With the warped and scarred plating stripped away and the aft assembly exposed to space, Defiant’s rear hull was little more than a skeleton of beams and plasma conduits. From a distance it looked like delicate wires wrapped into the approximate shape of the ship, like a holiday ornament.
Lieutenant Whetu, clamped to one of the girders via magnetic boots and connected with a cord extending from her EV suit, felt like she was floating in a black ocean. The Defiant’s superstructure elements were a coral growth, wreathing her. Mars, below, was a patch of ruddy red sand in the depths. The shining stars, brilliant without the flickering of an atmosphere to distort them, were reflected pinpoints from glittery scales or particles of sand. Utopia Planitia, hanging above, orbiting Mars, was… well, it broke the illusion. A big catamaran crawling across the ocean while she floated beneath it, perhaps.
Defiant had taken heavy damage during the defense of Earth at the end of the Iconian War. Pieces of the engine housing had been sliced apart by Herald beam weapons, and then the engines themselves had torn loose of the hull, in the nightmare scenario originally envisioned by Defiant’s designers over forty years before. The resulting battle damage had left the ship burning in orbit and when it was towed to Utopia Planitia for repairs, the whole engine room and aft section had to be opened to space, leaving the engineers to crawl over it in a vacuum.
At the moment, Whetu was disentangling a massive chunk of mangled tritanium. When pieces of the superstructure bent under the immense energy output of directed beam weapons, sometimes the engineers couldn’t just hammer out the dents; they had to replace the pieces entirely. Normally this kind of work would be done remotely, via a workbee or even a robotic armature with a plasma cutter, but in this case a piece of the structure had wound up bent, melted, and entangled in the aft electroplasma junction. Yanking it out without a careful eye on the power levels could result in the Defiant losing its current trickle of auxiliary power, not to mention exploding. By and large, the chief of Utopia Planitia disliked explosions in the shipyards.
“Still stable?” said Whetu.
Over by the exposed electroplasma conduit, Ensign Elyos bobbed his helmeted head up and down, and his languid voice came back over her comm system. “Auxiliary power is at ten percent. Don’t worry about the junction. Though I still say we should’ve just shut down the entire aft power grid and connected the fore section to station power,” the Deltan mused.
Whetu made a pfft sound into her helmet comm and said, “And have to spin everything up again and run an entire separate round of stress tests on the EPS grid? Or replace the entire thing if it decouples on power-down and goes to a plasma ground state that melts the whole power system? C’mon, we trained for this. A hot-swap now will save us two days of repair time and let us diagnose any other problems in the aft EPS system.” As she finished the sentence, she ignited her plasma cutter again and sheared away another chunk of stubborn tritanium. This piece disentangled from the mass of melted cable and she gave it a push upward, which caused it to float away from the hull of the Defiant. One of the non-sentient exocomps snagged the piece and hauled it back in the direction of material reclamation. Inside the EPS conduit, exposed to space, the bright contrails of green plasma mimicked the flicker of Whetu’s plasma cutter. The hull remained intact enough to keep the plasma from flaring outward, which was advantageous inasmuch as it prevented Whetu from being immediately disintegrated.
“Got that one,” said Whetu through the comm. “I’m going to replace the access panel and then move to the next node. Computer, bring me a standard EPS access console, type 3.” She held up her hand, and within a few seconds one of the exocomps arrived bearing the requested component.
At that same moment, the chief of Utopia Planitia was in a well-appointed office, drinking raktajino and poring over the horribly backed-up list of ship repair requests. It would take several seconds for the alert to reach the office and indicate that, much to the chief’s dismay, an explosion had in fact happened in the spacedock.
“Elyos!” Whetu screamed into her comm. Her retaining cable had run to maximum length and then yanked her into a bizarre bouncing pattern at the end of its length, but Elyos was not so fortunate. His cable remained intact, but the piece of the hull to which it was attached had been blown clear by the sudden explosion of the EPS junction. The junior engineer was rapidly disappearing into the black, tumbling end over end. Shards of glass, plastic, and metal floated after him in a cloud of razor-edged debris.
A tinny response, distorted by static and a high-pitched hum, came over Whetu’s comm. “This is unfortunate,” said Elyos laconically.
Whetu jammed her combadge with her gloved hand. “Engineering to bridge! We have an emergency!”
The response came almost instantly: “Kurland here. We felt that on the bridge. What’s going on back there? We still don’t have external sensors.”
“We have an officer untethered! Repeat, officer untethered!” she shouted back. She grabbed her own tether line and started pulling herself back toward the hull.
“Why isn’t he using the maneuvering thrusters?” came back Kurland’s incredulous query. “Can you get to him? We still don’t have transporters.”
