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What Happens Next Time?

Surprises generally only work ONCE, especially if they are UNPLEASANT surprises or worse, hostile,…See More
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The following is something I wrote about 11 years ago, and at the risk of tooting my own horn, I'm pretty proud of it.  Ever wonder why Spock opted for Starfleet Academy over the Vulcan Science Academy?  This is my own attempt at an explanation.  No, it's not necessarily canon.  Still, I hope you enjoy it.


It had been an interesting four months, to put it mildly. I had been assigned by Starfleet engineering to supervise the assembly and testing of their newest “Warp Seven” engine as a land-based test bed for the Vulcan Science Academy. This had mostly been at the behest of the Vulcans, who had been taken by surprise at some of the innovations which had given rise to a drive system fully 100 times more powerful than previous Terran designs and nearly 10 times more powerful than what was currently in use on most Vulcan ships. To call our new design a quantum leap would be a more than fair statement, one which, I suspected, put our Vulcan associates not only at a disadvantage, but considerably ill at ease. From the time I had been assigned to the project, I had expected a thoroughly eventful first sortie off my home planet.

I hadn't been disappointed either. Virtually from the moment my team set foot on Vulcan, we were beset by barely polite onlookers from all sides. Initially I hadn't minded the Vulcans' curiosity; indeed, I had expected it, but after two Terran weeks of almost spending more time answering questions from VSA students and faculty than actually accomplishing the assembly of the engine test bed, I had to draw a line. I had a deadline to meet, expected by both Starfleet and the VSA, and while I was eager to show off how far we had come since the NX-01's Warp 4 engine, I was not going to let the Vulcans' possibly intended interference give them yet another bone of supposed “Terran inefficiency” to pick on. From that two-week point onward, visitors were limited in number and my staff and crew instructed to accept questions or comments only as their duties permitted.

Not only were the constant questions setting back our target date for completion, the more-than-occasional derisive comments about Terran vs. Vulcan design were beginning to create excessive tension between hosts and guests, myself included. As I said earlier, Vulcans were polite, but astonishingly parochial in their view of what constituted correct warp engine design. Any design element we thought of as “revolutionary” or “innovative” they saw more as “unconventional” or downright “questionable.” Some of these I could simply brush off as ignorance of our design and dispose of with a couple comments regarding the nuances our new innovation. The vice-chair of the VSA's warp drive physics department, though, managed to find my last straw when, not quite two months and a week into the project, he commented the overall design was “unfinished, unstable, and would be completely unacceptable in a Vulcan starship.”

This was something I had expected as well. The unfortunate predilection for condescension among some Vulcans was well known to me long before I had set out on this mission, and I had made a point of briefing my entire team about it before we left. It was a fact that some Vulcans appeared to get a perverse pleasure out of goading emotional responses out of Terrans, whether to prove our inadequacy, their intellectual superiority or what, I didn't know, but the one thing I emphasized to my personnel was that I wanted no such incidents to fall on the Vulcan's side of the ledger. After nine weeks I had to say my team had shown their strength: there had been few such incidents and all handled within the parameters I had prescribed. Still, I had known from the beginning that this moment was coming, nor was I ill-prepared when it did. I turned to my Vulcan host and smiled coldly.

“My dear Professor Silar, this engine which you find so unstable and unreliable has been fully evaluated in test flights on the newly commissioned U.S.S. Constitution, NCC-1700. It was run at Warp 6 for five days straight with no failures and no corrections needed other than ordinary maintenance adjustments. Post-flight analysis of the engine showed no unanticipated wear or degradation in any major or critical components. A subsequent test at Warp 6 for 10 days gave exceptionally similar results. A two-day test at Warp 7 showed predicted issues with the warp core and dilithium chamber distortion, but again, these were predicted. And indeed, the design is unfinished and purposefully so. We have left room in the design for greater capacity in the matter and anti-matter flow and in dilithium crystal processing. The design team believes that, with further refinements in fuel feed control and power distribution that this engine may well be capable of Warp 8, and with ship structural reinforcement, even Warp 9. Certainly, I am interested in any criticism which may allow Starfleet to improve on its design, but uninformed criticism is of no use to me. If you wish to impugn the work of my fellows and me, kindly bother to get your facts straight first!”

Through all of that, my voice had hardly risen about the level of normal conversation, yet I knew it had sufficient punch (as well as verifiable fact!) to knock a sehlat off its feet! Silar knew it, too, and stiffened as I delivered the last line of that peroration. A barely audible, “Good day, Engineer,” and he was one less irritation in my hair as I got back to attempting to mate the port and starboard nacelle conduits to the master reactor.

