"Rock the Cradle"

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"Rock the Cradle"

Postby Varthikes » Fri Oct 04, 2013 12:51 am

Ten years ago, I was working on a series short stories that followed the crew of a starship, sort of a cross between Star Trek and Babylon 5. Two of the stories were called "To the Beginning of Time" and "Time After Time". In the former, the ship was thrown back to Earth's Devonian Period. In the latter, the crew have returned to the 22nd Century, but to find that they went a little too far ahead and meet their future selves. Recently, I re-wrote these two stories, combining them and adding a villain from another story that I scrapped. And, here it is...



"ROCK THE CRADLE"

C
OMMANDER GESHAB looked up as the lights came on and blinked, his slitted, copper-tinted eyes adjusting to the light. “Full power is restored,” Deschar, his executive reported.

He opened his mouth a crack and hissed his approval. It was mere moments ago that they had passed through the anomaly relatively unscathed. “Do we have navigation?”

“Affirmative,” the navigator said. “The information that we have received from the Humans' records is in place.”

“Set course for Earth. Deschar, remain alert for the Earth ship.” He had no idea when the originator of the records would arrive in this time period. Perhaps they have already been here. Perhaps years are to transpire before they would arrive. Regardless, Geshab was not about to drop his guard. It was just as possible for the Earth ship to arrive while they are running their test.

“Captain Kithalish demands to know the cause for the disturbance,” the communications officer reported.

Geshab resisted the urge to hiss his annoyance. The military scientist had come aboard to supervise the test. With full support of the Emperor—a detail that Kithalish saw fit to remind him at every opportunity. Their orders had been to conduct the test in an uninhabited system, which they are, though High Command had no knowledge of their true destination. “Tell him that we were experiencing a minor engine difficulty. It has been corrected, and there is no need for further concern.”

*

Mark grimaced as the screams and explosions echoed through his mind. Screams and explosions that occurred a few months ago and over ten light-years away.

On the screen before him was a diagram of the Alpha Centauri System. Half-dozen planets, four of them gas giants while the other two, sandwiched between the second and third giants, were terrestrials with atmospheres and surfaces hazardous to Human life. A system of moons and planetoids orbited the second gas giant. A single starbase orbiting the third gas giant was all that represented Humanity's presence in that system—at least, up until a few months ago.

“We've been ordered to check on the refugees,” Jonathan said. “Make sure they're settled in alright.”

Mark closed his eyes and raised a hand to rub his brow.

“Is there something wrong?”

Mark took a deep breath, pushing away the painful memories. He looked up and turned back to Captain Jonathan March, who sat on the edge of the conference table. They were alone in the briefing room. “Sorry. Just memories. I was in the battle where these refugees lost their colony.” He pointed to the screen. “Holding off the Malcon troops while they evacuated Providence. Three months, and I'm still haunted.”

Jonathan nodded his understanding, a sympathetic smile forming on his face.

Then, the intercom signaled. “Captain to the bridge,” Jennifer's voice called from the com-speakers. Jonathan reached back to the console behind him and hit the com-switch acknowledge. Then, switching off the com-speaker, he slid off the table and made for the door. Mark followed him.

*

Jonathan stepped off the lift and up to the rail behind his command chair while Johnson made his way to his station. The main viewscreen on the opposite bulkhead showed a peaceful, though suspiciously still, starry sky ahead. “What's the problem? Why have we stopped?” He first looked back at Jennifer, then Marco spoke up from navigation.

“We've entered the Bermuda Sector,” she said.

Jonathan cocked his eyebrows. “Ah, I see.” He circled around to his command chair and sat down. Everyone knew the story. Nearly sixty years ago, Earth's first warp-driven vessel, the EAS Frontier, and her Peridjinn escort disappeared while investigating this sector of space. The sector where the Peridjinn Republic have lost more than a few ships throughout the twenty-first century. “McClance, ready a probe. Since we're here, it wouldn't hurt to check this out.”

A quick succession of beeps sounded from the science station. “Ready, Captain.” Jonathan turned to his chief science officer, a single eyebrow cocked. McClance met the look with an ever-growing grin. “Jennifer said you would want to check this out.”

Jonathan glanced back at his niece, then turned back to the screen. “All right. You better launch before you split your face.”

“Yes, Captain,” McClance chuckled.

A moment later, a small, metallic object sped away from them, slower than a missile, trailing a red light. “Receiving data,” McClance said while Jonathan held his eyes on the main viewscreen. “There's an awfully high concentration of tachyon particles. And the concentration increases exponentially the further the probe goes.”

An alarm went off, and Jonathan turned his attention to McClance. “There's an increase of activity from the particles.”

A flash lit up the bridge, and Jonathan snapped his attention back to the screen. Where there had been an empty starfield a moment ago, there was now a white tear gently pulsating in space. The deck lurched beneath him, and he gripped his armrests. The klaxon alarm blared.

“We've lost contact with the probe,” McClance reported.

“We have forward momentum,” Marco said. “We're being pulled in!”

“Turn about, Ensign,” Jonathan ordered. Wilson worked his controls. They continued toward the anomaly, and it seemed to Jonathan that they were picking up speed. The white hole in space was beginning to fill the entire viewscreen. “Ensign?”

“I've got the engines on full power, capt'n.”

“Bridge to engineering,” Johnson said, speaking into the intercom. “Harry, we need all the power to the engines you can give us.”

The viewscreen was now completely white with the anomaly. “We're out of time,” McClance said.

“Put me on ship-wide,” Jonathan ordered.

“Open,” Jennifer said.

“All hands, brace yourselves!” A moment later, the ship leaped. Jonathan clung to his chair with all his might, but his grip broke and his face smashed into something hard.

Jonathan pushed himself off the deck. As he climbed to his feet, he rubbed his sore nose. He didn't smell any blood, and he was relieved to confirm that there was indeed no bleeding. “Report status,” he said, turning back to his chair. He looked around the bridge. The command deck was dark, with the consoles and yellow emergency lights providing the only illumination. Even the main viewscreen was off-line. In the limited light, however, Jonathan could see the silhouetted forms of his officers busy at their stations.

