The Face of the Sky

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fan Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A Starfleet officer gets a second chance at fulfilling his dream - and perhaps more.

In his dream, he was flying.

He was sometimes allowed to fly brief missions in the shuttles he repaired at the dockyards; these were the ordinary vehicles ground bases and starships kept. He’d once dreamt of flying fighters and starships themselves through the deep reaches of space – but now, at what he couldn’t help thinking of as the end, he dreamt only of the one shuttle that truly mattered: the Phoenix.

Consciousness was reduced to the simple fact of steady acceleration and a cerulean sky turning suddenly and completely deep black and filled with infinite stars. A brilliant black, the true face of the sky, seen only in space and after the sun went down back on earth. He had to stop his heart from beating too hard.

He became eerily aware, as one sometimes does, that he was dreaming, and for some reason his father appeared.

Ron Ericsson, old for a first-time father even back then, was frowning. Arms crossed, he addressed his son brusquely – “The stars don’t care, kid.”

He couldn’t maintain that strange combination of dream-state awareness for more than a split second and he awake to find sunlight intruding between curtains and his door buzzing with impatience.

Only an overeager security officer can make a door buzzer sound that official, he thought to himself as he stumbled out of bed.

Indeed, a security officer stood erect in the hallway. "Sir, orders, direct from Starfleet Command, sir," he said, producing a datapad.

“Ah, my dishonorable discharge, finally,” Avram said aloud.

“Sir?” the redshirt said, confused. “These are just new orders, sir.”

“Why didn’t they just transmit them?"

"NX Project, sir. Top secret.” At that, the redshirt produced a flat apparatus meant to scan handprints. Avram put his hand on it gently and was rewarded with an assenting green light.

“Well, that squares me away, but what about you?” he said sardonically.

"I never asked to see them, sir," the red shirt said, leaving abruptly.

“That’s the problem with those types,” Avram said, closing the door. “No sense of humor.

He looked around the empty apartment.

“Probably doesn’t even talk to himself when he’s alone, either.”

He couldn’t help but feel a tinge of resentment at the datapad. He’d applied to the NX Program – as a backup – after graduation, but had been denied. And now the logo, spinning slowly around on the black screen stared up at him dramatically.

“Heck, maybe they’re offering me a position after all. Although 11 years is an awfully long time to get back to someone.” He stared at it a moment longer, strangely savoring the anticipation that goes along with opening something important and unknown.

He abruptly inputted his personal security authorization, an act that always made him feel like a responsible officer despite himself, and the screen jumped to life with nothing more than text, which ended up being a long-winded way of telling him he was to report to the NX Headquarters at the Fleet Yards ASAP. Intrigued despite himself, he zipped up the dark blue tactical jacket he never had any real cause to use and went on his way.

The planetside offices of the San Francisco Fleet Yards were located near Starfleet Command in the Presidio, although the main headquarters were of course in orbit along with the Fleet Yards proper. The Presidio itself used to be the site of a military base, and some people liked to point out the poetic justice that the center of galactic peace and cooperation having long been a site associated with war, but the fact of the matter was that the Presidio was one of the few big, empty spaces available in the city. It had also been the site of a cemetery and a National Park for the same reason. It sat at the very tip of the peninsula, the Bay on one side and the ocean on the other, and, most notably, the Golden Gate Bridge looming over it.

As a result, that bridge became the first thing many aliens thought of when they thought of Earth. There were certainly worse things that could be associated with the planet, but by the same token some aliens got the impression that Earth was nothing but pleasant weather, friendly people and stray bridges here and there. It was always fun to show them pictures of deserts, mountains, tundra, lava flows and everything in between. He himself knew most of the various geographical features of most Federation worlds, but he’d had a lot of time on his hands as a child.

The campus on which Starfleet Headquarters, Starfleet Academy and affiliated institutions were located was about the cleanest place he could imagine, the grounds well-kept and the buildings glittered dazzlingly in the sun. Starfleet personnel of all ages and species went about their business quietly, ambassadors and other civilian officials were constantly being escorted about by nervous Ensigns, and even tour groups could be seen at least a few times a day marveling at everything they saw.

He pushed his way through one group that was blocking access to the main path to the Fleet Yards offices and ignored the solute that the Cadet leading the tour gave him.

He entered the foyer of the offices and made his way to the employees’ entrance, which was flanked by security checkpoints which included a scan, pat down, some very intense looks from the security officers. He was then pointed toward NX offices, down a lift that required voice authorization. "Temporary approval granted," the computer voice chimed at him.

