventually hear them,” said Jennings.
“So what do we do?” asked Call.
“What do you mean, what do we do?” said Leonova. “The Prime Directive says we don’t do anything.”
“So we just let them die? But they sent out a signal!” said Call.
“A signal is not a distress call,” said Leonova.
“That’s pretty damn cold-blooded,” said Call, half rising from his seat.
“Watch it, ensign,” said Leonova. Call sat back down and crossed his arms, face blank.
“Prime Directive aside, the asteroid the size of a small moon. We could throw everything we’ve got at it and it wouldn’t even make a dent,” said Jennings.
“So that’s it, then,” said Call.
“No,” said Chew. “It’s not. Senior staff to the conference room. Leonova, get Mackey.” He was turning to leave, when he said, over his shoulder, “You too, Call.”
* * * * * * * * * *
After catching Mackey up, Chew said, “All right, I want options.”
They were all silent for a moment before Leonova cleared her throat and said, her voice with an uncharacteristic tentative quality, “Sir, I feel obliged to remind you that the Prime Directive prohibits interference with natural disasters.”
“Yes, yes,” said Chew, irritation in his voice. “Next you’ll mention disease, genetic disorders, civil wars, and the entire slippery-slop argument. I took Command Ethics at the Academy, too, you know.”
“As much as this pains me, I have to agree with the First Officer,” said Carstairs. “We can’t know the outcome of our intervention, what consequences…”
“What? That we might accidentally effect the development of their culture? More than their planet split open like an egg?” said Call.
“It goes beyond this culture, this one world. The impact they could have on the rest of the galaxy… we’d be responsible for whatever happens,” said Leonova.
“Saving these people isn’t like some primitive notion of a life-debt. We wouldn’t own their lives, nor would they owe us anything. The idea of responsibility… imagine I applied that reasoning to medicine?” said Omita. “If I had to consider that a patient might become a psychopath or megalomaniac later, I couldn’t treat anyone. All I know is that I took a vow to heal, to do no harm. Letting that asteroid exterminate those people would be just like standing back and allowing someone to bleed out. Worse. It’s genocide-by-proxy.”
“That’s a bit strong, doctor,” said Jennings. “It’s not like we set that asteroid on a collision course.”
“No, we didn’t. That rock heading for that world is pure cosmic chance, but us turning around and leaving is one hundred percent choice,” said Omita.
“Their culture could be irrevocably changed…” said Jennings.
“Life is about change. Change is not something to be afraid of,” said Omita. “And those people down there sure as hell can dealt with it. I think they’re more than capable of handling the idea of some space aliens saving their world.”
“Besides,” interjected Call, “we wouldn’t know any more what their future holds if we save them than if there was no asteroid at all. I can’t think of a single good reason not to save them… unless you want to imply that it is ‘nature’s plan’ that they get wiped out. But then you might as well say that it’s destiny, or that God wants to wipe them out, which is flat stupid.”
“That’s not the point,” said Leonova. “Who are we, gods, to decide who lives or dies?”
“No, that’s exactly the point,” said Chew. “We aren’t gods, and the Prime Directive isn’t doctrine. It was never mean to supplant rationality or compassion. And even if there is a ‘Cosmic Plan,’ we don’t know what it is, so all we can do is base our decisions on what we know, and what we know is that if we don’t stop that rock,” Chew pointed at the view screen, “everyone and everything on that planet will die.” Chew paused. “What I believe is that all people have a basic, fundamental right to life, and that doesn’t change just because a civilization falls below an arbitrary level of technological achievement.”
“But…” started Leonova, but Chew cut her off.
“End of discussion. On my personal authority as Captain of the Spirit, I am making the decision to help these people. You may all log an official protest if you wish, but unless anyone plans on removing me from command, it’s done.”
There was a long, uncomfortable moment of silence before Leonova smirked and said, “How shall we proceed?” There were answering smiles and nods around the table.
Chew smiled back and asked, “First off, how much time before impact?”
Jennings consulted her PADD. “It’s nearly 30 billion kilometers out, so around 36 hours.”
“Well, that gives us some time,” said Leonova.
“Not as much as you’d think,” said Jennings. “As I said, shooting at it won’t do any good. Even if we had the firepower of half the fleet, the best we could do is blast chunks off… gravitationally bound chunks that would still hit the planet.”
Call looked up and said, “Could we extend our warp bubble around the asteroid? Jump it past the planet?”
Jennings shook her head. “Not a chance. No way we could extend the field that much. Besides, we’d have to be so close that the specific gravity of the asteroid would prevent the bubble from forming.”
