Chapter 24

U.S.S. Aldrin

Sector 033

07:23 Hours, February 8th, 2380

Stardate 57104.666628

 

As the turbolift closed behind her, Jensen paused in the corridor outside Engineering-B. The corridor audibly resonated with the low pulsating hum of the straining warp core and the deck noticeably tremored under Jensen’s boots. Under normal circumstances, even at sustained high warp, this level of shuddering was considered unacceptable, especially on a ship as new as the Aldrin.

She briefly looked down at her feet, finding herself uneasy with the vibration. Jensen looked back up and walked forward towards the Engineering-B doors. The wide double doors split on her approach, flooding the corridor with the loud drone of the overtaxed warp core. The core itself stood several meters ahead at the far end of the abbreviated crucifix layout. Ordinarily the interior of the core rapidly swirled with the lightly luminous blue-green energy of a contained matter/antimatter reaction. As if to justify the sound and vibration, the churning eddies of energy moved with conspicuous speed and glowed so brightly it almost seemed white and cast shadows into the corridor.

Jensen stepped in, letting the doors close behind her as officers rushed about in Engineering-B. Vorik, still wearing his white post-op shirt and pants, stepped out of the office near the core and shouted to be heard over the cacophony, “Stabilize the secondary antimatter inducers. The plasma variance is point five eight beyond standard.”

“Commander Vorik!” Jensen shouted, jogging up to him.

Vorik turned to face her, his face barely showing a hint of surprise at her arrival, “Commander.”

Jensen pointed an open hand at the warp core, “What’s going on here?”

Vorik’s eyebrows rose slightly, “With Engineering-A offline and the transverse warp plasma conduit severed, the load balancing array can no longer function. All warp drive load is being handled by this reaction chamber.”

Jensen nodded slowly, “I see…” Her brow furrowed slightly as she stared at the warp core.

Noticing the expression, Vorik prodded, “Is there something I can do for you, Commander?”

“Yes,” Jensen turned her attention back to Vorik, “But I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

Vorik shifted, moving to the side to relieve the pressure on his healing leg, “I am a Vulcan and a Starfleet officer. It does not matter what I like, nor am I likely to express such sentiments.”

Jensen suppressed the urge to laugh, “Fair enough. I need you to make alterations to our warp signature.”

Uncharacteristically, Vorik put a hand on Jensen’s shoulder and pulled her to the side as he walked back towards the open-air office near the core, “Commander, you are aware that alterations to affect changes to our warp signature will result in further degradation of our warp efficiency, aren’t you? We’re already operating in far from optimal operational conditions.”

Jensen followed Vorik into the office, feeling notable heat radiating off of the warp core behind her, “I am, I’ve done it before.” She stepped up to one of Vorik’s consoles and pulled up a display of overlapping waveforms, “This is the warp signature we scanned from the Columbia.”

“Am I to assume that you want the Aldrin’s warp signature to mimic that of the Columbia?” Vorik asked, sitting in a chair and wheeling it to Jensen’s side.

“You assume correctly.”

Vorik took a few seconds to study the graph before pronouncing, “With the second warp core offline this warp signature will be simpler to mimic.”

Jensen looked down to him, “Seriously?”

“Yes.” Vorik tapped a few commands, bringing up the Aldrin’s current warp signature, a slightly more chaotic set of waveforms, “Significant modifications would have been required were we running with dual warp cores. However, in our current state I believe the modifications you’re requesting will quickly deal significant damage to the EPS conduits.”

“Will we be able to make it to Earth?”

Vorik turned his chair, looking out to the brilliantly glowing core, “So long as the warp drive system isn’t placed under any additional strain we will be able to reach Sector 001 without reaching the point of failure.” He looked up to Jensen, “There is one other issue.”

Jensen leaned against the station, staring out at the core, “What is that?”

“We’ll only be able to achieve a marginal similarity to the Columbia’s warp signature,” Vorik said. “It will be obvious at anything beyond a cursory scan that our warp signature is being faked. If we modify our automated transponder to also mimic the Columbia then we should be able to achieve a second level of imitation.”

“Already on it,” Jensen said, patting Vorik on the shoulder. As she walked out of the Engineering office, she looked over her shoulder and grinned, “This isn’t my first springball match.”

