Frontier

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Chapter 5

"Let's hurry." Darin said abruptly.

"Last one." Vincent said as he concentrated on his work.

The beeping of both their communicators surprised them.

"Go ahead, I've got this." Vincent said as he worked on sealing the last connection.

"Ensign Cooper." Darin said into the communicator.

"Is Vincent with you?" Joe asked with obvious concern.

"Yes. He's right here." Darin said quickly.

"You two get down here right away. We're at yellow alert and I'm going to need you in deflector control." Joe said firmly.

"We're done here. We'll be right down." Darin said seriously.

"Hurry." Joe said, then terminated the transmission.

"Close it up. We've got to go." Darin said as he started putting the tools away.

"I need to test it." Vincent said firmly.

"We don't have time." Darin said impatiently.

"But if we test it and I screwed something up, we can fix it right now." Vincent said in a reasonable tone.

"Crewman Winters, close the panel. We're getting out of here." Darin said seriously.

"Yes sir." Vincent said reluctantly and put the access panel back into place.

As soon as the panel was in place, Darin secured it with couplers, then threw the decoupler into the tool bag.

"Hand me the bag." Darin said as he turned himself around in the confined space.

Vincent handed him the bag then followed him back the way they came.

* * * * *

As Vincent and Darin ran into deflector control, they noticed that Connie, Susan and Jimmy were also there... in various stages of wakefulness.

"Okay, it looks like there's no rest for the weary. Connie, take the main, Susan, station one, Jimmy, station two, Vincent, station three. Darin stow your tools and be ready to jump in wherever you're needed." Joe said as he worked the console.

"What's going on?" Vincent asked as he took his seat.

"We're at yellow alert and traveling at... warp eight point eight." Joe said in concentration as he stood away from the console and allowed Connie to take the seat.

Darin walked to the locker and put away the tool bag he was carrying.

"The J 27 distribution node is bypassed." Susan called out from her console.

"We just finished replacing it, but we didn't have a chance to test it." Darin said quickly.

"I'm on it." Jimmy said in concentration.

"Status?" Joe called out.

"Green across." Susan said quickly.

"One bypass, the rest operating normally." Jimmy said carefully.

"All green." Vincent said seriously.

"Darin, I need you to make sure the lockers are secured, just in case this turns into a bumpy ride." Joe said as he kept his focus on the main console.

Darin ran to one end of the lockers then started working his way down the line checking to see that each door was securely closed.

"All hands, we are responding to an automated distress beacon from a Federation colony. We have not been able to establish communication with the colony to ascertain the nature of the distress call. Engineering, Security and Medical teams need to be on standby and ready for mobilization in two hours. We will remain at yellow alert until further notice." Captain Byrne said firmly.

There was a moment of silence, until Joe finally said, "Darin, I need for you to walk Vincent through all the stations. I was hoping to ease him into it gently, but that's not an option now. Show him the basics of each console so he knows what to do if Connie needs something."

"Yes sir." Darin said immediately.

"Connie, you've got the main. Vincent is going to be your second. You two will have the 04:00 to 16:00 shift. Lou and Judy will have 16:00 to 04:00. Everyone else is with me." Joe said firmly.

"Joe, I wouldn't mind going..." Connie said carefully.

Joe smiled and said, "I know. And if I knew what we were about to face, I'd probably send you. But since we're facing an unknown, I'll take care of it this time. You can have the next one."

"That's what you said last time." Connie said indignantly.

Joe chuckled and said, "Yeah, I did, didn't I?"

Connie shook his head in amusement, then turned his attention back to the main console.

"Darin, you've got one hour. Teach Vincent everything you can in that time, then come down to the hanger bay." Joe said seriously.

Darin looked at Joe with surprise, then motioned for Vincent to come with him to the second console.

"Jimmy and Susan, you know the drill. Grab your tool bags and stock them up. We're heading to the hanger bay." Joe said firmly.

Jimmy and Susan hopped up and ran to their lockers.

"Oh Darin?" Joe called across the room.

Darin looked up from the console quickly.

"Your tool bag is in the next locker past Vincent's. It should be fully stocked, but make sure to grab plenty of extra couplers from the storage locker and some extra power cells from the store room." Joe said as he pointed to a partition in the room.

"Yes sir." Darin said quickly.

Joe nodded, then walked to the first locker and picked up his own tool bag.

* * * * *

"I think that's about it." Darin said in thought as they finished going over console one.

"I don't understand how to run a bypass without disrupting power to the deflector." Vincent said with concern.

"Well, you actually don't have to worry about that. The safety system won't allow you to accidentally disrupt main deflector power. You have to have command codes to do something like that. But let's go ahead and do a bypass so you'll see how it's done." Darin said seriously.