"Swell," he said.

"Please repeat command," the computer said.

“Um, nevermind, carry on,” he said.

The elevator took it to the bottom floor, on which was housed the NX segment of Starfleet's Corp of Engineers, responsible for developing experimental Starship technologies. Stepping off the elevator, he was faced with someone he recognized named Torval, a Tellarite with whom he had gone to the Academy. By his uniform, Torval was now the Chief of Security for the NX division, a prestigious posting. It’d always been obvious that he’d make an outstanding officer someday, but hed also been a major pain in the ass, even for a Tellarite.

"Name, rank, serial number," Torval said dryly.

"Tor! I haven't seen you in years. How ya been?"

Torval looked at him dispassionately.

"It's me - Avram. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten?”

Torval gave him a look and put his open palm over the "Alert" button, allowing it to hover there ominously.

"Name: Avram Ericsson," he said with a sigh, "Rank: Lieutenant, Serial: SE 17485 T." He then lent his handprint and eyeball to the scanners, which beeped acquiescently.

"Very good, Lieutenant," Torval said. "I also need your imprint on this classified information NDA as well as to inform you that relaying or otherwise imparting any information you obtain inside this facility to anyone other than..."

"Hold on! I've heard this one before. Andorian in a gorilla suit, right?"

"...other personnel assigned to the project or given specific authorization by your CO will be considered grounds for dismissal from Starfleet, loss of any and all benefits derived therefrom, as well as possible legal action on the behalf of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. Do you understand?"

"If I don't?"

"You can't go in."

"Oh, that'd show me."

"Meaning,” Torval said, letting the hint of a smile cross his lips for the first time, “that you'll be stuck out here with me,"

"Fine, here's my hand, but I don’t know how I’m going to break it to my mother. She always hoped I would marry a Jewish Tellarite."

"You always were pain in the ass, even for a human. Now get going, Av. They're waiting on you."

"A pleasure, I'm sure."

The offices and labs were as sanitary as a microchip factory and very brightly lit. The mood here was different from the rest of Starfleet, which tended toward congeniality and openness. Here, what voices that could be heard were hushed, gazes averted and every action tentative. Almost in rebellion, he entered the main office casually and announced himself as though he hadn't a care in the world.

"Cleared," the receptionist said, unlocking the inner door with a buzz.

Inside, he found several Senior Staff and a few robed Vulcans seated around a large table. After a momentary glance at him, all eyes returned to the front of the room and the back of a tall Vulcan with Lieutenant’s stripes who was pointing to images on a screen. When the Vulcan turned around fully, Avram’s breath stopped a little.

His name was Soren, one of a small number of Vulcans who was almost as capable at dealing with people – even humans – as he was at research, and scholarship. And a man Avram had hoped never to see again.

"...To that end," Soren continued, "the Vulcan Science Academy has sent Professors Sonok and T'Vel, two of the best computer scientists in the Federation to help us examine the problem, as well as Dr. Varick, perhaps the preeminent expert in mechanical engineering."

"Actually," one the Vulcans said, "Veetus of Ardana, is my superior in that regard. As he was unable to make the trip, however, I was chosen in his stead."

"Indeed,” Soren continued dispassionately. “Needless to say, we are in the presence of some of the greatest experts the Federation worlds have to offer. I am sure that if we apply ourselves, we will be able to overcome the difficulty of having only the second-best mechanical engineer in the Galaxy.” Soren paused. “In fact, the safety of the Federation may depend on it. Professor Sonok, I understand you've all been shown copies of relevant schematics and technical data?"

"We have, Commander Soren. We find your proposals fascinating."

Avram shifted in his seat slightly. He watched Soren and tried to feign disinterest although his heartbeat wildly and he felt as though he were choking on his own breath. The Vulcan, in perfectly Vulcan manner, acted as though he were perfectly aware of Avram’s presence and also utterly disinterested in it.

"I’m glad to hear it, although what neither you - nor several others present in this room - have been apprised of is precisely why we are undertaking this project. Perhaps that would be the best place to begin.”

Soren hit the lights and removed the schematics on the wall in favor of a viewscreen. Barely paying attention, Avram decided without the input of reason or thought that mutual disinterest was his best course of expression. He crossed his arms and slumped in his seat like a child.

“What you are about to see is classified,” he said ominously.