 

07:49 Hours, February 8th, 2380

Stardate 57104.715897

 

Clark leaned back in the chair behind his ready room desk, slowly spinning between his fingers the digit-sized vial of his own blood that Toq’bae had drawn just an hour prior. The dark red liquid rolled inside the clear tube, beading and recombining in small splashes. The door to the bridge chimed, prompting Clark to respond without looking away from the vial, “Enter.”

The door slid to the side and Cochrane stepped through, “You wanted to see me, Captain?”

Clark pointed the vial at the chair across from him, “Doctor.”

Cochrane took a few steps to the chair, pulled it away from the desk, and sat. He reached forward and grabbed the vial from Clark’s hand, “Is this you?”

“It is.”

“Well,” Cochrane turned the vial around, watching the blood flow around. “At least you’re not a Changeling.”

Clark sat upright, “One down, three hundred sixty eight to go.”

“You want me to screen the crew for Changelings?”

“The impulse drive,” Clark’s gaze drifted out to the windows to his right. “The warp drive. Key systems surreptitiously disabled at key moments. We have a saboteur.”

Cochrane set the vial on the glossy black desk, “How do you know it’s a Changeling?” The vial chattered lightly against the vibrating desk, slowly spinning on its center.

“I don’t, at least not for certain,” Clark said. “I’m going off my gut here.”

“Any suggestions on where to start?”

Clark picked up the vial and tapped it twice on the desk, “Sickbay, I would think. You’re going to need help, and they’ll need to be cleared.”

Cochrane replied crankily, “Obviously. And after I’ve gone through the standard Starfleet screening protocols?”

“I’m sorry,” Clark shook his head, “You’ve done this before.”

“Many, many times,” Cochrane nodded slowly.

“Engineering,” Clark said. “It’s the only department where somebody would have uncontested access to the necessary junctures to pull off this level of sabotage.”

Cochrane stood, resting a hand on the desk, “We’ll get right on it.” Clark nodded and Cochrane left the ready room. Clark reached out to the vial, holding his hand over the tube for a few seconds as it chattered against the desktop, before snatching it up. He held the blood-filled vessel up to the light and sighed.

 

09:12 Hours, February 8th, 2380

Stardate 57104.873697

 

The door between Engineering-B and the corridor split open and Cochrane pushed a metal cart through. The empty vials set into four trays clinked and rattled as he stopped the cart a few meters in, and continued to lightly rattle from the vibrating deck. Around his neck hung a white band with a vial of blood dangling in front of his stomach. Following behind him were Wright and Murphy, who had a hand up on the sling of his shouldered rifle; all three had a handheld phaser strapped to their hips. Murphy stepped forward, standing to the side of Cochrane, and announced over the rumbling warp core, “Under the order of the Captain, we are conducting blood screenings of the entire crew.”

The officers in Engineering paused and turned their attention to the trio, some stepping out to get a clear view. Murphy continued, “Nobody is to leave this cabin until all personnel have been screened. You may continue to work at your stations while we perform the screenings.” At that the engineers returned their attention to their work, adding a layer of chatter on top of the warp core’s drone.

Cochrane smiled at Murphy, “Thanks for that.” He pushed the cart to the left and Wright followed, brandishing a hypospray. They approached the closest officer, a squat and furry Tellarite lieutenant focusing on an impulse reactor readout. “Lieutenant,” Cochrane prompted when he stopped the cart.

The Tellarite turned slightly and grunted at the pair as Cochrane handed Wright a vial, “Blood screenings? Afraid one of us is a Changeling?” Met with knowing looks from Wright and Cochrane, the Tellarite groaned, “And how do I know you aren’t Changelings?” Wright slipped the vial into the base of his hypospray.

Cochrane held up the vial of blood around his neck, “Still warm.”

“I thought we’d gotten past this four years ago,” the engineer grunted, offering his arm to Wright. He pressed the rounded tip of the hypospray to the Tellarite’s forearm and drew a vial full of deep purple blood. Wright pulled the vial out from the hypospray’s base and handed it to Cochrane, who shook it lightly and held it up for a few seconds.

