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Circle of Life

By William Charlier
Page 1 of 3

Admiral John Wesley was a proud man. After all, the Defiance project was his baby. It was he who first presented the idea to the fleet command. The new ships were needed to protect the more remote outposts of the ever expanding Federation. The old ships just didn't have the speed or the armament to defend Federation interests from the pirates and raiders from outside Federation borders. A new ship was needed that could be dispatched quickly and alone to face the danger presented by the remote colonies.

Yes, it was his baby. He had presented the concept. He had chosen the design engineers. He had campaigned for the funding. He even arranged to have the project and the prototype ship named after his first command. Defiance - a proud name for a proud ship. Now his baby was coming to life.

Still, it was with mixed feelings that he prepared to leave his office for the launching ceremonies. The pride and joy of seeing the brain child he had given the last five years of his life to becoming reality was mixed with a sadness that although won, the battle was over. The thrill of victory was mixed with a desire that the thrill of conflict could continue. Oh, if only he could command her himself. He remembered the feeling of command. He remembered the throbbing of the engines. You could feel the vibrations through the cushions of the command chair. The responsibility for your crew was not unlike the responsibility of a father for his children. These feelings could never be replaced.

No, John Wesley had fought this last battle, completed his last project. It was time to pass on the reins to a new generation. It was time to retire.

In his heart, he knew that he has selected the right man. A talented young officer whom he saw as himself forty years ago. John Wesley felt that he could live on in the person of twenty-eight year old Commander Roger Blake.

Blake knew that he had been given a great honor. He was the youngest man ever to have attained the rank of full commander. The pressure of so many people expecting so much of him was great, but he knew he was up to it. Nothing in his life had ever filled him with as much pride or confidence as being personally selected for command by Admiral John Wesley. An excitement welled up in him as he took his last inspection tour of his ship before the ceremony. His ship - the very thought nearly made him swoon. This first cruise would only be a shake down with a skeleton crew, but soon he would be departing on patrol with a full crew of forty-two men and women. His number one, Lt. Cdr. Barbara Tomkins, would now be briefing the rest of the fourteen member shake down crew in preparation of today's launch. Again he had to brace himself - a hand-picked crew of the most promising young officers and enlisted personnel the fleet had to offer had been placed under his command.

A tone from his commlink brought him from his thoughts. He switched it on. "Blake," he responded.

"Admiral Wesley has arrived, sir." It was the voice of Ensign Toni Ellis, a young but very capable pilot. She was the junior officer on the new ship, but the tension didn't seem to affect her at all. "He requests your presence on the bridge."

"I'm just finishing my inspection of the engine room. I'll be right up."

Blake hurried to the bridge where the Admiral greeted him with a smile and a handshake. "Well, Commander, is she ready to fly?"

Blake saluted and said, "Yes sir. We're all set to break some speed records today. Chief Engineer Piper says that warm-up went smoothly and the new ion drive units are operating perfectly."

The two men left the bridge and went to the space dock platform together. As they walked, Wesley watched Blake. "Nervous, Roger?" he asked after a time.

"No, sir," Blake responded, sharply, as if startled. "Well, maybe just a little," he added, with a smile. The admission seemed to calm him, and he relaxed visibly.

"I don't know," said Wesley, "if it were me, I'd be real nervous. After all, the eyes of the entire Federation are on you today, not to mention their hopes for the future."

Blake stopped suddenly. "Thanks," he said, sarcastically, then after a pause, "sir."

They stood looking at each other a moment. Finally, the Admiral said, "Seriously, Roger, this is a very important day in the history of mankind. If all goes well, we'll open up a whole new era in space exploration. If we fail..."

"We won't fail, sir," Blake cut him off, "We can't fail. Everything has been checked and rechecked. This ship is ready. My crew is ready... I'm ready."

Wesley put his hand on Blake's shoulder. "I knew I had the right man," he said smiling, "We'd better get moving. It wouldn't do to keep the President waiting."

They entered the crowded hall to a standing ovation. Blake had never seen so many dignitaries in one place at the same time. The entire Federation council was there, even Councilwoman Shalaya. She had opposed the project from the beginning, saying that it was too costly. He had expected that she would refuse to attend the ceremony as a last protest, but there she was. As they took their place on the dais, the president rose and stepped up to the podium. The applause resumed even louder than before.

The President waved and smiled to the crowd, as if nourished by the cheers. When the crowd settled down, he waited a long minute before beginning his speech. He began slowly, welcoming the honored guests and dignitaries by name. He paused after each name, leading the crowd in applause for each person.

Once back on the bridge, Blake wasted no time clearing the moorings and getting the ship clear of the space dock. As soon as they were clear, Ellis executed several short turns to get the ship on its departure heading. It was time to give the new engines a workout. As they eased the power up, Defiance seemed to jump forward, as if eager to show off its capabilities. Lt. Cdr. Piper was at the engineering station on the bridge. He smiled at the way his engines were performing.

Tomkins was at the scanner station monitoring activity ahead. In the Med Deck, Dr. Kline sat nervously. He didn't mind space travel, but would prefer to be busy and not have to think about it. He thought about going to the bridge, but decided it was better to stay out of the way. He picked up the medical supply inventory from his desk and reread it for the sixth time.

The engine room was a sharp contrast to the Med Deck. Lt. Baker and his eight engineering techs were busy making adjustments and monitoring instruments. Constant information was being relayed to the engineering station on the bridge, where Mr. Piper was issuing orders and keeping the captain informed.

Everything was running smoothly. Power had been taken up to eighty percent, and the ship was screaming ahead at a speed never before imagined.

