Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Blue Valley (4791)

(Contd. from "Suggestions of Success", and moving into current time, beyond Tarkova....)
[On the Arcadia... after "Suggestions of Success":]
    A danger existed in the ease of modern life.  Advanced technologies made everything easy, much easier than it had once been.  That was part of the reason why the Federation resisted widescale implementation of such technologies for so long; for centuries.  When one could beam anywhere, do practically anything without even having to get up from one's seat, the danger arose from lack of exercise – which could be a serious physical detriment.  Bodies were machines.  They needed exercise to work well.  Without it, muscles atrophied, and in turn, brains, the organs which kept everything going.
    So, April exercised.
    Sadly, suffering took other forms.  After his workout... which included pressing a new record into place for weightlifting among Starfleet captains... he got some bad news.
[Earlier, elsewhere... in what used to be the Nem-Loth system:]
    Sunni Moon clung to the rail, scared to the edge of death.  Never before did she feel the urge to cry, not once since she was little.  She thought for sure she'd burst into tears any second.  She wanted to cry out, –to someone, anyone, for help.  Stephen.  The sisters in her coven, the Sisters of the Moon.  Anyone.  But there was no help coming– no help that could possibly reach her or this ship.
    The alarms had gone silent.  Everything was a dark chaotic mess.  She couldn't hear–.  Somehow her ears stopped registering sound.  All she could see was a portion of the console, on the other side of the rail where she'd wrapped her arms around, holding on for life.  The console displays were black, inoperative.  The controller's chair sat empty, spinning like a top.
    The entire ship mimicked that movement, rotating wildly, like being in a centrifuge – and the g's were climbing.
    She had screwed up.  Terribly.  She never should have suggested coming here.  She should have just kept her big, fat mouth shut.  She wondered if she would be reincarnated again, after this... who she would be, in her next life.
    Everything happened so fast; faster than she could think, or imagined possible.  She barely had time to form the thought, Inertial dampeners haven't failed, when they did.  A faint snap... steel breaking... reached her eardrums – the sound of the rail breaking from the deck.  Her arms shredded in the same instant, bone cleaved where the rail had been.  The pain barely had time to reach the nerve-centers in her brain.  Then she no longer had arms, or ears, a head, or a body.  In an infinitesimal span of a split second, Sunni Moon hurtled into a bloody mist against a wall of the USS Echostone's bridge, before the bridge itself ripped apart.
    "It's bad," Shaar said, standing beside April before the holorama.  In Stellar Cartography, they watched the visual presentation of the latest Starfleet science news bulletin; only it wasn't tailored to the astrophysicists or just the science department in general, as per usual.  It had carried a priority label, something everyone in Starfleet was meant to see.
    "It's impossible," Siobhan Science said, as if correcting Shaar, then gestured at the display.  "But... there it is, happening before our eyes...."
    The black hole was growing, and growing fast.  That was bizarre in itself.  Black holes gained mass at a stunning rate, but not that quickly.  The hole itself was invisible.  The bending of light and gravity around the monstrosity produced the visible effect, along with its accretion disk.
    Just as bizarre was its beginning: A supernova.  The star Nem-Loth exploded recently.  It shouldn't have produced a black hole; it lacked sufficient mass.  Yet, somehow... after Nem-Loth exploded... a black hole sat in its place.  A huge one.  It had consumed most of the material from the supernova, sucking it back in as soon as it exploded.  Now it was growing, eating up other nearby objects and debris... and it was moving.  A rover.  A mobile black hole.  Essentially a vacuum cleaner run amok... about to suck up whatever got in its way, as it freewheeled across the Alpha Quadrant.
    Elleda Atu spoke up behind April, a horrified quiver in her voice: "What are we going to do?"
    April shook his head, awestruck at the scene.  Black holes just didn't do that.  Starfleet had dispatched ships, Quantum-classies, Quality and Opportunity, with a plan to put the black hole out of commission, by basically 'stalling' it through complex physics.  Their failure ended in their getting devoured.  Could the Arc fare any better, if ordered to act?  Before that, the Echostone, Sunni's ship, traveled to Nem-Loth to study the supernova.  The El Paso-class ship's last spat of communication indicated it got caught in the black hole's tidal forces as it formed... and that was the end of the Echostone.