He pushed a button and the screen behind him lit up. "Two months ago, on Stardate 1709.2, one of our ships, the Enterprise, while investigating several attacks on Earth Outposts near the Romulan Neutral Zone, encountered an unidentified vessel which appeared, for all intents and purposes, invisible to sensors and all other attempts at detection.”

“You mean it fooled the sensors?” one of the Vulcans, Sonok, asked.

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“How did it accomplish this?”

“As I said, it was invisible.”

“Yes,” Sonok said, waving the statement off, “but in what way?”

“Ah, forgive me. I see the cause of our misunderstanding. When I say it was invisible, I speak in a strictly literal sense. It was employing cloaking technology of some kind, and was, both to the Enterprise’s sensors and its crews’ eyes, perfectly invisible.”

"I was under the impression that cloaking technology was purely theoretical," Professor T'Vel said.

“I’ll say,” Avram thought to himself. The Federation could make a massive breakthrough in cloaking research tomorrow and still be ten years away. He smiled inwardly at the Vulcans’ collective attempts to hide their surprise; over the years, certain events had caused him to become very good at seeing through the careful Vulcan façade of emotionlessness.

“Apparently, that has changed. Even more startling, it appears the vessel in question has been developed and built by the Romulan Star Empire, with whom, as I am sure you all know, the Federation had not had any contact with since the end of the Earth-Romulan War over 100 years ago."

"That is disconcerting," Professor Sonok said.

"You have confirmation that this cloaking technology is operational?" another Vulcan, Avram lost track of which, asked.

"It would appear so. These are scans the Enterprise took of the area before the ship apparently 'decloaked.' And these are the images their sensors were able to pick up before the ship in question was destroyed." He pushed another button and an image of a ship appeared on the screen. Avram had never seen the configuration before. "The sensor information from the Enterprise will be made available for each of you to examine later on in the process."

"It is a shame your ship's Captain was forced to destroy it," Professor Sonok said.

"Indeed," Soren said, "though unavoidable, I am afraid. Now, as you know, the Treaty of Algeron prohibits the Federation from researching or otherwise pursuing cloaking technology. As a result, that is not the purpose of this project. Instead, we were tasked with investigating methods of combating, rather than matching, the potential threat of cloaked ships. To that end, we have proposed the following experimental vessel: the NX 1264, code-named Lanka-gar."

Soren pushed a button and with an audible click and a flash of light the schematics and a mock-up a different ship appeared before them. It was small, no larger than a fighter, with a cockpit, a flat profile with small wings and, strangely, no nacelles. 

"Lanka-gar translates quite literally to "night-flier," a predatory, nocturnal bird found on Vulcan. It is well known for its ability to fly almost silently, as well as for its keen night vision. Not to come across as glib, but this perfectly reflects what we hope to accomplish: to engineer a ship that flies quietly and, as it were, can see in the dark.”
"What do you propose?” Professor Sonok said.

"To the best of our knowledge, the cloaking device in question is still in the early stages of development. The Enterprise was able to use its tracking sensors to detect the ship, but only when it moved. We are working under the assumption that the Romulans know this and are working to correct the problem, so we've ruled out being able to reliably use that tactic in the future. According to reports, however, the cloaked object, despite not emitting any known radiation, retain a slight, hazy outline which can be detected visually."

“Just look out a window, then,” Avram said, sounding just as cavalier as he’d wanted but with a lump in his throat despite himself.

"The camouflage is imperfect, but only noticeably so from close up,” Soren said coolly, making Avram feel all the more red. “So, if someone where able to get close enough, they could theoretically make a reasonable approximation of its location. Using what little data we were able to obtain, as well as a great deal of conjecture, this is a mock-up of what we expect a cloaked ship to resemble."

Pushing the button again, a rendering of empty space appeared. With quite a bit of effort, the vaguest hint of a hazy outline was appeared.

Professor Sonok spoke again. "At what distance would it be perceptible?"

"Our best guess is around 1 kilometer."

Those who knew enough to gawk in disbelief did, although Avram merely smiled. That was a problem, indeed.

"How do you intend to get that close without being detected yourselves?" Sonok asked.

"Here is a mock-up of the view from inside the cockpit of the Lanka-gar," Soren said. "Do you notice anything in particular?"

The visitors seemed at a loss as to what to look for. Eventually, Avram spoke: "There are hardly any internal systems."

"Indeed. Its systems are limited to life support, propulsion, and weapons. And our goal is to remove two or more of those."

"Two or more?" Professor T'Vel said incredulously. "That would make the ship almost entirely mechanical. It would be little more than some manner of early rocket. How could you possibly fly a ship with no computer?"