Jonathan smiled inwardly as he settled back into his chair. Just barely a month since he took command of the Discovery and this crew was assembled; already they have demonstrated a familiar diligence. But, Jonathan put that aside and returned his attention to the current situation. “Report status,” he said again.

“Everything except emergency power is down,” Johnson said.

Jonathan rolled his eyes toward the tactical station. Though, his executive's blunt, dry sense of humor could be a little annoying at times. “Yes, I got that. Thank you.”

“I'm sure Harry is already on it. He should have the power back momentarily.”

“Marco, you should have minimal sensor readings. Can you determine our coordinates?”

“I'm not sure I can trust these readings,” Marco answered, her eyes glued to her console. “The stars look strange.”

The main power came back. Jonathan looked up at the lights coming back on, and sighed with relief. The main viewscreen flickered back to life. “See? Harry's got the power back,” Johnson said.

“Good. Maybe now we'll be able to figure out where we are,” Jonathan said. “Marco?”

“Yes, sir.” The navigator was already hard at work.

“I see what she means,” McClance said. “These stars are strange, but the probe is here with us. Off the forward-port quarter.”

“What about the anomaly?” Jonathan turned to his chief science officer, busy at his console.

“The concentration of tachyon particles is behind us,” McClance answered.

Jonathan swung toward the helmsman. “Ensign, do you have engine control?”

“Aye, Capt'n,” Wilson said, looking back from his console.

“Get us into position. We'll bring that probe into Launch Bay Two.” Jonathan glanced back at the com-station. “Jennifer, inform Launch Control.” By the time, he returned his attention forward, Wilson was working his controls, firing the ship's thrusters. On the screen, the stars shifted as the ship rotated to the port. A small metallic object came into view, a single light blinking as a beacon.

“Firin' sublight engines,” Wilson said.

The ship started forward, passing over the probe. Marco forced out a sigh of frustration. “The computer isn't recognizing anything! The anomaly must've transported us to a completely uncharted region of space—probably to a whole different galaxy.”

“There is a star system nearby,” McClance said. “One very much like our own. G-type star, eight planets, a number of planetoids, an asteroid belt between the fourth and fifth planets.”

“Send the coordinates to the helm,” Jonathan ordered. “Ensign, once we have the probe, we'll investigate.”

“We should drop a beacon to mark these coordinates,” Johnson suggested. “If this anomaly has indeed transported us into a galaxy far, far away, we'll need it to get back.”

Jonathan nodded. “Good point. Get it ready.” He turned his attention back to the main viewscreen. They were past the probe.

“We're in position,” Wilson said.

“Captain, with your permission,” McClance said. “I would like to go meet the probe and supervise its transfer to stellar cartography.”

“Granted.”

*

Lieutenant Farr McClance stood, scowling at the computer terminal that displayed a record of the probe's sensor logs. The gentle vibrations in the deckplates beneath him indicated the Discovery was at warp. He crossed his arms, sighing his frustration. It had taken ten minutes to transfer the probe from the launch bay to the lab. Apparently, the anomaly had burned out the wire-less interface, so he and the two lab personnel had to take it out of its protective casing and attach the transfer cable, which had taken another ten minutes. Now, the naked probe rested beside him on knee-high display bed, the cable still attached.

“Something wrong, sir?” an ensign asked.

Before Farr could answer, the door behind him opened. He turned to find Commander Johnson entering. “Farr. You find anything?” the commander asked as he circled the situation table that occupied the center of the lab. Normally, the table would by default display their quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy and the known territories of known civilizations. But, since the computer had no idea where in the Universe they were, the table was blank.

Farr moaned. “Nothing significant. High concentration of tachyon particles, but we already knew that.” He pointed at a spike in the sensor logs. “That would be where it went through the anomaly, of course.”

“So, we don't know anything more than we did a half-hour ago.”

“No,” Farr sighed as he sank into a nearby seat. He shrugged. “I really wasn't expecting to find anything. I mean, we were barely operational when we came through. But, I was still hoping on the slim chance.”

Silence hung between them as they considered the screen. Then, Farr's thoughts turned to their situation—lost in uncharted space, joining the Frontier and the other half-dozen or so ships that have gone missing in the same manner—and those were only the ones they knew about. He recalled the commander mentioning the anomaly being their only way back. It's possible that the other Earth ships hadn't survived the trip, but the Peridjinn should have. “You know, Commander, if that anomaly is indeed a way back, I would think the other ships would have tried retracing their course. But we know they never made it back.”

Johnson nodded. “I know.”

The rumbling of the deckplates was dying down when the intercom beeped for attention. Farr reached for the nearest com-switch. “Stellar Cartography. McClance here.”

“Lieutenant, we've entered the system,” came the captain's voice. “Is Stellar Cartography on-line?”

Farr looked up at Lieutenant Mathews, who was in charge of the various labs on the ship. He nodded his response. “We are, Captain.”

“Good. I want a complete record of what we find here.”

“You'll get it, of course.”

“We've decelerated from warp and are now approaching the sixth planet. You better take a look.”

Farr swiveled toward the table and stepped up to it. He worked a panel and brought up the image of a very familiar faded-yellow planet with a multitude of rings. “You say this is the sixth planet?”

“That's right.”

“Looks awfully a lot like Saturn,” Johnson noted.

“As far as Harris can tell without entering orbit for extended observation, it's a perfect match. Mass, volume, number of moons."

“Speakin' of moons,”
Harris said, “I've identified the sixth.”

Farr worked the console to bring up the planet's moon that his relief had identified. His jaw dropped in disbelief. “Mathews?”

“I just compared the figures with what we have in the database. It's Titan.”

Farr studied the information, daring it to change. A star system in an uncharted region of the Universe, and the sixth planet was identical to the sixth planet of their home system. It could simply be a coincidence—albeit an amazing one.

