One Small Step
He’d fought in battles and wars across dozens of star systems, visited more planets than he could count and seen stellar phenomena so beautiful and deadly they could do more than figuratively take your breath away. He’d watched starships die like new stars being born, missiles disintegrate surface targets like the finger of a vengeful god and the wild plasma maelstrom created by large scale close combat of heavy combatants sweep away everything not shielded like the swirling rage of drunken hurricanes. But somehow, all of that was not as stark and haunting as a simple spacewalk.
He wasn’t sure if it was that there were just a few centimeters of material between himself and the void or it was just the sheer shock of seeing the void just a few centimeters from his face. Either way, Bran found himself standing outside of the ragged gap in B Deck, staring in silence.
The pocked and gouged ancient hull of the Helios seemed to stretch out into infinity. It was the biggest thing around, a massive tribute to the powers and efforts of sentients. And yet, it was dwarfed, rendered insignificant by the massive and magnificent swirling reds, blues, yellows and greens of the nebula that burned behind the derelict. It was if even here, the universe was speaking to him, informing of his small and insignificant place in it.
It was a chilling thing to behold, the derelict ship and the nebula that had once been her grave. And now, much like her crew, the Helios had risen from the grave to menace the universe again. And he and the tiny specks he commanded somehow had to more than just survive. They had to stop her. The Helios.
The task seemed nearly as stupendous as the nebula behind him. He didn’t…
“Boo says the big space cloud is pretty. Minsc thinks Boo is right,” Minsc boomed happily over the comms.
Minsc’s words hit with the rude authority of a bucket of ice cold water. Bran found himself staring at the massive gunner, speechless.
“I th.. think Boo is quite right,” the Doctor said softly, her gloved hand resting on his heavily armored bicep.
“Oh, Boo is right, but Minsc thinks the funny space cloud is nowhere near as pretty as Little Aerie,” Minsc replied, beaming at the slender doctor.
You could hear the blush burning Aerie’s cheeks over the comms as she stammered, “Th.. that’s v.. very nice Minsc. But I think you m… might be exaggerating.”
“Minsc never exaggerates! He does not know what that means! He only tells the Truth and Kicks the Nasty Slimy Buttocks of Evil with His Boots of Good, right Boo!?”
Finally, Bran found his voice again and broke into laughter, much like the rest of his comrades. Jaheira, who had been watching her silent captain, walked over to his side and pressed her hand on his shoulder. Smiling, she admonished, “Now that is how you give a compliment.”
Bran found himself with a huge grin on his face. “Oh? Well then, I think you are prettier than the big space cloud too.”
Jaheira shook her head sadly. “Derivative and not nearly enough enthusiasm.”
“I can never win with you,” Bran teased.
“This is correct. The sooner you acknowledge that, the happier you’ll be.”
“I’m a slow learner,” Bran said, wrapping his X.O. in a hug.
“Well, perhaps I will have to give you some further lessons,” Jaheira said with a sly smile and a wink.
“Oh for the love of Zuul! Stop it, you’re making me want to hurl, and I frelling do not want to clump my way the entire length of this ship with chunks floating in my helmet,” Imoen groused over the comms as loudly as she could. “I mean, gross!”
“What, my affection for your brother or the thought of having your head swim in partially digested E-Rat?” Jaheira retorted.
Imoen turned a little green. “I’m going to go with both. Yick.”
Bran laughed. “Do not challenge the master, Immy. Remember the last time.”
“Okay fine, but can we stop with the smoochies and make with the hiking? I mean it’s pretty and all out here, but we do have a job to do. I want a crack at what ever is left of the ship’s comm system.”
“Right you are. Let’s be about it. Valygar, you’ve got lead. Immy, take the two slot. I’ll take three. Doc, you’re behind me. Jah, fifth slot. And Minsc, you and your passenger, you’re walking drag. And keep on tethers, I don’t want to lose anyone. Mag boots are all great, but if any of us lose connection, it’s a long way out there.”
“So, no Space Princess Priscilla?” Imoen whined.
“I don’t know, it’d certainly get a lot quieter once you drifted out of comm range,” Valygar said.
Imoen punched him on the shoulder. “You’d miss me.”
“That’s one theory.”
“You would. Where are you going to find cute of my caliber?”
“The waste reclamation system?”
“Alright, enough of that. Let’s move out,” Bran shouted over them.
“Oh fine, I’ll leave the poopsmith to his own devices. I knew there was a reason he spent so much time on G Deck.”
“Imoen!” Bran interjected.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Bran shook his head. “Enough. Now, let’s fall in. And full sensor sweep. Maybe we find some clue as to what happened to the Gorion. V-Man, lead us off. First stop the dorsal comm array.”