“Tractor beams, then,” said Leonova. “If we intercept it far enough out, we’d only have to deflect it by a fraction of a degree to miss the planet.”
Jennings tapped at her PADD and tilted her head to one side. “It’s borderline. I don’t know that we have enough power…”
Chew looked at Mackay.
“We could re-route warp power through the emitter, but it wasn’t designed for that kind of a load. I can’t guarantee how long it would last, and we’d risk blowing out every relay on the deck.”
“Do what you can,” said Chew. Mackay nodded and hustled out. Hitting the comm panel, he said, “Helm, this is the Captain. Set course for the asteroid. Maximum impulse.”
“Aye, sir,” said Thrall.
“All right,” said Chew, standing. “Let’s go save a planet.”
* * * * * * * * * *
They came up behind ah-Kah Noh-nen and parked in a geo-stationary orbit, bound by the invisible tether of gravity. It tumbled below them, like a black, pock-marked bowling ball. Scans revealed that its surface was dusted with heavy elements.
“Might have been ejected from a star-system after a super-nova,” offered Jennings. Scans revealed little else that could hint at its origins.
Mackay came back onto the bridge and sat down at the engineering station.
“We ready?” asked Chew.
“As ready as we’ll ever be,” replied Mackay.
Jennings nodded. “Ready.”
Chew took a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
“Engage tractor beam. Set right angle course, maximum impulse,” said Leonova.
They could feel a vibration through every surface as the power systems ramped to maximum, and the ship strained against the mass of the planet-killer. On screen, the beam looked pitifully tiny against the bulk of the planetoid.
“Anything?” asked Chew after a moment.
“No effect,” said Jennings.
“All right. Warp power now, Mackay.”
“Warp power, aye sir,” said Mackay, touching a few buttons on his control panel. The indicator lights on his board flashed and the entire ship shuddered.
Jennings remained silent for a long time. Chew was about to repeat his question when she responded, “Yes! Just barely…”
Lights started to flash on Mackay’s board. The sound of the engines grew, the hum turning into a low howl. The vibration intensified, became shaking. Chew could hear the bulkheads groaning. The overhead lighting dimmed as every erg went to the tractor beam and the engines.
“It’s working!” shouted Jennings.
Chew leaned forward and tapped the armrest of his chair with a closed hand, willing the planetoid to move with every ounce of his being.
Lights started to flash red on Mackay’s board and he turned and said, “Systems redlining, sir!”
“Just a little more…” said Jennings.
Relays started to blow, spraying consoles with sparks, and Chew could feel the shock as high-power EPS conduits blew out in other parts of the ship. “Systems can’t take much more!” said Mackay.
“Keep at it!” shouted Chew.
Status lights flared and went dark on Mackay’s board, multiple alarm klaxons blared, and damage reports started to come in from all over the ship. The sound of the engines was almost unbearable, and everyone held on to keep from being pitched to the decks.
More EPS conduits burst, filling the bridge with smoke and indicator lights went went red before whole panels went dark. The tractor beam went out and the ship gave a single, great shrug as it burst free from its tether. On the main view screen, the planet-killer dwindled into the distance. The engines whined for a second longer before dying and all the lights went out on a bridge now totally silent. Emergency lights came on.
“Is everyone all right?” shouted Chew. People picked themselves up in the sudden calm and nodded. “All stop.”
“Engines are unresponsive,” said Call. “I have no control over anything.”
“My board’s dead, too,” said Cangas.
“Main power is down. Impulse engines are down. We’re ballistic, sir. I won’t know more until I get down to engineering.” Chew nodded and Mackay got up and rushed off the bridge.
Jennings looked up from her scope and shook her head. “I’m sorry sir. It wasn’t enough. If we’d had just a little more time…”
Chew nodded and looked down. “Ship’s status?”
“Minor injuries reported, nothing serious. Life support is stable, but we’re on emergency power,” said Jennings. “Damage control parties are working to restore power.”
As Jennings spoke, boards began flicker back to life, indicators showing more red than green. Mackay confirmed Chew’s fears a moment later.
“Auxiliary power should be back up any minute, and I think I can get partial main power in a couple of hours, but the impulse control circuits are in bad shape and the warp drive control circuits are fused solid.”
“How about the tractor beam?” asked Chew.
“The tractor beam’s gone, sir,” said Mackay.
“How long will it take to fix?”
Jennings said, “Sir, I don’t think you understand. Even if he could fix the tractor beam, by the time we got underway and intercepted the asteroid, we’d need more power than even our warp drive could produce to deflect it.”
Everyone on the bridge stared at her.
“I’m sorry sir. It’s over.”