Suddenly, an alarm sounded. The ship was being pulled off course. Tomkins adjusted the scanners to check on the source of the new influence. She didn't understand. Why hadn't it been picked up on the last sweep? She cleared her throat. "Skipper, it just appeared out of nowhere. It's a void. A black hole. It's pulling us in!"

"Reverse engines," Blake ordered, "Full power to stern." Ellis was way ahead of him. Her hand was already on the control, and she reacted immediately. But it was to no avail. Even the ion drive couldn't break the hold of the most powerful force in the universe - a black hole. Defiance was going in, and nothing could stop it.

When disaster strikes each man reacts in his own way. Some deny. Some simply accept. Blake sat back calmly in his chair and watched as the black hole grew on the view screen. The few seconds dragged on like hours, until all went black.

On Earth, everyone stood in shocked silence. Telemetry had just stopped suddenly. Defiance had been destroyed. That was the only answer. Long range scanners could not locate her. Later, investigating ships would not even be able to find debris. A mystery with no solution. No one would have a clue as to what happened, because the hole was gone as fast as it came - without a trace.

Admiral Wesley would not know this. The shock was too much for his heart. As he breathed his last on the floor where he had fallen, his last thought was My fault, I should have known.

Dr. Kline sat up on the floor. He shook his head, but realized it was a mistake as he grabbed the corner of his desk to stabilize himself. When the vertigo passed he stood up tentatively. Taking a quick inventory of himself, he muttered, "Well, bruised but not broken."

He took a swig from the flask he kept in his desk to clear the cobwebs. When he got no response on the intercom, he grabbed his emergency kit and ran out. "First engineering", he said to himself as he moved down the corridor.

The hatch to the engine room was jammed tight. He tried the code lock but the hatch wouldn't budge. He would have to come back with Piper.

He stopped short as he entered the bridge. There was no sound at all save the chirping of the computers. No one was moving. He went to Piper first, as he was the closest. The med scanner revealed that the cut on his head was superficial, so Kline gave him a shot to bring him around. He went to each of the others in turn waking them when he was sure there were no major injuries. Ellis had a nasty burn on her left forearm but it was easily treated. When all had been tended to Kline turned to Blake. "I suppose I should ask what happened," he said.

"Frankly Doc, I'm surprised any of us are alive to be asking that," Blake said, rubbing his neck.

They were interrupted by Piper. "Skipper, I can't get any response from the engine room."

Kline responded, "I tried to check on them - I couldn't get in."

The three men ran to the engine room hatch. Piper checked a gauge, and satisfied with the atmospheric integrity, keyed in the code to open the door. The door slid open.

"I tried that. It wouldn't open for me," Kline said.

They entered the engine room. A light mist hung in the air. "This explains why the door wouldn't open before," said Piper, "It's anti-fouling mist. It automatically releases when radiation is present." He paused, looked around and asked "Where's Baker? Where's everyone? The escape pods are still in place."

Piper immediately went to work on inspecting the engines. He didn't have his men to help, but everyone's lives depended on these engines. He called up the readout on the engine status recorder. He was right, they had surged. It probably happened when the black hole released them. That explained the auto shutdown, and the radiation. Everything seemed fine now except the rad-detector indicator. It was off the scale, and stuck. He went to the computer terminal and ordered up a replacement. All in all, they had gotten off easy. The only thing he couldn't explain was the dust that seemed to be everywhere. Anti-fouling mist dissipates with no residue.

Piper walked over to Blake and Kline, and reported his findings. When he got to the part about the dust, Kline's eyes grew wide. He reached down to the panel and wiped up some of the dust with his finger. "My God," said Kline, "they're still here." He held out his hand so that the others could see. "Mr. Baker, and the others. This is all that's left of them."

Blake returned to the bridge, leaving the doctor and the engineer to gather the ash of the engine crew. They deserved as good a burial as possible under the circumstances. As he walked along the corridor, he began to lose confidence in himself. What kind of commander loses two thirds of his crew on their maiden voyage? He forced the thoughts from his mind. His remaining crew members would need his leadership if they were going to survive. He could not be distracted by guilt.

When he arrived at the bridge the women were hard at work. They had already assessed the damage and had begun repairs on the damaged systems. Tomkins had set the comm station on auto-distress, and was working on the view screen. Ellis was repairing and reprogramming the nav computer. Blake pitched in and helped with the view screen. He was eager to see exactly where they were.

The repairs took the next two hours. When the screen was activated, they were all stunned. If you could judge by the star groups, they were drifting in space at the exact location where they had entered the black hole.

"Why hasn't anyone responded to our beacon?" Blake asked to no one in particular. "Are you sure it's sending?"

Tomkins rechecked the comm station. "It's still sending." she said. "I don't understand why I can't get anything on fleet comm. We should be well in range of at least a dozen ships and stations."

Blake went to the scanner station. Nothing. There should be a space station orbiting Omega five, but it wasn't there. Something was definitely amiss.

When everyone else had rested, Blake had made a decision. They would head for Earth - or at least where Earth should be. They would remain cautious, travel slowly. The scanners were set to sweep long range in a full circle around the ship. The comm panel was set to scan all frequencies it could possibly receive.

Blake was dead on his feet. He had to get some rest - clear his head. He left Tomkins on watch and went to his cabin. Sleep didn't come easy. His mind raced. How could everything have gone so wrong? Finally exhaustion won out and he drifted off, his dreams haunted by the faces of the nine men and women lost in engineering.

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William Charlier

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