Literary Challenge #48 : The Long Road
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Join Date: Jul 2012
08-22-2013, 10:26 AM
The man with the improbably black eyes sat in a chair on the other side of the comfortably-appointed room. "Now, Mr. Burwell, just relax," he said soothingly. "My name is Jorel Dael, and I'm a counselor. We just need to go over a few things."
Ensign Iain Burwell laughed hollowly. "'Relax', he says. My grandfather told me once about this book he read when he was a kid, written way back before the wars - before even the Eugenics Wars. It was called 'Future Shock'. He said he thought that when the Warp 5 project went online, he finally understood it." He shook his head. "He had
idea. Alvin Toffler's got nothing on me, I can tell you that!" There was an edge to his voice. He wanted to laugh again, but he wasn't sure he'd stop this time.
"That's part of what this interview process is about, Mr. Burwell. May I call you Iain?"
"Sure," Iain shrugged, "why not? What's my rank matter any more, anyway? Even if we
made it back, I probably would have been cashiered."
"That's not what the logs say," Dael replied. "Your commanding officer thought highly of you. Commander Wardell even has a recommendation for a commendation for you."
"That's because they didn't live to see what happened."
"Can you tell me what happened, Iain? In your own words? This isn't a formal report - I want to know what you felt about what was happening, not just a recitation of events. You've already filed one version with Command."
"Okay, let's get started, then," Iain said.
It was in March of 2158 that the
got orders to head out toward the Trianguli region, to check on reports of Romulan attacks. The Captain told us it would be a milk run - six months at the most, and we'd be back to the defense of Earth. We were freshly resupplied, just in case - a full loadout of photonic torps, phase arrays just installed, hydroponics cleaned up, everything. We were good for up to a year without resupply, because you never knew when one of those damned Rom ships would pop up and start shooting. At least the Klingons would talk first - usually telling us to get out or surrender, sometimes just to taunt us, but there would be some warning. And they'd let us see their faces. First time I saw a Romulan face, though, was after it was all over - and that was on the rescue ship, which was a hell of a thing, I can tell you.
Anyway, we were out there near Gamma Trianguli, because one of the ships had reported being hit there. Don't know if you Federation guys pay any attention to stars like Gamma Tri - it's an A-class star, way too hot to bother with usually, and it doesn't have any planets, just this soup of radioactive rocky debris where nothing ever formed 'cause the silly thing's whipping around like a stellar dervish. Turned out that if your shields were good enough, it made a great hiding spot, too, 'cause three frigging Rom warships suddenly popped out of the soup and came right for us. I was off-shift, and a good thing for me, 'cause Jim Turner, the helm officer, bought it in the first salvo - they hit right on the main navigational deflector, and feedback in the system made his console blow up in his face. I was headed for the backup bridge as soon as the Red Alert sounded, of course, so I was able to take the helm pretty quick. The Captain fought 'em off as well as he could, but it was three to one. They blew the Bridge off not long into the fight - lost the Captain, the XO, most of the command staff, really. Then something happened in Engineering, I think a warp coolant leak from the core, and we lost the Engineer. Chain of command was all frakked up, so I took it, because I was in the best position for it then.
It didn't take long for me to figure out that there was no way we could win. Sure, we could do a kamikaze run, probably take one or two of the bastards with us, but then Earth still wouldn't know anything about Roms hiding around Gamma Tri, so I figured we'd better make a run for it while we could. Only with the hits we'd taken, the best I could squeeze out of the old girl was about warp 3.4, and they were coming after us faster than that. Then I spotted some sort of subspace distortion on long-range sensors. I figured it'd probably pop us all out of subspace, and then I could at least face them on a more-or-less equal footing. Kind of wish I had that one back. Turned out the distortion was masking a quantum singularity, probably about the mass of Pluto or so - not that big a deal as black holes go, but enough that it hadn't evaporated from Hawking radiation yet. It tore through our main hull, and we lost fifty people or so to explosive decompression and system failures. That's on top of the twenty-three who died in combat. My first command, and like twelve of us lived through it. And I'm still not sure we got the better end of the deal.