“Marco, is the fifth planet nearby?” March asked.

“Yes, sir. It's on our present course.”

“Wilson, take us to warp one.”


“We're coming up there,” Johnson said. Farr switched off the com-speaker and followed him to the lift.

By the time they arrived on the bridge, they were already decelerating from warp. Another gas giant came into view. This one with white and reddish-brown latitudinal bands. “And there's another familiar planet,” Johnson said.

“That's the fifth planet,” March confirmed.

“Do the readings match, Harris?” Farr asked, approaching his station. There, his relief bent toward the bulkhead, hard at work.

“They match,” Harris confirmed. “Mass, volume, moons—all identical to Jupiter. Although, just by a superficial study, I am noticing differences in this planet's atmospheric conditions.”

“For example?” Farr stepped up into the alcove. Harris sat back, crossing her arms, allowing Farr to peer over her shoulder at the planet on the screen.

“In the northern hemisphere, there's a storm similar to the Great Red Spot but smaller.”

Farr nodded. “I see it.”

Harris shrugged. “But other than that, everything's the same.”

“So, we've got two planets that are more-or-less identical,” March said. Farr turned to him. Johnson had returned to his station at tactical. “And the computer is still not recognizing the stars?”

“That's right, sir,” Marco confirmed.

March crossed his arms and considered the main viewscreen, his brow furled as he thought. Then, both eyebrows shot up, and he sat up erect. “Ensign, take us to the third planet. Warp three.”

“Aye, Capt'n,” the ensign said as turned his attention back to his console and went to work. On the viewscreen, they accelerated past the very Jupiter-like planet and the deckplates started rumbling again. On the screen, the stars changed to streaks of light.

Johnson opened his mouth to say something just as the intercom beeped for attention. “Bridge, this is engineering,” came the annoyed voice of the chief engineer. “Captain, I must protest this strain on the engines.”

March activated the com-speaker from his armrest. “I hear your protest, Jansen. Don't worry. This should be our last jump for a while.”

“It better be. Jansen out.” And the link was severed from the other end.

*

Geshab stood on the bridge of his Thunderbird, studying the blue-white planet that dominated the main viewscreen. The homeworld of the race that had become the Confederacy's greatest nuisance. Here it lay open, completely defenseless. Soon, their enemy will not be a concern.

An alarm pierced his ruminations. He swung toward the tactical station. “The Earth vessel has arrived at the fifth planet,” Deschar said. A second alarm sounded. “A second warp signature has just appeared at the extreme edge of our sensor range.”

Geshab stepped down to the tactical station. A second vessel? He searched his memory of the record. He was sure it had mentioned a single Earth vessel. Though, it had not mentioned a confrontation with his vessel either.

“It is still too far to identify.” Deschar turned his attention back to the tactical screen. “The first vessel is returning to warp. Their trajectory will bring them here.”

Geshab swung back toward his command chair just as the door to the port corridor admitted the towering Captain Kithalish, dressed in the blue robes of a scientist with green trimming. Geshab focused his attention on the helmsman, avoiding the captain's eyes. “Helm, take us to the moon. Sublight engines at full burn.”

“What is the situation?” Kithalish demanded.

“An Earth vessel approaches,” Geshab answered, his eyes on the viewscreen. The ship tilted to the port and the planet slid from the viewscreen to be replaced by a smaller crater-pitted gray sphere.
Kithalish hissed his annoyance. “You said this system would be secure. 'Completely free of Humans' I believe were your exact words.”

Geshab turned to glare at the scientist, then found he had to look up. He hissed, barely hiding his contempt. Kithalish had mounted the command platform and now stood beside Geshab's command chair. He maintained his glare, despite the awkwardness. “Who am I to know the intentions of the Humans?” He stepped toward Kithalish, showing him that the scientist's stature did not intimidate him. “What are you doing on my command bridge?”

“Reminding you that the orders of the Emperor permit me, if I see fit, to assume command of this vessel.” Kithalish looked squarely into the commander's eyes and placed a hand on his chest, his claws scraping the commander's uniform. Geshab held his gaze, refusing to back down, until Kithalish turned and stepped off the platform. “The weapon is ready. It is now being transported to the starboard ventral launch bay for deployment.”

Due to the missile's size, it could not be launched conventionally. So, the shuttle launch bay had been modified to accommodate the weapon.

“We will resume with the test as soon as the Earth ship is no longer a threat,” Geshab said, holding his glare on the scientist. “Weapon Control, ready laser cannons and standard missiles.”

*

Jonathan March held his eyes on the main viewscreen as, for the third time, the UES Discovery decelerated from warp space. Again, a very familiar planet dominated the screen—this time, a blue-white planet. “I wish you would tell us what you were thinking,” Johnson said, not for the first time.

“I will in a moment. Lieutenant,” he turned to McClance. “I'm betting that's Earth.”

The chief science officer nodded. “Size, mass, volume—all a perfect match. Except for the landmasses.”

“On the viewscreen, Lieutenant.” Jonathan turned back to the screen as McClance brought up his information, enlarging the planet and removing the cloud cover. A huge super continent dominated the southern hemisphere. A standard-size continent straddled the equator in the western hemisphere with a smaller continent immediately north of it.

“I must admit, though, it does look familiar,” McClance said, his brow furled in puzzlement.

“Search the paleogeographical records. See if that continent formation matches any in Earth's history.”

The lieutenant's eyes widened. “Oh, right!” McClance exclaimed, realizing what was on the captain's mind.

“Now I see what you're thinking,” Johnson said.

“It would explain the stars,” Jonathan said.

“I have a match,” McClance reported. “Late Devonian period. It would appear that anomaly tossed us nearly four hundred million years into the past.”

“Would the same have happened to all the other ships?” Jennifer asked.

“It's possible,” McClance answered. “Though, there's no way to know for sure that the other ships were sent to this same time period or another. If they had tried to get back, they might have ended up in another different time period.”

“So, they could be hopping endlessly back and forth through time,” Marco said.