"But won't that cause a dip in power?" Vincent asked in a worried voice.

"No. The power transfer is seamless. Let's just do it so you can see." Darin said carefully.

"What do I do?" Vincent asked as he looked over the various controls.

"Crewman Winters, the E-11 power conduit has just been severed. The safety system automatically switched over to the R-16 battery reserve." Darin said as he stood back from the console.

Vincent thought about what Darin was saying, then traced his finger along the path from the E-11 control to the R-16 control. Suddenly he understood the configuration and quickly programmed the power distribution to bypass the E-11 conduit and route the power through the E-3 conduit. He made a quick adjustment to the distribution node, then pressed the activation sequence to run the program.

"Perfect." Darin said with a proud smile.

Vincent felt a cold sensation wash over him and said in a shaky voice, "I... I just... diverted power from one conduit to another... I mean... I REALLY did it."

Darin nodded in understanding and said, "And now you know that you CAN do it because you've really done it. Remember that. If you end up having to reroute power in an emergency, just remember that you've already done it. You know what you're doing. You've proven it to me and to yourself."

Vincent nodded hesitantly.

"Now I think you should bring E-11 back online. You never know when the Chief Engineer might be looking at your systems." Darin said with a smile.

"Or the guy at the deflector control main." Connie called out from his station.

Darin and Vincent both looked at Connie with question.

"Good job Vincent. I was watching what you were doing on the main board. Go ahead and bring E-11 up. Then come over here." Connie said seriously.

Darin looked at the ship's time on the console and quickly said, "I've got to get to the hanger bay."

"Take care of yourself." Vincent said with a look of concern directed at Darin.

"You too little brother." Darin said with a quick smile, then hurried to the lockers on the other side of the room.

Vincent looked at Darin with surprise for a moment, then turned and quickly pressed in the sequence to switch the power flow back to it's original configuration.

* * * * *

"What do you think is going to happen?" Vincent asked quietly as he stood beside Connie.

"Well, right now Joe and the rest of the team are getting everything together that they could possibly need in an emergency situation. When we arrive, we'll see what the situation is, and if it's something that Deflector Control can help with, the team will beam down and do whatever they can to fix the problem." Connie said as he kept his gaze on the control panel in front of him.

"How long will they be gone?" Vincent asked curiously.

"No telling. If there's nothing for them to do, they'll be right back. On the other hand, they could be down there for days if it's a problem that has to do with their shield generators." Connie said as he turned in his chair.

Vincent nodded in thought.

"Why don't you go over to station two and run a systems check for me? We need to be sure that everything is up to specs before we come out of warp." Connie said carefully.

"What are you worried about?" Vincent asked as he walked to the console and began to run a series of level two diagnostics on the power systems.

"Well, we know that we're going to check on a colony that we've lost contact with. There's a chance that they were attacked from space..." Connie trailed off.

"Shouldn't the team be here in case that's what happened?" Vincent asked as he turned away from his console.

Connie shook his head and said, "If it's something like that, Joe and the guys will come right back here. We can hold it together until they get back. It's more important for them to be ready to go deal with whatever is wrong."

Vincent nodded in thought, then looked over his console.

"The level three diagnostic shows that the J 27 distribution node is hooked up right and ready to use." Vincent said in concentration.

"Bring it online." Connie said without looking up from his panel.

Vincent carefully pressed in the sequence to divert the energy flow back to it's proper circuit, then keyed in the command to run the new configuration.

Connie had station two's console showing on the main board so he could interrupt Vincent if he made a mistake.

"There, it's done." Vincent said with a voice of accomplishment and sat back in his chair.

"Run a level two on the E-9 through E-12 systems that route through that distribution node to be sure that everything is working the way you expect it to." Connie said seriously.

Vincent sat forward in his chair and began to initiate the diagnostics.

"You know what *should* happen when you replace a distribution node. But what *should* happen isn't always what *does* happen. A variation in the harmonics or fluctuation in the power feed might cause something further down in the system to react badly." Connie said instructively.

"I understand. All systems are showing green." Vincent said as the diagnostic results came up.

"Good. Then I think that it would be a good time to make a round of the stations and do a quick status check on everything, starting with station one." Connie said seriously.

Vincent moved to the console and looked it over carefully before initiating a series of diagnostics.

Connie switched his view over to station one so he could watch.

"I'm showing increased power usage in the forward field generators." Vincent said as he looked at the readings carefully.

"That's right. I did that because we're traveling at... warp 8.93. I punched up the shields a little just in case." Connie said seriously.

Vincent nodded, then said, "There's a heat build-up in the primary distribution coils."

"Let me see." Connie said as he pulled up the readings, then said, "That's within tolerance. But if it were too hot, do you know what you'd do?"