Satisfied that the sample wasn’t going to revert into the thick golden liquid, Cochrane slipped the vial back into its slot on the cart and pushed it past the Tellarite, smiling politely as he passed, sparking a growl of irritation from the eternally incorrigible Tellarite.

Murphy stood in wide passage that bridged the space between the core and the corridor, watching with distrust the bustling engineers working at their stations, occasionally crossing the workspace to talk with a colleague. Murphy’s vision drifted to the core, thrumming and pulsating with nearly white energy. He made eye contact with a Human female on the lower of the two platforms that wrapped around the backside of the core. She quickly looked back down at the large PADD in her hands. Her blond hair was pulled into a tight bun at the back of her head, exposing the fair skin around her face and long neck. Murphy tightened his grip on his rifle’s sling, feeling uneasy with the thought that anybody in the room could be a Changeling.

As Cochrane and Wright drew blood from another engineer, Murphy started forward towards the core. Cochrane shook the vial of red blood drawn from the officer, and glanced over to see Murphy slowly advancing. Murphy dropped his right hand from the sling down to the butt of the rifle and grasped the sling across his chest with the other hand as his pace quickened.

The female engineer’s eyes darted up, noticing Murphy’s approach. As she walked behind the core, Cochrane tapped on Wright’s shoulder and pointed to the core, “Go. I’ll stay here.” Wright handed the hypospray to Cochrane and quickly followed behind Murphy, grabbing the phaser off his hip and carrying it pointed at the deck.

Murphy unslung his phaser rifle as he approach, smoothly swinging the dark gray and black weapon from his shoulder and into his hands. He raised it slightly as he approached the bottom of the steps leading up to the first platform around the warp core. This close to the overtaxed reaction chamber the heat caused sweat to start beading on his clean scalp almost immediately. Murphy quickened his ascent as he realized he hadn’t seen the woman sweating at all, despite her having been at the core since before the screening team had arrived. He reached the far side of the core and the next set of stairs in time to see her blond head disappear beyond the edge of the deck above.

Still in his white sickbay clothing, Vorik walked up to Cochrane and the engineer he had last examined, “Doctor, how long is–”

Cochrane pushed the engineer next to him forward and cut off Vorik, “Go check core for sabotage.” He quickly snapped to the puzzled looks that met him, “Now!” Vorik and the engineer turned and jogged to the core.

Murphy bounded up the stairs to the second platform with Wright following closely behind. The tactical officer stopped a few steps short of the upper deck and crouched, raising his rifle to his face. He took a slow step forward, raising his head and the rifle over the edge of the deck in front of him, cautiously scanning the workspace in front of them. It closely mirrored the bay below, with a series of screen-lined alcoves along each side and a wide door at the far end. The blond engineer was steadily strolling down the center of the bay, her hips swaying slightly and the PADD in her hand swinging as she closed the final few meters to the door.

“Freeze!” Murphy shouted as he quickly climbed the last few steps, his rifle staying trained on her back. The engineers working the alcoves all obeyed Murphy’s command, some slowly stepping back from their stations to see what was going on. The woman continued forward unfazed and the door open at her approach.

Murphy ran forward, crouching slightly to maintain steadiness in his upper torso and the rifle. He bellowed, “I said freeze!” She silently stepped through the open doorway and turned to the left, not looking back into Engineering as she exited. Murphy burst into a full sprint towards the door.

Wright followed, tapping his combadge, “Security to deck 4B, section O! Human female, blond hair, 1.6 meters. Seal the deck!”

Murphy burst through the doorway as it opened, whipping his rifle to the left and then the right. Directly across from the door back into Engineering was a turbolift stop, the corridor wrapped around the side of the turbolift and headed towards the bow and a row of crew quarters. To the left the corridor turned again after several meters, heading down along the side of Engineering to a set of engineering and science labs, eventually reaching the aft end of the Aldrin, a juncture that led to critical components including the impulse engines, warp nacelles, and the weapons pod.

Wright stepped through the door and immediately went to the right, aiming his phaser with both hands down the corridor. A straight line until it dead-ended at the front of the catamaran hull, the brightly-lit corridor was clear of any personnel. “Clear,” Wright announced, lowering his phaser and following behind Murphy as he rounded the corner to the left.

Looking back at the medic and noting his slightly panicked look, Murphy quietly asked, “You okay?”