There was one visitor we had who managed not to fit into the too-often-observed multiple-choice stereotype of 1) disinterest, 2) condescension or 3) indifference. He had been coming by beginning about the second week, mostly watching, saying very little except for some pointed questions asked of my plasma conduit specialist. Bill mentioned their conversation to me the next day at the morning meeting, how he had explained the new configuration, how it allowed for redundancy, better power conduction and superior survivability in the event of enemy engagement. The Vulcan had listened intently to Bill’s explanation. His response was a lifted eyebrow and: “Interesting. Thank you, sir.”

“‘Thank you, sir?’” I echoed. “Who was this guy?”

Bill shrugged. “I didn’t get a name, though I think he was one of the group of candidates for the Academy. He looked different from them, though.”

“Oh? How so?”

“His skin color. I’d swear it was lighter. Not much, but enough to notice.”

I stored our conversation in the back of my mind as my concerns returned to the early days of getting major components of the warp drive uncrated, assembled, and positioned back then. In the weeks that followed, more of my crew reported encounters with this young, apparently curious Vulcan. In the fifth week of our work, my dilithium chamber alignment technician was accompanied and observed four days straight by the Vulcan Bill had originally reported to me. On the third day, Ahmed mentioned that his guest had noted that the reaction vessel was out of round and could become unstable above 100 gigawatts output. To Ahmed’s credit, rather than ignore the comment, he partially dismantled the vessel and evaluated it with our laser interferometer. Indeed, it was off, but by less than 10 microns in the X axis and not quite 1 micron in the Y axis. It took the better part of two weeks to rework the chamber properly, but this incident now saved me perhaps twice as much time had it not been caught … and again, I made a mental note of this particular visitor.

Three months and two weeks into the project, the physical installation had been completed and the process of bringing the warp drive online began. This was a tag-team event, featuring Ravi Pradesh Singh, our warp tuning expert and yours truly, doing the process metrology and monitoring. Ravi and I had met the morning testing started to discuss details, then proceeded to the test bed, We were mildly surprised to find the young Vulcan who had observed the reactor vessel flaw (how, I will never know!) waiting at the door to the engineering control center.

“Sir,” he said, most politely, “may I be permitted to observe your adjustment and optimization procedures?”

I allowed myself to break a smile, generally not the smartest thing to do in a society that prided itself in its emotionless demeanor. “Sir, it was your valuable observation that likely saved my people several weeks of repair and re-engineering. You are more than welcome.” I took a further chance and stuck out my paw. “I’m Alan Merced, Project Leader.”

Our visitor surprised me by accepting my hand in his, responding with a single word: “Spock.”

Four hours later, positive- and negative-nucleus hydrogen was flowing through the fuel feeds, the temperature in the corrected reaction chamber hovered just under 4 million degrees, Kelvin, super-heated plasma coursed through multiple conduits and a stable Warp 3 class field enveloped the test bed. I scanned the monitor readouts, barely suppressing an external show of the pure pleasure I felt at how the engine had come up initially. My control was less about our initial visitor as for the three additional visitors who had arrived predictably just as we were about to open fuel valves. They were the Dean of the Vulcan Science Academy, plus Chair and Vice-Chair of the warp drive physics department. I swear I could feel their critical eyes on me as those valves were opened and the drive came to life. We had started at a Warp 1 level field, since it was the accepted standard for calibration and baseline measurement, a process which took the better part of those four hours. The time was well-spent, though. The numbers had started close and after some judicious tweaking, most of the error readouts showed a string of zeros with a couple dithering digits at the end. I had told Ravi to bump the power up to Warp 2. A scan of the numbers told me we the time we had spent on the baseline had been well spent, and I told him to advance it to Warp 3. Again I scanned the numbers, checking everything from reactor vessel temperature to fuel flow rate to, most critically, field balance between the two warp nacelles. The displays looked like something out of a picture book, and I suspect I allowed the ends of my mouth to turn up, if only slightly. My experience with the Constitution told me that we were in good shape and it was time to take a quantum step.

I turned to my associate. “Goose it, Ravi. Take it to Warp 6!” Ravi smiled back with his eyes as he turned his attention to the controls and I to the monitors.

“A moment, please.” It was the Warp Drive Physics Chair. “You should not take so large a step at this point.”

A glance to Ravi put the power increase on hold while I turned to address the interruption. “And why not?”

“Because you are increasing power output by a factor of one thousand. Any error you have incurred to this point would be exacerbated by a similar factor, possibly inducing an imbalance between the two field generators. I hope I needn’t describe to you the results of such an occurrence.”

