Disclaimer: My first Trek story. Standard disclaimers apply. TNG is owned by Paramount, except insofar as it exists in a parallel universe. If you're looking for the Trek stuff, that's in chapters 2 onwards for the most part.
Chapter 1 - Twentieth Century Earth
The date: October 1997
Cities tend towards being vast, but that vastness has different qualities depending on the place and beholder. In the case of the city of Peillacos and Carol, that constituted having five minutes between university lectures to complete a journey that would take ten to fifteen minutes at her current rate.
The problem seemed to revolve around there being other people. She was not keen on them, but those that were lecturers or shopkeepers were unfortunately necessary for grades and survival respectively.
This was not the first time she had cursed coming here. It wasn't world-famous, it had no particular glamour, but it was cheap and it was very very good. How they managed this, Carol chose not to consider. Research was expensive, teaching not much cheaper. She doubted the fees for a year would cover the expenses for a week, even if you factored in the profit from the shops the university owned.
Industry was not invited in. Neither was government. It was the lack of either, along with a total lack of cooperation with other universities, that guaranteed its lack of presence on the world stage. Still, conspiracy theories about who paid for it – and why - weren't productive. Studying was.
This was also not the first time she had sent people flying and most students had learned the hard way that being a speed bump in her path gave a fascinating insight into the lives of bricks, paving stones and the animals that called these home, along with some bruises, but not much else.
She got to the lecture hall just as people were starting to file in. Good. Nothing missed. She settled down and prepared to take notes.
Afterwards, she got called to her supervisor's office. As usual. Same complaints, same reason. Davis was not going to be happy, she thought.
Once she was in the office and the door closed, Dr Davis breathed out a sigh. "You are on course for either a top honours or a police cell for assault. Possibly both. Do you have any idea how hard you're making this?"
Carol thought this through then shrugged. "I can't move the halls closer."
"You can increase your time, if you drop a course. Nobody else attempts a triple major. You might also have time to have a life or lunch. Right now, you have neither."
"What's the other option?"
"I don't think you'd be offering me the impossible unless you've something else in mind."
"Hmmm. Here's the other option, then. The university needs something dangerous done. Discretely. By someone it can easily disown as a reckless lunatic, if necessary. You fit the description perfectly. It will require until the end of the term. Lectures will be recorded for you. Coursework and exams to be done over the summer."
Carol nearly choked in fury. The alternatives to being annoying was, apparently, to be dead, thrown to wolves or sent to summer school. She wasn't sure which was worse.
"It sounds like a bad spy thriller with a terminal case of defective subplots."
Her supervisor pulled a grin. "That's not too bad of a description, except you don't have to spy, you don't get fancy gadgets or a car and thrills will be limited. So, aside from not being close, you've got the idea."
Carol wanted to punch him, except that would look bad on the transcripts. "What do you need done?"
"An item was stolen from a museum storage room by an organisation that steals to order for collectors."
She sensed that this wasn't entirely accurate, but didn't bother pursuing it.
"And you want me to steal it back for them?"
"No, no, we need it sent to the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India. You've been volunteered as courier."
"What is it?"
"A piece of rock, maybe one foot by one foot, with ancient writing carved on it."
"What does it say?"
"Hard to say if it says anything. They may be just random strange symbols."
Carol snorted. "And if you believed that, you wouldn't be paying to get it to India. What are the people there supposed to do with it, put it in space?"
"Actually, yes. However, that's not important. Your degree is."
He had her there. She wanted that degree. She was not a thief, or dishonest, by nature but apparently the one thing she wanted most was contingent being one. At least it was to steal something back. Well, possibly. However, she had to be sure.
"And if I refuse?"
"You'll spend the night in a police cell and be kicked off your course, unless I decide you're a talking hazard and not just a walking one."
The casual way this was spoken suggested to Carol that she'd best think that this was definitely a noble salvage operation. The chills down her spine were otherwise going to settle down and raise a family.