“I’m trying!” shouted Whetu. “Elyos! Can you use maneuvering thrusters?”
Still tumbling end-over-end, Elyos flailed helplessly in his EV suit. “I… have a seal breach. I’m…”
Whetu’s suit computer made an urgent beep to indicate that Elyos had lost consciousness, and the HUD on her helmet briefly popped up a warning. She tried to straighten herself relative to Defiant, and grabbed at her belt controls to activate her maneuvering thrusters. With a quick burst she sent herself flying back toward the hull.
“Defiant to Utopia Planitia,” came Kurland’s voice over the comm channel. How can he be so calm? Whetu wondered. “We have an officer untethered, possibly unconscious. Can you get a transporter lock?”
“Negative,” came back the voice of one of the many technicians aboard the orbital facility. “We’re reading energized plasma and unstable tetryon emissions all over the area. What the heck did you do out there?”
“It’s the cloaking device,” said Whetu. “When the aft EPS junction blew, it overloaded the cloak and it’s thrown out particle radiation. Stupid transporters never work when you need them, anyway.”
Once again, Kurland’s voice cut through the chatter. “All right, what can we do? Can you lock onto his combadge and get to him with your suit thrusters? Can we send an exocomp to intercept and pick him up? How about a worker bee?”
The technician at Utopia Planitia replied, “Exocomps will have trouble with all the debris and the radiation. They’re not shielded for high yields like that. Nearest workbee is at Akagi, three minutes away.”
“He doesn’t have that much time,” said Whetu urgently. “And my readout says he’s too far for me to reach without untethering. We have to… I don’t know, scoop him up somehow.”
“We can’t beam him and we can’t get anything through the debris quickly enough to catch him before he suffocates. Suggestions?” Whetu could hear the murmur of Kurland’s senior staff as they discussed possibilities, but time was running out.
“How hard can this be?” shouted Whetu and winced as the echo inside her helmet painfully reverberated in her ears. “We have a dozen starships, an orbital facility, and the best engineers the Federation has trained! Do we have a shuttle?”
“Negative,” said Kurland. “Our shuttles were offloaded when the aft section was removed.”
Whetu bit her lip and looked around for something, anything, which she could use as a tool. After a moment she said, “Hang on. I’m going to try something crazy.”
The trick about getting off a boat – which Whetu had done many times while sailing with her father, no matter how much she disliked boats in general – was that the boat would move backward as you tried to move forward when you attempted to get onto shore. If you didn’t tie up the boat, the boat would just push away in the water, you’d wind up standing still in the air, and you’d look funny for about half a second before falling in the water.
Whetu grabbed hold of one of the spars of the ship as her maneuvering jets brought her in close. The impact was enough to shake her jaw and she tasted blood in her mouth. She turned sideways and brought her magnetic boots onto the hull and raced (as quickly as one can in magnetic boots) to the docking control panel on the exposed beam of the Defiant’s hull and slammed her hand down on the emergency release.
The ship shifted as the gantries demagnetized and the holding clamps released. “Hang on,” said Whetu, “this ride is about to get really bumpy.”
“What are you doing?” said Kurland. “We’re seeing release from moorings, but we don’t have engines and we barely have maneuvering thrusters. In the time it takes to turn around, we’ll lose your engineer.”
“We’re not turning around,” said Whetu. “We’re scooping him up.” She shifted to the auxiliary control tap next to the docking panel and entered her engineering override codes for Defiant’s emergency access. The screen flashed red and she slapped the surface to confirm.
As designed but never used in its initial development, the nose of the Defiant held a special payload of additional torpedoes, and the entire nose cone could be launched as a last-ditch weapon. The captains who’d commanded the ship had not used this feature, even in the Dominion War or the Iconian War, but for an engineer who’d been poring over the ship specs to make repairs and overhauls, it was a known quantity.
Defiant lurched and, though Whetu couldn’t hear anything except a rumbling vibration conducted through her boots, the nose cone disconnected and launched. Without stabilizing engines, Defiant was propelled backward by physics. The ship, complete with its open and exposed engineering section, lurched into reverse from the force of the launch.
Whetu hung on determinedly to the spars of the hull as the ship closed in on Elyos’ tumbling form. The exposed hull of the ship closed around him and as the unconscious Deltan bounced off one of the interior bulkheads, Whetu released her magnetic boots, maneuvered next to him with her suit thrusters, and scooped him up like picking up an unconscious swimmer from the ocean.
“I have him,” she said triumphantly over the comm.
“Glad to hear it,” said Kurland, with a trace of frustration in his voice. “Defiant to any nearby vessels. If anyone has an operational tractor beam, that would be… great.”