    The end of Sunni Moon.
    Three ships, destroyed.  And Sunni... a woman many on Arcadia had known for years, including April....
    She was there for him, when he needed someone.
[Even earlier, before "Terraforming, Arc-Style"...]
    He was going crazy.  He needed to get out for a while... off the ship.  The holodeck wouldn't do it.  It had to be real.
    Sunni Moon had left two messages.  She'd been after him for a long time.  She didn't like it when he married Brenda – she knew April was a one-woman man, and wouldn't cheat on his wife (even though it turned out Brenda wasn't as monogamous).  Now that he was divorced, she was expressing an interest again.  The messages indicated she had leave, and invited him to join her on Thallos.
    Thallos, where April had his last good time with Brenda, in 2387.  The same club.  'Good for healing', Sunni insisted.
    Once it would have bothered him, getting involved with a fellow officer... let alone a subordinate... certainly let alone Sunni Moon.
    But knowing Sunni, she'd be thrilled.
    And she was.  It didn't take long to get April to loosen up.
    "You're tighter than a Klingon fart," she told him.  "You need to let go and have fun.  Come on, let's dance."
    "Come on!"  She grabbed his hand, practically dragging him.
    Boy, could Sunni dance.  She was a natural.  Made sense: a choreographer in her spare time.  He'd seen her with Celina Corgan on the holodeck, in dance hall re-enactments from various planets' histories.  But she had moves April never imagined.  She would slide up against him, grinning, teasing him with those bright blues, retreat, then come back for more.
    April was no slouch in the dance department.  Before he knew it, he was boogying, roving the dance floor, no thoughts, no worries, enjoying the splendor.  He executed several daring moves, salsa-style, rigged with ballroom techniques.  The mood became magnetic, attracting others.  In minutes the floor was a sea of bodies.
    Sunni finally got what she wanted.
    April turned his head on the pillow to find her laying there, looking at him.  She put a hand under her head, propping herself up.  "Was that the best time you had in a while?"
    "Maybe," was the response, playful.
    "Want to have more?"  Suddenly her eyes widened; she lunged out of bed.  "No!  I'm late!"
    April frowned, sitting up.  "What's wrong?"
    "I have to be on the Echo!"  She jumped up; clothes materialized, covering her.  She whipped her head around with a splay of blond hair on her way out.  "I'll call you!"
    She vanished – instantaneous transport.
    April looked at the spot where she'd stood, smiled, and laid back down with a sigh.  He needed that.
    The good mood stayed with him.  He strolled onto the Arc's bridge, in a jovial mood.
    He'd lost several crewmembers.  So it happened.  Life went on.  Others came in to replace them.  That used to bother him.  He had started to let it bother him again.  But he'd forgotten one very important lesson: Not to let what others did influence him.  He couldn't control everything.  He couldn't solve all of the mysteries of the universe.  The best he could do was take things step by step, one day at a time.  He just had to roll with it.
    There was life after divorce... after loss.  Wounds healed, in time.  It depended on the person.  Right then, he felt too good to let anything bother him.  High on life.  In love with life.
    "Helm," he said with a clap of his hands, dropping into his chair.  "Let's go to Tarkova."
[Later... Starfleet Command, Office of Admiral Stiers:]
    The holographically communicated form of Stephen April faced the flesh-and-blood form of Spitzberg Stiers, after asking the question he came to ask:
    "Are you sending other ships?"
    Stiers planted eyes on April.  "Vashak'ti and Helliconia."
    "I'd like to request the assignment for Arcadia."
    "What can you do that they can't?"
    "For one thing, I knew the Echostone's first officer," April said.  It was easy enough to check files, and learn of April's past with Sunni Moon.  Maybe Stiers had done that very thing.  It made no sense to lie about it (not that April was in the habit of lying), or try to hide it.
    "Personal reasons, Captain?"
    "Partly... but not primarily.  We have considerable history with these sorts of space oddities."
    "That's true."  Stiers considered... then: "But your ship isn't the only one with that kind of experience.  In fact, Vashak'ti has more."
    April felt a twinge of resentment.  "Is this because we missed twenty years?"
    "No, it isn't.  But we do have other competent crews."
    "I wasn't implying otherwise."