One series of flights to Serbia later, Carol rented a car and attempted to drive from the airport to a cheap hotel she had been booked into. Interestingly, the reservation had apparently been made a week prior to her agreeing to go, which didn't sit well with her. Nor did the letter, which she'd been asked to deliver. Thief and postal worker? The address on the front meant nothing to her.
Being able to drive and being able to drive elsewhere were two completely different things, particularly as this was an older car with manual transmission. Apparently, a few other things were manual as well as she had great difficulty getting the car started, moving or going around corners.
Eventually she arrived, intact apart from her nerves and temper. The room was…not in the best of shape, but as she had not planned to actually use it, that was barely acceptable.
Freshening up was quick, easy and limited to soft drinks, a quick change of clothes and a round of inventive curses and expletives in private.
The journey out of Belgrade deep into the country and to the house being discretely used to store stolen items was revealing. It was huge and well guarded. The police uniforms on some of the guards patrolling possibly indicated either an official awareness or an official tolerance. Or maybe just moonlighting, the recent war had not helped the economy. Not her concern.
Her concern was how to break into a house with virtually nothing beyond a rental car and the clothes on her back. Further up the road, she gave up on trying to conceal the car and parked it across the road, handbrake off. That was going to annoy someone and she felt like being annoying.
Lying in the grass beside the road, she wondered how many ticks and other vermin she'd have to contend with, what poisonous and venomous creatures lived here and whether she'd die of boredom before anything happened.
As luck would have it, a truck drove up. The armed guard up front told her little, as she had no idea if that was common. The guard got out and pushed the car aside. She had to keep out of sight of the driver, so she carefully approached from a blind spot. Now all she had to do was find a hiding spot where they wouldn't search – as they were bound to suspect a hitch-hiker with that stunt.
She needn't have bothered worrying. A second guard, in the back, had a gun to her head and was indicating that lying on the ground was a very smart place to be.
A short while later, she was in the house. Not in the way she wanted, although truth be told she had expected it. She was still irritated with herself, though.
The gentleman who entered gestured for her to sit. The two rifles aimed in her direction lowered her resistance to orders. The man spoke, his English difficult due to a strong Slavic accent but not impossible.
"You would not make a very good thief, Miss…?"
"Duncan. Carol Duncan."
It occurred to her that they would either have checked the flight, hotel and car rental by now or would do. Lying about the verifiable did not seem smart.
The man nodded. "Very good. You are wise enough to be honest about that. Let us see what else you can be honest about. Who sent you?"
Everything had been booked via the university under its name. Carol wondered about that at the time, but thought she maybe saw a madness to the method, or vice versa.
"I have…looked into them. A most curious place. A city built to accommodate a university, money from thin air…You work for some interesting people, Miss Duncan. Very interesting and very discrete. Why did they send you?"
Here Carol paused. She wasn't sure how safe it was to go into areas the man couldn't verify. Besides, she really didn't know a whole lot.
"Ah! You show much wisdom for one so young. Knowing when to be circumspect is commendable. No matter, we have very little that would interest them and I can therefore conclude what it is. It is a little surprising a place so full of great minds would send someone with no experience and no means to break in…"
He paused, considering some new insight. "Maybe…They never expected you to steal. You understand we only sell to the agreed purchaser, stealing from them would be bad for business. People might regard us as dishonest."
Carol thought fast. If she was here to negotiate, what was she here to negotiate with? It was then she remembered the letter she'd been given with no explanation. She still had it.
"There's a letter in the inside pocket of my jacket. I think it may be for you."
The man looked inquisitive. "Take it out. Slowly. And put it on the plate that will be passed to you. You understand, we don't normally get post this way."
She did as instructed, nervously. She had no idea if she was doing the right thing. She was then instructed to pass the plate back very carefully. Fighting her nerves, she did so.
The letter was opened and read by one of the guards. It was in a language she did not know, so could make nothing of it. Once the guard finished, the man barked a laugh before giving one of the men an order. A phone call later and the gentleman nodded.
"It would appear the original buyer is…unable to collect at this time and the university desires that you retrieve the item on their behalf. The university has transferred some additional funds to cover the inconvenience. Highly irregular, of course, but it is true, we cannot warehouse such items forever and you apparently have credentials of a most interesting calibre."