"That is precisely,” Avram said with a dramatic pause before he arched his fingers and took his seat, “the problem we intend to solve."

Soren wasn’t old by Vulcan standards – he appeared a young man, but he would have been almost 95 by then – but he’d always had an air about him that commanded respect. He also had a beautiful, powerful voice, one which resonated almost within itself, like a recording of two instruments played over one another in perfect time and rhythm. Avram had loved that voice.

"Weapons," Avram said presently, "should be relatively easy.” He quickly resumed his usual posture of detached carelessness and didn’t look quite at Soren when he talked. “A phaser bank shouldn’t take up much space, and we could whip up a mechanical analog firing system for torpedoes, no sweat. Not that you could fit more than one or two to begin with in that bathtub, but still."

"Wouldn't that require the pilot to aim manually? It would take exceptional skill to hit the target," T'Vel asked.

"No offense, but you underestimate your average Starfleet pilot's aim." Avram said. "Besides, if you're closer than 1000 meters, you just have to keep the bow forward and shoot. Even a blueshirt could manage that."

All the Starfleet personnel wearing red or gold smiled discreetly, and Soren almost seemed to smile despite not moving any of the muscles in his face.

Avram continued. "Now, propulsion is another story altogether."

"Which is precisely why you were brought onto the team, Mr. Ericsson," Soren said. "You are one of the most brilliant and innovative propulsion engineers in Starfleet."

"Well, thanks, but a kind word won't get you from point A to point B."

"You should know as well as anyone, Mr. Ericsson, that the truth of that statement depends entirely on A, its relation to B, and, most importantly, the word. Should you choose to accept the assignment, you would be immediately placed in charge of both propulsion systems and navigation. I'm sure if anyone is up to the task, it is you, Mr. Ericsson."

"If I may, Commander," Professor Sonok said, "I can see how Dr. Varick could be of assistance to you, as his proficiency is in mechanical engineering. But Professor T'Vel and I are computer scientists. What possible need could you have of our skills when your ship is to have no computer systems?"

"Lt. Dinesh is our head programmer. Lieutenant?"

Lieutenant Dinesh was a human woman of South Asian origin. Avram had actually worked with her before and knew her to be capable and intelligent. In fact, of all the personnel whom Avram recognized were, to a person, extremely qualified. It seemed that Starfleet had assigned top personnel from all over for this one.

"Yes, you see the main problem is one of processing power. We've determined that the maximum amount of power we can afford to provide the main computer is 128 megahertz. Of course, this would have been an exceedingly small amount even a hundred years ago. We've struggled for weeks trying to allocate memory to all the systems we need. Our only options seem to be to either reduce the number of systems the computer directs or to somehow direct it more efficiently. Much more efficiently."

"I see," Sonok said.

Soren regarded the room and spoke. "This project represents an issue of great importance to Starfleet and indeed the Federation itself...

Avram got up and left the room without a word. He received a sideways look from Torval on his way out but continued upstairs and out of the building. He could go to work, he figured, but for all they knew he was still at the meeting.

He went home and sat on the couch without taking his uniform off. It was still the middle of the pleasant, sunny day and the large windows before him let a great deal of light into the living room. From the low angle at which he sat, he could only see the tops of the buildings opposite, the tops of trees and scattered bits of a bright, blue sky. He always imagined the sky on, say, Vulcan looking a sinister red. Somehow, that seemed preferable over this one - which was so damned welcoming. Earth days like this made one feel as though about to float off into the clouds like a balloon.

At some point he drifted off to sleep, having fallen back on the couch and curled up into a little ball. He woke with a start at a knock on the door but took what felt like forever to figure out what was happening. It was well into the evening, everything dim and getting darker aside from the streetlights and the glow they cast into the room.

A second knock helped him to figure out, at least, that he should answer the door, and after taking a moment to realize he was still in his uniform he walked over and opened it.

"Lieutenant Ericsson," Commander Soren said, outlined darkly against the bright interior lights of the hallway. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."

Avram didn't answer, but instead walked back into the apartment, leaving the door open behind him. Soren calmly entered and closed it behind him.

"I love what you've done with the place," Soren said.

Avram turned and looked confusedly at Soren. “Was that a joke?

“Of course. I had hoped it would ‘lighten the mood,’ so to speak. I do like your furnishings, though. They are quite economical.”

“Yeah, well, getting demoted can have that effect on a guy’s living situation. I assume you heard about that.”