“Roger,” Valygar said, heading towards the ship’s ridgeline, walking with the deliberate stop motion of a man wearing magboots. Immy, grumbling under her breath, followed, Krobler against her shoulder. As the tether played out, Bran took up his place in the line, climbing the ravaged hull towards the comm array.
From first impressions, the Helios’ communication array looked less than promising. Many of the receiving surfaces were deeply pitted by astral debris. However, all of the damage to the array could not have possibly been the result of nebular drift. It had been one thing to hear Captain Vico describe the damage to the comm systems in her log. It was another thing to see it in person.
Imoen let out a low whistle. “Well. That’s not something you see every day.”
“Erudite observation,” Valygar quipped.
“Very,” Bran said, staring at what had been the main subspace transceiver. It had twisted and flowed across the hull plating. In one place, the composites had actually bubbled, just as if intense heat had boiled it. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen melted gear. But it was the first time he’d seen it without obvious cause. No carbon scoring, no blast craters in the hull. In fact, other than the debris scarring, the hull around the array looked undamaged.
“That must have been one hell of a surge that went through the comm array,” Imoen said, crouching over the one of the receivers, tracing a gloved hand along the twisted trail of what had been a dataline.
“Why do you say surge? Wouldn’t it make more sense that it was some sort of radiation burst from the phase drive?” Jaheira said, looking at the blasted comm array.
“That’d be the most logical thing,” Imoen, eyes studying her scanner readouts. “But I’m tracking the damage patterns and exterior energy doesn’t follow. Nalia could probably confirm it, but it looks like the burnout radiated out from inside. The melt is worst around data and power lines. That’s indicative of an internal power surge.”
“That doesn’t make sense. A surge that powerful would have been stopped by the insulators, the circuit breakers…” Bran replied.
“Yup,” Imoen interjected. “Should have. But it doesn’t change what happened. And the really weird thing… It looks like the damage was deliberate. The damage is too uniform, too well distributed.”
“If the surge was that strong…” Valygar interjected.
“Nuh uh, Quietboy. It’s how uniform it is. Some of the lines would have failed earlier protecting some parts of the array. No. I’m certain this wasn’t accidental. It’s gotta be deliberate. Ya know how I know? Because if someone asked me to take out this array, I would have tried to do the same damn thing.”
“Are you saying it was some sort of sabotage?” Bran asked quickly. “There was nothing in the log that indicated that.”
“Seems the most likely scenario,” Imoen said with a shrug.
“B..but that doesn’t make sense,” Aerie said. “W.. why would anyone do that?”
“Doc, this ship is a prototype for a cloaked warship. There are billions of reasons to make her disappear. Or maybe more appropriately, make her appear somewhere else entirely. Where some nice folks were looking to take possession.”
“Well, if that’s the case, it didn’t work so well, did it?” Bran said, a hard edge to his voice. “No one seems to have taken possession. Well, other than the living dead.”
“Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time something all cloak and dagger-y went completely scarzbot. Hell, this type of stuff frells up more often than it works.”
“You mean to suggest that this crew, that my crew, died because some traitor could make a few coins?” Mazzy growled.
“Gotta figure it was way more than a few, but it is a possibility. Sabotage isn’t exactly a science. Unless course you want things to go all ‘splodie,” Imoen replied.
“Hah! Minsc knows how to make things go all ‘splodie! Right Boo?”
Imoen chuckled. “That you do, Big Guy. That you do.” Then she sighed. “And Mazz, I’m only saying it’s a possibility. Nalia’s the expert… but, she’s not exactly here right now.”
“No, she’s not,” Bran said, resting a hand on Imoen’s shoulder.
“I’d been hoping that.. that there’d be something in the array left that was working. That we could use to raise Gorion. To raise Nalia. But… the whole array is so…” She shouted and punched a melted receiver plate. “Just so much junk!”
“There is nothing of use?” Jaheira asked.
“Transceiver’s toast. Main transmission antennas are scrag. Subspace field generator… well, there’s a hole where it should be. I mean the only thing left…” Imoen trailed off suddenly and then started tapping her suit’s wristcomp.
“What is it?” Jaheira asked.
“It’s not completely toast. The signal amplifier of the short range set is still functional. Well, at least it should be,” Imoen said, opening her toolkit. “The power lines are still intact too. I might just be able to boost the range on one of the suit commsets.”
“Just a minute or two once I get this stupid access panel off,” Imoen replied, trying to strip out the access bolts. “Provided the input assembly’s still good, of course.”
“Alright then,” Bran said, reaching backwards and flipping open a panel in his suit’s pack. “You do that; I’ll pull the command comm set from my suit.”
“Is that wise?” Jaheira asked.