Carol was sweating profusely. She wasn't going to assume this meant she was still going to be breathing the next day, or indeed make any assumptions as to what it meant at all.
A gesture and the guard who had made the first call made a second one. A short time later and another guard appeared. He talked to the man briefly, before the man stood up.
"Very well, Miss Duncan. The vehicle you rented, which we shall most generously call a car in order to save you any further embarrassment, is outside. You may verify the merchandise before you leave."
The stone was as described, and was very carefully packed. Indeed, the care taken over ensuring the stone's safety far exceeded any value the stone could have, in Carol's eyes.
She did not bother going back to the hotel, her stuff had been thrown into the back without much care or attention. She realized that this had probably been done for expediency. If they had killed her, she could have vanished entirely.
After going straight to the airport, she called her supervisor. "I…" she began.
"Have a flight to catch." The voice at the other end gave her an airline and a flight number, then hung up.
At the check-in desk, the tickets were waiting for her. She wasn't asked for ID. After handing over the luggage, she was escorted smartly around the security to a chartered flight lounge. From there, she was taken to a smaller aircraft. She was apparently the only passenger on this flight and was to receive full VIP treatment.
The facial expressions on the stewardess made it clear she had no idea why this young woman with messed-up hair, bruised face and grass-stained student clothes was being given absolute luxury, but that she was being paid extremely well to supply it.
Carol saw no need to indulge on the flight but was keenly aware that she could have anything she wanted, anything at all, as long as it was there to have and she wanted it or swung that way. Instead, to the stewardess' great relief, she chose to keep her head clear and herself to herself. All the better to focus on what was going on, as far as she was concerned.
She could have made this trip on regular flights, the risk of damage to the crate was low, it would be cheaper and less conspicuous. Ergo, this was not routine. She'd been played by the university in her Serbian adventure and expected this to be no different. This was not being done for her, she had no relevance except as a delivery system. She couldn't even call herself a courier, that would imply a level of humanness.
She was also confused about another thing. If the buyer was known, why not wait for them to collect before killing them? Why this elaborate game? And why kill them anyway? Weren't there better ways to do things? This wasn't the middle ages. Also, why put this thing into space instead of studying it?
She felt she could identify with Lewis Carroll's character of Alice, except that his stories at least had some sort of internal logic.
A couple of stops for fuel along the way and they reached the spaceport's airport.
As the flight had progressed and Carol still hadn't been demanding or unpleasant, but rather courteous and quiet, the stewardess had consented to a couple of genuine smiles and – when Carol was looking elsewhere – a puzzled frown. This was not some rich kid burning money, this was a frightened kid. Still, it wasn't hers to judge. She had forgotten about Carol entirely within minutes of landing.
Carol took charge of the crate and her luggage as she headed from the terminal to the main part of the spaceport. There she met with the chief scientist, who took the crate from her, and a doctor, who escorted her to a clinic.
"You've had a rough day, we want to make sure you are well", he explained unconvincingly.
The check-up was suspiciously thorough, so she was grateful to be handed a glass of water and a bed to rest on before her homework journey. Despite the comfort of the flight over, her adrenaline made rest or sleep impossible. She wondered if that was part of the idea of the luxury, to get her to rest. Well, too late now.
She downed the glass of water, placed it vaguely on the table, rolled over and fell asleep. Later, she would wonder about just how fast that had happened, or that it had happened at all.
When she awoke, everything around her was rattling violently. At first she thought it was an earthquake, then everything came sharply into focus.
This was not the clinic or an aircraft. That was not a bed, that was some sort of couch. She was not wearing her clothes, she was wearing some sort of pressure suit or spacesuit. She'd seen enough TV to know what those looked like.
Apparently the crate wasn't the only thing going into space. She was furious. This was not part of the bargain. The idea of being undressed and dressed by strangers when she was unconscious was not going down well, either.
Emotionally, she'd just about had enough. The thought crossed her mind that she'd never be able to collect her degree now, and that drove her briefly to rage.