Vincent looked at the console to confirm the sequence, then said, "I'd feed backup power to the secondary coil, then tell the computer to switch coils when the secondary field generator was up to full."

Connie smiled and said, "I thought I had you on that one. That's exactly right... how did you know that?"

"Darin mentioned that the field generator needed the coil at full power before it could be used." Vincent said with a smile at the praise.

Connie shook his head and said, "We really lucked out getting you two. You wouldn't believe some of the people who've rotated through here."

Vincent smiled, then moved to console two to start running diagnostics.

Connie got a sudden look of realization, then asked, "The Captain said two hours, right?"

"Yeah." Vincent said as he looked at Connie with question.

Connie started pushing buttons quickly to determine their heading.

After a moment to study the panel before him, Connie absently muttered, "Shit."

"What's wrong?" Vincent asked as he hurried across the room.

"It seemed strange that the captain didn't mention the name of the colony that we were going to check on." Connie said in deep thought.

"Yeah." Vincent said hesitantly.

"Look at this." Connie said and pointed to a star chart in front of him.

"Is that the Enterprise?" Vincent asked as he pointed at a symbol on the chart.

"That's right. They were closer, not by much, but when we changed course, they were closer than we were." Connie said seriously.

"So why did they call us?" Vincent asked quietly.

"Because the colony that we're going to check on is called Kimber IV." Connie said in a dark tone.

"I've never heard of it." Vincent said quietly.

Connie turned to look at Vincent and said, "It was just established two years ago. There are about a thousand colonists and one of their leaders is a young man named Cyril Byrne."

Vincent looked at Connie with wide eyes and asked, "Like Captain Byrne?"

Connie nodded and said, "His youngest son."

Vincent looked at the readings on the main deflector console and noticed that they were now traveling at warp 9.02.

"I'm going to get back to my systems checks. I want to be sure we've got everything perfect to help Captain Byrne's son." Vincent said as he walked back to station two.

Connie stared at his console for a moment, then said, "Me too."

* * * * *

There was a sense of overwhelming silence as the loud hum of the ship's engines abruptly stopped.

Vincent looked around, not knowing what to expect, half afraid to breathe and break the silence.

Connie looked carefully at his panel and said, "Good news. There are no other ships in the area."

Vincent went to Connie's side and looked at the readout.

"But look at this..." Connie said with concern and pulled up a filtered image of the local star.

Vincent's eyes went wide as he saw the surface of the bright yellow sun churning and violently spewing out plumes of molten debris in all directions.

"See those dark spots?" Connie asked as he pointed at an area on the star's surface.

"Yeah." Vincent said hesitantly.

"Those areas are cooler than the bright spots on the surface. That's what we call sunspots. Check out these readings." Connie said and pressed a few buttons on the main console.

Vincent looked at the readings and said, "They're all over the place, there's all kinds of radiation and... what's that?"

"That's the subspace interference it's generating. I'm surprised they were even able to get an automated distress beacon through that." Connie said seriously.

"How about that?" Vincent asked as he pointed at another indicator.

"That's our shield output. Don't worry. Our shields can protect us from just about anything it can throw at us except a direct hit with a solar flare." Connie said frankly.

Vincent looked back at the churning and spewing star again with worry.

Connie noticed and said, "If it ejected anything directly toward us, we'd have about half an hour to get out of the way. There's nothing to worry about."

Vincent nodded, then quietly asked, "How's the colony?"

"It's still there. But that's about all I can tell you. I don't have access to the scanners." Connie said as he looked over the readings before him.

"What do we do now?" Vincent asked in a small voice.

"We wait. We have to be here in case the ship has to leave suddenly." Connie said quietly.

"I hate to wait." Vincent said in a small voice.

"So do I, but that's part of our job. We have to trust that the people in charge know what they're doing and be ready to do whatever we can to help out as soon as we're asked." Connie said seriously.

Vincent nodded, then walked over to his locker.

"What are you doing?" Connie asked curiously.

"I'm going to stock up my tool bag in case they need me for something." Vincent said in a small voice.

Connie nodded and turned away, knowing that Vincent would probably be the last person on the ship who would be asked to help.

* * * * *

"What's going on?" Lou asked as she and Judy walked into deflector control.

"Oh, a colony distress call, a yellow alert, and that." Connie said as he gestured toward the image of the violently churning star on the main console's view screen.

"Why didn't you call us?" Lou asked seriously.

"I was going to let you sleep until 16:00. Joe put us on 12 hour shifts while the repair team is off the ship." Connie said frankly.

Lou nodded and said, "We fell asleep as soon as we got back to our cabin and just woke up. I noticed that we were at yellow alert and thought I'd check in." Lou said as she looked over the readings on the main console.