“A whole fleet of Flyin' Dutchmans,” Wilson added, his voice grim.

“One of them might still be here,” Johnson said, caution filling his voice. Jonathan swung toward the tactical station. The commander was sitting toward the bulkhead, bent over his console. “I thought I saw something for a moment near Luna. It looked like a ship.”

“Visual,” Jonathan commanded as he turned back to viewscreen. The computer-altered image of Earth switched to normal view. He crossed his arms, holding his eyes on the viewscreen as he considered the report. “Ensign, take us to Luna. Full sublight speed.”

“Aye, sir.” The helmsman set to work. The image on the viewscreen changed as the ship banked toward their new destination. When they were en route, Wilson turned to look up at the captain. “Er, Capt'n, what if the ship's of this time period, and it's simply surveyin' our prehistoric Earth?”

Jonathan shrugged. “Then, as far as they're concerned, we'll be doing the same. Unless they've encountered the Frontier, no one in this time period should have any idea what Humans are or that this planet is their future cradle.”

Wilson nodded and returned his attention forward. “True.”

“And if they are any kind of threat, then we're Earth's only defense.” Silence hung over the bridge. The air thickened with tension as the gray, crater-pitted globe of Luna drew closer on the viewscreen. Jonathan glanced around at his officers, briefly meeting Jennifer's eyes. They all held their attentions on the viewscreen, practically holding their breaths. He could almost sense the various thoughts going through their minds. Was it the Frontier or one of the Peridjinn ships that had disappeared? Were they about to encounter an alien race surveying their own homeworld millions of years before the dawn of Human Civilization, perhaps a race that have since gone extinct?

“We're enterin' the Moon's orbit,” Wilson said. The ship slowly came up over the horizon. Jonathan dropped his arms to his side. Wilson shot up from his post. “What the hell?!”

Jonathan stepped up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Sit down, Ensign. Stay alert. Stay alert, everyone!”

“All of my instruments confirm,” Johnson said. “That is a Thunderbird. Their shields are raised; weapons are charged.”

“Battle Alert. What the hell are they doing here? Jennifer, open a channel.”

“You're on,” Jennifer said as the lighting around the bridge adopted a red hue.

“Attention Norseen vessel, you have violated Earth-controlled space. You will leave immediately.” Jonathan crossed his arms again as he waited what felt like minutes.

“They're responding,” Jennifer finally said, a hint of surprise in her voice.

He understood the surprise. Norseen rarely responded to hails. But, there on the screen, replacing the image of the Thunderbird, stood a reptilian figure with a wedge-shaped head dressed in orange-red robes. “You musst be Captain March,” the commander said.

Jonathan furled his brow. “Do I know you? All you Norseen look much the same to me.”

“I assume that you have by now disscovered when you are,” the commander said, ignoring the captain's question. “Your Earth Union will not exisst for sseveral hundred million of your yearss. You, therefore, cannot claim to control thiss area of sspace.”

“I'm obligated to urge you to return to your proper time.”

“No urging required. That iss my intention.” The commander dipped his head to someone off-screen, and the image reverted to that of the Thunderbird.

Jonathan turned to his executive, who was now manning Primary Weapons Control. “Status?”

“Our shields are up; laser banks, missiles, and torpedoes ready.”

“Energy spike!” McClance cried. Jonathan swung back to the viewscreen in time to see the Thunderbird cruising toward them, her wing-mounted cannons each releasing a stream of death. The ship lurched, and Jonathan fell back into his chair.

The Thunderbird passed over the Discovery. Johnson hurled a full magazine of five torpedoes from the aft launcher. The torpedoes struck along the ventral hull, punching through the Norseen shields, while the Discovery banked port and brought her forward weapons to bear on the enemy.

The Thunderbird did the same, and both ships were again coming at each other. Within moments, Johnson re-acquired his target and launched both loaded missiles. At the same time, the Thunderbird sent three missiles of her own, launching in quick succession.

Jonathan clung to his chair as the missiles exploded against the ship's ventral shields and reverberate throughout the hull. Meanwhile, their missiles scored hits on the Norseen's dorsal hull. The Discovery passed over the Thunderbird; Johnson released a twin stream of blasts from the forward-ventral laser bank, striking the enemy's aft section.

“There's another ship decelerating from warp,” McClance said, just as Jonathan noticed a distortion fast approaching them on the main viewscreen. The distortion cleared to reveal a ship, continuing to close on full sublight. Jonathan shot to his feet. He had to blink a few times to be sure what he saw was real.

“Is that an Earth ship?” Marco asked.

“That's an Earth ship,” Jonathan confirmed.

“I've never seen that design before,” Wilson said.

“The Thunderbird is withdrawing,” Johnson said, “accelerating to warp.”

“Can you track them?” Jonathan asked.

“Their last trajectory takes them to Mars, though that may not be their destination. As for the new ship, I've seen that design. But, it was just a design.”

“What?” Wilson asked, looking between the commander and the captain, his brow furled in confusion.

Magellan-class, Earth Union's new battlecruiser,” Jonathan said. “First ship scheduled to be completed late next year.”

“That is, next year from our original time frame,” Johnson added.

Jonathan turned to him. “Right,” he said, his smirk meeting the other's grin.

“They're hailing,” Jennifer announced.

Jonathan turned back to the screen. “Put them through.” The screen blinked, and Jonathan cocked his eyebrows at the familiar face that replaced the Earth ship from their future. On the screen, Mark Johnson looked back at him with a wide smile and arms crossed. Jonathan glanced at his executive officer, who stared at the screen, his jaw practically on the floor.

“I trust introductions aren't necessary,” said the Mark Johnson on the screen.

“Perhaps you better, to be sure our eyes aren't deceiving us.”

“Captain Mark Johnson, UES Vancouver. No, your eyes are not deceiving you.”

Jonathan shrugged. “No, but it doesn't mean something else isn't.”

Captain Johnson rolled his eyes and dropped his arms to his side. “Come on, Jon. You know when you are, how you got here, and that this ship I'm on is from your future.”