Wright nodded earnestly and swallowed hard.

Murphy brought his face back to his rifle’s stock, “Let’s go.” They quickly moved forward, glancing at each lab door as they passed to ensure that the control pad by each still reading ‘LOCKED’. The corridor ahead angled slightly to the right, preventing a clear view to the aft end.

Murphy moved along the bulkhead that led to the outside of the corner, pointing across the corridor for Wright to do the same on the other side. Murphy raised his rifle and slowed as he reached the corner, slowly sweeping around the bend.

The woman came into view, several meters down the corridor. She was leaning against a closed door, her hand transformed into an undulating golden mass and pressed over the control panel. “Do not move!” Murphy ordered. Her attention remained fixated on the control panel.

Wright rounded the corner, raising his phaser. Upon seeing the Changeling he uttered, “Holy shit.”

Murphy took a few steps forward, closing the gap between him and the woman to six meters, “Remove your… self from the control panel.”

The door snapped open in a burst of sparks. Murphy and Wright both fired, but the Changeling darted through the doorway in the blink of an eye. The phaser beams sliced through the empty air, impacting the bulkheads a several meters down. As Murphy and Wright rushed towards the door, Wright shouted, “That’s environmental control!” The loud whir of atmospheric scrubbers came from the open doorway.

Murphy slid against the bulkhead towards the door, aiming his rifle through the opening. He reached the edge and slowly pivoted around, sweeping his sector of fire across the squat four-meter-wide cylindrical scrubbers and a jumble of conduits and ducts.

The woman’s arm slammed around the corner, smashing her PADD edge-on into Murphy’s forehead. He collapsed back into the corridor, blood already pouring from a jagged gash from his left temple to his right eyebrow. The bent and broken PADD landed at his feet.

Wright instinctively dropped to a knee, “Commander!”

Murphy’s eyes fluttered open and he grunted, “Stop her!” He groaned as he lifted his rifle across his body and handed it to Wright.

Taking the weapon, Wright stepped over Murphy’s body and pointed the rifle into the doorway. The Changeling had moved further inside and was working at a console mounted to the side of one of the scrubbers. Wright steadied the rifle and squinted as he aimed at her. Without looking away from the console, the Changeling whipped her arm out towards him, rapidly liquefying and extending across the three-meter-space between her and Wright.

Wright squeezed the trigger as the Changeling’s outstretched arm slammed into his stomach. The rifle fired a burst of energy that impacted a duct behind her. The duct immediately and loudly burst, spewing thick white gas into the cabin and almost instantly enveloping the Changeling. Wright stumbled back into the corridor, crashing against the bulkhead and falling onto his side. A second later the computer chimed inside the environmental control room and the flow of gas was shut off.

Murphy sat up, ignoring the gouge on his forehead and grabbing the spare handheld phaser off his hip. He pushed up onto his feet and pointed the phaser through the door, finding the well-lit cabin slightly hazy and feeling cold air pouring through the doorway. The corner where the Changeling had been was covered with white frost, laid out emanating from the burst duct. The Changeling stood at the console, likewise covered in icy frost crystals. Her left arm was still visibly stretched towards the doorway and lacking in definition, though seemingly solid, and her other side appeared to be slightly warped as well.

He slowly stepped forward, the frost on the deck crunching under his boots. The Changeling didn’t move as he approached, even with a phaser pointed at her torso. Murphy stopped and looked down at the frosted arm that stretched out in front of him, reaching nearly two meters away from her body. He slowly reached out and grabbed onto the ten-centimeter-wide limb-form. The arm broke off with a crisp crack several centimeters from her shoulder. Surprised both by the break and the sudden weight in his hands, Murphy lost his grip on the frigid two-meter appendage and it crashed onto the deck, breaking into several pieces.

Murphy’s head whipped back and forth between the shattered arm and the Changeling’s still unmoving form. After several seconds he slowly walked around the Changeling to the burst duct. Noticing a label obscured under the frost, he brushed away the ice crystals. Murphy laughed and looked back at Wright, who was sitting up against the far wall in the corridor, “Liquid nitrogen line. Good shot!”

Wright chuckled and wiped a dribble of blood away from the corner of his mouth, “I was aiming for her!”