"What's our status?" Judy asked in a timid voice.

"On standby. All systems are go." Connie said as he turned in his chair.

"Hurry up and wait." Lou said with a nod.

"It looks that way, but Joe and the team have been gone for a couple hours, so maybe they're doing something to help out the colony." Connie said frankly.

"Well, why don't you go hit the head or grab something to eat or whatever. I'll watch it for a few minutes." Lou said firmly.

"Thanks Lou. I owe you one." Connie said with a smile as he stood.

"No problem." Lou said as she took his place at the console.

"Come on Vincent. It's time for us to take a break." Connie said with a smile.

Vincent nodded and followed.

* * * * *

As Connie and Vincent walked from the turbo lift to the mess hall, Vincent's eyes went wide in disbelief.

There were about thirty civilians in the Engineer's mess hall.

Some of them were soaking wet, some were coated in mud and most of them looked like they were chilled to the core.

"Oh my God. It must be hell down there." Connie said in wonder from Vincent's side.

Vincent looked around, and spotted Brock standing in line to get to the coffee dispenser.

"Let's see if Brock knows what's going on." Vincent said and urged Connie to follow him across the room.

* * * * *

"Do you know what's happening?" Vincent asked in a loud voice.

"Only bits and pieces. It looks like the solar flares and sunspots made the planet's climate go crazy. They've got killer storms that have nearly destroyed the colony. We're evacuating them as quick as we can but there's so much lightning and solar radiation that we're having trouble getting a transporter lock. And you can forget about shuttles..." Brock said, then took a step forward in line.

"They look cold and hungry." Vincent said quietly as he looked around the room.

"I guess their crops were destroyed by the storms and I don't know what else happened, but they've been starving for nearly two weeks." Brock said, then took another step forward in line.

"A thousand people..." Connie said in thought.

Vincent looked up at Connie with question.

"If we end up evacuating the entire colony, we're going to be packed to the bulkheads. I suggest that while we have a few minutes,� you get everything that you have packed and ready to move. Most likely we're going to be consolidated into as few cabins as possible so the colonists can have a place to stay." Connie said frankly.

"Yeah, Gary and Randy are getting our stuff ready to go. We'll be ready to move as soon as we get the assignment." Brock said, then took another step forward.

Connie nodded in thought, then said, "Vincent, do you think you could take care of Darin's things? I'll take care of Jimmy and Susan's."

"Yeah. But... What do I do with it once I've got it packed?" Vincent asked quietly.

"Bring it to deflector control. If they call us after Lou and Judy leave we won't be able to go back and get our stuff." Connie said seriously.

"Got it. I'm going to go now. All of a sudden I'm not hungry." Vincent said seriously as he watched the increasing group of people in the serving line.

"I know what you mean. I'll see you back in Deflector Control when you're done." Connie said as he turned to leave.

"If you guys need anything, we're planning on sticking to the supply room. We might end up bunking there." Brock said quickly.

"Same thing if you need anything, we may be sleeping in deflector control." Connie said over his shoulder.

Brock nodded that he heard as Connie walked away.

* * * * *

Vincent ran into his cabin and pulled all the luggage out of the storage locker in the closet.

"You too?" A voice came from the bathroom doorway.

"Me too what?" Vincent asked as he began to pull clothes from the cabinets.

"I was just sent to pack my gear and told to report to the rec hall." Rad said quickly.

"We kind of figured that we'd be asked to move. I'm taking our things to deflector control until I know where we're going." Vincent said as he quickly packed Darin's suitcase.

"Good plan. I can stow my gear in transporter control until I know for sure where I'm going to end up." Rad said in thought.

Vincent's communicator beeped, causing him to freeze in mid motion.

He opened his communicator and quickly said, "Crewman Winters."

"Crewman Winters, this is Commander M'Butu, you are to transport to my location immediately." Commander M'Butu said firmly over a very scratchy connection.

"Yes sir." Vincent said immediately.

Before Vincent could say another word, there was a burst of static, then silence. The connection had been lost.

"I'll take your stuff to deflector control. Go on." Rad said with concern in his voice.

"Thanks Rad." Vincent said as a distinctly uneasy feeling washed over him.

Vincent took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, then walked toward the door.

Rad looked at Vincent and Darin's suitcases for a long moment, before going about the business of packing for them.

* * * * *

As the transporter beam cleared, Vincent could see that he was inside a large building that looked like a warehouse or an industrial workshop.

"Crewman Winters, over here." Commander M'Butu called out in a scream to be heard over the cracks of thunder and howling winds outside.

Vincent hurried over to the Commander and stood at attention.

Joe was standing at Commander M'Butu's side with a look of obvious distress in his eyes.