She was not able to move, but whether that was due to the acceleration or the straps, she couldn't tell. The strain of trying, though, allowed her temper to cool and her humour to return.
"If I'd known they objected to me running in the streets that much, I might have looked where I was going. But, then, they could have afforded gold-plated bridges between the buildings for less than this."
Things were making less sense than ever. The vibrations stopped after a few hours, but she didn't know what that meant in practice. Without knowing how long she'd been travelling before she woke up, this could mean she was about to plunge to the ground over an equal length of time, a time she could spend contemplating whether she should have taken advantage of everything in that plane, whether there was a life after death and whether it would be any saner than the one she'd be departing.
Equally, it could mean she was now in space, where she would also die horribly and philosophically.
The straps were easier to undo, now the forces were not so strong. They floated around, bouncing into each other and the couch in strange ways.
"Net forces are about zero, which could still mean either possibility. I need to see out of a window, but this is going to be dangerous."
She pushed herself very gently from the couch and flew slowly across the cabin. The bulk of the suit made this difficult and uncomfortable. She crashed into the far wall, at an angle she'd not expected, bouncing off. She was able to grab a protrusion and stabilize herself.
Grabbing the top of the hatch, using the orientation of writing to the side of it to define top, she clambered through and found herself looking through a front window. Inky blackness with stars. Ok, not doomed to be a newly-named crater on Earth.
Retreating back, she found that behind the couch there was some food in sealed trays and some drink cartons, in a storage bin. Further back, there was a toilet with instructions written optimistically on the front. The crate with the stone was also there.
A sign on the wall next to her included instructions on removing the spacesuit. Hmmm, that meant this place was pressurized. It also included instructions for putting it back on, with big warning stickers on the importance of this. As it had absorbed the impact of many collisions by now, she was inclined to agree.
The couch will just have to double as a bed, she decided.
There was enough food and drink to last four days. She was unclear what happened after that.
The next two days were uneventful aside from short bursts of rumbling. She assumed some sort of course correction, but she didn't bother to check through the window.
Halfway through the third day, the rumbling slowly built up. Carol got onto the couch and strapped herself in. She didn't want to die when it was about to get fun.
The rocket went silent. Then there was a clang, followed by bangs and further clangs. Then it all went quiet.
Releasing the straps, she headed to the front window, where she found that the rocket was attached via the nose to something else. She couldn't tell what.
Below the window was a hatch. She had ignored it before, hatches to space weren't useful. Now, however, it led to the whatever it was that they had connected to. And that made it very interesting indeed.
Using her soft, delicate, lead-weighted boot, she kicked the hatch open and instantly regretted it. She remembered too late the dire warning of Newton that action and reaction are equal and opposite.
Smashing into the ceiling cracked her helmet a little and left her dazed. It took maybe half an hour before she was up to exploring again.
Through the hatch and she entered…a slightly larger version of the room she had been in originally, with the couch. There was a hatch behind it, leading to a much smaller room. She estimated the walls to be maybe an additional metre thick, which was substantial. Inside of that was a glass vessel with an oxygen mask inside.
Removing her now largely useless suit and leaving it outside, she clambered into the small room. A note was attached to the wall. She read it twice, before ranting quietly.
Close all the airlocks completely, starting with the one on your capsule. Get into the glass cylinder, attach the IV line, put on the mask and wait. In case you're wondering, this inner room is shielded against most dangers. This ship is propelled by a mix of experimental ion drives and theoretical solar sails. We have no idea if it is going to work. You'll know when it is safe to get out. After that, examine the stone at your leisure.
Now, how did they know about the stone when they were building this?
Not one to obey orders until she had to, she ignored the instructions for now and brought the crate through. It was not easy in microgravity, as the hatches were almost too small. She made it eventually. There was a recess that she could place the crate in that locked it in place. As if it had been made to do just that.
She considered examining the stone now, but she was tired and frustrated. Time for the couch.
On day four, she decided she was really out of time. She was almost out of food and water, and might need that later. She moved what was left to the crampt room and closed the hatches and airlocks.