Jonathan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, pushing aside his suspicion. Captain Johnson was correct on all counts. And, the Norseen did run from his ship. He opened his eyes and nodded. “Very well. I accept that you're my executive's future self. And, accepting that, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't deliberately fly back into the tachyon anomaly without a sufficient reason.”

“No, you're right. It's about that Thunderbird. We don't have a lot of time before they return. With your permission, I would like to teleport over and brief you on the situation.” Captain Johnson cleared his throat and continued, his voice ominous, “The fate of every living thing ever to exist on Earth depends on us.”

“Of course. We'll be ready to receive you.”

“Very good. Johnson out.”

The screen blinked back to the image of the Vancouver, now holding position directly ahead. “McClance, you'll meet Captain Johnson in the teleportation room. Jennifer, summon Jansen to the briefing room.”

*

Farr arrived in the teleportation room. There was no one on duty—there was no need for anyone to be. He stepped up to the console on the opposite side of the room. He entered his command code to unlock the controls and opened a com-channel to the other ship's teleportation room. “Vancouver, this is Discovery. We stand ready to receive your party.”

“Acknowledged. I'm activating the teleporter now.”

Farr turned to the chamber in time to see a column of light appear and dissolve into the shape of a man—a man that happened to be the same man who was right now on his way to the briefing room plus a few years...and several hundred million. His eyes widened and his lips spread into a sad smile. “We have him,” Farr said into the com-receiver. “Discovery[i] out.” He closed the channel and stepped toward the chamber. The man took a slow, almost nostalgic step toward him. Farr extended his hand. “Captain Mark Johnson, I presume.”

The man nodded and accepted the hand. “And, you're [i]Lieutenant
Farr McClance.” His smile broadened and he stifled a chuckle. “It's good to see you again, my friend.” And, the man pulled Farr toward him. Farr cried out briefly, then felt the captain wrap his other arm around his shoulders. A stunned Farr stood there for a moment, unsure what to make of this action. Obviously, something had happened—and would happen—to him sometime before this Mark Johnson and the Vancouver made—would make—the time jump. But, when and what... Of course, he knew he shouldn't inquire further. Saying nothing, Farr extended his free arm and returned the embrace.

Then, just as quickly, Captain Johnson pulled away. “I'm sorry. I just couldn't contain myself.”

“I understand,” Farr said.

The captain shook his head. “Actually, I'm not sure you can. And, I can't tell you...”

“I have a good idea what. I just hope the how was worth it.” Captain Johnson's turquoise eyes met his. For a moment, they stood, eyes fixed on each other.

“We should get to the briefing room,” Johnson said, turning toward the door.

Farr locked the teleporter controls and followed.

They made their way through the corridors in an awkward silence. Farr knew the man, yet he didn't. He had no idea what this Mark Johnson had been through that the Mark Johnson he knew had yet to experience. Farr glanced aside at the captain, whose eyes drifted around the corridors they followed. He could almost see a sparkle in the captain's eyes, as if re-acquainting himself with a long-lost friend.

They arrived in the briefing room. Commander Johnson rose to his feet to stand beside Captain March as they entered. Lieutenant Commander Hays sat at the console that operated the screen across from her and Lieutenant Jansen sat beside her with eyebrows cocked. “So, it's true,” he said, more to himself.

“Welcome aboard the Discovery, Captain Johnson,” March said.

Farr turned to Captain Johnson, who froze at the door, his eyes wide on the communications officer and chief engineer.

“Something wrong?” March asked.

Captain Johnson cleared his throat and broke his gaze from the two officers. “Sorry. I thought I was prepared for this. The memories are stronger than I thought.”

“Memories,” a cautious Commander Johnson echoed. “Such as?”

“You'll find out...in time.” The captain smirked at the last part.

The commander nodded and shared the smile. “Right.”

“Could you at least tell us how many years separate us?” March asked.

“About six years. On my calendar, it's the twentieth of December 2168. I wish I could spend more time reminiscing, but it wouldn't be appropriate. Neither do we have the time.”

“Yes. You said you were here for the Thunderbird.” March took a seat at the head of the table. He gestured for the other captain to sit. Commander Johnson re-took his seat while Farr sat down beside Jansen.

“We pursued her into the anomaly,” Captain Johnson said, declining the seat. “According to my sources within the Norseen Confederacy, the ship has been ordered to test an experimental weapon.” He stepped toward the screen and produced a disk from his trouser pocket. He slipped the disk into its designated slot. A schematic of a missile appeared on the screen. “This is a rustikon missile.”

“A what?” Jansen asked.

Captain Johnson turned to the officers at the table. “A new compound the Norseen have discovered. It would make our old hydrogen missiles look like theatrical pyrotechnics. Theoretically, if it's allowed to detonate within the stratosphere, it will release a radioactive cloud encompassing the planet, or at least a significant portion. Everything living within its range will die. Even marine life could be affected.”

“And, the Norseen commander was ordered to test it on prehistoric Earth?” March asked, brow furled in bemusement.

“It sounds a bit excessive,” Jansen commented.

“Not to mention the paradoxes that would affect even the Norseen,” Farr added.

“According to my source, the test was just supposed to be conducted on an uninhabited planet. No time travel was mentioned.”

“Earth would qualify as 'uninhabited' at this point,” Hays said, nodding.

“What makes you certain that you can trust this source?” March asked.

“He's an old friend.”

Commander Johnson shook his head. “I don't have any friends among the Norseen.”

“You will. Regardless, it's too great a risk to disregard the information. They're here, and Earth is vulnerable.”

“Wait a minute,” Hays spoke up. “We know a catastrophic disaster will occur on Earth about three hundred million years from now and cause mass extinction. Earth recovered from that. Couldn't our planet recover from this?”

Captain Johnson laughed, drawing all eyes on him. “Steve asked that same question before we passed through the anomaly.”