"Crewman Winters. The building that houses the main reactor for the colony has collapsed and there is no way for us to get in and shut it down. The reactor core has been damaged and is flooding the surrounding area with radiation." Commander M'Butu said in a strained voice.

"There is a maintenance shaft that leads directly into the control room, but it's too narrow for any of us to fit through. There's a possibility that you'll be able to make it through." Commander M'Butu said, and Vincent could detect a note of hesitance in his voice.

"What do I have to do Commander?" Vincent asked loudly to be heard.

"Crewman... Vincent, you don't have to do this. There is a chance that you won't be able to get through. If you do, there's a chance that you won't be able to shut down the reactor before it goes critical. And even if you do..." Commander M'Butu trailed off.

"...There's a chance that you'll absorb a lethal amount of radiation." Joe said as he looked Vincent in the eyes.

"I wouldn't ask, but we're doing good to get enough of a transporter lock to get fifty people an hour out of here. The reactor is going to go critical before we have even half the colonists evacuated at this rate." Commander M'Butu said, then winced at a particularly close crack of thunder.

Vincent glanced at Joe, then looked Commander M'Butu in the eyes and said, "I understand sir. Please tell me what I have to do to shut it down."

Commander M'Butu nodded and said, "There's an emergency shutdown sequence. Here's a diagram of the console."

Vincent looked at the diagram then asked, "What's the sequence?"

"Bring the emergency systems online, then override the safety protocols." Commander M'Butu said seriously.

"Could you show me? I don't want to misunderstand." Vincent asked seriously.

Commander M'Butu pointed to each of the buttons on the diagram.

"Okay, I've got that. Then what?" Vincent asked seriously.

"Then you just have to initiate the emergency core shutdown procedure by pressing the fifth button, then acknowledge the override command on the keypad by pressing 'enter'." Commander M'Butu said as he pointed to each button as he described it.

"I've got it. What now?" Vincent asked seriously.

"There's access to the maintenance shaft in the floor over there, you'll just follow the power conduit from this building right to the control room." Commander M'Butu said firmly.

"Do you have any extra couplers?" Vincent asked Joe quietly.

"I doubt that you'll need them for this job." Joe said hesitantly.

"Whenever one of us goes to do a job you always make sure we have extra couplers. I just want them... for luck." Vincent finished shyly.

"I have a few. Here you go, but you have to bring them back if you don't use them." Joe said as he forced a smile onto his face and handed Vincent a small handful of couplers.

"It's a deal. I'll make sure to bring them back." Vincent said firmly, then looked up suddenly as the building shuddered� and groaned from a sudden gust of wind.

"I'll be waiting." Joe said as his eyes filled with tears.

"Okay Vincent. One last thing. The longer you're in there, the lower your chances for survival. Go in, do what you need to do, then get out as quickly as you can." Commander M'Butu said seriously.

"Yes sir." Vincent said formally.

* * * * *

"He's here. Come on out so he can get going!" A man called into the crawlspace entrance in the floor.

A moment later a thin teenager covered in mud climbed up out of the crawlspace.

"I got as much of it cleared out as I could all the way up to the junction. Three power lines feed into the tunnel at that point and I can't fit through." The teenager said through heavy breathing.

"Are you ready Crewman Winters?" Commander M'Butu asked seriously.

"Yes sir." Vincent said as he stood at attention.

"You said you had a crewman smaller than Benny, you didn't say you were sending a kid in there." One of the men said as he looked at Vincent.

"Lieutenant Bowers has assured me that Crewman Winters has the skills necessary to do this job. He's also the only one who can make it into the control room in time to shut down the reactor." Commander M'Butu said firmly.

"Does my father know about this?" A young man asked as he stepped forward.

The man's slight British accent immediately reminded Vincent of Captain Byrne.

"He knows. He isn't happy about it, but he knows." Commander M'Butu said in a more gentle voice.

The young man shook his head and said, "It isn't right. I can't allow it."

Vincent walked up to the young man and said, "Maybe it's not right. But it still needs to be done. Either I go in there right now or a lot of people are going to die."

"What's your name?" The young man asked gently.

"My name is Vincent, and I'm betting that your name is Cyril." Vincent said with a smile.

Cyril chuckled and said, "You're right. I guess my father's been telling stories about me."

"No, well at least not to me. But maybe when I get back, you could tell me some stories about him?" Vincent asked hopefully.

"It's a deal. Be careful." Cyril said as he stepped back.

"I'll save being careful for next time, this time I'm just going to be quick." Vincent said seriously.

Cyril chuckled and said, "It sounds like you know what you're doing. I'll leave you to it."

"Ready?" Joe asked past the lump in his throat.

"Yeah." Vincent whispered and walked to the edge of the hole in the floor.

"Benny, give him your light." Cyril said firmly.