In the small room, she clambered into the bed, strapped herself in and squirted a little fluid from the IV to clear any bubbles. Attaching a line to herself was not easy but it was required for students to take a basic paramedic course. Oddly, only she turned up for that particular session. Oh. She'd been a damn fool.
She put the mask on. The air flowed easily. It was slightly warm and had a slight tint to it. She felt drowsy. The tank started filling but she really didn't notice…
It took only a short time to switch her blood to a liquid that would not cause cellular damage at low temperatures. Her heart had stopped and no brainwaves showed. The cells had been induced, through chemicals added to the food and drink, to enter a stable hibernation under these conditions.
The main engines fired, pushing the vast array of docked spaceship modules onto a slingshot orbit around Venus, using the planet to accelerate the ship far more than could be achieved by facing the rockets into deep space. The solar sails worked much better so close to the sun.
Several years later, the ship was speeding past Saturn. The sun's rays were weak and the sails were coated in dust. Where they hadn't been ripped to shreds by the rocks that filled the inner solar system. The sails were jettisoned and a new set deployed. By the middle of the Kuiper belt, they too were useless and dispensed with.
An ion drive was then activated. It took three attempts by the onboard computer to shake off debris and activate the drive, but in the end it succeeded. The drive was not very powerful but was adequate. The hard radiation of interstellar space could deflect a vessel by enough to miss a target, the ion drive's job was to stop that happening.
And so, twenty-four years later, she should have awoken around Alpha Centauri.
She almost got there.
With three of the four light-years crossed, the ship's computer was preparing to deploy the solar sails needed to brake sufficiently to begin a slingshot around the new sun. It would never finish the task.
Caught in an unstable warp field, it was dragged over three hundred light-years off course. The computers gave up on trying to do anything for the time being, the data was erroneous. They were designed to be fault-tolerant, so did not crash. They merely waited.
Eventually the bubble temporarily collapsed and the ship fell out. The stars were unidentifiable by the computer, but a detectable star did exist that was of the same basic class as Sol and wasn't indicating dangerous radiation. The ion drives were sufficient to kick the vessel in the necessary direction. It would take about five hundred years to complete the journey.
Once sufficiently close, solar sails were deployed, slowing the vessel down. As the background radiation inside the main portion of the craft fell, the computers determined when levels were within the limits humans could tolerate.
Carol was slowly revived, her blood – mixed with xenon to prevent the cells failing as they awoke – was pumped back in. The complete process of warming, re-oxygenation and restarting the body took almost an hour to complete.
Her head swimming, she climbed out of the tube and gasped for air. The ship's life support was awakening from its long slumber and was having problems. Although it had five-fold redundancy everywhere, it wasn't engineered for such a lifespan. It was intended to handle a century at the tops and that was to cater for every failure the engineers could imagine. There was no allowance made for the unimaginable.
The undergarments from her spacesuit were all but destroyed by time, but she did have a full set of regular clothes in her suitcase. With no oxygen, no radiation and no heat, they'd survived adequately. Changing wasn't easy in microgravity, but she felt it necessary.
Opening the crate, she used the padding above the stone to cushion the inevitable crash against the ceiling. Taking more padding out and lining the end wall with it was easy. That meant she could slowly edge the stone there. Using further padding and the lid, she coaxed the stone to the main chamber.
And then she stared at it.
Why bring it out into space? Why bring her into space with it? None of this was making any kind of sense.
The computer detected something nearby. It didn't fit any known classification and it manoeuvred in a manner unlike a conventional object. Concluding it was a vessel, it emitted automatic distress calls on a range of frequencies.
Carol was oblivious to this and continued staring at the stone, looking for some logic. She was a good student, she had been told by some that she'd have a brilliant mind if she bothered to put the effort in. That might be part of why she was there. But she could make no sense of any of the symbols, no logic at all. At least. Not yet...
Yet, if she were to understand why she'd been marooned on the edge of nowhere, she would have to understand what it was that the university had seen in the stone and seen in her. She bitterly resented their cavalier attitude towards her life and her rights, but hoped that there was some reason. Something that could give her a solid why.
She paid no attention to anything else around her, totally absorbed by analysis and introspection.