I had to take a breath. The Chair was about as supercilious as his adjutant had been, and just as wrong. I could not have known better what was going on inside the two nacelles (why they couldn’t refer to them as that, I had no idea) if I could survive inside them with my fingers literally on their pulse. Much as I had had my fill of backseat driving from the muckety-mucks from the VSA, they were our hosts and civility was still the order of the day. Recovering my calm took perhaps 700 or 800 milliseconds, but before I could respond, I was preempted.

“Mr. Merced is fully justified in making the increase he specified.” It was Spock, rising from his feet to address the other Vulcans in attendance. “I have watched the field balance and power distribution readouts from the moment power was applied to them. The initial numbers were remarkably impressive for a system which had had no adjustments made on them, and Messrs. Merced and Singh spared no effort in adjusting them to the theoretical limit of error minimization. The errors incurred during the increases to Warp 2 and Warp 3 reflected a dynamic system almost perfectly balanced about a zero point with deviations barely reflected in the recorded data.

“Further, the single greatest variable in making such an increase would be the flexion of the warp nacelles [!] resulting from the increase. In space, such flexion might be problematic with an untested system. Here, the nacelles are mounted on bedrock and far less given to physical movement of any kind. Even if the difference in performance of the two nacelles were an order of magnitude greater than the current situation, the increase in power he specified would increase error by no more than two orders of magnitude and would remain non-critical. The Terran knows what he is doing, Professor. May I suggest that he be allowed to continue as he sees fit?”

Damn, I thought to myself. I hadn’t been looking for defense or support, nor had I much needed it. Yet without solicitation, Spock had made a case for my action that I hardly could have made better myself. Why he would do that, I had no idea, but after the barely concealed bigotry I had lived with for the past 14 weeks, hearing a Vulcan who actually exercised common sense was a refreshing change.

“Spock is correct,” I stated, “but there is an additional factor. This warp drive system is designed to self-sense and balance without external intervention. Once basic calibration is completed, it is stable up to at least Warp 4, and as good as our numbers were, going to Warp 6 was no worry. If there are any problems, we can use piece-wise linearization to deal with any aberrations specific to a given engine system.”

“But this is a new engine startup. There remain variables you cannot simply discard.”

“Are there? Professor Soroc, you speak as though you know more about this warp drive than I do. Please know that the process of bringing up the warp drive on the Constitution went essentially the same as here with two exceptions: One - I went to Warp 6 from Warp 4, owing to the mechanical variables Spock was so good to point out. Two [I paused, working to maintain a steady, unaffected tone] - I was working without interference.”

I turned back to Ravi and said, bluntly, “Goose it!” Before any of my audience could protest, an audible surge of power told us that power had jumped by three orders of magnitude. Error had jumped as both Spock and I had anticipated. Gee, I was so surprised.

“Computer, note field balance offset, store and apply correction.” The error numbers almost immediately dropped back to stuttering about their zero points. At the same time, Dean Tonór stood.

“I believe it is time to allow the Terrans to complete their work unmolested. Soroc, Silar, Applicant Spock…”

“Excuse me, Dean Tonór. Applicant Spock is my guest and is welcome here as long as he wants.”

If the Dean was surprised, his face registered absolutely none of it. “Very well, Merced,” he said and he and his fellows were gone.

I gave the instrumentation another thorough going over, making sure the corrections I had applied were stable. “Ravi, let’s let it cook here for a while,” I told my friend before returning to my guest.

“Spock, I thank you.” As I had understood it, the giving of personal thanks was something not quite common in the Vulcan culture and with a certain understated ceremony to it, one I had seen before back on Earth. “You have aided my efforts here in no small manner, and so have made my time here more efficient than it might have been otherwise.”

Spock had stood as I approached him, his face reflecting the usual Vulcan impassiveness, and yet having perhaps a touch of something I could only characterize as receptiveness. I wasn’t sure what set this Vulcan youth apart from his compatriots, but he was different and by a measure other than his skin tone. To my surprise, Spock extended his hand to me.

“Mr. Merced, you are most welcome.”


Star Trek – The Warp Seven Engine, Part Two

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Replies to This Discussion

I'm truly impressed Loren thank you. 

Thanks a LOT, Stephen!

What impressed me most was the easy flow of dialogue between characters. To my mind, that's the hardest thing to achieve in a story. I think you aced it.

Stephen, a lot of this was made at least a bit easier by the more formal mode of interaction made necessary by the nature of the Vulcans and Merced's understanding that they would not respond to emotion but WOULD respond to facts.  This held true both during the testing of the warp engine and in Dean Tonór's office in Part Two.

All that said, thank you a lot for the compliment. To this day, I still think the above is some of my best writing.


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