The mud covered teenager handed the flashlight to Vincent.

Vincent fastened the strap of the flashlight around his forearm so he wouldn't have to hold it, then looked up to see Joe holding out his hand.

Vincent took the offered hand and started climbing down into the hole.

* * * * *

Vincent crawled down the long wet tunnel hearing the trickle of water and the sounds of his own breathing.

Icy cold water was pouring in from above and Vincent absently wondered if he was also in danger of drowning on top of everything else.

As he continued down the tunnel, he noticed a buildup of mud under the water. It was gluey and slowing him down.

The cold of the water was making his hands ache, but he tried to put that out of his mind and focus completely on achieving his goal.

He knew that he had to reach the control room and shut down the reactor. No one else could do it. And if he didn't do it in time, a lot of people would die.

The transporters were having problems with the solar radiation and the weather. If he couldn't stop the reaction, Susan or Darin might be stuck behind when the reactor exploded...

...Or Joe...

The realization came over Vincent that if he didn't shut down the reactor, Joe would probably die.

Joe wouldn't leave someone behind.

He'd stay to help people until the last minute.

Vincent broke out of his thoughts abruptly as he approached the junction where conduits came together from two other tunnels and fed into a third tunnel. Vincent carefully made the turn and realized why he was needed.

The power conduits left barely enough room for him to squeeze into the space.

As soon as he got his shoulders into the opening, he was sure that he wasn't going to have a problem.

A drop of water on his neck got his attention, and he suddenly started backing out of the space.

The water on his neck made him stop and consider just how little water it would take to drown him with his face nearly pressed into the floor of the tunnel.

As soon as he was out, he turned himself over and started scooting himself on his back, rather than crawling face down.

* * * * *

Time lost all meaning as Vincent pulled himself along the power conduits and pushed with his legs.

He was focused on the single thought, the single goal of getting to the control room and shutting down the reactor.

The sounds of trickling water, his own breaths and an occasional grunt were the only sounds to keep him company in the tight darkness.

* * * * *

Finally, Vincent saw a light in the distance and renewed his effort to scoot himself along the tunnel.

As he got closer, he could hear an emergency buzzer going off.

Fighting his tired muscles, Vincent gave another burst of effort and finally came to a grate in the side of the passage.

He curled himself into a ball, then with one forceful kick, forced the grate out and away from the opening.

Vincent crawled out of the tight space and brought himself to standing as his eyes adjusted to the dim emergency lighting in the room.

He quickly found the control panel and hurried over to it.

Using his flashlight to confirm what he was seeing, he surveyed the main console panel.

It was dead.

Vincent quickly looked around the room and found a secondary panel by the opening he had emerged from.

He hurried to the console and was thankful to see that it was similar to the control panel he used on the Yorktown.

With a few quick presses of keys, he ran a level two diagnostic and was able to identify the problem with the main console.

The console had lost main power.

A few key presses revealed the power configuration of the building, and Vincent was relieved to find an emergency power feed.

"You can do this. You've already proven it." Vincent said absently as he studied the power system.

He worked a quick override to shunt power from the emergency system to the main.

As he hurried to the main console, he noticed a sensation, a stinging, like he'd been out in the sun too long.

Vincent quickly put it out of his mind as he looked at the main console again.

"Bring the emergency systems online, then override the safety protocols." Vincent muttered as he looked for the yellow button he needed.

After pressing it, he found the two blue toggles and pressed them.

A flashing text message popped up on the screen asking if he needed to initiate an emergency procedure.

Vincent carefully pressed the fifth of six buttons.

The message 'Emergency Core Shutdown?' was displayed on the screen.

Vincent moved his hand down to the keypad and pressed the enter key.

He heard something like rushing air around him and a fine mist of water started to spray from the ceiling.

"I've got to get out of here." Vincent muttered to himself and hurried to the opening in the wall.

Blue lights came on throughout the room and the emergency buzzer stopped.

Vincent wedged himself into the impossibly small space and started the long journey back to the warehouse... back to Daddy Joe.

* * * * *

Vincent felt a stretching sensation on his skin, like his skin was drawing up.

For the first time, he started to consider his own life.

As he pulled himself along the dark tunnel, he thought about how he used to tease Lawrence and say the most horrible and cruel things to him.

Of all the things he had ever done, the things he had said and done to his brother were his biggest regrets.

"I'm going to live." He said firmly as he pulled himself along the pipes with renewed strength.

"I'm going to live long enough to tell you I'm sorry." Vincent said in a voice that almost sounded angry.

After a few minutes of forcing his muscles to continue on, even though they felt past giving out, Vincent finally added, "And that I love you."

* * * * *

"Crewman Winters?" A voice called from the darkness.