“It probably could, if the effects are limited to just a portion of the planet,” Farr said. “Though, the development of life on Earth would be dealt another setback. And, we really don't know what the full range of damage this rustikon compound will have. Do we?” He turned to Captain Johnson, who shook his head and approached the table.

Then, the intercom beeped for attention. “Marco to briefing room.”

Hays switched on the com-speaker. “Hays here.”

“Commander, I am asking to speak with Captain Johnson.”

“Yes, Carry?” Captain Johnson replied.

“Well, not me me. Your me, from the Vancouver.”

The captain smiled. “I understand. Put yourself through down here, please.” He glanced at the other officers. “I had my executive officer project the Thunderbird's most likely return course. I thought you would want to see it.”

Captain March nodded. “Of course.”

“You're connected,” Marco said.

“Captain,” came an identical voice, “Cairleeta has the information you requested.”

Cairleeta? The name echoed in Farr's mind. It sounded Malcon.

“Send it here, Carrys,” Captain Johnson said.

“Transmission sent."

“Rerouting transmission to the briefing room.”
While they waited, Hays worked the console to reset the screen and Captain Johnson retrieved his datadisk. “You should see it now,” their Marco said. Indeed, on the screen appeared the forwarded transmission.

“We see it,” Hays said and selected the message. A tactical grid of the Earth and Mars systems came up on the screen. Two Crescent Planets of the United Earth Space Fleet appeared next to Earth's moon while a single Four-Point Star of the Norseen Confederacy was placed near Mars. A red dot appeared next to the Norseen insignia and drew a line from Mars, widening until it encompassed Earth.

“Captain Johnson?” came a voice Farr did not recognize, speaking in an odd accent that he could not immediately place. Though it did sound alien. Cairleeta's perhaps?

“We read you, Cairleeta,” Captain Johnson said, confirming Farr's guess.

“The Thunderbird is likely to decelerate from warp anywhere along this side of Earth.”

“Very likely,” Captain Johnson agreed, crossing his arms. “And, we can bet they'll try to avoid us to launch their missile without interference.”

“Indeed. Additionally, since they know we are here and outnumber them, we can expect them to be ready to launch as soon as they return to normal space.”

March rose from his seat and joined Captain Johnson at the screen. “Which means they will emerge from warp space as far from us as possible while retaining a nominal firing solution.”

“Captain March is correct.”

“That would make the western terminus the prime target if we remain in Luna's orbit,” Commander Johnson said.

March nodded. “Right. So, we'll hold position here until the Thunderbird arrives.”

“I'll leave orbit first and try to intercept them right as they emerge from warp space,” Captain Johnson said. “I'll try to stop them from launching the missile. You follow a moment later, in case we fail. As the smaller, more maneuverable ship, you'll have to pursue the missile. We'll cover you. You must destroy it before it enters the stratosphere.” March met the other captain's eyes. It was the most serious expression Farr had ever seen on either Mark Johnson.

March matched the expression and nodded. “I understand.”

“Harry, we'll likely have to push the sublight engines,” Commander Johnson said.

“We probably will,” Jansen acknowledged, his arms crossed. He let out a resigned sigh. “Well, I suppose the situation warrants it.”

“Very good,” Captain Johnson said. “Thanks, Cairleeta. I'll be returning shortly. Keep your sharp eyes on the Norseen.”

“See you then. Vancouver out.” The com-link clicked, signifying the channel terminating.

“Cairleeta—that name sounds Malcon,” March noted as Farr and the other three officers still seated at the table came to their feet.

“Yes,” Captain Johnson said simply, then turned to leave. “I can find my way to the teleportation room.” The door opened and the captain turned back. “I'll just leave you with the assurance that your current war with the Malcon Empire will end. In fact, the Empire and the Earth Union will one day become allies.” He took one last look at the assembled officers, his eyes finally resting on Farr. They held each other for a moment, then the captain extended his hand. “It was worth it,” he said.

Farr accepted the hand and nodded his understanding. This would likely be the last time this Mark Johnson would ever see him. Then, the captain released his hand and turned to leave for good. Then, he paused again and looked back over his shoulder. “Oh, and Mark... Watch yourself.” Then, he was gone.

“What was that all about?” Jansen asked, looking between Farr and the commander.

“Maybe we're married in the future,” Commander Johnson said wryly.

Farr turned to him, eyebrows cocked. “I hope not.”

“Come on,” March said, starting toward the door. “We got work to do.”

*

Captain Kithalish had mounted the command platform and immediately ordered a withdrawal. The crew had hesitated until the captain repeated his order on the authority of the emperor. Geshab was on his feet at once. “Withdraw to the fourth planet,” he ordered. “You are my crew. You will follow my orders.”

Kithalish swung on him, his eyes narrowed. “Have you forgotten my authority?”

Geshab looked up, meeting the captain's glare with one of his own, a subdued growl in his throat. “I do not care if you have the emperor's authority. This is my ship.”

“It is the emperor's ship. He may take it from you, if he pleases, when he finds that you have disregarded your orders.”

“We are arriving at the fourth planet,” the helmsman reported.

“Assume orbit.” Geshab returned his attention on the captain. “What orders? I was to test the weapon on an uninhabited planet. That planet is uninhabited.”

“No authorization did you have to travel into Human territory, or to travel through time. That is what that disturbance was. You traveled to the region of space the Humans have called 'Bermuda Sector'.”

Geshab relaxed his glared and looked about. He was not aware that anyone else knew of the region. “How do you know?”

“High Command had already considered sending a ship to disrupt the Humans' past. The proposal was rejected.”

Geshab hissed. “For what reason? We would be rid of their annoyance. The only race with technology equivalent to our own that has resisted us.”

“You dud! To destroy or even subdue them this way would result in unforeseeable damage to the Confederacy itself!” Kithalish swung back to the helmsman. “Return to the anomaly.”