“It’s got the strongest transmitter of all of our suits. And it’s supplemental to my main commsystem. In case something goes wrong.”
“But it’s the only set with any real range.”
“Best shot of raising Nalia, isn’t it?”
Jaheira thought for a moment and then nodded. Bran nodded back in acknowledgement and finished pulling the command set out. Status lights winked out on his HUD as all of his long range comm functions went offline. Keeping a firm grip on the brick sized unit, he made his way over to his sister’s side.
By the time he got there, she’d managed to work the access panel loose. Bran got a quick look at the components beneath, or perhaps more accurately, the remains of the components beneath. Blackened and twisted things jutted out at odd angles while silvery flashes of melted metal shone underneath Imoen’s suit lights. He was no engineer and, in certain respects a danger to proper engineering, but to even his untrained eye the guts of the comm system was a wreck.
“Some of this stuff still works?” he asked incredulously.
“Not a lot, but a few pieces here and there somehow managed to survive. Like the signal amp. Got the set?”
“Yeah,” he said, handing her the module. “Now be careful with it, would you?”
“When am I not careful?” Imoen said cheerfully, looking back at him with a bright smile.
“Immy,” Bran deadpanned. “We don’t have time enough left before the heat death of the universe to go over the times you weren’t.”
“Jeez, some brother you are,” Imoen said laughing and hooking the command set into the signal amplifier.
“I’m a great brother. You’re still alive aren’t you?”
“Yup,” Imoen chirped. “And almost done here. Gotta warn you though, the amp is in pretty bad shape. We’re not going to get a lot of transmit time out of it, if we get any at all.”
“So I guess no Shakespearian soliloquies?” Bran sighed.
“Probably not advisable at this time, sir,” Imoen droned.
“If I may Captain,” Mazzy cut in.
“What is it Fentan?”
“May I ask what you are planning on transmitting to your ship?”
Bran blinked. “I was planning on calling my engineer and give her our status and hope she responds.”
“What if she cannot? What if your ship has been overrun like mine?”
“I’ll query the AI as well, see if it can’t get me a status report.”
“But what if your ship has been overrun? You cannot let it make it to a populated world,” Mazzy insisted.
“If she’s overrun, chances are they’re already in hyper,” Bran said, his voice tightening. “And if she’s not but still overrun, there’s not much more I can do.”
“You could activate the self destruct,” Mazzy said flatly.
“Fentan,” Bran said flatly.
“I know it not an appealing decision Captain, but it may have to be done. You cannot let them escape.”
“Fentan. This is not an option. One, the Gorion doesn’t have one of those fancy military self destruct systems. And two, if these damn things have somehow gotten Nalia, there isn’t an order I could transmit she couldn’t countermand. She’s the heart and mind behind most of her systems and programming. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to hope that she’s alive and well and can come and pick us up.”
“But the evidence…”
“Enough Fentan. Enough!” Bran growled. “If you don’t have any further useful suggestions, I would suggest you stow it.”
“Understood,” Mazzy said sullenly.
“Good.” Jaw tight, he looked over at Imoen. All traces of the good cheer on her face just a moment ago was gone and she was worrying her lower lip. As soon as she noticed him looking at her, all signs of worry vanished behind the well practiced façade of girlish charm.
He wanted to punch that Yolandan twerp. His people’s morale was already dangerously low and tossing dirt on the hope that maybe the Gorion was still out there, that Nalia was still alive and trying to find them was nearly criminal. She’d sat in the center seat, she knew how hard it was to hold a crew together in such times. She should know better.
He sucked in a deep breath of recycled air. He needed to keep his cool too. If he lost it then his people would be lost too. Duty called.
And now duty called for him to make a call.
“Immy, fire it up. Let’s see if we can’t get Nalia on the comm.”
“Yeah. Gimme just a sec,” she said, attaching a few final leads into the comm module. “You’re good to go.”
Bran tapped the key sequence to set up a remote link to the command set. Lights winked green on the long range comms. “I’ve got a link. I’m getting some weird fluctuations in the transmitter however.”
“Looks like some weird interference in the power leads. Similar to what we saw on the ship’s hull just from first glance. Probably some low grade residual radiation from the nebula. You should be okay. It’s well inside tolerances,” Imoen said quickly.
Bran nodded and said a quick prayer for success to any and all gods, higher beings and cosmic phenomena that might be listening. Hell, he’d take the assistance of a few lower powers at this point. With a deep breath he flipped to the long range channels.
“Gorion, this is Bran. Respond please.” He looked up from the access panel and stared off into the void, eyes straining for any sign of his ship. “Nalia, this is Bran, please respond on this channel. We are EVA on the Helios’ hull and need pickup. Nalia? Do you copy?”
“Gorion, do you copy?”