Vincent scooted and pulled himself along the tunnel as quickly as he could to get to the voice.

"Crewman Winters. How are you?" The voice asked with concern.

"I think I'm okay. I just feel like I got burnt a little bit." Vincent said as he pushed even harder to reach the voice.

"That's okay. That's why I'm here." The voice said seriously.

Vincent could finally see a small light ahead of him.

"Who are you?" Vincent asked with effort.

"I'm Benny. You saw me upstairs." The voice said hesitantly.

"Oh yeah. The muddy guy." Vincent said as he could finally see the end of the tunnel.

There was a laugh, then Benny said, "Yeah, I guess that's me."

"Well, it's me too now." Vincent said as he finally reached the end of the tight tunnel.

Benny backed away from Vincent and said, "You need to take off those clothes right now and hold still while I hose you down."

"Why?" Vincent asked as he was finally able to get the upper half of his body out of the tight space.

"Because I need to get rid of any radioactive dust that you might have carried out of there. Just strip." Benny said firmly from one of the side tunnels.

"Okay." Vincent said reluctantly.

As he was wriggling out of his clothes, he noticed that his hands were red and had the beginnings of blisters forming on them.

"Worry about that later. Get your clothes off." Benny said in a voice that was almost panicked.

It was hard for Vincent to undress in the small space, but he finally was able to get his boots and socks off. Next he opened the top of his jumpsuit and wriggled to get it down and off his shoulders. It was short work after that to get the jumpsuit off his legs.

In one last triumphant move, he kicked the jumpsuit away.

"Everything." Benny said firmly.

Vincent let out an exasperated sigh, then wriggled out of his underwear.

"Hold still, this is going to be a little bit cold." Benny said, then started to hose Vincent down with a thick liquid that seemed to be nearly freezing.

Vincent let out a yelp of surprise and pulled himself into a ball, trying to block the stream of cold goo.

"Hold still. This might mean the difference between life and death for you." Benny said in an angry voice.

Vincent forced himself to uncurl as Benny hosed him down from head to toe with the thick liquid.

"Roll over." Benny said firmly.

Vincent turned, then flinched when the cold liquid hit him in the back.

"Nice butt." Benny said seriously as he sprayed the fluid over Vincent.

Vincent looked over his shoulder and said, "Thanks, that's what was missing from today. First I get to crawl through cold mud, then I get blasted with radiation, and finally I get some muddy guy perving on my bare butt while he's hosing me down with frozen snot."

Benny laughed and said, "I just wanted to take your mind off the shower. We're done. Come over here, I've got a blanket for you."

Vincent crawled toward Benny and was handed a blanket.

"I need to get my clothes." Vincent said as he turned back around.

"No you don't. Those clothes are still going to be here long after you and I are far away from this place. Come on." Benny said as he started down the tunnel.

"Isn't the warehouse at the end of that tunnel?" Vincent asked in confusion and pointed.

"It used to be. The storm destroyed it about twenty minutes ago. Don't worry, we could tell that it was about to collapse and got everyone out in time. This tunnel leads to the basement of the town hall. Everyone's waiting for us there." Benny said quickly.

"Okay." Vincent said and began to follow Benny down the different tunnel.

* * * * *

"I'm really tired." Vincent said as a wave of exhaustion washed over him.

"Oh, yeah. See if you can come up here beside me." Benny said and came to a stop.

Vincent crawled forward, fighting to keep hold of the blanket with his cold numb hands as he did so.

Finally he made it to Benny's feet, then wedged himself into the space beside Benny in the tunnel.

"Hold it there, I need to be able to use my hands." Benny said seriously.

Vincent stopped with his face just about even with Benny's stomach.

"Give me your arm." Benny said as he worked to get something out of his pocket.

Vincent pulled the blanket away from his shoulder and turned his exposed arm to Benny as best he could.

"This is some medicine to help you deal with the radiation. It should make you feel better." Benny said and injected Vincent with the hypo spray.

"Benny? Can I ask you something?" Vincent asked carefully.

"Anything." Benny said with concern at Vincent's tone.

"If I die, would you give someone a message for me?" Vincent asked seriously.

"You're not going to die. You're going to be just fine." Benny said, forcing cheer into his voice.

"Yeah. Sure." Vincent said sarcastically, then continued, "If I die, would you tell my brother that I'm sorry for... well, pretty much everything I ever said or did to him?"

There was a long moment of silence, then Benny quietly said, "Yeah. Who's your brother so I can find him to tell him?"

"Lawrence Winters of Clan Short of Vulcan." Vincent said seriously.

"I'll remember, and if something happens to you, I promise that I'll tell him." Benny said as a vow.

"Thanks Benny... I don't even know your last name." Vincent said with surprise.

Benny laughed and said, "Benjamin Summers at your service."