Geshab deepened his glare at Kithalish. He had a sure chance of ridding the Confederacy of its enemy, but this scientist was commandeering his ship. “Captain Kithalish,” Geshab said as he reached into his outer robe. The captain turned back to the commander; Geshab drew his laser pistol and pressed the trigger. Kithalish, his eyes wide, stumbled off the command platform, a carbonized hole in his chest. His face frozen in a moment of surprise. “Unfit for worms.” He turned his attention to his crew. “I am in command of this vessel. You will follow my orders. We will return to Earth.”

As the helmsman took the ship around the fourth planet, Geshab settled into his chair and addressed two ensigns. “Dispose of that waste.”

*

“The Thunderbird has gone to warp,” McClance announced. “The Vancouver is firing up her sublight engines.”

“It's confirmed,” Johnson reported. “The Thunderbird's trajectory will take her to the predicted coordinates.”

Jonathan looked around his bridge. The dim, red light added to the suspense that thickened atmosphere. His officers manned their posts with all seriousness. They knew the stakes: if they fail, Humankind will never exist.

On the screen, with Luna to port and the Vancouver to starboard, the ship from their future pushed forward. “Ensign, the moment the Thunderbird returns to normal space, fire up our sublight engines,” Jonathan ordered. “Maximum burn.”

“Awaitin' your order, Capt'n,” Wilson said, his fingers hovering over his console.

By now, the Vancouver was well ahead of them and still accelerating to intercept the enemy. Several minutes passed—minutes that stretched to eternity. Then, the alarm sounded. “Norseen Thunderbird is decelerating from warp space,” McClance said.

“Now, Ensign.”

*

“We are returning to normal space,” the helmsman reported as the streaks of light on the screen changed to a blue-white planet.

“Launch the missile,” Geshab ordered. Knowing that the Human cruisers would be waiting for him, he had the launch bay door opened and the missile lowered into position while en route.

“Human battlecruiser closing off starboard,” Deschar said as the missile shot toward the planet. “Their weapons are discharging.”

The Thunderbird lurched a second later under the battlecruiser's laser fire. As the Earth ship passed over them, the other ship came into view, pursuing the missile. Geshab clung to his chair as his ship shook again under fire from the battlecruiser's aft batteries. “Follow the Discovery, and fire the wing cannons and standard missiles,” he ordered. “Concentrate dorsal weapons on the battlecruiser.”

*

They had just broke the moon's orbit when the Thunderbird cleared warp space. A moment later, the missile with its diabolical payload shot toward Earth.

“Ensign!” Jonathan cried, leaning forward in his chair, as if he could will his ship after the projectile.

“I'm on it,” Wilson said as he worked his controls. The ship banked, following the missile.

“Transfer whatever power you can into the sublight engines. Johnson, the moment you have a target lock...”

“Yes, sir. I won't hesitate.”

Jonathan watched the main viewscreen, his right fingers tapping his armrest, silently urging his ship to go faster. Wilson kept the missile in the center of their vision. They had settled in directly behind the missile when Johnson finally said, “Almost got it.”

“We have Thunderbird on our tail,” Eddinburg reported from tactical. She barely got it out before a double stream of laser blast shot passed them. “Missiles incoming!”

“Evasive,” Jonathan ordered.

But, the missiles hit. The ship lurched forward; Jonathan clung to his chair—the only thing that kept him from somersaulting across the bridge.

“I lost the target!” Johnson reported.

“We've lost more than that,” Wilson added. “We've lost control. We've just shot passed the missile.”

“Get us back under control, Ensign!” Jonathan commanded. “Damn it, Johnson! You're supposed to be covering us!”

“I think I know that, sir,” Johnson said. “The Norseen are just as determined for their missile to succeed as we are for it to fail.”

“We're leveling out,” Wilson announced.

“Brace for two more missiles,” Eddinburg warned, and Jonathan re-tightened his grip as the ship lurched again. The image on the screen tilted until Earth with its strange, prehistoric continents and oceans filled the entire view. A flickering, reddish-yellow tinge developed, quickly spreading over the entire view of the ocean below and becoming more pronounced.

“Those last two missiles have pushed us into the atmosphere,” Marco said.

“Confirmed,” McClance said. “We're dipping into the mesosphere.”

“Shields are holding against the atmospheric friction,” Johnson said.

“Ensign...”

“Workin' on it, sir.” Wilson's fingers danced over his controls. The ship now shook constantly. Jonathan found himself clinging to his chair just as hard now as when the ship was shaking under enemy fire. The Earth was beginning to override the ship's artificial gravity.

The screen was practically on fire now. It was only because of the shields that they didn't feel the heat. But, they were falling too hot. By the time they crashed into that ocean, their shields would be gone. Though, by then it would be too late for Earth.

“We're at sixty kilometers—almost to the stratosphere,” McClance reported.

Then, the view began leveling with the horizon. Then, they were tilting back toward space, and Jonathan felt himself pushed back into his chair. A new kind of vibrations shook the deckplates under his feet.

“Pourin' full power into sublight engines and forward thrusters,” Wilson said.

“Where's the missile?” Jonathan asked.

“Directly ahead and forty-five degrees to port,” Eddinburg answered.

“Ensign.”

“Aye, Capt'n.”

“It has reached the mesosphere,” McClance announced.

“Status on the Thunderbird?” Jonathan asked, turning to the officer at tactical.

“The Vancouver is keeping her busy,” Eddinburg said.

Jonathan turned back to the screen. The missile was once again in view, its warhead lighting up red, orange, and yellow. “Johnson, you're clear to make your shot.”

“Yes, sir,” the commander said, his concentration on his controls. “I'm clear. Hold it there, Ensign.” And he slammed on the trigger, sending a stream of laser blasts from the forward ventral and dorsal laser banks. The streams intercepted the missile, igniting it in a blinding flash of white.

*

“Most of the damage was to the outer hull,” Jansen said.

By the time the Discovery had achieved a comfortable orbit, the Vancouver had taken out the Thunderbird. Now, Jonathan met with his officers in the briefing room to discuss their status. Captain Johnson linked in on the screen.

The chief engineer continued, “However, that hit to the port nacelle is my biggest concern.”