    "Good.  Then knowing one of the Echostone officers isn't a good enough reason.  You have to face facts, Captain: The Echostone has been lost, with all hands.  There's nothing you can do about that.  I'm sorry.  Request denied."
    Stiers wouldn't change his mind.  And he was right: There was nothing that April or Arcadia could do.  The Echostone was gone, and Sunni Moon with it.
    Sometimes, one just had to accept the cold, hard truth.
[Following "Social Interlude":]
    The Arcadia had moved to the second world on its itinerary after Tarkova.  Blue Valley, or simply "Blue" as inhabitants called it, boasted a cluster of settlements founded within the last fifty years; the colonists were ready to populate other regions.  Blue's energy supply came from old, limited-design reactors insufficient to meet the needs of expansion – not the exponentially more advanced supply of a modern starship.  This limited industrial base made the help of a starship invaluable.
    It also made the process go quickly, with colonists on hand to oversee the operation, smoothing out any rough spots.  This put the Arc ahead of schedule – as Hafez informed Berkowitz, joining the first officer on a low-rise hill at the edge of Alphaville, the main town.
    "Good news, Commander."  Hafez offered Berkowitz a padd.  "We have a few days before we have to reach our next stop."
    "That is good news."  Berkowitz scrolled through the display.  "We can rotate leave for the rest of the crew."
    "I'll see to it," Hafez said.
    "Leave me something to do, Buck.  You'd run the show all by yourself if you could, wouldn't you?"
    Hafez mocked surprise.  "Sorry, Commander; I don't know what you mean."
    "Uh huh."  Berkowitz returned the padd with a grin.  "Take some leave.  Thanks, Lieutenant."
    "Thanks, Commander."  Hafez headed off.
    Berkowitz took a moment to gaze over the valley after which this world was named.  Blue was, aptly, a blue planet; moderate, class M.  Sunny... lots of water.  Oceans covered more than half the globe.  There were few clouds in the immediate region, and the air was still.  Pleasant, if a little warm.  An idyllic place for a calm, lazy shore leave, before their next stop, Azarath Prime; Arcadia's final destination for the month.
    Berkowitz turned and made her way into town.  She intended to recommend leave for Captain April, before anybody else.  She hoped he would come down.  He seemed to need it more than anyone.  It was what Sunni would want him to do.
    By nightfall, half of the crew had beamed down, and were taking in what Blue had to offer.
    Word spread quickly of an Alphaville nightclub, "Harmony, Play On", popular with the colonists.  Some of the ship's complement set it on their list of places to visit... and before long the establishment was overflowing with Starfleet types, out of uniform.
    The latest batch to arrive included Celina Corgan, Adia Shaar and others.  Entering, they were immediately assailed by loud music with a hard-thumping beat.
    The band roared.  The group from the Arc stopped as they noticed who was on stage.
    "Is that...?"
    "That's Captain April...!"
    On the left side of the stage, a plasmic guitar was slung over Stephen April, wailing an aggressive melody under the captain's (surprisingly nimble) fingers.
    The Arc people stared in shock, jaws agape... expressions quickly turning to grins and smiles on some, as the sight sank in.
    Shaar, one of the Arcadia's resident music "experts", was just as impressed.  She didn't care for the music being played, yet who couldn't help being blown away by a sight like that?  April wasROCKING OUT.  Flashfeed education enabled anyone to learn a new skill in seconds, but... when did the captain learn to play guitar?
    "That can't be the captain," she heard Berkowitz say.
    "It can't be," Corgan echoed.
    But it was.  April's reputation reinforced the impression.  Some (perhaps many) saw him as a cold, bland persona, with little color or personality.  Lately, however, he seemed different.... doing things Stephen April was unknown to do previously.
    Except surprise people, from time to time.  Like now.
    The number ended.  Shaar hesitated, preparing to take a seat with her crewmates.  April noticed her.  She experienced a sense of anticipation, almost like déja vu... knowing what would come next.
    A recent genetic modification gave her the El-Aurian 'listening' ability... an ability she was meant to have, along with other insights too subtle to describe.  Body language spoke volumes to her... things she'd never noticed in the past.  Rather than sit, she instinctively started towards the stage.  April was talking to a fellow band member.  The other man nodded and announced to the audience:
    "Everyone, please welcome Adia, who's going to give us a little treat."

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