Vincent smiled and said, "Summers and Winters. It sounds like we could be a good team."

"I thought of that too. But after what you just did, I don't know if I could keep up with you." Benny said frankly, then started crawling again.

"Like you wouldn't have done exactly the same thing if you could fit through the tunnel." Vincent said as he followed Benny.

"I would have tried. But I wouldn't know what to do once I got there." Benny said in thought.

Vincent thought about the fact that he had to reroute power to the console, but remained silent.

"Do you think someone like me could get into Starfleet?" Benny asked quietly.

Vincent smiled and said, "I bet if you really wanted to, we could find a way to get you in."

"I thought I had plenty of time to decide what I was going to do but..." Benny trailed off.

"You can't change what's going to happen tomorrow and you can't go back and change what happened yesterday. You just have today." Vincent said seriously.

"When I was your age I was such a kid. All I did was play with my friends and never worried about tomorrow." Benny said in a distant voice, then turned his flashlight on Vincent and said, "We're here."

Vincent looked at the side tunnel.

"How long does this one go on?" Vincent asked, making an effort to keep his teeth from chattering.

"Not far. It let's out into the basement of the town hall. Your Commander and Lieutenant are waiting for you there." Benny said as he led the way into the new tunnel.

"Benny, I'm scared." Vincent said quietly.

"So am I Vincent. Not for the same reasons, but I'm scared too." Benny said in thought.

"Don't worry, Captain Byrne and Commander M'Butu will make sure everyone's taken care of." Vincent said with assurance.

"I believe that too. I'm just scared of losing everything that I am. My life, my friends, my home..." Benny said in almost a whisper.

"I know how that feels Benny. If you want, I could help you with it." Vincent said in a considering voice.

"Help me how?" Benny asked cautiously.

"I lost everything and everyone in one day. After it all happened, I was sitting in a woman's lap. She told me to call her Grandma Karen, but I never met her before that day. Anyway, I was sitting there when it came to me. I had nothing. My parents were dead. My home was gone. I had nothing and no one." Vincent said distantly.

"How did you get from being like that to how you are now?" Benny asked in fascination.

"I had lots of people help me. That's why I think I can help you. If you're having trouble with something I went through, I can tell you what they told me, if it's something I don't know how to deal with, I'll find someone who knows how to take care of it." Vincent said seriously.

"Benny? Is Vincent with you?" Joe's panicked voice called into the tunnel.

"I'm right here Daddy Joe." Vincent called out with relief.

"Come on guys. Let's get you two back to the ship. We're getting out of here." Joe said happily.

* * * * *

Benny emerged from the tunnel first and was pulled into a quick hug by Joe.

"Thanks for bringing him back to me Benny." Joe said with relief.

"I was glad to help." Benny said as he enjoyed the hug.

Vincent poked his head out of the tunnel and looked around curiously.

"Come on Champ, let's get you out of there." Joe said and helped Vincent out of the tunnel.

"Okay Daddy Joe. I'm sorry, I wasn't able to bring the extra couplers back to you... they're kind of glowey now." Vincent said as he hugged Joe tightly.

Joe chuckled, then held Vincent out at arms length to look at him.

"I think we need to get you to the ship. You look like you got a pretty good dose." Joe said with concern.

"Can Benny come with me?" Vincent asked quickly.

Benny looked at Vincent with surprise, then at Joe with question.

"Um. Sure. Just a second." Joe said, then hurried to a cluster of people at the other side of the room.

"Why do� you want me to go with you?" Benny asked cautiously.

"So we can get started on your new life." Vincent said with a smile.

Benny looked past the blisters and reddening skin on Vincent's face and into his honest and hopeful eyes.

"Okay." Benny said as he tried to force a smile for Vincent's benefit.

Joe approached the pair with Commander M'Butu following him.

"I see what you mean." Commander M'Butu said to Joe, then opened his communicator and said, "Yorktown, I have a priority one transport from this location to sickbay."

After a moment and a crackle of static, the technician said, "I'm detecting an unusually high amount of radiation from your location that might interfere with the subject of transport. Can you move away from the source of radiation?"

"The source of the radiation IS the subject of transport. And I need you to get him to sickbay. NOW!" Commander M'Butu said firmly.

"Oh... Yes sir. Right away sir." The transporter technician said in a flustered voice. At the same time a crack of thunder echoed through the building.

"I'll see you on board." Vincent said with a smile at Benny.

"I'll be right behind you." Benny said as he watched the transporter beam envelope Vincent.

Commander M'Butu waited a moment for the transporter beam to completely clear, then said, "I have one more to transport from this location."

There was a crackle of static, then the transporter technician could barely be heard saying, "No one came through. Isn't he still there?"

To Be Continued...