“But, our shields were up,” Jennifer said.

“True, but there is still some damage. Not as much as it could have been had we not had shields, granted. But, I would still like to take the warp drive off-line and investigate the damage.”

Jonathan considered Jansen's concern. They still had the other issue of returning to their time. Though, with the Vancouver here, they knew it was possible. And, they did need a working warp drive to get back to the anomaly. “How long will you need?”

“A day, maybe two,” Jansen said at once. Clearly, he had thought this over ahead of time.

“We can wait until Harry finishes the repairs,” Captain Johnson said.

Jonathan nodded. “Very well.” He turned to McClance, his begging blue eyes locked on him. “In the meantime, we do find ourselves in a unique situation to study a much theorized period in our planet's history. McClance, you may take a survey team to Devonian Earth.”

McClance's lips spread into the biggest smile Jonathan had yet seen on the lieutenant's face. “Thank you, Captain.”

“I'll do the same,” Captain Johnson said. “Though, we should avoid contact with each other as much as possible to minimize the chance of temporal interference.”

“Agreed,” McClance nodded. “I'll send you our coordinates.”

“Thanks, Farr.”

*

“May 3, 2163—ship time. Captain Jonathan March, UES Discovery. With our warp drive repaired—not perfect by Lieutenant Jansen's standards, but well enough for our immediate needs—we return to the anomaly that had thrown us over three hundred million years into the past. We will attempt to return to our correct time. However, the ships that have disappeared in the Bermuda Sector before us would likely have had tried to return this way. And, we know they hadn't.

Two days since they saved everything living and that will live on Earth for the next three hundred plus million years, they now approached their beacon. It occupied the center of the viewscreen, blinking its signal. Beyond it, endless expanse of space.

“Of course, we know it's possible,” Johnson said when Jonathan voiced his doubts. “The Vancouver's proof that it's possible.”

Jonathan shook his head. “All we know for sure is that they succeeded. It doesn't necessarily follow that we will.”

“The Vancouver is hailing,” Jennifer said.

“Put it through.”

Once again, Captain Johnson appeared on the viewscreen. “You must re-enter the anomaly the exact same way as you came out of it.”

“How do we achieve that? Our engines were down at the time, along with most other systems.”

“Your engines were operating when you set the beacon.”

“Ensign, can you retrace our steps?”

“Uh... I'll try,” a hesitant Wilson said.

“You can do it, Steve,” Captain Johnson said calmly. “Take the Discovery back to where she was when you fired the first thruster.”

“I've identified our trail,” Marco said.

“You sure it's not the Vancouver's?” McClance asked.

“Yes, it leads to our beacon. Follow my direction, Steve.”

Together, after what felt like an hour, Wilson and Marco had successfully steered the ship into position. Meanwhile, Captain Johnson had McClance search for another path, formed by waves of tachyon particles. “Much like the ripples that are produced by the bow of sea vessel,” the captain said.

“I have it,” McClance said, triumphant. “I'm sending you the data, Ensign.”

“Got it.”

“Follow it in, Ensign,” Jonathan said. Then, he bowed to Captain Johnson. “It's been a pleasure, Captain. In a weird sort of way.”

Commander Johnson scoffed. “You should see it from where I'm sitting.”

Captain Johnson laughed. “Indeed. Vancouver out.”

“Firing sublight engines,” Wilson said.

They continued steady, but the ship would lurch at any moment. Jonathan gripped his armrests. This time, he would be ready. For several moments, nothing. Then, as if to catch the one relaxing his guard, the explosion came. The lurch and the blinding light...

*

The fifteenth of May. The date echoed in Jonathan's mind as he paced the length of his office in front of his desk. Shortly after returning to 2163, they checked in with Fleet Headquarters on Earth. Then, as they resumed their previous course, he got a personal call from Admiral Bones, who said that the Discovery had been out of contact for half a month. He reached the wall farthest from the door and the chime sounded. “Enter,” he called, and the door slid open, admitting his officers, including Ensign Wilson and Junior Lieutenant Marco.

“We're again en route for Alpha Centauri,” Johnson said as he sat down in one of the two chairs before the captain's desk. Jennifer took the other while the others remained standing.

“Good.” Jonathan circled his desk and settled into his seat. Once he was settled, he told them about the time-lapse. The officers exchanged bewildered looks.

“I'll be sure to reset the ship's clock,” Jansen commented.

“As we are the first ones ever to come out of that anomaly, Fleet Command wants a full report of the incident. And, that's why I've called this meeting, and holding it in my office. We are required, and rightly so, to provide an account of our trip to prehistoric Earth. However, we cannot disclose our encounter either with the Vancouver, or with the Norseen.”

“What about that nuke?” Wilson asked.

“The Confederacy could already be busy developing the weapon as we speak,” Jansen added. “Granted, there's nothing Fleet Command could do about it, but they should be warned, at least.”

“They will,” Johnson said, his eyes gazing through space, and possibly time. “And, they are.” He looked at the others, who looked back at him in varying degrees of bemusement. Except McClance, who nodded his understanding. “About five years from now, my 'friends' within the Norseen Confederacy will pass the information to me. HQ will learn of the nuke then, when they are meant to.”

“Agreed,” Jonathan said, nodding. “For now, we have more pressing concerns. Evidence suggests that the Norseen knew about our trip to the past. Which means, at some point over the next five years, the Norseen will acquire this report somehow. Therefore, our report must not include anything that they could use to their advantage. And, we must not discuss our encounters with the Vancouver and the Norseen in the past with anyone outside this room.”

“Understood, sir,” Johnson said. “I will relay your order to the others who were on duty on the bridge at the time.”

“At least until the Vancouver makes her journey, no one shall know how close our cradle came to falling.”
"What has been done has been done and cannot be undone."--Ruth, All the Weyrs of Pern
"Dragons can't change who they are, and who would want them to? Dragons are powerful, amazing creatures."--Hiccup, Dragons: Riders of Berk
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