“I hadn’t, but when I read ‘Lieutenant’ in your file, I presumed.”

Avram began looking for the light switch.

"Oh, feel no obligation. At least not on my account. I can see quite well in the dark."

"Right," Avram said, sitting down again. "So, Commander, sir, how can I help you?"

Despite that he hadn’t wanted the lights on, it was strange leaning against the couch and watching the Vulcan’s dim outline, illuminated only by light from the window; signs above restaurants on the street outside had started to flash glowing light, artificially shaded so as to seem neon. It made him feel both oddly distant and intimately close.

“I was wondering if I had offended you in any way.”

“Offended me? Why?”

“I must have said something objectionable indeed for you to walk out of a secure meeting with a superior officer.”

Avram said nothing. He watched the light from outside revolve in a steady pattern of red, blue, white and yellow shades which lit the room with color as they changed.

“And do not let anything fool you into thinking that it wasn’t a meeting with a superior officer. We may not be on a ship, but in Starfleet, any officer appointed in command over you is, in a very real way, your Captain. The simple fact that when you walked out you did not do so into the vacuum of space does not make it any less serious.”

“If only,” Avram sat without looking away from the flashing lights. It was late in the year and the sun was darkening rapidly. Soren did not respond immediately, and Avram absently got up and walked over the window, where he looked down onto Belden Lane below. This had been a trendy area for a long time, and the street, a fashionably old-fashioned alley, really, was lined on both sides with new restaurants, old restaurants, and apartment buildings such as this one. Couples and groups ambled around and sat at the outdoor seating of the fusion-type sushi place directly across from him; it had been a lovely day and was a lovely night now.

“The improvements you proposed for the ion engines in F Class shuttles are impressive,” Soren said. “Starfleet is expected to put them into effect within the next year.”

“It only improved power consumption by half a percent,” Avram said.

“And on a shuttle, that half percent could mean the difference between life support running out just too soon and lasting just long enough. I don’t know how we’re going to solve the problems with life support power management we’re facing, on the other hand.” Soren sighed theatrically. Avram knew an act when he saw one, but had to laugh at how effectively Soren was playing his hand.

“Life support’s easy,” he said. “Put your pilot in an environmental suit and use the power for more important things.”

Soren lifted an eyebrow. “That hadn’t occurred to me. Of course, if internal backups in the suit fail the pilot would die, butt an elegant solution nonetheless, Lieutenant.” Soren folded his hands behind his back and turned thoughtfully. “Not to play amateur psychologist, but it was interesting that you called something as fundamental as life support ‘unimportant.’”

Avram ignored this. “That out of the way, on to your real problem: propulsion.”

“Which is precisely why we need you.”

Avram to turn back to the window and muse in silence for some time. He knew the shades from the signs below well by now, having spent many nights watching them flash across the wall, but as he glanced at Soren, immobile as a statue across the room, they seemed to take on a new life outlined as they were against his form. The Commander was still in uniform, and the blueish neon made his science division shirt next to his pale, slightly yellowed skin seem almost a brilliant purple. The following red starkly framed his angular face and briefly lit his eyes, now sinister and knowing, like a devil ready to make a deal.

Back in darkness, Avram could only see the barest glimpse of Soren’s form, as still as ever, until lit up by a quick succession of green, blue and green again before another pause before those particular signs began to cycle anew.

“I have a thought,” he said. “Something I’ve been tossing around for a while now. It would use a lot of power, but it wouldn’t give off enough emissions or radiation to be detectable. Or at least not easily detectable.”

“I hope I can persuade you to outline your ideas for us all tomorrow.”

“You could probably order me to.”

“Who needs orders when you’re as persuasive as I am?” Soren said.
“You always were a cut-up.”

“A what?”

“A joker, a prankster, a clown, a card.”

“I am none of those things.”

“Man, Starfleet wouldn’t be any fun without people like you in charge, now would it?”

“It would not, Lieutenant,” Soren said, getting up to go. “Let’s hope they make me an Admiral before we all die from ill humor. Good night, Lieutenant.”

“Sir,”

Soren stopped in the light of the doorway as he opened it.

“Yes?”

“I thought you’d been assigned to the Ulysses. A 3 year cruise. Which is why we could never work, you said.”

“I had been,” Soren said and left without pausing. Avram found himself alone in the dark.

 

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Submitted: May 24, 2019

© Copyright 2021 Zachary Schmitt. All rights reserved.

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