So one of the Roms tailing us caught the hole in their drive section. I hear they use quantum singularities as a power source, which might explain what happened next - an explosion, and the sensors just went bugfrak with spatial and temporal distortions. Figure the two holes hit each other, and merged, twisting spacetime right round. Ripped right through all three surviving ships, me and the other two Roms. One of them kind of collapsed in on itself, probably lost containment on their hole, and the last one bugged right out of there. That left us adrift, with minimal power, and sensors blind. I set up the emergency beacon, and started collecting our supplies - we had enough clean air to last three or four months, between the remaining scrubbers and the hydroponics bay. Then this huge white whale shows up next to us, with "USS Pournelle" written across the bow in English bigger than life, and somebody starts hailing us on a frequency we'd never used before. Kept saying they were with this "United Federation of Planets", which we'd never heard of before either. But they were speaking English, even if it was with a funny accent, so we went ahead and answered. And that was when we found out that when that last explosion happened, we surfed it two hundred and forty-some years into the freaking future. The
is an antique now, and all our cutting-edge space operations training is, I suppose, "quaint". Each of us has a line of at
forty historians waiting to squeeze us for any information we can give them about ancient history, there's some short bald twerp with really amazing ears who wants me to sign a deal giving him exclusive access to our entertainment database, and mostly I'm just feeling lost. I got people killed. A
of people. I was in command, and I failed them. And now folks want to treat me like some kind of hero just because I managed to not die, and had a freak accident that shoved me into the future.
You wanna know how I feel, counselor? Most days, I just wish I could crawl right back through that hole, back to the 22nd century, and die when I was supposed to. I'm lost, I have no family left, my home used to be this really nice small town but now it's part of the Seattle-Olympia megacity, and overall my life just sucks. The only thing I know how to do is be a spaceman, and now everything I ever knew is at
two centuries out of date. What the hell am I supposed to
"Thank you, Iain. But now I have to clear up a few things for you."
"Yeah, great, doc," Iain said bitterly. "Shoot."
"Very well. First of all, you seem to feel that the entire mission was a waste. In fact, the fact that the
last reported in near Gamma Trianguli, along with your captain's emergency transmission, did in fact warn Earth's Star Fleet that the location was a Romulan hiding spot. Shipping was rerouted away from there, military patrols were instituted, and within three months the Romulans abandoned their trap. Secondly, you need to make a more realistic assessment of your situation that day.
You are an ensign in the United Earth Star Fleet.
Experientially, you are less than a year out of your Academy. The fact that your command survived that attack at
is nothing short of miraculous. Had you managed to return to Earth in your own time, their would have been awards, not recriminations."
"Yeah, that's what you say."
"That is indeed what I say, Iain," Jorel said sternly. "And it's something that you should maybe listen to. I've been through Command training myself, and in simulations, you're
to fail a situation like that. There's one that's not very different in nature, called the 'Kobayashi Maru Scenario', that's billed as a 'test of character.' Only three Academy cadets have passed it in over a hundred years, and one of them had to cheat and reprogram the simulator. And that leads me to my third point. You think of yourself as 'worthless' and 'outdated.' However, you've shown a strong knack for the nature of command, and of starship operations. We need more of your kind of person in our Starfleet. The Academy Commandant has authorized me, pursuant to my approval after this interview, to offer you an accelerated track through the Academy. We could bring you up to speed on modern fleet matters and have you aboard a starship again in about two years. Would you find this agreeable?"
Iain looked puzzled. "Interview? You've just been asking me what happened, which pretty much everybody knew already. How's that tell you if I'm suited for command?"
"It's one of the reasons I learned to be a counselor," Jorel replied. "My people come from a planet called Betazed. We're telempaths - we can read emotions from a distance. And I was able to feel exactly what you felt when you told me your story. You're going to need psychological counseling sessions for some time, of course, to deal with the trauma of being removed from your own time, but fortunately we've dealt with this situation before. In fact, we've got a couple of officers in the Fleet who aren't even from this timeline. Maybe you'll get to meet one of them one day. Meanwhile, we can at least let you keep doing what you do. What do you say?"
Iain looked down for a moment. When he looked up again, his eyes brimmed with tears. "This - this is a lot to take in all at once, especially on top of everything else. Can I have - a little time?"
"Sure, Iain. Take all the time you need. I'll be here."
Two Weeks Later
Iain pulled again at the high collar of his cadet uniform, much tighter than the coveralls he was used to, and stole a glance around at the wild variety of people he was seated with. He had to get used to thinking of all of them as "people", even the one with the fishy face who had to take occasional breaths from the vaporous tray hanging in front of its - well, in front of where a nose would be if it had one. It had a sort of fleshy lump with two tentacles depending from it instead. Next to some of them, the Andorians and Tellarites in the crowd seemed downright homey.
A tall, white-haired man with spots running down the sides of his head strode to the front of the room. "Good morning, cadets," he boomed. "Eyes front - I'm talking to
, mister!" Iain had been looking forward, but involuntarily sat at attention anyway. "My name is Admiral Quinn," the man continued, "head of Starfleet Operations, and I'm here to welcome you to our accelerated course on Starfleet command and control procedures..."
I'm old enough not to care too much about what you think of me --
But I'm young enough to remember the future, the way things ought to be...
- Rush, "Cut To the Chase",
Last edited by jonsills; 08-26-2013 at